Three depictions of the god Mercury in Baltimore and thoughts on transportation and the end of the American Century

I've written before about the sculpture on the facade of the old B&O Railroad building at 2 N. Charles St., and how it reminds me of my favorite passage in the "Odyssey," where the bard Demodocus tells the story of the affair between Ares and Aphrodite, who are caught by her lame, technologist husband Hephaestus when he creates an invisible net to ensnare their banging immortal bodies.

This strikes me as the best description of the human condition I've ever seen—love and war fucking, wrapped up in an invisible net of technology as the gods watch. Remember, Earth itself comes between Venus and Mars. We could stop in shame, or we could take the attitude of Hermes (Mercury). When Apollo asks him if he would be bound by the same net in order to lie with Aphrodite, he says he would take three times as many bonds—the only appropriate response. 

So I've always interpreted the 1906 sculpture, where Mercury sits stretched out on one side of the earth and Apollo on the other, as the moment of this conversation. And the fact that it is wrapped in netting to keep birds off of it makes it even more appropriate. 

But the sculpture, by John Evans, is actually called 'Mercury and Commerce,' with the figure I've been reading as Apollo cast as a buff personification of capitalism. Cindy Kelly's great book "Outdoor Sculpture In Baltimore" sheds some light on the problems with this title. 

When the sculpture was unveiled in 1906, The Sun described it as "Mercury and the allegorical figure of commerce are depicted as guarding the American continent." 

But as Kelly points out, "Mercury has traditionally been considered the protector of commerce and wayfarers, and therefore Mercury usually represents commerce as well." I'd add that his role as the god of gamblers and thieves furthers Mercury/Hermes' connection with capital. 

The next time the statue was publicly mentioned was in 1913, when the Apollo figure was called Progress, and was seen specifically to represent progress in the railroad industry—the globe between the two shows North and South America, indicating a sense of the hopes of the global advancement of capitalism (I recently learned, thanks to my wife Nicole King, that the Hour Haus on North Avenue, where my band has a practice space, was the office of the Maryland and Pennsylvania—or Ma & Pa—railroad before it became a car dealership).

Part of this interpretation relies on the fact that "Mercury's friend," as Kelly neutrally refers to it, holds a steam engine under his arm. That's a fascinating detail you can't see from the street. But when you look closely, it shows that the sculptor was even cleverer than I suspected. The steam engine resembles a lyre, the instrument that Hermes invented and then traded to Apollo when he was caught stealing his cattle. The form is exactly the same—a circular body with a neck and tuning pegs looks like the circular front of steam engine, with a grill and a smokestack, adding to the sense that the figure with Mercury is Apollo—and that the world is the copulations of Ares and Aphrodite caught by Hephaestus, or Vulcan, who would also be the god of coal. (Image a blow-up from Edwin Remsberg's great photos in "Outdoor Sculpture in Baltimore.")

One of the things that is fascinating about classical antiquity is the way in which every age uses the gods to exemplify their own ideals. There is a spectacular Florentine sculpture of Mercury by Zanobi Lastricati, from 1551, at the Walters, that stands in stark contrast to the American Mercury at the B&O. The black-colored bronze embodies a lithe and sexy Mercury, the trickster, standing with legs crossed. The almost-girlish cast of his stance is heightened by the smallness of his penis—it was modeled on an ancient stone Mercury, and for both Greeks and Romans, a small dick was the ideal. A bit one meant that you had stretched it out and were overly lascivious. Looking up at the B&O sculpture with his square jaw, you know he would have to be packing quite a pecker beneath those draped stone robes. 

But as obvious as the contrast between the Renaissance Mercury and the Mercury of the American Century is, there is perhaps an even greater contrast between that 1906 depiction of the god as guardian of American power and commerce and the Mercury of today, during the great American decline, in an era of small thinking and general collapse. We are unable to build anything grand. The most we can do is decorate our decrepitude with distracted, scattered images.

Gaia's mural in Open Walls 2 (an in-progress version of which is pictured below) also features Mercury, but it is a disembodied head, staring, disconsolate, off the building and up at the sky, bereft and forsaken. There is a tiger, a building, a desert landscape, some small people and a car, and another portrait. Nothing is connected, everything is haphazard, random, the hodgepodge of styles described as postmodern. As opposed to looking down on Charles Street, he looks up from it, as if he had been hit by a car, stunned, at this corner just above North Avenue, where the idiocy of cars finally took over—the old Load of Fun is now called the Motor House because it was a car dealership, and when Ma & Pa left Hour Haus, it too became the headquarters for a car dealer. Gaia's sad and distracted Mercury is perfect for our age. But, hey, compared to the Renaissance depiction of antiquity and its American capitalist appropriation, our version is ever so vibrant. Look all ye fucking mighty and despair.


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