The Dream of a City
“Drømmen om en by,” 1964
Dreams are like poems and other ways of interacting: before we know it, they’ve dug their way in and brought forth a string of particularly enduring clichés. If you’ve ever dreamed, as Freud says we all must, then you can do it again and again, and if you’ve ever seen something repeat itself, then you see it again and again — and pretty soon you don’t see anything else: Poetic Customs and Practices #64, a ghost in full armor.
It’s with that kind of tangible windmill that a writer does battle when he critiques his work and thus his life. A few years ago the Swedish writer and critic Göran Palm said something like this: “Why write about horses, when we know that most farmers have tractors?” Many writers, both before and since that came up, have changed their approaches after that kind of reception. In today’s poetry there are numerous chromed elements gleaming with the same light as the shining horses of the past — it’s only natural. But why not carry the question to its logical extreme, ride a bit further out, and shift poetic strategies: why write about nature at all, when most people live in cities?
If I may: that, of course, is nonsense. And: there is, of course, something in it worth discussing.
A couple of years ago I was living in Knebel, down by Mols. My window had a view of trees, a ﬁeld, and sky. I carried on long conversations with that view, and I continued them when I went for walks in the countryside, where there was always some far-ﬂung comment to ﬁnd along the beach, up in the hills, or among the clusters of houses and farms. A conversation that had been carried on for centuries, one that I more or less patiently continued weaving — almost as patiently as the farmer with his plow, regardless of whether he was using a horse or a tractor. One day he said, “The rewards aren’t worth the effort; it’d be better to live in town.” This classic reason for ﬂight from country to city suited me perfectly; I packed up my pen and paper and left. And though it wasn’t exactly that simple, today I think it’s simple enough; no other explanation ﬁts any better.
Ironically, now that I live in Copenhagen I have the same view I had before: trees, a ﬁeld, and sky. But for many reasons the conversations we carry on are far from the same. For me there’s one overarching reason: so many people.
A statement like that might be interpreted as a terse and provincial expression of marvel at a metropolis and all its inhabitants, a cliché dragged out of some Secretary of Tourism’s suitcase and slightly revised, a dream of heady action and sweet lives in abundance.
But not all dreams are clichés. In any case, more than once, at irregular intervals, I’ve had a dream that can’t be packed into my private cliché case, at least not yet. It just won’t shrink enough. Over time, its theme and main features have become increasingly speciﬁc and clear; only the details change. It may begin with me walking into a tiled bathroom with all sorts of ﬁxtures. That doesn’t surprise me, even though I had no intention of walking into it. With utter trust, I then see that it’s no longer a bathroom; it’s now a bakery, a dairy mart, a butcher shop, or a public swimming pool, and as the rooms freely change, and I walk on through long corridors with decorative pools, through offices and royal chambers with smoky glass, through parlors to hallways to rooms with government officials, to communal kitchens, through trolley cars, etc., I understand that I’ve come into a city, the only way a person can come into it: from inside. And when I ﬁnally stand looking out over the square or the park, and then stroll across the green lawns, I feel perfectly happy. Not so much because of the city itself, but because of the inﬁnite number of people who, wherever I went, were in the midst of some task or other, and who are also in the midst of tasks there in the park. Some of them I recognize from other places and times in my life; others, possibly most of them, I don’t, but still, without amazement, I ﬁnd it perfectly natural that there’s no difference in my relationship to the known people and the unknown ones. That’s what makes me happy. Only one thing bothers me: that I can’t talk with all these people. But I reassure myself that it’s because they exist only in my consciousness. Then I wake up.
Of course one of those cities is a dream, the other a reality — or are they? In the real world, too, it’s clear to me that my consciousness has become like a city, and that the rewards of my move to this new work environment are, so far, massively greater than the effort. From a reasonable degree of manageability with a more or less ﬁxed number of possibilities for encounters, and an accordingly calm pulse rate, I’ve now settled myself in a place where the feeling of unmanageability is insistent, where my consciousness is detached from my environment, and above all, where anonymity is a fact of life.
I want to live as centrally as possible in this anonymity. I’d like to live in the town hall square, in keeping with the image of a city as a view to hold a conversation with. I often peacefully nurture fantasies about a city nearly the size of Denmark. In brief: I want to feel that I live in the mass society I really do live in. And it’s that unmanageable and anonymous mass society that I’m referring to now, when I say that a writer can have a duty to seek out an environment.
Naturally, there are good reasons for fearing anonymity. It means that the individual is vulnerable, lonely, and in the long run superﬂuous — there are so many other people anyway. And if we turn for a minute to the dynamics that all these people set in motion in our societies, then the anonymity almost does induce fear: unforeseen production leads to new unforeseen production, on and on, with a blind hope that the multitude of byproducts will be useful. A powerful experience of this anonymity and of the apparently sovereign acceleration of these social mechanisms can easily give rise to the well-known feeling of “everyone for himself.” And when the ﬁrst steps are taken in that direction, then there is a real danger that mass society will move toward mass annihilation, either physical or psychological.
But a mass society, given exactly the same background conditions, can also do the opposite: it can invite us to take part in aspects of humanity that we haven’t known about; it can awaken our curiosity, our urge to see what is actually going on. And really, isn’t this an excellent work environment for a writer? Politicians put their best efforts into coordinating and ﬁnding connections between what has happened and what is going to happen. I believe that’s a job that must be tackled on many different fronts; and without being either overly ambitious or overly modest I feel that writers represent one of those fronts. The concept of living in a city — an environment without what we usually think of as an environment, without borders — and feeling supportive of that social order: that concept is what I want to see used as a foundation for critiquing writers’ work.
I think that too much weight is laid on self-realization. I think that, as a counterweight to the unmanageability of the world, a cult of the individual springs up, maybe even of the unmanageability of the individual — as an attempt to create balance, but on a shaky foundation. And if we writers can’t work things out by any other means, we can always stake out one area, act as if we’re documenting it, and thus provisionally legitimize the structures of a false environment. Or we can stake out strangeness, crawl down into cellar doors and through sewer systems, turn our souls inside out or hide in attics.
Maybe it can’t be any other way. But I’m not so sure.
Jens Ørnsbo, in the most recent issue of Vindrosen, writes, “increasingly, literature in peaceable societies has to live on more or less inﬂated crises and conﬂict situations.” He adds, “the last problem, a lack of problems, is becoming apparent.”
I don’t believe that.
Can writers write only if they’re provoked by crises, conﬂicts, and problems? And if so, what’s the matter with using the following problem: What is it, actually, that we’re taking part in? What is a mass society? What is this city: a work of art, a mobile, a set of building blocks — or what? It must be possible to write our way into those questions. The day we can put mass society into the cliché case will be the day we’ve found a new name for it. We dream, despite everything, of a more human way of expressing what we now are living.
Translated from the Danish
Inger Christensen was born in Vejle Denmark, and was one of Europe's leading contemporary experimentalists. Her works include poetry, fiction, drama, and essays. She received numerous international literary awards, including the Nordic Prize of the Swedish Academy, the Grand Prix des Biennales Internationale de Poésie, the Austrian Sate Prize for...