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Lisbon’s Narcissism (i)

7 May

In my discussion of real-and-imagined cities in Fado and the Place of Longing, I have attempted to place Lisbon into a wider discussion of urban space and place, for I believe that fado invites such a theorization. Yet, in attempting to make this connection, one cannot help but notice the absence of Lisbon, Portugal or the Iberian Peninsula from the discussion of much cultural geography, where the literature has shown an overwhelming obsession with Paris and the modern cities of the USA – Los Angeles especially. Areas such as the Algarve are seemingly in Lefebvre’s mind when he speaks of ‘the current [early 1970s] transformation of the Mediterranean into a leisure-oriented space for industrialized Europe’ and of ‘the consumption of space, sun and sea, and of spontaneous or induced eroticism, in a great “vacationland festival”’, but industrial centres of the Iberian Peninsula have not generally received the attention given to other European cities. It could be argued that this is due to a fairly late industrialization of this area but such an argument would neglect the importance of Iberia as a world centre in the past; it is Venice’s past, after all, rather than its present that made it exemplary for Lefebvre in his description of the city as work and product.

Prior to the obsession with American cities, the models had often been ‘literary’ European capitals such as London, Paris, Rome or Vienna. The Iberian Peninsula was less frequently brought into the discussion despite the presence of its cities in literature. As Joan Ramon Resina writes, ‘[f]or the Lisbon of Pessoa, the Madrid of Galdós, the Barcelona of Oller, Pla, or Rodoreda, there has been nothing on the scale of the attention brought to Paris by readers of Balzac or Zola or to Vienna by the great novels of Roth and Musil.’ Resina’s own response to this absence comes in the form of an edited book entitled Iberian Cities. While this endeavour is a laudable attempt to reassert the ‘place’ of these metropolises, the reader interested in the Portuguese city cannot help but notice two things: firstly, there is the country’s continued marginalization via the inclusion of only one city (Lisbon) alongside eight Spanish cities (one of which, Madrid, gets two essays devoted to it); secondly, it is hard to know what to make of the air of melancholy with which that one chapter is delivered by its author, Miguel Tamen. Tamen chooses to emphasize the lack of anything to see in Lisbon, the difficulty entailed in getting around due to the steep hills and uneven pavements, and the confusion produced by the different names given to places by official maps and everyday local usage. It is certainly the case that, outside the flat grid of the Baixa, the city provides certain challenges for navigation. It is also true that Lisbon does not offer up a host of ‘obvious’ monuments from which to fashion a tourist itinerary (although this did not stop Pessoa from doing so). But what those who have been drawn to the city have invariably reported on is the pleasure to be found in this lack of obviousness. This has particularly been the case for those coming from outside the country. Ángel Crespo’s tour of Lisbon dwells on the pleasures of the stroll, the literary and mythical connections encountered in the city, and the numerous opportunities to gain different perspectives on the city from a variety of vantage points.  Similarly, Paul Buck, in his ‘cultural and literary companion’ to Lisbon, is struck by the city’s potential for narcissism:

It is a beautiful city, for it is built on a series of hills and valleys whose steepness give rise to a multitude of viewing points, such that the city can become almost narcissistic, encouraging one to re-viewing it, akin to stepping inside a house choked by mirrors, continually catching the reflections, sucked into the space of admiration.

(Paul Buck, Lisbon: A Cultural and Literary Companion (Oxford: Signal Books, 2002), p. 2.)

There are, of course, a profusion of guidebooks and websites devoted to Lisbon, all of which maintain that there is plenty to see. All have their own agendas and may be more or less implicated in the representation of space that Lefebvre identified as the dominant mode of spatial thinking. It is less likely (though perhaps not for those who can afford to do so) that one would take the car tour suggested by Pessoa, not least because the streets are nowhere near as painlessly negotiable as in his day. It is quite likely that one might pay for a bus tour or take the ‘tourist tram’ that combines authentic travelling with ease of transit. But equally, one might choose to walk and, if not content to follow one’s footsteps, to take one of the walking guides on offer. One company that implicitly challenges Tamen’s assertion that Lisbon is ‘a town with no flâneurs’ offers a range of walks tailored to specific ways of seeing the city. One of these, entitled ‘Lisbon Old Town’, promises ‘Maze-like streets, ‘Hidden vantage points’, ‘Migration and dockers’ and ‘Fado as the soundtrack of Lisbon’ among its features.

Each of these is related to one aspect or another of the theories discussed in Fado and the Place of Longing. The maze-like streets are the embodiment of Certeau’s point about the blindness of the city, yet vantage points emerge from the confusion to allow a sudden switch back to the controlling gaze. The history of comings and goings that have created the riverside neighbourhoods of Lisbon (of which Alfama is just one) is one in which the precursors and contemporaries of Zygmunt Bauman’s ‘postmodern vagabonds’ have plied their trades. As for fado as a soundtrack, it is worth noting that, due to the difficulty (perhaps impossibility) of accurately mapping as Alfama in any conventional manner, music may be as believable a map of this area as any.

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