In his novel of ideas, The Moviegoer, Walker Percy writes of an exercise he calls repetition. A repetition is an evocation of past experience, one that isolates an interval so that it can be relived free of the distractions that “clog time like peanuts in brittle.” Repetition offers an instant of freedom from the universal malaise, of being Anybody, of being Nobody.
Surely repetition is one of the attractions of WaterFire. Stroll the riverbank, and memories arise, not as they were, tainted by the anxieties of the day, but in purer form.
A Saturday evening in a rural town in the Dominican Republic. My welcome to the country has been unpleasant, a strip search at the airport, accompanied by taunts from policemen hoping to prove I know more Spanish than I ought. This is during an election campaign, when the ruling party is cracking down on troublemakers, even among tourists. I am with a woman friend. We take the first bus out of Santo Domingo. Next we are nowhere, at a candlelit table of an outdoor café of a small hotel on the market square.
Cowboys and young farmers pile into town. On foot, they circle the plaza, first without women, then with, a promenade that grows rambunctious. A couple calls out, waving and insisting until we join the paseo.
Or else it is an evening in Venice. Here, I am younger yet — the ‘sixties. I have hitchhiked out of Yugoslavia, oppressive even in that summer of freedom, into the relative familiarity of Italy. I have found the hostel, stowed my gear. And now I am on a busy piazza.
What returns in repetition is a sense of safety in the crowd, and the quality of light and the grand architecture, how it defines the sky as darkness falls. A sense of place, of being somewhere, without its having to be anyplace in particular.
Or it is Providence. One of the charms of WaterFire is that it repeats itself. The night you were here with children, with a friend, or alone, when you met or did not meet…
That is a function of art — is it not? — to hold us in the moment and to fling us far from the moment, to some other time, but with new clarity or useful confusion.
Percy writes about the genius of place, he calls it the “genie-soul,” and of the strangeness of the cities of the American North with their “wrenching rinsing sadness.” WaterFire pushes the Northern genie-soul aside, or alters it, drains Providence of its Yankee rigidity, its ethnic combativeness. The WaterFire promenade allows a glimpse of other heritages, the layering of cultures, the possibility of community, and fruitful isolation both, a complex urban promise.
Peter D. Kramer is the author, most recently, of Spectacular Happiness, a novel. His previous work includes the international bestseller, Listening to Prozac. He maintains an outpatient psychiatric practice in Providence, where he is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University.