One for the ages

I love pretentious movies. Or maybe I just love movies that make no excuse about being serious and important, that strive to express a strong sense of meaning, that make me think. I actually really liked this year’s Oscar-nominated The Tree of Life, for example, even though I think I drifted off during part of the dinosaur section. I admired Terrence Malick’s willingness to make a poetic and difficult movie that sought to show the interconnectedness of all of life in a complicated and lyrically told story about a dysfunctional family in 1950s America, and the quest of a young man for meaning, forgiveness, and faith. Of course it could never actually have won an Oscar. Too pretentious. But Tree of Life did remind me, somehow, of another favorite movie of mine that stirred the same sense of admiration back in the 1980s: Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. That was pretentious, too. No Academy Award there, either. But I just loved it.

If you haven’t seen it, the movie follows the movements of a group of angelic beings who watch over human events in Berlin, filmed before the Wall came down and Germany was unified. They have wings. The title of the original German version was Der Himmel über Berlin, or The Sky Over Berlin. While these angels can mingle with the people of the Earth, able to listen in on human thoughts and emotions, they remain completely invisible and inaudible to all mortals—except, mysteriously, to children, who can see them quite clearly. The purpose of these angelic beings, as one of them affirms, is to “assemble, testify, and preserve” human experience for some unseen and unspecified higher power. You can tell who the angels are because they all wear long, dark trench coats and only appear in black and white.

Here’s the thing: While they are free to move at will through the air and in buildings or any place on Earth, the angels are constrained from changing human events. But they are able to offer consolation and comfort, guidance and encouragement, and they feel deep compassion as they witness the often tragic developments of human history unfold, carefully making their notes and diligently filing their reports. The story comes to focus on one particular angel whose compassion for people is so great that he finds himself wishing he could shed his wings and fall into mortality; this angel wants to enjoy the pleasures and pains of human experience. He wants to love and feel loss, as people do—in Technicolor. These become the wings of his desire.

If you have seen the movie, you will recall my favorite, recurring scene. On their time off, the angels tend to gather in one place: the vast, cathedral-like public library in Berlin, the Staatsbibliothek. Like I said, the movie is pretentious—made, perhaps, just for an English professor and bibliophile like me. Anyway, throughout the movie we keep coming back to the impressive, multistoried atrium of this magnificent library and see that the rows of bookcases are literally filled with angels. Still invisible to all but children (and us), the angels would be sitting in clusters all over the grand staircase, leaning against the large classical pillars of the lobby, and even hanging from its glorious chandeliers. Angels permeate the library, and they are always reading. But the most interesting thing is that we do not just see them, we hear them, too, right alongside the human readers around them. As their eyes move across the pages, we can hear a cacophony of voices speaking in whispered tones in every possible language. They are reading the words of Homer and Hamlet, Plato and Poe, Einstein and Darwin, Tolstoy and Tennyson, the Upanishads and the Book of John. We can hear in those voices’ barely distinguishable murmurings all the wisdom of all the ages humming in that angelic hall.

I can’t help but think of those scenes, and even hear the echoes of those sounds, whenever I walk into Collins Library. Bound into our more than half-million volumes are the whispering words of wisdom from the ages. And within the impressive brick walls and bay windows of Collins’ Tudor-Gothic architecture, and behind its oak paneling and leather furniture, are the invisible wires and networks that magically bring millions more volumes of human experience into the library, even as they take the library out into the world. When I see our faculty and students laboring away at their maple desks, mesmerized in the glow of a computer screen, or sprawled across couches, I imagine them accompanied by angelic beings in black trench coats right beside them. Always there, like the silent voices of the angels, miraculously whispering the best that has been thought and said of human culture and history, bringing it in and sending it out over Ethernet wings and the integrated circuits of human curiosity and desire.

Understanding that we live in the age of information technology and distance learning, in a time of the virtual classroom, and even of the digital book, for my money Puget Sound’s great asset remains its identity as a particular place, with a rich and textured history, made by quite-real people who live and learn together. Here, on a 100-acre plot of ground made into great spaces, we don’t just have access to the network in rooms or on the quad, we can be inspired to learn together in personal, supportive settings that offer a kind of road map through the tangled intersections of the information highway and a laboratory for practicing what we learn. Collins is not so much a storehouse of books and data as a fully wired portal to a whole new world of knowledge and possibility, a place where information is not just discovered, but tried out and tested.

A library is one big special collection, a heavenly thing, a place where angels whisper and the tree of life grows and grows. We have a good one, where great things happen every day and where, true to our mission, we “assemble, testify, and preserve” the wisdom of the past with an eye on the future and on what we will make of it. Nothing pretentious about that. And much better than a movie, no matter how good it might be. The library is where we live with the ages, and the angels.