|Bowl, Clarissa Upchurch, 2009|
Out of Poe and Baudelaire arise generations of gumshoes treading the mean streets of cities quoting, in Philip Marlowe’s case, T.S. Eliot, who, in turn, sees crowds undone by death flowing over city bridges recalling, as they do so, Dante’s vision of The Inferno. Chandler’s detective and Eliot’s more vulnerable, more disjunctive persona are two aspects of the same being. These complex, tough, world-weary detective figures shamble through the films noirs of the forties. With just a minor shift into the world of ideas they reappear in different guises to haunt the Gotham City of Batman and his ilk, the dystopic highs and lows of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, and drift, confused, through the dissolving walls of Alex Proyas’s Dark City. Their adversaries, consisting of armies of masked and deformed criminals, secret service operatives, replicants and strangers, draw on both Baudelaire and Baudrillard for their sense of unease. They are the seven old men. They are also the simulacra that question the detective’s sense of place. The cities they inhabit lie under the edict of Dante’s remorseless God but continually threaten to slip into further chaos, because their meanings can no longer support the narratives we demand of them. Such cities are, to return to Benjamin’s point, essentially hunting grounds whose fascination owes less to the logic of salvation or to the detective story where everything fits together and is apt for solution (murder of that sort belongs in the vicarage or the country-house library), than to that which is continually hinted at but remains unknown and incapable of being contained in a single heroic narrative.
This city is the conscious antithesis of the ideal modernist city of Le Corbusier. Corbu’s vision is a rational and classical one. It is at one with Plato’s Republic from which the irrationals, the poets, have been dismissed. There is only the one poetry here and it is absolute, the poetry of the ville radieuse of reason and towers. Such ideal cities, earthly and rational, have a long double history. One type is depicted in the trecento in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fresco, ‘The Effects of Good Government in Town and Country’, where orderly spheres of life are brought together in bustling streets of economic activity and tilled fields outside city walls. The other extends the same vision into the abstract, into the severe and unrelentingly mathematical realm of Piero della Francesca’s ’Ideal City’, a townscape of perfect proportions without people, a place where blind angels walk with the aid of heavenly music and which ordinary mortals have to be educated to enter. This city is one of harsh Apollonian light. In its intensity it partakes of the visionary and divine, offering a synthesis between the Apollonian and the Biblical, for the New Jerusalem of Revelations is just as geometric, glittering like a gem-stone, having twelve foundation stones and twelve gates, the plan of the city perfectly square. It is in fact a form of crystal. Geometry, reason and mystical significance are central to the thinking of the time.
The City of God and numbers constantly interpenetrates the city of man and cash, and continues to do so well into and beyond the Age of Reason. The disjunctions of Mannerists, such as Bronzino , or the eighteenth century maverick, Piranesi, sometimes subvert the drive towards stability and rational space, but even among the inns, brothels, cellars and hovels of the Flemish and Dutch, just as in the engravings of William Hogarth, there remains a notion of clarity as implied antithesis. This vision animates Modernism and the ville radieuse in particular but never succeeds in achieving stability or hegemony over the other.
Baudelaire and Charles Meryon were born in the same year, 1821 and died within a few months of each other. Meryon’s version of gothic, according to Benjamin, consists of an “interpenetration between classical antiquity and modernism”. This is echoed in Baudelaire’s passage on Meryon: “…those spires pointing fingers to the sky; the obelisks of industry vomiting a legion of smoke against the heavens”. Meryon showed tiny figures toiling by bridges, in the shadow of the morgue, caught in the skeleton of a Gothic city of judgment but wearing the rags of post-rational urban expansion. He showed, in short, a dramatic contradiction. Meryon’s vision is neither melodramatic nor grandiloquent. His range is too restrictive for that. He deals in black and white only. He is – almost – a topographer, a topographer of the anonymous and the fragmentary. He is a poet of foreboding without the burden of Victorian rhetoric.
to be continued