“God made the countryside, man made the city,” was perhaps the most popular line in the intellectual discourse of the 18th century, particularly after the heart-rending scenes of migration depicted by literary works such as Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village inspired poetry and paintings born out of what the contemporary German philosophers termed the esamplastic imagination.
The entire “Romantic” generation of philosophers, painters, and poets of France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and England shunned the idea of having to create urban settlements. The copious paintbrush of William Turner of Oxford, for instance, did not have a single stroke to spare for an urban dwelling or street, though the children there were as innocent as the ones in the villages. If William Blake did speak of those children, as did Charles Lamb, it was to frighten the reader off the spectre of the sinful existence that a city has in store for rural migrants.
Rousseau’s call for a return to nature, though too late in the economic history of the colonial West, was found alluring by the pre-Marxists, the Romantics, the Symbolists, and even the Pre-Raphaelites for a whole century. The idea of a city, despite its theatre and the tantalising possibility of not only philandering but actually “making it” by accepting the status of a “perpetual-picaro”—the unethical adventurer—took a fairly long time to rise out of its stigmatised status as a den of sins. The adolescent heroes of Charles Dickens, the fascinating heroines of Flaubert, and indeed the savage drama at the heart of TheBeggar’s Opera, all point to how harshly the city was considered by the social ethics of the first two centuries of the Industrial Revolution.
The harsh city
And indeed, those were the cities whose entrances were adorned by docks crowded with amorous sailors, crammed with ever-narrowing lanes made heavy by houses rising full three storeys high, obscuring the clear view of the cathedral or church, with backdoors opening into gutters, covered with manholes that made the night journeys of burglars and criminals look like an adventure. The city as understood in those times was no more than stench and squalor.
In order to make a city beautiful, long-winding paths to the country had to be dug up by cutting small hills. These paths, initially built for horse carts and hansoms alone, and the bridges built to span the port-side rivers allowing thoroughfare between the citizen girls and the voyaging sailors, brought to European cities for the first time a look, albeit a false look, of being seamless. Otherwise, of course, the cities giving rise to what Karl Marx called “the capital” were condemned to be prisons created by the landless and rootless for themselves in an attempt to become the merchants of avarice.
Of course, there was a saving grace in the form of the Royal silver line added to the low-market city shape, such as the Versailles and Buckingham Palace, for instance. But, really speaking, they belonged to the medieval period. Their beauties were born in Baroque or Gothic nurseries, their sinews built of arches and pillars coined in the idiom of faith, just as the mosques in Spain and the forts in India were created on the foundation of theology rather than as a pure unambiguous statement of pride and power as a present day Twin Tower in New York City is.
It is not that the palaces were placed out of the cities; rather it was that the cities were spaced away from the royal enclosures, at least in the case of Paris, London, and Vienna. Rome was a bit too old to have received this unique urban planning feature, and it had already lost the city throb to the grand old Vatican. In Italy, of course, many other things happened in an anachronistic manner. Cities such as Siena had already brought the entire citizenry within the fold of its peculiar royal splendour, drawn more out of the natural element than out of a divine sanction (as the political systems in other European countries liked to formulate). One has to understand that the Italian cities had perhaps to build themselves as anti-fortresses to the papal charm. The Diamond Palace at Ferrara and the sundial in Bologna have a similar genesis.
Quite opposed to this, the world-famous Las Rambles avenue of Barcelona, throbbing with licentiousness and energy such as only the Basque language can express, was already established two centuries before the Industrial Revolution made its appearance. As a price, perhaps, the post-revolution Barcelona had to keep tearing itself from the hustle-bustle, and keep climbing above the mean sea level as far as it can.
In a sharp contrast to English, French and Dutch cities, American cities are built differently. Even if the linguistic idiom at the base of their creation is drawn from European languages, the “imagery” fuelling their growth is deeply rooted in what the expression “The American Dream” symbolises. They are racing as if to challenge the idea of horizons. No Limits! they seem to say.
The force and ferocity of the idea of city as the hub of civilisation as forged in the self-absorbed and aspiring American city provides the moving inspiration today for a Hong Kong and Dubai. They are built as if human civilisation did not begin at all until the automobile came into existence. There is also another variety of the urban “grandeur”, interpreted literally as meaning big and bold. That is to be seen east of the now-non-existent wall of Berlin. One is not, of course, thinking of the grand Chancery building or of Berlin University. They were very much a product of the surpluses produced by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But the central quarters of Moscow, and similarly of Beijing, have on show this grandeur. They occupy too much space. The quadrangles and courtyards of their own agrarian past—in China’s case made tranquil by the Buddhist philosophy—came to be re-presented there in terms of “The Large Alone Is True”.
Even the statues in these vast spaces appear to be created quite clearly to intimidate and silence the viewer. One never has the courage to ask “who, where and why” while trying to keep them within one’s view in a single pair of eyes—as one does while looking at the pietra dure of the Medici style, or even the amazing works of Michelangelo.
Essence of a village
In contrast to all these urban creations stands the Asian village. Its past stretches to a lineage beyond one’s memory. Ask a villager when her/his village came into being. The confused response will most likely be, “I do not know, but it has always been here.” The non-origin and the ever-being-there are the essence of the village memory-scape. Ask an archaeologist when the Asian village developed as a social formation. The answer would be, between 9,000 to 7,000 years before our time. Over these millennia, cities came up and perished, but rarely recovered and found instead a reincarnation.
In contrast, villages keep reviving themselves. They are fragile but resilient, small in scale but tremendous in their ability to hold on to their place. It is not in the GDP or GST that villages contribute to the Indian republic that their worth can be measured. Their real worth lies in their providing a backdrop for the republic to be a nation. They do not rise majestically like some sitting elephants stand up to full height. That, cities do. The Asian villages crawl quietly, like rows of ants, but with an instinct for survival that far surpasses the existential desire of any other social organisation, whether it be city, nation, empire, or civilisation. The Asian village has lasted for so many millennia because it knows that it belongs to the earth but the earth does not belong to it. It keeps generating, creating, producing. The cities process, reassemble and name, consume and destroy what the villages have given them. Yet, the village persists, so that the species called Homo sapiens turns out to be a successful experiment in the long process of evolution.
Ganesh Devy is a cultural activist and founder of Dakshinayana.
- “GOD made the countryside, man made the city,” was perhaps the most popular line in the intellectual discourse of the 18th century.
- The entire “Romantic” generation of philosophers, painters, and poets of France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and England shunned the idea of having to create urban settlements.
- The force and ferocity of the idea of city as the hub of civilisation as forged in the self-absorbed and aspiring American city provides the moving inspiration today for a Hong Kong and Dubai.
- In contrast to all these urban creations stands the Asian village. Its past stretches to a lineage beyond one’s memory.