Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: city, Oswald Spengler, provincialism, town
I moved from a medium sized city to a very large city and then, when income decreased, back to the smaller more affordable place. The smaller of the two, both American cities, doesn’t feel like a city at all, mostly for its psychology. The people I have met there seem stuck; they give – too generously – credence to impossibility and are suspicious at best, and more likely downright antagonistic, toward what could be possible. The big city was different. Although many of the people I met and worked with there were merely aggressive and ambitious and entitled, many others, including strangers, wore a sense of engagement and risk and curiosity. These are the essential qualities of a real city. Cities use difference and possibility to incubate change. They are the centers of this important work.
We all know the story of how American cities were abandoned during the post war period: eviscerated, evacuated centers. We see the fallout: it has everything to do with our current condition of overextension, debt, isolation. And with this draining – the baby with the bathwater – went the traditional functions ascribed to the city: the center of trade, social and intellectual life.
A digression, but I’ll explain. I was having an impromptu burger several weeks ago with some friends on a patio, and had to listen to an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank drone on about his search for an apartment. It made me a little angry that I had to listen to all of the things he was planning to do with his money when – I secretly thought – he should really be required to tell us why his ilk – the American economist – had propped up policies that led directly to the destruction of the American economy. At one point during that tedious dinner, he said, “that’s what make us (Americans) different.” I think he raised his eyes to the stars, was it? Heaven? God himself? Not completely certain, but above the fray for sure. I think I was the fray, along with my line of questioning. I had asked him why, if we are so capitalist, we have so few choices: five or six health insurers control the industry country wide, huge retail drug stores that kill all other smaller boutique options. Et cetera. What an ass answer. If you’re stuck, just say that others won’t understand it because we are different, because we’re American. Because we’re exceptional, no doubt.
I have heard this “that’s what makes us different” excuse — or argument or whatever — regularly when someone is cornered and forced to look at the hypocrisy of his beliefs. It has deep roots; I wrote a post called Sameness that describes how we don’t regulate our markets because our economic culture came from gentleman farmers who all knew each other and resisted – for generations now – being regulated by ‘outside’ government process. My tedious companion’s comment has the same root. He doesn’t need to answer tough questions about the economy; he’s an elite; all he needs do is smile and summon arbitrary concepts. And I’m stuck eating a burger in the company of a farmer, in the middle of what, by every outward sign, is a city. These ideas are provincial and the mark of a town, not a city.
That’s my bit on the difference between a town and a city. Now here’s Oswald Spengler, who observed in the 1920’s the great void between the city dweller and the country peasant.
It goes without saying that what distinguishes a town from a village is not size, but the presence of a soul. Not only in primitive conditions, such as those of central Africa, but in Late conditions too — China, India, and industrialized Europe and America — we find very large settlements that are nevertheless not to be called cities. They are centers of landscape; they do not inwardly form worlds in themselves. They have no soul. Every primitive population lives wholly as peasant and son of the soil — the being “City” does not exist for it. That which in externals develops from the village is not the city, but the market, a mere meeting-point of rural life-interests. Here there can be no question of a separate existence. The inhabitant of a market may be a craftsman or a tradesman, but he lives and thinks as a peasant. We have to go back and sense accurately what it means when out of a primitive Egyptian or Chinese or Germanic village — a little spot in a wide land — a city comes into being. It is quite possibly not differentiated in any outward feature, but spiritually it is a place from which the countryside is henceforth regarded, felt, and experienced as “environs,” as something different and subordinate. From now on there are two lives, that of the inside and that of the outside, and the peasant understands this just as clearly as the townsman. The village smith and the smith in the city, the village headman and the burgomaster, live in two different worlds. The man of the land and the man of the city are different essences. First of all they feel the difference, then they are dominated by it, and at last they cease to understand each other at all. Today a Brandenburg peasant is closer to a Sicilian peasant than he is to a Berliner. From the moment of this specific attunement, the City comes into being, and it is this attunement which underlies, as something that goes without saying, the entire waking-consciousness of every Culture.
–Oswald Spengler, The Soul of the City, 1928, from Classic Essays on the Culture of Cities, Richard Sennett ed.
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