Spending the week gave me a new view of Toronto. I lived there for most of the 1990s, and it always stuck me as a particularly unhappy place. Not so much anti-entropic as inanimate.
Toronto is the economic engine of Canada. It is also, vibrantly, home to 8% of the population of Canada. But the city sleeps like a damsel who will never be kissed. Abandoned, ever more unlovely, a candidate possibly for cryogenesis but, really, why bother?
The city has always had a stubborn, Scottish Presbyterian “everything is what it is and not another thing literalism. As if creativity, imagination, and any innovation not ferociously practical were properly the reserve of musical headed Frenchmen and other mad cap foreigners. Toronto was a good, gray town because, well, it achieved some of its practicality by forsaking the poetic, dramatic, and evocative. Many Scottish Presbyterians believe this to be an excellent bargain.
So imagine the pleasure of finding, this trip, a city filled with stray impressions. Stray impressions come to us “over the transom. We dont ask for them. We dont know what to do with them. They just drift through our heads like a weather system. Very actual, one second, utterly not, the next.
My favorite stray impression (and I do realize that this is probably a symptom of some kind, so this is just between us) are the ones that “come off a building or a street scene. We are “just looking round in that great tradition documented by Jerry Seinfeld, and all of sudden, we can see another time and place. Just for a second, the world looks and especially feels exactly like, say, Berlin in the 1860s.
Something about the light. Something about the architecture. Something about the layout of the street, we cant really say. But there it is, the city has produced a new version of itself. Never mind that we have never been to Berlin. Never mind that we know next to nothing about the 1860s. We have something as emotionally certain as it is sensorily dubious. We are there. Berlin 1865. Then were not. Now its gone.
How many cities “entertain stray impressions? Cambridge, MA, didnt have them. Cambridge, UK, did. There was so many of them in Montreal you could almost hear the city muttering to itself, tossing and turning in its sleep. New York has them like crazy but this is partly because the city has been niched by several urban and some historical cultures. We need only dial in the local signals. So, unless we are sequestered by a cruise ship, a resort hotel, or deep provincialism, travel is the poor mans opportunity for the stray impression, supplying a new place and its claimant definitions.
Where do stray impressions come from? Sometimes they are like Polanskis Los Angeles, so apparently we soak them up from art. Sometimes they are a street corner from childhood, so apparently we collect them as we go. Sometimes, they have no clear provenance, so they are the work of the internal bricoleur.
Stray impressions are not one of the places from which ideas come. But they do have a role to play. They are about the “departure on which creativity depends. They persuade us that things can be other than they seem. They persuade us that we can occupy these alternatives, because for a second thats what were doing. Stray impressions act like that revolving stage at the MET. They deliver. Now we have proof that the conventional scheme of things is not necessary, inevitable, or lasting.
Stray impressions only flourish in cities that have escaped, or are escaping, the dead hand of competence, the rule of elites, the suffocations of a monolithic culture, the centers self importance, all the things that Toronto once did so well. Hegemony is pretty much over, and the word is out. Stray impressions are assembling like the ghosts in a Wim Wenders movie. Toronto will greet them as it does all “new Canadians, with the fervent wish that they leave their “difference behind. But these citizens are only difference and already they are remaking things.