Romancing the Stones

Sometimes, living in one city after a long period spent in another, means that the transition back can be long and difficult. This is particularly so if that latter city has legendary status in the popular imagination. We spend our days back here longing to be back there, and the smallest reminder can trigger an almost overhwhelming wave of nostalgia. A turn around the corner can suddenly bring us back to an alleyway we saw in Paris. A cup of watery coffee can cause one to complain that, back in Rome, coffee was good plentiful and cheap. An expensive train ride between two drab suburbs can cause us to remember riding inexpensive public transport across a sea of Edwardian houses through Chicago, and so on.

We are told to get over it, and live in the now. We try and yet, all the same, that longing to be in the city other than the one we are currently in will continue to gnaw at us, and we will continue feeling uneasy in the streets our feet now tread. Worse still, we feel that, somewhere in our nostalgia, we have left a part of ourselves in that city left behind.
Anyone experiencing anything like this might find some resonance in other, more ancient, tracts on city life. Consider, for instance, book IV of the Symposium, in which Plato drew our attention to the intimate links between the city and the outworkings of the human soul.
Consider also how, in his City of God, St. Augustine reminded his readers that as faithful Christians, we live as citizens of the City of Man. However the faithfulness of the Christian is also premised on a kind of nostalgia, a longing for another, heavenly city. The precariousness of the Christian life then, for Augustine, lies in the recognition that all life in one place is unavoidably linked to our longing for another, whether that longing projects itself backward in time or forward.
At the same time, however, this recognition should not blind us to the fact that whichever city we romance, whether it is the one have left or the one we are living in now, it does not last forever. In his Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau wrote that the movement of every citizen within a city irreversibly transforms it in a small way, thereby rendering the project of retrieving that nostalgic image of our romanticised city an act of futility.
This may depress the one longing for the romantic city of the past. However, one comfort that we may draw from this is that, the constant transformation of the city de Certeau identifies is that, as we live through the drudgery of the city we are now in, this drudgery will not last. As Graham Ward hints at in his Cities of God, each day moves the city towards another, prefiguring in its own pathetic sin-stained way, the city that lies on the other side of the eschaton.


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