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Strolling and Shuffling

21 Mar
Rua do Carmo

Rua do Carmo, Lisbon, 2008.

Listening, as Mladen Dolar suggests, ‘is “always-already” incipient obedience; the moment one listens one has already started to obey’.  The form this obedience takes is inherently spatial but this should not blind us to the obvious temporal implications of listening. Listening to music. for example, offers us a possibility to pass time and, as Simon Frith points out, an experience of time passing: ‘In the most general terms,’ Frith writes, ‘music shapes memory, defines nostalgia, programs the way we age (changing and staying the same).’  For Sylviane Agacinski, who presents a similar discussion of passing time (focussing on both senses of the term), Walter Benjamin remains a key figure, one for whom the act of strolling through a city street was akin to strolling through a series of memory places, stumbling upon evidence of one’s own past and that of one’s society. Here, a giving of oneself over to happenstance is presented in distinction to the strict control of the searcher who is on a quest. Comparisons with forms of reading, viewing and listening are immediately apparent: the browser flicking through the pages of a book, the television viewer cruising the various stations, the radio listener trusting to the dial, or the iPod listener setting their collection to ‘Shuffle’. Agacinski sets up this apparent distinction between agency and passivity by opposing the figure of the historian to that of the stroller:

The historian takes possession of the past by interpreting traces, whereas the trace of the past happens to the stroller and takes possession of him. Let us not claim, however, that nothing happens to the historian; undoubtedly his desire also involves an anticipation, a curiosity with regard to what will come to him from the past, what he will discover in the shadows and encounter. There is often a stroller at the heart of each historian, a part of him that is trying to let himself be touched by the traces.

(Sylviane Agacinski, Time Passing, Columbia UP, p. 52)

Agacinski admits in a footnote that she is thinking of Michel de Certeau when she writes the foregoing, and it is no coincidence that this stroller-historian should also become the author of a discussion of walking that wished to problematize the distinction between active and passive ways of being in the city. As with the historian, so too with the browser, the cruiser and the shuffler, who may well be enjoying the ‘ecstasy’ of discoveries made by accident or by the equally pleasurable activities of browsing among bookshops, record stores, or other collections.  Continuing the idea of browsing-as-activity, Agacinski writes:

For Benjamin, the possibility of experiencing the past requires certain conditions. In particular, the frame of mind for letting oneself be touched, for letting oneself be taken by the aura, requires a true idleness. The stroller cannot want to arrange time himself, for example, by undertaking some project or by precisely scheduling his course of action; rather, he must be available to time, to let time pass, to spend it without keeping count, to know how to waste it.

(Agacinski, p. 55)

This is not a simple form of passivity; to make oneself available is still to make something, to do something. The stroller strolls and the shuffler shuffles with a prior knowledge of certain things they are going to encounter.



22 Jul

Fernando Pessoa, Book of Disquiet

To express something is to conserve its virtue and take away its terror. Fields are greener in their description than in their actual greenness. Flowers, if described with phrases that define them in the air of the imagination, will have colours with a durability not found in cellular life.
What moves lives. What is said endures. There’s nothing in life that’s less real for having been well described. Small-minded critics point out that such-and-such poem, with its protracted cadences, in the end says merely that it’s a nice day. But to say it’s a nice day is difficult, and the nice day itself passes on. It’s up to us to conserve the nice day in a wordy, florid memory, sprinkling new flowers and new stars over the fields and skies of the empty, fleeting outer world.
… The grand, tarnished panorama of History amounts, as I see it, to a flow of interpretations, a confused consensus of unreliable eyewitness accounts. The novelist is all of us, and we narrate whenever we see, because seeing is complex like everything.

(Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, tr. Richard Zenith (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001), p. 30)

In summoning The Book of Disquiet to provide examples for Fado and the Place of Longing (the original title of which was to be Songs of Disquiet, a title I retained for the opening chapter), I wanted to connect fado to the Pessoan project of estranging the world, of locating its disquiet. This line of thinking stresses the links to modernity that one finds in both Pessoa and fado while also opening a dialogue with existentialism and phenomenology, highlighting fado’s links to perception and to lived experience, space and place.

It is also worth commenting on the fragmented nature of Pessoa’s most famous prose work. These fragments seem crucial to the growth in the twentieth century of archived knowledge, written texts, museum exhibits and recorded sounds: at once parts of a whole they can never fully catalogue and desperate attempts to salvage the present as it slips from view and earshot. They anticipate a whole range of fragmented experiences of the twentieth century: the ‘fragments I have shored against my ruin’ in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; the wealth of ethnomusicological collections made possible by advances in recording technology; the broadcast media and its love of the soundbite; David Harvey’s ‘museum of modern knowledge’; the internet and its hyperlinked web of information.

Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon

The Book of Disquiet is also a book about Lisbon and about the ways of living made possible by city life. The role of the observer and chronicler is crucial and Pessoa creates a special character, Bernardo Soares, to achieve this task for him. Soares interweaves his own existential confusions into his descriptions of other city dwellers who walk past his place of work, his rooms or the cafes in which he spends much of his free time. A self-described dweller on the fringe of society, Soares represents what had by this time become a defining trope in western literature, from Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (1840, rev. 1845) through Baudelaire’s ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ (1863) to Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910). A strong sense of alienation amongst the crowd comes into play in Pessoa’s work, leading to yearning for a past in which individuals were more noticeable. In this way, Pessoa’s book speaks to earlier modern works on the city. The excitement that Walter Benjamin finds in the Baudelairean city, for example, is present in Pessoa yet it is an excitement that mixes uneasily with a sense of estrangement.

From where does this disquiet emerge? Perhaps it is from what Italo Calvino, writing on Balzac, calls the ‘intuition of the city as language, as ideology, as the conditioning factor of every thought and word and gesture … as monstrous as a giant crustacean, whose inhabitants are no more than motor articulations’. The imposition of (the idea of) the city upon the citizen is alluded to by Svetlana Boym when she identifies the prevalence in the modern world of an urban identity which, while not vanquishing national identity, has taken over some of nationalism’s most pertinent features, yet which ‘appeals to common memory and a common past but is rooted in a man-made place, not in the soil: in urban coexistence at once alienating and exhilarating, not in the exclusivity of blood.’ This mixture of communal and alienating aspects is crucial to fado, where the modern disquiet of the city dweller so well captured by Pessoa is always already entangled in the responsibilities of communal living that urban society demands. If this disquiet is to be seen as one symptom of late modernity, it is possible to link the longing for freedom from the trappings of the past as another, something Boym seems to have in mind when she writes that the city is ‘an ideal crossroads between longing and estrangement, memory and freedom, nostalgia and modernity’. (Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), p. 76.)

Furthermore, there is a sense in The Book of Disquiet of the attempt of the individual to overcome the monstrous in the city, to imprint his or her own trace upon the structured, symbolic city plan. Such is the case in José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, where the figure of Ricardo Reis is witnessed in an ongoing process of walking the streets of Lisbon; even as he is marked for disappearance, Reis leaves his trace on the city, on the dead poet who haunts him and on the readers of Saramago’s text. Citizens are able to take partial ownership of the city. Yet that partiality only leads to a new type of symbolic ownership and, though the culturally-scripted city has been challenged by this new symbolic city, the new symbolic city becomes both familiar and fantastic.

With its always-threatened loss the symbolic city becomes an object of nostalgic desire, forever in danger of obliteration by the real city, which cannot be symbolized or familiarized. Into what we might term, following Barthes, the studium of the Symbolic irrupts the punctum of the Real, penetrating the studied and reliable, ostensibly ‘known’ city and lending an aura of disquiet to what was supposedly familiar. This disquiet, in turn, nags at any comfortable sense of nostalgia that contemplation of the familiar, familial, home might otherwise suggest, for there is a danger present: that the object of nostalgia might not, after all, be lost. This is dangerous because the object of nostalgia seeks to find its greatest effect in the safety promised by its inability to return and contradict the nostalgic subject. The lost and mourned object does not reply and this is part of what comforts the loser and the mourner. Yet at the same time that the mourner takes comfort in this stable situation, the danger is never altogether absent that the tranquillity so longed for will not be pierced by a punctum, a reminder of the reason for mourning (I can think of few more evocative examples than Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris and Andrei Tarkovsky’s film adaptation of it).

A still from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (USSR, 1972): 'the danger is never altogether absent that the tranquillity so longed for will not be pierced by a punctum, a reminder of the reason for mourning'.

Above all, The Book of Disquiet is a book of witnessing. Pessoa introduces Soares in his preface as someone who was looking for a witness, someone who would carry his story to the world. Soares himself describes the book as ‘a factless autobiography’, suggesting that it will be a biography without biographemes. It is arguably more like biography as a process of writing, a life produced by writing:

For a long time … I haven’t recorded any impressions; I don’t think, therefore I don’t exist. I’ve forgotten who I am. I’m unable to write because I’m unable to be. Through an oblique slumber, I’ve been someone else. To realize I don’t remember myself means that I’ve woken up.

(Pessoa, Book of Disquiet, p. 314.)

But, if writing is presented by Soares as an affirmation of existence, he is not always convinced that the message can be transmitted to another:

What is there to confess that’s worthwhile or useful? What has happened to us has happened to everyone or only to us; if to everyone, then it’s no novelty, and if only to us, then it won’t be understood. If I write what I feel, it’s to reduce the fever of feeling.

(Pessoa, Book of Disquiet, p. 21.)

It would be unfair of us to expect a work as fragmentary and unstructured as The Book of Disquiet to provide a consistent viewpoint about the processes of witnessing as both seeing and saying. Rather, it is a book plagued by doubts such as those just cited, an internal conflict between the desire to record and an uncertainty as to whether the record should be passed on. Bernardo Soares realizes (as does the Pessoa who, having written as Soares, then stores the writings in an enormous case destined to some kind of future revelation) that between the extremes of ‘everyone’ and ‘I’, there is a community of like-minded people to whom he is speaking: ‘It sometimes occurs to me, with sad delight, that if one day (in a future to which I won’t belong) the sentences I write are read and admired, then at last I’ll have my own kin, people who “understand” me, my true family in which to be born and loved.’ And shortly after: ‘It seems that civilizations exist only to produce art and literature; words are what speak for them and remain.’ Soares is writing for a community that will come later, which is no doubt why he wants his manuscript to be taken by Pessoa and disseminated.

RIP José Saramago

18 Jun

Here the sea ends and the earth begins. It is raining over the colorless city. The waters of the river are polluted with mud, the riverbanks flooded. A dark vessel, the Highland Brigade, ascends the somber river and is about to anchor at the quay of Alcântara. The steamer is English and belongs to the Royal Mail Line. She crosses the Atlantic between London and Buenos Aires like a weaving shuttle on the highways of the sea, backward and forward, always calling at the same ports, La Plata, Montevideo, Santos, Rio de Janeiro, Pernambuco, Las Palmas, in this order or vice versa, and unless she is shipwrecked, the steamer will also call at Vigo and Boulogne-sur-Mer before finally entering the Thames just as she is now entering the Tagus, and one does not ask which is the greater river, which the greater town.

(José Saramago, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, tr. Giovanni Pontiero (London: Harvill, 1992 [1984]), p. 1.)

So begins The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, the classic novel by José Saramago, the Portuguese writer who died today at the age of 87. The combination of the potentially fantastic and the banal, the metaphoric and the everyday, is typical of Saramago. There is always a sense in his prose that, whatever the story he might be telling us, there are a multitude of stories framing it, running alongside it or visible just beyond its borders. Saramago wants us to know that those stories, which are sometimes really observations (as all stories are observations, ways of seeing the world) and sometimes fantastical retellings of official history, need to be included in the story he is telling us, such that we imagine, or he lets us believe we imagine, that what is unfolding in the labyrinth of his text is one, unending metastory. Frequently, in his wandering, loosely punctuated prose–sometimes described as magical realism, sometimes as stream-of-consciousness, but perhaps just as easily though of as the flow of history running all around us and threatening to drown us in the present–he will take us sidestepping through the fragile walls that separate these universes, giving us a glimpse of the bigger picture before shuttling us back to the scene in which this particular story is taking place.

One does not ask which is the greater river, which the greater town. In The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, we know which town we have settled in. The novel tells the story of the dead writer Fernando Pessoa returning to visit one of his surviving heteronyms, the classically minded poet Ricardo Reis. In fact Pessoa is not quite dead, but rather existing in the exile of limbo while he awaits a more permanent death. Reis, too, is an exile, returning to Lisbon in the opening scene of the book after a period in Brazil. Over the course of the book, Reis  is constantly witnessed wandering the streets of Lisbon in a recurrent pattern that, spelled out on the sidewalks and in Saramago’s wandering prose, symbolizes his brief presence in the city as a kind of psychogeographer. Like  Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life and Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out For The Territory, the citizen as walker is both reader and writer, at once subject to the pre-existing paths laid out in the city text and yet able to assert an agency via the sheer act of activity. But Ricardo Reis is not long for this world–he can not be seen, in however magical a reality, to exist beyond the fading memory of his recently deceased creator, Pessoa–and he always seems to be at the mercy of what Italo Calvino calls the ‘intuition of the city as language, as ideology, as the conditioning factor of every thought and word and gesture … as monstrous as a giant crustacean, whose inhabitants are no more than motor articulations’.

Here is Saramago’s description of one of Ricardo Reis’s strolls:

Ricardo Reis walks up the Rua do Alecrim, and no sooner has he left the hotel than he is stopped in his tracks by a relic of another age, perhaps a Corinthian capital, a votive altar, or funereal headstone, what an idea. Such things, if they still exist in Lisbon, are hidden under the soil that was moved when the ground was leveled, or by other natural causes. This is only a rectangular slab of stone embedded in a low wall facing the Rua Nova do Carvalho and bearing the following inscription in ornamental lettering, Eye Clinic and Surgery, and somwhat more austerely, Founded by A. Mascaró in 1870. Stones have a long life. We do not witness their birth, nor will we see their death. So many years have passed over this stone, so many more have yet to pass, Mascaró died and his clinic was closed down, perhaps descendants of the founder can still be traced, they pursuing other professions, ignoring or unaware that their family emblem is on display in this public place. If only families were not so fickle, then this one would gather here to honor the memory of their ancestor, the healer of eyes and other disorders. Truly it is not enough to engrave a name on a stone. The stone remains, gentlemen, safe and sound, but the name, unless people come to read it every day, fades, is forgotten, ceases to exist. These contradictions walk through the mind of Ricardo Reis as he walks up the Rua do Alecrim…

(pp. 46-7)

Poetry, fantasy, the monumental and the everyday, the eternal and the transient, memory, loss, pathos, and the humour of pessimism: all this exists in Saramago’s late voice. He will be missed.

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.)