Yesterday, I had to drive into downtown Chicago for work. I was helping pack boxes. Thrilling, I know.
But as I drove into the city from Lakeshore Drive and began trying to find the parking garage I had been assigned, I got lost. Several times. There is a maze of tunnels north of Millenium Park, streets underneath streets…it turns into a multi-leveled maze beneath a swarm of hotels and hotspots and skyscrapers, and one minute you’ll be driving above ground and the next you’ll descend into a helter-skelter pattern of concrete-and-steel passages in the city’s underbelly. I was reminded of that show I had a passing fancy for, “Cities of the Underworld,” only that show was about ancient cities lying underneath modern ones; this is a modern city lying underneath a modern city.
I found my spot and did my work, and came back, and left. But as I walked from North Michigan Aveneue back to my parking space in a garage on East Illinois, a thought occurred to me. I could have been born in this city, and spent every hour of my life, from birth to death, simply walking the city. I could have walked underneath the L, ridden its trained, explored the underworks, descended to the sewers, and still have found only a fraction of this city. And it is a certainty that, once I grew old, I would find areas of that city I thought I had explored, and find them under construction, or condemned, or revitalized in ways I could never expect.
And this is just to speak of geographical knowledge: in a lifetime, it is not possible that I could plumb the depths of its demography and its archaeology, the social lives of Edgewater residents, the religious worlds of immigrant communities in Rogers Park, or the traffic patterns of Western Avenue at 4:38 on an average day, or even enough to compute what constitutes an “average day.” And even if I somehow could master all of these wide-ranging disciplines, it would take lifetimes more just to understand another person who lives within this city: how do they see the same world which I inhabit and dissect? They have different eyes, a different brain. Their skin might be different, their income, their faith. Surely this impacts any discussion of what constitutes this, this city, this Chicago.
In other words, I can know this city, I can know its ins and outs, where I should go, who I should see, its patterns and rhythms and moments of sweetness and despair, and yet still not know it fully.
And so I was struck at that moment, where all the epiphanies I have just unpacked in words clustered together, struck by the final words of Book IX of The Republic of Plato: “‘But in heaven,’ I said, ‘perhaps, a pattern is laid up for the man (sic) who wants to see and found a city within himself (sic) on the basis of what he (sic) sees. It doesn’t make any difference whether it is or will be somewhere. For he (sic) would mind the things of this city alone, and no other.'” (tr. Allan Bloom, 275)
And at the same moment, the words of Walt Whitman came to mind, in “Song of Myself”:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
That last line is so thrilling and important. For if I am, in my mind, to tie together for my life Plato’s notion of what constitutes a city in myself, I feel like I need to look at cities as they are. Which is to say, sprawling, immeasurable. Expansive and hidden, with truths lurking in hidden places, geography shifting as time wears on, the voices that contend within my soul arguing and agreeing with one another, or old voices migrating to a “new city” as new voices enter my own in ongoing conversation with other people in my daily life.
This isn’t what Plato intended, I’m sure, and Walt Whitman was being effusive and euphonic. But there is something in this, something about the unknowability of the depths of the self, that provides me with both solace and splendor and unrest and disquiet.
And, for those of you nonbiblicists who want to know what the title means but turn all thumbs when it comes to pawing at Holy Writ: “For now we see in a mirror, in a riddle, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”