The Imagined

To express something is to conserve its virtue and take away its terror. Fields are greener in their description than in their actual greenness. Flowers, if described with phrases that define them in the air of the imagination, will have colors with a durability not found in cellular life.

            What moves lives. What is said endures. There’s nothing in life that’s less real for having been well described. Small-minded critics point out that such-and-such poem, with its protracted cadences, in the end says merely that it’s a nice day. But to say it’s a nice day is difficult, and the nice day itself passes on. It’s up to us to conserve the nice day in a wordy, florid memory, sprinkling new flowers and new stars over the fields and skies of the empty, fleeting outer world ….

            … The grand, tarnished panorama of History amounts, as I see it, to a flow of interpretations, a confused consensus of unreliable eyewitness accounts. The novelist is all of us, and we narrate whenever we see, because seeing is complex like everything.


Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, trans. Richard Zenith (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2001), 30.


In 1925, Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935), renowned for his fictional characters, pseudonyms, and unbridled fusion of fiction and reality, wrote a guidebook for his beloved city, titled Lisbon – What the Tourist Should See. The guide was discovered more than fifty years after his death and first published by Livros Horizontes in 1992 in both English and Portuguese. It was updated in 2008 with current spellings of names and places and with archival maps and photography for the tourist to better trace the poet’s path throughout the city, nearly ninety years after the guide was written.

It must be thrilling for the flaneur to follow Pessoa’s path and “disquieted” footsteps through the city of today. The poet and author of The Book of Disquiet, who blended the imaginary and the real with almost indecipherable differences, was obsessed with place – with wandering between places as a way to discover “non-place” and to roam in the spaces of the mind, as he liked to think. For Pessoa, existing places, perceivable by the senses, are the gateway to “non-place,” and reality is the point of departure for an indeterminate journey with no end in sight. “I didn’t set out from any port I knew. Even today I don’t know what port it was, for I’ve still never been there,” reveals the poet in his chapter “The Voyage I Never Made,” in The Book of Disquiet.

Such a capacity for imagination is the hidden secret to living on solid ground in a perceptible place, according to Pessoa. It is the other dimension of living, the gateway to shades of meaning and the guide to an infinite universe. Imagination is the antithesis of stasis and rigor mortis. It is the ideal cognitive process for exploring the boundless possibilities of life.

In a journal about the city, place, and urbanism, we call upon and seek inspiration from Pessoa because his body of work stands as a paragon of how to render the city – its places and spaces – a field for unbridled interplay of the imagination. Whereas rural areas and the natural world are often adapted according to the primary needs of biological life and its immediate requirements, the city has long encompassed a range of living that transcends and seeks liberation from the natural world. This urban transcendence, which heightens perception and theoretical inquiry, is embodied in the currents of architecture, lifestyle, and passion, as well as artistic and intellectual movements. For the city, due to its clear distinctions from the natural world, has always stimulated imagination, foresight, and cognition. Thus, the city affirms its urban essence, full of potential.

In this regard, cities are like socio-urban beings, always under construction, forever in formation. They are in an endless process of coming into being, unconsciously avoiding completion for fear of veering towards stasis. As such, cities that witnessed profound changes in the course of history, cities like Beirut, despite its troubled history and successive shocks, have the privilege to deepen and broaden the meanings of urbanism. It is a privilege with the risk of cruelty, but a privilege all the same. For who is to say that cruelty is not intrinsic to the city?

“The Imagined” in the city through time is an exploration of the metaphysical and probable realities, as well as the internal, unbound logic of the city. It is an open path to unexpected passages and countless gateways. “The Imagined” has no destination, no boundaries, no port of call. Its meaning eludes conclusions. If “The Imagined” leads to and reveals a particular place, then that place will embark with “The Imagined” on a journey of endless self-discovery.

To imagine a city is to express more fully its living character, rooted in its diverse experiences and its ongoing formation. “The Imagined” in a place creates another place, a refuge; it multiplies our capacity to live, transcending actuality and broadening its horizons. The relationship between what is imagined in the city and what actually exists in its perceptible reality is fundamental to linking a place to its prospects, and enables these prospects to play a role in the discussion about the identity and peculiarities of the place. This relationship also opens a discussion, impossible to conclude, about what came first. If, for the sake of argument, we considered a historical event to result in the establishment of a city, the question about what came first – imagination or construction – almost always remains unanswered.

Does imagination call for the city? Or does the city call for the imagination? These questions will forever remain open to debate, a debate that will continue to affect our relationship to the city itself – for whenever we believe the city to be complete, we return to the imagined that challenges our presuppositions. And so, the city regains its dynamic, its premise.

To imagine a city is to begin from the beginning: from manifold points of passage. We start the city from its ideal state of forever coming into being, never arriving at completion. Inspired by Pessoa who, through his creation of places, people, lives, and deaths, added a new dimension to what exists in reality, this journal aspires to be a new gateway, a new portal, to Beirut. We invite you to enter this portal and to reflect on its many prospects.

 Fadi Tofeili, is a Lebanese writer, poet, and translator. He is the editor-in-chief of Portal 9.

Critical Writing

All Stories
All Critical Writing
The Square
Fiction: Contemporary Arabic and Russian Pursuits
The Imagined
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