Are Cities Good For Creativity?
I want to approach this question by thinking about a related, and in some ways opposite, one. "Are internment camps good for creativity?" In some respects, though not all, the internment camp can be seen as the opposite, the alter ego, of the city. We can think of Auschwitz and New York inhabiting opposite ends of the American moral-spatial spectrum in the second half of the twentieth century (which is partly why the events of 9/11 had such a profound resonance).
Yesterday my neighbour came to my door to show me the diary of one of his relatives, a Sikh fom Punjab who had fought in the British army in the second world war, and who was captured and interned in a prisoner-of-war camp. The man was a talented artist and draughtsman, and had filled his notebook with drawings of camp scenes. Men sunbathing in front of barracks, playing hockey, putting on theatrical performances. He wrote accounts of the camp's economy (with "one English cigarette" as the basic unit of currency) and stuck in newspaper clippings of Mussolini's death etc. His fellow camp inmates, among them Eric Newby, wrote poems and comments in the book, and painted pictures of "Jit Singh, the Indian painter" at his canvass. These comments bore witness to a deep intimacy and appreciation between the American, British, Canadian, French - and Indian - men who found themselves together.
This diary put me in mind of the internment camp on the Isle of Man during the same period. Many German and Italian nationals resident in the UK were interned there in 1940, and a large proportion of these were central European Jews who had arrived in England to flee Nazism.
They lived in great fear, believing that Hitler might soon invade the UK and that this enclosure might be one of his first targets. But the camp was full of Jewish artists and intellectuals, and nothing could stop the inevitable. Within weeks of their internment, there were camp newspapers, weekly lectures on nuclear physics, and regular concerts.
Three members of the future Amadeus Quartet, all from Vienna, met in the camp. The quartet was founded in London immediately after the war, and endured until the death of violist Peter Schidlof in 1987. The Viennese composer Hans Gál was interned there, and wrote several works there. Perhaps readers know of other internees.
(See also the story of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, written in the Stalag VIIIA prisoner-of-war camp in Germany.)
In many respects these camps were similar to cities. They inherited the civic cultures of places like Paris, Berlin and Vienna, and they brought together people from different backgrounds, with different skills and interests. But in other ways they were quite different. The notion of time was completely different, for the onward rush of urban time was taken away, and what was left was time as a still pool. Death was more proximate than in the cities (from which it had been exiled), and this gave a gravity, an earnestness, to conversation.
Creativity is one of the qualities that most reassures us about our humanity. What do the outbursts of creativity in internment camps, and even death camps, mean for our thinking about cities? Do they display the fortitude of urban culture, which continues unabashed even in such terrible circumstances? Or do they remind us that creativity is somehow linked to those things that cities are most concerned to stamp out - death and inactivity - and that sometimes it may be in the most unlikely places that the most astonishing human creations arise?