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3. Cultural Places

Symbolism of Place

III. Cultural Places

In this chapter we briefly look at some of the most significant manmade cultural places of the world and suggest how these places are symbolic of the natural places of the world. We conduct a survey of these places rather than a classification with the objective of showing how cultural places symbolize natural places.

It was one of the basic tenets of the life work and thought of Ernest Becker that mankind creates culture in order to escape from and transcend nature. It was a viewpoint he eloquently expressed in his final book Escape from Evil. The paradox is that in attempting to escape from nature man mirrors nature. The skyscrapers of cities are really no more than modern manmade mountains. The streets symbolic of rivers. The gardens symbolic of that ancient image of an earthly paradise first symbolized in the Garden of Eden. And even the city itself, really no more than the symbol of an island surrounded by the vastness of the ocean of nature.

1. City

One of the greatest studies of the city ever undertaken is contained in The City in History by Lewis Mumford. The book begins with an interpretation of the nature and the origin of the city and then follows the city's development from Egypt and Mesopotamia through Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages to the modern world. Mumford reaches far back into history to find the origins of the city.

"Human life swings between two poles: movement and settlement. The contrast between these modes may be traced back to the original break between the mainly free-moving protozoa that formed the animal kingdom and the relatively sessile organisms that belong to the vegetable kingdom."

He notes that "at every level of life one trades mobility for security, or in the reverse, immobility for adventure." The immobility of settlement which cities symbolized had certain precursors. "Before the city," he notes, "there was the hamlet and the shrine and the village; before the village, the camp, the cache, the cave, the cairn; and before all these there was the disposition to social life that man plainly shares with many other animal species."

Mumford notes that the city first took form "as the home of a god: a place where eternal values were represented and divine possibilities revealed." He comments that the first germ of the city is in the "ceremonial meeting place that serves as the goal for pilgrimage." The city concentrates "certain 'spiritual' or supernatural powers." But despite the religious symbolism of cities their main purpose is in the creation of culture. Mumford writes that the "chief function of the city is to convert power into form, energy into culture, dead matter into the living symbols of art, biological reproduction into social creativity."

This symbolic significance of the city is better understood in contrast with the "non-city" which surrounds it. The city versus nature contrast is one of the major symbolic contrasts in story forms for the city is the greatest overall symbol of mankind. Raymond Williams in The Country And The City notes that the country offers "the idea of a natural way of life: of peace, innocence, and simple virtue." On the other hand, the city:

"...has gathered the idea of an achieved center: of learning, communication, light. Powerful hostile associations have also developed: on the city as a place of noise, worldliness and ambition: on the country as a place of backwardness, ignorance and limitation. A contrast between country and city, as fundamental ways of life, reaches back into classical times."

One might argue that this contrast goes farther back than classical times.

Up to a certain point, notes J.E. Cirlot, the idea of city corresponds to landscape-symbolism in general, "of which it forms one representational aspect, embracing the important symbols of level and space, that is, height and situation." However, with the rise of civilization, the city took on the characteristics of a sacred geography. Rene Guenon in Le Roi du monde, writes that the general disposition of the city was never arbitrary, utilitarian or fortuitous. He notes that cities were planned in strict accord with the dictates of a particular doctrine and hence the city became a symbol of that doctrine and the society which upheld it.

The Spaniard Ramiro de Pinedo emphasizes the magic and sacred power of cities. In his book El Simbolismo en la medieval espanola he notes that the city walls had magic powers since they were outward signs of dogma. Ornamental reliefs on capitals, lintels, and tympana of the Middle Ages often depict the outlines of a walled city, although in a way which is more emblematic than symbolic. These ornaments, he notes, are a kind of prefiguration of the heavenly Jerusalem. An angel armed with a sword is sometimes to be seen at the city gate.

Carl Jung sees the main symbol of the city as a mother-symbol and as a symbol of the feminine. In Symbols of Transformation he interprets the city as a woman who shelters her inhabitants as if they were her children. That is why the two mother-gods Rhea and Cybele - as well as other allegorical figures derived from them - wear a crown after the pattern of a wall. In addition, he notes, the Old Testament speaks of cities as women. Lewis Mumford in The City in History agrees with Jung's interpretation of the feminine symbolism of cities. He notes that this was apparent in villages which were the precursors of cities:

"Women's presence made itself felt in every part of the village: not least in its physical structures, with their protective enclosures ... Security, receptivity, enclosure, nurture - these functions belong to woman; and they take structural expression in every part of the village, in the house and the oven, the byre and the bin, the cistern, the storage pit, the granary, and from there pass on to the city, in the wall and moat, and all inner spaces, from the atrium to the cloister. House and village, eventually the town itself, are women writ large."

Feeling that this interpretation may seem to the reader to be "wild psychoanalytic conjecture" Mumford provides symbolism from ancient Egypt and Greece to back up his speculations. "In Egyptian hieroglyphics," Mumford notes that "house" or "town" may stand as symbols for "mother". And he notes, in line with this, "the more primitive structures - houses, rooms, tombs - are usually round ones: like the original bowl described in Greek myth, which was modelled on Aphrodite's breast."

The city has served as an important symbolic element in storytelling and film genres. Frank McConnel in Storytelling & Mythmaking superimposes four traditional narrative forms over a perennial pattern of founding, socializing and moralizing cities. He attempts to show that throughout our cultural past, all of our stories have reflected these few basic forms of archetypes which recapitulate the history of civilization itself.

In epics, the hero is the king and he is the founder of the city. Examples run throughout history. Homer and Virgil in The Aneid and the beginnings of Greek nationalism. The King Arthur legend where Arthur is the founder of the city of Camelot and the Round Table. In the characters of the American Western film, McConnel notes that we can see, with very little stretching, the heirs to the Arthurian legends. In westerns, the king or founder, is represented by the figure of the frontiersman or the cattle baron who carves out from an inhospitable landscape a space that human beings can live in. Examples are provided by the frontiersman of John Wayne and especially the film Red River. It is a vision created by film director John Ford. Here is the city as it was founded and the audience is left to imagine the way things must have come to be the way they are.

Romances are concerned knights (rather than kings) and these knights evolve into marshalls in western films. Here the city that has been founded by the king is now socialized. The hero is less than a king but more than a common man. Henry Fonda in the film My Darling Clementine represents this type of romantic hero. The "Thou Shalt" type of laws are formulated in these cities. The mission here is to establish secondary codes of conduct which make city life tolerable and the greatest fear is the breach of the code of social behavior.

Melodramas make their heros pawns in cities which symbolize the originating problem for the hero rather than the end of the hero's activity. The hero is a conscious agent and a conflict between morality and the violation of established laws is developed. Criminal laws, or the "Thou Shalt Not" type of laws, are formed in these cities. Here, the hero is an investigator, or a detective. In the westerns, the hero is now the sheriff such as Gary Cooper in High Noon and genre film directors are Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang and novelists such as Tolstoy, Dickens, Conrad and Greene. The city has become corrupt and now it threatens the lives of its citizens and the negative implications of the social code outweigh their positive implications.

In the final form of city/story mythology, the hero is seen as a fool and the story form becomes a satire. This city represents a new interior city and the hero is seen as a Messianic figure, a madman. An example is St. Augustine's City of God. Here, there is a possibility for internalized heroism.

There is a strong connection between the city and particular literary genres. In his book Adventure, Mystery, and Romance, John Cawelti notes that "One of the most important aspects of the hard-boiled formula is the special role of the modern city as background." This importance, notes Cawelti, has been apparent from its early use with Poe's detective character C. Auguste Dupin and Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and one of the formula's most brilliant practitioners, G.K. Chesterton.

In his article "In Defense of the Detective Story" Chesterton argued that the most important reason for the detective story's cultural significance was its poetic treatment of the city. The following quote from this article shows this importance of the city to Chesterton. "The first essential value of the detective story," Chesterton writes, "lies in this, that it is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life." In other words, the detective story is a celebration of the symbolism of the city.

"Men lived among mighty mountains and eternal forests for ages before they realized that they were poetical; it may reasonably be inferred that some of our descendants may see the chimney-pots as rich a purple as the mountain-peaks, and find the lamp-posts as old and natural as the trees. Of this realization of a great city itself as something wild and obvious the detective story is certainly the Iliad. No one can have failed to notice that in these stories the hero or the investigator crosses London with something of the loneliness and liberty of a prince in a tale of elfland, that in the course of that incalculable journey, the casual omnibus assumes the primal colours of a fairy ship. The lights of the city began to glow like innumerable goblin eyes, since they are the guardians of some secret, however crude, which the writer knows and the reader does not. Every twist of the road is like a finger pointing to it; every fantastic skyline of chimney-pots seems wildly and derisively signaling the meaning of the mystery."

The above quote is insightful not only for arguing the relationship between the detective genre and city but for showing ways (as we have suggested) that the city mirrors aspects of nature such as mountains, forests and oceans. Cawelti notes that "in many ways, this fantasy of the modern city as a place of exotic and romantic adventure, as the appropriate setting for a new version of the Arabian nights, permeates the classical detective story, particularly in its earlier phases in the later nineteenth century." It is found in books such as Wilkie Collins's Moonstone, Doyle's The Sign Of Four, Robert Louis Stevenson's The New Arabian Nights and John Dickson Carr's The Arabian Nights Murder.

Through the writings of these authors Cawelti sees the city as transformed from a modern center of commerce, industry and science into a place of "enchantment and mystery where symbolic figures from the heroic past and the exotic East walk around." He remarks that this has been one important aspect of the English or classical detective story.

With the American extension of the classical detective formula into the hard-boiled formula of Hammett and Chandler, the vision of the enchanted, mysterious, exotic city is replaced by one of corruption and death and exploitation. The following is from Ed McBain's Fuzz:

"The bitch city is something different on Saturday night, sophisticated in black, scented and powdered, but somehow not as unassailable, shiveringly beautiful in a dazzle of blinking lights. Reds and oranges, electric blues and vibrant greens assault the eye incessantly, and the resultant turn-on is as sweet as a quick fix in a penthouse pad, a liquid cool that conjures dreams of towering glass spires and enameled minarets. There is excitment in this city on Saturday night, but it is tempered by romantic expectancy. She is not a bitch this city. Not on Saturday night."

This view of the city is a long way from the view that Chesteron had of the city.

While there exists a type of general city symbolism as we have discussed above, particular cities have come to acquire their own special symbolic significance. We will only touch on this area here, for it is much too broad for our current analysis. Just as there is great symbolism based around the continents and nations of the world it is not difficult to argue that there is much symbolism based around the great cities of these continents such as New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Paris, Rome, London and Rio.

New York and New Orleans have symbolic significance as "gateways" to America. Most of our American forefathers entered the new world of America through the eastern gateway of New York and then entered into the heart of America through the southern gateway of New Orleans. In this sense, one could say that New York represents the gateway to America while New Orleans represents the gateway to the "heart" of America. True to general east-west American symbolism, the cities of the east represent the old and traditional values of America while those of the west represent the new.

Interestingly enough, an important recent development in American city symbolism is associated with professional sports franchises and especially football franchises. In many ways, professional sports franchises offer psychological justification of city inhabitants as places to live while at the same time allowing vicarious participation in the glories (and defeats) of the team. This justification is thought to be an exclusive province of that new breed of Americans called "sports addicts" but in a very real sense all of us are "sports addicts." On Sundays it is not only the honor of the franchise city which is at stake but also the honor of all of those who live within the city. In periods between national wars when national armies defend national honor, sports teams represent the armies of the cities and battles can be waged on a weekly basis.

Most observers suggest that professional franchises, and especially football, symbolize the violent nature of contemporary American life. This is an easy and superficial answer. The real symbolism of football teams and the places they represent relates more to ancient rituals and the participation mystique represented by these rituals. In an era of differentiation and separation football allows entire cities and their inhabitants to momentarily experience a symbolic communion. In her book The Human Condition, Hanna Arendt hits the nail right on the head:

"The things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objectivity lies in the fact that...men...can retrieve their sameness...by being related to the same chair and table...Against the subjectivity of men stands the objectivity of the man-made world rather than the sublime indifference of an untouched nature."

In this sense, the inhabitants of cities with professional sports teams can feel this "sameness" during battle by their local warriors. The sports teams are similar to mass produced products of culture in that they show during Sunday battles the sameness of the cities inhabitants who all, in a sense, are "owners" of the product.

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