Our City Is Always Gone
Our city is always gone. We don’t step into the same stream twice, the Greek philosopher Herakleitos reminds us. The city we leave is never the one we return to. The one we did not leave escapes us daily. The one we know is the one in our head. “My childhood memories,” Hynde sings (sighs), “Slowly swirled past/Like the wind through the trees.”
Change happens reads the bumper sticker. Change is good the therapist advises. Change is forever the mantra of the politician, preacher and sidewalk nut. Hynde’s song says something else. Not the truth Heracleitos emphasizes, the feelgood consolation of the therapist, the promises of those who want to win us over. The winds of change may always blow, but they do not always bring good fortune, and we know that more often than not we – or those who speak for us – have been responsible for change that has wreaked destruction, havoc, loss. Her song is an indictment of “a government that had no pride.” It is a call for change. How do we talk about change that is both real and possible? Change that is not proclaimed daily from the hilltops?
What does not change is the will to change, the poet Charles Olson writes. We are told everyday we must be better, can be better, will be better. Progress is how we measure our lives, and we do not ever not progress. We live better than did our parents. Our parents lived better than their parents. The twentieth century made more progress than the nineteenth, and we assume the twentieth-first will make even more. Look at what we have done in science, medicine, industry, technology. We can get from A to B faster, do research in a library thousands of miles away without leaving home, talk to a friend on the other side of the world.
Why is it that progress has become a monster that sits on our lives? That the more things change the more they remain the same? That the more progress happens the less it satisfies? We cannot abandon progress because we have made it integral not only to our lives but also to our society. If we do not believe in progress, how can we live? What are we? Somehow we cannot pull the emergency brake on the runaway train of progress, even though we know we should.
Governments fit themselves into history like hands into gloves, but the fit is never comfortable. Their Progress (the one always written with a capital letter) has more to do with them than it does with us. Real progress and change can only be talked about in places where everyone is equal and can talk freely about his experience: neighborhoods, coffee shops, pool halls, taverns. In history, we have seen it happen in the ancient Greek polis, the Italian republics of the Middle Ages, the Paris Commune of 1871, the Hungarian workers’ councils in 1956.