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Summer 1999
City Journal Summer 1999.
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  U rbanities

Sleeping Cities
Roger Scruton
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During the eighties I often traveled to Eastern Europe, hoping to make some small contribution to the anti-Communist cause. My errands took me to fabled cities—to their ancient hearts, as well as their dismal peripheries. Of old Warsaw, I found, little remained, apart from the medieval center, burned by the Nazis and then painstakingly restored. But Prague and Budapest had come through the war more or less unscathed. Subsequent building had amounted only to some outlying socialist housing projects, with the occasional faceless block in the city center, devoted to some inscrutable Party function and bristling with armed guards.

A red star affixed to the dome of the beautiful Hungarian Parliament—a neo-Gothic castle inspired by Westminster—signified that it was now an annex of the functionalist block next door, headquarters of the Communist Party. The same red star, scattered over the roofs and pinnacles of Prague, gave to the dilapidated palaces a sad and temporary air, like ornaments from last year's Christmas. Slogans defaced the facades of public buildings: "Fight for Peace," "Forward in Brotherhood with the Soviet Union," "The Program of the Party Is the Program of the People," and similar inanities, which caught the attention only because they coincided, more or less, with the jargon of British sociology textbooks.

Almost every street would contain long, New York-style sidewalk sheds, raised on wooden stakes above the pavement, to protect pedestrians from the slow, steady rain of stucco that fell from the untended walls. Since all buildings were publicly owned, no building was cared for; and visitors gazed upon the spectacle of a baroque city—a city of stucco surfaces—the hollow core of which showed through its crumbling skin. Despite this, and also because of it, Prague seemed utterly removed from the real world, a relic of a vanished life, frozen in its final posture. Arriving there was like entering the room of someone who has died, and whose belongings lie untouched and decaying where he left them.

This experience was especially vivid if you took the bus from the airport to the quarter then named Leninova and changed to the tram that clattered down the cobbled hillside into town. By this route you entered Prague through Malá Strána, the "Little Side," which grew up in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries beneath the castle of Hradcaný, hemmed in between the hill and the river. Domes and campaniles crowd into the bowl of the Little Side, and behind them a peaceful orchard stretches up the hillside toward the twin-towered monastery of Strahov. Each building embraces its neighbor, gable touching gable, curlicue wrapped in curlicue, roof sloping into roof. Cornices and string courses shoot sideways, rush together like laughing streams, and lose themselves in foreign window sills. Turrets and pediments poke above the clutter, and here and there the crumbling wall of a palace abruptly severs the street. The cone-capped towers of gates and bridges, the spikes of swelling onion domes, the gesticulating statues on the parapets, barely arrested in the architectural whirlwind like flimsy ballerinas on a surging sea of stucco—all this superfluity of form and detail stood out in drastic relief against the dirt and decay. Things seemed to remain standing only by a miracle, each building propped against its neighbor, reduced to a flaking shell. One breath and the whole contraption would collapse, and nothing of Prague remain but a cloud of dust.

Spiritually speaking, something like this had already happened. In the streets, the people seemed to notice nothing and smile at no one. But they all walked toward the place where a queue was forming with the same unhurried and obstinate pace, grasping bags of frayed plastic like children gripping toys. The shop window would contain dusty piles of canned and bottled vegetables, a few slogans, perhaps a sculpted sausage or an artist's impression of a cheese. The people stared at these things from fixed and expressionless heads. These fictive goods were decoys, designed to drive away all curiosity. The real merchandise had arrived that morning in the early hours—a carload of chicken wings, Cuban oranges, Hungarian sausages. In such a scene you saw how state-controlled scarcity neutralized the instinct of rebellion and regimented the people into queues. You also saw the ruling principle of Communist Czechoslovakia: the deception that deceives no one, the lie that no one believes.

Nowhere was this principle more in evidence than in the window of the "Agitation Center," last remaining outpost (apart from British sociology departments) of the agitprop set in motion by the Bolsheviks. Behind glass that had never been cleaned, in a window that had never been dusted, a sloping board of posters would proclaim the socialist cause: Nazi-faced American GIs thrust their bayonets into Vietnamese babies, fat capitalists with bulging cigars stood on the heads of helpless workers, and huge missiles, decorated with the Stars and Stripes, flew in regimented flocks over the cowering cities of Europe. Dusty photographs showed weary Communist potentates in gray alpaca suits, signing with fat old hands the bits of paper set before them on modernist desks, while Marx and Lenin stared beyond their porcine bodies into the future. Notices pinned to a screen of cork behind the window displayed more slogans, written in a shaky old hand, composed in the same impersonal syntax, and with the same impenetrable vagueness: "Forward with the Party to a Socialist Future!!" "Long Live Our Friendship with the Soviet People!!" Strange that some frail old person should have taken the trouble to copy out those empty words, to etch them round with quotation marks, and to place them in this dusty shrine.

It was on my third or fourth visit, when I knew the language well enough to read what I saw, that the pathos of the Agitation Center came fully home to me: the pathos of an "agitation" that has dwindled to a palsy. The message of the Center was that things here cannot change, that you are not to hope or plan or strive, that everything has been fixed eternally, and that nothing remains for each successive generation but to append its signature to the fixed and senseless decree. Looking through that dirty window, I saw fear in a handful of dust.

Ten years later I visited the Agitation Center and went inside for the first time. It was now the local headquarters of the Obcanský Hnutí—the Citizen's Movement—which had driven the Communists from power. In charge of the office was Petr Pithart, whom ten years earlier I used to visit in secret, but who was soon to be prime minister of his country.

Before those great events, which so few of us foresaw, the cities of Eastern Europe lay like unopened coffins in the vault of time. Few people in the West gave much thought to their future, and—except for the brief awakening of Solidarity—no sound emerged from them save an indistinct and discontented murmur. To the visitor, these densely inhabited places lacked everything that make cities live. For one thing, there were no markets, and not only because there was nothing to sell. Where buying and selling are forbidden, the economy goes underground. The black market, the specter of a commerce that has died, haunts the city, poisoning all natural dealings between  living people. The visitor to the sleeping cities of Eastern Europe quickly came to see that true cities depend on the free cooperation of those who buy and sell. Markets are not luxuries but a necessary part of the urban project.

The absence of a free economy goes hand in hand with an absence of migrants—or, at any rate, of voluntary migrants. Markets are the most natural form of cooperation between strangers. They are therefore cosmopolitan: in a market, the foreigner is the equal of the native. Hence cities were centers of immigration, places where peasants came to sell their labor, where merchants sold products from distant lands, where financiers with relatives in every port would set up shop and bargain. From the great energy of human exchange, the culture of the city arose—that distinctive, all-embracing festival, in which racial and religious differences dissolve. Only vestiges of this culture remained in Communist Europe, kept alive as a mark of international prestige but scorned in the official ideology. "Cosmopolitan" was, for the Communists, a term of abuse like "bourgeois"; the culture of the town was to be "proletarian," a mishmash of coarse humor and anti-capitalist rage.

A more important thing was also missing. People come together in cities not merely to exchange goods and labor but to protect themselves from enemies. The walled towns of Europe are testimony to the danger in which our ancestors lived, and to their surest means of self-protection—the city itself. Yet the Communist city was not a place of safety; it was a panopticon, irradiated by unseen eyes. It didn't shelter you from danger but exposed you to it more nakedly. Most townspeople, if they could afford it, escaped to the country on weekends, if only to rest their spirits from the X rays that pulsated unceasingly through every public and private space.

And of course a Communist city had no real night life. A few bars stayed open, but they were sordid affairs, where unexplained figures sat alone in corners, and where those with power to arrest you observed every gathering. The Communist Party had its own variant of Christ's saying: where two or three are gathered together in any name but mine, there I shall be in the midst of them. In such circumstances, even a private dinner party was a risk. There were theaters and concerts, but people rushed home from them without lingering in the streets and making no effort to prolong any snatches of conviviality. My own evening entertainments were not entertainments at all, but hushed gatherings in private apartments, where people entered quietly, at carefully staggered intervals. Leaving such a gathering—into the extraordinary stillness of a town where street lighting was sparse, where cars were an object of suspicion, and where few people ventured out after dark—was like stepping into a darkened theater after the players and the audience had gone home, when only the ghost of a drama remained on stage.

In some respects, however, the Communist system preserved the memory of an older and deeper experience of the city. This was, in fact, most apparent at nighttime, when you walked through darkened streets, hearing no sound except your own footsteps on the cobbles—and sometimes the other, fainter footsteps, which stopped and started when you did. You knew then that you were walking through a sleeping city. The capitalist city never sleeps as Prague slept in its mortuary silence. All night long in London or New York, the noise, the light, and the commotion continue; the modern capitalist city, regardless of its residents, functions like a machine. It has been programmed to work, to speak, to sing, and to riot on its own, almost without human company. To enter such a city is to be taken up by it, to be swept along into a rhythm that is more relentless than a monologue and more exhausting than a dance.

Whenever I was sure that I was not being followed, I would stand in the squares and streets of Prague and listen to the quiet noises of a city sleeping: the turning of a key in the latch, a window opening, the flapping of curtains in a sudden breeze. These are noises that you can no longer hear in London or New York—the noises strangers make, as they settle down, divided by thin partitions, and melt into a common sleep. Those people, sleeping side by side in that ancient city, probably never spoke to one another by day, or did so only in the cautious and shifty way that the Party required of them. At night, however, one could imagine that in the side-by-sideness of sleep, they unconsciously acknowledged their need of one another and repaired in secret ways the social bond that the Communists would tear apart each day.

And this led me to another aspect of that old urban experience: the social mixture that comes about when people are confined together within city walls. Many of the residents of Prague had been born there, most of them under Nazi or Communist rule, and few of them with the right or the means to move. The Communist habit of transporting inconvenient populations went hand in hand with a desire to prevent the migration of those already living where the plan required. The residents of Prague were therefore genuine locals, fixed, whatever their occupation, in places allocated by the municipal machine. There were no ghettos and—apart from the vulgar suburbs set aside for the Party apparatchiks—no real distinctions between rich and poor. Bureaucratic inertia, combined with a vestige of egalitarian morality, ensured that a single staircase in a dilapidated palace might be shared by a police official, a well-known dissident, a plumber, a garbageman, and a once famous artist, whose works could no longer be sold or shown.

The philosopher Radim Palous, veteran of the underground seminars, who had lost his university position after the Soviet invasion, still lived in the medieval house above the millrace in Kampa—surely the most picturesque urban location in Europe. Although his apartment was under day and night surveillance, he sat there among books and Jugendstil furniture like an old cobbler among shoes left by customers who were long in their graves, ignoring the disaster beyond the walls. His neighbors were ordinary people; he, too, had become an ordinary person. Indeed, the all-encompassing ordinariness was like a shared feeling of loyalty, a common sense of being tied to the city, as Londoners felt tied during the Blitz.

I was reminded of the Blitz on my very first visit, when I went to address a private seminar. After walking deserted streets, I found myself in the empty stairwell of an old apartment block, where dirty marble steps stretched upward into the darkness. Everywhere the same expectant quiet hung in the air, as when an air raid has been announced, and the town hides from its imminent destruction. I groped my way to the third floor, found the number I was looking for, and pressed the bell. The small sound amplified the silence. But it was a listening silence; I imagined ears pressed to every latch on the stairwell. I was about to reach for the bell again, when shuffling footsteps sounded on the other side of the door. I was ushered in with whispers and, to my astonishment, found myself in a room full of people, wrapped in the same noiseless expectancy. I understood that there really was going to be an air raid, and that the air raid was me.

In that room was a battered remnant of Prague's intelligentsia—old professors in their shabby waistcoats, long-haired poets, fresh-faced students who had been denied admission to the university for their parents' political "crimes," priests and religious in plain clothes, a would-be rabbi, even a psychoanalyst. They all belonged, I discovered, to the same profession: that of stoker. Some stoked boilers in hospitals, others in apartment buildings; one stoked at a railway station, another in a school. Some stoked where there were no boilers to stoke, and these imaginary boilers came to be, for me, a fitting symbol of the Communist economy. On that memorable evening, however, one thought dominated all others: here, for the first time, I was lecturing to a working-class audience, an audience of workers united by their chains.

Communist housing policy had other and more brutal sides. In Prague, it tied the residents down in their city, offered them menial employment, and left them more or less to their own devices. But elsewhere—in Prostejov, for example, or the once beautiful Slovakian town of Povázská Bystrice—the Communists bulldozed the old town centers and stacked up the population in blocks on the perimeter, for the Party was anxious to destroy the past and the loyalties that grew in it. The Communists also forcibly displaced whole populations, allocating the Moravian town of Olomouc (the Austrian Olmütz, a center of culture where Mahler had conducted at the tiny opera house) to gypsies from Slovakia, for instance. Swept up from their ancient roads and lay-bys, these half-nomadic, half-agrarian people found themselves pushed into the crumbling old buildings that composed the once noble center of this once noble town. They could find nothing to do there—or, at any rate, nothing compatible with their old way of life—and as a result they decayed as visibly as their surroundings. Nor would they relinquish their old ways. From the third floor of an eighteenth-century palace, I was once greeted by a neigh, as a horse, seeing me pass in the deserted street, stuck his head through the window and cried out for rescue—though whether he could get down a staircase that, in my experience, no horse could ever have gotten up, I doubted.

This attempt at forcible integration did not work. In Prague, however, where the native population had been imprisoned in its city—so that city and citizen should decay together, lapsing into the state of resentful acquiescence that the Party required—there grew, beneath the stagnant surface, little pockets of civic feeling, and it was in these pockets that the dissidents lived and thrived.

In Prague, as in Warsaw, you also found another survival of the medieval city. These towns were once holy places, their churches and monasteries each with its own private sanctity, its own story of faith and martyrdom, and its own patron saint. Even the most skeptical would visit some sacred place in times of trouble and find consolation in prayer. The Prague Church of Saint James was a place of pilgrimage for the opposition. Under a particular pew, known to insiders, the samizdat bulletin of the underground church—Informace o cirkví (Information about the Church)—was hidden in a bag attached to the underside of the bench. Before and after each interrogation, young people would attend mass at the church of Saint Joseph in the Little Side. These churches, like the church of Father Popieluszko outside Warsaw, were the scenes of miracles—not those spectacular events in which statues weep blood or cripples walk, but the intimate miracles of the conscience, in which courage suddenly appears in the faint-hearted, and a willingness to sacrifice in the spirit of a would-be pop star.

Of course, only the imagination fed these remnants of civic feeling. Cynics might dismiss them as illusions. But the work of the imagination is necessary to us, and we owe to it all that is most precious in human life—including love itself. And the imagination thrives in adversity. Deprived of any field of action, it creates for itself a world in which virtue is rewarded and vice held at bay, a world that exactly corresponds to the faith that built the city of Prague, and whose traces remained in the hollow carcasses of buildings torn from their history and left to rot in the common graveyard.

And then everything changed. The light of the modern world burst upon these sleeping cities and awoke them from their dreams. Never again will those intimations be afforded of the old, quiet, rooted urban togetherness. Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest are now modern cities, enjoying the abundance, the excitement, and the smiling cooperation among strangers that are the gifts of freedom.

With freedom comes speed. Cosmopolitan cities must match the pace of the world that includes them and that they in turn include. Fast-food restaurants, porn shops, travel agents, and multinational chain stores stimulate the lust for new experience; flocks of chirping tourists settle and spurt up again like migrating starlings; expensive cars stand bumper to bumper in the street, poisoning the narrow alleyways; the churches, once tranquil islands in a sea of fear, are now busy open thoroughfares where foreign voices sound; trivial pop music sounds in every bar, filling the corners where, not so long ago, young idealists whispered of forbidden things—of Kafka and Rilke, of Mahler and Schoenberg, of Musil and Roth and The World of Yesterday, which Stefan Zweig lamented.

That world has vanished. Communism preserved it as a dream; capitalism processed and packaged its waking fragments. Nothing is available now, save mass-produced replicas. Prague, too, is a replica—a Disneyland version, a stage set for Die Meistersinger. The market has come to Prague—not as a centripetal but as a centrifugal force. It has blown the town apart, clearing the center of its old and settled residents and ghettoizing the poor. Those who can afford it are moving to the suburbs. The poorer people of Zizkov, where only ten years ago doctors and tram drivers lived side by side, have been abandoned by their middle-class neighbors, and look on helpless as Ukrainian mafiosi, illegal immigrants from the Balkans, and international smuggling rings take up residence on their once silent stairwells, where they settle old scores with guns. The hypermarkets and shopping malls are descending from the stratosphere into the fields around the city, while the little shops that served the stokers whom I knew (many of whom now hurry from one official building to another in chauffeur-driven cars) are closing down. We are witnessing a quaint variation of a global theme: the theme of "Edge City," as Joel Garreau describes it. Prague is not yet Detroit; after all, it has a living and beautiful center. But its life is no longer a local product. The new life of Prague has flooded in from the global market, colonizing this unowned space with a stubborn determination equal to that of the refugees in Zizkov.

That is how it seems, at least, to the visitor. But I remember these alleyways and palaces, these echoing stairwells and mansard studios, when they were not unowned at all. True, they belonged to no human being—for the Communists had abolished private property. They were held in trust for the city. And at night, as the citizens slept, the ghost of Prague would return to them, to tell of a community living in peace, working, resting, and praying as one. The tale remained in their waking thoughts, not as a hope, still less as an aim, but as a reminder of what might have been, had history been kinder. And the ghost of the city lingered on, until that day when peace was restored and prayer forgotten. And, with a faint cry heard only by the poets, it vanished forever.

 

 


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