Le Voreux, from Germinal by Émile Zola, illustration by Francesco Chiacchio
By Duncan Riley
We live in a society of concrete. That was the thought that sprung into my mind as I walked under the shadow of the county jail on the way to the bus stop. Concrete forms the basis of every structure of power that dominates our society. But concrete provides not just the foundation but also the path that leads us to these institutions, for it is the concrete sidewalk that we walk upon to reach the schools that discipline us, the jobs that exploit us, and the prisons that incarcerate us. For a society based on oppression, concrete is the perfect material for the path, for it isolates us. The foot that treads upon a dirt road leaves a track, but the foot that falls upon concrete leaves no trace, no clue that it was ever there. As we walk along concrete to the fate that society has assigned us, we find no sign of those who came before us, nor will those who come after find any record of our solitary journey. Concrete destroys our relationship to our collective humanity, and in so doing it traps us on a path that we did not choose, that we did not want to follow, but yet we must follow, for we do not know how to escape.
Concrete, of course, is not the only form of oppressive architecture. The jail, that impenetrable block of bricks and metal which hulks over humanity like a beast, finds an equally important place in the blueprints of authority. The architecture of the jail is always simple yet brutal, its plain, sharp style draws the observer’s gaze, trapping them in its shadow. Thus, the prison imposes itself on the observer, but it is an imposition that blinds. The brick walls bore into us, but we cannot see beyond them, to the people that suffer inside. The jail intimidates, but it also divides and masks, it erects a wall between our own suffering and the suffering of others, it erases the common pain from which understanding might one day be born.
As I sit here in the library, writing these words, a woman screams, “let go of me!” The security guard noticed she was eating and told her to leave. To many around me it seems that the woman is making a scene. But the only scene I see is a human being who doesn’t want to be trapped out in the cold. I think the security guard called the police. Violence and power are all around us, we cannot escape them no matter how hard we try.
But, if we cannot escape from this concrete path, perhaps, at least, we can stop for a moment to examine it more closely. If we do, it will quickly become apparent that the concrete is by no means unbroken or invincible. It is punctuated by innumerable cracks and crevices, out of which grow tangles of weeds, useless things. But usefulness is a matter of perspective. For the society of injustice and oppression, what are love and solidarity but weeds, breaking through the concrete it calls order and peace? Weeds are life, obstinate and irrepressible, bursting asunder the concrete in its quest to reach the sun. There is a beauty in life, an indomitable beauty which must eventually triumph over all the fortresses of stone and walls of steel humanity has built to divide itself. If humanity carries within it that automaton which built this world of concrete, deeper within it, at the core of the human soul, that weed that pushes us towards the sun of justice is still alive. Though we may be living through what seems to be the eternal winter of the human experience, we must remember that spring always comes, and with it come the proud, ferocious weeds that will shatter this world of concrete, so that a new world of life might germinate in the earth below.