California is a strange and wonderful place. My wife and I are in San Francisco at the moment (I’m presenting a paper at the American Academy of Religion conference), doing our best to soak up the feel of this hilly and historic city. Before that, however, we flew into L.A. and drove up the coast, taking some time to relax in the peaceful environs of Cambria.
The area around Cambria/San Simeon is best known as the home of Hearst Castle, the luxurious mountaintop mansion built over the course of 30 years by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Of course all I could think of the whole time was Charles Foster Kane sitting alone in Xanadu, a connection which the actual tour (narrated by Alex Trebek!) peculiarly neglected to mention. However, unlike Welles’ hubristic, reclusive billionaire, the real Mr. Hearst seemed to enjoy his private utopia – filled to the brim with medieval tapestries, classical sculptures, carved ceilings from the fifteenth century, exotic animals – as he partied with presidents and movie stars. Decadent, cluttered, eclectic but beautiful nonetheless… a monument to one man’s strange vision. Check out the gold-plated indoor swimming pool!
Being there brought me back not just to Citizen Kane and the haunting question of how someone’s life can be summed up in a single word, but the whole notion of immortality. With a nod to Ozymandias, we are forced to ask ourselves, what persists across the ages? Will our great works of art and architecture – castles, skyscrapers, museums, galleries – permit us to “live on” into the future, or are they destined to be swept away by the sands of history? All I know is, they certainly are nice to look at at the moment.