Listening to the Provinces

A painter’s letters home

Shifra Sharlin
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

On November 7, 1919, about a week after his arrival in Vitebsk, some three hundred miles west of Moscow, the artist and writer Kazimir Malevich wrote to a Moscow friend that his room gave “the illusion of being in Moscow.” What created that illusion? He didn’t say. But he did not need to say why the illusion merited mention. Vitebsk belonged to that elusive category the provincial city; it was not small enough to be a village and not large enough to be a great city, but it was a city nonetheless–yet also not quite a city in the eyes of someone, like Malevich, coming from Moscow. If, as the Elizabethan historian John Stow claimed, “Good behavior is yet called urbanitas because it is rather found in cities than elsewhere,” provincial liability erased urban advantage. Provincials are never urbane.

Provincial cities nevertheless deserve to be the center of our attention for two reasons: they are all cities and no city. Any city can be provincial. In comparison to Paris, Moscow is provincial. In comparison to a shtetl, Vitebsk is not. More important, provincial cities are everywhere: their number keeps increasing as large cities lose population to even larger cities.

Contrary to popular expectations, globalization in the twenty-first century has not contributed to a more decentralized and equitable world but rather to further centralization of resources and population, as Saskia Sassen, a leading scholar of globalization, has shown. Globalization requires ever-greater concentrations of expertise and resources in order to manage vast networks, thus contributing to the disproportionate growth of cities that enjoy the advantages of wealth and a large, skilled population. The internet is not the first technological innovation that has disappointed hopes that small cities will now gain advantages that make them the equal of large cities. Earlier such hopes centered on the railroad, and it too unexpectedly contributed to the decline of small cities by allowing their inhabitants to leave for the big cities more easily. The recurring hope that improved access to resources brought about by a new technology would make the world smaller, more united, and more just testifies to the depth of this longing rather than its imminent realization.

Many once great cities have dwindled in size and importance. The fortunate ones find ways to turn their past greatness into a tourist industry. The less fortunate put up plaques to commemorate their past for the occasional visitor. For instance, Milan, Ohio, which now has a population of approximately thirteen hundred, was once “the second-largest grain exporting port in the entire world, second only to Odessa, Russia,” a fact that explains its now incongruously spectacular mansions and huge town square. Some cities’ aspiration to greatness exists in slogans alone. Tacoma, Washington, was too close to Seattle ever to become the “City of Destiny” that its hopeful citizens envisioned in 1890. Small and medium-sized dots, signifying these provincial cities, can be found scattered all over maps but are rarely included in the thinking about cities done by urban studies professors and city planners.

Pioneers in urban studies set the precedent for this lack of specificity. In his 1937 talk “What Is a City?” Lewis Mumford defined the city as a center of drama and ballets, a place that exists outside time and place. The three hundred years and thousands of miles that separate the Elizabethan London whose urbanitas is praised in Mumford’s opening quotation from John Stow does not appear to lessen its relevance for the contemporary urban ideal he proceeds to describe. Louis Wirth, another pioneer in urban sociology, likewise neglected to specify details about the urban environment except that its varied crowds would foster a particular type of urban personality. Readers of his essays are left to assume that his analyses should hold true for all cities, even though anyone with even a passing familiarity with small cities must suspect that his compelling descriptions of urban life do not apply to all cities everywhere. Ames, Iowa, is not Manhattan.

Jane Jacobs confirmed this suspicion. In her influential The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs specified not just the type of city but the neighborhood that exemplifies the urban ideal: her own. Jacobs’s neighborhood, Greenwich Village in the late 1950s, along with Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, supplied her model for reviving America’s great cites. Based on her observations that the safest urban neighborhoods had the busiest streets, Jacobs came up with twin principles for creating busy streets. First, “mixed use” would bring a large and varied crowd to great-city neighborhoods. Second, this crowd would provide the “eyes on the street” that would keep the street safe.

Urban planners have subsequently shown how these key features of Jacobs’s Greenwich Village can be transferred to other, smaller places. The New Urbanism has been behind the creation of denser housing developments outside cities and mixed-use districts within them in order to give cities the kind of street life at the heart of Jacobs’s description of her urban ideal. Although the small cities of the twenty-first century have come to resemble the great cities of Jacobs’s late 1950s and early 1960s, her belief in the uniqueness of great cities is nevertheless warranted. The suburban development of Middleton Hills, Wisconsin, designed according to New Urbanist principles, along with the very welcome and popular mixed-use building near the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin and other neighborhoods like it, does not come close to making a Midwestern college town more like Manhattan.

Jacobs’s apparent silence on the subject of provincial cities makes sense in that, judged from the point of view of urban studies, the problems of a provincial city differ from those of a great city in degree more than in kind. Small cities need to control their sprawl as much as great cities do. Small cities no less than great cities have to deal with issues of sustainability, transportation, schools, and social welfare. Planners in small cities need to design plazas and parks, streets and sidewalks. The lessons of mixed-use and building density derived from big cities can also benefit the residents of small cities. In politics, also, the similarity persists. Both small and big cities lean left. Small cities attract the ire of the countryside and the envy or pity of the suburbs. In spite of this notion that size doesn’t matter, a long tradition of province-bashing suggests otherwise.

Kazimir Malevich belonged to that tradition. He hated the provinces as only a former provincial could. Who better than a Ukrainian, hailing from a backwater of the Russian Empire, would know how being in Vitebsk could jeopardize his chances of becoming the artist he wanted to be? Without leaving his room, he would have known what types of people awaited him outside. Ever insecure about his urbanitas, it was himself, even more than his correspondent–Mikhail Osipovich Gershenzon, the well-known belletrist–whom he needed to reassure that his Moscow self was still intact, protected inside his Moscow-in-a-room. Perhaps the most Muscovite thing about Malevich’s room was its complete lack of those always lesser, shunned, and absurd creatures: provincials. And yet, judging from his letters to his Moscow friend, no one and nothing in Vitebsk fascinated him more. Malevich’s letters describe the people he saw on daily walks outside the Muscovite enclave of his room. In his room he was the Moscow artist; outside he was a provincial flâneur.

Everything that makes the modern city more modern makes it harder for its inhabitants and visitors to hear it.

The Paris of Charles Baudelaire’s essay “The Painter of Modern Life” is the city that did not simply define the nature of the modern city; it defined the flâneur. Baudelaire’s Monsieur G, the central figure of his essay, is the painter of modern life. This painter is the flâneur, someone who strolls about the city to get to know both the city and himself. In a section headed “Modernity,” Baudelaire names “modernity” as the goal toward which the flâneur always hurries: “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent.” This version of modernity is associated with great cities. The literary critic Walter Benjamin calls Baudelaire’s Paris the capital of the nineteenth century. For David Harvey, the eminent urban theorist, it is the capital of modernity. When the Marxist philosopher Marshall Berman traces the history of modernism’s unstable world inhabited by people with equally unstable identities, he looks at great cities: Paris, London, St. Petersburg, and Moscow.

The crowd is an essential feature of great city life, as Jacobs knew well. It is also essential to Baudelaire’s description of Monsieur G walking the streets of nineteenth-century Paris: “The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes.” Of course, the flâneur does not literally depend on the crowd for biological needs. The hyperbole elevates the importance of the crowd and masks self-doubt, as the next sentence reveals. “His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd.” One flesh? The sexual metaphor again raises the stakes and also lowers the likelihood of its realization. More hyperbole follows in this oft-quoted passage. Baudelaire sums up: “Thus the lover of universal life enters into the crowd as though it were an immense reservoir of electrical energy.” Extravagance of expression is the flâneur’s M.O., but his readers’ love of those beautiful exaggerations speaks to a widespread longing: to make peace with the crowd.

The modern city created the flâneur’s crowd as it created the crowd of Karl Marx, the sociologists Gustave Le Bon and David Riesman, and many others. It is the engine of history: the proletariat that saves society, the mob that ruins it, the alienated who are lost in it. The crowd is the protagonist, even the hero, in the writings of novelists, philosophers, historians, and industrious feullitonists such as Baudelaire. Along with the growth of cities has come a growth in theories about the crowd. Its proponents attempt to transform the rising flood of humanity into a rationalized collective instead of a catastrophe. But its catastrophic potential remains. Parisians loved to hurl their cobblestones as well as stroll picturesquely on them. Baudelaire had seen this in 1848. After 1968, the French government dug up the temptation and carted it away. The crowd is the modern city. A population rise marks a city’s rise. John Stow’s London was on the cusp of a 1,500 percent growth in population. Mid-twentieth-century Iowa, the Iowa of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, in contrast, was losing its population. Baudelaire’s Paris broke the million mark. Such burgeoning populations have consequences for the cities containing them. The cities have to sprawl. City ceases to be an adequate descriptor of such settlements. Metropolis? Corridor? Metropolitan area? When will the mega-city become a giga-city? What happens when so many people are confined in an ever-expanding, but nonetheless limited, area?

Although Malevich would later claim–after he had established an art collective in Vitebsk, UNOVIS (an acronym for “Champions of the New Art”)–that it was Vitebsk’s creative opportunities that had enticed him away from Moscow, his first impressions portrayed the move as an exile. In his first letter to a Moscow friend, Malevich had almost nothing to say about Vitebsk itself aside from a grudging, ungrateful admission of its favorable conditions for living and working: “heat, light and other conveniences.” As he explained: “In spite of my desire to continue working here I have been compelled, in the absence of an apartment (I’m living in a cold dacha), firewood, or electricity, to accept the offer made by the Vitebsk studios, which will provide me with the necessary working and living conditions, and to leave Moscow.” And yet, at the close of his letter, Malevich did something unexpected. Without explanation or comment, he included a list of groceries with prices: “Various Grains—70 [rubles]; Butter–750; Onion–20; Meat–75.” Moscow had none of those things in the chaotic aftermath of the October Revolution. All it had was culture. In the same letter Malevich wrote at length about an art exhibition in Moscow. His implication is clear: cities can provide either conveniences or culture. The provincial cities have the one and the great cities the other.

Many artists and intellectuals went to Vitebsk at the same time and for the same reasons as Malevich. The renowned literary theorist M. M. Bakhtin was Malevich’s neighbor there. (At the end of his life, Bakhtin remembered Malevich’s erudition and his popularity. Malevich was a favorite of Bakhtin’s young wife.) So many others had accepted offers from Vitebsk’s various studios that the period between 1918 and 1922 is commonly known as Vitebsk’s “cultural renaissance.” Renaissance or no, however, Vitebsk was still provincial.

“The labyrinth with no monster”: the literary critic Svetlana Boym’s metaphor for the everyday in her Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia, also describes the provincial city life of Malevich’s everyday conveniences. Only the great city has creatures big enough, interesting enough, and significant enough to be monsters. Only the great city, this reasoning goes, can be the scene of great drama. The provincial city is the site of the everyday.

Provincial cities, unlike great cities, are often unnamed in the novels in which they appear. Their names can be omitted because the particular does not add any necessary or useful information to the general and accepted truths about the Provincial City. It is a type. One provincial city is much like another. People from great cities unapologetically mix up the names of those indistinguishable other places. The provincial city is a place that time forgot. It is, literally and metaphorically, well and truly glush, “out of earshot” (the Russian idiom for “the sticks,” etymologically related to the word for deafness) of all change: history, modernity, and the latest in fashion or wisdom.

The everyday belongs to that place outside history, the provinces, because it, too, is considered unchanging. The provinces are often romanticized as the places where old traditions survive. “The everyday does not seem to have a beginning or an end,” writes Boym. “In everyday life we do not write novels but notes or diary entries that are always frustratingly or euphorically anticlimactic.” When the provincial city acquires the cultural resources of a great city it escapes only temporarily from its everyday tales into the stories with monsters, the stories with beginnings, middles, and ends that fill novels and history books. Malevich, in his state of provinces-induced culture shock, notices one more thing that the great city has, which the provincial city lacks: social order.

One day, in Malevich’s room, the unthinkable happens. The provinces invade Moscow. A troupe of Vitebsk lecturers storms up the stairs to Malevich’s Moscow-in-a-room. They are noisy. He can hear them on the stairs, both coming and going. They are undignified. They squabble among themselves. Malevich treats them like children. “I managed to soothe them with difficulty,” he reports. He mocks both the lecturers and himself: “An awful thing happened–I gave my consent to lecture on cubism and futurism.” He is later rewarded for his efforts with heckling (“We came to learn about truth!”) and, finally, with an insulting remark about his hair (“What a haircut he has!”).

When he wrote to Gershenzon the very day that he delivered his lecture, it was in the spirit of a bullied child dashing home to the embrace of a sympathetic parent. “I’m burying you with letters.” The hyperbole does not exaggerate his desperation. In the short letter he recycles insulting clichés about provincials. This is the only instance in which Malevich calls Vitebsk a provincial glush; just as unoriginally, he ridicules the people of Vitebsk by describing their table manners. They “chew kasha and gulp water … and sleep only to digest.” As if to retrieve some measure of dignity or satisfaction, he also reports that before the lecture, “Some lady set down a glass of tea, whispering in my ear that it was with sugar.” Even the list of Vitebsk’s extraordinary groceries did not include sugar. Malevich wanted to record that he had responded appropriately: “I thanked her.”

Put that insulted hair together with the lecturer-clowns and the kasha chewers and you have the notes for a comic novel. The Renaissance hierarchy that maps social class and wealth onto literary genres can be supplemented, if not replaced, by one that maps location onto literary genres with the proviso that location is also taken to signify social class. The central characters of comic novels not only belong to the lower classes; they often live in provincial cities. Tragedies depict the upper classes in great cities. The seriousness of one and the slapstick of the other also rest on the earlier Renaissance hierarchy, a view that betrays the prejudice that people at the lower end of the “great chain of being,” whether of class or location, do not have lives worth taking seriously.

The literary critic Robert Alter’s Imagined Cities, an examination of the complex ways in which the modern novel treats the city, identifies only one novel set in a provincial city as comic: James Joyce’s Ulysses. Dublin, like Vitebsk, has the modern forms of transportation and communication that make it a modern city. On Dublin streets, passersby get fragmented glimpses of others who walk or ride by. Speed distorts perceptions in Dublin just as they do in Virginia Woolf’s London, Flaubert’s Paris, or Andrei Bely’s Petersburg. Yet only Dublin, Alter observes, is small enough to be held together by a network of gossip to serve as a counterweight to the distortions and fragmentation of speed.

Provincial city life is supposed to be comic in Fyodor Sologub’s The Petty Demon. Published in serial form in 1905, it has been called a modernist masterpiece. It is also a provincial grotesque. Sologub supplies the details missing from Malevich’s portrait of the provincial city–its imagined home lives. Bad table manners are the norm. Sologub’s provincials spit, grunt, fart, vomit, and spew their way through the novel. Characters are caught in unmentionable acts. The landlady bursts in, unannounced, and surprises her tenants in the act of spitefully and bizarrely ripping the wallpaper from the walls with their hands and feet. That many see this novel as a reasonable, if somewhat farcical, representation of provincial city life is evidenced by a foreword to the novel, in which Sologub himself insists that it was based on his own unhappy experiences teaching school in such places.

Yet the very features of the provincial city that outraged Malevich and Sologub– unexpected meetings, unregulated behavior, incongruous juxtapositions that proliferate in places where doors are unlocked and unguarded–were what Jane Jacobs most admired. Where Malevich saw disorder and intrusion, noise and squabbling, heckling and shouted insults, Jacobs would have seen confirmation of her observation that “in settlements that are smaller and simpler than big cities, controls on acceptable public behavior, if not on crime, seem to operate with greater or lesser success through a web of reputation, gossip, approval, disapproval, and sanctions, all of which are powerful if people know each other and word travels.” Vitebsk let Malevich know what it thought of him. The lecturers illustrated the provincial web of sanctions in action. The famously unlocked and unguarded doors of the smaller, safer city are the conditions for both nasty farce and surveillance. Both thrive on spontaneity. Jacobs’s gossip network works because people never know when they will be watched or by whom. The Vitebsk lecturers did not surprise Malevich in some unmentionable act when, uninvited, they clambered up the stairs to his room, but they might have done, and if they had it would have been all over town in an instant.

One of Norman Rockwell’s covers for The Saturday Evening Post immortalizes this small-city surveillance. Chain of Gossip shows a whispered message passing from one benign, comically caricatured small-town type to the next until, at the end, the last hearer’s alarmed expression signals that the town’s message has reached its intended recipient.

Jacobs wants great cities to duplicate the “smaller and simpler” city’s informal yet pervasive form of controlling “acceptable behavior.” The great city’s size and anonymity, while part of its attraction, is a liability for a strategy that depends on the power of people knowing one another and of words traveling. Jacobs describes the problem this way: “The streets must not only defend the city against predatory strangers, they must protect the many, many peaceable and well-meaning strangers who use them, ensuring their safety too as they pass through.” No web of gossip could be large enough for such a task.

Word of mouth won’t carry far enough in the great city. Jacobs, like Baudelaire’s flâneur Monsieur G, depends on sight to sort the urban crowd. She believes that “eyes on the street” will also “control acceptable behavior.”

The busy street is a safe street, Jacobs writes, because of “surveillance and mutual policing” by the people who use it. Jacobs acknowledges that such surveillance “sounds grim.” She assures the reader that “in real life it is not grim” because this surveillance occurs “voluntarily” when people are “least conscious, normally, that they are policing.” Normally? Since Jacobs wrote those words, the idea of normal has acquired the “taint of hostility and suspicion” that she hoped this method of surveillance would escape.

What disturbs her surveillance crew’s sense of normal? When do people become conscious that they are watching their neighbors in the manner of the small city’s gossips enforcing its norms? Jacobs’s small city is a homogenous one. Unconscious is not a synonym for unintentional. Might we not suspect that the people Jacobs describes as “least conscious” are simply least conscious of their assumptions about what counts as “normal” and who disrupts it? After all, she spots the unconscious prejudice in an unnamed city planner’s desire to keep “extraneous people” out of Chicago’s Hyde Park–Kenwood neighborhood. Just as Jacobs’s voluntary surveillance is tainted by unconscious hostility and suspicion so is the spectacle that makes this surveillance possible.

Jacobs is the flâneur of Hudson Street. She knows its people the way Monsieur G knows Paris. She, too, is a passionate spectator, observing fine distinctions between one stranger and the next. Monsieur G never worries about safety; he fears for his fragmented and contingent self. The remedy for both the Parisian and Hudson Street flâneur lies in identifying with the stranger speeding past. The Parisian flâneur wants to merge with the crowd; Hudson Street is safe when only people who belong there crowd its sidewalks.

Surveillance becomes hostility and suspicion. It zeroes in on the suspicious individual who taints the benign urban crowd. The “intricacies of sidewalk use,” writes Jacobs, “bring with it a constant succession of eyes,” assisted now by the ubiquitous, omniscient eyes of security cameras, courtesy of the city’s built environment. Even in Elizabethan London, the John Stow who noted the urbanitas of the great-city dwellers attributed good behavior to the fact that “they live in the eyes of others.” Urban density makes urban surveillance possible.

Suspicion and tolerance are not mutually exclusive. To the observer, they can even seem identical. Why do lovers embrace most ardently in the most public places of park or plaza? An observational study which concluded that New Yorkers prefer their public spaces as public as possible did not address whether people avoid areas that are hidden from the street out of delight in people-watching or anxiety about the potential threat of the people they position themselves to watch. Why do passengers crowd into a subway car so willingly? Why does the street ballet not turn into a battle? An observer cannot know why the sidewalk crowd avoids stepping on one another’s toes. Spectacle looks like surveillance.

Urbanitas is a way of knowing motivated as much by the spy’s vigilance as the flâneur’s passion for spectacle. Thanks to the great city’s abundance of consumer choices, the crowd can make itself visually intelligible. Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment was deluded in his belief that the right hat would let him get away with murder, but his awareness of hats and their meanings shows him to be a modern urbanite. We are all mannequins, docile forms to be draped in the latest version of ourselves. We confirm the truth in the etymology of uniform: a single form fits all or makes all fit. Mass retail reduces great-city flânerie to the absurdity of identities based purely on appearances. Fashions in clothing and other means of self-presentation make it possible for people to find the perfect costume for stepping onto the globalized stage. The cast of the worldwide street ballet keeps growing. But looking the part is not the same as becoming it.

Malevich, Vitebsk’s flâneur, knows that although differences can become less legible, they cannot be erased. For one thing, he can hear them. As he writes to Gershenzon: “Sometimes it seems to me that everything is saturated with the unifying soul of life, but now, where I live, I have felt that the spiritual, which fills me, is not understood by those who surround me; here the spiritual rhythm of symbols of understanding is different.” This passage shows that Malevich, the Polish-Ukrainian Catholic, had perhaps never encountered a Yiddish speaker, the majority population in Vitebsk. Or was it simply that he had never before heard one? In Moscow and St. Petersburg, he would have seen many Yiddish speakers. The great city’s large size would have made it not just easy but inevitable that he would have walked past some of them. Yet the great city’s great size dilutes the advantages of its diversity because it is large enough to be divided into neighborhoods so separate that residents of one neighborhood need have only a passing familiarity, if that, with residents of another. The Yiddish speakers would have simply added to the spectacle of the great city’s passing parade.

The modern city is deafening. The vehicles and crowds that make it modern also make it loud. Everything that makes the modern city more modern makes it harder for its inhabitants and visitors to hear it. The great city flâneur’s dependence on sight makes the best of noisy necessity. The spectacle and crowds can be taken in at a glance. Blur. The faster the crowd the more and less that can be seen. Speed creates the juxtapositions; it creates its own crowd. Speed makes people blur one into another, join with each other. Speed gives the perspective that has become synonymous with the modern city. Speed affects sight, multiplying and abbreviating one glimpse after the next. Speed turns the street scene into a flipbook or phenakistoscope. That early form of film and animation put the city’s experience into your hands. Everybody flips past in the great city, and different stories appear. Speed creates fragments and the perennial favorite modern mode: the collage. Each observer can choose and assemble fragments to create private meanings.

As a member of the crowd, each of us uses other people to decipher who we are. We depend on others to read us correctly, and we do what we can to make ourselves as legible as possible. Being a member of the great city’s crowd creates a way of knowing ourselves in the process of knowing others. When our meanings are stabilized in the eyes of others, the problem of our ephemeral, fugitive, and contingent modern self approaches solution. Thomas Merton advised that we not see ourselves in the eyes of others. He lived in a monastery.

Living safely in the eyes of others depends on multiple ways of enforcing controls on acceptable behavior. Etiquette also eases the work of sorting the crowd. Civility, argued the sociologist Norbert Elias in The Civilizing Process, united society across western Europe. Its ideals of conduct replaced the Catholic Church and the codes of chivalry, which were in decline by the sixteenth century. Caring about etiquette was the great city’s collective unconscious speaking. The city taught its dwellers to be civil as well as urbane. Etiquette became an alternative, shared morality, the foundation of at least mutual comprehension. Etiquette is a morality based on the correctness of deeds.

Civilitas–good manners–like urbanitas is this scrupulous attentiveness to others, an attentiveness that the clown-lecturers, the kasha eaters and hecklers have not learned. No wonder Malevich reminds himself and Gershenzon that these types are native to the provincial glush. They are too far away from the centers of urbanity to hear the lessons that great cities teach.

The reward of conformity is invisibility and, with it, the freedom to go anywhere. In the interior public spaces of the great city, adherence to the norms of dress and behavior, to fashion and etiquette, grants the right of remaining. Conformists must be subtly discerning in the finest points of both fashion and etiquette to escape detection as the unstable, fugitive, ephemeral selves they actually are. Call them tricksters, frauds, upstarts, or parvenus; the great city’s attachment to artifice makes it a breeding ground for impersonators of all kinds. The danger of being so deceived combined with the pleasures of connoisseurship make the savviest great-city people experts in detecting nuances of etiquette, just as Monsieur G could spot last season’s chignon masquerading as this season’s. Etiquette rules are not themselves uniform. Different spaces demand different social graces. Rowdiness can be as important to fitting in as its opposite. Social sorting is an essential part of enforcing the social order. Nobody belongs everywhere.

While etiquette makes a virtue of the necessity for social order, the truly virtuous are the people for whom etiquette is more nature than necessity. The truly well-mannered are to the manor born. This is to follow the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s lesson that unmasking the hidden class distinctions in seemingly identical tastes lies in discerning whether the taste was acquired at home or elsewhere. Virtue, of taste or manners, begins at home.

There is no logic to this snobbery of ranking nature over necessity, although it justifies itself in numerous ways–for instance, that form is substance, that those who have acquired their manners expose themselves by inexcusable carelessness or ignorance, that social mobility is social decline. The conviction that etiquette is natural puts it out of reach of time and change and so stabilizes its possessor’s own ephemeral self. This line of thinking contributes to the pervasiveness of etiquette. If etiquette signifies such essential qualities, then maintaining it is always and everywhere important.

The rise of the city created an urgent need. Etiquette, no less than fashion, assists in surveillance. Both made a virtue out of the necessities of urban crowding’s speed and noise. When the reason for the city is safety, it becomes a fortress against those deemed unworthy of its protection. When safety is foregrounded, modern cities, both great and small, stay true to their origins as walled enclaves against outside threats. These cities have no other purpose than to protect the interests of their selected and safeguarded few. Only certain strangers are allowed to pass through. Can there be another purpose?

In 1919, Kazimir Malevich saw one. For a brief period, for four years between 1918 and 1922, Vitebsk received the cultural resources of a great city and escaped, albeit temporarily, from its everyday into the stories with monsters, the stories with beginnings, middles, and ends that fill novels and history books. Yet at a time when conveniences were more scarce than culture, the perspective on city life shifted. In 1923, the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (“the Joint”) compiled reports on cities in the region:

Horrible reminiscences of those dreadful days still haunt the memory of the inhabitants. For four years [1918–1922] the bandits kept the inhabitants of the town in constant fear. Death did not fear the population, but it made them shudder at the thought of refined tortures and unspeakable humiliations they were sure to undergo before being murdered… . The horrors of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages pale into insignificance before the refined cruelties and tortures practiced on the population of Usviaty.

Usviaty was only fifty-three miles from Vitebsk and in the same gubernia (province), and yet it might as well have been on a different planet. In the words of the same Joint official who had written the Usviaty report, “Vitebsk was one of the few cities in the northwestern region to escape the ravages of war and banditism.” Vitebsk had wonderful memories of the days that still haunted Usviaty’s remaining inhabitants. In Usviaty it was the Middle Ages, in Vitebsk the Renaissance.

People from places like Usviaty came to Vitebsk looking for the very things that Malevich saw there.

Beginning in 1918 Vitebsk was receiving refugees from the towns and cities plundered by bandits: crowds of orphans, children of parents murdered by bandits, Jewish children were always knocking at the doors of the few existing children’s homes. Thousands of Jews from adjacent Mogilev gubernia, which was swept by bandits, also flocked to Vitebsk. And all these masses of people robbed of everything directed their steps to Vitebsk hoping to find here some help and to improve their condition. But all in vain.

Those refugees were not directing their steps toward the kinds of improvements in their conditions that could be brought about by the lectures, concerts, ballets, or exhibitions of Vitebsk’s cultural renaissance. Great-city monsters and their culture were not the attraction. The great cities could keep their culture; these people needed groceries. Heat and light would have made their conditions better. And conveniences? How would the hungry children with nowhere to sleep who were being turned away from orphanages have defined those?

War and revolution had turned their everyday lives into labyrinths complete with monsters. Those refugees were directing their steps toward Vitebsk in search of the kind of everyday boredom for which their own provincial towns and villages had once upon a time been famous.

These refugees went toward a city whose raison d’être was different from Jacobs’s safe city. Although Jacobs’s “eyes on the street” would not just single out dangerous strangers, they would also notice their neighbors in need, assistance is secondary to safety in the fortress city.

Malevich’s early-twentieth-century Vitebsk anticipates our twenty-first-century cities. It is diverse, and its diversity is inescapable. Malevich could see and hear differences in the smaller, quieter, and slower city that he would not have noticed in Moscow. He ridiculed Vitebsk for its quiet, but only in a slow and quiet place could he have noticed the differences that troubled him in Vitebsk. Only on Vitebsk’s streets did Malevich suddenly and desperately long for an invented language that would make universal, mutual comprehension possible because only on its quiet streets could he hear what others were saying. Only on a quiet and slow street could he listen long enough to grasp that he could not understand.

Malevich liked trains, not cities, as both metaphor and means to solve the puzzle of how strangers lived together. He told two different train stories, each with its own solution to this puzzle. Before Vitebsk, he told one train story; in Vitebsk, he told another.

Before Vitebsk, Malevich’s train story ended happily. Malevich told this story in an early essay, “The World of Meat and Bone Has Gone Away.” All Russia, he wrote, would be united when the train’s iron and steel replaced its meat and bone. Malevich was not celebrating a railroad network as a form of transportation. “The engine did not crawl out of your human skull in order to transport you around for your own convenience.” Convenience was not the point before Vitebsk. The point was to imagine a new, spiritual form of unity. In this train story, iron and steel aligned with the spirit against the body’s meat and bone.

Before Vitebsk, the body gave way to the spirit. Meat and bone had to go away. My brilliant, beloved Russian tutor balked at his essay’s title: meat paired with bone, myasa i kost’I, should have been plot’ i krov’, flesh and blood! She didn’t want to hear that Malevich might have rejected the conventional pairing intentionally and not out of ignorance. It was not that Malevich wanted meat and bone to go away in order to preserve the familial connotations of flesh and bone. The world of meat and bone had no room for the sentimental bonds of home and kinship. Meat and bone put the body in the bloody world of the butcher or the farmer.

In Ames, Iowa, I met an old, retired farmer. I was in high school, serving up food in the cafeteria of Iowa State University’s student union. Ingolf was a janitor there. He looked as though he could raise a roof on his own or plow a field all by himself like some Viking. He had a Spartan stoicism. He caught me staring at his mangled fingers and offered no explanation. Such maiming is a well-known occupational hazard. Hauling tree trunks on his back had left my Russian tutor’s tall and muscular young husband in unrelievable pain. Before Vitebsk and before moving to Moscow, Malevich had lived in the rural areas of south Russia among just such farmers.

Before Vitebsk, the bloody body of meat, bone, and butchery had gone away. Suddenly–as unexpectedly and inexplicably as he had gone away from Moscow–Malevich brought meat back with no other explanation than its price.

The Vitebsk train story had meat in it. It’s the meat in the grocery list at the end of the letter that also happens to include the story of his unhappy train ride from Moscow to Vitebsk. This was and was not a butcher’s kind of meat. It was an edible part, but not part of a bloody world. Instead, and in contrast, it was a part of the everyday world of home and kitchen. It was the kind of meat that made a mess of Malevich’s elaborate metaphors. Vitebsk’s meat, like its conveniences, was the counterfactual to the idealized, spiritual, bloodless, disembodied unity of the pre-Vitebsk train story.

In the Vitebsk train story people were united in physical work. During this period of fuel shortages, when Muscovites were burning their libraries and furniture for heat, the trains did not have sufficient fuel for their journeys. On Malevich’s train ride from Moscow to Vitebsk, the passengers were obliged to get off periodically and collect the firewood needed to continue.

“We walked-crawled with courteous permission,” wrote Malevich, “on bent back we collected firewood for the locomotive.” The three-hundred-mile trip from Moscow to Vitebsk, usually measured in hours, took three days. The fuel shortage forced the great city monster, leaning on his walking stick, to join with the other passengers in a joint effort. This was the unity of sweat and blood, of the whole world of common toil.

This common toil, both witnessed and endured, belong to the world of Vitebsk’s meat and other conveniences. In this Vitebsk, objects cannot be discarded. They are salvaged. They are necessities, not detritus; essentials, not obstacles. The great city’s grand public spaces were not designed for this kind of world. The public spaces of ungreat Vitebsk, in the middle of elsewhere, were. Its orphanages, clinics, grocery stores had no other use than to provide for the needy. Refugees fled there to find shelter.

Boym is partly right when she writes that the everyday is the opposite and antidote of history: “The everyday tells us a story of modernity in which major historical cataclysms are superseded by ordinary chores, the arts of working and making things. In a way, the everyday is anticatastrophic, an antidote to the historical narrative of death, disaster and apocalypse.” Those new Soviet Russians wanted the everyday to be an antidote to the historical cataclysms of their lives. Malevich, like Vitebsk’s refugees, was not experiencing the everyday as something separate from the historical cataclysm. For them, the ordinary had become aspirational. Extraordinary was not a synonym for wonderful. Malevich’s everyday tells a story of modernity in which the everyday is neither a refuge nor stable but the personal, daily manifestation of a national cataclysm. It is passengers gathering firewood for the locomotive. It is the meat not on your plate.

So what if a city is too small, too slow, too quiet, and lacking the culture the great city valued? So what if Malevich despised it? This is the fate of the everyday, as it is of those elsewhere cities. The everyday is boredom. It is our grudging admission of our need for light, heat, and other conveniences. It is the necessity that prevents us from doing what we think is important. It is minor and forgettable. It is the letters that nobody reads. It is the digression. It is never the main point. It is the point you make in spite of yourself. It is the grocery list tucked into a letter. We want it to be beside the point.

Shifra Sharlin has authored essays that have appeared in Raritan, Salmagundi, Hotel Amerika, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and other journals. She teaches “Reading and Writing the Modern Essay” in the department of English at Yale.
Originally published:
July 1, 2019


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