Exploring the personal in experiences of urban socio-technical change

This extract from the book Urban Energy Landscapes by Vanesa Castán Broto, published in April 2019 by Cambridge University Press and drawing on the research of the ESRC-funded Mapping Urban Energy Landscapes (MUEL) in the Global South project, discusses a section of Elena Ferrante’s novel The Story of A New Name. Set in Naples in the 1950s, the text explores the narrator’s experiences of technological and urban change. The analysis forms part of a wider review of urban energy infrastructures and the need for context-specific strategies for cities, rather than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, focusing on four case studies in Bangalore (India), Conception (Peru), Maputo (Mozambique) and Hong Kong (China). 

Naples, Italy, end of the 1950s. Lenù, a student in her late teens, is struggling at school and takes daily refuge in the flat of her childhood friend Lila. The flat is new and modern. Lenù marvels,

“Every space, every thing was new and clean, but especially the bathroom, which had a sink, a bidet, a bathtub. One afternoon I felt particularly lazy. I asked Lila if I could have a bath, I who still washed under the tap or in a copper tub. She said I could do what I wanted and went on to bring me towels. The water came out hot from the tap and I let it run. I undressed, I sank in up to my neck.

“That warmth was an unexpected pleasure. (…) Oh how many wonderful things Lila possessed. It was no longer a matter of a clean body, it was play, it was abandon. (…) Maybe the wealth we wanted as children is this, I thought: not strongboxes full of diamonds and gold coins but a bathtub, to immerse yourself like this every day … ”

Alongside the bath, Lenù is fascinated by all of the new modern comforts available to her friend: the telephone, the television, and the modern kitchen appliances. Lila’s comforts, however, have come at a price; she has married an unattractive man who beats her, and she has lost her independence and interest in books. When Lenù lies in Lila’s bath, her friend’s marital problems appear a small price to pay (commonly accepted at the time) compared with the anxiety she is feeling toward her uncharted future. Her future is entirely dependent upon her intellectual abilities, but she is not confident. Thus describes Elena Ferrante the coming of age of two women in the transformative environment of post-war Naples in the second part of her Neapolitan Novels, ‘The Story of a New Name.’

As she submerges herself in the bath, Lenù forgets for a minute the feeling of vertigo that pervades her existence when she contemplates the wide-open opportunities opened for her future. This vertigo causes her confusion and an incapacity to recognize her desires. Lenù’s bath experiences represent an encounter between her sensuality (as mediated by an encounter with modern infrastructure) and her existential anxieties. The new world created by modern infrastructure moves her to question herself but also prevents her from confronting those anxieties that ultimately motivate her toward change. Lenù’s personal changes represent collective changes too—changes in architecture and urban visions, changes of social status and life outlooks, changes in expectations and future dreams.

Who in this story has the agency to bring about change? In Lenù’s account, Lila is a force of nature who is constantly shaping the lives of everyone around her and who actively takes decisions about her own life (such as marrying) that transform the whole neighborhood. In contrast, Lenù feels that she is unable to control the bridles of her own life, asphyxiated by a world of opportunities. She feels as she is following the inertia of a predetermined trajectory that somebody has outlined for her. However, by the end of the Neapolitan Novels, their roles will be inverted as Lenù learns, travels and gains independence, bringing to Naples her experiences in other Italian cities.

Lenù’s vertigo is deeply unsettling, the type of restlessness that makes the world an unfamiliar, terrifying place. Reading the passage of the bath, I could not help but think of the revelatory character of the state of anxiety in which Lenù finds herself, as she immerses herself (metaphorically but also literally) in the surrounding world of her concern. Is she connecting with the ontological character of being, in the sense that Heidegger suggests with the concept of ‘besorgen’ or ‘being concerned-with’? This anxiety moves Lenù to an active engagement with her own life and her city.

In her attempts to shape her future, Lenù also changes the future of her city. Changes that start within the personal extend to every social and institutional relationship in Lenù’s life, from inspiring her mentors, challenging her sexual partners, raising her daughter or navigating the complex forms of social regulation of the local mafia. She experiences these changes within a sense of being ‘thrown’ into the neighborhood; the bath is all of the more marvelous in contrast to the copper tub she is familiar with. Her experience is one of contrasts between clean and dirty, light and dark, abundance and scarcity—the coming of modernity. The novels present a portrait of a transformation of the lives of Lenù and Lila, but it is also a portrait of the transformation of their city, Naples.

Heidegger’s notion of time relates to a three-fold structure of life, constituted by past, present, and future not as a succession of events but as a simultaneous occurrence in a given moment. In a given moment, we are ‘thrown’ into an existing configuration (past), but equally, we are not slaves of the situation because we can actualize different possibilities (future). Lenù and Lila live their present from within a common experience of urban poverty but with entirely different possibilities for their futures. Their landscape is made present through their experience. The landscape is the matrix that makes their experiences possible and, at the same time, it vanishes into the background as soon as an experience is realized. Through connections with tools and artifacts—through building and dwelling—different landscape possibilities are foregrounded in a given moment (present). The landscape is actualized through embedded, lived experiences.

Both Lenù and Lila are active agents of change in their own lives, their neighborhood and their city. Not only are their lives marked by the changing city but also the city changes with them. If we return to the question of activating transformations of urban infrastructure—an urban transition—then we must focus on who are those agents of change and how they change the city; and how is it that telephones, televisions, appliances, and baths become necessary elements of urban life. Change is found in the present, in dwelling practices whereby the urban environment becomes different.

In an urban energy landscape, change is part of the practices of dwelling but hardly recognized in the deliberate efforts to deliver a transformation that constitutes strategic projects of change. Like Lenù and Lila, the former seeks to live an authentic life, whereas the latter focuses on taking control of her life and those around her. Lenù, the narrator, is consumed by feelings of existential anxiety, every time encountering the strangeness of the world. However, over the course of the story, Lenù has a more significant effect on Naples’ infrastructure landscapes. They both experience the collapse of time in the present moment, but only Lenù translates her existential anxieties into life practices. If Heidegger poetics are a call for action, then this action is not the type that can be easily translated into a master plan. Instead, this type of enchantment engages with the strangeness of the quotidian. Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels constitute a masterpiece not only because of their portrayal of the human condition in a particular time but also because they are able to reflect upon the processes of iterative materialization that result from their working and experimenting with different forms of interaction that involve beaches, money, shoes, books, social conventions, family, representation, sex, self-perception and identity, infrastructure, computers and love—just to highlight some of the topics of the book itself.