The impossible city

Giuseppe Mascoli is very serious about cycling.

Drawing boundaries

The Italian daily Liberazione recently published a drawing (above) by Enzo Apicella which immediately created havoc.

The drawing features the slogan "La fame rende liberi" (Hunger makes one free) - an overt reference to the sign over the gates at Auschwitz reading "Arbeit macht frei" (Work makes one free) - in front of the wall which divides Palestine from Israel, and occasionally Palestine from Palestine. Within hours of publication, the newly elected Speaker of Parliament, Fausto Bertinotti, was harassed by embarrassing questions about it, as Liberazione is sponsored by his political party. A verbose and ineloquent debate ensued. Most writers gave Apicella a serious, if not pedantic, grilling. I'll spare you the details.

Obviously the sufferings of Palestine are not comparable to those of the Holocaust. But Apicella's sketch is neither a direct comparison between events nor an exercise in comparative history. It hints at a parallel between absurdities, not historical events. I won't address here the reflex claims of anti-Semitism (an insult usually uttered by some general in an armoured car to some poor boy with a slingshot).

The rage the cartoon has created is not just the product of mutual and deliberate misunderstanding. There is a monopoly on specific suffering that different groups award themselves. Locations and narratives of suffering - even dates such as 9/11 or 7/7 - become untouchable icons, appropriated by "others". This idea is reinforced by the concept of "collective suffering", a suffering that is transmitted to members of a tribe, nation or ethnicity; shared exclusively by those members. This might well be an absurdity: an individual or a number of individuals can suffer in a number of ways (from colitis to genocide), but never "collectively". It is also obvious that if this suffering could spread metaphysically, it would reach outside a partial collective entity and become universal.

Collective suffering is not just a dodgy idea but it is a very lengthy business too - one has only to think of the Christians still moaning about the Romans. Collective suffering is by its nature totemic and thus scatters in our cities macabre monuments (empty graves etc.). It also implicitly suggests the notion of a "collective guilt": potential and imminent external threats posed by the perpetrators of suffering. This, in turn, produces a huge number of self-justifying monumental cannons, lions, and muscular fighters brandishing swords. Monuments that consistently and visibly occupy portions of the metropolitan public space. Leaving aside this most bombastic and often unpleasant aesthetic of the lot, one is left with the impression that more than reminders of past catastrophes, this ghoulish armamentarium is a tool apt to legitimise future and present onslaughts. Are we preparing new massacres while pretending to commemorate past ones? (I am tempted to use the expression "new holocausts", but I think the copyright of the word has been bought by Spielberg.)

The notions of collective suffering and guilt also tell us that there is somebody else to blame. (There is no way of forgetting in the metropolitan jungle, littered with bronze and marble knick-knacks.) As a cyclist complaining about the poor urban planning for pedestrians and bicycles in London (and the ugliness of many modern structures) I am often reminded that London suffered irremediable scars during the Blitz. Should I then blame the Germans when I inhale the fumes of a Chelsea tractor? Or the weakness of the appeasers?

Cartoonists like Enzo remind us that the impossible city (call it Naples, London or Jerusalem) is not just littered by monuments but also by paradoxes. I prefer the latter.



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