Cities beyond Cities

 – an essay –

Text prezentat în cadrul conferinţei cu tema “City City Bang Bang”, 21-23 Martie 2013, University of Delhi, New Delhi, India


conferinta Delhi martie 2012 When looking, out of the window, from a sky scraper in Singapore or Hong Kong, nowadays one can see surreal fly-overs, a strikingly amazing number of cars, 3D cinemas, and people cuing up for taking the next metro, which often runs above the street. In Delhi, within one day, the traveler witnesses the remarkable urban space of Gurgaon and the totally unremarkable reality of the slums. In Singapore, there is a neighbourhood called “Little India” and, of course, a China town. In Kuala Lumpur, one walks across the zebra in a middle of a crowd where a woman wears burka, another one a miniskirt, where a man in a suit, working for a big corporation is followed by a youngster, a Green Peace activist or anti-globalization supporter. In Tokyo, the urban jungle of Shibuya neighbourhood, with its teenagers wearing the outfit of Japanese animés is counter-balanced by Ueno Park with its temples. One could go on like this forever. The 21st century metropolis has such a complex identity that it has ended up, in many cases, by being shaped in such a way to prevent the clashes of identities by cultivating modern concepts like tolerance, political correctness, multiculturalism, globalization and so on. As Henri Lefebvre puts it, in his book, “The Production of Space”: “urban space gathers crowds, products in the markets, acts and symbols. It concentrates all these, and accumulates them. To say ‘urban space’ is to say centre and centrality, and it does not matter whether these are actual or merely possible, saturated, broken up or under fire, for we are speaking here of a dialectical centrality”.

The urban space is merely one which accommodates diversity, in all its various manifestations. Many of the cities today contain a multitude of social, ethnical, political, economic layers either inter-acting or opposing each other in such a random way that, by focusing on understanding or deciphering them, one feels irremediably lost. If, ,to all that we add the hybrid identity which  Homi Bhaba talks about in his book “Location of Culture” and the fluidity of the periphery, which often replaces  or contaminates the center, then, in front of us, we have the entire panoply of insurmountable difficulties which a researcher faces when discussing cities and their identity paradigms. Precisely because of this, my analysis on the city and literature has to go back in time, searching for a more solid ground, where a necessary systematization can be operated with the assumed purpose of discussing about the mechanisms which altered, redefined and reshaped the human-mind setting. If nowadays we travel comfortably in huge iron-birds, which we call planes or move from a floor to another in glass-cages named elevators, we might have the natural tendency to consider our comfort technology has being something familiar and even surrender to it as being a reality so mundane that it is beyond questioning or debate. In reality, behind any urban nature there hides at least one ancestor who, at one moment in time, considered the city to be an alien. An ancestor for whom the banal escalators or the crowded intersections, with their traffic lights and the surreal number of four-wheels vehicles must have seemed alienating, disturbing and confusing.   

            Consequently, I will discuss the displacement one feels when initially moving from a traditional village to the city and the way this displacement is reflected in literature. The interest of the analysis might arise from the necessity of understanding how we, as human beings, deal with disrupture and which are the reactions to the fracture we face when needing to cope with a kind of reality which we have not been prepared for. The question which I find challenging to give an answer to is the following: what is essentially changed when a human being trades his or her identity as a villager for an identity as a cityman? Of course, there can be as many answers as there are individuals, but, beyond or in spite of this, a pattern can also be identified.

Before a person adapts to an urban reality, there is an in-between identity problem, a moment which, though extremely intense, does not last too long. It is the precise moment when the individual establishes the initial contact with the city. In Aravind Adiga`s novel, “Between the Assassinations”, a rickshaw puller (Chenayya) recollects his memories when first facing the city as follows: “The realization came to him now, that the first day in a city was destined to be the best: you had already been expelled from paradise, the moment you walk into the city”. In the same novel, two brothers come to the city, hoping for a better life. One of them describes his first impressions: “Two cycles swerved around him, nearly running over his feet; in every direction, cycles, autorickshaws, cars, threatened to crush his toes”. (p. 113)

 Herta Müller, the Literature Nobel Prize Winner in 2009, depicts her experience in “The King Bends and Kills”.   For her, the essential difference between the rural and the urban realities stays in the way she is forced to use the language. While in the village, the routine and the daily rituals are commonly known, accepted and strictly followed, in the urban jungle she has to verbalize more. Silence is no longer possible. “When one does not have the habit of speaking to people in one`s proximity, one does not need to get used to thinking in words. There is an inner attitude here [in the village] which in cities can be found only in dahlias, not in people”. Silence is here a metaphor for a sort of familiarity which allows villagers to identify problems, solutions and human behaviours based on patterns or/and routine. Even today, you walk down the main street of a Romanian village and you do not have to be too perspicacious to notice that everyone and everything has a place and a role in the community. Often, in these villages everyone greets everyone, and even the outsiders are greeted as if knowing each other and one another.  

In Tarun Tejpal`s dystopia, “The Valley of Masks”, the main character, brought up in a secluded, orthodox community, venerating a deity called Aum and following strict rules, escapes his world, although knowing that in the end he will pay for the gesture with his own life. He recollects his first memories of the new city he was settling in as follows: “There is so much music in this place that I have come to […]. It flows out of houses and it beats out from shops, it envelops the carts of street vendors and it fills out cars […]. Coming from a country of deep silences I am constantly aware of it. Men here move through it as if it did not exist, or take it for granted like the trees and the air”. We have here the same antinomy silence vs. noise, but, also an interesting way of perceiving the city with the mind-setting of an individual not belonging to it. The music, at whose omnipresence the character is amazed, equates with the presence of a more familiar universe, defined by trees and air. The need for a parallelism with something familiar is the only way of making sense of the new reality.

Out of many, I mentioned just three different depictions, three different writers, three different experiences, but nevertheless one constant: the noise of the city, the annihilation of the old self by a new one, which is built around the concept of social skills. As silence stands for an ancestral, undisputed order and hierarchy in the village, the noise of the city signifies the aggression of a universe where the main tension is generated by a paradox: although accommodating numerically important communities, the city establishes among them relations based on the assumption that the interaction can be minimally invasive, formatted, defined in a set of social rules with a high degree of complexity. Octavian Paler, a Romanian writer and journalist, remembers his first journey out of Lisa (a small village in Transylvania) to Bucharest (the Romanian capital) as if travelling in time for centuries. In his own village, the child had not seen any movie, any Christmas tree and, as he confesses, he had not known the meaning of half the words used in the city.

We have the same recurrent theme; the inability of verbalisation in a new topos, one in which the subtlety of language is meant to denominate objects and processes which have been absent in the traditional village. It would be superfluous to assume that we are facing here a minor, linguistic problem. The usage of words and the richness of the personal vocabulary can be relatively easily surpassed. What remains, though, is the amazement of one having to name things which one cannot mentally indentify and get accustomed to. To describe it, I would use an allegory from Jose Saramago`s book, “Blindness”. In an anonymous city, a mysterious epidemic of blindness, forces all the characters to achieve new skills, to try to transgress everything which was coined before and taken for granted in order to survive. It is a classical process of adjustment, with the one and only major difference that it has to be done suddenly, with such an aggressive speed that the mind does not even have the slightest chance to process. The blindness Octavian Paler and the other characters quoted here have to face, expressed as a complete reshape of an entire inner universe, is the discomfort of not possessing the code which allows understanding and interaction.

  The reality of the city forces the human mind, not accustomed to it, to incorporate a social universe which demands constant attention in order to decipher a never-ending Brownian motion in which one, in order to function as expected, needs to see patterns. But, and now the difficulty increases, the patterns which are to be decoded should coincide or be coherent with the general pattern of the city. Otherwise, the individual is trapped inside his own way of sense-making, like Maximillian Cohen, the main character from “Pi”, a movie directed by Darren Aronofsky. He is a brilliant mathematician who is able to see the world around him as a succession of numbers and formulas, but fails constantly in decoding the social pattern of the same world he lives in. The code or the language of the city is the first manifestation, the primary symptom of the displacement as described in the examples quoted above. 

After the need to achieve the language of the city, there is another one, not less aggressive and confusing: to make sense of distances. The urban space expends to a point when it alters and gets to incorporate a multitude of non-places, as Marc Augé would call them. In his book, published in 1995, “Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity”, the French anthropologist coins the notion of non-place, referring to transitory places with transitory identities like the airport, the supermarket, the cinema hall or the escalators.  While the village condenses in a small number of topoi, the whole social activity of the community, the city demands from its inhabitants an adequacy to a multitude of social situations. Going to a bar, taking the cab, following the traffic rules, filing a complaint in a police station, using the escalators –  although they all seem for most of us small, petty, everyday, implicit gestures, at the same time they all involve a predefined understanding in the absence of which the social life is significantly altered. The memory of a non-place helps one to have the   adequate and comforting attitude towards it while the absence of such a memory generates a displacement. Aristotle states in “On Memory and Reminiscence”: “[…] to remember the future is not possible, but this is an object of opinion or expectation (and indeed there might be actually a science of expectation, like that of divination, in which some believe); nor is there memory of the present, but only sense-perception. For by the latter we know not the future, nor the past, but the present only. But memory relates to the past”. In this sense, we have to picture the disruption of one facing, for the first time, the urban jungle imagining the men from Plato`s cave; the references of their memory, in relation with the past, do not help them to orientate themselves outside the cave.

  In the city, the existence of distances, as related to memory, brings us back to the Aristotelian paradigm. So that for one to be socially apt, the urban space requires from him or her a complicated mechanism of identifying and interpreting the architecture coherently, the streets, the pedestrian crossings, the cycling trails and so on. It is, after all, a mimetic mechanism, but nevertheless, when one is suddenly confronted with it, with no tools for deciphering it, the initial impact is far more complex than the simple idea of an individual lost in a metropolis would make us believe.  Balram Halwai, the main character from Aravind Adiga “The White Tiger”, born in a village in Bihar, becomes a driver in Delhi. His perspective of the vastness and chaos, though specific, referring to New Delhi, is relevant for the process I am describing: “Every road in Delhi has a name […]. And no one, masters or servants, knows the name of the road. You ask someone, `Where is Nikolai Copernicus Marg?` And he could be a man who lived on Nikolai Copernicus Marg his whole life, and he`ll open his mouth and say, `Hahn?` Or he`ll say `Straight ahead and turn left`, even though he has no idea. And all the roads look the same, all of them go around and around grassy circles in which men are sleeping or eating or playing cards, and then four roads shoot off from the grassy circle where men are sleeping or playing cards, and then four more roads go off from it”. (119) 

 No wonder the city is associated, in many various cultures, with the concept of alterity or otherness. An important part of the nationalistic public speech creates a dichotomy, periodically reactivated: the village is seen as a metaphor of a spiritual Golden Age of the nation while the city is corrupted by cosmopolitism and, later on, by industrialization, multiculturalism or globalization. The nationalistic discourse, developed fully in the century called in Europe the century of nations (19th century), embedded in its theoretical approach the idea that the core of the nation lay among fields, crops and traditions. Nowadays, one is so used to this idea that one barely asks why. Firstly, the village came into being first and in our culture we often associate the idea of purity with the idea of primordiality. Secondly, as Rabindranath Tagore states in his essay on Nationalism, the nationalistic ideology feeds itself on the presupposition that going back to our roots and ancestors will give us a strong sense of belonging: “ We never dream of blaming our social inadequacy as the origin of our present helplessness, for we have accepted as the creed of our nationalism that this social system has been perfected for all time to come by our ancestors who had the superhuman vision of all eternity, and supernatural power for making infinite provision for future ages”.

Nevertheless, there is another paradigm which allows us to decipher the pre-eminence of the village, both in the Romantic imaginary and the nationalistic discourse: the myth of the peaceful co-existence between Man and Nature, the myth of purity. While in the village,  as both bucolic poets and nationalists seem to suggest the human being is in agreement with Nature, obeying and following its laws, in the city, Nature is subjugated, coerced to feed and serve the human needs. An interesting depiction of Nature`s unstoppable force appears in Ben Okri`s novel, “The Famished Road”. A wild party in the village turns into a violent carnage, with drunkards fighting and crowds shouting, threatening and yelling. When the climax is reached, something happens; the only thing which could possibly stop the bloodbath: “It was not the tragedy of the night that dispersed everyone. It was the rain. The thugs fought themselves right through different strata of time. The soldiers left as a group […]. The tramps […], the people who had turned up to hail their new hero, the wretched and the curious, were all washed away by the gentle flood” (483)

The idealization of the rural space seems to be an intellectual, almost ideological and political, by-design construct, a concept which imposes itself forcibly, graciously ignoring the village and its realities. Whoever reads today “Godan” (Premchand), “The Peasants” (a novel by the Polish Nobel Prize laureate, Wladislaw Reymont) or the Romanian novel “The Uprising” (Liviu Rebreanu), easily  notices the roughness of the rural reality, its cynicism and its randomness. Romania, when it came into being in its modern shape (1859, 1918) was, mostly, a rural country. The cities, not many in number, were a heterogeneous mixture of ethnicities and religions. Jews and Hungarians, Armenians and Bulgarians, Turks and Germans, all sharing the same urban space. Consequently, when the nationalistic time arose, people being preoccupied with defining the nation in terms of ethnicity, the city became a target. It became a shelter for corruption (in the sense of alterity), a threat for the national identity. A mass production of Romanian literature, ideologically rooted, started creating a typological literary character: the villager, with his or her sense of decency and duty, with his or her strong ethics, with his or her healthy thinking vs. the cityperson with his or her petty intellectual dramas, with his or her depravity and indulgences. The tendency was counterbalanced by the appearance of what in Romanian literature is called modernism. Although modernism rehabilitated the city, even now one of the strongest nationalistic myths remains the purity of the village vs. the decadence of the city. The Romanian example might be a particular one, but I dare say, not a singular one.   

The bucolic space, the rural landscape, the forest with its twittering birds, the village covered in snow during winter, with its smoky chimneys hardly visible from the distance, the fields and the crops, the shepherds and their yearly transhumance, the mountain rivers and its fish swimming undisturbed by the human presence, the patriarchal communities where lived the old and wise, the village with its strict hierarchy, the peasants with their traditional costumes were all, and for many centuries, the main texture of  literature. Not many would have conceived that the background for a literary love story can be, let us say, instead of a beautiful lake in a mountain, an elevator cabin stuck somewhere between the 51st and the 52nd floor of the Empire State Building. Nevertheless, in spite of being constantly depicted as a sanctuary for alterity, the city claimed for itself a status which nowadays is more and more acknowledged and assumed. Many of those who idealize the rural space today do it from in front of a laptop. They use a Wi-Fi connection to post on their blogs various texts in which they demonize modernity, technology and the city itself. The nationalists deliver their speeches about how perverted the urban space is as compared to the rural one from inside a television studio, revising and rehearsing their speeches in a plane, flying over the Oceans, the rivers and the lakes they idealize; the poets write their texts about the mirage of Nature, the beauty of the forest using a sheet a paper which was, not long before, part of a tree.

Modernism and postmodernism, the post-culture, as the term was coined by George Steiner, have all imbedded the reality of the city in them. The displacement I was discussing and analyzing transgresses and eventually comes to terms with the urban space, which has the ability of incorporating even the attitudes against it. The power of the city, the dreams it feeds, the greed it encourages, the way in which it unfolds so as to cover, accommodate and allow cultural tension – they all come from the tolerance it has towards chaos. Once the order is established in one chaotic paradigm, a counter-chaos is arising precisely in the core of the newly achieved order; once the centre feels settled and strong, the periphery invades it, claiming the status of the center, contaminating it until it completely reshapes it or replacing it just  so as to be itself replaced by another periphery. Life which pulsates in the city is not a coherent, monolithic, predictable axiom, but just a never-ending and fertile dialectic; a dialectic which I like to describe and to think about as a manifestation of a city beyond a city beyond a city beyond a city…    




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