Walls figure prominently in Shakespeare. Let me count a few of the ways!
“Once more unto the breach, my friends, once more,” Henry V implores his men, “Or close the wall up with our English dead.”
We quote the first part of this sentence and almost never finish it off with the second part. Henry and his men are in a desperate situation in their war against France, and when we quote the first part, usually we’re just headed back to our desks. We’re putting ourselves in a completely different sort of jeopardy. English dead? Yeeesh!
Romeo and Juliet shows us that physical walls are easily surmounted: Romeo easily swings himself up to Juliet’s balcony, after all. The invisible wall between Capulets and Montagues, however, proves far more deadly.
But my favorite wall is in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “In this same interlude it doth befall/That I, one Snout by name, present a wall.” Yes, the wall speaks, it moves, and it provides a medium through which Pyramus and Thisbe speak: “And this the cranny is, right and sinister,/Through which the fearful lovers are to whisper.”
Never has a wall been addressed in such a fashion: “Thou wall, O wall, O sweet and lovely wall,/Show me thy chink, to blink through with mine eyne. [Wall holds up his fingers.]” And every production I’ve ever seen has great slapstick fun around that wall.
Pyramus: O, kiss me through the hole of this vile wall!
Thisbe: I kiss the wall’s hole, not your lips at all.
And finally at the end, the wall bids adieu to the audience:
Wall: Thus have I, Wall, my part discharged so; / And, being done, thus Wall away doth go.”
This is not just a wall that speaks; it is a wall that rhymes!
If the U.S. government was proposing to build a rhyming wall between our southern border and Mexico, a wall to speak and even kiss through, a wall made of “ lime and roughcast,” well, we’d be having a different national argument, wouldn’t we? As I type this and though the government has requested bids on the 1,000-mile, $15-to-25-to-50 billion wall (depending on what kind of wall is built and the kind of obstacles, aka “walls,” that are encoun- tered), the fate of Trump’s Wall is up in the air. The physical wall, I mean. Whether it’s built or not, we know that the mental walls have already been erected, the ones between people. The U.S. is full of enclosures, tiny and massive, that divide us—from people from other countries, ethnic groups, income strata, religions, ages, you name it. Physical walls are ridiculous as pragmatic solutions. The landscape and history are littered with failed walls. The first five that come to my head: the Berlin Wall, the apartheid walls of Johannesburg, the Maginot Line, the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall. Trump’s Wall won’t succeed as it is intended: humans CAN breach walls, especially if they are fine with filling them with English bodies before heading for “Ninny’s tomb” (sorry, I just love that scene in A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
But the mental walls, those are entirely different and far more im- pervious. And those are the subject of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s new project in New York City, Ai Weiwei: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors. The project encompasses 100 different installations across New York’s boroughs “as a way of transforming the metal wire security fence into a powerful artistic symbol.”
What’s it about? Ai told The New York Times that he was addressing “a retreat from the essential attitude of openness” in American and global politics: “When the Berlin Wall fell, there were 11 countries with border fences and walls. By 2016, that number had increased to 70. We are witnessing a rise in nationalism, an increase in the closure of borders, and an exclusionary attitude toward migrants and refugees, the victims of war and the casualties of globalization.”
It’s the blend of the physical and the mental. Trump’s Wall is a metaphor, and Ai’s project will allow New Yorkers and visitors to use the physical to access the deeper meaning. It will be open to the public Oct. 12–Feb. 11, 2018. The title comes from Robert Frost’s Mending Wall, a dialogue between two New England farmers, the one determined to keep the wall in repair, the other more thoughtful about its meaning. The first farmer’s argument is the simple assertion “Good walls make good neighbors.” The second, the poem’s narrator, argues:
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offffence. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…
He examines the first farmer and sees something ancient:
…I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed. He moves in darkness as it seems to me, Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He moves in darkness, a savage armed with the words of his father and his father before him and his father before that. And the first farmer knows he’s lost the argument.
But just this particular argument, this particular time, perhaps.
We are always negotiating our walls. There’s always a chink through which we may speak and…even kiss. Ai Weiwei’s fence project, I suspect, will encourage that negotiation, both among New Yorkers and within their individual heads. And even across the country, in Portland, the project may help us imag- ine the fences in our community, the real but imaginary fences that keep Romeo and Juliet apart. We’ll ask ourselves important questions: How open can we afffford to be? How can we afffford not to be open?