Sometimes deep contrasts–even direct opposites–show themselves at the same time, in the same place. Take the Hyde Park Shopping Center as an example. It’s a delightful urban oasis–for me especially because the Bon Jour French cafe graces its central courtyard. I’ve spent many pleasant hours there.
Children laugh and play as they run and skip around the court yard fountain. Watchful mothers chat over coffee under the shade trees. At the tables are those who read their daily paper. Earnest students read and write for their projects, while still others are writing letters or engrossed in a novel. Jazz musicians come in the summer, filling the courtyard with their music. Annual crafts fairs and garden shows dot the calendar, as well. Most, like me, simply enjoy the ambience on a summer day, the coffee and the bakery’s output of tasty goods.
But if those of us who enjoy the delights of this space look carefully at our surroundings, we see a small sculpted figure perched above the fountain in the center of the courtyard (see photo above). Entitled “Jacob and the Angel,” it refers to the story found in the Bible, Genesis 32:22-31. In this story, Jacob wrestles through the night with a strange man. Although the man refuses to reveal his name, Jacob believes he has been wrestling with God. This encounter changed Jacob–he received a new name and a permanent limp.
The sculpted figure of Jacob is caught up in intense struggle. All his weight is balanced on a single toe; his other foot seems to be cloven, like a hoofed animal. The sculptor, Paul Granlund (1925-2003), suggests that the struggle is also interior–Jacob is wrestling with himself. Granlund himself observed, “I’m always trying to say two things at once.”
I would like to know how Jacob ever got to the Hyde Park Shopping Center. Curious, too, that the sculptor–son of a Lutheran pastor who spent his entire career in Minnesota, much of it at Gustavus Adolphus college in St. Peter–should place his Jacob in a self-styled secular setting.
His presence at the French cafe does stand in a venerable tradition. As early as the 1700s, the coffee houses of Vienna and London were places of both light hearted joy and serious thinking by artists, philosophers, and musicians. Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore–the two legendary cafes on the Left Bank in Paris– became famous for their glittering array of deep-thinking patrons over the decades, including Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, Ernest Hemingway, Julia Child, and James Baldwin. You might say that it’s the rule, not the exception for cafes to be venues of seriousness, along with their pastries and coffee.
Popular philosophy might think that we build pleasant places as safe spaces where we can be free from wrestling with angels, ourselves included. In reality, the wrestling takes place anywhere, perhaps especially in the pleasant spaces, when our antagonist is least expected.
You might call this a serious everyday spirituality. Are the denizens of the cafe so self-aware?
(c). Phil Hefner. August 23, 2016
For more on the sculptor, see: