Magic Zones

Marina Warner

  • Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilisation by Richard Sennett
    Faber, 413 pp, £25.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 571 17390 X

When Pasolini, disgusted with the fatted values of post-war capitalism in Italy, was dreaming up an alternative in his late Trilogy, he found the imagery he needed in old collections of stories, and made The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron and The Arabian Nights. By turning from the uncanny, contemporary metaphysics of a film like Theorem, he was making common cause with the vulgar imagination and placing his hope in its vigour, in what he perceived to be its unabashed appetites and its laughter. The Arabian Nights, which sadly seems to have survived in this country only in a mutilated and dubbed print, is a period piece of Seventies hedonism. It opens with a jostling crowd in a souk in the Yemen and the auction of a slave girl; there follows much nudity, much touching and grinning in various combinations of partners, and under the aching desert moon, much passionate flesh. Some of the film is set in the jalousied interiors of Moorish bedrooms, or in desert cities such as Sana’a, with its towers of baked mud decorated with white scrolls and borders like piped icing. But on the whole, the freedoms of the flesh Pasolini dreams up take place in the open air, free of clothes or inhibitions – free of stone.

It’s significant that Pasolini turned to the Orient to conjure his rather forced vision of primitive sanity, and that he expressed his resistance to Western embourgeoisement through a honeyed, lyrical and comic picture of nomad culture and its pursuit of joyous, uncomplicated, promiscuous contact. His perception of sin (once a Catholic ...) and his yearning for something other than Western hypocrisy led him to imagine a different geography of desire, rootless, unanchored, pastoral, with encounters taking place in an orange grove or in a tent pitched at will.

In Richard Sennett’s study of bodies and cities in Western culture, flesh and stone are similarly inimical to one another, as the hint of a wound in the title suggests; stones build enclosures, which imprison the flesh as well as give it shelter. But since these are the Nineties not the Seventies, Sennett is less concerned with the flow of sexual desire than with the stemmed flow of fellow feeling.

At the start of the book he recalls going to see a film with a friend whose hand had been shattered in Vietnam and replaced with a prosthesis. He describes how the audience, who had been watching the filmed carnage quite happily, shied from his friend’s mutilation when they were leaving the cinema. Dulled by a diet of screen violence, they hurried away from an image of actual pain, dropping their eyes. Later, in his chapter on the Middle Ages, Sennett cites the fascinating theory put forward by the 14th-century Parisian surgeon Henri de Mondeville: he noticed that when a body is undergoing an operation, the other organs will compensate for the excised or wounded part as if in sympathy. Mondeville called the phenomenon ‘syncope’, and Sennett sees it as a metaphor for the working of the medieval Christian city, in which monks opened foundling hospitals and nuns succoured the sick and the mad in hospices attached to shrines; Knights Hospitallers on battlefields, and the confraternities burying plague victims, provided other kinds of care. Ideally, such a relation between people and places could be regenerated today in the modern cities of the West, though Sennett does not hold out much hope: the best we can manage, he thinks, is live and let live, as in his own neighbourhood of Greenwich Village.

Healing pilgrimages to places like Lourdes continue to give pride of place and dignity to bodies in pain; they do not hide away disfigurements or disease as if they were shameful, and in this they represent continuity with the ideals of Christian pastoral care. But the scene in the cinema with which Sennett opens could be interpreted in the opposite way: the audience may have flinched from the sight of a mechanical hand because they were still able to feel for someone who had suffered such a loss, despite the ‘gory war epic’ they had just sat through. Realistic film imagery of victims sometimes corresponds, in function, to Catholic iconography: the representation of the Madonna with the dead Christ is known as a Pietà because it is intended to evoke pity. That key work of compassionate representation, the Grünewald Altarpiece in Colmar, was painted for a hospital and features a Christ scored with the weals of St Elmo’s fire, an illness which was ravaging the patients at the time the polyptych was commissioned. The screams and squeals that the most violent scenes in contemporary slasher and horror films excite from young spectators express their ‘gut reactions’ – the response of the flesh, their continuing capacity to wince. I’m not taking the argument so far as to say that Full Metal Jacket sensitises the body to empathy with others’ destruction, but that the question whether it numbs and dulls remains open. Not averting one’s eyes from a mutilation might express less sensitivity to its meaning for the sufferer, it seems to me, than looking away. Embarrassment does indeed prevent touching, but there are other ways, other senses with which we exchange awareness of one another.

Cities are places of exile from the lost paradise, Richard Sennett argues: Eden was a garden in which there were no buildings at all. The first town mentioned in the Bible was built by Cain, who gave it the name of his son Enoch; Genesis says nothing more about its history. The next edifice to be built (after the Ark) was the Tower of Babel; made of bricks to reach to the topmost heaven, it was blasted to punish the overweening pride of its architects; the result is the diversity of nations and tongues, still the most vivid prophecy of the great polyglot capitals to come, New York, London. Babel offers a variant on the original Fall: in both stories the human thirst for knowledge and power provokes jealous Yahweh’s divine vengeance. As the distances between people grow, so do the places which mark their differences; Babel grew from the rubble. Setting aside altogether the countervailing tradition of an architecture of bliss – the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Eternal City – Sennett advocates an existential acceptance of permanent exile from radiance, to a realm of fragmentation, mistakes, doubts. All his cities are cities of the plain.

Flesh and Stone sweeps through Western civilisation from ancient Athens and the architecture of early democracy to New York today and the scoria of democracy’s recent, dystopic manifestations (the homeless person’s bender, the crack joint). In this attempt to map the urban world through time, Sennett proceeds by selecting an emblematic place or cluster of places in order to draw out the dominant significance of the relationship between men (women, sometimes) and their manmade environment. In Athens, he evokes the gymnasia where young boys wrestled naked and slippery, the forum with its open-air walks, the raked seats of the theatre which acted as a sounding board for the actor’s voice (while he might be small and far away, his words resounded as if he stood much nearer), and the Pnyx hillside where the Ekklesiae or citizens’ assemblies gathered for public discussions. These confident expressions of male participation are contrasted to women’s seclusion in their rituals – the Thesmophoria, in which they re-enacted Persephone’s abduction and return to earth, and the Adonai, in which they planted lettuce seedlings in memory of the youth whom Aphrodite had loved, and then left them on their rooftops to droop and wither in the hot July sun. Greek practices like these have inspired some of the richest mythological analysis of recent years: there’s an intriguing, speculative account of the Thesmophoria, for example, by Barbara Smith in the current issue of Baetyl. (This new journal coincidentally takes its name from the black stone into which the goddess Cybele metamorphosed in order to escape Zeus on one of his rampages – more flesh and stone in opposition.)

Sennett follows the approach of Marcel Detienne in his brilliant The Gardens of Adonis and interprets these rituals as creative expressions of the social and symbolic roles women fulfilled, as keepers of the codes of family and society. He regrets that ‘ritual was not a tool people can use to investigate or reason about the unknown,’ but is very attracted to its discretion, its enigma. ‘The spaces of rituals created magic zones of mutual affirmation,’ he writes. It’s not so certain, however, that their character inheres in stone, in the type of temple or dwellings where they took place. These were sometimes hearth ceremonies, but not always.

In Hadrian’s Rome, by contrast, women enjoyed greater equality – they ate at the same table as their husbands, and could inherit and dispose of their own wealth – but its geography of power coerced its citizens and its slaves into submission; forced them into the ceremonies of imperial authority. The Romans erased the distinction between performance and reality: a gladiator playing Orpheus torn to pieces was literally mauled in full sight of all. ‘Whatever fame sings of,’ Martial wrote, ‘The arena makes real for you.’ In the same way, they founded cities in the image of Rome wherever they went, digging a central mundus for a capitol, and imposing spectacle, hierarchy and linearity in an unholy alliance.

In the section on medieval Paris, Sennett reveals most clearly his new-found sympathy ‘with the Judeo-Christian belief in the spiritual knowledge to be gained in the body’. Vulnerability, suffering, humbleness, victimhood: the upside-down value system Christ inaugurated developed an ideal urban economy of compassion. But while Sennett holds up the medieval monastery and the church as examples, he is finally too honest not to confront Christianity’s devastating failure in this sphere.

The book’s cover reproduces Piero della Francesca’s famous painting of Christ’s flagellation, which is set at the back of a serenely architectural loggia, with a mysterious group of two men and a youth standing in the foreground. Many bytes have been used up interpreting this image, and Sennett chooses Marilyn Lavin’s explanation: she has identified the men as fathers of sons who died young through illness – the two groups are thus pendants, Christ’s sufferings continuous with the men’s human loss. But the composure of Piero’s style is something less elegiac but rather more tranquil and austere than this theory suggests – which is, besides, only one among many. Nevertheless, the argument about Piero’s vision of an eternal Catholic present, realised in a single unified space, makes real sense, for he also elaborated, in the famous frescoes at Arezzo, the Triumph of the Cross over outsiders – over Jews and pagans. Romans and Persians. The embrace of the Church, in all its saving forgiveness and healing, and vaunted egalitarianism and freedom from prejudice (‘There shall be neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free’ etc), could not tolerate those who refused conversion, who did not want to yield to its warm hold, as Sennett shows in the most brilliant section of his book, the chapter on the segregation of the Venetian Jews in the Ghetto. ‘Send all of them to live in the Ghetto Nuovo which is like a castle,’ the Venetian Zacaria Dolfin proposed, ‘and [to] make drawbridges and close it with a wall; they should have only one gate, which would enclose them there and they would stay there, and two boats of the Council of Ten ... would go and stay there, at night, at their expense.’

In 1516, the Ghetto Nuovo was built; a hundred years later, the Jews, many of whom had fled to Venice from persecution elsewhere, had effectively become strangers to most of their fellow citizens, and were the subject of monstrous fantasies (that the men menstruated, ate babies etc); in 1629-31, the ravages of plague were exacerbated when the Jews were not allowed to leave their dense, airless warren; in 1636, the Ghetto was attacked, torched and its inhabitants killed in one of the worst pogroms yet seen in Europe. Syncope had run out of energy. For Sennett, Shakespeare’s portrait of the Christian merchants’ ‘lightness’ of character, compared to the depths and consequence of Shylock’s tragedy in The Merchant of Venice, marks the moment of entry into the modern world. Meanwhile, torturers believed the inquisitors when assured that it was only the devils who were screaming at the pain, not the human bodies whom they held at their mercy.

Sennett tells us that his book was begun fifteen years ago in collaboration with Michel Foucault. Foucault’s influence is apparent in its interest in power, in its quest for understanding impulses towards abjection and dominance, in its intermittently personal tone, but above all in its preference for almost any state of being or feeling over indifference and passivity. ‘Freedom which seeks to overcome resistance ... dulls the body,’ Sennett writes. ‘It is an anaesthetic. Freedom which arouses the body does so by accepting impurity, difficulty and obstruction as part of the experience of liberty.’ This commitment to stimulus can lead to some surprising judgments: describing the guillotine. Sennett deplores Revolutionary gravitas and the lack of drama between crowd and executioner, which had once been customary; discussing the death of Louis XVI, he objects to the phalanx of soldiers and to the speed and reticence of the deed, which prevented crowd participation in the King’s pain. A hundred years on, and roads and railways increased the deadly isolation of city dwellers from one another and continued to lull and passify (sic) their flesh.

The author of Flesh and Stone can turn rather priestly at times: ‘the moral divide between flesh and stone is one of the marks of the secularisation of society,’ Sennett writes. But with the increase in ethnic conflict and the growing numbers of the homeless (nearly one person in 200 in the summer in New York, ‘placing the city above Calcutta but below Cairo in this index of misery’), practical measures seem to be needed much more than mystical symbols: the stones of an ordinary roof, of an ordinary hearth, not of temples or altars; a workaday saucepan, not a chalice. It may sound like stating the obvious, but as Christopher Jencks points out in The Homeless, the solution of homelessness is simply housing, and housing can be provided by an enlightened and effective housing policy.

The Australian playwright and historian Paul Carter has written eloquently on the settlement of the Yarra River and early colonial building in what became Melbourne; it would have been interesting to explore this. The opening up of Paris during the Revolution and the Second Empire, which Sennett discusses, throws light on the establishment of imperial authority elsewhere; in South Africa, there is new thinking on how to redraw the symbolic spaces of authority. Similarly, after looking so absorbingly at the different ways Athenian men and women inhabited their cities, Flesh and Stone could have followed up the continuing differences in contemporary life: women’s gossippings in the neighbourhood, men’s networkings on the business circuit. Few people who use London Transport, or attend football matches, concerts or demonstrations, would agree that modern cities have reduced resistance and difficulty or even stimulus – though the Criminal Justice Act has now outlawed some of these forms of association. Moshing, or churning with the crowd at the front near the band, and stage diving, surfing over the crowd’s head, passed bodily from hand to hand, have become two of the new pleasures of our day, not quite the happy-go-lucky jostling of Pasolini’s dream of lost pleasure, but, in keeping with the times, a more desperate bid for bodily contact.