Unreal City

Unreal City, Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought death had undone so many. Wherever I went in London, these lines from T.S. Eliot’s «The Waste Land» followed me. In underground railway tunnels, like corridors leading to the tomb of some long-forgotten pharaoh; on the many bridges crossing the Thames; in museums, theaters, pubs, stations and streets. Everywhere, crowds. People without number. «I had not thought death had undone so many,» I said over and over, counting myself among the many. But I sang it in the comfort that it was a lie. There were so many of us – thousands, hundreds of thousands – and all more alive than ever. Everyone celebrating life, the beautiful rare and sunny days of midwinter. They were all there, all the races of the Earth, of every age. Alone, in couples, families, groups… Some wrapped in silence, others making a noise. And among them many with disabilities. I had not thought a city could have so many people in wheelchairs. It’s not that they are more numerous here – the difference is that they are outside with the others, in a city that takes them into account, that pulls them toward life, that breaks their isolation, that has sidewalks free for all. The crowd flowed everywhere, unstoppable, untiring. It flowed in and out of shops, restaurants, theaters, museums. On the South Bank of the great river, where the theaters, whores and other contagions were once exiled from the city, the arts are flourishing again. From Saint Paul’s Cathedral – Christopher Wren’s masterpiece built in honor of the persistent, angry missionary – the crowd flows over the new Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern, the shrine of art which flourishes in the cavernous corpse of a defunct power plant. There, a crack has opened in the earth and multitudes flock to examine it. It starts, no thicker than a hair, at one end of the vacant factory and slowly grows to tear the floor like a deep, brutal, disordered wound. It’s not the result of an earthquake, but the work of a Colombian artist, Doris Salcedo. It symbolizes the borders that migrants cross on their odyssey toward a new life. But everyone in the crowd sees himself confront the gash, each measures self against the void. One man places his foot into the crevice to see how deep it goes. Another lies flat and reaches in, as if he lost something in the dark. On their backs, one man lies on one side of the abyss, a woman on the other, a third person photographs them. They all laugh, tempting fate. Children jump from one side to the other, stitching their way across the floor, playing hopscotch with the fissure. A man stands alone, a Colossus, astride the crack. The schism may symbolize the hurdles faced by migrants, but Salcedo’s work awakes the uneasy, curious child in all. The crowd flows out, with collars raised against the cold, and winds its way along the river bank. Not far away is the National Theater where, among the current plays, a version of Euripides’ «Trojan Women» is running. The production is set in modern times. The captives in evening dress – surprised, ruined at a celebration. The play overwhelms with the depth of the text, with the cries of pain which bubble up from the darkness of history, of war, of human fate, of the author’s soul. Perhaps the English have created this carnival of experience, this triumph of the public space, through the strict protection of privacy that each guards so jealously. They do not carry identity cards but they accept cameras that monitor every inch of public space. Everything hangs in a delicate but functional balance. At the British Museum, as at other museums and galleries, everyone – visitors and Britons – enters for free. The river flows up the stairs through the Greek Revival columns, it floods and ebbs through the exhibition halls. In company with the reliefs, the statues, the objects from every age – works of kings, of slaves, of free men with their apogee in the celebration of life and freedom that is the procession from the Parthenon – each partakes in a dialogue between death and life. Witness to the ageless anxiety, the fears, the triumphs of all our ancestors, the visitors stand mute. They weigh themselves, today, against the memories, the stones, the power – the inevitable power – of the past. In an unreal city where, in the crowd, the individual finds himself.