I can't always say that I enjoy the immense crowds in city streets or on city sidewalks -- particularly during rush hours, when people's hopes for a speedy journey rise in direct proportion to the quantity of traffic. There are times when, in the middle of a crowded sidewalk, I yearn for a miraculous transportation to a quiet field or a treeshaded knoll in some calm countryside. But the streetside throungs are important to me -- important precisely because they are streetside, because they consist of human beings wrestling with the urban world. The city is not a separate entity in itself, but is founded on solid earth; its inhabitants breathe some degree of natural air, and cannot help but see the sky above skyscrapers. These people are constantly confronted with the world beyond their world -- with the wider earth, the further vision, the domain beyond their own creating. This perspective -- which might be called the perspective of the natural, or even spiritual, world -- cannot help but demand from the urban cosmos certain basic human responses and values, although those values have a way of getting lost in the mechanized shuffle.
I was thus both intrigued and mildly disturbed to read recently of a project in a major American city in which the downtown area is gradually being linked by means of underground tunnels. The author of the article reported this development in highly favorable terms: the tunnels would save the pedestrian the time and trouble of maneuvering at street level, enabling him or her to travel quickly to destinations beneath the ground. Restaurants, shops, offices, hotels , apartments -- all could be easily reached pedestrian once having to confront daylight. The author found a note of amusement in the fat that some people even get lost in this underground system -- a fate rather less than amusing to my mind.
After reading this article, I just haven't been able to get E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" out of my thought. The characters of the story are humans -- of a sort. They live entirely underground, sustained by a complex system called The Machine. Fearing to touch one another, they rarely visit each other in person; they generally spend their lives in their little self-contained cubicles, communicating only through electronic means. Their main activity consists in giving or listening to lectures -- but lectures filled with such dessicated and false ideas that they can be called no more than an absurd habit. The humans rarely travel to the surface of the earth; for although such travel is not forbidden, it is both pointless and dangerous. No civilization exists on the face of the earth, and unknown perils await the foolish visitor.
Written in the early 1900s, "The Machine Stops," according to Forster, evolved "as a reaction to one of the earlier heavens of H.G. Wells." Like many other peerings into the future, Forster's story shows no real signs of mirroring reality. Yet his points should not be missed. He finds it odd -- and hopes his readers will too -- that humans should prefer to remain underground, should prefer their artificial environment to the natural one, should gradually grow to worship what they themselves have created. He suggests that the mysteries of life -- of humanity and the world, united by a power not of human origin -- are potent reasons for maintaining a loving and searching attachment to the world, rather than withdrawing from it into a narcissistic manufactured environment.
I know that, on a wide boulevard or on a narrow side street, I am struck by the presence of the city in the world:m an amazing amalgam of natural and man-made forces, coexisting by necessity, unconcealed. I am amazed by the skyscraper, the phenomenal complexity and simplicity of its design; I am amazed by a leaf or blade of grass for almostm the same reason. Almost, because while I can fathom the design and creation of a skyscraper, I cannot fathom the design and creation of a leaf.
Both are crucial. I need both the humanly remarkable and the naturally unfathomable. They keep each other in perspective: the inquisitiveness, the questing, the caring of human life; the innate splendor, power, and unselconsciousness of the natural world. They are meant to be joined, their union a fulfillment of the promise of each.
So when I take the subway (which I have often done as a city dweller), I look forward, not so much to the end of the ride as the beginning of the walk -- the walk above ground, in wind and rain, crowds and crowds. These are my people, my air and sky -- two promises I cannot help but feel. They attract me constantly. They invite me out of the buildings and into the crisp, stunning world.