top of page

Cities Ineffable

Chacun sa chimère/ Every man his fancy,
Charles Baudelaire, Le Spleen de Paris/ Paris Spleen



Are cities knowable? The remarkable cable TV network H.B.O. series The Wire was all about Baltimore. It rarely left the municipal limits in its sixty episodes over five seasons from 2002 to 2008. It was declared the best TV show of all time. The narrative of drug dealing and police response rushed forward reenforced in turn by union trouble on the docks, crisis in the schools, city government infighting and the reaction of the press. A Black-majority demography was respected and attention paid to the local ways of speech.


However, only one Baltimore resident would recognise his city in the successive episodes. That was David Simons, the former police reporter who was head writer. Among other contributors, Ed Burns might have felt close at least to the scenes he sketched. He had been a homicide detective dealing with drug murders and became a public school teacher. Baltimore Sun journalist Rafael Alvarez knew the port area well and would approve of its portrayal. After all, he wrote it. Likewise the Sun political writer William F. Zorzi would hardly object to the account of jockeying at city hall that he had dramatised. It’s hard to imagine the excellent selection of Black actors being satisfied with the picture of Afro-American life in the city. The Black lives on view were debased or criminal more often than not. The Baltimore epic did not convince Baltimoreans. That wasn’t their city.


Toward the end of The Wire the plot unfolds in the office of The Baltimore Sun. It’s the newspaper where the eminent journalist and son of the city, H. L. Mencken once held sway. He had been quoted in an earlier episode and now we saw the quotation decorating the wall. But the Baltimore Mencken loved--he called it “charm city”--could not have differed more from The Wire’s. That it was fifty years younger is not the only reason. What Mencken chose to feast his eyes on was not what David Simons’ writing team stared at so intently. Mencken didn’t view the city from a scriptwriter’s conference in a downtown hotel. He looked out from his second-story study window at 1526 Hollins Street where he dwelt all his life opposite the green grass of Union Square. The ministrations of his mother softened his gaze. He lived with her as a bachelor till he was forty-five and she died. At fifty he married and would shortly ensconce his wife in the Hollins Street house. Mencken’s Baltimore points of reference weren’t the street corners of drug dealers or the murder squad. They were the Enoch Pratt Free Library and the Hollins produce market, both of which he frequented from boyhood. His Baltimore was Haussner's German Restaurant, Marconi’s Crab House and a half-dozen newspaper offices.


That wasn’t the city of The Wire. No more was it anyone’s Baltimore but H.L. Mencken’s. We know of a place only what we have lived through there and that experience is unique to ourselves. In Imagining the Modern City, James Donald wrote: “Our experience of the real—specifically, the real of the city--is always imagined,…poetic.” He could have added that the poet has only one pair of eyes, one set of lungs to breathe a city’s air and but two feet to touch down on its pavement. 


The city isn’t knowable or available to general knowledge if we are speaking of what has meaning for us up close, knowledge we would have, say, of a partner in life. This doesn’t bother with statistics. Who is curious about his mate’s numbers, height, weight or shoe size? We are as familiar with all that as with our own pulse. History, weary anecdotes about our in-laws, doesn’t much count either. To a retelling of Aunt Fanny’s midlife breakdown, our ears close. The Chrysler Building, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Colosseum, a gondola with gondolier are no more than the stuff of advertising copy.


Our city is  our own creation. That’s why good travel writing veers toward fiction. The novel is the best instrument we have to portray our subjective life with any substance and we would have to write our own novel to know what a particular city means to us. While procrastinating over that not inconsiderable task we can muse on how some writers have failed in trying to picture cities in an objective way.


In the early 1800s Honoré de Balzac, full of ambition, dreaming of money and power, set out to find the key to Paris. He would plant himself outside a dwelling, rich or poor, and imagine what went on inside. Thunder and lighting ensued but the key he found only fit his own door.


Poor Baudelaire is said to have changed his Parisian residence forty times. He could never find the centre of what he deemed “the capital of modernity” and finally settled for cursing the place with affection: “Je t’aime, ô capitale infâme!”


A later French writer, Blaise Cendrars, turned Balzac’s approach outside in, so to speak. He actually lived at numbers 12, 60, 51, 33 and 5 Avenue Montaigne. Then he moved back to 12 for further research. It got him nothing but a thorough knowledge of traffic in the Avenue.


In the next generation, Léo Malet was methodical. He wrote eighteen romans noirs about one Paris quarter or arrondissement (the 13th) and then, determined to know all there was to know, began to write a noir on each arrondissement. (There are twenty.) Before he died at eighty-seven Malet did write fifteen. But no matter how he adjusted his microscope he kept looking with his same two eyes.


James Joyce wanted to tell us everything about Dublin. In a couple of books he drove through its streets like a garbage truck. Then in Ulysses he gave us a verbatim report, exact like no other. On perusal, however, it remains very personal, his very own book. When visiting Dublin, you can take the so-called Bloomsday tour that purports to tread in his footsteps. Your experience as a paying guest will diverge a world from the young Joyce’s.


In Chicago Theodore Dreiser saw his city in Sister Carrie, one woman’s manoeuvring to outwit the place, sweatshops and all. James T. Farrell thought Chicago was about wrongheaded clans and how their church gave birth to ape-like failures.  Nelson Algren discovered his real city in petty criminals, derelicts and misunderstood whores. Visitors looking for the essence of Chicago have to conclude that, as elsewhere, it‘s every man for himself in the search. No misery tour can help.


Awareness that knowledge of cities is a personal matter reached its peak recently with the Istanbul writer Orhan Pamuk. No one ever made a greater effort to know his native place. Pamuk’s novels rarely leave the city and he tries in Istanbul, Memories of a City to hand the innards of the great Eurasian spread on to us directly. Of course he fails and his title tells why. What do his memories have to do with ours? Maybe it was sorrow at his failure that drove him to a maniacal gesture of genuine insight. He had written a novel called The Museum of Innocence. With his Nobel Prize money he set up a museum, a real building filled with real items all referring to his fictional account of an imagined life in Istanbul. If he couldn’t possess the city, he would invent another of which he had a creator’s perfect knowledge.


The city isn’t our mate whom we know and love in our everyday way. The city is the alluring figure of the night that we can only imagine and never grasp. Doubtless it’s better that way. The Florentine painter Giotto, despairing of hard knowledge, reminded us eight centuries ago: “Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning.”


Peter Byrne


Foto di Brendan Beale su Unsplash

bottom of page