“The City and the Mountains”
24 October 2008 |
Eça de Queirós, 1895 (New Directions translation of A cidade e as serras by Margaret Jull Costa, 2008)
Kusamakura by Natsume Sōseki, 1906 (Penguin Classics translation by Meredith McKinney, 2008)
Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate for President, famously likes to keep away from the culture war, that which supposedly pits an urbane (though, really, mostly suburban) elite against a more authentic, and self-reliant, rusticity. Embedded here in discourse about immigration, guns, religion, and homosexuality are attitudes about education and the role of government. Self-reliant people don’t need education; they learn from the land, by doing. Nor do they wish government to solve their problems.
The culture war doesn’t serve Obama’s political agenda, in part because he embodies an immense gray—or purple, in the parlance of electoral politics—area. And that’s refreshing, a sign of progress, perhaps, because this sort of divide has endured for centuries, all over the world. You see it in France, where chasseurs march to protect their hunting rights against citified pleasure-seekers, and especially in rapidly urbanizing countries like Turkey, where peasants are swamping the city. In Istanbul, long-time urbanites resent the religious—more conservative—and seemingly coarse villagers who crowd parks and schools. Here in Pennsylvania, the divide came early, in the 18th century, pitting Scot, Irish, and German immigrants who populated the Pennsylvania frontier against the Philadelphia urban “elite” Quakers and their allies—African-Americans and Native Americans. Resentment, and poor education, fueled the fire. In discourse shocking in its familiarity, they accused Quakers of palling around with terrorists.
By trumping what appear to be long-held assumptions about self-identity, rapid urbanization engenders the cultural divide. It happened famously in the late 19th century in both Europe and North America—but also Japan. In Kusamakura, according to the introduction by the translator Meredith McKinney, written during a period “when the nation was tumbling headlong into the twentieth century and toward its ‘modern miracle,’” the narrator, an artist, runs headlong in the opposite direction. He’s hoping to encounter, and transform by way of painting, a rural sublime. But suspicion of the city colors everything.
Now once your feet have stopped moving, you can find yourself standing in one place for an inordinate amount of time—and lucky is the man who can do so. If your feet suddenly halt on Tokyo street, you will very soon be killed by a passing tram, or moved on by a policeman. Peaceful folk are treated like beggars in the city, while fine wages are paid to detectives, who are no better than petty criminals.
In The City and the Mountains, Paris stands in for the beating.
“Yes, perhaps it’s all just an illusion, and the City the greatest of all illusions!”
Yes, my Prince, it was an illusion! And the most bitter of illusions, too, because Man believes the City to be the very basis of his greatness, when in fact it is the source of all his misery. Do you see, Jacinto! In the City, Man has entirely lost the strength and harmonious beauty of his body and become, instead, either desiccated and scrawny or obese and drowning in his own fat, with bones as soft as rags and nerves as tremulous as wires…
The giant Portuguese author José Saramago calls Eça de Queirós his country’s greatest novelist and indeed, this is a wry and intelligent book on a subject that could obviously feel stale (both The City and the Mountains and Kusamakura are narrated by 30-something men who speak with an amused, and also idealistic, detachment). The story-telling and aesthetic vision in both works is nuanced enough to give honest play to urban desire. The descriptions of Paris are lurid and funny, and inventive. There is the pull of danger and filth, the instinct to try new things and people. The city might draw you down, but the trip there could be a lot of fun. Enervating too. But like Sōseki, Eça de Queirós comes down on the rural side of the divide. The city is dangerous, and dehumanizing, he says.
The Boulevard, it seemed to me, gave off a deadly breadth exhaled by its millions of microbes. In every doorway some trickster seemed to be lying in wait to rob me. In every face glimpsed at a carriage window, I suspected a bandit.
In the end, the narrator Zé Fernandes, and his friend Jacinto reject the urban possibility. They move back to nature. Sōseki’s painter does, too. Of modern, urban civilization, he warns, “Watch out, this could be nasty if you’re not careful!”