Imaginary Cities

It is slightly alien to be living in a new city while most of its doors—including those of my new university—are closed. It puts the city and its people at a remove, that alienness making all stranger, or perhaps merely revealing the strangeness that always was. 

Every shuttered shop, every empty cobblestone corner, every light switched off and pub table empty demands more attention. Each is a reminder of failed public health management on a global scale, of how sites of consumption function as our few spaces of public congregation. Each is a ghostly artifact of the way things were, sheer potentiality for how they might be. The world is turned into a museum, landscape of memory and desire, of absent presence and present absence. Time is suspended (the calendar in the house we live in was still turned to March 2020 when we first arrived, presumably as the last occupants fled with the pandemic to whatever home was more home for them) while promising to progress (we’ll be back soon! proclaim handfuls of hopeful papers posted to dozens of downtown doors).

Perhaps strangest of all, it is still easy to love the city. My Galway has become my imagination of what it might, in its fullest form, be. 

As an American living in Ireland, I have been consistently impressed by the degree to which the Irish people I know follow US politics, especially in this extended election season. They seem to know more about the intricacies of our complex democratic systems than many Americans do.

I’ve also been struck by the degree to which they express an admiration, even a kind of love for the United States, despite our litany of sins. It’s probably to do with the long relationship between the two countries, between our peoples and our politics, the common historical enemy in the English, the history of migration—everyone seems to have a brother in Philly, a cousin in Chicago, and now the US president-elect has a great-grandfather from Louth. 

Still, it is the kind of love for America that I lost some time ago. It’s the kind of love that comes at a distance, the remove allowing for a more idyllic imagination. Where my American peers and I know intimately the ugliness and rancor that run through the American body politic like poison, the Irish are able to project their desires of what they wish America to be upon it like a screen. Surely the same is true in reverse; I cannot know, not in the same embodied way, the ardor of the Irish political dilemmas. This is not to say that any of us is naive as to the complexities of the other, nor that cross-cultural knowing is impossible, only that distance does its work.

And so similarly—strangely—I feel I cannot fully know Galway, the city I live in, in the time of its lockdown. It becomes an imaginary city (as any city always is) and therefore impossibly lovely. When, in reality, in the throes of ordinary time, it is not as perfect as I imagined and hoped, this is then occasion and inspiration to make it more perfect. 

So, too, with America. To love a place is to desire it to realize its highest ideals. May we work to make America the best of what the Irish have imagined us to be.

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