Walled Cities and Wasteland

 Improvisational Session at Emory University


Religion, Cognition, and Praxis Working Group

Wednesday, February 25, 2009.  12 pm – 2 pm

6 partipicants: faculty of Emory University.

Topics suggested: fishing, humor, love and peace, the poetics of disputation, wasteland, walled cities. Chosen: walled cities and wasteland.

           Duration of writing: 30 min. Duration of session: 2 hours



Left to right: Montgomery, Goodstein, Martin, Reed, Queen



Left to right: Epstein, Goodstein, Martin, Reed, Queen



Texts (in the order of readings):


1. Elizabeth S. Goodstein, ILA

No City, No Walls

This topic turns out to be haunted by another writing—that is to say, by places that I intended to escape or at least evade here. Ravensbrück is the name that has, once again, hauled me back inside, but one could also say Oświęcim or Bergen Belsen, Belzec or the outskirts of Riga. Here one might mention the walls of Rome that haunted Freud’s dreams and yielded the fertile figure of a subjectivity layered in time, strewn with the detritus of its former boundaries, invisibly sealed in by the past.

What makes the memorial impossible is the failure of the walls to contain the camps. At one edge of what was once the boundary: the crematorium, the wall of nations, the row of memorials, the podium and the lake. But on the other extreme, fading into the woods, a blurry boundary dotted with barracks, falling-down fences, the traces of the Russian occupation. The signs warning against the possibility of munitions. Everywhere rusting metal, decomposing concrete, defunct train tracks, hagebutte bushes.

Circles within circles; the woods contain and do not contain the wasteland; the wasteland contains and does not contain the camp; the memorial is site-less. A place of movement and stultification. The encircling train line surrounds a rabbit warren of traces of multiple nests of death. Uckermark, Siemens, the mens’s camp, the tent. The tents. Where they brought the Reichsjuden near the end. The women who had come back from the east who later declared Ravensbrück worse than Auschwitz. Like all such testimonies stopping the mind in its tracks.

And so today, here, once again the difficulty that Ravensbrück has come to name: that there is no space outside the camp. The memorial’s boundaries are clear enough, if blurred, like Rome, with its different temporal layers. Yet on the nominal outside Ravensbrück is not at an end: the SS settlement, the villas that encircle the hillside beyond the walls—still beyond, the circles of industrial courtyards, barracks, more train tracks…until the woods intersect with what is still the nominal outside world. And so this implosion, the unclarity marked on the one hand by the layers of time and on the other by the fact that in the face of this endless intermingling of wasteland and crumbling walls, I at least can no longer find a way to situate myself outside.

                                                  *   *   *   *   *

2.  Edward L. Queen, The Center for Ethics

The Siege:

The Wasteland Inside and Outside the Walls

Walled cities—old, enclosed, separated, my two favorite places in the world—Dubrovnik and Jerusalem—surrounded by wall, old and historical, small lines going up and down, the play of shadow and light—yet so different. To me, Dubrovnik remains a city of fun—abutting the Adriatic, filled with cafes and bars. The Café Troubadour small and cramped, where jazz greats have wandered in and the owner calls me “Chicago” due to my fondness for My Kind of Town.

Jerusalem’s pleasures are different. My daughter calls it “dirty, smelly, and old.” The Baedeker’s for 1898 pointedly remark that Jerusalem is not city for fun. Yet it remains a place of pleasure for me—religious site abutting religious site. History so deep that it jades—something merely 400 years old is barely worth noting. Its lanes and byways move me in ways that I barely can articulate.

Despite these pleasures both cities come with anguish—sieged and besieged.

I arrived in Dubrovnik the first time amidst the war. The siege only recently had been lifted. The ride in from the airport revealed a wasteland of pillaged farms and burned and shell-pocked buildings. Indeed the airport itself stood as a half-ravaged land—one landing strip, no radar, and the recently besieging army only twelve kilometers in the distance.

The sights astounded and dismayed. Where had the people gone? Had they survived? What had been wasted in this land? Animals, crops, human lives? And what about Dubrovnik itself, Ragusa of old? An ancient republic, which, as many told me, had been the first country to recognize the United States as a free and independent country. The city itself, never giving in to the attempt by others to turn it into a wasteland, for as one entered its gates one was reminded by signs in English, French, Italian, German, and Croatian decrying the “Serbian and Montenegrin” aggression and pinpointing where every shell had hit with a color-coded notice of the damage.

Besieged for a year, its citizens huddled in the old pesthouse—the quarantine station that hearkened back to the days of Ragusan glory when it rivaled Venice as a trading power. In those days, to save itself, Dubrovnik locked away those would enter, preserving the health of its citizens and keeping itself from becoming a wasteland, a place of pestilence and death. And once again, in the twentieth century—the pesthouse saved the people. Yet this time they locked themselves away as others struggled to waste it.

The reminders so visible. The fountain on the stradun, as much a symbol of Dubrovnik’s glory as its walls, still in ruins from a direct rocket hit, the streets of the stradum itself scarred by shells, and the walls, the walls of the city, the source of its identity and security, revealed the level of destruction of collapsed roofs.

Yet the city lived—cold, traumatized, shaken—resilient and reviving. Lovers walked its lanes, farmers sold homemade slivovitz in old, Fanta bottles, offering a sample to the passerby, the astringent liquor poured into the bottle’s screw-on cap. Destruction and death beside life and vitality but the wasteland lurked on the road and in people’s minds.

Their minds—one must always wonder about people’s minds. “What are they thinking?’ “What could they be thinking?” In Jerusalem above all cities, I do not see how one ever could escape that question. The city itself, by all accounts, has been besieged and destroyed more times than any living city. Like Carthage it has been razed and sown with salt, yet unlike the home of Hannibal it has arisen again and yet again. A city of religion and life, but also of waste in so many forms. Just outside the walls lays the valley of GehinnomGehenna. The source of our hell, where the worshippers of Moloch sacrificed their children before the fire of the horrible god and which for centuries remained a wasteland of garbage, filth, and burning.

Destruction and death, as conqueror after conqueror breached its walls—but the wastelands inside and outside the city are even more complex and insidious. Beside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre lay for many years a tanning yard—a wastelamnd of muck and stench as Ottoman overlords expressed their disgust with the putrefaction of Christianity. And for centuries before the that time the city’s Christian rulers, the purported heirs of the Romans who had destroyed the city in 70 c.e. and again in 135, had left the Temple Mount a wasteland—a dung heap—a statement of their feelings for a people and religion that in their mind was superseded.

                                                      *   *   *   *   *

3. Mikhail Epstein, REALC

The Wall Street:  was it too thickly walled?

My first association with "walled cities" points to the Wall Street in New York. This name originates in the historical setting of the city, as a reference to a wall that was erected by Dutch settlers on the southern tip of Manhattan Island in the 17th century, during their war  with English settlers. This wall was never used for the intended purpose. Instead, in the late 18th century, the street became the site for the New York Stock Exchange and rapidly grew into the heart of the world finances. Thus, centuries after the wall's removal, the name of the Wall Street remained a metaphorical testimony on the walls that indeed separate the financial heart of the world from it globally stretched body.

What is going now under the name of the "global economic crisis"  can be described  by a medical metaphor which involves both images of the wall and the heart. It is known   that the heart wall thickening is linked to the stroke danger, to the loss of brain functions due to a disturbance in the blood supply. The walls of the Wall Street turned out to be too thick, which may be the cause of a rapid and uncontrollable loss of blood and the global financial hemorrhage.

Geographical, medical and financial realities are metaphorical in relation to each other, but all of them are parts of the same reality, and everything is in everything, as Anaxagoras postulated. When a metaphor begins to work independently from the source area in the target area and acquires a force of explanation, this is not merely a metaphor any more, but a logical device, called by Charles Pierce an abduction, in distinction from the more trivial deduction and induction. An image is abducted from one area to serve its duty within another. We observe everywhere, not only in human anatomy, that the thickness of walls increases the risk of hemmorage.

This can be further illustrated by the fate of the Soviet Union. "Kremlin" (from "krem," a city wall, a walled place) is Russian for "fortress," "citadel" or "castle." The Moscow Kremlin is a walled heart of the largest geopolitical bodyon the earth.  What happened with the collapse of the Soviet Union was precisely the hemmorage of the superpower caused by the thickening of its heart walls, the isolation of the ruling heart from the rest of the country, which gradually grew into wasteland…


                                             *   *   *   *   *

4. David W. Montgomery, Religion


I lived in the Naryn Mountains, in a building that had been given little attention since being built thirty years earlier. Those who built here had little concern for the aesthetics of place. One was only to live in the generic structures, finding there utility greater than that of traditional structures, yurtas which have no corners. The apartment was comfort when the mountains were mean, but disconcerting when they were majestic. Ten minutes outside of town was the cemetery, a reminder of entry and departure. Ten minutes further, on foot and into what seemed greater remoteness, deeper into the mountain’s belly, was the trash dump, home to stray dogs, rats, and plastic bags from China. Once nature, now a simmering history of refuse, it was a place outside of the city, where the most unfortunate foraged to find food and the more fortunate sought to deny. The dust storms of the Taklimakan Desert—for which Chinese nuclear tests were often blamed—would often return the trash to the streets from which it came. People got better at making trash, using less efficiently, more conveniently, and equally displacing the blame for cleanliness, for the responsibility of trash on others. Diffusing responsibility to others, and as the trash accumulated the street sweepers are never looked at, only blamed for not doing enough.

Each neighborhood has a place where trash goes, consisting of three concrete sides and trash goes only approximately in it. And more and more, approximately in it seems to be enough. Approximately, and you can disregard it.

People are treated the same. What do we do with walls that place rubbish beyond our views… place must have place so it can be seen as outside place. It seems too easy to do the same with people. And too often we do… when my neighbors lived in yurtas, they had less trash.

                                             *   *   *   *   *

5. Walter Reed,  ILA, English

The Dialectic of Muralization and Devastation

         In the Hebrew Bible, also known, mutatis mutandis, as the Old Testament, there seem to be two places or spaces of prime importance:  the city (which is usually a city defined and defended by surrounding walls) and the desert (which is usually understood as a wasteland, a space you want to pass through rather than a place to establish permanent residence—even if it takes you 40 years).

         But in a more general philosophical perspective, the idea of an urbs or metropolis seems to generate (or be generated by—a chicken and egg problem that I leave to those who find causality important) the idea of the country, the boondocks, the empty, boring places deprived of civilization and modernity.

         (I had intended to begin this improvisation—my contribution to the collective improvisation—with “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” from Frost’s meditation on fences and neighborliness—but . . . maybe I can still work it in:  “Something there is that can’t live without a walled city and can’t live within I either.”  In fact—loving as I do great generalizations about areas of knowledge where I remain outside the walls of expertise rather than within the gates of the discipline—both the Testaments, Old and New, are rather ambivalent about walled cities.  The Hebrew people became enslaved to the urban ambitions of a Pharaoh “who did not remember Joseph.”  Yes, Jerusalem is much desired and celebrated, but no, when the chosen people choose to put their faith in the protection of its walls rather than in the protection of the God who has plucked them out from among the nations, it’s off to Babylon, the bad city of the evil empire.  And simply to mention the Book of Revelation, with its bad earthly Babylon falling, falling, falling and its good new Jerusalem coming down from heaven, should be sufficient.

         I’m in the midst of reading a book written by a rat who finds himself in the midst of a wonderful used book store in a part of Boston, Scollay Square, that’s terribly run down and is slated for urban renewal—I think it’s set in the early ‘60s.  I have a feeling I know what’s going to happen:  the wasteland within the city (a city of walls for the narrator-hero, Firman, certainly) which is a paradise for rats, is going to be laid waste, covered over with concrete so that it can become a space worthy of the new urbanites, the better class of people who keep insisting that the walls, physical and social, between them and the less fortunate or talented members of the human race—be made more secure.  All cites aspire to the condition of gated communities, though they also are quite unstable as such.

         I was born on 5th Avenue in New York City, capitol of modernity.  I have lived, been drawn (sometimes kicking and screaming) to the wastelands, high-culturally speaking, of small towns, beyond the pale of civilization as I dreamt of knowing it.  “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” asserts Dr. Johnson.  And yet, and yet—I wonder if being within the gates or without the gates makes a difference—makes as much of  difference, as the dialectic of muralization and devastation, the apparently endless interplay of building up dividing demarcations and tearing them down, is really where it’s at, so to speak.  Maybe the inner city lion will lie down with the lamb of the open fields, but probably only when we re-imagine the dialectic—the war of oppositions—as an ecosystem, a peaceful though by no means restful or sedentary, accommodation.

                  “Till we have built Jerusalem

                    In England’s green and pleasant land.”

Or Georgia’s. Or America’s. Or Emory’s. Or this fragile earth our island home’s.

         (I’ll bet you thought I couldn’t sneak the topic of love and peace—charis and shalom—the one we passed over—in here.  It never occurred to me that I could either.)