By Jonathan Power
“What did these vain and presumptuous men intend? How did they expect to raise their lofty mass against God, when they had built it above all the mountains and clouds of the earth’s atmosphere?” This is St. Augustine writing about Babylon in his “City of God”. In more modern times Jonathan Raban has written in “Soft City”, “The city has always been an embodiment of hope and a source of festering guilt: A dream pursued, and found vain, wanting and destructive.”
St. Augustine wrote the “City of God” in a state of sorrowful contemplation. The city of man, he believed, ought to be a harmonious reflection of the City of God. In actuality it is vulgar, lazy and corrupt, a place so brutish that it lacks even the dignity of the satanic. St Augustine would surely write the same way if reincarnated in Atlanta, Johannesburg, Mumbai or Riyadh.
Johannesburg? Who can forget Alan Paton’s dark description of that city in his beautiful but painful novel, “Cry the Beloved Country”. The old, liveable, city got overtaken in the 1950s. “We shall live from day to day. And put more locks on our doors, and get a fine, fierce dog when the fine, fierce bitch next door has pups, and hold on to our handbags more tenaciously, and the beauty of the trees by night and the raptures of lovers under the stars, these things shall we forgo.
We shall forgo the coming home drunken through the midnight streets and the evening walk over the starlit veldt. We shall be careful, and knock this off our lives and that off our lives, and hedge ourselves about with safety and precaution.”
Johannesburg, it is true has its own peculiar burden, but which of us city dwellers would be brave enough to say this does not touch some primeval instinct we have that tells us this is the way our own city might go, if indeed it has not already gone, as many have the last 20 years.Read More »