Terror management

By Gene Miller, July 2016

How is a city like an older guy’s memory?

Terror management in Detroit"PETE" SENDS YOU AN EMAIL titled “Be Smarter Forever.” Your indecisive forefinger wears an arc between “delete” and “open,” but anticipation is out-shouting your cautious angels and you’re seized by a reckless courage: “I’m immortal! I spit in Death’s eye! I’m gonna live for-ev-ah!”

“Open.” Oops! Another dream of imperishability bites the dust.

Mortal, according to Wikipedia, means “able to die, susceptible to death,” death-able, you might say—in any case, the natural prospect that makes “see-you-next-year” a real knee-slapper. 

Wikipedia references a condition called mortality salience, which is “when an individual becomes aware that his or her death is inevitable.” The term is commonly bandied in terror management theory, a field of study that claims, “mortality salience causes existential anxiety.” Existential anxiety, presumably, is less worry over running out of milk, more running out of heartbeats. 

A final notation states that religious fundamentalists are less vulnerable to the “manipulations” of mortality salience—yet another dividend of being Chosen instead of choosey.

I can remember how, as an impatient and vital youngster, I would be offended and scandalized when my parents dragged me to family get-togethers and the oldsters did nothing, it seemed, but sit around sighing about their own and everyone else’s infirmities, declining health or medical crises. It felt like the opposite of living. Of course, my candle was long, then.

Now, I’m somewhat closer to guttering, and have noticed that my own conversation with friends about our acquaintances increasingly features “decrepit,” “could hardly recognize her,” or “forgot his own name”—recalling the joke about the hard-of-hearing seniors: “I want a divorce.” “Did you look in the fridge?”

What puts any of this in mind is a heavy, solid brass mortar and pestle—damn thing must weigh ten pounds—inscribed in Russian (Cyrillic) I can’t read, and which normally sits on a shelf in my place catching dust and the occasional suicidal yellowjacket. It was my grandparents’ and was given to my mom, the second of their five daughters, as a house present when she married. It was kid-proof, indestructible, and six-year-old me used it to experimentally pulverize everything from filberts to quartz pebbles. Consideration of this heirloom drew me impulsively to a cluster of framed family photographs—usually just wallpaper, but this day animated and meaningful.

A photo of my young dad standing in a white t-shirt beneath a tree stirs an incongruous memory: my parents have driven us a hundred miles north of our New York City home for a Catskills resort vacation (“more Jews than cows”), where I hear for the first time in my life the phrase, “Rise and shine!” which, once back home, turns into menacing Professor Reisenschein in my kid’s written fantasies.

There exists an archival photo of aging but still dashing virtuoso pianist Vladimir Horowitz, shown in profile, taking a bow at the conclusion of a January, 1943 recital at New York’s Carnegie Hall. The photo captures Horowitz, in tails, mid-bow beside the piano, and the enraptured audience on its feet, giving the pianist a standing ovation. A woman, thirtyish, but looking younger, girlish, stands and applauds adoringly from the lower balcony. This is my mother, Rose; the woman standing beside her, her sister Elise. Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, Horowitz’s great friend, will die in two months and my mom will, to far less applause, give birth to me seven months after attending this concert. 

“Nothing distinguishes memories from ordinary moments. Only later do they become memorable by the scars they leave,” says the narrator in Chris Marker’s film, La Jetee. 

My mom’s parents, Mendel and Bessie, came from Russia; my dad’s, unknown to me, from Germany. For reasons he never explained with any persuasive clarity, my father, born in 1910, changed his name—“Americanized,” they called it—from Pfau to the characterless and ordinary Miller. As a young teenager under the spell of Erich Maria Remarque’s novels (Arch of Triumph, All Quiet On the Western Front, Heaven Has No Favorites, etc.), I imagined myself not Gene or the dreaded Eugene (bellowed, for maximum humiliation, “Yew-geee-un” by my mom in her most nasal Bronx twang in the most public places, of course), but Eugen (as in the German, Oy followed by the hard G of get, so, Oy-gen). Eugen Pfau: Man on the Bridge. Eugen Pfau: Courier at Midnight. Eugen Pfau: Amsterdam Rendezvous. 

My mom, inheriting her father’s passion for classical music (he endlessly reminded everyone that he had once shaken Toscanini’s hand at a New York Philharmonic Orchestra concert), studied violin for years at the Manhattan School of Music and fashioned herself a serious and talented musician. At the end of one impromptu family musicale (two of her sisters were pianists), my grandfather muttered to me, in a confidential but hardly inaudible whisper, this verdict: “Woodchopper.” Poor mom, a woodchopper, not a celestial prodigy, and clearly destined always to be in the balcony, never on stage, at Carnegie Hall.

I’ve been narrating these bits of my own past well aware that each of us navigates in a “furnished void,” the subjective and almost fictional space of our own life. We grab at meaning, mostly through one form of story-telling or another. What at one moment feels edifice-like and substantial in its verity, the next seems evanescent, movie-like, speculative, almost imagined. We easily understand this about our own and other individual lives, but it’s equally true of wider human systems—organizations, institutions, social geographies. After all, what is history but fiction we all agree to believe? (Talk about managing terror!)

This column has been making its meditative way toward a question, more of a proposition with a question mark, actually: Can whole cities, even as they appear to continue to function, lose their meaning and identity, and drop out of currency and public memory?

I don’t mean that cities vanish; after all, there they are. But entire urban places do run out of “mission,” life force, story. Consider resource-based mill or mine towns in BC, whose ruins or residue are there to see. Or wickedly imagine Calgary post-oil. 

If you need more evidence, visit online the physical and social collapse of Buffalo, Detroit, Flint, Gary, Youngstown and others—once-great US places defined by their muscular industrial roles, their resources (steel, coal, human brawn) combined with the market gift of rail or a wide, flowing river or a lake port—in total, their “moment.”And when industry, economy, technology or mobility changed, the world’s regard shifted from these now-tragic legends towards other cities with more current or more durable aptitudes.

Such places don’t die well or picturesquely—no Carthage with its photogenic columns and ruined stones on the hillside, or Atlantis, intact beneath the waves (coming sea-rise may someday create a hundred such). Today’s gut-punched cities finish without glory. Myth and memory hold on for the space of a long held breath and then are replaced by welfare lines, abandoned buildings, social anger, jungle law and the other telling signs of urban distress and disinvestment.

Cities are simply accidents, or expressions, of the calculus of opportunity, and what is given by opportunity and circumstance can, and will, be taken back.

“The ability of a city’s physical structure to organize and encode a stable social order depends on its [sustained] capacity to master and manipulate matter,” notes Mike Davis, in Dead Cities, a book of pensive essays about cities in human civilization. More quizzical subject-mate Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities exposes us to a string of fictional cities less geographic facts than emotional jurisdictions (“Cities and Desire,” etc). Calvino writes: “Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears. The catalogue of forms is endless: until every shape has found its city, the cities will continue to be born.” He might have added “and die.” After all, moods are not permanent. 

All of his cities are, of course, one city: humankind strategically or whimsically arranging itself on a landscape. And if you’re finding all of this a bit fanciful, I would ask: do you not see the entry sign, “Welcome to Vain Hope and Folly,” as you cross into the precious bubble of the Uplands—terror management at the urban scale?

Intense discontinuity and dislocation are now affecting the world. It’s impossible to over-imagine the transformative impacts of globalization; the Internet; the massive jobs disruption of deindustrialization and technology; oligarchic consolidations of political and economic power; spreading citizen disappointment; and vast, unpredictable ecological payback from a stained and altered world. I have read some glorious, hopeful predictions, but they seem synthetic. I would put my money on messy. 

And somehow, in the middle of such churn, circumstances have conspired to sustain Victoria as a rare example of urban sanity and stability. This is our city’s role in destiny, our identity and our appeal in a jumpy world, our singular message: that traditions of civility and urbanity are not lost. 

Yes, but is it a local illusion, a fiction? 

Of course not. 

Will we endure? 

Yes, we will be this same place forever. 

A founder of Open Space and Monday Magazine, Gene Miller is currently promoting ASH, an affordable housing concept, and, with others, has initiated the New Economy Network.