Naples:life,death &
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  entry Mar 29, 2016

Walter Benjamin & Naples

There are 3 entries here;
- 1.  Is Naples Still porous (below)   2. The Human Side of Porosity    3. Countless Theaters

1. Is Naples Still “Porous” ?    

It can't be a coincidence that the other day I came across a copy of Walter Benjamin's essay on Naples (Neapel, written with Asja Lacis in 1925) and that the very next day (yesterday) was Pasquetta, the Monday after Easter, when all Neapolitans move out into the streets for their yearly lemming-like march to nowhere (the cliffs are on strike). From my entry on Pasquetta:

...Pasquetta the most hectic, bustling day of the year in Naples. Last–minute Christmas shopping, Mardi Gras celebrations, New Year's Eve, rowdy bands of football hooligans — all of that is nothing compared to the Monday after Easter. Every single teenager who is upright and breathing puts on a knapsack packed with food and sets out to go somewhere — anywhere. But not alone. They travel in packs, herds, swarms, or whatever the appropriate collective noun is for a carefree mob out for a picnic in celebration of a religious event they no longer remember anything about....

The image (right) is “porous”. That road is where the seabed used to be; then it was a street, then it was a pedestrian walkway. Today I'm not sure what it is. Cafes have encroached on the space in some places to the middle of road. The term “porosity” or “porousness” has come into the English vocabulary of architecture and urban planning from the German (Porosität) of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) the German essayist, philosopher, and social critic.

His essay on Naples is one of his lesser known works. He was obviously fascinated by the nature of cities...what is a city?...what does its architecture mean? (“In Naples the architecture is as porous as the rock.”) is it possible to find beauty in something that is ugly? How does urban living increase our sense of isolation? Roughly, “porous” means that the structures we build resist well-defined function; you can build a square or a park, but people use it for anything they want, and once it falls to pieces, as it will, the city will flow back through and around it. Most would agree that at least in Naples, you feel less isolated because of this “porosity”. Benjamin wrote about other cities as well, such as Marseilles—another port city, like Naples—and one that has undergone attempts to “clean it up," as has Naples.

I have been caught out a few times in the Pasquetta parade and hated every second of it, yet I think this is what a lot of non-porous northern visitors find attractive about Naples. Benjamin's porosity is the quality that makes the city either more livable or less livable. No one seems to know. Visitors like to come and gush about Naples and its...

... passion for improvisation, which requires that space and opportunity be preserved at any price. Buildings are used as a popular stage. They are all divided into countless theaters with different plays all running at the same time. Balconies, courtyards, windows, entrance ways, staircases, roofs all become stages and box seats...the living room shifts out to the street, with chairs, hearth, and altar...and the street moves into the living room...each private attitude or act is permeated by streams of communal life.

[trans. note: besides Porosität, Benjamin is fond of the German verb durchdringen - or some derivative thereof - to describe Naples. It is normally translated as "permeate", as it is in the above passage. It is better than mixture, because it indicates active movement. If you take the German verb apart, it means "press through". In Naples everything is "permeated" (pressed through) with everything else:

  • Unwiderstehlich durchdringt der Festtag einen jeden Werktag./ Holidays irresistibly permeate each workday.
  • Auch hier Durchdringung von Tag und Nacht./ Here, too, the permeation [that's awful!] of day and night.
  • ...und so durchdringen sich Familien in Verhältnissen./ ...thus families permeate in relationships. [equally awful!]
  • Wahre Laboratorien dieses großen Durchdringungsprozesses sind die Cafes./Coffee bars are true laboratories for this grand process of permeation.]

Visitors like to come to a place (at least for a while) where “nothing is definitive..." where no one ever says “this is the way it is and nothing else...” (Compare that to a sign I saw once on a patch of grass in a park in Berlin that said: Liegewiese, meaning “you may lie on this grass.”) They have come to the right place in Naples. There is something “oceanic” about merging into the flow you see in the image, above. You can get mugged, too. But while that is happening, please think about the durchdringung “...of day and night, noise and peace, outer light and inner darkness, street and home … [and how] Poverty has brought about a stretching of frontiers that reflects the most radiant freedom of thought.” My frontiers feel stretched just thinking about it. Or at least permeated.

Benjamin's essay is from roughly the same era as this letter/essay by Jean-Paul Satre about Naples. Sartre took another tack and just pointed out that the new streets covered up what was essentially still wrong with the city. He was not taken with the pores of the city or with the soul of the city wafting like some indeterminate quantum fog through and in and out of all the nooks and crevices. Benjamin on the other hand found that that was precisely what was right with the city.

So are we still porous? (The image on the left certainly is. That was a nice outdoor park with bleachers where students and office workers could sit and have lunch.) There are certainly parts of Naples that look as they did centuries ago. Not decades. Centuries. But there have been various attempts at urban renewal. Some call it "cleaning up." The most famous one was from 1885-1915. It was called the risanamento (lit.=making healthy again!) A success? Possibly, yes. Except to those who called it the "gutting" or "disembowelment" of the city. (See this link.) Some might just say "sanitize"—make people think you are putting a new face on the city (forgetting to mention that you are ripping the guts and soul out of it). Maybe it's a tough call since I harbor no nostalgia for quaint whores and hoodlums down by the ports in some cities.)

The Fascist rebuilding of the 1930s? (image, left.) Well, there is nothing “porous” about mastodontic marble facades. They definitely do not "resist well-defined function. They are a well-defined fusion of form and function. Big and intimidating. Of the more recent attempts at urban renewal in Naples, three stand out: the housing projects at Scampia (image, right) the Centro Direzionale (Civic Center, image below, left), and the new subway system. The first is an urban blight and has already been partially torn down. (Of course, maybe that was part of the pore people's plan; it was meant to pre-eventually fall to pieces and be reabsorbed back into the urban fabric and thus doth the beautiful cycle begin anew (like an old Disney nature film about the eternal rebirth of spring!).

The Civic Center (left) was a highly touted architectural wonder, but it is all high rises and no one ventures out at night. The spaces (pores) between the high-rises were meant to generate a sort of Oriental bazaar mentality where people would naturally gravitate out into the flow of humanity. (Like a kraal, a South African tribal community, another metaphor that Benjamin used to describe Naples.) That has not happened. The entire compound has increased the isolation of the residents and it's a forbidding area to walk through at night. The third item, the subway system, makes it easier to get around, so that might decrease isolation.

Benjamin wrote that...

The nature of the architecture, its porosity, evolves from this need of the Neapolitans to improvise, but improvisation, itself, depends on the porosity of the architecture. Consequently, the architecture is porous, allowing new constellations to emerge...

That was written 90 years ago, but none of the major projects in recent years show signs that they are “allowing new constellations to emerge.” Maybe that's what people really want. There is a constant barrage of articles in architecture magazines about how Benjamin's idea of “porosity” is what many cities need in order to rid them of an increasing sense of isolation, to restore their sense of humanity, to get people moving in and out and through their cities. Yet when all the tourists who come to Naples to enjoy the “porosity”when those people go home to wherever they come from, it might be that they feel safer in their gated communities! Indeed, they are safer! Even in porous Naples I live in a such a place. Got the gate out in front. Got the Beware of Dog sign (although the dog died two years ago). Got the watchman at the gate. All that. And mine is a typical street, at least in this part of town and many others. Many Neapolitans live in gated communities (up and down the beautiful Posillipo coast you can't get onto any of the lovely gated properties from the land or sea without calling in a drone strike). But the residents are content to let everything else fall to hell on the outside. In Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City by Graeme Gilloch, the author says,

Benjamin aims to reveal the process of construction as the production of instant ruins. Naples is the perpetual ruin, the home of nothing new. In the ruin, the cultural merges into the natural landscape, becoming indistinguishable from it. The production of instant ruins!

That's what I didn't realize when I wrote an entry called Upkeep and Maintenance, to describe the photo above of the park fallen into ruin. You can read that if you want, but don't let it bother you too much because that photo is already way out-of-date. It is now something else
a roadway, I think. You see, they put in the park and then decided to build a station for the new metro line right there, so...well, it looks ok now, whatever it is in this particular brief iteration. So the answer to the question is yes, we are still porous. Makes my skin crawl, too, believe me.

top photo (right) of the mob along the seafront is by Selene Salve. Unless otherwise indicated, all passages set off in quotes "like this" or set off in separate indented paragraph citation format are from Neapel by Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis (1925).

added May 17, 2016

2.  The Human Side of "Porosity"     

Benjamin remarked that the architecture in Naples is as “porous as the rock”—first one function, then another and another. The functions of places shift and are overtaken; they change like an endless string of theater sets flipping from one to the next as the season progresses ("season" being life, itself, and “progress” maybe a poor choice of words), maybe a comedy, then a musical, then an Ibsen or Pirandello or whatever. Walter Benjamin's native language and culture were German. His language has a proverb that says Ordnung muss sein—”There must be order”. It permeates German culture and, as well, is a cliché to describe German culture and poke fun at the people. Indeed, the orderly Germans! Everyone makes fun of them. (Lenin once quipped that the first thing a German revolutionary does when he gets orders to occupy the train station is to buy a platform ticket!) To such a person, then, the kaleidescope of Naples —the impermanence, the coming apart at the seaminess— was the charm of the city. They come from a land of rigorous order to a land of instability and they wallow in it. It's all so quaint.

There is, however, a human side to this quaintness. In one day!—just last week—I found a few examples (and I know many more). A gentleman whom our family has known for decades and specializes in carpentry and woodworking came by to adjust a door panel and a wooden shutter or two. He is, I suppose, a professional handyman, and there's nothing he can't fix. In the course of the few hours he was in our home, I asked him about his workshop. I remembered it as right down the street; it used to be you could take stuff over there—a busted chair, things like that—and he'd work on it and bring it back to your home. Now he comes and gets it and takes it away and brings it back or tries to mend it in your home. He told me that he had given up the workshop, an establishment that he and his brother had opened and run successfully for decades. Why? Couldn't afford the rent, taxes, electric bills, or the “squeeze” from the mob, and he couldn't even afford to pay the city the yearly fee for sometimes picking up the trash on the street. All that and more. So he became a traveling handyman. Call his cell-phone and he'll gear up and come over, toolbox and all. It was more like one of those old-time professions that you see described here: offer a service, but keep moving, keep wafting through the pores of the city. His life had become impermanent, perhaps quaint to northern philosophers. His life had become as “porous as the rock” that so fascinated Benjamin.

So it is with a young woman who used to work in a beauty parlor down the street where my wife went to get her hair done. Same story. They closed for all those same reasons, so the woman is now an ambulatory hair-dresser with a cell-phone. There are local fruit vendors working out of the back of illegally parked vans, and there are fine electricians who used to have a legitimate shop but now wander from place to place putting up their advertising flyers and waiting for the cell-phone to ring. I know a seamstress who worked in one of a chain of shops that had the additional expense of paying the staff a minimum hourly wage plus year-end bonuses, so they just closed that location and the women who worked there now walk the streets with their needles, thread, cell-phones and hastily printed calling cards that they hand out along the way. Then there's the mechanic and the man who tried to open a small restaurant... etc. etc.

It may be that Benjamin's romanticized view of the virtues of chaos and impermanence—that is:

"... buildings are used as a popular stage. They are all divided into countless theaters with different plays all running at the same time. Balconies, courtyards, windows, entrance ways, staircases, roofs all become stages and box seats..."

...was influenced by the fact that he saw Naples in the 1920s. There was not yet any real motorized traffic to speak of and, importantly, it was before the age of the disastrous overbuilding of the city in the wake of WWII, a period when formerly green, even bucolic, spaces in the Vomero, Posillipo and Fuorigrotta sections of town were layered with shoddily constructed buildings and laced with miles of underground water and sewage lines almost guaranteed to leak and siphon away the soil, caving in random streets and homes (pictured above). Porous? Very. Quaint? Not so much.

3. More on "...countless theaters with different plays all running at the same time."     
added June 16, 2016

Here is another example of the quaintness of chaos in Naples. The building on the left is now known as the Villa Maria. It was built as the Hotel Eden, one of the most delightful and photogenic examples of Art Nouveau architecture in Italy (known as "Liberty" style in Italian). It was built in 1899-1901 and was the design of Angelo Trevisan (1849-1929). In the original and recently restored configuration it was more or less as you see it on the left: broad, high facade with a lush garden in front. The garden has become increasingly important since the premises border on a congested square (Piazza Amedeo, in the Chiaia section of Naples). Aesthetically, the garden provides spaciousness and simply breathes green out onto a square that needs it. On the right is a photo from the other day.The space is cluttered with lawn furniture where a shop has moved its stock out into the garden. Hundreds of items on display and for sale. Hurry, hurry, hurry. Consolation? It won't last long. Summer is about to start. It will end. The rains will come, and an umbrella shop can open up

Entry #3 also appears in the Naples Miscellany pages here.]

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