Monday, February 16, 2004

Jonathan Raban, Soft City (1974).

Raban's collected thoughts only begin to cohere as a unity at the very end of this intriguing book. His essential argument is that a "good working definition of metropolitan life would centre on its intrinsic illegibility," that "most people are hidden most of the time, their appearances are brief and controlled, their movements secret, the outlines of their lives obscure" (222). That is to say, more so in cities than elsewhere, each of us constructs an identity that we choose to share; that identity tends to be fluid and mutable, adapting as we move from one set of associations to another. Because of this shifting, because of these masks, it's nigh impossible for an
observer to make sense of the city-dweller--let alone his relations to all other (and equally mutable) citizens.

In order not to "live in cities badly", we need, Raban asserts, "to comprehend the nature of citizenship, to make a serious imaginative assessment of that special relationship between the self and city; its unique plasticity, its privacy and freedom" (230). His own attempts to that end in this book are necessarily autobiographical, and offer his own fascinations with events, historical and literary (predominantly 19th c.), that show characters making space for themselves in cities (principally London). His discussion swirls from newcomers to stylistics to consumerism to the modern shamanism of the civitas to physical spaces played against imagined spaces.

Throughout his discussion of the city, his acute eye for detail as well as his careful reading of works that essay some description of cities makes his reading of what a city is and what a city should be quite different from the usual prescriptions we find in Le Corbusier or Mumford. Raban's thesis that we need to understand cities better--even as he rejects the idea that such an understanding is entirely possible--in order to make them better, safer places, is not rooted in moralism (or Manicheanism, which Raban also condemns quite soundly) but in an empathy that is quite admirable.

It was quite a neat book; I'm glad I picked it up.