Dream City Shimmering

On one trip to Paris, when the weather was fine, I rented a car so I could see the Cathedral at Chârtres independent of the pages I’d studied. It was an easy drive of only 90 kilometres to the Beauce region–the granary of France–as the Michelin Guide coloured it. Like the prairies, a flat geography for planting and harvesting. Fields of yellow grain, a blue sky–so like home. And then there it was, rising, shimmering, lifting–an ascension in stone and filigree as Gothic cathedrals were intended. I’d forgotten it was built on a hill, not a big hill but elevated still, to loom and hover in just such a way, so that it was improbable and dreamlike and, as you neared–massive and complex and weighted.

I approach Winnipeg from the north, driving on a highway whose elevation is so consistent you'd note with a start the vantage and view you had if the road rose by the thickness of a rural telephone book. It's a terrain I find endlessly interesting, a landscape so subtle it seems, if the light is right, that each stalk and blade is visible and etched and each brave and single tree in a particular field remembered and remarked on if gone. On a flood plane washed regularly with the fertile slip of silt carried by the rivers on whose banks it sits is the city of Winnipeg, a mirage, a cluster, a huddle at the city's centre and bolstered by others around this core--twelve, ten, eight stories high, and each a significant vertical assertion on a horizontal plane. A chimera, an illusion, an idea of a city. A city of ideas, of imagination.  

Paul Auster selected and translated a book of disconnected aphorisms, wisdom, ideas--the work of 18th-century French writer Joseph Joubert, who was a member of Diderot's circle and who prepared, all his life, to write an important book by recording in notebooks his carefully wrought observations and considerations and never wrote the book. Auster's introduction (*The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert*, New York Review of Books, 2005) describes him as " ... a man of letters without portfolio," a man who "speaks in whispers and one must draw very close to hear what he is saying." His work, finally, was the collection of notebooks in which he wrote daily for 40 years and which, Joubert came to recognize, were the foundation of his writing and life.  

This wonderfully eccentric, thoughtful individual would have found himself at home in Winnipeg, a city whose grain and meal is made from all the individuals who work collectively and nonetheless remain identifiably unique. Joseph Joubert, 1754-1824, in Winnipeg, an imagined city, dream city, city of ideas, 2008.  

Joubert writes, "A thought is a thing as real as a cannon ball," reinforcing the conviction that this idea city is indeed here. If it's a city of ideas, it's a city of words, and from this mix we tell each other stories and construct a place we can live in. On the topic of words Joubert notes, "The word *clanger* for sound answers that of *splendor* for light." Winnipeg has light in spades, in pails, in buckets and bowls, spilling over its barely cupped edges. We are awash in light here.  

Locate for yourself this wide open city with no near, big city, not for 500 miles. Joubert says, "Thoughts that cannot survive the test of the open air ..." and "the air is sonorous, and sound is made of air, of air that is uttered, vibrant, shaped, articulated." The conversations we have among ourselves--for confirmation, for sparks, for solace and company; the words and ideas we send out across the distance, the peels of sound and hurrah that return to us. Joubert tests us, "But the idea of the nest in the bird's mind, where does it come from?" We do what we do and draw on instinct and sensibility and whimsy. Last week my friends and I visited after dinner, and talk turned as it turns with friends, and sharing studios, offices and apartments by affinity and need, all downtown in Winnipeg's centre, we spoke about pigeons who are our city neighbours and their shallow purchase on the ledges of all the windows of the spaces we occupy, and how provisional their nests are, barely a twig cup to hold the eggs--a scant idea about a nest. Still, the pigeons wheel in the sky, in numbers, and some could carry tightly rolled scrips of paper with ideas from here, to there. If he'd had downtown pigeons in mind, or artists living where, but happily not how, the pigeons do--"Facility is the enemy of great things."  

As I'd said, there are no big cities near to us; the geography's delights require subtle and schooled looking; the weather tests your sincerity; fifteen minutes from the city's edge you can be lost, and dead (add an hour and fifteen minutes); no great industries abound; no great wealth. It is necessary to dream a city. We've done that. Joubert concurs, "Everyone makes and has need of making a world other than the one he sees."  

Idea city, dream city. Avoid: "Minds that are made of material, and so much they spread only shadow-like bodies that are opaque." Joseph Joubert, 1801. And further to the density of material thinking, "Neither in the arts, nor in logic, nor in life should an idea in any way be treated as a thing." Which is why artists remain elusive, why Winnipeg quicksilvers itself away from the manipulations of currency and trends, why it bewilders other places with its resourcefulness and endless invention.  

If essayist William Gass and Joseph Joubert lived in the same city, they'd be friends for sure. In his essay, "The Artist and Society," (*Fiction and the Figures of Life,* Nonpareil Books/David R Godine, 1979) Gass asks why works of art are so socially important. He answers his own question by saying it's "because they insist more than most on their own reality; because of the absolute way in which they exist.... Reality is not a matter of fact," he says, "it's an achievement and it is rare.... A work of art must be *all there*.... Works of art confront us the way few people dare to: completely, openly, at once."  

From this substantial matter artists build Winnipeg. Constructed from ideas, from what Joubert pointedly identifies as "severe taste and prodigious imagination," artists make reality. Odd that Gass's mandatory *all there* is still conjured from dreams and imagination and has sufficient authority to make governments quake and call "censor." In this scrappy, hard-pressed city, this plain, honest, crumbing city beaten about by the most modest of middle, pedestrian leadership, it still applies. Joubert reassures us, "All gardeners live in beautiful places because they make them so." How do you build a city? Winnipeg writer Robert Kroetsch might have asked if he hadn't asked, How do you grow a poet?  

What we have, as artists, in making a city of ideas, a city both real and here and in that sought-after heightened state of immanence, is freedom. Joubert writes, "Freedom. The freedom to do something well. There is no need of any other kind."  

Joubert's book of fragments parallels how we piece and collage a world together here, our ideal, idea city. We've made a significant place, this dream city, Winnipeg. He says, "If you want to think well, to write well, to act well, first make a 'place' for yourself, a 'true place.'" And this we've done.
Volume 27, Number 3: Winnipeg

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #107, published August 2008.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.