The City Spoke
THE CITY SPOKE
"...the arts are simply imitations of nature and are, in a certain sense, concrete poetry."
-Giambattista Vico, Scienza Nuova
It’s not possible to say exactly when or how the first city came to be. The origination of the city began long before the world had witnesses, and when there were finally witnesses there was still no speech, and when there was still no speech, well, communication of the past was entrusted to objects: An upturned stone, a fallen tree decaying, the negative of a thing stamped in mud — the short and longterm memories of the material world. So if time progressed before there was human record of its passing, its preservation and transmission owed itself to the substance of things, like frozen speech.
But do you see what this means? It’s as if the city spoke long before we did. It means we invented the city long before we invented history. So what a responsibility the city held! All the time recording before we ourselves thought to archive. Yet if the ancestry of the city were chronicled in a book, consider the endless chapters one would have to thumb through to reach pages written in an intelligible language. Without a translator, those first roots of civilization would remain eternally buried beneath sediments of time.
But translation is my task, for I was born in a time long before time itself was born. Before anyone thought to read the patterns of this world to invent the day, the year, the century and look to the sky for proof of their passing. Though I am perfectly able to experience the emotions that constitute the human condition, I’m not technically human, but rather an evolutionary ancestor, a prehuman, if you will. You might call us wanderers, vagabonds, vagrants: creatures too brutish to be called human yet to human-like to be called beasts. But live like one of us for a moment and feel hunger more deeply than you have ever felt famished, more fearful than you have ever felt afraid. The same is true for thirst, for sadness, for lust. For us however, this was simply what it meant to be.
Life is different when you’re not at the top of the food chain. My ancestors may not be much to speak of now, but in my day we were pioneers and visionaries. We looked into the blackness of the unknown and lit a fire there. Language, art, technology, science, philosophy and religion, culture and customs — No, I can’t claim that we invented these institutions but we certainly did prepare the ground for them to flourish. And I was there for the germination and the bloom. In other words, in my lifetime I lived to see the birth of the city.
Even before the city, though, we never lacked shelter. Deep in the caves, up in the trees, among the brush — we were in fact adequately protected. But the world in which we lived was not a place meant for standing still: we had to hunt and we had to forage, which meant that where the animals went, where the fruits and grains grew, there we went also. Even the most hospitable cave or potable spring could be at best a temporary dwelling place. We, like everyone in that time, operated under seemingly natural laws that determined the numbers within wandering groups such as ours: it was simply not possible to maintain a gathering as large as a village, let alone a city. “Why did you not tame the animals?” you might ask, “Why did you not plant the fields?” These ideas may seem obvious in the quietness of full bellies, but when you cannot plan your next meal, you discover you cannot plan much at all.
The developments were slow. We didn’t know what it was that we were advancing toward, but every novel idea seemed to speed us along, burgeon our numbers, open the world. For instance, the simple way that water puddles in footprints hardened by the sun stunned me: could we not shape vessels from the earth? The possibility to then stock and preserve, to eat today what had been collected yesterday or even months prior, changed everything. Before long we were a band of capable potters. Soon after this, we chanced upon a separate group of wanderers. These were seldom peaceful encounters, but they at once noticed the various pots and carafes among our possessions, things they had never seen before. We showed them the many uses of a single pot, and they offered to teach us how to prevent meat from spoiling if we would teach them how to turn the soil into containers. Thus from them, we learned the virtues of salt – and moreover, they decided to join us in our wandering, doubling the size of our group.
I could name many other things, but I must tell you that the real development, the true impetus of our becoming, happened during a violent storm one night when it seemed the sun itself was cracking whips across the sky, ropes of light that split through the heavens and came crashing to the ground. One of these lights struck a group of nearby trees causing them to rupture with light from within. Terrified, we ran until we felt safe. Seeing that the light had not moved from the trees, but remained, shivering in bird-like wings, we cautiously approached and felt the warmth spread out from the light. We had discovered fire. As we gathered around it, we soon discovered the inborn magnetism that draws together man and flame, for within days thousands of wanderers had joined our circle.
The cold was all the worse for those who now knew of heat: there was simply no leaving the presence of the fire. And just as encountering others had once led to knowledge for us, these new wanderers, barbarians now tempered into civility, carried within them new knowledge as well. Chief among their ideas were those that concerned shelters of a more permanent nature. And because no man wanted to distance himself from the fire, we stacked dwellings on top of one another, building upward in the likeness of the flame. From that moment on, all of time would be understood as having passed either before or after fire’s discovery.
We began to see fire in many places. Yes, in the red dawn of fire new discoveries seemed to arise by the second, as if we were evolving many times over in the span of a single lifetime. And fire, it turns out, was only the beginning. It unlocked the potential of other elements — of earth, air, and water — elements we always knew but before fire could never fully harness. And when we learned how to transport fire from one place to another, it was then that our first sister cities were founded. With our budding yet nascent creeds, we were each naturally drawn to prefer one settlement over another. Some, for instance, who noticed the way in which flames turn all things into air and cause them to rise, who were perhaps also overcome by restlessness in the spell of fire’s fixity, thought it the natural order of things to ascend higher into the sky. Others, however, having observed that the primacy of fire lies in its base and noticing the tendency for heat to disperse evenly through solid material, thought it best to inhabit the earth as our cave-dwelling ancestors once did. While still others, who felt then as many feel now, were simply born to be companions of water, and so they carried the torch of their city to the sea.
From the very first city, the city of fire, came the city of air, the city of earth and the city of water; from these came more cities; from them, civilization. I have done my best here to let them live on through my words and my hand, knowledges that quickly followed the establishment of these cities, knowledges that sometimes forget the city altogether. But there is a bloodline of the elemental cities that still remains. I lay a hand on a tree and understand the seed from which it germinated, I put an ear to a shell and know the waters in which it calcified. We carry our origins within us, even if it requires another to read them.