The City and Literature Overviews - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Ihab Hassan

SOURCE: "Cities of Mind, Urban Words," in Rumors of Change: Essays of Five Decades, University of Alabama Press, 1995, pp. 68-84.

[In the following excerpt, originally written in 1981, Hassan discusses depictions of urban life from Plato to Samuel Delany.]

The city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel or an ant-heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban forms condition mind. . . . With language itself, [the city] remains man's greatest work of art.

Lewis Mumford

With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desire and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.

Italo Calvino

Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.

Ludwig Wittgenstein


The city: grime, glamour, geometries of glass, steel, and concrete. Intractable, it rises from nature, like proud Babel, only to lie athwart our will, astride our being, or so it often seems. Yet immanent in that gritty structure is another: invisible, imaginary, made of dream and desire, agent of all our transformations. I want here to invoke that other city, less city perhaps than inscape of mind, rendered in that supreme fiction we call language. Immaterial, that city in-formed history from the start, molding human space and time ever since time and space molded themselves to the wagging tongue.

And so to commence, I shall tersely review the founding of that ideal city, which even the naturalist tradition in American fiction—from Frank Norris, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, through James Farrell, Henry Roth, Nelson Algren, to Willard Motley, Hubert Selby, and John Rechy—failed to make into mortar and stone. I shall regard it as concept, project, field, a magic lantern through which the human condition may be viewed. Next, I shall consider some examples of fiction, largely postwar, uniquely American, omitting, alas, both international trends and historical antecedents. Last, from this special perspective, I shall assay some in-conclusion, which my brief scope must make even briefer.


In its earliest representations, the city—Ur, Nineveh, Thebes, or that heaven-defying heap turned into verbal rubble that we call Babel—symbolized the place where divine powers entered human space. The sky gods came, and where they touched the earth, kings and heroes rose to overwhelm old village superstitions and build a city. As Lewis Mumford says: "All eyes now turned skywards. . . . Those who made the most of the city were not chagrined by the animal limitations of human existence: they sought deliberately, by a concentrated act of will, to transcend them." And so they did, with language, "with glyphs, ideograms, and script, with the first abstractions of number and verbal signs." All cities, it seems, are sacred, symbolic, heavenly at their origin, made of unconscious promptings as they grow into mind, made of mind that grows into purer mind through the power of language.

Thus the dematerializing metropolis coincides with the first temple or palace stone and dimly evokes, farther back, the burial mound, around which village life fearfully gathered. The "twin cities," biopolis and necropolis, stand for the visible and invisible demesnes that all human endeavor, however profane, assumes. Arnold Toynbee, we recall, thought that cities helped to "etherialize" history. But etherialization, as Mumford knows, carries also its counterpoint—"The rhythm of life in cities seems to be an alternation between materialization and etherialization: the concrete structure, detaching itself through a human response, takes on a symbolic meaning, uniting the knower and the known; while subjective images, ideals, intuitions . . . likewise take on material attributes... . City design is thus the culminating point of a socially adequate process of materialization."

Yet as the universe became conscious of itself in Homo sapiens, so do we now reflect upon the city through abstractions the city itself generates. To see a city whole is also to apprehend its theoretical nature, its hidden functions and ideal forms. For the city acts as mediator between the human and natural orders, as a changing network of social relations, as a flux of production and consumption, as a labyrinth of solitudes, as a system of covert controls, semiotic exchanges, perpetual barter, and, withal, as an incipient force of planetization. In short, at once fluid and formal, the city apprehends us in its vital grid.

Modern theoreticians of the city variously recognize this aspect of its character. Max Weber, for instance, conceives the city not as a large aggregate of dwellings but as a complex "autocephalic" system of self-maintaining forces, while Robert E. Park, founder of urban "ecological" sociology in America, describes it as "a state of mind, a body of customs and traditions, and of organized attitudes and sentiments." Practical and streetwise, Jane Jacobs still insists that the "ubiquitous principle" of cities is their need "for a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other a constant mutual support," a need that dishonest city planning invariably conceals. Raymond Williams, though historically alert to the forces of production and consumption in the city, also perceives it as a "form of shared consciousness rather than merely a set of techniques," about which everything "from the magnificent to the apocalyptic—can be believed at once."

As for Marshall McLuhan, we know his theme: the old metropolitan space must eventually dissolve into electric information, a "total field of inclusive awareness." Similarly, Charles Jencks considers the urban environment as a communicating system, a cybernetic or semiotic mesh; hence the efforts of such architects as Nicholas Negroponte to use computers (URBAN 5) in designing cities. Finally, stretching the cybernetic metaphor to its limit, Paolo Soleri speculates that in "the urban organism, the mind remains in independent but correlated parcels divided spatially and coincidental with the parceled brains, the whole forming the mental or thinking skin of the city." His "arcology" presages no less than the passage from matter to spirit.

Such visions may seem intolerably angelic to citizens inured to the diabolic occulusions and exigencies of the modern metropolis. Yet the city remains an alembic of human time, perhaps of human nature—an alembic, to be sure, employed less often by master alchemists than by sorcerer's apprentices. Still, as a frame of choices and possibilities, the city enacts our sense of the future; not merely abstract, not mutable only, it fulfills time in utopic or dystopic images. This expectation strikes some thinkers as peculiarly American. Nearly half a century ago, Jean-Paul Sartre remarked, "For [Europeans], a city is, above all, a past; for [Americans], it is mainly a future; what they like in the city is everything it has not yet become and everything it can be." But Sartre was never the most reliable observer of America, and what he perceives as an American impatience merely avows the city's own high-handedness with history.

Utopia, dystopia, futuropolis: these cities of mind have occupied a space in the Western imagination since Plato's republic. In Christian times, the city of God, the heavenly city, even the medieval church triumphant, became structures of a pervasive spiritual energy whose absence in nether regions suffered the infernal city to rise. (Pieter Brueghel's paintings of Babel attest to this doubleness in their equivocation between heaven and hell.) But the great architects of the Italian Renaissance (Filippo Brunelleschi, Rafael Alberti, Bramante, and Leonardo da Vinci), its painters (notably Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Piero della Francesca, and Francesco di Giorgio), and its authors (especially Tommaso Campanella in City of the Sun) turned to the dream of reason; circular or square, radial or polygonal, their urban visions revealed logic, will, clarity, purest tyranny of the eye.

English Utopian writers, like Sir Thomas More and Francis Bacon, also implicated their utopic concepts into urban space. So did, later, the pictorial architects of the eighteenth century, Etienne-Louis Boullée and Claude Nicholas Ledoux, the nineteenth-century planners of Garden City, inspired by Ebenezer Howard, and those eccentric designers of the early twentieth century, Tony Garnier and Antonio Sant' Elia, who ushered in the austere shapes of futurism and constructivism, of the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier. Closer to our time still, "plug-in cities" of Archigram illustrate the immanent structuralist principle; Buckminster Fuller's geodesic forms enclose us all in nearly invisible technology; and Constantinos Doxiadis's "entopias" offer blueprints of "the city of dreams that can come true." Abstract urbs all, bright geometries of desire, they share with Disneyland and Disney World—indubitably our two most solvent cities—a commitment to effective fantasy.

Yet as Jane Jacobs warns: "Designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination." Since our cities seem still to beggar the imagination of planners, our urban afflictions persistently defy our sense of a feasible future. Thus, dystopia becomes a synonym of megalopolis. Disneyland will not rescind Harlem, and against the visions of Soleri, Doxiadis, or Fuller, those of Fritz Lang in Metropolis or of Jean-Luc Godard in Alphaville may yet prevail. Writers and illustrators of speculative fiction certainly continue to envisage island cities in space—mobile, radiant, noetic, all Ariel and no Caliban, communicating with each other and the universe by means of unique mental powers. Yet these mind-cities yield, in darker speculations, to vast conurbations of discorporate brains, floating in innumerable cubicles, ruled all by a sublime computer or despot brain. Here time and space, transcended by mind, betray the ultimate terror of dematerialization—complete control.


I have not strayed altogether from my subject, the city in fiction; I have tried rather to perceive it from a certain angle that reveals the city as a fiction composing many fictions. Baudelaire, perhaps first among moderns, knew this well enough, though some might claim for Restii de la Bretonne or Eugène Sue earlier knowledge of nocturnal streets. Baudelaire, at any rate, allegorized Paris in various poems; one in particular, "Les Sept Vieillards," found an echo in T. S. Eliot's poem about another "unreal city":

Fourmillante cité, cité pleine de rêves,
Où le spectre en plein jour raccroche le passant!
Les mystères partout coulent comme des sèves.

This spectral note pervades, in diverse timbres, all modern as well as postmodern literature—fiction, poetry, or drama, naturalist, symbolist, or absurd. Certainly, the city as a formal dream or internal shape of consciousness emerges in fiction before the postwar period. Marcel Proust's Paris, James Joyce's Dublin, Alfred Döblin's Berlin, Robert Musil's Vienna, the London of Virginia Woolf, the Manhattan of John Dos Passos, Henry Miller's Brooklyn, and Nathanael West's Los Angeles attest to a longer historical view. Perhaps I can make the point by adverting to the last two.

In Black Spring (1963), Miller declares himself a patriot of the fourteenth ward, where he was raised, to which he continually returns "as a paranoiac returns to his obsessions":

We live in the mind, in ideas, in fragments. We no longer drink in the wild outer music of the streets—we remember only.... Here there is buried legend after legend of youth and melancholy, of savage nights and mysterious bosoms dancing on the wet mirror of the pavement, of women chuckling softly as they scratch themselves, of wild sailors' shouts, of long queues standing in the lobby, of boats brushing each other in the fog and tugs snorting furiously against the rush of tide. . . .

The plasm of the dream is the pain of separation. The dream lives on after the body is buried.

After the city vanishes too, one might add. For Miller really dissolves the city into his emotions, into remembrances more vivid than the city ever was, splashing his words on the page as Jackson Pollock threw colors on a canvas, exorcising his death in images drenched in nostalgia. Sensations, perceptions, observances of the city thus obey, in the fourteenth ward, the imperative of his soft need.

The absorption or ingestion of the object—a whole borough here—typifies the romantic sensibility. But Miller could suddenly exchange the romantic egoist for the selfless cosmologist, perhaps no less romantic. Thus, in the surrealist section of Black Spring entitled "Megalopolitan Maniac," he collapses the city not into the self but into the universe: 'The city is loveliest when the sweet death racket begins. Her own life lived in defiance of nature, her electricity, her frigidaires, her soundproof walls. Box within box she rears her dry walls, the glint of lacquered nails, the plumes that wave across the corrugated sky. Here in the coffin depths grow the everlasting flowers sent by telegraph. . . . This is the city, and this the music. Out of the little black boxes an unending river of romance in which the crocodiles weep. All walking toward the mountain top. All in step. From the power house above God floods the street with music. It is God who turns the music on every evening just as we quit work."

The city as self, the city as cosmos: thus Miller draws the far limits of urban conceptualization. Nathanael West, however, conceptualizes the city with cooler art: in The Day of the Locusts (1939), Los Angeles finds its consummation in a painting that Tod Hackett wants to create. West—employing throughout various devices of style and impersonal narration to distance himself from the lunatic scene—ends his novel with a vision of chaos within another vision of chaos, rendered in the very act of experiencing that chaos amid the crowds assaulting Kahn's Persian Palace Theatre. Here is the passage depicting Andrews's apocalypse within apocalypse:

Despite the agony in his leg, he was able to think clearly about his picture, "The Burning of Los Angeles." After his quarrel with Faye, he had worked on it continually to escape tormenting himself, and the way to it in his mind had become almost automatic.

As he stood on his good leg, clinging...

(The entire section is 6373 words.)