My abode is a serene island of peace and literature in the sky; looking north from my desk, where I write this while eating Cajun spice potato chips, I can see late-night office tower lights winking off and on: the vertical constellations of urban troglodytes. Looking past my poinsettia and aphelandra, out another window I can see Berczy Park. Crossing to the south side of my heavenly box, I can see Tommy Thompson Park, a spit of land in the lake turned into a nature preserve, crumbling blocks of construction detritus slowly being reclaimed by encroaching nature and birds, so many birds. Three times three times three floors down from my downtown view, the massive ark of my building meets the street with massive arches: an arcade running the length of our frontage and that of the neighbouring hotel, providing not only shelter from weather but an exceedingly popular spot for nuptial photography. I feel that I live in a most beautiful location.
Ah, et in Arcadia ego, as Nicolas Poussin put it. Well, now, admittedly, he put it on a tomb, a crumbling cube of stone in the midst of nature, and there remains debate on to whom it was dedicated or directed, and for that matter exactly what the phrase was saying – well-formed but ambiguous Latin that it is. It has been used by some as a key to cryptic constructions, fanciful mysteries involving blood and grails. But the scene in Poussin’s painting is reminiscent of the Arcadian: idyllic, pastoral, even if contrasted by Poussin with death. Arcadia has long been idealized – since Virgil’s Eclogues – as that unspoiled world of nature, home to shepherds in lambskin breechclouts bearing Pan pipes, and nary a structure in sight – certainly not stone arches, nor a fortiori entertainment arcades. So how may I say that I, too, am in Arcadia?
First, let us place Arcadia on a map. It is the heart of that nursery of eponyms, Peloponnesus, north of Laconia (home of the laconic and spartan Spartans), west of Argos (who actually play west of where I live, in the whilom Skydome), southwest of Corinth, south of Achaia (a name you may have seen on bottles of wine) and north of Kalamata (a name you’ll know from jars of olives). I note that this archetypically bucolic locale has, ironically, a town in it named Megalopoli – the first town in Arcadia, built in 371 BC, which gained its name by its growth (it had a theatre that seated 20,000, more than twice the town’s present-day population).
Arcadia, home turf of Pan, was said in myth to have been named after its first king, Arcas. His mother, Callisto (from Greek Kallisté, “most beautiful”), was a nymph, one of many maids seduced by Zeus; for this, her reward – aside from pregnancy – was not marriage but to be turned into a bear by Hera. She and her son now occupy the heavens as the Great Bear (Greek Arktos) and Little Bear (Greek Arkas). The Great Bear is the cynosure that points to Polaris, that sign of sure north and marker of the Arctic. (Yes, that’s where arctic comes from: the Greek “bear,” and this bear in particular.)
The idealization of Arcadia in idylls – in literature of Roman and Renaissance times, and into the neoclassical revival – made it a byword for sylvan beauty, so that Giovanni da Verrazano (he of the New York narrows between Brooklyn and Staten Island) applied it to the Atlantic coast north of Virginia. The region so designated crept northwards, but en route lost its r. It came to name a national park in Maine and, more importantly, a whole realm of New France in the Maritimes, formally established as Acadia in 1604, a third of a century before Poussin’s famous painting. And then, when in 1755 the British forced expulsion of those who would not swear fealty to the crown, some 7000 moved south to a new French enclave in a warmer area, and Acadian was further eroded and respelled to Cajun. And, as we know, the megalopolis of the Cajuns, New Orleans, though on the Gulf coast, nearly suffered the fate of Atlantis.
Arcadia also gave its name to a man named Arkadios, who became a saint of the Orthodox tradition. Thanks to him, there are many Russian men now named Arkady; one may think of Arkady Islaev, the owner of a country estate in Ivan Turgenev’s play A Month in the Country (jealous husband of a younger wife, who was bored out in the boondocks), and Arkady Renko, the protagonist in Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, which takes its name from a Moscow amusement park.
Now, without assailing you with an asterism of asterisks, I leave it to you to connect the dots. How can my parallelepiped sans Pan pipes, my urbs et orbis, my tower of silence above the madding megalopolis, my words and plants perched between park and park, with stars to the north and water to the south, how can it be Arcadia without aid of a car? But how could it be anything but?