You get the opportunity to talk to a famous deceased person. Who do you chat with and what do you talk about? What are some of their answers? Try writing in their voice.
The first person who comes to mind is Kurt Cobain, maybe because I just read an interview with Dave Grohl. But I think Kurt pretty much already said everything he had to say. Or if he didn’t, I can still listen to him singing, so I don’t need to summon up his ghost to hear his thoughts. Also, he was alive relatively recently, so his opinions probably wouldn’t stray far from the rest of his generation that is still around to chat with.
To really take advantage of an opportunity to talk to someone who’s dead, I think it would be most interesting to go back further and get perspective from someone who’s entire generation is gone, whose influence is waning, and who would be completely shocked at the state of things today.
Maybe I would talk to Pierre L’enfant. The guy who designed DC.
So, Pierre, what do you think of DC? The way it is in 2015, the way it looks?
Pierre, I imagine, would say something like – what the fuck are these suburbs? What are cars?
I can imagine his bewilderment by people’s communication in urban spaces: silently standing at bus stops, peering into cell phones. Spending minutes, half-hours, or hours in slowly moving steel boxes.
My conversation would be more informed if I had time to prepare. I would want to learn more of his vocabulary, speak to him in the language he knows about avenues, plans, parks and blocks.
Pierre, why would you want to design a city? How did that come to be your goal?
He might wax poetic and say, “I see a man and woman having a picnic in the park, and notice how far from the road they are and how the bird is comfortable enough to sing to them, but how the wild beast stays away because there is not enough nature. I imagine these two falling in love and making a child together, and I think I have contributed to that for them, by making a lovely park.”
That would be the kind of answer I want to hear. Something passionate. But, he might say something else, something along the lines of – “I was too small to be a General. I have no gift for legal discourse, and I stumble when I speak in public. Women do not find me charming. I think better alone, when I have time to imagine complex systems. I think cities are very complex systems and I am able to think about them abstractly because they are not people, and people frighten me. So I make cities. The pay is enough for me to have a house with a study, and eat steak and drink wine. I do not have invitations to the opera every evening nor am I invited to give speeches, but there may be a park named after me someday.”
That is not what I want to hear from him. But he might say it anyway.
Pierre, how does the internet change cities? What does it mean, that people can communicate instantaneously with each other, by pictures and words and sound, from across the entire city?
This changes everything, he would say. That would be all he could say. It would render him speechless in a profound way, not in the metaphoric, hyperbolic way we generally regard one who is speechless. He would be literally speechless.
So the butcher, he would say, can know who will buy his meat? Because they can tell him, without walking across the city? The doctor can hear of his patients illness the moment it occurs? The mistress can avoid the wife, by a surreptitious warning?
But why then, would people live close together? Why would anyone go anywhere?
Maybe he would say that. I have no idea.
Conversations are generally never just one person asking the other person questions. He would almost certainly have questions for me.
Maybe he would inquire about the many ethnicities congregating all over the place. Maybe technologies I have completely forgotten are “technology” would baffle him. Ice in a cup. How does one have ice in the city? If there are magic electric lights, why does this store sell candles? Why do newspapers still exist, on paper?