[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book Review]
[Click HERE to see my previous posts referencing Lapham’s Quarterly.]
[Some of LQ’s contents are available free.]
[L.Q. cover and art from L.Q. Fall 2010: The City.]
A review. Here in winter 2017 I’m two issues short of having read every Lapham’s Quarterly since its inception with Winter 2008: States Of War. The City is at hand. It is a suitable complement to the Winter 2017: Home issue, though not quite as timely as was Home on the immigration and refugee issue now in the news. Still I suspect comments across 2,000 years will find pertinence.
Shakespeare says it all on the facing page of the IFC (Inside Front Cover):
“What is the city but the people?” –William Shakespeare, 1608 (from Coriolanus, a tragedy).
I’m not sure he has sole ownership of the sentiment. All those of you who have once thought ‘I like the city (or not), that’s where the people are’ raise your hand. Me too.
Perhaps Shakespeare is echoing Libanius, describing Antioch in 360AD :
“It seems to me that one of the most pleasing things in cities, and I might add one of the most useful, is meetings and mixings with other people. That is indeed a city, where there is much of this.” (p. 36)
I love Nature for its natural beauty, to my human eyes, and its fascinating perfection beyond the hand of Man. I also love cities, man-made, full of people milling like ants, seemingly frantic, frenetic, fraught in their self-perceived purpose.
Who in the Table of Contents will spark my curiosity this issue? H. L. Mencken, William Gibson, Jules Verne, Marco Polo, Groucho Marx, Salman Rushdie, Joan Didion, Ibn Battuta, Plutarch, Pico Iyer, Adam Smith, Herodotus, Franz Kafka, Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau, and J. G. Ballard catch my eye, many of them through reading other issues of L.Q.
In his Preamble, City Light, editor Lewis Lapham notes the Census Bureau, sometime before the Fall 2010 L.Q. publication, counts 82.6 % of the U.S. population living in cities. Where the people are.
As ever, he can turn a phrase. Referring to New York City:
“…the comforts of the city’s rich still depend on the abundance of its poor, the municipal wealth and well-being as unevenly distributed as in the good old days of the Gilded Age.” He previously notes “The density of the immigrant swarm on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century,… equaled in its misery but exceeded the crowding then prevalent in the slums of Bombay.” (p. 14)
This ties with my mention of Jacob Riis’ assessment on p. 87 in the Winter 2017: Home issue, just reviewed. I’m surprised Riis doesn’t appear in this earlier issue.
Lapham: “Like most other American cities, New York is a product of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution, built on a standardized grid, conceived neither as a thing of beauty nor as an image of the cosmos, much less as an expression of man’s humanity to man, but as a shopping mall in which to perform the heroic feats of acquisition and consumption.” (p. 15)
Certainly the newness of American cities have lent themselves to a mathematical orderliness not available to the labyrinth warrens of rest of the world as they grew over many hundreds or thousands of years. Even in America did anyone have a notion of shopping malls and mass consumption until post-WWII?
Mr. Lapham seems to me a cynic. I was going to say bitter cynic but I don’t know that he’s bitter. In nearly every Preamble he rails against the rich, elite, and powerful. As his tidbits of autobiography reveal each issue he is a fair share of what he is railing about. Born into wealth and privilege he has admittedly worked to attain his success in publishing, but how many of us are victims of fortunate circumstance for a start? Tabula rasa some say.
Regardless, he is always insightful and thought-provoking:
“What suburban opinion deplores as abomination (traffic, crime, noise, confiscatory taxes, extortionate rents), the urban disposition regards as the price of escape from the tyranny of the small-town majority, as the cost of the blank canvas (i.e., the gifts of loneliness and privacy) on which to discover the portrait of oneself.” (p. 17)
“Where else is it as possible to publicly demand a revolution while enjoying the protection of the police.” (p. 19) Well, not everywhere, but here in ‘Western Civilization’ at least.
The full but brief 5 1/2 page preamble is available at laphamsquarterly.org. The list view by issue is the most generous for number of extracts and essays. Speaking of very old cities, this issue’s graphic is a very noteworthy narrative of 4 ancients: Algiers, Istanbul, Beijing, and Mexico City. It too is available online.
The sections in Voices In Time are Metropolis, Citizen, and Civilization. A few cities are represented numerous times: London (7), New York City (7), Athens (4). Others are as diverse as Paris, Thebes, Antioch, Bangkok, Tenochtitlan, Mecca, Antioch, Yemen, 1920s Saigon, Kinsai (Quinsai/Xingzai), and (or?) Hangzhou.
The first extract, on new industrial city Dongguan, notes that China might be a worthy contemporary study of cities “conceived neither as a thing of beauty nor as an image of the cosmos”, or not.
Samuel Pepys gives an account on the cleansing 1666 Great Fire of London.
William Gibson, author of one of my sci-fi faves Neuromancer, informs on rigidly regulated Singapore in 1993:
“…conformity here is the prime directive…”
“…an affluent microcosm who’s citizens inhabit something that feels like, well, Disneyland. Disneyland with the death penalty.”
(“I didn’t see a single “bad” girl in Singapore. And I missed her.)
“…there is remarkably little, in contemporary Singapore, that is not he result of deliberate and no doubt carefully deliberated social policy.” (pp. 39-41)
Groucho Marx is the first to receive my coveted double-asterisk (**) award. I’m always up for a good laugh.
“Dear Warner Brothers: Apparently there is more than one way of conquering a city and holding it as your own. For example, up to the time that we contemplated making A Night In Casablanca I had no idea that the city of Casablanca belonged exclusively to Warner Brothers.”
“No pasty-faced legal adventurer is going to cause bad blood between the Warners and the Marxes. We are all brothers under the skin, and we’ll remain friends till the last reel of A Night In Casablanca goes tumbling over the spool.” (p. 58) The lines between fill the humor.
Fyodor Dostoevsky is next with (**).
“It was a lovely night, one of those nights, dear reader, which can only happen when you are young. The sky was so bright and starry that when you looked at it, the first question that came into your mind was whether if was really possible that all sorts of bad-tempered and unstable people could live under such a a glorious sky.”
Ralph Ellison is superb describing the consternations of a Southern black man arriving in a much more liberated New York City Harlem in the ’30s and ’40s”
“Moving into the subway I was pushed along by the milling salt-and-pepper mob, seized in the back by a burly, blue-uniformed attendant, and crammed, bags and all, into a train that was so crowded that everyone seemed to stand with his head back and his eyes bulging, like chickens frozen at the sound of danger. Then the door based behind me, and I was crushed agains a huge woman in black who shook her head and smiled while I stared with horror at a large mole that arose out of the oily whiteness of her skin like a black mountain sweeping out of a rain-wet plain.” (pp. 84-85)
The horror. The horror. (Col. Kurtz, Apocalypse Now, and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.)
Frequent contributor Ibn Battuta describes Mecca circa 1326. It is said he traveled 75,000 miles in his life. How was that even possible at that time? Amazing.
Speaking of horror John Hersey’s account of a Hiroshima survivor reminds us that modern cities can burn greater than London. The efficiency of civilization and technological ‘progress’.
E. B. White discusses the isolation in the city:
“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city’s walls of a considerable section of the population, for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail.” (p. 116)
“Many of its settlers are probably here merely to escape, not face, reality.” … “Many people who have no real independence of spirit depend on the city’s tremendous variety and sources of excitement for spiritual sustenance and maintenance of morale.” (p. 118)
Amongst other endeavors White wrote the children’s books Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web.
So many fine extracts and authors. Pico Iyer, eventual Holocaust victim Irene Nemirovsky, eventual suicide Stephen Zweig. On Zweig Wikipedia notes: “He had been despairing at the future of Europe and its culture. “I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth,” he wrote.”
Thucydides: “Let me say that our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbors. It is more the case of our being a model to others than of our imitating anyone else. Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law…” (p. 132)
Adam Smith enlightens on the economic contributions of the city. This one is available online as Import Export, as is Hernan Cortes’ description of Tenochtitlan in Nothing is Equal. Find the list view by issue as previously mentioned.
Sadly Marguerite Duras’ description of 1920s colonial Saigon is not online, as is not J. G. Ballard on 1935 Shanghai. The colonial stories are all about white privilege. Thank goodness we’ve progressed.
Orhan Pamuk is eloquent on the deterioration of Istanbul: “What I am trying to describe now is not the melancholy of Istanbul but the huzun in which we see ourselves reflected, the huzun we absorb with pride and share as a community.” Huzun means sadness according to my Google translator. Apologies for the missing diacritics over the u’s.
All the extended essays are online, listed after Lewis Lapham’s City Light. The online art is as beautiful as that on the very high quality paper of the print edition, and some of it is different from the print.
I found the essay A Matter Of Optics particularly insightful on perspective and viewpoints of the city. I will spare you the voluminous repetition of quotes but I heavily marked it. City of Seeds comments on Nature’s resiliency, Dickens In Lagos on the poverty of mega-megalopoli, Urban Scrawl on writing about cities.
Such a wealth of fine writing and introspective thought available online and it’s free, Free, FREE!
Read, enjoy, learn, think, act.