August 20, 2006
Every local columnist, gadfly and letter writer has commented on the Paepcke renaming tempest, and for good reason. The issue stirs the Aspen psyche because it represents an attack on sacred ideals. The renaming is seen not just as a historic disembodiment, but as a sacrilege. This is the good news, and I’ll explain why.When a scold in last week’s Aspen Times condemned the Aspen Institute for pandering to a major donor, the Institute’s sanctified past figured prominently in the argument: “The Aspen Institute! Where homage is paid to the Great Books, the classics, the great thinkers, poets and sages of the past … home of tradition and wisdom culled from the ages … What did Socrates or Plato anticipate about the niceties of fundraising in 21st century America?”As a reader of the Great Books, I can assure you there is nothing in the index about fundraising. Instead there are ruminations on ethics, morality, integrity, honor, respect … values that are routinely co-opted by the realpolitik of every age.The ideals of the past exert a mythic power over the present, especially when the present seems divorced from its idealistic roots. Popular history often exaggerates past idealism as a way to inspire the present into creating a better future. So what is the fount of Aspen’s resurgent idealism?Let’s start with Walter Paepcke’s idealization of Aspen as the venue for the Goethe Convocation of 1949: “A group of scholars chose Aspen because they felt it was desirable to have as a site for the Convocation a small, peaceful, simple and somewhat remote community free from the distractions of a large city, to which people would have to make a pilgrimage because they wanted to be there. At Aspen, everyone who attended had come solely, specifically, and exclusively to participate in the Convocation.”Why do people come to Aspen now? Though many still come for ideals, the ubiquitous sounds of construction offer another answer. The contest between commerce and culture embroils Aspen every time there is a stab to the community conscience, like tearing down a historic edifice, dismembering a cottonwood tree, bulldozing the Rio Grande, or denigrating any Aspen icon.If you wonder where the outrage comes from, consider Paepcke’s high vision for the Aspen Institute in the 1950s. “Here was an opportunity to stimulate thinking and discussion about the ideas at the roots of what the philosophers call ‘the good life’; ideas that are infinitely more important to the preservation of our society and our liberties than the pursuit of material gains.”Material gains have held sway in every sector of Aspen, even at the Institute. That’s why Paepcke set the precedent of funding programs and facilities through corporations and wealthy patrons. Buildings bear their names today, and such is the price of patronage.For many, it is regrettable that Aspen, where everything from park benches to theater seats is branded with patron names, has been redefined as a commodity. “Own Aspen!” exhorts the real estate ad, which suggests an engraved plaque at the entrance of town.The current outrage comes from putting a price on a landmark that represents the deepest community values. It makes people sad and angry to think that such values can be bought and sold, even as other community values – peace, serenity, humility – have been sacrificed for material gain for decades. Though many Aspenites have never taken the Executive Seminar or explored the good life through the Great Ideas, they defend the ethereal foundation on which Aspen’s renaissance was built. If there is a positive outcome to this unfortunate imbroglio, it is a renewed vow to honor those past ideals.Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish poet who spoke at the 1949 Convocation, said: “One age cannot be completely understood if all the others are not understood. The song of history can only be sung as a whole.”What we’re hearing over the renaming of Paepcke Auditorium is the choir tuning up for an impassioned song of history. The tune is shrill and discordant because Aspen has forgotten how to harmonize.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.