Narrative essays

This is the second part of the essay Urbs Aeterna ("The Eternal City"). It discusses the past and present of the city of Tampere in the contexts of European history and Classical Antiquity. Major themes include e.g. culture, civilization, religion and architecture. The title Urbs Aeterna refers to the city of Rome, which functions as the highest symbol in reflecting these themes.
URBS AETERNA
by Riku Vienonheimo
Part II
I often admire the tiny plates of cuneiform script, the piece of ancient mosaic with the fish and the Greek papyrus which are on display in a glass vitrine at the department of history of the University of Tampere. Forgetting the Nordic climate outside I can sense at least a slight scent of the Mediterranean air and almost see the boat-shaped moon of the Mesopotamian latitudes sailing across the sky. In the same room there is a map which shows the possible paths used by medieval Finnish pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela and – of course – the eternal city.
I am not sure what one should think about the irony. The history department of the University of Tampere is highly focused on the history of Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages. All this in a city that has almost nothing medieval, not to mention ancient. There is a medieval church from the early 16th century, but it only belongs to the city because of several mergers, and it is certainly not among the most impressive ones in Finland.
This is the sad fate of all the Finnish cities, and of the whole country. The history is short and most of what was still left a hundred years ago has disappeared. The lack of a glorious history, or at least the material evidence of it, is a wound to Finnish self-esteem that will never heal. Moreover, the Parisian-style parade avenues and cultural treasures are completely absent. Probably no-one has ever experienced anything like Stendhal syndrome in Finland.
On the contrary, visitors with high expectations might experience something more like Paris syndrome. This phenomenon is mostly experienced by Japanese tourists, who are disappointed with the intimidating reality of Paris, like the noisy, crowded, dirty streets and the rude people who are nothing like the Chanel-dressed models they had expected. The Pari shōkōgun, as the Japanese call it, can cause even physical symptoms, such as nausea. If our occasional traveler would expect to find some remarkable attractiveness in the modest cities of Finland, he might be as disappointed as the Japanese in Paris.
This is of course exaggeration, since few people usually have high expectations, obviously because Finland is not famous for its cities. But a conversation between two German students I overheard in a bus tended at least in this direction. At the central square I heard one say:
 Die Stadt sieht ja echt schön aus!
The central area seemed to please his eye, but as the bus went through the district of Kaleva, which is a good example of 1950s urban planning, with dozens of similar 6-story apartment buildings, the tone was different.
Guck‘ mal, alle Finnen wohnen in solchen Blocks!
It was a surprise for him to see that a great deal of the population lives in such blocks. I was amused. I would have thought that apartment buildings are quite a universal phenomenon, especially after urbanization has spread throughout the world. The German seemed to expect that the inhabitants of this distant country live in pleasant villas, or huts in the forest.
It is needless to say that apartment buildings were not uncommon in the glorious cities of antiquity either. As the cultures reach a certain phase, urbanization becomes a necessity: cities offer a living for ever more and more people, and the population density grows. Eventually there is no more space for the rich peoples’ private houses so even they have to move to the more modest blocks; exactly this happened in the eternal city as well. To our comfort, or especially for the comfort of those who cannot enjoy such views as Kaleva, it could be said that even the mighty and wealthy Romans lived in a similar scenery of rationalism and welfare aesthetics.
The German students had the same destination as I: they were heading to the big satellite town of Hervanta, which is perhaps the largest suburb in the country. Many people have had their doubts about this area of prefabricated concrete blocks, but in my opinion it is a delightful neighborhood. The construction started in the 1970s, at the peak of Nordic social democracy, and I think it is a gorgeous achievement. It is also a touching act of trust in the strength of man, in social progress, in novelty. The whole area rose in the middle of a forest and even the firmest Fennoscandian bedrock had to shiver.
I stepped out of the bus and walked around the center of Hervanta. The wonderful brick architecture of the area is designed by the deeply talented and visionary architect couple, Raili and Reima Pietilä. I walked their red-glowing archway from the library to the small square in front of the church and just admired the structure – though slightly modified – which even the ancient Greeks barely knew. The Romans did, of course, since they were better engineers, but I dare to claim that their arches were not loaded with such deep symbolism: the archway is formed by similar, equal bricks and it stays together just like our society, formed by equal human beings. What an alien idea that would have been for a Roman!
I headed towards the massive brutalist student housing complex and took a lift to the 12th floor. The afternoon was turning to evening and there seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary in the air. However, it was the evening the Egyptian Swallow appeared to me. Looking at the elegantly shaped bird I realized there was something unusual in the situation, but I did not realize yet what sort of a process it started. I turned my gaze back to the broad view in front of me and let my mind fly across the centuries.
Doesn’t every culture have to start from a zero point as it establishes itself in the middle of the forest, jungle, desert, or the river delta? Does it matter if the Romans did it in 753 before Christ or if we did it here around 1970 anno Domini? What is the difference anyway? Both of these events are similar expressions of the belief that we have a right to be here, settle down, continue our life, build, and that we can do it because we are human beings, superior to the rest of the nature. This was the more or less unconscious idea in the minds of the mythical Roman forefathers and the urban planners of the 1960s. The mythical Romans might have been doing it with the gods’ guidance at first, but eventually the human beings’ faith in themselves becomes stronger and stronger, simultaneously as their buildings become higher and higher. By establishing our culture and material life somewhere we declare ourselves, humans, as the eternal value that will never fade away. And along with our culture we spread around the symbols of eternity.
This is the fate of every culture that reaches a certain point, or in other words, every culture that becomes a civilization. But there’s no need to blame anyone. We are cultural animals: products of culture, which is itself our own product. Our life form is anthropocentric from the very beginning. It would be very challenging to think differently.
The Swallow was suddenly gone. I suppose it flew back the distance of 4000 years and returned among the other hieroglyphs. They are still there to be seen, in the Egyptian stone. They can still be read, just like the cuneiform script. As we study these ancient writing systems it is hard to avoid the thought that cultures come and go, and that no life-form is supposed to be permanent, or eternal. There have always been people who understand this. But how many think about that as they see apartment blocks occupying the forests, towers reaching unforeseen heights, rivers changing their direction, or mountains way older than the first human species being pierced with giant drills?
It is the sweet delusion of megalomania that invades most cultures, and very essentially our Western culture. The obscure mix of Jewish-Christian tradition and Hellenism has gone a lot further than the Egyptian megastructures, perhaps because it seems to contain the idea of excessive exploitation of nature and other humans. This effective combination has invaded almost every corner of the world. Still, luckily, it seems like only rather modest waves of it have reached our Nordic corner.

Talking about issues of cultures and civilizations is dangerous in a way, since they simply have too many factors to deal with. No man’s capacity can be enough for that, even though they are his own products. At least I wasn’t sure at all what to do, surrounded by all this confusion. The first suggestion that came to my mind was to get down to earth from the heights of the apartment block and begin a long flâneur’s journey.


1 comment:

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