Friday, August 19, 2011

40/365 - "American Cities" by Jean-Paul Sartre

I have to admit, I was almost a bit afraid to read from this book.   I wasn't afraid that a few essays would suddenly turn me into a raging existentialist, but I did worry that it would be too hard for me.  I'm part of that annoying cluster of people who hear the word "philosophy" and unconsciously remember bad textbooks we had to trawl through, and therefore refuse to read Plato and Locke because we believe they're going to make our molars fall out from boredom.
So, as I've said, I went in with fear and trembling.  But I chose well (I always think of swallows...) - "American Cities" was a travel essay, and rather a sweet one at that.  Yes, he said some things are ugly and depressing, but I agree so it didn't hurt my feelings.   There were a lot of bits where I went, "Oh yeah", even though it was written in the 40's.  Like when he pointe out that in America we do not have monuments that becomes famous, we have things that become famous because they haven't been knocked down.  He talks a lot about how cities feel almost weightless, and all have a temporary feeling.  I suppose when you come from France - where, from what I understand, a family will own and live in a house for generations - our attitude towards our homes must seem odd.
Even though he doesn't have much praise for the the look of American cities (I don't blame him a bit), good old Sartre says some awfully nice things about the spirits they have.  And, for all the less than complimentary things I think about American cities in general, I agree with him.
And then one finally comes to like their common element, that temporary look.  Our beautiful closed cities, full as eggs, are a bit stifling.  Our slanting, winding streets run head on against walls and houses; once you are inside the city, you can no longer see beyond it.  In America, these long, straight unobstructed streets carry one's glance, like canals, outside the city.  You always see mountains or fields or the sea at the end of them, no matter where you may be. 
Frail and temporary, formless and unfinished, they are haunted by the presence of the immense geographical space surrounding them.  And precisely because their boulevards are highways, they always seem to be stopping places on the roads.  They are not oppressive, they do not close you in; nothing in them is definite, nothing is arrested...
But these slight cities... reveal the other side of the United States: their freedom.  Here everyone is free - not to criticize or to reform their customs - but to flee them, to leave for the desert or another city.  The cities are open, open to the whorls, and to the future.  This is what gives them their adventurous look and, even in their ugliness and disorder, a touching beauty. 
Aw, gee.

CONCLUSION: I will read more Sartre if he's as nice and understandable as all this.

No comments:

Post a Comment