Monday, 12 November 2012

Invisible Cities

Cities of Our Imagination

Imaginary cities are not limited to popular speculative fiction. As a western tradition, they go right back to the foundation of the idea of the city itself, to the dream of urbanism that changed forever the human landscape.

It was in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia that the city was born. Among a wealth of innovations ranging from agriculture to writing, the city perhaps, was the Mesopotamians' most enduring legacy.¹ Certainly in terms of its impact on the number of humans living in antiquity and today who have been shaped by its unique environment, the city ranks among its most revolutionary contributions. 

Eridu was the formative city, and is important to our discussion of imaginary cities because it was both a mythical place and a reality. In the creation stories of the Sumerians it was the first city raised among sweet waters bounded on all sides by the primordial sea. It was formed when the gods spread mud upon a reed platform and made both their temple and their home there. The first city then, is both a functional dwelling in the midst of a challenging environment, and a sacred space where gods and men come together to set the rules down for their harmonious co-existance.

It is telling that the first Eden is not a garden, but a city. A place purpose-built, and neither natural nor unplanned in its construction. It is not simply a temple or a temporary gathering where early agriculturists come together to worship or engage in barter and trade - it is a haven made to house the gods, and the men and women who have been made to worship them. And to give sweetness to a life in the midst of a dangerous, even if tamable, wilderness.

If the Mesopotamians wove urbanity into their foundation myths, the myth of the city continues to be an important tale throughout antiquity. Not simply the civic pursuits of the Greeks and Romans - but the idealization of the concept of the city and what it means to live as part of one. Myth and reality are hard to separate, as the Troy of Homer shows us much later on, and in the founding of such important cities such as Rome by fratricidal wolf-reared twins.

Indeed our earliest ideas about 'utopia' come from this quest to delineate the perfect city and pry it from the hands of fable. Not all perfect cities are as unreachable or humorous as Aristophanes' Cloud Cuckoo Land. The imaginary polis of Plato's Republic might be ruled by philosopher-kings but it isn't merely an airy, intellectual exercise; it is meant to be shaped by and in turn shape, all layers of its proposed society, one founded on justice and the perfect forms of social and political organization that would not just make a perfect city, but raise its citizens to their highest human potential. It is a story, and a serious philosophical quest for improving humanity, all at once. If it is an imaginary space, it is one which the author hoped all civilized Greeks would in time fill and emulate.

If the cradles of civilization in Asia, the Mediterranean, and in great Egypt founded our pre-occupation with cities in the west, the inheritors of the trans-Mediterranean world continued to be fascinated with them. The Greeks and Romans of the classical periods despite their oft declared love for pastoralism, remain faithful to the city.

In Western Europe, that flame faltered for a time. It is telling that our most famous city from this period is no longer Rome, however diminished, nor unbowed Constantinople, or even Theodoric's Ravenna - but the Camelot of King Arthur. We've gone from the city as the centre of a rich tapestry of communal life to petty tribalism and barbarous warlords holed up in fortresses only slightly better than cramped hill forts.

That lamp of urbanism doesn't go out entirely. Ancient cities like Eboracum - or York - though Londinium itself goes dark for nearly four hundred years, never lose their lure or their populations entirely. Charlemagne's brief flicker in the west highlights what is mostly a long slog to the Renaissance, framing a period in Europe that isn't the most conducive for the city in fiction. Most of what is found, is the ideal and idealized, and now lies only in the realm of God not man. 

This dualism between the perfect and imperfect, is important to understanding the flights of urbanism we engage in when we re-imagine these spaces. As is the dynamism that exists between the real and imagined. The tensions between these opposing forces give rise to drama and the longevity of the concept. St. Augustine of Hippo's City of God and his Worldly City, are reflections of each other. Just as all the impossibly imaginative cities detailed in Calvino's Invisible Cities are revealed in the end by his narrator Marco Polo to be reflections of Venice.

Of course Venice is the perfect imaginary city. For what exists in the present is more artifice than living metropolis, a well preserved dream of what Venice was imagined to be by its past inhabitants and by those who were told its stories. Like Kublai Khan we are unsure what is truth, and what is utter invention. What we are left with is not strictly history or entirely myth then, but a blending of these two streams. We can find its reflected form in a thousand different fictional places.

Perhaps this is why the sinking, tourist choked remains of La Serenissima remain my most cherished urban space. It is an fabled ur-city, raised on platforms over the mud and surrounded by waters both sweet and salty. Almost everyone is a visitor here; even if they live in the Venice of the present, few if any can trace their tenancy to the Venice of the past - a past which the city has sought to preserve over any forward progression as a metropolis. Just as Marco Polo insisted all cities were Venice, when in Venice I always experience the need to argue that we are all Venetians. 

Not all cities in fiction come from this liminal space between the real and the imaginary - but they share a portion of its magic. The Utopia of Thomas More has been transformed from a biting satire of our failings to a quest for a perfect urban society. It has left the misty "nowhere" of its secret location for a reality that however farfetched, is earnestly pursued even today.

Of course, not all utopias turn out to be perfect cities when we find them in literature. Borges' city of immortals is a terrifying place where the long lives and boredom of its inhabitants have rendered a Piranesian nightmare, an empty Malpertuis - not a golden city of God and eternals as envisioned by St. Augustine. The Swiftian flying city of Laputa and its quest to dominate the lands over which it flies is likewise at once both magnificent and comic. Juvinus' cautionary tale beguiles us with its strange city of Cynocephali and Hemikunes - but is it meant to be a fiction, or it he repeating the just-so-stories laid down by Hesiod and Herodotus? We will never know for certain. 

But still we and our fictional selves pursue the mirage of the perfect city. Prester John's capitals of Susa and Nyse, the Eldorado of Voltaire and others, inspire but remain tantalizingly out of reach however much they glitter. The theme of cities being hidden away from the undeserving or uninitiated is another element of the tradition. The idea of hidden cities, invisible cities, cities which have either placed themselves behind walls or at the literal and figurative ends of the earth is a fascinating one. In such locales we combine both the ideal of the self-sufficient city-state of the Mesopotamians and the ancient Greeks and the idea of a secret, sacred omphalos where the space between the worlds has thinned - or revolves. It takes us full circle to our earliest conceptions of what a city is, and the idea that the hidden city is not just a sacred place, but a dwelling place where the sacred and the everyday must learn to co-exist.

I wasn't surprised to find that one of my favourite recent fictional cities, the New Vencie of Jean-Christophe Valtat's excellent Aurorarama, is described as a "Boreal Bohemia" and is set atop the icy pole. Or that China MiƩville's award-winning The City & The City hides one fictional city behind or within, another. Or that in the even better Finch by Jeff VanderMeer, the imaginary city-state of Ambergris is being literally taken over by another fungal reality which is consuming it from within.

With the re-birth of cities, comes the resurgence of imaginary ones. Paris and the urges of free cities eager to throw off their vassalage and imperial yokes become synonymous with learning and writing. A sense of modern nations being more than just a king or an emperor's domain add to the importance of civil centres that are no longer just feudal castles. Much later, Charles Dickens' victorian London is born as much a blend of the fanciful and faithful as was Thomas Hardy's bucolic Wessex.

For myself, I find that the city represents both the beginning, and the near end of human striving. It is the classical gift of our first city-dwellers, and it is the progressive and liberalizing thrust of modernity. It is likewise a break with the dominance of Tolkien in popular fantasy, that supreme pastoralist and medievalist, whose books hardly contain any great cities at all - and if they do - they are passed by in favour of ruins or the open countryside. At the heart of his Middle Earth is the shire, and at the heart of the shire is the country-squire. There is good reason then, to see the rebirth of the city as a place for our imaginations to take flight as a rebuff to the reactionary and rather conservative call contained within Tolkien's fiction for a return to village and county. But also, it is part of a continuous thread of urban myth-making that has never fully died out.

Mixed in with these freedoms of course, is the price that is often paid for their possession. Crime, pollution, plague, overcrowding, fire, murder, theft, and all deeds foul and terrible - these are coin that cities demand in exchange for their concentration of riches. At the end of Albert Camus' The Plague, we are reminded that all civic displays of joy are imperilled in a metropolis where the bacillus awaits for "the day (which) would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city." None of this is a bar to fiction, of course - to the contrary, with the cynicism of the post-industrial, post-great war societies, and the birth of horror, these are often jewels in the rough for the shrewd fabulist and author to polish.

So there is every reason to be confident that the dream of cities will provide fertile space for our imaginations to build new conurbations, just as their pull, both concrete and imaginary, will continue to shape our expectations of life lived within them - or within their pages. And for those multitudes who dwell there, past, present, and future - real or fictitious - until civilization itself passes away perhaps under the pressure of melting poles and rising waters - it is hard to think of a more important setting for fantastical fiction than the city.

We are all Venetians now, and all cities Venice.


¹ Leick, Gwendolyn - Mesopotamia, The Invention of The City, 2001, Allen Lane, The Penguin Press

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