Category Archives: Writing cities

‘This is a machine for killing people’

The hill was a network of lights in which the twin stars of a car’s headlights traced a live circuit. There was an abstract, designed beauty in the setting of the clusters of bright rectangles that marked out houses along the well-lit roads, climbing at last to the long, low striations of light that signified the offices and labs at the summit. A satellite dish was a shield of gold, a communications tower a lance of silver. The captive power plant twinkled with ruby points of brilliance, cadmium sulphoselenide letting only red rays through. Good gatekeeper, cutting the seamless continuum of light into freed and absorbed, escaped and imprisoned. To the lens, there was only red and not-red. There were no other questions, no other categories. Gopal sat astride his bike and watched. Here, a hundred metres down the approach road from the town to the campus gate, he could appreciate the cold schematic beauty of it all. This complex in the middle of nowhere was the child and citadel of science, clean and limpid in its stark organization, its grid layout, its lit streets and planned bungalows. He could not think of those spaces as containing people. From here it was only infrastructure, a valued and valuable asset to the nation.

Entered in the account books of the republic: so many crores of rupees, so many man-hours of labour invested. Purpose: national security. Aims: laudable. Control: absolute. Glory: unlimited.

This is a machine for killing people. (113-114)

Chatterjee, Rimi B. (2005) Signal Red. London: Penguin.

Pynchon on the collective history of garbage

Been reading so much about the struggle for environmental justice and the political economies of garbage (Julie Sze’s Noxious New York), funny to find these passages here helping bring some of the contradictions a little more alive:

Under the high-arching openwork of the Bayonne Bridge. Oil, storage tanks, tanker traffic forever unsleeping. Addiction to oil gradually converging with the other national bad habit, inability to deal with refuse. Maxine has been smelling garbage for a while, and now it intensifies as they approach a lofty mountain range of waste. Neglected little creeks, strangely luminous canyon walls of garbage, smells of methane, death and decay, chemicals unpronounceable as the names of God, the heaps of landfill bigger than Maxine imagines they’d be, reaching close to 200 feet overhead according to Sid, higher than a typical residential building on the Yupper West Side.

Sid kills the running lights and the motor, and they settle in behind Island of Meadows, at the intersection of Fresh and Arthur Kills, toxicity central, the dark focus of Big Apple waste disposal, everything the city has rejected so it can keep on pretending to be itself, and here unexpectedly at the heart of it is this 100 acres of untouched marshland, directly underneath the North Atlantic flyway, sequestered by law from development and dumping, marsh birds sleeping in safety. Which, given the real-estate imperatives running this town, is really, if you want to know, fucking depressing, because how long can it last? How long can any of these innocent critters depend on finding safety around here? It’s exactly the sort of patch that makes a developer’s heart sing—typically, “This Land Is My Land, This Land Also Is My Land.”

Every Fairway bag full of potato peels, coffee grounds, uneaten Chinese food, used tissues and tampons and paper napkins and disposable diapers, fruit gone bad, yogurt past its sell-by date that Maxine has ever thrown away is up in there someplace, multiplied by everybody in the city she knows, multiplied by everybody she doesn’t know, since 1948, before she was even born, and what she thought was lost and out of her life has only entered a collective history, which is like being Jewish and finding out that death is not the end of everything–suddenly denied the comfort of absolute zero. (166-67)

Here this ‘looming and prophetic landfill, that perfect negative of the city in its seething foul incoherence)’ becomes a possible place to follow the links through into refuge.

Now it is a park. NY, however, still needs places to send its garbage.

Pynchon, Thomas (2013) Bleeding Edge. New York: Penguin Press.

Night Walking, Manchester

Walking home from the Briton’s Protection through the darkness along the Manchester canal…it’s not late but there is no one here. The night still hides the brash and cheap ‘luxury’ buildings that line the waterway here. I walk and stare at the water reflecting lights and bricks, think simply how easy it would be to fall in. I am not drunk but jetlagged, only a few hours sleep, not much to eat…This would have been no place for me one hundred years ago, and I know how many secrets the canals hid.

I exult in walking, the darkness, the city, it wants to come pouring out in the form of the great modernist novel. But of course, we have left the modernist novel far behind. I can no longer write it. Ironic that now as a woman I can wander the darkness like James Joyce, Dylan Thomas (and it’s funny how they are always with me as I walk), but I can no longer push boundaries the way they did. The boundaries have been pushed, the novels written. The city they knew no longer exists.

I walk past Elizabeth Gaskell’s home, wonder who she might have been outside of the constrictions of her time and place. Wonder if she might have wandered the darkness, or wanted to. Wonder if she might have had less mawkish sentiment in her. The cemetery and what’s left of the church bombed out in WWII, her home, a handful of villas transformed into student flats are all that’s left really of what was here once. I am happy for the council housing, but these streets — Manchester is all wide streets, all cars, all noise. It is no longer for walkers, not like London. Almost no one walks in most of the city apart from the very centre, and on a Friday night…well. First time I came here myself was for a hen do with a bunch of girls from Glasgow. We trampled these canal pathways with stiletto heels and shrill drunken laughter. But honestly, perhaps I was closer to my great modernist novel then…

Elizabeth Gaskell’s house

On the dawn in Lisbon (Pessoa)

249 [18/5/1930]

This dawn is the first the world has seen. Never before has this pink light dwindling into yellow then hot white fallen in quite this way on the faces that the windowpaned eyes of the houses in the west turn to the silence that comes with the growing light. Never before have this hour, this light, my being existed. What comes tomorrow will be different, and what I see will be seen through different eyes, full of a new vision.

Tall mountains of the city! Great buildings, rooted in, raised up upon, steep slopes, an avalanche of houses heaped indiscriminately together, woven together by the light out of shadows and fire — you are today, you are me, because I see you, you are what [you will not be] tomorrow, and, leaning as if on a ship’s rail, I love you as ships passing one another must love, feeling an unaccountable nostalgia in their passing. (227)

Nuremberg – Nürnberg

Nazi memorabilia, brothels where women stood in windows above their names, local people who, it felt, rather hated us…they certainly hated my poor attempts at German.

But also moments of the sublime.

St Egidien…we walked past and heard the most beautiful music and just sidled in the great doors and sat to listen to a rehearsal.

Nuremberg

An older man who was brilliant but a young woman who was truly one of the best I’ve heard, singing there in a white t-shirt and cut-offs. Not Bach, but of the period I think. We could have, should have, lit a candle to the angel of history in the back.

Nuremberg

And then there was the fairly brilliant bar Mata Hari (tiny basement bar, regulars, DJ playing 70s vinyl and loving every minute of the music, a German whiskey)

Nuremberg

Albrecht Dürer‘s house — quite beautiful, from a time when this was a vibrant centre of politics, trade and culture, one in which Dürer chose to stay rather than be lured away to Venice. He lived here just below the castle, in front of one of the main entrances to the city:

Nuremberg

The rooms are full of light — at least the day that we were there. Beautiful rooms.

Nuremberg

Not so beautiful, perhaps, how he and these rooms were reinvented to the greater glory of Nuremberg and Germany. A lot feels reinvented here for those reasons somehow, though I loved the sausages and the dark wood paneling and the wine — and wished I could still drink beer. The Golden Postern was delicious and friendly, couldn’t really say the same for anywhere else.

Mark giving a lecture and doing a class at the University in Erlangen, and we deciding to stay in Nuremberg. It is a beautiful town to be honest, and one where life can be lived with grace I think — wide pavements, well maintained buildings of flats, lots of colour that I love. Lots of timber construction, a vibrant market in the centre, brilliant public transport. Also a number of people rough sleeping. Addictions — though they felt of a different kind than those so familiar in Manchester or London.

Statues that were bewildering:

Nuremberg

Some terrifying (though I confess I rather liked the latter)

Nuremberg
Nuremberg

Yet I think we will not be going back to Bavaria, at least not to stay.

It didn’t leave me with the physical sick to the stomach feeling of Bayreuth — the visit to Cosima Wagner’s Wahnfried and Winfred Wagner’s home next door, where Adolf Hitler felt at home, sneaking in after dark in the days after the 1923 failed putsch and then openly feted after his rise to power.

But this was ‘The most German of German Cities’, a centre of Hitler’s support and where they planned to build the massive and monumental Nazi Party Rally Grounds.

A map of what would have been, had not World War started and been lost:

There is a museum in part, it was alright. The building for party rallies still looms monumental, sitting at one end of the two-kilometer road for marches and parades:

Nuremberg

I read Speer’s autobiography many years ago when he writes about designing this, the great outdoor rally grounds with the massive banners, the use of floodlights to create the cathedral effect. It is almost down to foundations now, called the zepplin grounds because a zepplin once landed here in happier days.

It made me happy to see this there though:

Nuremberg

Most of this complex still serves as just another park.

This is also the city where Kaspar Hauser appeared on 26 May 1828, claiming to have been held prisoner, rumours ran rife of his parentage, especially after he was stabbed and killed.

Nuremberg

The castle was interesting, the transport museum — I loved seeing the train carriages of Bismarck:

Nuremberg - Bismarck's train

And Ludwig II, I love trains and these were absolutely brilliant.

Nuremberg - Ludwig II's train
Nuremberg - Ludwig II's train

I’m glad to have seen all this, also more happy than usual to be home.

Slavery and the Industrial Revolution: Liverpool, Glasgow, Bristol, Manchester in Eric Williams

This is long past due. Part 2 of Eric Williams writing about the direct links between these cities I know and love and the horrors of slavery.

Liverpool

Where much of the story begins really.

The story of this increase in the slave trade is mainly the story of the rise of Liverpool. Liverpool’s first slave trader, a modest vessel of thirty tons, sailed for Africa in 1709…by the end of the century, gained Liverpool the distinction of being the greatest slave trading port in the Old World. (34)

Now for a list of leading slave traders, I like naming names because these are the kind of names you find everywhere — not least statues, plaques: Bryan Blundell, trustee, treasurer, chief patron and most active supporter of the Blue Coat Hospital. Foster Cunliffe, who with his sons owned 4 ships capable of holding 1120 slaves — another supporter of the charity. Thomas Leyland, mayor of Liverpool, one of the most active traders with immense profits, became senior partner in the banking firm of Clarkes and Roscoe.

John Gladstone — partner in Corrie and Company, engaged in the grain trade, also a slave owner. Through foreclosures acquired large plantations in British Guiana and Jamaica, also involved in trade in sugar and other produce. Opened up trade connections with Russia, India and China on the back of it. Prominent public figure as was his son, William Ewart.

Heywood bank founded on slave profits, later the family married and mingled with the Gladstone family, future generations would be bankers.

On the physical form of the city:

It was a common saying that several of the principal streets of Liverpool had been marked out by the chains, and the walls of the houses cemented by the blood, of the African slaves., and one house was nicknamed “Negro Row.” The red brick Customs House was blazoned with Negro heads.

Where Bristol moved to focus on sugar, Liverpool remained with  slaves (though one family there also manufactured sugar — the house of Branckers, but of course they were also involved in the slave trade). It was intimately connected with rest of Lancashire, and with Manchester. Abolitionists might have blamed the rise of Liverpool on the rise of manufacturing drawing larger populations to Lancashire and Manchester, but in fact it was exactly the opposite. Manufacturing arose from the profits of slavery.

There was a whole, horrible industry surrounding slavery. I had never thought of it, but of course someone had to make the chains.

The ironmaster’s interest in the slave trade continued throughout the century. When the question of abolition came before Parliament, the manufacturers of and dealers in iron, copper, brass and lead in Liverpool petitioned against the project, which would affect employment in the town… (84)

Bristol

As stated above:

When Bristol was outstripped in the slave trade by Liverpool, it turned its attention from the triangular trade to the direct sugar trade (61).

Clever losers, Bristol.

There is a brilliant story about Judge Jeffreys ‘the butcher’, an awful man who sentenced many to die. I don’t want there to be a ‘but’ and there isn’t really I suppose. Judge Jeffreys did come to Bristol once to ‘sweep it clean’ by going after those who kidnapped people to send them to the colonies. While he was presiding over the court, he forced the mayor himself into the dock, called him a kidnapper and sentenced him to a fine of a thousand pounds.

But back to sugar, and Bristol’s intimate connections with the West Indies:

…so important did the islands become to Bristol that for the first half of the nineteenth century Bristol was always represented in Parliament by a West Indian–a Baillie, a Protheroe, or a Miles. (62)

Naming names again. There were also the Pinneys in Bristol, owning sugar plantations on Nevis. This connection meant that by 1799 there were 20 sugar refineries in Bristol, and in total more sugar processed than London (although 80 refineries were to be found there). It was also considered of finer quality, and sugar long remained one of the staples of Bristol. (74)

Bristol expanded into other areas, and the city was the main manufacturer of Pacotille — the principal cargo sent to Africa to use to buy slaves. It is a catch-all term I didn’t know before, included glass beads and bottles. Williams writes:

Individually these items were of negligible value; in the aggregate they constituted a trade of great importance, so essential a part of the slave transactions that the word “pacotille” is still commonly used in the West Indies today to denote a cheap and tawdry bauble given as compensation for objects of great value. (81)

A new word, such a good word, capitalism in a word.

Speaking of capitalism, like the ironmongers of Liverpool, manufacturing in Bristol throve. Iron of course, was also used, along with copper items from Bristol’s Holywell works. They made chains, manacles and rings.

Glasgow

This I didn’t know:

Not until the Act of Union of 1707 was Scotland allowed to participate in colonial trade. That permission put Glasgow on the map. Sugar and tobacco underlay the prosperity of the town in the eighteenth century. Colonial commerce stimulated the growth of new industries. (64)

While primarily associated with tobacco, Glasgow was also involved in sugar refining. All for love, too. If you can fall in love wtith slave owners. But Glasgow became one of the leading ports of entry for West Indian sugar after two officers, Colonel William Macdowall and Major James Milliken wooed and married two great sugar heiresses while staying in St Kitts. Mrs Tovie and her daughter forged a bond with Scotland that shaped the city. I confess I am a little intrigued.

Birmingham

Not much to say about Birmingham, I’ve not spend much time there, but there is this:

Guns formed a regular part of every African cargo. Birmingham became the center of the gun trade as Manchester was of the cotton trade. (82)

It had to compete with London for this though.

Manchester

Finally my current city of residence. Our own leading slave traders: Arthur Heywood, both slave trader & the first to import slave-grown cotton from the US, also treasurer of the Manchester Academy, one son a member of the Literary and Philosophical Society and the Billiard Club (apparently the very height of gentlemanliness in Manchester). Again, to return to links between slavery and the rise of capitalism:

It was only the capital accumulation of Liverpool which called the population of Lancashire into existence and stimulated the manufactures of Manchester. That capital accumulation came from the slave trade, whose importance was appreciated more by contemporaries than by later historians.  (63)

It did all come down to cotton. What the building of ships for the transport of slaves did for eighteenth century Liverpool, the manufacture of cotton goods for the purchase of slaves did for eighteenth century Manchester.

Manchester goods for Africa were taken to the coast in the Liverpool slave vessels. Lancashire’s foreign market meant chiefly the West Indian plantations and Africa…It was this tremendous dependence on the triangular trade that made Manchester. (68)

This despite the initial strength of superior Indian cottons and their superior dying processes. Even so:

[A]ccording to estimates given to the Privy Council in 1788, Manchester reported annually to Africa goods worth £200,000, £180,000 of this for Negroes only; the manufacture of these goods represented an investment of £300,000 and gave employment to 180,000 men, women, and children. (70)

The same close connections weren’t as evident as those between ship-builders and slave trading in Liverpool, but at least two cotton manufacturers were also members of the Company of Merchants trading to Africa — Sir William Fazackerly and Samuel Touchet. Another firm, the Hibberts, owned sugar plantations in Jamaica, while also supplying goods to African Company for the slave trade.

Above all Manchester was part of this shift from Mercantilism to Industrial Capitalism:

Between 1785 and 1800, eighty-two steam engines were constructed for cotton mills, fifty-five of these in Lancashire alone.” The first steam loom factory was built in Manchester in 1806. In 1835 there were 116,8oo power looms in all Great Britain, all but six per cent in the cotton industry

In 1785 the exports of British cotton manufactures exceeded one million pounds in value; they were thirty-one million in 1830. The cloth printed in Great Britain increased from 20 million yards in 1796 to 347 million in 1830. The population employed by the industry rose from 350,000 in 1788 to 800,000 in 1806. There were 66 cotton mills in Manchester and Salford in 1820, 96 in 1832. Cotton was “raising men like mushrooms.” Oldham in 1760 was a village of 400 inhabitants; in 1801 it had 20,000. In 1753 Bolton had a single, rough, ill-paved street; in 1801 the population was 17,000. Manchester’s population increased sixfold between 1773 and 1824.. Cotton weavers and manufacturer, unrepresented in the Manchester procession of trades in 1763 on the occasion of the coronation of George II, were the most prominent feature of the coronation of George IV in 1820. In a larger sense it was the coronation of King Cotton. (128)

Manchester in fact was a leader in the fight for free trade once strict controls ceased to make it profits:

If Manchester still thrived on “shirts for black men,” the British West Indies had no monopoly on blacks, and the larger slave populations of the United States and Brazil offered attractive markets….of what use, then, asked Manchester in wrath, was the system of monopoly to the British manufacturer? (133)

 

I am still fascinated by this shift but write more in part 1. Still, to recap it all, and what that mean for these growing urban centres:

Williams gives the example of the career of Mark Phillips. In 1832 elected to represent Manchester in Reformed Parliament. Connected to West Indian interests, but still decided to stand behind abolition. Industrialists lined up also, gives example of Samuel Garbett, ironmaster of Birmingham.  John Bright of Cotton. Richard Cobden in wool. Liverpool too, turned against slave trade and sugar. Not, to be sure, against slavery itself and cotton. Glasgow too turned, ‘The days of Macdowall and the sugar heiresses were over.’ (163)

[Williams, Eric (1989 [1944]) Capitalism and Slavery. London: Andre Deutsch.]

Karen Tei Yamashita: I Hotel

I just finished I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. The last book started on a holiday that already seems months ago. It is splendid, one of the best things I have ever read I think for its power of storytelling, its innovations, its illustrations, the way it brings together these interconnecting lives circled around a single building and a struggle to change the world.

Two full years of my own life were spent in just such a struggle to save a residential hotel, our Morrison Hotel a mix of white, Latinx, African American, ours not knitted deep into an activist community through shop fronts or anything like the community of old Manilatown. Ours sat where it once fitted the scale and character of the street, but the long-ago razing of neighbourhood had left it more isolated, almost anomalous so close to the convention centre. Our generation did not believe the revolution was upon us, did not quote Mao to frame our defiance of capitalism, did not raise fists over small points of praxis. yet so much resonated, it made me ache. I miss my LA family.

I loved all of it, could have quoted anywhere, but you know the bit I am quoting ridiculously extensively below is about cities–like Tropic of Orange, this is all about the city but so different from that novel… This is long, also brilliant in how it says so much about the place of hotels in our world of work and poverty, about home, about nation, and opening with the solidarities that were, that could be, that should be built:

Thus we emerged from every living crevice in our hilly city, every tenement, blighted Victorian, public housing project, cheap hotel, single or collective rental, many of us the forgotten and abandoned people whose voices were muffled in the underbelly of working poverty, stuffed into the various ethnic ghettos, we the immigrants from the Old and New Worlds, from the black and white South and tribal America, we the dockworkers from the long shore, we the disabled and disavowed vets, we the gay and leathered, we the garment workers, restaurant workers, postal and clerical workers, we who praised the Lord in his house at Glide and his People’s Temple, we of the unions, tired and poor, we the people.

But why save an old hotel?

Because if we remembered the history of our city we would remember how frontier towns began: with a trading post and a saloon with a second floor of lodging rooms. … When we took everything away and thought only about the second floor of lodging rooms, we remembered that people have always come from distances and had to be accommodated, given shelter and a bed, and what we used to call board…

This basic town got complicated and multiplied into a thing we call a city, with every kind of reinvented trading post and saloon and lodging that over time we could imagine. And we supposed that the history of any city could be told through the comings and goings of any trading post or saloon, but thinking as we do, as people coming to the city to find work to pay for shelter and board, whether just for ourselves or for our families accompanying or  left behind, it was the lodging that most concerned us. And we could see how city life and hotel life were inextricably connected, and what the city had to offer had a home in the hotel. Over time, we’d forgotten that hotels in our city have long served as temporary but also permanent homes, that living in hotels had been a normal consequence of living in our city. From the inception of our city, our city life could perhaps be translated as hotel life, the way that we as young, single, and independent people could arrive to find work in the industry of the city, find the small cafes and bars, theaters and social clubs, laundries, shops, and bookstores, all within walking distance or perhaps a cable stop away. Even if we did not actually live in hotels, we may have participated in, if not considered, the simple luxuries of life: the bustling social life of our streets, the hotels’ communal restaurants and social galas, the convenience of maid service and bedsheets changed, the possibility of being completely freed from any housework, the possible leisure to think or to create, and finally the anonymity and privacy of a room of our own. Hotel life defined the freedom of the city, but such freedom has been for some reason suspect, and there are always those who want to police freedom.

Finally, like the society that evolved in our city, there have been, of course, hotels for those with money and hotels for those of us with not so much money. And even though the city required our labor and allowed us housing in cheap hotels, in time we came to know that laboring people are necessary but considered transitory. Eventually, it was thought, we’d just go away or become invisible. So even if hotels depended on our constant occupancy, we were not considered permanent or stable members of society. We did not own homes. We may have had families, but hotels were suspect places to raise children, and so we were suspect families. Our communal lives in hotels with shared bathrooms and shared dining, shared genders, shared ethnicities, and heaven forbid, shared thinking that might lead to shared politics, were also suspect. Hotel life might even be subversive. A famous scholar who studied our hotel life warned us that when there are no homes, there will be no nation. But what did he mean by home? And, for that matter, what did he mean by nation?

By the time we got the red alert to place our bodies in a human barricade around an old hotel that held seventy years of our city’s hotel history, we were already the displaced people in the city’s plan to impose a particular meaning of home and a particular meaning of nation. Since our hotel life was considered suspect morally and socially, our hotels should naturally be replaced by proper single-family houses built in locations distant from the city, and our hotels and all our businesses that services us should be replaced with what the city was properly useful for: trading posts, jails, courthouses, and saloons. And no one should be allowed to live over a saloon unless he was just passing through. A commercial room was simply not a dwelling. These edicts were substantiated  by zoning and blight laws…Almost as quickly as an earthquake, our neighborhoods located in the Fillmore and South of Market were already razed and being replaced by forty-eight-story multinational corporate trading posts. Even if we were expected to build, maintain, clean, and service these posts, we weren’t expected to live anywhere nearby. Be at work promptly at eight a.m., but please, please disappear by five p.m. But this was an impossible request because we could not leave, and we had nowhere to go. (588-591)

We could not leave, and had nowhere to go.

I love how this situates the residential hotel in a long history of city building, in the development of our urban form. How little things have really changed — though this makes me see US cities with new eyes. Seeing the saloon, the trading post, the lodging house. The change is in the way that capital is working, the way that workers are no longer welcome in the city centre, the disciplining of the poor into certain kinds of homes or punitively forcing them into homelessness. This captures both so beautifully, captures just what it was we were fighting over — not just the profit that owners wished to make on a building they had violently extracted every penny from at the cost of its tenants, but their ability to flick aside human beings and their security and their dreams as if they were nothing. The structural workings of race and class and labour and value that made such cruelty possible. The I Hotel was lost in 1977, and still we were fighting in 2007. Others still fight today, is there any organisation I love and respect more than LA CAN?

As two thousand of us were eventually bullied away from the hotel entrance, we saw our sheriff enter at the head of his deputies, leading them into the hotel and the final phase of the eviction, breaking into the doors of each of the hotel tenants and ordering them to leave their homes. And yes, we knew that each room was a tiny home, a place of final refuge for a lifetime of work, and the the room, though housed in a hotel, was sill a home. (591-592)

The last paragraph excavates something inside of me. Why we do, why we write.

And in time we may remember, collecting every little memory, all the bits and pieces, into a larger memory, rebuilding a great layered and labyrinthine, now imagined, international hotel of many rooms, the urban experiment of a homeless community built to house the needs of temporary lives. And for what? To resist death and dementia. To haunt a disappearing landscape. To forever embed this geography with our visions and voices. To kiss the past and you good-bye, leaving the indelible spit of our DNA on still moist lips. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Bitter. (605)

[Karen Tei Yamashita (2010) I Hotel. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press.]

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Hunger: Knut Hamsun

Of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1890), Robert Bly writes in the introduction to this 1976 version:

How few books there are today in which a genius is the main character! Fewer and fewer, as serious novelists more and more tend to put people of lower intelligence than themselves into books, so that the readers will feel at home. (15)

This made me laugh out loud. Until I realised that Hamsun surely felt he was a genius, and maybe that is what propelled his admiration for Hitler, his support for Nazi occupation, his enthusiastic meeting with Goebbels. We saw no plaques for Hamson.

He wrote Hunger in 1890. So I will just write about that. Because it is an extraordinary book. Most descriptions of it seem to start with the list of other authors who loved his work, including Isaac Baschevis Singer, so it must be all right.

I’m not sure,  though.

I didn’t really feel myself that genius was the point at all. Hunger was the point. Pride too, mental illness, and the way that starvation twists your vision and carves into your understanding. It is also a very different kind of Oslo (or Christiana or Kristiana as it was known then) than that of Ibsen, or even Munch.

All of this happened while I was walking around starving in Christiana — that strange city no one escapes from until it has left its mark on him … (24)

Oslo is no longer a city that leaves such a mark, I don’t think.

Thoughts of God began to occupy me again. It seemed to me utterly reprehensible of Him to block my way every time I tried for a job and to ruin my chances when it was only daily bread that I was asking for. I had noticed very clearly that every time I went hungry a little too long it was as though my brains simply ran quietly out of my head and left me empty. My head became light and floating, I could no longer feel its weight on my shoulders, and I had the sense that my eyes were remaining far too open when I looked at anything. (37)

This catalogue of a writer’s possessions cut me:

…thinking all the time of my marvellous story…I decided to get it over with right now and move. I took out my bundle, a red handkerchief which contained two clean collars and some crumpled newspaper which I had carried my bread home in, rolled it all together with my blanket, and added my store of white writing paper. (49)

And little could ring as true as this description of an editor’s office — an editor with power of acceptance or rejection. How much more powerful when it is the ability to grant a few pieces of bread and a place to sleep, or hunger and Oslo’s great outdoors.

I looked around me in the tiny office: busts, lithographs, clippings, and an enormous wastepaper-basket that looked as if it could swallow a man, bones and all. I felt sad, looking at this monstrous maw, this dragon — mouth always open, ready to receive more rejected articles, newly crushed hopes. (105)

Loved this:

A country preacher could not have looked more full of milk and honey than this formidable writer, whose words had always left long bloody marks wherever they fell. (106)

Felt sorrow at this:

I simply couldn’t starve any more the way I used to. A single day without food now could make me feel dazed, and I made incessant retching efforts as soon as I drank any water. (107)

He retched often and everywhere, turning aside as he walked as though it were nothing, a terrible aspect of this daily horror. None of today’s streets are somewhere you could slink along retching quietly. Yet we saw beggars stretched out face down in the rain under plastic sheeting, holding out cups for alms. One man kneeling. It seemed that this is how begging is done here, most abjectly.

Then there are the kids…I know kids like this, though very few in the UK. Breaks the fucking heart.

They looked up at my window with their little pale-blue faces and endlessly sad eyes. Meanwhile, the two diminutive enemies continued to hurl words at each other. Words like huge, cold-blooded reptiles poured out of their childish lips, frightful nicknames, whore language, sailors’ curses… (160)

Their mother sleeping with a sailor while the husband watched, the poverty of their existence still able to accommodate a starving writer after his rent fell due.

It is 2 St Olavs Plass where Ylajali lives — the woman the narrator falls for, torments and comes to fascinate. The scene is fairly heartrending where she suddenly realises he is not a mysterious drunkard with a swagger, but simply delirious from starvation — the scene she realises she might still love him but can’t handle all of that.

2 St Olavs Plass is now a Michelin rated restaurant named Happolati, another of Hamsun’s made up names taken from the book:

The irony of naming a michelin restaurant after a ranting in a book about starvation… hard to stomach. Especially since he became a Nazi. We still went to see the place where his suffering protagonist hovered, it was suitably grim, though with a sculptural watery sort of feature now.

Oslo -- St Olavs Plass

He also wanders throughout these places in part 1 (the names pulled from Hunger and from a book about Hunger):

Our Saviour’s Place, Graensen street, Palace Park, Pascha’s Bookstore, Pilestraedet Lane, Cisler’s Music Store,  University Street, St. Olavs Plass, Karl Johan Street, the Students’ Promenade, Stortorvet Square, Aker Street Ullevaal Road St. Hanshaugen, Kirke Street, Haegdenhaugen district, Majorstuen, Bogstad Woods, Jaernbanetorvet Square, the Steam Kitchen, Gronlandsleret   Street, Møller Street, Christ’s Cemetery, Oplandske Café, Torv Street, the Arcades.  

We wandered them too, though I imagine the feel of them is much changed, though pictures of these old central areas seem very similar.

A final picture of Oslo city streets, and a happy reminder about genius.

Oslo

[Hamsun, Knut (1976) Hunger. London: Picador.]

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Gaston Bachelard: phenomenology and the poetic image

13269 Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space was lovely, and a very real change of pace from most of what I’ve been reading about space — though it shared  refenerences to the psychology Jung in common with Clare Cooper-Marcus. But this is a phenomenological approach, not a psychoanalytic one. At one point in the book, he writes

…the unhurried reader — I personally hope for no others … (160)

This is definitely a book to be read as an unhurried reader, especially if its been a while since you read any philosophy or French theorists expanding at length on their favourite  topic, and extra especially if you had to remind yourself  what the hell phenomenology actually is. I found this useful from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Phenomenology is commonly understood in either of two ways: as a disciplinary field in philosophy, or as a movement in the history of philosophy.

The discipline of phenomenology may be defined initially as the study of structures of experience, or consciousness. Literally, phenomenology is the study of “phenomena”: appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience. Phenomenology studies conscious experience as experienced from the subjective or first person point of view.

And the movement?

The historical movement of phenomenology is the philosophical tradition launched in the first half of the 20th century by Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, et al. In that movement, the discipline of phenomenology was prized as the proper foundation of all philosophy—as opposed, say, to ethics or metaphysics or epistemology.*

gaston-bachelardEvery now and then I dip my toes into philosophy, but I haven’t read much of these. It probably would have helped to be informed about the canon, though reading Heidegger — well. I did try briefly once, but life might be too short to read his nazi ass. Still, as a novice I found so much to think about.

I liked this, on life as a series of flows in time and of course in space:

Referring to Anna Teresa Tymienicka’s book Phenomenology and Science, we can say that for Minkowski, the essence of life is not “a feeling of being, of existence,” but a feeling of participation in a flowing onward, necessarily expressed in terms of time, and secondarily expressed in terms of space. (xvi)

I quite loved this approach to how we experience images —

I now seek a phenomenological determination of images … How — with no preparation — can this singular, short-lived event constituted by the appearance of an unusual poetic image, react on other minds and in other hearts, despite all the barriers of common sense, all the disciplined schools of thought, content in their immobility?

It seemed to me, then, that this transubjectivity of the image could not be understood, in its essence, through the habits of subjective reference alone. Only phenomenology — that is to say, consideration of the onset of the image in an individual consciousness — can help us to restore the subjectivity of images and to measure their fullness, their strength and their transsubjectivity. (xviii – xix)

He is speaking of those images that burst upon us, that break down barriers so we can start to understand how that works. The word ‘image’ is used loosely, a sudden view, a picture, the image evoked by words and poetry:

… this appeal is clear: the reader of poems is asked to consider an image not as an object and even less as the substitute for such an object, but to seize its specific reality. For this, the act of the creative consciousness must be systematically associated with the most fleeting product of that consciousness, the poetic image. (xix)

This is a process that involves both body and soul (the non-physical register in which images have impact, though I am aware there are centuries of philosophy and writing evoked by this mind/body distinction)

The language of contemporary French philosophy — and even more so, psychology — hardly uses the dual meaning of the words soul and mind. … The word “soul” is an immortal word. In certain poems it cannot be effaced, for it is a word born of our breath.  … The poetic register that corresponds to the soul must therefore remain open to our phenomenological investigations. (xx)

I quite loved this though…this use of resonance and reverberation as a way to understand what images do to us, how they change us:

Since a phenomenological inquiry on poetry aspires to go so far and so deep …. it must go beyond the sentimental resonances … This is where the phenomenological doublet of resonances and repercussions must be sensitized. The resonances are dispersed on the different planes of our life in the world, while the repercussions invite us to give greater depth to our own existence. In the resonance we hear the poem, in the reverberations we speak it, it is our own. The reverberations bring about a change of being. … The multiplicity of resonances the issues from the reverberations’ unity of being.  Or, to put it more simply … the poem possesses us entirely. (xxii)

For this to happen, some suspension of the critical mind is required — I might just like this because this has traditionally been my approach to life in general, but it does help you get much more out of it. Just by the way, though, I hate the use of the word primitivity here, but that last sentence I truly love.

…a sincere impulse, a little impulse toward admiration, is always necessary if we are to receive the phenomenological benefit of a poetic image. The slightest critical consideration arrests this impulse by putting the mind in second position, destroying the primitivity of the imagination … the joy of reading appears to be the reflection of the joy of writing, as though the reader were the writer’s ghost. (xxvi)

So all of this to understand the spaces we love, and why we love them, and how this works to transcend and perhaps beat back the commodified market value of space. Felicitous space is quite a lovely phrase.

…the images I want to examine are the quite simple images of felicitous space. In this orientation, these investigations would deserve to be called topophilia. They seek to determine the human value of the sorts of space that may be grasped, that may be defended against adverse forces, the space we love. For diverse reasons, and with the differences entailed by poetic shadings, this is eulogized space. Attached to its protective value, which can be a positive one, are also imagined values, which soon become dominant. Space,that has been seized upon by the imagination cannot remain indifferent space subject to the measures and estimates of the surveyor, It has been lived in, not in its positivity, but with all the partiality of the imagination. Particularly, it nearly always exercises an attraction. For it concentrates being within limits that protect. (xxxv-xxxvi)

This is, then, a project much along the lines of that taken on by Yi-Fu Tuan on topophilia, but from a very different direction. For the most part it is a look at intimate space and at the home. Bachelard writes of the connection between the home and self:

Not only our memories, but the things we have forgotten are “housed.” Our soul is an abode. And by remembering “houses” and “rooms,” we learn to “abide” within ourselves. Now everything becomes clear, the house images move in both directions: they are in us as much as we are in them, and the play is so varied that two long chapters are needed to outline the implications of house images. (xxxcii)

I am saving those for the next post. A last reminder on the difference between phenomenology and psychoanalysis a la Jung:

A psychologist will say that all my analysis is to relate daring, too daring, “associations.” And a psychoanalyst will agree to perhaps “analyze” this daring  … A phenomenonologist has a different approach. He takes the image just as it is, just as the poet created it, and tries to make it his own, to feed on this rare fruit. He brings the image to the very limit of what he is able to imagine. (227)

I think I too prefer to above all feed the rare fruit.

As an aside, a reminder to all academics:

When we are lecturing, we become animated by the joy of teaching, and, at times, our words think for us. But to write a book requires really serious reflection. (xxxix)

 

*Smith, David Woodruff, “Phenomenology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/phenomenology/>.

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