Conjunctions:55 Urban Arias

City Under Sun
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.

Lyn Hejinian is the author of numerous books including The Book of a Thousand Eyes (Omnidawn), The Language of Inquiry (University of California Press), and The Wide Road, written in collaboration with Carla Harryman (Belladonna).