Monday, August 13, 2012

This and That City

In my room -- where the books seem to have been busy taking over large swathes of territory, claustrophobically embracing me in their literary heat -- I seem to be in unceasing dialogue with the city that raised me. Every whirr, cackle, hum and hiss is comprehensible to me; these metropolitan pulsations are adding up to something; in the wee hours of my jetlagged morning the city and I are briefly but completely one, as I find myself unexpectedly gifted, and able to decipher these signals. I'll tell you something odder -- as I walked along the streets of Singapore once more in the burning sun, the much-decried heat and humidity incited not discomfort but joy. I am gloriously alive, attuned to the city, and it seems to me bursting at its seams with opportunity, novelty and excitement. The buzz and the hit of Singapore is now, to me (I didn't think I'd ever say this) comparable to the stimulant-rich melange that is London. Perhaps it's all distorted by the sheer relief of returning back home -- the enveloping sense of security, the lack of anxiety and worry while I sleep -- but I suspect something else is going on here. In my feverish diagnoses I've been unable to pin down why -- but Singapore now excites me once more. (This is not some pathetic attempt at neo-jingoism. Though, as if on cue, as I made my way home from the airport, the Chinese radio host spoke about the sense of security (安全感) he felt landing in Singapore's Changi Airport. And then, and one couldn't make this up, Kit Chan's '家' (Home) was played.)

That other city that's figured so largely in my life -- Oxford -- has a wholly different feel, though I felt a similar sympathy. My room in the first year -- now, terrifyingly, a ghostly memory -- had a view of Oxford's famed spires and the River Cherwell. (On the best of days, the view, along with a cup of Earl Grey and the companionship of the corridor team, made work almost painless.) Throughout the year though, it was no dialogue. Instead, Oxford declaimed itself to me through my window in stentorian tones. Fascinated, I listened. It had a lot to say, too. It was not furious dynamism that one feels in Oxford, of course. Instead, it's the sheer accumulation of tradition, almost but not quite approaching wisdom (for one never gets there), that first humbles, then instructs and delights. It claims immutability, imperishability and changeless authority. For some, this is stultifying and suffocating. For me, it was a revelation that led to a belief I've now come to hold very deeply -- that tradition is of immense value, even if it is often confected. Furthermore, it is our responsibility to participate in, and even lead, this fabrication if all else fails. 

I don't think I could have chosen two more dissimilar cities. In concert, they have taught me much. In Oxford, the preponderant weight of history will seem, in Joyce's formulation, to be a nightmare from which one is trying to awake. (Coincidentally, Marx: 'The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living'.) In Singapore, the future seems too full of terrifying possibility and nauseous freedom. When I think about these two cities (in) which've forged my life thus far, I am ever more aware of the irresolvable dilemma, the impossible situation that every person that fancies him/herself to be an historical actor has to face up to: the fact, as Hannah Arendt so ably perceived, that one is inextricably caught in the unhelpful position of being in the present, of being the product of the clashing of the (seemingly) infinite past and the infinite future.

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