Posts Tagged The city
Michel de Certeau‘s famous description of looking down from the World Trade Centre illustrates the opposition which he explores through ‘Walking in the City’ between the ‘ville-concept’ and the real, organic city as experienced at ground level, by those who live and walk in it. From such a vantage point, the cartographer can map on to the constant motion, the indistinct sea and fog of the city, a ‘terra cognita’ of recognisable taxonomies (see White, on Zola’s Paris). Even the most complex maze or labyrinth seems straightforward when one can see the whole. But once we’re walking in the city, rather than gazing at it from on high, all of the means we have to make sense of it rapidly reveal their limitations. Maps sooner or later are ‘interrupted by an encounter with the unmappable’ (Hillis Miller).
An early review of Michel Butor’s L’Emploi du temps claims that ‘if [its] explicit geography … does not make that story an excellent guide to the back as well as main streets of Manchester I should be very much surprised’ (Frohock). One hopes he did not make the attempt to navigate the Manchester streets armed only with the book, and a map which marks those streets and landmarks encountered by the novel’s hero (and not all of those). The frontispiece map was prepared by Butor to guide him through the cityscape he was creating. It indicates the relative positions of the key locations as anchorage points – the stations, the homes of the various characters, the cathedrals, restaurants etc, but there are gaps where streets and buildings must be but are not recorded. Resemblances to the layout of Manchester’s city centre seem pretty much random and coincidental – for example, as noted elsewhere, the star shape of the prison is replicated on the map, but it does not sit in relation to the river, the University or any other features of the city as it does in reality. So we can dispose of the frontispiece map as a lightly disguised map of Manchester.
The other thing the frontispiece is not, is the map that Revel buys and uses to get his bearings in the city. It is like a map drawn from memory, where some configurations of streets are recalled in detail and others only vaguely. Thus it mirrors the text which is an act of resistance against the forgetfulness that Bleston’s fogs engender. Just as the text does not and cannot record everything that happened even to Revel, let alone the things that he did not witness, the map only records his experience and first-hand knowledge, and as such we are aware that it may be partial both in the sense of being incomplete, and in the sense of reflecting subjective perceptions and priorities. It recalls the famous surrealist map of the world, whose proportions relate to the cartographers’ cultural ideals rather than to geographical reality, as well as the first medieval maps, which were records of journeys taken, rather than attempts to objectively encapsulate space.
Revel’s experience of Bleston begins with him losing his way, and his failure to grasp its geography leads him to see it anthropomorphically as trying to evade him, hiding from examination as if the light burned it, or camouflaging itself as if in the folds of a cloak. Purchasing a map is the first of his tactics. However, it is apparent from the beginning that any one source of information will be insufficient. The map gives him the aviator’s or bird’s eye view but does not tell him how to make his way around the city. For that he needs the bus timetable. Taken together, these tools do not help him to find lodgings – for that he needs the intervention of a fellow exile, using informal local knowledge. To make sense of the city he needs to engage with its inhabitants, indigenous or otherwise. (See Annie Lovejoy & Harriet Hawkins‘ project Insites on ‘deep mapping’). The journal, as it logs street names and bus numbers, weaves together his sources, unreliable or partial as they are, in an attempt to encompass the reality of the city. Revel’s fight back against the city culminates in his burning of the map (one of many fires which punctuate the narrative). But that ‘profoundly irrational act’ is both negated and emphasised when he has to buy another to replace it. The map is inadequate and misleading, but essential nonetheless.
Maps imply a knowledge which denies their selectivity. They make the city readable, or purport to, and so slough off the city’s complexity and freeze its opaque mobility in a falsely transparent text. But the phantasmagoric city, in constant flux, is the antithesis of the guidebook/map representation of the city which fixes locations, connections, distances. It is this city that the text invites us to see, recognising the inadequacy of the map, showing us an inferno, a necropolis, a temple of war, a prison. It is its own past, and its own potential futures, which we explore as physiognomy, as mythology, as history, as politics, as text – a secret text, which we need to decipher, from signs and symbols, a palimpsest where what has been erased can still be traced.
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Robert Alter, Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2005)
Jeremy Black, Maps & Politics ( London: Reaktion Books Ltd, 1997)
Gary Bridge, Reason in the City of Difference: Pragmatism, Communicative Action and Contemporary Urbanism (London: Routledge, 2005)
Mary Ann Caws (ed), City Images: Perspectives from Literature, Philosophy and Film (NY: Gordon & Breach, 1991)
Michel de Certeau, L’Invention du quotidien, I (Paris: Gallimard, 1990)
Mike Crang & Nigel Thrift (eds), Thinking Space (London: Routledge, 2000)
Christian Emden, Catherine Keen & David Midgley (eds), Imagining the City, Vol. I (Bern; Oxford: Peter Lang, 2006)
W M Frohock, ‘Introduction to Butor’, Yale French Studies, 24 (1959), 54-61
Graeme Gilloch, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City (Cambridge: Polity, 1996)
Ben Highmore, Michel de Certeau: Analysing Culture (London : Continuum, 2006)
David Frisby, ‘The Metropolis as Text’, in Neil Leach (ed.), The Hieroglyphics of Space: Reading and Experiencing the Modern Metropolis (London; NY: Routledge, 2002)
J. Hillis Miller, Topographies (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1995)
Nicholas White, ‘Reconstructing the City in Zola’s Paris’, Neophilologus, 8 (1997), 201-14
The more I attempt to define the labyrinth, the more I lose my way, appropriately enough (or not, depending on one’s understanding of the purpose they serve). The maze is more straightforward in purpose, if not in navigation. It’s a puzzle, where the objective is to reach the centre (and then find one’s way out again) but which requires choices to be made, some of which will lead to dead ends, or will take (or appear to take) the walker away from rather than towards the centre. But the most striking thing about the classical labyrinths is that there are no dead ends, no tricks at all. There is one route through, no choices to be made, no cause for confusion.
And yet Daedalus, at least according to Ovid, constructed his labyrinth so cunningly that he barely managed to escape it himself after completion. Indeed, its purpose was to imprison the minotaur, and to make its slaying a feat of legendary heroism. So, with only one path through, how could Daedalus have risked losing his way, why did Theseus need Ariadne’s thread to guide him out, and how did it keep the minotaur in?
Looking at the classical designs, whilst all one has to do to reach the centre is to keep going, the effect of the complex looping of the path is to take the walker closer to and then further from the goal, such that they start to doubt, to feel as if they must have made a wrong choice even though no choice was in fact possible, and to turn back, so ending up back at the beginning. So, if Daedalus’s labyrinth was indeed the unicursal classical design, Ariadne’s thread did not so much lead Theseus out of the labyrinth as reassure him that he was on the right route, whatever his instincts told him. It is this aspect that has encouraged the use of labyrinths for meditative purposes – one has to put aside doubt and go where the path leads. Guillermo del Toro has said that ‘unlike a maze, a labyrinth is actually a constant transit of finding, not getting lost. It’s about finding, not losing, your way…I can ascribe two concrete meanings of the labyrinth in the movie. One is the transit of the girl towards her own center, and towards her own, inside reality, which is real’.
The association between labyrinth and city is of long standing (Roman mosaic labyrinths represent fortified cities), but contributes to the confusion about terminology. The damp dark labyrinth of streets to which de Tocqueville refers was a product not of design but of its absence, and thus the disorienting effect was accidental rather than deliberate. But the personification of these great cities attributes to them the intent that the builders lacked – the distinction between the physical qualities of the cities and the texts and thoughts they engender is blurred (Faris, 1991). It’s also clear that urban labyrinths involve choices, which potentially can result in losing one’s way, finding dead ends, returning inadvertently to where one started. Being in the metropolis feels like losing control, composure, the sense of self. Lynch says that ‘there is some value in mystification, labyrinth or surprise in the environment’ but that there must be no danger of the form of the city being lost, or that one might never get out of it. There must be the possibility that the mystery can be comprehended, the form explored and in time grasped. Otherwise, the labyrinthine city becomes a trap, closing on the newcomer, the isolated wanderer.
The labyrinth is one of the key motifs of L’Emploi du temps (see Pierre Brunel for the definitive treatment of the theme), fittingly for a writer of whom it has been said that the fundamental question in his work is always ‘where am I?’. It’s a labyrinth in space, but also in time and memory. The narrative starts simply enough, with two time frames, the time of writing and the time that is written about. But as the diary continues, one memory triggers another, events in the ‘present’ require a reference back to the past outside of the linear chronology of the journal. The writing which explores the labyrinth becomes labyrinthine as memory endlessly circles. ‘The rope of words that uncoils down through the sheaf of papers and connects me directly with that moment on the first of May when I began to plait it, that rope of words is like Ariadne’s thread, because I am in a labyrinth, because I am writing in order to find my way about in it, all these lines being the marks with which I blaze the trail: the labyrinth of my days in Bleston, incomparably more bewildering than that of the Cretan palace, since it grows and alters even while I explore it’ (p. 183).
But what’s at the centre of the labyrinth? Perhaps Revel never reached it. Butor’s work is characterised by openness and mobility, and the narrative cannot be self-contained. So the book ends as Revel tells us of the pages he didn’t write, the places he didn’t visit, and of ‘something that happened on the evening of February 29th, something that seemed very important and that I shall forget as I move farther away from you, Bleston’.
Pierre Brunel, Butor: ‘L’Emploi du temps’: le texte et le labyrinthe (Paris: PUF, 1995)
Mark Crinson (ed), Urban Memory: History and Amnesia in the Modern City (London: NY: Routledge, 2005)
Wendy B Faris, Labyrinths of Language: Symbolic Landscape and Narrative Design in Modern Fiction (Baltimore; London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988)
Wendy Faris, ‘Cognitive Mapping: Labyrinths, Libraries and Crossroads’, City Images: Perspectives from Literature, Philosophy, and Film (NY: Gordon & Breach, 1991)
Marilyn Thomas Faulkenburg, Church, City and Labyrinth in Bronte, Dickens, Hardy, and Butor (NY; San Francisco; Bern; Baltimore; Frankfurt am Main; Berlin; Wien; Paris: Peter Lang, 1993)
Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT Press, 1960)
Guillermo del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)
As a Sheffielder, albeit having blown in a mere 37 years ago, I’d be expected to take a dim view of Manchester. It’s the wrong side of the Pennines, for a start. It feels like a huge sprawling metropolis, whilst Sheffield, big city that it is, feels still like a city centre surrounded by villages. Here, one can look out over fields and moors, but be 20 minutes from not only shops but wonderful cultural opportunities – the Crucible theatre, the Showroom cinema, Music in the Round. And it really does rain a lot over there. I commuted to Manchester in the early 1980s, and going through the Chinley tunnel always felt like leaving one country and emerging in another, emerging in a different climate, a different season.
There’s a view that northern cities are much of a muchness, a view that those of us who live in them would dispute vigorously. When the narrator of Passing Time, Jacques Revel, says that ‘Bleston is not unique of its kind, that Manchester or Leeds, Newcastle or Sheffield, or Liverpool… would have had a similar effect on me’, I’ve always felt inclined to argue that had the author come to OUR University instead of Manchester’s, he would have found digs in Crookes, where the air would not have choked him, from where escape would have been easy, out on Manchester Road, or up towards Redmires, or down to Rivelin, and from where he would have been able to see the lights of the city, the kind of bird’s eye view that Revel could only approximate when he spread his map of the city out and ‘surveyed its whole extent at a glance, like some hovering bird about to pounce’ (p. 41).
Bleston is undoubtedly inspired by Manchester (Butor said as much), and draws on Manchester’s iconic status as the archetypal city of industry and of the worst aspects of industrial life. His descriptions echo those of Alexis de Tocqueville, 200 years earlier, who described the ‘damp, dark labyrinth’, the ‘half-daylight’, and the sun seen through the pall of black smoke as a disc without rays. Part of the reason for Manchester’s status as ‘shock city’ of the Victorian era is that its growth was unplanned, ‘an incoherent environment shaped hastily to exceed earthly standards … it inspired wonder and dread in equal measure’ (Crinson, Fabrications) – see this upcoming conference, noted on the Occursus blog. Eric Hazan has described three models for the growth of cities: an onion adding outer layers as it expands (Paris), mathematical grids (New York), and bacteria in a petri dish. Butor uses an even less appealing metaphor when Revel, armed with his map, sees himself as a scientist studying ‘this huge cancerous growth’ (p. 42).
W G Sebald, arriving ten years after Butor, was struck by many of the same features that Butor, Engels, de Tocqueville, and so many others, have described. In The Emigrants, he describes how Max Ferber, approaching Manchester from the moors in 1945, ‘had a bird’s eye view of the city spread out before him’ (Emigrants, p. 168), of the ‘solid mass of utter blackness’ of the city centre, the chimneys towering above the flat maze of housing. Sebald’s narrative charts the decline of industrial Manchester, from the constantly belching chimneys of 1945 to the decay and neglect of 1990/91.
The geography of Sebald’s Manchester is that of the real city, whereas Butor’s Bleston is a transformed Manchester, a composite , as Dickens’ Coketown, ‘where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in’, was an amalgam of Manchester, Oldham and Preston. Thus the frontispiece map would not serve a visitor as a guide, despite the claims of some commentators, though it borrows features from the real city. Both Butor and Sebald draw attention to the distinctive star shape of Strangeways Prison – a design common to many late 19th century prisons, including Paris’s la Petite Roquette – and Butor’s city is very much a carceral space. Revel tries to get out into countryside, fails, and never tries again – when he asks a pub landlord how he might get there, he’s referred to ‘some nice parks’, and to the wastelands between the towns; his colleague Jenkins has never left at all.
As Revel finally leaves, in the moment of his deliverance, he addresses the city for the last time: ‘as you lie dying, Bleston, whose dying embers I have fanned’ (p. 288), and Sebald’s ‘Mancunian Cantical’ ends with ‘Flutes of death for Bleston’. Both Butor and Sebald found that Manchester triggered associations and memories which inspired their writing. If one considers some of the repeated motifs that both writers use – ash, fog, darkness, shadows, silence, fires and wasteland – it’s hard to escape the notion that for both those associations and memories were rooted in wartime Europe, the Europe that Max Ferber had escaped with his life.
For all matters Sebaldian, Terry Pitts’ Vertigo blog is essential
Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990)
Michel Butor, Passing Time, translated by Jean Stewart (London : John Calder, 1965)
Mark Crinson, ‘Towards the Beautiful City’, Fabrications: New Art and Urban Memory in Manchester (Manchester: UMiM Publishing, 2002)
Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854)
Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)
Eric Hazan, L’Invention de Paris: il n’y a pas de pas perdus (Paris: Seuil, 2002)
J B Howitt, ‘Michel Butor and Manchester’, Nottingham French Studies, 12 (1973), 74-85
Musée Carnavalet, L’impossible photographie: prisons parisiennes 1851-2010 (Paris: Paris Musées, 2010)
W G Sebald, The Emigrants (London: Vintage, 2002)
W G Sebald, ‘Bleston. A Mancunian Cantical’, Across the Land and the Water : Selected Poems, 1964-2001 (London : Hamish Hamilton, 2011)
Alexis de Tocqueville, Voyages en Angleterre, Irlande, Suisse et Algérie (Paris: Gallimard, 1958)