22. desember

"The planners have grasped a single truth. They have recognised that in the city they are dealing with some hugely enlarged frame for human behaviour in which moral extremes are likely to be the norm. The city, they sense, is the province of rogues and angels, and a style of building, or a traffic scheme, might tip it conclusively in one or the other direction. More to the point, it is a place where individuals are so little known that they can be conveniently transmuted into moral ciphers. A man who designs a farm has to know a little about the farmer -- whether he has cows, or pigs, or grain. He has to know the pattern of his day, his movements from one building to another. He has to understand the living requirements of different species of animals. But a man who designs a city can make up is people as arbitrarily as a novelist in identical batches of thousands at a time. And if he works in the service of the state or the local authority, he tends to create his characters in the images of insensible oafs, inspired by indifference, softened by chronic inactivity. His architecture is supposed to anaesthetise or ameliorate these glibly imagined moral characteristics. If people stick cautiously to the edges of the shopping plaza and never use the paved space provided at the centre, or if they prefer a bus ride and a real city supermarket to the overpriced minimarket he has allocated them, then they are at fault -- they have not learned to live in a city that ought, for them, to be ideal.

If architects tend to see us as opaque wisps or rude diagrams, they are, perhaps, doing no more than falling into a characteristically urban habit of mind, a way of thinking and feeling about other people which the conditions of the city make particularly easy. Finding the city a bad place, and suspiciously viewing its citizens as potential wastrels and villains, are responses which proceed out of a basic and widespread nervousness about the kind of moral drama which the city forces us to participate in.

For in a community of strangers, we need a quick, easy-to-use set of stereotypes, cartoon outlines, with which to classify the people we encounter. In a village, most of the people you deal with have been known to you (or to someone in your family circle) for a long time; they have matured subtly and slowly as characters, and are painted in varying shades of grey. You will probably have seen them in more than one role: the milkman or the postman is not just the man who delivers milk or mail, he is known too for a variety of off-duty interests and occupations. He is, you happen to know, a keen gardener, his marriage is reputed to be rocky; he is just out of hospital after an operation. My city milkman, though, happens fully fledged: a uniform hat, a smudge of a moustache, a rounding belly ...

I have no more to go on. Most of the time I need to more: the city is a great deadener of curiosity. But if, for instance, I am thinking of buying something from one of these patchy strangers, I have to guess at his history, try instantly to gauge his moral and emotional qualities. All I have to help me is my subjective knowledge of accents, clothes, brands of car, my reactions to endomorphic or ectomorphic figures: external signs and signals from which I construct the character with whom I am going to deal. Is he good or bad? A truth-teller or a liar? Lecherous or chaste? An actor, a bookie, a clerk, a dimwit, an enemy ...?

People who live in cities become expert in making these rapid, subconscious decisions. At any large party, one can see people 'reading' strangers with the abstracted speed of a blind man tracing over a book in Braille. Mechanical aids to such character-reading are at a premium in cities. The rise of the industrial city in the nineteenth century coincided with the craze for phrenology and palmistry. At any bookstall today one can find several cheap pamphlets on graphology and quasi-scientific disquisitions on the relationship between body-shape and moral character. There is a vast market for cranky guides to person-spotting, guides for idle children showing the silhouettes of every aeroplane in the world. Judgments have to be made fast, and almost always any judgment will do. The riot of amateur astrology we have suffered from recently is one of the more annoying expressions of this city hunger for quick ways of classifying people.

'What are you?' says the girl in the caftan, then, impatiently, 'No, I mean what's your sign?'

Gemini, Taurus, Aries, Libra ... a character synopsis for everyone. Margot has initiative and tact, a strong sense of loyalty and a need to conform; Derek is creative, ambitious, and self-confident, seeks harmony in personal relationships, but needs help in money matters.

The great urban visual art is the cartoon. In Gillary, Hogarth, Rowlandson and Cruikshank, the people of the city are portrayed with exactly that physical and moral exaggeration with which girls who are 'into' astrology endow the men they meet at parties. They are very tiny or very fat, giants or dwarfs, excessively angelic or excessively corrupted. Emblems tell everything: Hogarth's idle apprentice, for example, is known by his clay pipe, his open collar, the jug of ale on his loom, and the page from Moll Flanders pinned up over his head. These public signs compose all that we need to know of his character.

In Dickens, or greatest urban novelist, the physical shape of someone is a continuing part of his personality. People appear in his novels as they might appear on a street or in a party, equipped with a set of dimensions and a name which we learn later. In Our Mutual Friend, Bradley Headstone is huge, coarse and slablike; Jenny Wren is a tiny cripple; Rumty Wilfer is pink and roly-poly. And, however much the characters change and emerge during the course of the novel, we are constantly reminded of these initial cartoon images. They carry their personal stereotypes with them like grotesque, gaily-painted husks -- even when, morally, they have outgrown them. How different this is from a novelist like Jane Austen, in whose work the closer you get to a character, the less visible is his external, easy-to-spot carapace. Most writers use caricature for their background characters: Dickens foregrounds the technique, and makes caricature something which the characters themselves have to lug, often unhappily, through the plot. R. Wilfer wishes he wasn't so infuriatingly round, pink, and ineffectual; Bradley Headstone rages against being so damningly associated with graveyards and dark, thickset emotions. Yet that is how people in the cities are recognised again and again by every new acquaintance, by every observer of the crowd; and Dickens's characters simply have to put up with their dwarfishness, their wooden legs, and their toppling craggy heights. To be merely grey, especially subtly grey, in a city, is not to be seen at all."

-- Fra Jonathan Raban: "Soft City" (1974)

2 kommentarer

Cissi

22.12.2010 kl.22:05

Vilken hrlig blogg du har! :) Vad tycker du om klockan jag fick idag, visst r den snygg? =)

Den gale hevneren

23.12.2010 kl.03:53

Cissi: For en fantastisk klokke! Et rent underverk! Virkelig det vakreste jeg har sett!

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ingermerete

ingermerete

35, Oslo

Inger Merete Hobbelstad (f. 1980) er kulturjournalist, teateranmelder og filmanmelder i Dagbladet og burde egentlig vre lut lei av skrive etter endt arbeidsdag. Men den gang ei. Jo, og s har jeg mastergrad i Litteraturvitenskap med en oppgave som handlet om Homers "Iliaden". Hvilket jeg altfor sjelden fr sprsml om. Og s ns jeg p imh@dagbladet.no.

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