Friday, January 23, 2009

The History of Paris, part II

The faubourgs of Paris formed around four centers: the market, the palace, the churches, and the vineyards. A market is a coming together of people to exchange goods. It is necessary. Subsistence farming is an interesting idea, but it is probably less common than we think. (Can you think of a culture with supposedly subsistence farming but no cities? I think you'll find only cultures with cities and cultures with no farming.) To be sure, there have been farmers in every age who worked primarily to feed their family, and made most of the things their family used. But farm implements -- plows, shovels, axes, barrels, carts, even shoes -- are pretty important, and there are not too many farmers who can make these things by themselves. I have been reading Laura Ingalls Wilder with my kids; certainly in her time there is not the slightest hint that a farmer would consider making these things himself -- or surviving without them. Indeed, the Ingalls family always farmed close to the railroad precisely because farming without tools is impossible. And the markets of Paris -- les Halles -- grew up because farmers needed places to exchange what they could produce themselves for what they needed but could not produce.

The market is also a place of luxury goods. Housewives have always wanted things like salt and spices and sweeteners, and pretty fabric. Children (and their fathers) have always wanted toys. If the modern agrarian wants to condemn these things as petty, he might remember that books, by their very nature, must come from elsewhere, not only because a farmer hasn't the resources to print or copy his own books, but also because books convey other people's ideas. The same is true of art. A family can make its own music, but not its own musical instruments. The market is necessary both for subsistence and for leisure.

It is noteworthy that in Paris, les Halles was its own faubourg. That is, it was not just an empty space where farmers got together, but a place where people lived. A market town obviously must support the barrel makers, cobblers, ironworkers, and trinket makers. It would take another post to justify them, but a market also supports market staff: the much-maligned "middlemen" who help get things from the people who produce them to the people who want them. And a thriving market town also includes those who make a career of providing leisure: professional musicians, inn keepers, artists, actors. To scorn the market town, and the city of which it forms a central part, is to scorn both subsistence and culture.

Surprisingly, other faubourgs grew up around the dozen abbeys that surrounded Paris. It is noteworthy, already, that the abbeys surrounded Paris. We think of places like Citeaux, out in the wilderness, but during times of unrest -- times before St. Bernard's lovely twelfth century -- the monks also needed a fortress, and the Christian monastic culture has always participated in the world of culture, and even of trade. Monks need tools and books, too, and only a monastery that is itself a city can produce these.

But even more interesting, the abbeys were not only themselves in the orbit of the city, but they created their own faubourgs: lay Christian communities have always grown up around the monasteries, and indeed, much of Paris owes its origin to them. Modern neighborhoods like St.-Germaine-des-Pr és (St. Germaine in the meadows), Temple (of the Templars), St. Paul, and Cluny are just old abbey faubourgs.

And here is another truth about cities. Traditionally, a parish is not just the church that best suits you; it is your neighborhood, your community, the people you live with, work with, play with, your extended family. In past ages, Christians came together by force of necessity: before the advent of modern transportation, a country parish was something of an impossibility. Now, it seems normal enough to drive thirty miles to get to your community. But how different a parish community is when you only see them at church. The urban parish remains a place of neighbors, bound together for better or for worse, sharing the texture of life. How beautiful that Christians once thought it normal to create a town together, instead of seeking isolation. And I don't know, but I would guess that a medieval faubourg was somewhat less exclusive than the modern gated community: the towns in question were not just the people who rubbed you the right way; because they were intergenerational, they surely included many people you wouldn't chose as subdevelopment neighbors.

Along with les Halles and the churches, another great stimulant to Right Bank development was the palace. (Later, the Louvre, but that was not the first.) Romantic versions of anarchy are always tempting; agrarians like to imagine we can all be Jeffersonian farmers, with an occasional meeting or muster, but otherwise self-sufficient. And modern government has certainly impinged on life in ways it should not. Nonetheless, government is natural, and necessary. Indeed, in the middle ages, the governments of Europe grew out of the necessity of self-defense and basic public management. I write a lot about ways to devolve power away from government, but please do not misunderstand me: without an army, a power to enforce contracts, and some infrastructure, including some common coin, life is nothing but brutality and rapine. It is unfortunate that our schools do not teach the history of the dark ages, especially the Norman invasions. Anarchy is a terrifying thing.

Government requires personel, and a place to work. The palace may seem parasitic on society, a bunch of rich nobles living on the sweat of another man's brow. And indeed, it is ever subject to abuse. But in another sense, the other man can live by the sweat of his own brow only because the government provides him the space to do it: above all, the safety, both from marauders and from cheats. And government is a creature of the city. All those lawyers and bureaucrats produce the very space within which we live. The Louvre, and the city which contains and sustains it, is nothing to shake a stick at.

The Louvre, les Halles, and even many of the churches, were on the Right Bank. On the Left, along with more abbeys, there grew the vineyards. This is one of the most pleasant parts of Paris. Without the city, there can be no wine, because wine is labor intensive. The vintners could survive only where there was a market, to sell their most precious commodity and to buy the food and the tools that sustain them.

Wine is a symbol of leisure, and the Left Bank also gave rise to that greatest of all leisure activities, the University, the last stop on our tour of Parisian history. The University is perhaps the most obvious city creature of all. Students and teachers are not self-sustaining. Innkeepers and artists survive from another man's work, but they are as nothing to academics. The University needs the safety of Paris's walls, the market to buy food, the stationers to make paper, the churches in which to pray and discuss, builders to provide houses, a government to regulate relations (the early history of the University of Paris is more rowdy than you may know) -- and of course the vintners, to make wine! In turn, the University gives us books, and the ideas by which to govern our society, and it gives some men the opportunity to pursue the life of the mind, too little valued in our post-modern times. Such a thing can only happen in the city.

(Incidentally, Oxford -- one of the three original universities, with Paris and Bologna, and in that early constellation that included Padua, Constantinople, and Cambridge, Toledo and Salamanca, Montpelier and Toulouse -- is no exception. It is now no small town, with 150,000 residents. It was at its founding one of the great cities of England, a fort built to defend a river crossing, with special privileges from the King. The notion of scholars gathered in the contemplative countryside is nothing but romance.)

So there is Paris: a fortress, a network of villages, a market, a palace, parishes, vineyards, and a university. And there is the true nature of the city, a place of human flourishing, on a human scale.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The History of Paris, part I

I have been reading old Encyclopedia Brittanica articles on the history of great cities. The good old 11th edition, from just before World War I, is a scholarly monument (I have a 14th edition, 1939, which is a modification of the 11th), but this is not exactly serious research. Just getting the lay of the land.

History gives a lot of help to thinking through principles. I will just mention in passing now (though I should lay it out in full sometime) the Copernican first chapter of The Economy of Cities, in which Jane Jacobs lays out the anthropological evidence that in the first great agricultural revolution, about 10,000 BC, farming could only begin because of a preexisting network of trading-post cities: you cannot farm, cannot even get the seed you need for farming, without dense centers of trade. Urban life predates the farms, and, contrary to popular assumptions, it is the farms that are parisitic on cities, not vice versa -- right from the beginning.

We will have to save that agronomical argument for another time. Today I'd like to show how the history of one great city illuminates a parallel theme.

Like most cities, Paris was founded at a crossing of great roads. At its heart, Paris is an island, still called the île de la cité. Here is an aerial photograph, almost too rich:
This is a view from the Northeast. At the center you can see the two islands in the Seine. The larger one, to the right, is the original île de la cité. The smaller one, the île St. Louis, was constructed from two uninhabited islands during the reign of Louis XIV (the seventeenth century). I believe the large park on the near side of the river, at the right edge, is the Louvre and environs. The rest is a bit hard to make out at this resolution.

The city was founded on an island because islands are easy to defend--and therein lies Paris's first lesson about the relation of city to countryside. Agrarians, distributists, and country enthusiasts of all stripes paint a romantic picture of rural peace as against the crime of the city. And surely, in our current political situation, there is reason for that picture: through terrible liberal mismanagement during the last century, our cities have been allowed to fall, at times, into chaos. (Though again I point out that in Philadelphia, known as "Murder City," the homicide rate per hundred thousand persons is 11.8 -- and far lower for white people. In the US as a whole, the traffic fatality rate per hundred thousand is over 14. If you are worried about your safety, avoid cars, not the city.)

But historically, the first reason for cities is precisely safety. Nowhere is as unsafe -- from robbers, from forces of nature, including animals, and especially from marauders -- as a farm. Cities around the world were built as fortresses, places for even the rural population to hide during times of invasion. We are fortunate to be free from such invasions now. But the rise of cities reminds us that strength is in numbers: we are safe now because we watch out for one another. There is no safety in isolation, no life at all without safety. (And indeed, it is now well established that the greatest danger in cities is precisely bone-headed efforts to keep people "off the street," thereby making cities places of darkness and isolation, rather than places where your neighbors are always watching out for you.)

(Full disclosure: The most dangerous city in the country is Detroit, where the murder rate is about 45/100,000. That is far more dangerous than Philadelphia, or the freeway. But even in Detroit, experts say upwards of 65% of murders surround drug dealing. If drug policy were better managed -- more on that another time -- the murder rate would be about equal to the national traffic-fatality rate. And it is easier to avoid drugs in the city than to avoid crazies on the freeway.)

So Paris was intially a fortress, a place of safety in numbers against the dangers of the world. Once that fortress was established on the island, however, the faubourgs began to spring up. Faubourg roughly translates as suburb, but we need to be careful about the parallel. In all of history prior to about World War II, a suburb was not what we think of, a huge tract of houses with yards, but itself a small urban center, where work, leisure, and home were within walking distance, and where people were physically close enough to watch out for one another: a tight little community. Pre-modern "suburbs" were also very close to the urbs itself. Reading about the original faubourgs of Paris is almost humorous, for in modern Paris these would hardly even be considered separate neighborhoods from the city center. On one afternoon's walk on the Right Bank (the bottom of the picture above), I walked through four or five of these old faubourgs.

And here is Paris's second lesson for us about the nature of cities. I live today in a neighborhood called Rondo, in the city of St. Paul, Minnesota. Today, there is nothing to distinguish Rondo from the neighborhoods around it, except titles on a couple public buildings and parks. To call it a neighborhood seems almost arbitrary.

But it is not so in traditional urban development. What are now considered neighborhoods in Paris were originally their own separate towns, with public buildings, public spaces, shops, and a local culture. This perdures. I have only ever spent a few weeks in France. But take the example of New York. What is now called Greenwich Village was once . . . a village, outside of the a small settlement on the southern tip of Manhattan called New York City. To the north of today's village is the neighborhood of Chelsea, which grew up, and eventually replaced, Thomas Clarke's old estate of that name. Next north is Hell's Kitchen, which was once an Irish shantytown. Etc.

The point is, these neighborhoods are not arbitrary little divisions of an otherwise undifferentiated metropolis. Rather, the divisions -- the villages, the neighborhoods -- predate the city itself. To the outsider, cities seem like an endless crowd. But real life in the city is far more local than even an old-fashioned small town. Indeed, part of what makes places like New York and Paris intimidating to modern tourists is their intensely local culture, indeed, their provincialism. A person who lives in Greenwich Village hardly needs to leave those sixty-some blocks bordered by 14th St., Washington Square Park, Houston St., and the river, where the farthest you can walk, from one edge to the other, is one mile. What further maddens visitors to a true urban environment is that, unlike the suburbs, where a strip mall clearly displays a full range of national chains, the visitor to an urban neighborhood -- even a relatively recent occupant of the neighborhood -- has to learn the grocery stores, the pizza places, the parks, etc. Life in the city is intensely local; it is on a far smaller scale than life outside the city.

And this is because a true city is in fact not a vast, undifferentiated expanse of interchangeable parts, but a network of villages. The old cities grew up this way: Paris did not just gradually expand outwards, but gradually extended its borders around self-contained communities in its orbit. And this remains the very nature of a city. Even our poor Rondo, subject as it is to a freeway -- not built for us! -- and countless efforts to stamp out individuality under the guise of making things more "rational" and "fair," continues to be its own reality, with a history and memory, a local culture of fairs, ways of relating, socio-economic class (Rondo is lower-middle-class black), and establishments. Other neighborhoods in our city, with stronger clout, have retained this reality even more. Neighborhoods like Saint Anthony Park, Summit Hill, and especially Highland Village (can't escape that last word!), but even including poor Frogtown, are distinct units, villages within the city, even though modern politics does its best to ignore them.

In the next post, we will look at the specific factors that gave birth to these village-neighborhoods.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Country Music and the Cultural Rear Guard

Country Music and the Cultural Rear Guard

My family is pretty careful to stay away from pop culture, but we do occasionally turn on the country radio station. Most country music, so it seems to us, has a less overtly aggressive, sexual beat, and tends to have a bit more positive a tone. Not coincidentally, this sound tends to go with more positive lyrics.

The stereotype is that country music is about your dog getting killed, but that's only one example of the bigger theme in country lyrics: attachment to enduring things. If country singers talk about their dog getting killed, the point is that ordinary things like loving your dog are Real. Country music is, roughly, about what's normal. There's a sense of humor, a chuckling sort of, "yeah, that is what really matters, after all."

I don't know a lot of songs, but here's the chorus of one I've enjoyed lately:

Come on in boy sit on down
And tell me about yourself
So you like my daughter do you now?
Yeah we think she's something else
She's her daddy's girl
Her momma's world
She deserves respect
That’s what she'll get
Ain’t it son?
Hey y'all run along and have some fun
I'll see you when you get back
Bet I’ll be up all night
Still cleanin' this gun

I don't know if this bears explaining, but the point is: finally, family grounds us, makes us more real. And, even more, that after all our carousing and foolishness, being parents helps us understand what we missed when we were younger. We turn into our parents, and that's not such a bad thing. Now I see from a bigger perspective, and I'm that crusty old dad.

Here's a much dumber one:

Too old to be wild and free still
Too young to be over the hill
Should I try to grow up
But who knows where to start
So I just sit right here and have another beer in Mexico
Do my best to waste another day
Sit right here and have another beer in Mexico
Let the warm air melt these blues away

Nothing profound -- and honestly, without the fun horn line, I doubt anyone would listen to it -- but there is something captured here about reaching middle age and just trying to figure out who the heck you are. I can't help but think of my wife's step-father, an overweight, bald, bearded, steel worker in a depressed town in rural America, who spends what money he has on his camper and his truck. I bet Paul chuckles when he hears this song, because, yeah, there I am!

By contrast, even the "nicest" rock music is pretty nihilist. I'll date myself by quoting the lyrics from an old song, but I think this band is still really popular:

I want you to notice
when I'm not around
You're so very special
I wish I was special
But I'm a creep
I'm a weirdo
What the hell am I doin' here?
I don't belong here, ohhhh, ohhhh

Well . . . I guess there's something nice in there about our disproportion before goodness? But compared to the realism of country music, this is a world with nothing but Me and my desires. This isn't something a dad -- at least a healthy dad -- sings, or chuckles at. It's the music of a kid who watches too much tv.

That's a pretty strong example. But, to pick the most lame thing I can think of, here's Don Henley:

and i can tell you
my love for you will still be strong
after the boys of summer have gone.

Oh, great. Not that love isn't a nice thing, but again, this is the world of tv, the world of no context, a world without family, without consequences, just me and my desires. (Looking up the lyrics, I found that the verses are much worse.) The invocation of "love" is, perhaps, the darkest part: as if summer flings have anything to do with the meaning of love. This is someone who doesn't know what it means to be human.

This is the world of Seinfeld, and Friends, and far worse, where everything's fun and laid back precisely because actions don't have consequences; where having sex with your friends is just a funny background joke; where children might appear as props, but nothing else. It is the world Decontextualized, the world of Nihilism, the world of nothing but me and my desires. Country music, perhaps, stands for waking up and realizing that Jerry's apartment is not real life, and at the end of the day, there are richer things to think about, things bigger than ourselves and having fun.

The purpose of this post, however, is not to exalt country music, but just the opposite. What I find most remarkable, and disappointing, about country music, is that you can have ten songs that would make my wife's step-father chuckle, and evoke something real -- and then up comes one almost as tawdry as the rock station, about decontextualized sex, and moving from partner to partner, and all the rest.

So my question is, what's going on here? How is it that a genre with such good instincts can totally drop the ball?

There's a parallel, I think, in talk radio. I know smart people aren't supposed to say this, but I think Rush Limbaugh is very insightful. He really understands politics, and political theory, and economics. He's a bit crude some times, but that doesn't surprise me: lots of insightful people are less than perfect as human beings.

But the next most popular talk radio show host is the nominally Catholic Sean Hannity, who talks all day about traditional values, but scoffs at his Church's teaching on contraception -- actually says he doesn't care what the Church says. Talks all day about law and order, but now and then speeding comes up, and it's not that he has a principled distinction, he just says, oh, I don't care, I just like going really fast. Okay.

I think what's happening here is a cultural rear guard. A rear guard, I think, is the part of the army that covers your tail when you're in full retreat. A cultural rear guard is not the sign of health. It's the last stand of a culture in full retreat. Country music -- and Sean Hannity -- is not going to make our world a better place. It shows that people vaguely remember better things. But it's not sufficient.

There is a difference between good instincts and good judgment. The country music demographic has good instincts. They don't want to live in the world of Jerry's apartment. They knows there's something bigger, and richer, and they can chuckle, half thoughtfully, when a good song reminds them that life is more than Me and My Feelings and good nihilist fun. And that's a good thing. But they do not have what it takes to stand up to the onslaught of modern nihilism. They are no more than a rearguard, in full retreat.

I'm finishing up Rusell Kirk's 1953 classic The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. Through a study of English and American thinkers, he lays out a political philosophy. He calls it "conservatism," and that's a good word for it, except that the word has different connotations now. "Traditionalism" might be better, because Kirk proposes that the only way to maintain good values is through staunch opposition to progress. There's much to be said for this: for moving slowly, for carefully considering the wisdom of our ancestors, for the value of custom, and letting people live their lives without having to rethink things every ten years, and the general inability of humanity to think it all through clearly. Indeed, these ideas are meant to be a central theme of this blog.

But tradition is insufficient. The modern world is there, confronting us. Small town folks like my wife's mom and step-father can avoid the world to some extent, but the tv is in their home, the radio is in their truck, and the magazines are in their grocery store. And anyway, tradition itself is not just instinct, but the internalization of discernment. The greatness of tradition is precisely its discovery of better ways; true tradition and true progress go hand in hand.

And anyway, it takes some discernment to figure out what constitutes "the tradition." Our forefathers rarely had access to books; more of their children died than survived. Our modern medicine creates a new world, but it is a new world that our forefathers, in some sense, longed to see. The same is true of modern travel, despite the ways it has ravaged our culture (as I have often noted). Is it more traditional to be poor, or to fight against poverty? To be ignorant, or to seek learning? In the realm of culture what does tradition teach us to love, and what does it teach us to abhor?

These are not easy questions. And that's precisely my point. Tradition is very important. I value the thinking of Friedrich Hayek above all because he shows how tradition can be maintained only be decentralization (since even benevolent tyrants inevitably trod on custom). But tradition is insufficient without discernment. Simply being "conservative," in Kirk's sense, too often leaves us with country music: upholding some traditional values, but without the clarity of vision to turn the onslaught of modernity.

And let me add: Kirk is a great hero of the country against the city. The country is the place of tradition, of puttering on, the way things have always been. That is fair. (Though I think those who have never lived in the city fail to realize the ways that true urban living is also very small, and local, and custom-bound.)

But hiding in the country is no more of a strategy than hiding in country music. The country, I would like to suggest -- at least the American small town -- is not so much traditional as behind the times. When the times are moving in a bad direction, as they are, that's not such a bad thing. But it is not a winning strategy, it is a rearguard action. Being a decade behind on fashions does not protect you from them.

Those who truly want to conserve what is best in the human tradition (and the Western tradition, and the Catholic tradition) need discernment. They need to rely, not only on custom (though custom is essential), but also on the ability to tell right from wrong, to discern the spirits, to read the signs of the times. The country is the place of the rearguard, but the city is where the battle is engaged. Until we retake the heights of culture -- the marketplace, the school, the palace: the city -- the country can only be a hiding place, while we wait for the slaughter. True traditionalism must reclaim the city, through custom mingled with discernment. That is real Christian humanism.