The Imagined City (ii)

7 May

Another way of negotiating the city is that utilized in artistic practice, which may present itself as critique of the place in which one finds oneself, as an attempt to tame the chaos of space, or as a mixture of the two. Fernando Pessoa is an interesting example of such practices in that he provided a variety of different ways of mapping the city of Lisbon. The most obvious, and arguably the least interesting, is a tourist guide to the city which he wrote in the 1920s but which remained unpublished until after his death. Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See was written in English and presented a conventional description of the city, detailing the various monuments, parks, museums, churches and other historic buildings. It is an interesting exercise to compare this Lisbon with the city of the present and the book’s historical detail is useful, but there is little sense of the lived city. Citizens make only an occasional appearance, such as in this revealing snapshot of Alfama:

The tourist who can spend a few days in Lisbon should not omit to visit this quarter; he will get a notion no other place can give him of what Lisbon was like in the past. Everything will evoke the past here – the architecture, the type of streets, the arches and stairways, the wooden balconies, the very habits of the people who live there a life full of noise, of talk, of songs, of poverty and dirt.

(Fernando Pessoa, Lisbon: What the Tourist Should See (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2008), p. 31.)

Apart from this, the people are mainly absent from Pessoa’s account of Lisbon, perhaps not surprisingly for a writer who often displayed an ambivalent attitude to his fellow citizens in his work. However, Pessoa’s literary work conveys a mentality that is lacking in his guidebook. Even when describing his own kind of ‘non-place’ in the form of an imaginary journey, Pessoa is able to lay claim to the importance of place and journeying in mental life:

I didn’t set out from any port I knew. Even today I don’t know what port it was, for I’ve still never been there. And besides, the ritual purpose of my journey was to go in search of non-existent ports – ports that would be merely a putting-in at ports; forgotten inlets of rivers, straits running through irreproachably unreal cities … I found myself in other lands, in other ports, and I passed through cities that were not the one I started from, which, like all the others, was no city at all … My voyage took place on the other side of time, where it cannot be counted or measured but where it nevertheless flows, and it would seem to be faster than the time that has lived us.

Fernando Pessoa, ‘A Voyage I Never Made (I)’, The Book of Disquiet, tr. Richard Zenith (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001), p. 461.

 

This fantastical voyage relates the importance of the process of arriving and departing while maintaining a stubborn remove from any ‘real’ city, a remove, however, that is more provocative than the official presentation of the city and its real places given in Pessoa’s guidebook. More often, however, Pessoa steered a course between this city of the imagination and the real city. The Book of Disquiet is both a meditation on consciousness and recognizably a book about Lisbon, where its narrator Soares is able to claim that ‘the street is all of life’. At another point, Soares makes the observation that ‘[t]here is no difference between me and these streets’, suggesting a relationship between citizen and city that one finds given visual representation in M.C. Escher’s Metamorphosis I (1937). There is an indeterminacy to the life he witnesses in the streets: ‘The people passing by on the street are always the same ones who passed by a while ago, always a group of floating figures, patches of motion, uncertain voices, things that pass by and never quite happen.’ This impressionistic portrayal of city life suggests that citizens are much like the city itself, always coming into being and never completed.

Jonathan Raban’s Soft City (1974) attempts a similar idea to Pessoa by presenting the city as something which becomes gradually ‘legible’ to the citizen. For Raban, the city is an ‘emporium of styles’ from which the initially confused ‘greenhorn’ (the newcomer to the city) learns to select. This notion of choice is expanded to include the playing of roles – city life for Raban is always performative and the city is as much a collection of stages as an emporium. If the city does impose its ideology, it has to be recognized in this formulation that, while the city is always at work on us we are always at work on the city too: this ‘work’ involving both the constant rebuilding of the city and the effort put into the performance of identity. This involves a physical and a mental building, the latter represented by Raban’s suggestion that, as we reinvent ourselves, the city rebuilds itself around us.

A more critical version of this has been that associated with so-called  ‘psychogeographers’, from figures related to surrealism and situationism such as André Breton, Louis Aragon and Guy Debord to more recent writers like J.G. Ballard, Iain Sinclair and Paul Auster. Of these, Iain Sinclair’s work has perhaps come closest to the exploration of the city as museum, with various books dedicated to physical and psychical explorations of forgotten areas of London.  Psychogeography has come to be associated with taking control of one’s place and agency in the controlling city, a project in which the act of walking is crucial, as Merlin Coverley highlights:

The wanderer, the stroller, the flâneur and the stalker – the names may change but, from the nocturnal expeditions of De Quincey to the surrealist wanderings of Breton and Aragon, from the situationist dérive to the heroic treks of Iain Sinclair, the act of walking is ever present in this account. This act of walking is an urban affair and, in cities that are increasingly hostile to the pedestrian, it inevitably becomes an act of subversion. Walking is seen as contrary to the spirit of the modern city with its promotion of swift circulation and the street-level gaze that walking requires allows one to challenge the official representation of the city by cutting across established routes and exploring those marginal and forgotten areas often overlooked by the city’s inhabitants. In this way the act of walking becomes bound up with psychogeography’s characteristic political opposition to authority, a radicalism that is confined not only to the protests of 1960s Paris but also to the spirit of dissent that animated both Defoe and Blake as well as the vocal criticism of London governance to be found in the work of contemporary London psychogeographers such as Stewart Home and Iain Sinclair.

(Merlin Coverley, Psychogeography (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2006), p. 12.)

Psychogeographers attempt to utilize the lost elements of city as the basis for a kind of militant remembering. The connection between a textual, ‘readable’ city and the processes of change inaugurated by the demands of capitalism brings us back to David Harvey’s work. As Edward Soja writes, with Harvey in mind, capital is ‘a crude and restless auteur’ when it inscribes its narrative upon the city streets.

Harvey opens The Condition of Postmodernity (1990) with a discussion of Raban’s Soft City and suggests that we should read it ‘not as an anti-modernist argument but as a vital affirmation that the postmodernist moment has arrived.’  The play that Harvey finds in postmodern art and architecture is linked, in his mind to a lack of any sense of historical continuity:

Given the evaporation of any sense of historical continuity and memory, and the rejection of meta-narratives, the only role left for the historian, for example, is to become, as Foucault insisted, an archaeologist of the past, digging up its remnants as Borges does in his fiction, and assembling them side by side, in the museum of modern knowledge. 

(David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 6.)

It is precisely as a ‘museum of modern knowledge’ that many of those concerned with the loss of the city of the past have come to treat it. For Iain Sinclair this means putting together a ‘book of disappearances’ that attempts to discover the ‘missing pieces’ of London. For Maria Tavares Dias it involves the publication, over two decades of a nine-volume set of books on ‘disappeared Lisbon’. The motivations for such projects will be varied and will not necessarily coincide with Harvey’s view of such work as simple ‘lining up’ in the present. As many writers on memory have noted, we go to our past not only for trophies to place in a cabinet of curiosities but with questions that may help to deal with impasses in the present. Sinclair suggests one such motivation in compiling his book on London: ‘By soliciting contributions to an anthology of absence, I hoped that the city would begin to write itself (punningly, in both senses)’. By collectivizing the authorial voice, there is a possibility for an ‘anonymous’ documentary of the city that may also help to ‘right’ some of the wrongs inflicted on it. And there is another sense in which ‘right’ can be attached to the city, as Tuan suggests:

An old run-down neighborhood should be saved from urban renewal because it seems to satisfy the needs of the local residents, or because, despite a decaying physical environment, it promotes certain human virtues and a colorful style of life. The appeal is to qualities inherent in established ways and to the people’s moral right to maintain their distinctive customs against the forces of change.

(Tuan, p. 197)

It is this ‘moral right’ that seems to be voiced in the fados identified by Michael Colvin that cry out against the urban renewal inflicted on the Mouraria. Henri Lefebvre, meanwhile, speaks of a ‘right to the city’ that is ‘a cry and a demand’ and that ‘slowly meanders through the surprising detours of nostalgia and tourism, the return to the heart of the traditional city, and the call of existent or recently developed centralities.’ Lefebvre contrasts this with the encouragement by the dominant powers to focus on the right to nature and to locate leisure outside the city. Rather than renovate the deteriorated sites of the city, citizens are encouraged to avoid them for the pleasures of the countryside or of some form of ‘nature’ brought into the city. The right to the city, however, should not be a simple visiting right but ‘a transformed and renewed right to urban life.’ (Henri Lefebvre, ‘The Right to the City’, in Lefebvre, Writings On Cities, ed. & tr. Eleonore Kofman & Elizabeth Lebas (Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996), p. 158.)

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