“Whenever I happen to be in a city of any size, I marvel that riots do not break out every day: massacres, unspeakable carnage, a doomsday chaos. How can so many human beings coexist in a space so confined without destroying each other, without hating each other to death? As a matter of fact, they do hate each other, but they are not equal to their hatred. And it is this mediocrity, this impotence, that saves society, that assures its continuance, its stability. Occasionally some shock occurs by which our instincts profit; but afterward we go on looking each other in the face as if nothing had happened, cohabitating without too obviously tearing each other to shreds. Order is restored, a ferocious calm as dreadful, ultimately, as the frenzy that had interrupted it.”
—E.M. Cioran, from the essay “Mechanism of Utopia,” included in his History and Utopia, translated from the French by Richard Howard.
* * *This passage exaggerates a little, I think.
It does express—with zesty pessimism and gorgeous rhetoric—what seems to be a fairly common thought about cities as unhealthy pressure-cookers of human behavior.
Newspaper headlines about a recently released psychological study suggested that the “city hurts your brain,” though more scrupulous accounts noted that even this study didn’t actually find any evidence that urban environments harm cognitive abilities.
Still, there’s no question that living among lots of other people at close range can be very irritating at times.
But surely something other than cowardice explains why people living in big cities refrain from butchering their fellow citizens?
Cioran, the writer of the quote above, lived in Paris for almost his entire adult life. From my own very limited personal experience, I can’t imagine developing the thought Cioran did while living in Paris. But I can imagine doing so if I had lived in London—or at least parts of central London.
In any case, it seems to me that many people honestly enjoy living among lots of other people at close range in cities. Assuming that’s true, what explains it? How and why do people enjoy life in big cities?
(Photo from Flickr user Elizabeth K. The original full-sized color version can be viewed by clicking the photo.)