CONJUNCTIONS:55, Fall 2010

City Under Sun
Lyn Hejinian

Despite confusing display, unyielding surfaces, the city is not
inhospitable to a competent culinary shopper, an expert at
gathering groceries. She is impervious to ploys, indifferent to
novelty. There is no longer anything new, nothing new happens
anymore. This is the conclusion Nietzsche reaches with his
aperçu “God is dead.” As Walter Benjamin points out, since then
humans have had “to face with heroic composure” the eternal
return of the same. But even that heroism is lost to us now.
Everything is new and that is what’s no longer new—the lack
of novelty in the endless iterations of newness. Nothing old
occurs anymore, either, except novelty’s old news. History, in
that sense, is dead too. Everything is the same. It is all hum and
grid. Rhubarb is rote; edamame has entered Standard English.
There are two large supermarkets equidistant from the building
in which I live, one ten blocks south, one ten blocks northwest.
I am entirely familiar with the way they are laid out. Produce
to the right as one enters the door, against the wall. Citrus first.
Nonetheless, shocks proliferate; what returns is perpetually
unfamiliar—every commodity is unprecedented, though
unsurprising. Within every story another story is hidden,
autonomous and unfolding though scarcely noticed except now
and then, inadvertently, when, just as with a slip of the tongue
a woman exposes a bit of the turbulent life under way in her
unconscious mind, a rat scurries through an open window with
a doll’s head in its mouth, or a man shouts a couplet from a
passing bus (“o queens of urbanity, kings of the crush / let’s sing
of convenience, importance, and plush”). Feral children come off
the fire escapes. A highly educated mother masturbates
triumphantly. Her name may be Alice Milligan Webster, but
that name is significant only to those for whom it names her—it
has only that, local, significance, if any. The city has 101,377
names, around 9,800 per square mile. Tio Levette, Nina Lee,
Ludmilla Kaipa, etc. The sun emits a continuous roar, but from
such a distance that it doesn’t seem it can possibly be addressing
any of us. With the death of the ahistorical or prehistorical God,
history should have been born; sense perceptions should be able
to discern something of the past, which bears the meanings and
functions of the things that come before them. But history has
no face. The shoppers flock to kiss the gleaming lemons. The
city rumbles with unsubdued composure; its buildings betray
little of what goes on inside them. The city players and planners
all keep a low profile and work fast. They are left to their
proliferating tasks. And, like Don Quixote, the literary scholar
sets forth to do her work. Why like Quixote? Because what she
engages with doesn’t exist. There was no Emma Bovary to dream
Madame Bovary’s dreams. And if the literary scholar asks if the
nameless narrator of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw has really
seen a ghost, the answer is that there was no nameless narrator
but only the narration, with its ambiguous progress. Entering the
supermarket with an empty cart pulled from the chain of carts
standing ready by the door, I turn sharply to the right, past the
avocados to the melons, in front of which I park my cart out of
the flow of other shoppers. I move like an unregulated chess
piece across the large checkerboard pattern formed by the floor’s
square tiles. Madame Bovary was Flaubert’s “book about
nothing,” a test of “the axiom that there is no such thing as
subject—style in itself being an absolute manner of seeing
things.” Flaubert took on Guy de Maupassant as a student of
sorts. “He forced me to describe, in a few phrases, a creature or
an object so that it was clearly distinguishable from all other
creatures or objects of the same race or species … Homework
consisted of a practical exercise: Observe a grocer on his
doorstep, a concierge smoking his pipe, or a cab-horse in a row
of cabs, and then, ‘with a single word,’ show how that particular
grocer, concierge, or cab-horse resembles no other.” I tear off a
plastic bag and reach over a display of parsley; I select a single
head of butter lettuce from the dewy, green display. The tips of
its outer, darker leaves are imperfect—they are slightly torn and
rust stained, travel worn. But the inner leaves are a pale,
variegated green, tender without being limp. This is the most
succulent of lettuces. I’ve now added a cucumber, a head of
endive, and a rubber-banded bunch of scallions to the shopping
cart. I’m letting myself go. Little Lyn is in the produce section
of a grocery store eating raw peas from the pod; big Lyn can
remember the pods, the peas, the bin, the wood floor, the
handsome, genial grocer: Roy of Roy’s Market whom little Lyn
carefully conflated with Roy Rogers, whom interim Lyns have
had little occasion to remember, and whom big Lyn recognizes
to have been very like an expensive animated porcelain (and
later plastic) doll. A commodity. The radio cowboy offered one of
the “aberrant or bizarre solutions to the question of where or
how to live” in mid-twentieth-century America. Who offered
him? To whom? Why? Everyday city life is a macrosystem,
naturalized into invisibility, sometimes oppressive and
sometimes so transparent as to seem to leave living unimpeded,
nothing but green lights and a clear conscience and prospects or
detritus: a black lacquer vase in an antique shop window;
property lines; the drift of history; radiators; Venice; a small dish
of potato chips; a photo of a dead man; reading glasses; College
Avenue; the pungent smell of a tomato plant; a college
education; a citywide strike; anxiety: “ [T]he true object of
anxiety is precisely the (over)proximity of the Other’s desire.”
Is the problem that the Other will impose his or her desire on
one, that one will be forced to satisfy the Other’s desire, rather
than one’s own, leaving one’s own desires unsatisfied? Or is the
problem that the Other’s desire, when seen too closely, is
repulsive (this is what Slavoj Žižek suggests, but it seems
equally likely that, when forced by the confrontation with the
Other’s desire to look too closely at one’s own, one will find
one’s own repulsive). I develop a few animosities as I gather
groceries, and here and there a fleeting sense of camaraderie.
Like Michel de Certeau, I “dream of countless combinations of
existences.” A novelist is in many ways like a ringmaster and a
sociologist. He or she announces, and thereby calls, people into
view, where they are fated to perform and to fare (poorly or well).
An essayist is, however, a performer—an athletic bareback rider
or juggler or high-wire walker or trapeze artist, or one of the
clowns: whapping or being whapped by other clowns, wig flying
into the ether on a string, shoes flapping, pants dragging,
jumping into a barrel over which a lion leaps while elephants
trumpet and a monkey plays a drum. The clowns are variously
criminals or detectives or victims of life. The public pays to play
its part, that of being the public. Fredo is discerning, Freddy is
demanding, Helen is devouring, Quindlan is disdaining, Askari
Nate Martin is detecting, and Sue is dismayed. Sid stays away.
The site is beautiful, a city with a “Mediterranean feel” and
hills. Leo follows Sid, they go from one circus to the next.
Dropping a Baggie of sunflower seeds and a Baggie of oats into
his cart, and leaving it where it stands, Minnie Jones backtracks
a bit and goes down aisle one to get a jar of marmalade, which is
among the jellies and jams just past the peanut butter and honey
and across from the candy near the front of the store. She never
drives her cart into the aisles and feels a twinge of approval as
she overhears Montgomery say to Helen, “You don’t need the
cart if you’re just going halfway down aisle three for a box of
sugar.” Minnie Jones is a person who accepts her fate and
believes it is never the function of family life to subtract
members; family life is all about addition and flow. Life is
subject to “false halts” more than to “false starts.” The
revolutionary task before us is to create conditions in which the
old and the new can occur again. History is to be resuscitated,
though the disaster of monotheism should be avoided. With
private ownership of land, myth-enchanted social culture along
with its myth-suffused, story-bearing spaces came to an end.
Monotheism is the religious principle closest to the sensibility
of the home owner. The heavens ceased to be social. Our
identities are no longer bolstered, we have to reconfigure the
world in such a way as to admit all that gives evidence of
existing along with us. It is from kernels of impersonality—the
fruits of the public sphere, where events and incidents that are
not of one’s doing, fragments of other people’s existence, are
encountered by chance—that one becomes a person in the city. I
find myself watching a tall, shabbily dressed man wheeling a
grocery cart south along Seventh Street in which a fat woman in
an overcoat is crouched, holding a paper bag. The rules that
establish a relationship between them, and between them and
me, and between me and the intrusive friendliness of the tellers
at the bank I enter after noticing them, are derived from the
game called Napkin and Knife. As Peggotty remarks in David
, “I don’t know how it is, unless it’s on account of
being stupid, but my head never can pick and choose its people.
They come and they go, and they don’t come and they don’t go,
just as they like.” Everyday life is perpetually erupting into
space and withdrawing from it. But to call it “erupting” suggests
something abrupt. Public urban space, even the smallest, is
analogous to a pause, however long prolonged, but it bears
affinities with rest too, and with patience, however sorely tested.
Visitors may walk through it, residents may inhabit it, cars and
buildings and pedestrians and noise may crowd it, and animals
may traverse it or scuttle along its margins. It is available and
accessible for cohabitation and communication, for acts of
sharing, interacting, play, public displays of affection, flaunting,
vying, acknowledging. People are out, strolling, hurrying,
socializing, lining up, blocking the sidewalk, nodding to
panhandlers, taking a break from their unshared and unshareable
anxieties, fears, problems (or pleasures). Within the city’s
buildings, the immediate is under perpetual translation and
transmission. Its “talk of communication actually refers only to
solitudes.” To escape the barrage of media, we go out, away from
our media-occupied private spaces (which the media renders
strangely anonymous) and into public spaces: city streets,
perpetually charged with anxiety and desire, and public parks,
refuges for eccentricity and unproductivity. Everyday life seeps
from the city’s interstices. I swipe the credit card and wait for
the receipt to print out. The sun is coming through the doors.
My arms straight, head up, pushing the bagged groceries in the
cart in front of me, I make it to the car in nineteen strides.
Kiddies, kiddies, follow me / The streets, the trees, the feast, the
sea. It’s a city with 36,485 “actively managed street and park
trees,” which is to say public trees. They are unevenly
distributed, abundant in the hills, and more sparse in the more
densely urban “flats.” The same salient reason can be attributed
to the fact that the poor live on the hillsides above some cities
(for example, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City) and the rich on
the hillsides above some others (e.g., Berkeley and Oakland):
difficulty of access. It is among the labors of the poor to return
home in the former and among the privileges of the rich to do so
in the latter. Fragments of street music circulate—a bicyclist’s
bell, a siren, a vagrant with a guitar. Her beagle straining at the
leash, a woman turns a corner and disappears. This isn’t a city
that “never sleeps.” There’s no bus service between 1:00 and
5:00 a.m. The city plot is knotted. It is composed of knots of
conditions, situations, circumstances, terms that are not
synonymous, by the way. The stronger the knots, the more
vivid the plot. As morning returns, the sun recovers the city.
Properly speaking, political struggle is not about ends but about
beginnings. Political struggle seeks to open new possibilities for
happiness—ordinary happiness, the happiness of ordinary lives.
Thousands of people march through the city, chanting and
brandishing signs and banners. They swarm through the streets
approaching City Hall, they fill the Civic Center plaza with
speeches and music. Protesting cuts to the budget for public
education, students from Joaquin Miller Middle School are flying
banners saying “Know All, Be All,” “Don’t Dumb Us Down,”
“Knowledge Is Power,” etc. “So we appeal to you, sun, on this
broad day. / You were ever a helpmate in times of great
churning, and fatigue.”


“to face with heroic composure”: Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trs. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 1999), 337.

“the axiom that there is no such thing … ”: Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830—1857, ed., Francis Steegmuller (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), 154.

“He forced me to describe … ”: Quoted in Graham Robb, “Cruising With Genius,” in The New York Review of Books, Feb. 26, 2009, 33-34.

“aberrant or bizarre solutions … ”: Michael Sheringham, Everyday Life: Theories and Practices from Surrealism to the Present (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2006), 2.

“[T]he true object of anxiety … ”: Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real (London and NY: Verso, 2002), 22.

“dream of countless combinations of existences”: Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, tr. Steven F. Rendall (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984), 21.

“I don’t know how it is, unless it’s on account of being stupid . . .”: Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, Chapter VIII: “My Holidays, Especially One Happy Afternoon.”

“talk of communication actually refers only to solitudes”: Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1991), 389.

“So we appeal to you, sun … ”: John Ashbery, Girls on the Run (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), 9.