By Hasan Altaf
When I was in graduate school, in Baltimore, one of the poems I had to teach my own students was Robinson Jeffers’s “The Purse-Seine.” Among both my classmates and the undergraduates it was one of the least popular poems, which should perhaps have been no surprise, since we were encouraged to use it as an illustration of the term “jeremiad”: “a long literary work… in which the author bitterly laments the state of society and its morals in a serious tone of sustained invective, and always contains a prophecy of society’s imminent downfall.” My reaction was more mixed – I liked Jeffers’s long lines; I liked his voice; I liked the imagery, the parallel between the phosphorescence of the shoals of fish and the lights of the city. The first two stanzas are seductive, almost hypnotic (“the crowded fish/know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall to the other of their closing destiny the phosphorescent/water to a pool of flame, each beautiful slender body sheeted with flame”) – and then, in the third stanza, comes this:
“…we have built the great cities; now
There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable of free survival, insulated
From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all dependent. The circle is closed, and the net
Is being hauled in. They hardly feel the cords drawing, yet they shine already. The inevitable mass-disasters
Will not come in our time nor in our children’s, but we and our children
Must watch the net draw narrower, government take all powers – or revolution, and the new government
Take more than all, add to kept bodies kept souls – or anarchy, the mass-disasters.”
And at that point the poem always lost me: Even a piece as otherwise lovely (to me, although in Baltimore I was in I believe a minority of one) as “The Purse-Seine” could never convince me to look at cities in that way, not just out of personal geographical preference but mostly because the analysis is both paranoid and in the end mistaken. One can make an argument for “insulation from the strong earth” and “government powers,” but to me it seems that cities are overwhelmingly a positive force, not a negative one. Of all the things humanity has created, of all of our achievements, cities always seem to me the highest.
Recently however I was in Pakistan, in Islamabad and Lahore, and for some reason I began to reconsider the poem. Before launching into full-blown Jeremiah mode, Jeffers writes, “I cannot tell you how beautiful the city appeared.” That was the line that kept coming back to me, mostly because as far as Islamabad and Lahore go it is unfortunately completely inapplicable, or has been made so: While the older parts of the cities have their beauty – Lahore has the walled city, the canal, the Mall; Islamabad will (hopefully) always have the hills, the jacaranda trees that purple the streets – “development” has not been kind to them, modernity has not been kind to them, their governments and planners in particular have not in any way been kind to them. Even on the briefest of drives the basic ugliness is overwhelming: The architecture is aggressive, almost brutal (flyovers, underpasses, Jersey barriers, fortress-like wedding halls); the marketplaces are strip malls; plastic bags bloom everywhere like dystopian flowers. Islamabad was custom-built and Lahore too has had its fair share of plans, but it seems as though no one is concerned anymore with making their futures as appealing as their pasts.
Utilitarian urban planning and architecture is obviously no crime, and one could perhaps attempt the argument that since Pakistan has so many pressing needs, anything beyond the purely functional would be, if not wasteful, then at the very least irrelevant. This argument though has always struck me as both condescending and, basically, incorrect – everyone responds to grace, everyone needs and wants and deserves something more than just the bare minimum. In any case, even by the utilitarian framework, cities and urban planning in general should still be added to the long list of failures of the government of Pakistan (or rather governments, plural, since in this area provincial and local authorities can also be held accountable): There are master plans, development authorities; there are reports from think tanks and NGOs; there are Planning Commission plans – all of which operate in a separate universe. The physical evidence and my own experience of daily life, albeit brief, suggest that there is no real plan. The cities have just been left to grow, however they can, and if it turns out that “growth” for them means mutation, decay, a peculiarly energetic entropy – well, at least they’re growing.
It goes beyond ugliness, though, beyond the lack of aesthetic pleasure: The fact is that Lahore and Islamabad are failing, have failed. They no longer fulfill the functions of a city; they do not do any of what a city should aspire to or any of the things that make cities the great art of humanity (and aesthetic pleasure is on this list, too, but it’s pretty far down). Their more prosaic failures are glaringly obvious and too numerous to mention; more unfortunate is the fact that for the most part our cities are just small towns overgrown and stuck together, the accidental confluence of separate worlds with little to no meaningful connection with one another. Chaos and disorder are not necessarily terrible, they can be fruitful, they can bring together people and things and ideas that would otherwise never find each other – but the chaos and the disorder of these two cities are sterile. (In Lahore, for example, it is apparently entirely possible to live for years without once leaving the Defence Housing Authority – if one were even to consider such an idea in the first place.)
The worst consequence, though, is what this urban un-planning has done to people. Bad cities – which is what Lahore has become, which is what Islamabad has become (though in Islamabad’s case perhaps things were planned that way) – create bad citizens. (The causality, I’m fairly certain, goes in this direction.) The clearest example comes from the roads, the arteries and veins of a city, and everyone knows the score: No transport, so everyone (who can) drives; no parking, so they abandon their cars wherever a space appears; no sidewalks, so those who have no choice but to walk must do so on the street; no crosswalks, so they dash through the traffic. Almost every sphere has its equivalent (waste management, recycling, power, security); the overall result is that as citizens we are now part and parcel of this decay, we not only suffer it but are also responsible for it.
The decay of our cities has been gradual – in Lahore you can almost see it, spreading outwards – but I do not think there is any hope for similarly gradual improvement, even if such a thing were possible (history seems to show that it is not, that while decay can be gradual improvement never is, that improvement needs something like disaster to make us even wish for it). Things like the Centaurus – planned as a series of towers, a swooping and swooshing base, aesthetic pleasure – are not really the answer – they’re a patch, the energy in the entropy. Building fancy and architecturally creative hotels and naming your marriage halls “Mughal-e-Azam” does not really make the city a city; they barely address the symptoms, let alone the disease.
In Islamabad once I was coming back into town on the GT Road, and for a long stretch there were on both sides endless subdivisions, walled-and-gated communities with absurd names. Pristine and far away, a heavily advertised dream, they seemed like a perfect example of everything wrong with our cities, in their architecture (completely inappropriate for the climate), their location (no jobs, no industries, no pleasure, nothing to do there but park your car overnight), their composition (self-segregation, homogeneity) – and that’s before we even begin the conversation on Pakistan’s pressing needs. This might look like progress, but it’s a fantasy, a deferment; it’s one more step down this plank we’ve been walking for so many years. One step at a time.
In my class Jeffers was unpopular: No one likes jeremiads. I would have liked to end this on a different note, but for our cities, for my cities, I couldn’t imagine one – celebrating Mohenjodaro’s streets is all well and good, but after a few repetitions it starts to fall flat. Jeffers couldn’t come up with a happy ending either; the last few lines of “The Purse-Seine,” when I came back from Pakistan and found my copy, rang eerily and unfortunately true:
“Do you marvel our verse is troubled or frowning, while it keeps its reason? Or it lets go, lets the mood flow
In the manner of the recent young men into mere hysteria, splintered dreams, crackled laughter. But they are quite wrong.
There is no reason for amazement, surely one always knew that cultures decay, and life’s end is death.”
This essay appeared first on 3 Quarks Daily on December 26, 2011 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.