“The Comic Life of Cities”

Robert S. Dupree, Ph.D.

What are the uses of literary theory for a description of ordinary life? I wish to answer this question by looking at the relationship between the patterns, themes, and structures we find in the imagined worlds of literature and those we discover in the worlds in which we actually dwell. Literature is the way that humanity presents itself to itself. But how does the city present itself to itself? Publicists, politicians, and Chambers of Commerce might give various versions of their cities, but they seldom attempt to generalize in a theoretical way about what actually goes on in the city. City planning departments work with both specific and general problems and are based in an academic discipline that consists of training in various fields, including a theoretical component, but while they are allowed to take a certain amount of social and individual psychology into account, they are not usually permitted to speculate about what kind of imagination informs the actions and lives of citizens.

City design, however, has for a long time been informed not only by imagination-especially when it turns “visionary”-but even occasionally by whimsy. Still, it is more often characterized by high seriousness. The great French architect Le Corbusier called the house “a machine for living.” The goal of classical urban design is to create a city that is a kind of well-oiled, reliable, and, if possible, self-perpetuating and self-sustaining machine. But there is another tradition that views the city as a form of theatre, one in which the denizens are at once or by turns spectators and actors. This notion of the city as theatre is even older than that of the city as machine. We see both described-and the former historically put into practice-in ancient Greece. Apart from the historical documents that tell us what it was like to live in an ancient Greek city and the plays presented in Athens by and for its citizens, there are two outstanding treatises that give us an insight into these two metaphors: Aristotle’s Poetics and Plato’s Republic. Of the latter I shall say little, other than to note that Plato’s ideal city was to be ruled by philosophers and excluded comic poets of all stripes. While The Republic does not conjure up the machine metaphor in any overt fashion, it does suggest a mode of operation that I would style “tragic.” As I shall explain in a few minutes, the tragic life of the city is life lived within a machine, but for the moment I need to explain a bit more about Aristotle’sPoetics and the city as theatre.

Drama, as it comes to us from the Greeks, is an inherently urban affair. As developed in Athens in the course of the late sixth and early fifth centuries BCE, it was a civic institution intimately tied to urban religious festivals which, though tracing their origins back to rural ritual practices, had become thoroughly politicized. To attend a play was to participate in both a political and a religious act. The theatre of Dionysus in Athens (or theatres elsewhere) was the place where the city was revealed to itself, as French critic and philosopher Anne Cauquelin points out.

The theatre, a key moment in the constitution of the city-and its importance is marked as much in the festival calendars as in the theory that Aristotle devotes to it-inaugurates a specific space that anchors Athenian soil in its archaic past and yet links it to democratic space.

This was particularly true of comic plays, which were very little restrained by any kind of censorship, either political or moral. Though they were filled with fantastic depictions of what goes on in cities, they offered a critique of urban existence that caused Plato to exclude them and their potentially disruptive effects from his ideal city. Of course Plato also excluded the tragedians for precisely the same reason.

Aristotle, though a pupil of Plato, sought to preserve tragedy and comedy in the city and defended not only their right to flourish there but offered positive reasons to promote them, based on their beneficent political and psychological effects on the citizenry. Tragedy keeps one from supposing that fame, prestige, and power can protect someone of high station from personal disaster. All men, even the best of them, are subject to Fate. The inescapable character of this fatal mechanism is reflected in the very structure of tragedy, in which the plot leads from episode to episode, through a plausible, likely, and causally-linked series of actions, to a terrifying denouement that reveals his fate clearly to the tragic hero for the first time and seals his imminent destruction. Comedy not only ends on a more cheerful note; it also has a looser structure and envisages a different kind of person as its protagonist.

Aristotle traces tragedy and comedy back to two strains in earlier Greek verbal art. One is heroic poetry, which depicts men better than we are; the other is the lampoon, which depicts men such as we are or as inferior to us. Comedy originated with the komos, a festival that celebrated fertility in a rather grotesquely overt manner. Tragedy, however, is concerned with death and the consequences of war. Misjudgments and errors cause the downfall of the tragic hero; they are neither painful nor destructive for his comic counterpart. Tragedy deals with particular, often historic, persons, comedy with universal types .Comedy also reflects the standards of behavior that are observed in everyday life. Aristotle also has something to say about the components of satire and invective or verbal (possibly even physical) abuse in comedy, but he plays it down somewhat. While comedy is not subject to the ethical standards of everyday life, it does have limits to what it should depict. The comic plot, while based on plausibility and structured in terms of causality, is not so closely bound by these requirements as is tragedy.

The tragic life of Athens was that aspect of the city explored in the tragedies and presented as part of its regular urban religious festivals, where the dangers inherent in the illusion of power and control were brought to public attention. But the comic life was presented there as well. Unlike tragic existence, city life is episodic, stop-and-go, full of detours and bypasses. Contrary to the tragic world, which is governed by an implacable destiny, it seems to be impervious to management from above. The city is full of discontinuities, areas of neglect, areas of prominence. Kevin Lynch, in his The Image of the City (1960), wrote of the way in which each of us builds or maps a version of the city within our own experiences and memories. Our daily lives in the city consist of a series of habits that rely on signposts, landmarks, encounters, and recurrent needs determining when and where we navigate through it. The tragic experience of the city would be one that seemed to take us through a secure and unvarying routine, day by day, that culminated in a perfectly defined objective. But one day, that certainty of direction is revealed to be an illusion. The position you thought you had for life, the power you were supposed to yield until retirement, the salary you expected and depended upon–all are suddenly gone in an instant. The path you thought you were pursuing was not the one you have taken. A mistaken identity, a bureaucratic mixup, or, worse, a powerful, secret enemy who has been out to get you all along has been operative from the start and has fostered in you the impression that all was going well when, in fact, you were slowly and systematically going to hell in a handbasket. Crushed and isolated, you have nowhere to go. The city is a vast trap that has doomed you to destruction.

For this plot to function in a city, the urban environment that you experience would have to be far more intricately organized than is normally feasible, and it would have to function for more than one person at a time. It would require a form of tyranny, political and personal, beyond the reach of even the most extreme system of control. It would require the city to be a perfectly constructed, perfectly designed, and perfectly running machine. There is a name for such a city in literature, at least: it is called a “dystopia,” and we know it in its pure form only in novels such as Brave New World or 1984, though analogues erupt from time to time in actuality. But though a dystopia is supposed to be the opposite of a utopia–a city so perfectly designed and operated that it brings happiness and the good to all its citizens–both dystopia and utopia are but sides of the same tragic coin. If we take the tragic plot, as described by Aristotle in thePoetics, to be an unbroken chain of necessary causes and effects that lead to an inevitable and overwhelming conclusion, then it doesn’t matter. The tragic plot as a structure, not the tragic plot as an outcome, is what matters.

This last point is important. If we take outcome to be the determinant (tragedy has an unhappy ending, comedy a happy one), then it is not possible to distinguish the tragic life of the city from the merely dull or from dark, black, and infernal types of comedy. Democracies are inherently comic, and the messy, unpredictable nature of their operations is full of surprises, but they are not tragic surprises or what Aristotle calls “peripeties,” that moment in the tragic plot when the hero suddenly sees his path turn around and his fate revealed for the first time. Comic surprises are about unpredictability, about accident and improvisation, about what the French call “bricolage,” or making do with whatever is at hand. If the city were to be a machine, it would be a Rube Goldberg device, full of inefficiencies and crazy turns, not a meat grinder into which are fed individual cuts of meat that come out looking all the same. In fact, it would be a meat grinder in reverse, one that turned the same into the various.

If utopia is the logical outcome of an application of tragic principles to the life of the city, then the adoption of comic principles would lead to another civic and religious institution, one that existed for ancient Greece and Rome under the name of Saturnalia and in the later Christian world as Carnival., Aristotle identifies the Oedipus Rex of Sophocles as the model tragedy, at least in structural terms. Its comic equivalent would be one of the high comedies of Aristophanes, PeaceLysistrata, or, especially, The Birds. That play has been called “utopian,” but it bears only the most superficial marks of the utopic. Far from proposing an efficient machine of a polis, the heroes-whose names are Make-Do (as in “bricolage”) and GoodHope-seek to absolve themselves of their civic responsibilities by escaping from imperialistic Athens (which is engaged disastrously in an unprovoked and audacious attack on Syracuse-sound familiar?) into the realm of the birds, where they found a city. Nevertheless, despite their success in establishing this place of freedom, they are besieged by interlopers who simply want to turn it into another Athens. In the end he rejects them all, including even the gods who send emissaries to his bird kingdom, and Make-Do is wedded to Queen Dominion. This is not the utopian realm but the domain of what Mikhail Bakhtin and others have identified as the “carnivalesque,” of which I shall speak a bit later as the comic counterpart of city life.

For the influential nineteenth-century German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, a prominent theorist of both tragedy and comedy, Aristophanic comedy reveals the emergence out of the ruins ancient Greek ethical life of a new consciousness, that of the autonomous, self-confident individual. His comedies (Hegel speaks specifically of The Clouds) show how society understands itself as made up of individual human beings who see themselves as the principle of existence and understanding for everything. They signal the historical emergence of a new level of consciousness: the self becomes an absolute essence. Traditional religion, ethical life, and even reason itself are affected by the all-effacing power of laughter. The Greek world is transformed by this consciousness that is perfectly happy within itself. But this light-hearted consciousness of the self as absolute being cannot last long. It soon loses its uncomplicated enjoyment and finds its fulfillment in what Hegel calls the “unhappy consciousness.” It is characterized by emptiness and alienation. The gods are absent and the oracles are silent. Art has lost its spirit, the eternal laws are no more. Hymns are only words drained of any belief. Hegel sees this stage-which, by the way, is what Louise Cowan was describing last week as “infernal comedy”-as the prelude to the coming of Christianity, but the notion of the Unhappy Consciousness has had a long and eminent career in modern philosophy ever since his time.

Hegel connects comedy intimately with subjectivity. As is typical of his thought, he distinguishes three stages of the comic. The first is what might be called a “false” subjectivity, in which the hero and his aims are insubstantial and without universal values. The miser, for instance, takes the empty symbol of wealth for an ultimate reality. In the end the hero fails to reach his goal but at least recognizes his error. In a second stage, the hero’s aim is valid but his means insufficient. As Hegel himself puts it, “the individuals plume themselves on their substantial characters and aims, but as instruments for accomplishing something substantial, they, as individuals, are the precise opposite of what is required.” In order to triumph, the hero has to lower his aim, reducing the substantial to the mere appearance of substantiality. As a third stage, Hegel introduces the element of chance or luck that serves to bring about a harmonious conclusion. Now luck is comedy’s answer to tragic fate. Though aims and their achievement, individual character and external circumstances may be at odds, they all lead through some sort of coincidence to a comic and harmonious solution. However, this may be said to represent not a fulfillment but an elimination of subjectivity. Luck-of the good or of the bad variety-is nevertheless a key comic element that is consonant with the structural principles of surprise and episodic order. Reality, it suggests, is rich and unpredictable. It is a cornucopia that comprises both limitless substances and limitless appearances. Hence the Hegelian notion of comedy as representing some sort of fulfillment of the individual-by whatever means, internal or external-contrasts with the tragic revelation of man as fatally limited and unchangeably determined in his existence.

Aristotle’s tragic hero came out of the epic figure of the hero, the ultimate individual for the ancient world. But that individuality was closely tied to the only form of immortality that the Homeric world recognized: the individual renown that lives on in human memory through poetry. The comic hero, who tends to be much more of a type than an individual, therefore represents a very different kind of individuality. Achilles is utterly unlike us: son of a goddess and a mortal, he shares with us the limitation of death but towers above us otherwise in ability. The comic hero differs from his tragic and epic counterparts, curiously enough, because he is less of an individual than they. He is, as Aristotle points out, just like us or-in the case of those characters who evince Hegel’s “false subjectivity”-even worse than we. How, then, can Hegel speak of subjectivity and the comic hero? What we must reckon with is the problem of being distinctive in a world in which all are more or less the same. This condition is that which we imagine to be modern society, an order in which one seeks not immortality (or ersatz immortality in the form of “deathless fame”) but status. “Status,” as we now use the word, refers not to an absolute but to a relative value. I have status only in relation to others like me. In a world like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone, where all the women are strong and all the children above average, no one has status. But they can have individuality. The distinguishing characteristics, however, are those of character types and occupations: the village idiot, the town gossip, the girl next door, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. People are defined by their roles and positions more than by their achievements. Though we think of this as the world of the village or small town, it is also the world of the metropolis, which is, after all, only a superset of these smaller entities. There the essential comic achievement is to be in the right place at the right time. Opportunity and knowing when to take advantage of it are its main ingredients. The comic hero has no ambition greater than that of living the good life, which is precisely the promised end of all politics and the productive goal of all cities and the promise of all societies to those who comprise them. And beyond the metropolis, beyond even society, there is the whole of life itself.

This is the basis of the argument pursued by another important theorist of comedy and tragedy, Suzanne Langer, whose essay on “the comic rhythm” [in her book Feeling and Form] begins by enunciating insights that echo both Aristotle and Hegel.

It is commonly assumed that comedy and tragedy have the same fundamental form, but differ in point of view-in the attitude the poet and his interpreters take, and the spectators are invited to take, toward the action. But the difference really goes deeper than surface treatment (i.e., relative levity or pathos). It is structural and radical. Drama abstracts from reality the fundamental forms of consciousness: the first reflection of natural activity in sensation, awareness, and expectation, which belongs to all higher creatures and might be called, therefore, the pure sense of life; and beyond that, the reflection of an activity which is at once more elaborate, and more integrated, having a beginning, efflorescence, and end-the personal sense of life, or self-realization.

She goes on to state that this “pure sense of life is the underlying feeling of comedy, developed in countless different ways.” The ultimate goal of comedy, as of life itself, is “what sets organic nature apart from inorganic: self-preservation, self-restoration, functional tendency, purpose. Life is teleological, the rest of nature is, apparently, mechanical; to maintain the pattern of vitality in a non-living universe is the most elementary instinctual purpose.”

For Langer, then, comedy is about establishing equilibrium; it is ecological, we would now say, in its aims. When this balancing rhythm is disrupted, living things seek to restore it.

This human life-feeling is the essence of comedy. It is at once religious and ribald, knowing and defiant, social and freakishly individual. The illusion of life which the comic poet creates is the oncoming future fraught with dangers and opportunities, that is, with physical or social events occurring by chance and building up the coincidences with which individuals cope according to their lights. This ineluctable future-ineluctable because its countless factors are beyond human knowledge and control-is Fortune.

And so this destiny in the guise of fortune “is the fabric of comedy; it is developed by comic action, which is the upset and recovery of the protagonist’s equilibrium, his contest with the world and his triumph by wit, luck, personal power, or even humorous, or ironical, or philosophical acceptance of mischance.

In complex societies, such as those that construct large cities in order to control the natural environment and reduce the play of chance in our lives, comedy plays a role that is correspondingly adapted to the artificial world of human intervention and human invention. Making it in the city is not the same as making it in the wilderness, though the modern city is sometimes called a jungle. The motif of physical control of both physical and social environments-that tragic and mechanical attempt to deal with the fatality of death and desire for dominance guaranteed by our nature-is constantly at odds with the reassurance, as they used to sing on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” that “you’re going to make it after all.” Somehow, if not by the grace of God, at least by the adaptability and ingenuity of man, we’ll manage to squeak through, despite all the obstacles thrown in our way both by our enemies and by our well-meaning friends or legislators.

Returning now to Aristophanes’ Birds, we can see that the enemy in comedy is not some power above us that is beyond our control but something within us as human beings. Or as Pogo used to say, in Walt Kelly’s famous comic strip, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” When the city begins to turn mechanical, to threaten its citizens with utopian control or tragic fatalities, where shall we turn? As Dr. John Arbuthnot, friend of Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, put it in his essay “The Art of Political Lying,” the only way to undo a lie is not by countering it with the truth but by telling another lie: “For example, if it should be reported that the Pretender was in London, one would not contradict it by saying he never was in England, but you must prove by Eye-witnesses that he came no farther than Greenwich, and then went back again.” To counter a mechanical city, one must invent a temporary one that exposes its character, as MakeDo and GoodHope manage in The Birds. This temporary city is what I referred to earlier as “carnival,” and it has been studied throughout the twentieth century by writers such as F. M. Cornford and Robert C. Elliott, but by no one more imaginatively than the great Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin.

The word “carnival” has thoroughly Christian connotations, though the phenomenon certainly derives from pagan sources and has analogues all over the world. It comes from the medieval Latin meaning “farewell to meat” (or to the flesh) and applies to the period of Lent beginning with Ash Wednesday, when Christians abstained from eating meat from then until Easter Sunday as a form of spiritual discipline. But the period just before Lent-and not just Mardi Gras, its final day-was taken up in an orgy of indulgence of the flesh, sometimes in both senses. The institution of carnival, however, went far beyond its ecclesiastical setting. It merged with ancient festivals such as Saturnalia, which celebrated a return to the Golden Age, when men dined with the gods, and fertility rituals that celebrated the fruits of the earth. Yet since no law goes unchallenged, it also fostered a spirit of freedom from all the disciplines and restrictions that society imposes on its members. In fact the whole structure of official order was not simply disregarded but parodied and inverted. A low person or a fool was crowned king for the day, and many a transgression against acceptable behavior was allowed. Because the king had been crowned, however, he also had to be deposed at the end of his reign as life returned to normal. The ritual inversion and the parodic, satiric, and grotesque mirrorings of officialdom were tolerated because they were only temporary, after all, and rendered tolerable by tradition or loose association with the sacred.

Bakhtin took these and many other aspects of carnival as both themes and structural elements in literature. Like Langer, he sees in the comic world of carnival a symbol of the whole, that is, “a people who are continually growing and renewed.” For what he refers to as the “carnivalistic self,” death is like the division of cells in a physical body. The old cell dies but it also reproduces. The carnival self conquers death not through everlasting fame but by assuring the continuity of life. Consequently, it can laugh at the dying world, because that world will be resuscitated. Furthermore, high and low are no longer distinguished, since they are all equally parts of one whole, none totally independent of the others. Rather than individuals there are masks-pure appearances-that are meaningful only as momentary identities. It represents an existence without limitations, inhibitions, or fear.

The emphasis on laughter, mockery, abuse (extending even to the physical), on the body (especially what he called “the lower bodily stratum”), on self-indulgence, sex, indecencies and obscenities, the crude, the folk, the collective, the unfinished, the ridiculous, on comic dismemberment, debasement or topsy-turvy exaltation, openness and freedom-all these values, seen in a positive rather than in a negative light-is part and parcel of a world in which people are participants and not merely spectators or cogs in a wheel. However, carnival is important not so much as an annual event as it is as a state of mind and spirit, a counterbalance in the ecology of the imagination. It liberates, refreshes and renews not only the processes of life but also the world of officialdom and rules. By licensing license, carnival allows us to resume our lives as responsible citizens having gained a broader perspective of the whole of things and seen the place that all these partial truths and narrower activities hold in the ongoing continuities of existence.

Normally, when we think of the city, we think of the conveniences and inconveniences it offers. We think of expressways and potholes, garbage collection and property taxes, public schooling and jury duty, shopping and parking tickets, attending sporting events and fighting city hall. But there is also the enormous inventory of things to see and do, the cornucopia of goods and services that makes the city, by and large, not just the seat of officialdom but the headquarters of the comic. Of course there are tragic cities that perish through hubris or miscalculation, from natural disasters or human neglect. Who knows what will be the eventual fate of that most carnivalesque of North American cities, New Orleans (though I suspect, from what I know of Louisiana, that it will survive because of and not in spite of incompetence and corruption)? But Samuel Johnson, who reveled in the variety of eighteenth-century London, once said that when a man tired of London, he was tired of life, and James Joyce, who chose not to live there, held his “dear, dirty Dublin” in his imagination all his life. Cities are essentially comic because they persist even after they cease to exist. If they are buried, we delight in digging them up. Desert them and they become tourist attractions. Destroy them utterly and plow them under, as Scipio did Carthage, and we build another on top and call it by the same name.

Yet the comic life of the city, for me, has another meaning. I understand the phrase as referring to the kind of human existence to which the city gives life. Though New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro are most readily associated with carnival-as was Venice once-they have their infernal comic undersides as well. Though Las Vegas is associated with empty glitter, trashy display, and the mob, it houses perfectly normal folk who earn a living like the rest of us and live in ranch-style homes in neighborhoods that would not look inconspicuous in most western American cities. Indeed, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown shook up the architectural world by declaring that we had much to learn from Las Vegas, a city that may well be the most carnivalesque of all, since it does not appear to have much of a raison d’etre other than pure entertainment and an appeal to human greed that is the stock in trade of many a dark comedy.

However, I wish to turn instead to what we might call “the other side of town.” By that I mean not necessarily a seedier aspect of the comic life but a set of themes explored by the French writer Anne Cauquelin, who is all but unknown in this country. A Google search reveals only scant few references in English to this professor of philosophy at Amiens, yet she has written two books on the city that are especially illuminating. The first, The City at Night [La Ville la nuit, 1977], is about the total shift in character that cities undergo after dark. The second, An Essay on Urban Philosophy [Essai de philosophie urbaine, 1982], explores temporality and memory in the city and the pivotal role of doxa (or, roughly, opinion) in its establishment.

The modern concept of urban space, Cauquelin notes, is of an open, unlimited domain that one cannot escape. From the peripheries of one city zone, you plunge into another. The only escape from it is in the temporal order, at the beginning and close of each day. “Opposed to the open prison of space is the secret temple of all freedoms: the Night.” The opposition that night people evoke are between the orderly or rational and the magical and wild: the urbanity of the day and the forests of the night. What gives the city at night its allure, for those who find it oppressive in its uniformity and controlled spaces during the daytime, is the sense of freedom that it offers.

But this freedom, she adds, is paralleled by a strict establishment of norms, codes, and a closed network. Where daytime space is open, spread out for all to see, that of the city at night is closely guarded, contained, under surveillance. The night stalkers find in it a time of fantasy and magic, a time of liberation from the conventional. Why do they not mind the tighter control over space? Because there is a relaxation of the control over time. The great clocklike mechanism of the city seems to slow down, even to stop as it waits to be rewound. The night obscures all in a city except for its monuments, its hotels, and a few places of late evening entertainment. The prostitutes are out in full force, but so are the police and the street cleaners. These knights of the night are a sign of the adventure, of the danger that the darkness invites or represents.

Urban activity, so coordinated and synchronized during the day, becomes what Cauquelin calls, using the English word, a “patchwork.” The logic and connections of daytime labor become sporadic and episodic. Identities are changed, masked, or rendered ambiguous as to gender, age, occupation, or social status. For noctambules it can be a time of revolt, of transgression, of counter-cultural gestures. And while many of Cauquelin’s interlocutors (she quotes many that she had encountered at night) admit that the special qualities of the city at night are a myth, they also agree that it is the only time one can see the city as a whole, live in and with it, take pleasure in it. Above all, the city at night introduces the notion of a double city, opposed to that of the day, but locked to it ritually and giving access to its secrets and its true face which remain hidden in broad daylight by the superficial machinery of its inexorable operations.

Cauquelin’s second examination of the nature of the urban looks for this duplicity in another temporal domain, no longer that of the night and day complementarity but that of the temporal and invisible as opposed the spatial and visible as they coexist in the fullness of the daylight. She explores the way in which the past, present as memory, shapes the physical appearance of the city, even though it may persist only in what she calls its “folds.” There are areas of a city that receive highlights, others that are utterly neglected. The elements deemed important are better lit, more accessible, publicized. But throughout there are dark, empty bands where nothing seems to be going on. These spaces are not necessarily the result of undesirable physical properties or inaccessible terrain. They can be produced by memory and by language.

Each of us lives in a neighborhood or, more precisely, in a fragment of a neighborhood that is bordered by a few blocks and identified by one or two streets. We bestow upon this space, patterned by our daily activities and forged by repeated experiences, an image that helps determine the way we decorate inside and outside, a sense of identity given the place which can even be partially transferred when we move elsewhere. The result is a new space that bears marks of the former dwelling zone in our memories. Those who live in adjacent housing also bear images that overlap our own, and out of this there emerges a kind of collective image that is not only common to those who share it in the present but which can be passed on to future inhabitants or enshrined in language and visual or palpable embodiments that remain for generations, to be transformed into stories, pictures, or memories lasting sometimes for centuries.

Beyond the immediate neighborhood, there are those hidden forms that, as Kevin Lynch has said, help organize the urban sprawl of our cities, even though they were neither planned nor particularly evident to the casual observer. The city wears a whole crowd of masks; it is like a carnival ball where the identities of the dancers, though not the dance nor the area in which they dance, are constantly changing. This constant shifting of perception, identity, and memory is responsible for the way that time and place intersect with our individual lives to produce an urban character nowhere accounted for by the mere physical design of the place. It is only when the theatre is filled with actors-who are also the audience-that it comes into play. Each of us plays a role in that theatre which is determined by an often unrecognized history of uses and images that have preceded our own participation in its spectacle. Over time a kind of plot, even a legend emerges, that gives the place not only an identity but a local habitation and a name. In the names of streets, squares, places, even in mere numbers or unofficial nicknames for districts we see the shaping and carving out of space not only by the imagination but by actual physical intervention driven by language and collective memory.

Over time these places become quasi personified and acquire the traits we normally attribute to living beings. Neighborhoods suffer assaults, contract diseases, die and are resuscitated, are given head to toe makeovers, and take on the personalities of dramatic characters in a comedy of errors, mistaken identities, heartbreak, and newfound love. The comic plot can energize urban renewal, bring about change for the better (or the worse), and drive economic growth simply because it has been imposed on a groundplan that would otherwise be a tabula rasa. Ignore that long-established plot, however, and no amount of money, political clout, or goodwill can revive a dying neighborhood or city.

The reactions to the Katrina disaster in New Orleans show just how powerful the comic myth of survival can be in helping a city to recover. No one who has lived there is ignorant of the political cronyism, the inequities among different districts and neighborhoods, the neglect of obvious structural weaknesses in both the infrastructure and the levee systems. Yet the comic spirit associated with everything from Bourbon Street and the Quarter, the infectious joy of its music, and even the distinctive ritual of a Dixieland funeral meant that, whatever personal suffering we may have witnessed (and there was plenty of it), the world was also mourning a city as though a real person had been dealt a deadly blow. Anne Cauquelin is surely right to insist that these aspects of time and memory are the driving forces that produce the physical city; no machine, however perfect and efficient, would inspire that kind of hope. It is doxa, the common impression of what a thing is, rather than its statistical and legal official reality, that keeps a city alive and thriving, that makes it an organism that will continue to develop and build a future.

Both Cauquelin’s city at night and her city shaped by memory, myth, and doxa (or popular opinion) partake of the essence of carnival. They are composed of unofficial space and time, yet they are given a role to play in the order of the urban. By staging images of freedom from rules and constraints and offering us the chance to choose other roles than those imposed on us, if only for a short while, it satisfies our need to step away and see the city and its life as a whole before we are plunged back into its thick currents and constant swirlings.

Each city, then, aspires to a comic identity of its own. We tend to personify urban conglomerations for that reason; we want to believe that a city is somehow more than a mere machine for living. No city is tempted to propose itself as a tragic hero, lest it predict its own demise. We cannot escape imagining our cities as protagonists in a struggle for survival, and we know that they are often driven by whatever myth they are fortunate enough to foster. After the television version of “Dallas” became available worldwide, so that even Berber women in North Africa were avid viewers, the representatives of the city were startled to see what large crowds they were drawing every time they appeared at a European trade show or conference. Everyone knows that the real Dallas is nothing like its fictional counterpart-a tawdry version of the tragic life of the city, perhaps-but still, people were fascinated that a place by the same name actually exists. That is the power of doxa indeed, and there is no reason to think that cities can communicate with one another in any other way, just as real people depend on their reputations to establish relationships.

I want to close by mentioning a place just a stone’s throw away from where I live that strikes me as an amusing example of the deliberate cultivation of the comic life. It has the usual characters: the suitor, the rival, the difficult circumstances that seem to forestall any hope of success, and the clever manipulator who brings all the parties together and allows them to live happily ever after. I am speaking of the Town of Addison, as it currently exists largely the creation of one man, though its origins go back to as early as 1842. Though some modest industry was attracted to the area (a cotton gin) around the turn of the century, and the community boasted a post office and, by 1914, a school, it was not incorporated until 1954. Two years later, an airport was built. But it was the carnivalization of the City of Addison (strategically and, I might add, doxally changed to the Town of Addison in 1982) that made the difference. Sensing an opportunity, a businessman with a vision canvassed all the voters in the city (population 595) and persuaded them to elect him mayor and legalize alcoholic beverages. This public access to libations occurred in 1976.

Suddenly the town grew to a population of 8,783 in the next two decades. The business structure changed as well, from manufacturers and suppliers of airport equipment to hotels, restaurants, and corporation headquarters. Within a five-year period, from 1986 to 1991, the number of restaurants alone grew from forty-nine to 118, and from 1990 to 2000 the number of businesses from 251 to 1,981, almost an 800% growth rate. Wise to the importance of memory but lacking any palpable remains of its history, the town had a city hall built in colonial style and some Victorian-looking buildings constructed here and there to give some of the shops a look of faux urban renewal, a sort of stage-set that does not pretend to be truly antique. The city has since become a kind of festival center, with food, jazz and movie festivals, an Octoberfest, Shakespeare in the Park, an impressive fireworks display on July 4th, a playhouse (the Water Tower Theater), a Bookworm Bash, and European-style apartment buildings with squares, restaurants, and shops alongside, and a large public park with a monumental work of sculpture at the center of a roundabout called Addison Circle. What particularly impresses me about the Addison I watched emerge from virtually nowhere is the self-assured comedy of its various and knowing masquerades and its clever maneuverings not only for survival but for prominence. It is surely unique in the region, not least because its 14,000 residents are swollen to some 100,000 diners, businessmen, and other visitors daily. Above all, it attracts the young and must be a good place to live-at least temporarily. I would know. Two of my children each have apartments there. If that isn’t a year-round carnival and a perfect illustration of the comic life of cities, I don’t know what is.

Since I am speaking on Halloween, I thought that it might be appropriate to close with a poem I wrote recently which is very much about this phenomenon of the life that persists in doxa and imagination, whatever may happen to the original city and its denizens:

Ghost Story

That part of me
so hard to see,
that innermost
we call my ghost
and may presume
death won’t subsume,
all cities share,
however bare.

I do not mean
some spectral scene
we face undaunted
(a space that’s haunted)
but a strange grace
called “spirit of place”
that dwellers tend
to comprehend.

Our real estate,
plain or ornate,
small or immense,
brings residence
and personality
to its locality
and gives us groundings
for our surroundings.

Its soul remains
deep in earth’s veins,
where our life stories
trace territories
no matter what
now fills the plot:
a stain or smut
from Rome’s first hut.

© The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture – Permission is granted to copy and redistribute this lecture on the condition that the content remains complete and full credit is given to the author.

  • © 2016 Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture - Contact Us - Admin Login -