Wonders Never Cease

Updating Philon of Byzantium's famous list

By Cullen Murphy

It is often a plus, in advancing some novel proposition, to be able to say that the whole world backs you up. In 2002, when the manufacturers of M&Ms wanted to add a new color to their candies, they gave the choice to consumers, who cast some 10 million votes and chose purple (over aqua and pink). A few years ago, in advance of the millennium, Barnes & Noble compiled a list of the most significant books published in each year of the twentieth century, and asked customers to vote on which work should represent each year. (Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose was the choice for 1980, Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage for 1912.) Meanwhile, the editors of Time magazine decided that the New Year 2000 issue should bear a portrait of the Person of the Century, and in addition to selecting a winner (Albert Einstein, with runners-up Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Mohandas Gandhi) by means of internal discussion, they decided to poll the planet, encouraging people everywhere to submit nominations. Time's Web site eventually logged about 4.5 million submissions, and although Einstein, Roosevelt, and Gandhi received substantial global support, the person who emerged at the top of the list (after Jesus was disqualified by the editors) was Elvis Presley.

Now a Swiss filmmaker named Bernard Weber has launched an effort to survey humanity for its views on designating the New Seven Wonders of the World, an updated version of the list compiled by Philon of Byzantium in 200 B.C. The original Seven Wonders included four structures that many people today can name or recognize (the Pyramids of Egypt, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Lighthouse of Alexandria) and three that never seem to stick in anyone's memory (the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, and the Statue of Zeus at Olympia). Weber, motivated by equal measures of idealism and a sense that the Ancient Wonders no longer fire the imagination, began soliciting Internet votes for a New Seven Wonders in June of 2000, and he will keep the site open until November of 2005. Already ballots have been cast by more than 16 million people from all over the world, and Weber expects to have at least 60 million votes by the time the polls close.

But for all that, the final roster of New Wonders is likely to be as unsurprising as Time's roster of finalists for Person of the Century. In the balloting thus far the Great Wall of China has garnered 11.29 percent of the vote, followed by the Potala Palace at Lhasa, the Roman Colosseum, Chichén Itzá, the statues of Easter Island, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Taj Mahal. Move down the list a little and you find the Eiffel Tower, the Alhambra, Angkor Wat, and the Sydney Opera House. All these things are worthy of recognition, to be sure; they are even downright wondrous. But many of them are not exactly new, and there is also something dutiful and leaden about the collection, as if it had been drawn up by UNESCO.

Of course, it's easy to play the naysayer—to criticize, to carp and cavil, to tear down. The responsible path is to offer some constructive alternatives. What might a more compelling New Seven Wonders of the World consist of? I have not yet solicited global comment, though people everywhere have an open invitation to weigh in. But to start the discussion, let me offer a few possibilities.

I. The Molasses of Roads. The U.S. interstate highway system is one of the glories of our age, and no stretch is more emblematic than the Santa Monica Freeway near the I-5 interchange, site of perhaps the worst traffic jams in North America. Larry McMurtry once described a driver's first impression: "After years on the tributaries, he had finally reached the Father of Waters." Traffic-control experts estimate the amount of time lost annually to congestion on the Santa Monica Freeway at upwards of 18.6 million hours.

II. The Hanging Polyps of Virtual Colonoscopy. It is a truism that mortality from cancer of the colon can be greatly reduced by regular checkups for people over the age of fifty, and it is a truism as well that the procedure involved is a profoundly unpleasant one. But wait! Scientists have now developed a process involving a CT scanner and virtual-reality software that can look inside without going inside. Another breakthrough involves a pill-sized camera that, after ingestion, can snap two pictures every second during its eight-hour path of exploration, sending images back to emission control.

From the archives:

"We Will Bury You" (March 2003)
How the caretakers of Lenin's corpse have made a killing in post-Soviet Russia. By Keith Gessen.

III. The Mausoleum of Zbarsky. Let it not be said that the arts of corporeal conservation died with the ancient Egyptians. Boris Zbarsky was one of the embalmers originally entrusted with the task of preserving the reliquiae of V. I. Lenin, a job that later fell to his son and other Soviet technicians. Many details of Lenin's maintenance are still closely held by this scientific priesthood, but it is known that every eighteen months the body is removed from the mausoleum and submerged for thirty days in glycerol and potassium acetate. There is wide agreement that Lenin looks better today than when he died, in 1924. "Some viewers say Lenin appears to be sleeping," one newspaper observed last year after examining the results of an extensive makeover. "Others say he looks like waxed fruit."

IV. The Garbage Garden of Gotham. The Fresh Kills landfill, on Staten Island, now landscaped as parkland, is one of the largest man-made objects in North America—in volume some twenty-five times the size of the Great Pyramid of Khufu. It holds half a century's worth of New York City's municipal solid waste, covering 3,000 acres. More artifacts lie discarded here than some entire nations have produced since the dawn of time. The Fresh Kills mound rises to 225 feet above sea level; estimates at one point were that it would ultimately reach 500 feet, which would make it the tallest point on the Atlantic shore between Florida and Maine.

V. The Temple of Aesculapius at Houston. Ailing potentates from around the world congregate at the Terrace Suites of St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital, in Texas, for five-star boutique medical service. As the hospital itself states, "The Terrace Suites offer those special touches—spacious rooms ... award-winning cuisine you can enjoy in your own elegant dining area ... complimentary high tea, complete with a savory selection of fruit, sandwiches, and fine pastries." The furniture is mahogany. The bathroom counters are made of brushed granite.

VI. The Biblioteca Brautigania. In one of his books the novelist and poet Richard Brautigan conjured a library that would accept and preserve only unpublished manuscripts. Not long after Brautigan's suicide, in 1984, such a repository was created at the Fletcher Free Library, in Burlington, Vermont. Here at the so-called Brautigan Library come to rest hundreds of works that, to use a delicate phrase from the publishing world, "failed to find an audience"—works such as Leo Witz's memoir Strive for Mediocrity and Albert E. Helzner's The Long-Range Effects of Birth. Who can deny that the corpus of work that actually gets published deeply misrepresents the true range of literary endeavor? The Brautigan Library serves as a corrective.

VII. The Venus of El Segundo. Since 1959, when the first Plasticine effigy was produced, the Mattel corporation, of El Segundo, California, has manufactured more than a billion copies of the Barbie doll. It is said that American girls on average own eight of these figures. No other evocation of the female form has been as widely distributed. The effigies are laden with raw emotional power: the recent breakup of Barbie and her possibly gay longtime consort, Ken, caused worldwide consternation (though the couple are said to "remain friends"). Will the figurine acquire a philosophical dimension? A Mattel executive spoke recently of the need to address fundamental questions of backstory: "Who is Barbie? Why does she exist?" Along with Cheerleader Barbie and Cali Barbie there may soon be Simone Weil Barbie.

The suggestions outlined here, as noted, are meant simply as a starting point. It is important to approach this task with humility. Of the original Seven Wonders of the World only one, the Pyramids, can still be seen. It may be that centuries from now only one of my Seven Wonders will survive. I hope it is virtual colonoscopy. I fear it will be the Brautigan Library.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/07/wonders-never-cease/303454/