14.7.17

Notable Quotes #9: Yi-Fu Tuan on a Martian Invasion of Minneapolis

[The Prospect Park watertower.]
From Space and Place, a 1977 human geography book by geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, who taught at the time at the University of Minnesota. The book is an overview of how human beings cultivate a "sense of place" with their everyday lives and narratives:
In the Mycenaean period Greek cities owed their sacred status to their divine residents. Athena and Helen were Mycenaean goddesses who presided over Athens and Sparta respectively. In these prehistoric times of kingly rule, shrines had an importance they would later lose during the republican period. A Helladic city, however straitened by its enemies, remained viable so long as the shrines housing the divine images were intact. This belief, says John Dunne, "is reflected to some extent in the tradition of the Trojan War according to which is was necessary to steal the Palladium, the image of the city-goddess, from Troy before the city could be taken." Removal of the image, or destruction of the shrine that housed it, would have deprived a city of its legitimacy since the rules, rites, and institutions under which a people lived all required divine sanction. We cannot know prehistoric sentiments: they are at best matters for conjecture. From the historic period of the ancient Mediterranean world we can find many expressions of love for place. One of the most eloquent was attributed to a citizen of Carthage. When the Romans were about to destroy Carthage at the end of the third Punic War, a citizen pleaded with them thus:

"We beseech you, in behalf of our ancient city founded by the command of the gods, in behalf of a glory that has become great and a name that has pervaded the whole world, in behalf of the man temples it contains and of its gods who have done you no wrong. Do not deprive them of their nightly festivals, their processions, and their solemnities. Deprive not the tombs of the dead, who harm you no more, of their offerings. If you have pity for us ... spare the city's hearth, spare our forum, spare the goddess who presides over our council, and all else that is dear and precious to the living.... We propose an alternative more desirable for us and more glorious for you. Spare the city which has done you no harm, but, if you please, kill us, whom you have ordered to move away. In this way you will seem to vent your wrath upon men, not upon temples, gods,  tombs, and an innocent city."

It is true that this plea was written in the second century A.D. several hundred years after the event. How the besieged Carthaginians really felt we have no way of knowing. But the plea at least made good sense to Roman readers, for whom it was written, whereas to us it verges on the incredible. Suppose that Martians have invaded America and are at the gates of Minneapolis. It is hard to believe that our city councilors will plead with the Martians to kill us but save Nicollet Mall, which has done them no harm.

[From Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place, Chapter 11, "Attachment to Homeland."]

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