February 16, 2009
Choose Your Story
I grew up on a dusty, rural road by the lower Colorado River in the Mojave Desert. The occasional ride to the nearest city, Las Vegas, was a two-hour special event. The smog, sprawling stores, slums, and soaring signs of the Strip were the best of urban life that I knew. To this day, visiting the big library at the University of Nevada feels like arriving at the Library of Alexandria and being anointed with knowledge, olive oil, and cool water from a half-functioning drinking fountain. I didn't understand what I was missing until one morning when, as a sixteen year old boy, I landed in Paris. My perspective on Las Vegas changed dramatically, as did my perspective on most things in my life.
There is something about cities that provokes people to make sense of their lives. In the extreme cases of Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus, this meant establishing new schools at the edges of Athens. Cities have long provided spaces for public debate and economic exchange to happen in close proximity. If the denseness of the city suffocates the mind (and I am not claiming that it does), then a well cultivated garden placed just outside the city provides a good place from which to criticize what is happening inside.
Critique of city life was, of course, no special province of the ancient Greeks. Showing one's taste for the city is an apt way to show one's taste for all of modernity. But here, taste is usually distaste: If one wishes to establish one's credential as a postmodern intellectual, then a bleak account of one's walk down a busy boulevard is a useful thing to publish. As I have learned this year as a student of the German literary critic Klaus Scherpe, some of our best models in this genre are "The Man of the Crowd" by Edgar Allan Poe, "À Une Passante" by Charles Baudelaire, and "The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge" by Rainer Maria Rilke.
Unfortunately, these exemplars of city literature are often a little bit, well, creepy. In Poe, one develops a fixation with a stranger in an urban crowd and studies him in exquisite detail. In Baudelaire, one does not have the self-confidence to speak to an attractive woman on a loud street, though one may "drink" from her eyes. In Rilke, one confuses a Parisian hotel with a hospital, decides that history contains no progress, and to one's modest credit, enjoys a walk through the Tuileries on a beautiful autumn morning. For all of the cultural accomplishment that is happening here, one hopes that these works do not represent the imagination at its most hopeful. Cities are much too important, demographically, economically, and psychologically, to leave them here.
Most of the world's population now lives in one city or another. According to Richard Florida and the research he cites in his book, Who's Your City, cities are coalescing into so-called "mega-regions." For instance, the coastal Southern California mega-region extends from Los Angeles through San Diego to Tijuana and forms something like a complete economic unit. While high-talent design labor happens north of the border, factories south of the border convert those ideas into physical goods.
Beyond their economic significance, Florida also tells us that cities have distinct emotional lives. People with particular kinds of personalities tend to gather in particular cities. For instance, the "open-to-experience" types flock to a few places in the United States, like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, New York, and Boston. The research behind this idea is questionable, because it essentializes personality as psychologists are wont to do. Nonetheless, the idea is enough to change how one thinks about one's choice of surroundings.
For it is that walking or driving through a city — and especially, doing so in multiple cities — is like walking or riding through one's own mind. It is also like reading literature. The American literary critic Giles Gunn has suggested that literature enables two functions: to speak what is unspeakable and to experience feelings which have been forgotten. When one reads about faraway lands in a book, one simultaneously visits strange feelings within oneself.
A city has the same effect. What happens when one navigates an urban environment while not knowing exactly how near one is to the destination? A narrative suspense emerges, while one is potentially confronted with thousands of characters and countless different scenes. If the distance is long, then so much the better: One has more time to think.
An unexplored city deserves the same anticipation as an unread book. Of course, like books, not all cities are created equal. Choose your story carefully.
Posted by Jonathan Pfeiffer at 12:12 AM | Permalink