Friday, November 20, 2009

Manhattan #42

The firmament that is New York is greater than the sum of its constituent parts. It is a city and it also a creature, a mentality, a disease, a threat, an electromagnet, a cheap stage set, an accident corridor. It is an implausible character, a monstrous vortex of contradictions, an attraction-repulsion mechanism so extreme no one could have made it up. New York, which has been called the capital of the twentieth century, as Paris was that of the nineteenth, would seem on the face of it to be founded on progress, on change, on the bulldozing of what has faded to make way for the next thing, the thing after that, the future. The lure of the new is built right into its name; it is the part of the name that actually registers, since the “York,” a commemoration of a colonial lineage, carries no resonance and exists only as a vestige. New York is incarnated by Manhattan (the other boroughs, noble, useful, and significant though they may be, are merely adjuncts), and Manhattan is a finite space that cannot be expanded but only continually resurfaced and reconfigured. Manhattan is a wonderland of real estate speculation, a hot center whose temperature cannot but increase as population increases and desirability remains several places ahead of capacity. The myth of Manhattan, therefore, is cast in the future tense. It does not hark back to a heroic past, lacks its Romulus and Remus (except in the image of that transaction between Peter Minuit and the Canarsies, which is simply the first clever deal, the primordial ground-floor entry). New York has no truck with the past. It expels the dead.

The dead, however, are a notoriously perverse and unmanageable lot. They tend not to remain safely buried, and in fact resist all efforts at obliterating their traces. Cultures that glorify and memorialize their dead have simply found a clever way to satisfy and therefore quiet them. When the dead are endlessly represented in monuments, images, memorials, and ceremonies, their vigor passes into these objects and events; it is safely defused, made anodyne. New York, which is found on forward motion and is thus loath to acknowledge its dead, merely causes them to walk, endless unsatisfied and unburied, to invade the precincts of supposed progress, to lay chill hands on the heedless present, which does not know how to identify the forces that tug at its rationality.

Luc Sante, Low Life (1991)