Thursday, January 31, 2013

no denim

If the cities of the world had not been deserted, they would have been destroyed.

-- Clifford D. Simak, City

When I made a living as a performer, I would go to the plains in September with a farm equipment company.  In Nebraska, Ohio, Iowa, Indiana, or Illinois, on a site with permanent infrastructure used three days a year, in a sawdust arena under the sky with twenty-foot high entrance doors, I summoned, dismissed, named and praised, sometimes drove the latest tractors, for the delight of farm families.  They dressed me like the kind of person who might buy a tractor: no denim, khakis, flannel plaid shirt, the latest baseball cap in company colors, and on cold days a barn jacket.  They thought my midwestern moonface fit the product well, and so they paid me enough to bridge the rough patches of an actor's business. 

I had the gig for ten years.  When I started, the bleachers were often packed, and we might average five hundred spectators six shows per day.  The farm show site, an evanescent city of ten blocks square, was jammed with grandpas and grandmas, moms and dads and kids, the smallest of whom were towed down the street in little red wagons.  There was something for everyone at the farm show -- if you lived on a farm.

Ten years later the bleachers were often empty, and the streets clear.  There weren't as many farm families.  Agriculture was still a healthy business, but it was changing.  There were fewer buyers, and they bought more machines, and they didn't have to come to a farm show to make their decisions.

There's a strain of science fiction that fears the success of cities.  And there's another strain that rejoices in forecasting their failure.  The city, that place after which they've seen it, you can't keep them down on the farm.  The place your child runs away to and is lost, and comes back later as a different person who doesn't belong on the land.  The place where everything changes and traditions go to die, but there are a hundred ways to live and everything is up for grabs.

One of our fantasies is that cities will eat our souls, interring us in coffins of steel and concrete.  The other is that the cities will devolve into ghost towns, leaving us only savage lives to live.  We know without having to figure it out that everything modern comes from the urban landscape, but on alternating days we change our mood about modernity.

The bourgeoisie (burghers, literally people of the town) arose in the cities, making so much money that kings had to parley with them in a parliament before they could fight their wars; and popes damned them for buying and selling on the market rather than at eternal prices.  When the bourgeoisie get in a sour mood about the cities, they may go to the country to live by what they imagine is rural simplicity, and then god help them.  Brook Farm and New Harmony broke up after a few years, and that is the more benign ending of this plot; the less benign ends at Jonestown.

Clifford Simak thought that technology would relieve us of the need to live near each other, and then we would disperse ourselves in manors about the countryside.  But it is the countryside, not the city, that is depopulated; and driving through the plains, off the interstate highway, you'll see ghost farmhouses.  I have two fantasies about my later life: a Manhattan apartment and a Vermont farmhouse.  I'm not rich enough to have both, and I have chosen the Manhattan apartment.  It's a simple life, and an ecologically sound one, in which I share heating and cooling, transportation and greenery, facilities and infrastructure with thousands of neighbors.

The most wasteful lifestyle is the isolated farmhouse.  There was once of course an economic rationale for living in splendid isolation, but now a single operator can farm hundreds of acres from an air-conditioned cab with stereo and internet, the equipment controlled by a satellite that knows where you are within three feet of tolerance.  Most farmhouses are now a self-indulgence.

And the city is where they figured out how to do this.

The values by which cities are condemned were born in the cities.  We think too much of the Israelites as desert nomads or as subsistence farmers.  Their scriptures, including the splendid Deuteronomic History that tells of the tragedy and division, destruction and redemption of David's Kingdom, were shaped (or "redacted," as the scholars say) in the time when Judean exiles, descendents of those sent into captivity in Babylon, returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and to restore (recreate) their ethics, their values and their religion.  In Jerusalem they argued about their origin, their laws, their gods, their identity.  We see the signs of their argument in their statements of the Law, and in the outrage of their prophets.  In the city heroism and cowardice, righteousness and sin, justice and corruption, are displayed and judged.

The god who would destroy the cities of the plain must have been there, and failed.

No comments: