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Subway Mosaic Turns Riders Into Philosophers

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Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times Officer Russell King reading a little Carl G. Jung in the subway station under Bryant Park. "It seems like he's an urbanite," he said

Subway Mosaic Turns Riders Into Underground Philosophers

By ANDY NEWMAN | December 27, 2004

In the subway there is a riddle disguised as a declaration. It is engraved in gray stone on a wall of the station at 42nd Street and Avenue of the Americas, atop a staircase to the platform where the B, the D, the F and the V rumble by.

"Nature must not win the game," the inscription reads, "but she cannot lose." Each day the words float briefly before thousands of eyes. A few riders pause to ponder them as they go on their way, perhaps seeking a clue in the backdrop, a mosaic of what look like berry-bearing vines creeping through and eating away at the gray stone.

The simple-sounding sentence, the inscription says, was written by Carl G. Jung, the psychologist and mythographer. What does it signify? And what is it doing in the subway?

Who knows? Not Joe Noto.

"Honestly, I couldn't tell you what it means," Mr. Noto, an electrician on his way home to Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, said the other day. Many other riders refused even to entertain the question.

But two recent afternoons spent conducting a semi-random survey turned up a fair share of subterranean philosophers intrigued by the cryptic pronouncement, which has been on the wall since 2002. Was it meant as a reassurance or a warning? Is it a good thing if nature wins, or a bad thing?

A police officer patrolling the station, Officer Russell King of Transit District 1, which includes the 42nd Street station, has worked enough slow shifts to have had time to chew over Jung's words. "It seems like he's an urbanite," Officer King said. "It seems like we as a people in this city have to overcome everything to live." But, he added, there's a twist: we are part of nature, so if we defeat nature, we defeat ourselves. "It's like a double negative, a Catch-22," he said. "If we win, we lose." Officer King's partner on patrol, Wayne Steele, picked up the riff. "No matter what," said Officer Steele, a beefy man with a prominent mustache, "nature's going to win."

Some people tried to break the sentence into its parts.

" 'Nature must not win,' " repeated an unassuming man in a blue-and-red windbreaker, who said he was a designer of women's accessories and volunteered only his first name, Emilio, and his home country, Ecuador. "So man - man could win?" Emilio asked. "I think nature is bigger than man. At first glance, it makes me think two things. One is the grabs for a global empire - the power of the big corporations trying to run the world."

A southbound F train pulled in and Emilio got on. "But beyond the greed itself," he continued, "unless the people can make decisions in the world, it's much easier to do just a few people's interests."

The train stopped at 34th Street. Emilio got out. "Nature," he said. "Who controls nature? Nature is God. It's the fight between the power of man's greed and the power of God. And when it comes to reality, it doesn't matter how much money you have, you can't control the world." He disappeared through the turnstiles.

Meredith Sabini, a Jungian psychologist who recently compiled a book of Jung's writings on nature, "The Earth Has a Soul," said the quotation referred to a struggle between the conscious and the unconscious, or "natural," mind.

"Jung is saying we're not supposed to follow instinct blindly," Ms. Sabini said in a telephone interview from her office in California. "We're supposed to have consciousness. But that doesn't mean you're supposed to kill nature. Because the unconscious is wisdom that has grown over the millions of years we have been Homo sapiens."

The full quotation, from Jung's "Alchemical Studies," says: "Nature must not win the game, but she cannot lose. And whenever the conscious mind clings to hard and fast concepts and gets caught in its own rules and regulations - as is unavoidable and of the essence of civilized consciousness - nature pops up with her inescapable demands."

Not everyone approved of the writing on the wall.

"I don't like it," said Martin Bernier, a transplanted Parisian who owns a wholesale bakery in Queens. "I don't think it's appropriate for people to see in the subway. Why do they put this here? Who is Carl Gustav Jung? I know who he is now because I made a small investigation. But it makes me feel ignorant."

Mr. Bernier pointed out that the Jung installation was part of a much larger piece that proceeds down the long corridor to the Fifth Avenue exit and includes quotations from Ovid, the nursery rhyme "Jack and Jill," and an obscure passage from "Finnegan's Wake," each being invaded from above by mosaics of golden tree roots and from below by mosaics of bedrock.

Sipping quickly from his coffee cup, Mr. Bernier, 52, led a reporter down the corridor. "Look at this," he said. "James Joyce. He's Irish, right?" The decay hinted at in the mosaics, Mr. Bernier said, assaulted the eye.

"I'm glad to talk about this," Mr. Bernier confided, "because I was very disturbed by this corridor. I have an average education, and I feel frustrated. It made me feel like an idiot."

The artist who made the piece, Samm Kunce, said the words on the wall were not meant to be easily digested. "They are ambiguous," she said. "I thought that's something that would keep the work alive."

The piece is called "Under Bryant Park," a reference to the preserve of well-tended greenery above the station, and Ms. Kunce said the Jung quotation "has to do with human imperative: our trying to control external nature - by, for instance, gardening - is an externalization of the need to control our inner nature."

Which is, of course, a doomed endeavor. "I see that as pretty comforting," Ms. Kunce said. "I'm a pretty controlling person - I try not to be, but I think it's in my nature. And you can try all you want to imagine you're controlling something but in the end, it'll take its own course - 'it' being all of it."

From The New York Times

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