II. The Urban Scene

Essentially, the urban scene is about relationships between people who—most likely—don’t know each other. So we have Jeanne Moreau, in probably the best-known moment from Louis Malle’s film, wandering the streets of Paris at night, waiting for a lover who’s never going to come because he’s accidentally locked in an elevator on leaving the scene of a crime. As a result, she has to endure the pressure of all those pedestrians who’ll naturally look at her, try to read her secret, try to entice her into a tryst. Meanwhile, in the background, a trumpet solo by the young Miles Davis, its soft, plaintive, melancholy wail fully and perfectly expressive of the urban loneliness of all those who never manage to find the people they’re supposed to meet while having to fend off everybody else.

Three years ago I gave a talk at the Beijing Foreign Studies University (Beiwai) on “The City in Modern Literature.” For that talk (the result of an impromptu invitation) I assembled in a hurry some images of 19th century Paris that showed the gradual evolution of its cityscape from the narrow, cramped streets of the 1830s to the wide boulevards of the later part of the century. I talked about the impression produced by these city streets on the inhabitants (as reflected in French literature), and of how the sense of distances and of the traversability of Paris gradually changed over time. So when I started to prepare for this talk on the urban scene I initially thought I’d use much of the same material and perspective. Almost immediately, however, as I began to explore the impact of Victorian London on its literature, I fell under the spell—like so many people before me—of Henry Mayhew, and specifically of his great work London Labour and the London Poor. In this exemplary achievement of 19th century journalism, more than perhaps anywhere else, the voices of the nameless many spoke vividly to me across the years. Because Mayhew didn’t just summarize but instead made an effort to faithfully transcribe exactly what he heard from the people he interviewed, we get their situation as they themselves saw it, which meant that Mayhew’s text preserved for all time their sense of their relationships with other city people. And as I delved deeper and deeper into Mayhew, I gradually came to realize that this was what mattered most for 19th century London—this was what the urban scene of that time and place was really all about. It occurred to me too, as I read these accounts by the people themselves of the hardships of their lives, that it was precisely the hugeness of the city itself and the unknowability sheer size forced on those who lived and worked there that made possible the kind of relationships I was seeing, relationships that don’t so much involve intersubjectivity but rather a shockingly brutal use or exploitation of people in ways that suggest they’re seen as objects or things rather than as people.

Louis Malle, Elevator to the Gallows: 26:49-27:49. Link will open youTube in a new tab.

I want to begin with one of the most poignant instances from Mayhew vol. I, of a crippled street-seller of nutmeg-graters. I give first part of his own account of his situation, followed by that of a friend:

Often after I’ve been walking, my limbs and back ache so badly that I can get no sleep. Across my lines it feels as if I’d got some great weight, and my knees are in a heat, and throb, and feel as if a knife was running into them. When I go up-stairs I have to crawl upon the back of my hands and my knees. I can’t lift nothing to my mouth. The sinews of my hands is all contracted. I am obliged to have things held to my lipe for me to drink, like a child. I can use a knife and fork by leaning my arm on the table and then stooping my head to it. I can’t wash nor undress myself. Sometimes I think of my helplessness a great deal.

“His privations have been great,” adds my informant. Only two months back, being in a state of utter destitution and quite worn out with fatigue, he called at the house of a person (where my informant occupied a room) about ten o’clock at night, and begged them to let him rest himself for a short while, but the inhuman landlady and her son laid hold of the wretched man, the one taking him by the arms and the other by the legs, and literally hurled him into the street. The next morning,” my informant continued, “I saw the poor creature leaning against a lamp-post, shivering with the cold, and my heart bled for him; and since that he has been living with me.”  (I, 330-33)

Here note the way the landlady (“inhuman,” as the informant aptly says) and her son treat the crippled nutmeg-seller, tossing him as they would garbage into the street with no further concern about it. This sort of objectification of people is something we’ll see increasingly as we continue our exploration of Mayhew. Note, too, how the informant comes to feel sympathy for the nutmeg-seller: it’s presumably because the poor guy (object-like) was hardly able to move from the spot where he was tossed, and yet (shivering, hence human) is so obviously suffering at the same time. A bit later in vol. I of Mayhew we come across something we’ll see often both in his work and elsewhere—evidence of a desire to know everything that’s happening in the city. Here it takes the form of a comprehensive table of street traffic in London:

We might wonder why anybody would want to know so exhaustively about street traffic in London. For a number of reasons, possibly (sanitary conditions, traffic patterns indicating which streets get heavy pavement use, future street planning). But what’s significant about this desire for comprehensive knowledge of what’s happening in the city is that ultimately it seems to go beyond any particular motives. And that suggests that while it might be related to the kind of Foucauldian impulse behind Bentham’s Panopticon, it’s arguably even broader. In other words, knowledge of a totality seems by itself to convey power. And possibly not just because it involves knowledge of the inhabitants (Foucault’s point) but even more because it’s linked to a formative impulse (city building) for the future.

I now return to my earlier theme of objectification, this time with a couple accounts from vol. II of young boys employed as chimney sweepers:

“A lad was ordered to sweep a chimney at Wandsworth; he came down after endeavouring to ascend, and this occurred several times before he gave up the point; at last the journeyman took some straw or hay, and lighted it under him to drive him up: when he endeavoured to get up the last time, he found there was a bar across the chimney, which he could not pass; he was obliged in consequence to come down, and the journeyman beat him so cruelly, to use his own expression, that he could not stand for a fortnight.

The fire had been lighted as early as two o’clock the same morning, and was burning on the arrival of Griggs and his little boy at eight; the fire-place was small, and an iron pipe projected from the grate some little distance, into the flue…. He [Griggs] had no sooner extinguished the fire than he suffered the lad to go down [from the top of the chimney]; and the consequence, as might be expected, was his almost immediate death, in a state, no doubt, of inexpressible agony. The flue was of the narrowest description, and must have retained heat sufficient to have prevented the child’s return to the top, even supposing he had not approached the pipe belonging to the grate, which must have been nearly red-hot…. Soon after his descent, the master, who remained on the top, was apprehensive that something had happened, and therefore desired him to come up; the answer of the boy was, ‘I cannot come up, master; I must die here.’ An alarm was given in the brewhouse, immediately, that he had stuck in the chimney, and a bricklayer who was at work near the spot attended, and after knocking down part of the brickwork of the chimney, just above the fire-place, made a hole sufficiently large to draw him through. A surgeon attended, but all attempts to restore life were ineffectual.
(II, 350-51)

As with actual slavery, mixed motives seem to be at work here. Clearly, employers who use these boys as chimney sweepers presumably stand to profit from their labor. So losing the boys might involve financial loss to the employers, if they’re not able to hire others quickly. Nonetheless, even stronger motives seem to be impelling them, so that they force the boys to perform tasks resulting in harmful and even fatal consequences. In the first instance, it’s almost as if the boy’s being asked to perform an impossible task is simply a pretext, disguising the employer’s real wish to beat the boy. Obviously it’s not just punishment for having failed to do something—when the boy can’t work for 2 weeks his disability or injury might even pose a problem for his employer. Likewise in the second instance it’s hard to believe the employer doesn’t know what’s going on: either inhalation of smoke and fumes, or the unbearable heat of the chimney plus the grate, or both together, were bound to kill him. It’s also hard to believe the master becomes “apprehensive that something had happened” only after sending the boy down: if the master’s on top of the roof you can’t help thinking he himself would feel the heat coming up from the chimney. Notice too how, in the attempt to rescue the boy, the master hardly seems to be involved—instead, it’s almost as if he’s disappeared from the scene, nor do we hear anything about his remorse for having sent the boy down.

One significant aspect of 19th century urban life as cities became increasingly crowded was the difficulty—if not impossibility—of doing anything without being observed by somebody else. Nowhere was this more evident than with the group known as sewage-hunters. You try to get rid of something—or perhaps you simply lose it—and thanks to these people, it resurfaces. In vol. II of London Labour and the London Poor Mayhew gives an incredible list of the items sewage-hunters would turn up. But sewage-hunters also attest to another, grimmer aspect of 19th century city life: sanitation, or, more frequently, the lack of it. Even Mayhew himself can’t help talking about the growing problem of metropolitan sewage in London:

There has been, also, an increase of sewers in the metropolis, because an increase of streets and inhabited houses…. Another matter has too, of late years, added to the amount of sewage—the abolition of cesspoolage in a considerable degree, owing to the late Building and Sanitary Acts, so that foecal and culinary matters, which were drained into the cesspool (to be removed by the nightmen), are now drained into the sewer.

ordinary daily amount discharged into the river: 9,502,720 cubic ft.
annual amount: 3,650,000,000 cubic ft.
(II, 388)

Here Mayhew merely harks back to the celebrated account by Edwin Chadwick: Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, 1842. The case for London was especially fearful, with Chadwick commenting on how cholera and dysentery were resulting from no sewage removal, and how (to save expense) London cesspools had had no cartage (removal) for years (pp. 116-17). At this point in time it’s hard even to imagine the extent of the filth, and its pervasiveness. Chadwick’s report had caused a scandal when it first appeared, leading to cries for sanitary reform. Sooner said than done, however. In some ways sanitary reform became, for the Victorian period, a kind of rallying point for all the different kinds of social reform possible: because it’s so simple, because the condition it attacked was so extreme, because the consequences of doing nothing were so clearly harmful, it becomes a way of trying to alter life at the most basic level. Yet even here, despite all the publicity, it’s still possible years later (as we’ll soon see) for Dickens to talk about the same situation. Meanwhile, I want to look at one more instance of objectification in the urban scene, one that sheds light especially on the sinister link between objectification and labor. Here I’m thinking of the group charged with unloading coal from the boats that docked on the London quays:

This group, consisting of workers called coal-whippers, found itself peculiarly subject to exploitation. In vol. III Mayhew explained how that exploitation worked:

The coal-whippers, previous to the passing of the Act of Parliament in 1843, were employed and paid by the publicans in the neighbourhood of the river, from Tower-hill to Lime-house. Under this system, none but the most dissolute and intemperate obtained employment; in fact, the more intemperate they were, the more readily they found work. The publicans were the relatives of the northern shipowners; they mostly had come to London penniless, and being placed in a tavern by their relatives, soon became shipowners themselves…. When a ship came to be “made up,” that is, for the hands to be hired, the men assembled round the bar in crowds and began calling for drink, and outbidding each other in the extent of their orders, so as to induce the landlord to give them employment…. When the men returned from their work they went back to the public-house, and there remained drinking the greater part of the night…. The consequence of this was… that frequently, on the publican settling with them after leaving the ship, instead of having anything to receive, they were brought in several shillings in debt….
(III, 235-36)

It’s a pernicious system: in order to work, you have to drink, and once you start drinking it becomes addictive. Even the publicans (= pub-owners) are just part of the system, having been placed in London by the shipowners who are perhaps the real source of the evil. Here we might say that the logic of labor as Marx described it seems to have gone horribly awry: instead of work resulting in an accumulation of capital, we have a situation where more gets consumed (i.e., in drink) than produced. But it gets worse—because rather than just resulting in a deficit, what we really have is a situation where the source of that deficit (addiction to drink) is precisely what fuels a never-ending labor cycle: drink ⇒ work ⇒ drink, and so on indefinitely.

It’s high time now to see the impact all these conditions have on Victorian literature. And here I can think of no better example than a seemingly minor episode from David Copperfield, one which however—as is typical of Dickens—turns out to have important ramifications later in the novel. I’m thinking of the episode in which David Copperfield, seemingly unaware of what he’s doing, follows a young woman he recognizes down to the Thames river. First, take a look at the illustration.

And now, the text:

As if she were a part of the refuse it had cast out, and left to corruption and decay, the girl we had followed strayed down to the river’s brink, and stood in the midst of this night-picture, lonely and still, looking at the water….

I think she was talking to herself. I am sure, although absorbed in gazing at the water, that her shawl was off her shoulders, and that she was muffling her hands in it, in an unsettled and bewildered way, more like the action of a sleep-walker than a waking person. I know, and never can forget, that there was that in her wild manner which gave me no assurance but that she would sink before my eyes, until I had her arm within my grasp.

At the same moment I said “Martha!”

She uttered a terrified scream, and struggled with me with such strength that I doubt if I could have held her alone. But a stronger hand than mine was laid upon her….

“Oh, the river!” she cried passionately. “Oh, the river!” ….

“I know it’s like me!” she exclaimed. “I know that I belong to it…. It comes from country places, where there was once no harm in it—and it creeps through the dismal streets, defiled and miserable—and it goes away, like my life, to a great sea, that is always troubled—and I feel that I must go with it!”
(pp. 580-81)

Note the seemingly irresistible pull taking the young woman downward toward the river, which appears to be the central motif here. Like Chadwick, Dickens knows all about the river as receptacle of all the sewage of London. So at the very outset the young woman’s compared to the “refuse” the river washes ashore. Hence the logic underlying the movement in this episode: the river casts Martha ashore, but eventually will take her back. And indeed her movements, “more like the action of a sleep-walker than a waking person,” seem purely instinctive. In other words, she instinctively wants to go down to her destruction. Just as she’s about to throw herself into the river, however, David grabs her by the arm, simultaneously calling out her name: “Martha!” The name is significant. On first seeing it, I couldn’t help feeling its vaguely Biblical, even specifically New Testament ring. As it turns out, Martha’s a sister of Lazarus, whom Jesus resurrects from the dead (John 11: 1-44). In fact, on first seeing Jesus, Martha even says: “I know he would not have died if you had been here.” Whereupon Jesus tells her Lazarus will rise from the dead. And when she takes this to mean only at the last day, Jesus makes the well-known assertion (“I am the Resurrection and the Life. . . .”) to which Dickens would recur with telling effect at the end of A Tale of Two Cities. The same sense of supernatural agency occurs here, as David Copperfield says “A stronger hand than mine was laid upon her” to prevent her from drowning herself. Literally, it’s that of Daniel Peggotty, but metaphorically Dickens obviously means to suggest divine intervention. We’re not done yet, though, with the river motif. Martha says “It comes from country places, where there was once no harm in it—and it creeps through the dismal streets, defiled and miserable—and it goes away, like my life, to a great sea. . . .” Reformers like Chadwick were well aware that using the Thames to drain away street filth meant contamination of London’s drinking water. And even the coal-whippers complain to Mayhew about it. Hence Martha’s talking about the river on its passage through London as “defiled and miserable.” So the only acceptable end would appear to be getting taken away to the great sea, that oceanic feeling Dickens himself (in Dombey and Son) and later Freud would equate with the final deathward passage. Nonetheless, thanks to David Copperfield and Daniel Peggotty, it doesn’t quite happen. Instead, a new logic takes over: if the river was clean once, it can, by sanitary reform, become clean again. And likewise for Martha: contaminated by urban forces, she can likewise be saved by other urban forces. The closeness, the proximity of things within the urban scene opens up the possibility that someone might be watching over her.

We now fast-forward roughly 50 years, to the end of the century and a different place: Paris, rather than London. It’s no accident that when Lambert Strether first arrives in Paris (Henry James, The Ambassadors), he feels an irresistible impulse to walk. And so he does, from the Tuileries on the Right Bank all the way down to the Jardin du Luxembourg in the 6th, on the other side of the river. From 1850 to 1870 (and later) Paris under the Baron Haussmann and Napoleon III had gone through a remarkable transformation, which saw it pass from a city of narrow, cramped medieval streets and crowded quartiers to the wide avenues with which we’re now familiar. As a result, Paris had become more visible, more graspable as a totality. I’ve recently been reading about the “Haussmannization” of Paris. You can find excellent background on the history of it in the pioneering work by David Pinkney, Napoleon III and the Rebuilding of Paris. And for a detailed sense of what’s happening architecturally, François Loyer, Paris Nineteenth Century: Architecture and Urbanism is exemplary. What these sources and others make clear is that by the time Lambert Strether arrives (1902/03) it’s a changed city. So while London, as Sir John Summerson shows (Georgian London and The Architecture of Victorian London), made only meager efforts at a modern structuring, Paris had redefined itself. Small wonder, then, that after Strether walks through the heart of Paris he’s led almost irresistibly to seeing it as one vast, gleaming totality:

His greatest uneasiness seemed to peep at him out of the imminent impression that almost any acceptance of Paris might give one’s authority away. It hung before him this morning, the vast bright Babylon, like some huge iridescent object, a jewel brilliant and hard, in which parts were not to be discriminated nor differences comfortably marked. It twinkled and trembled and melted together, and what seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next. It was a place of which, unmistakeably, Chad was fond; wherefore if he, Strether, should like it too much, what on earth, with such a bond, would become of either of them?
(I, 89)

One reason why Strether finds it hard to discriminate parts of this totality is that Haussmann and his architects had imposed a relatively uniform style on all the avenues they revamped: so you’ve got, typically, buildings of roughly the same height (4-5 stories), with a particular style of roof, similar window trim and a uniform treatment of buildings where streets came to an end in some larger square. The upshot is a Paris of imposing vistas, one where it’s now possible to see for great distances, all the way to some major architectural landmark or monument. And this had made, in effect, for a different way of taking in the city. So while mid-19th century London, the London of Dickens and Mayhew, was all about relationships between people crowded together into an involuntary intimacy in which everything you do is watched or observed even without your suspecting, the Paris of Strether and Chad Newsome is about people and their relationships in distinct, particular places. Chad’s place on the Boulevard Malesherbes, for instance, is on one of those boulevards redone by the Haussmann builders, while Mme de Vionnet’s apartment, in a building off the street which you access through a porte cochère, suggests a distinctly older quarter. And even when Strether enters her apartment, there’s very much a sense of interior structuring, provided by the sequence or succession of rooms through which they pass. My point, then, is that the transformation of Paris under Haussmann had made for a different way of seeing not only the city but the people in it: from now on, people are placed by where they live, within a larger structuring that constantly encourages the inhabitant or visitor to project a totality. And this is part of a new effort at dominance through knowledge or omniscience. In fact, Victorian cities (other than London) were making a similar effort: as Asa Briggs points out in Victorian Cities, almost all the major 19th century English cities had a particular building designed to be the highest point, from which each city in its entirety would be visible (pp. 73-74). But only in Paris was that goal of visibility most fully realized.

I can touch on the urban scene in Modernism only briefly. Specifically, I want to call your attention to the magnificent evocation by Hart Crane of a New York landmark, Brooklyn Bridge:

Through the bound cable strands, the arching path
Upward, veering with light, the flight of strings,—
Taut miles of shuttling moonlight syncopate
The whispered rush, telepathy of wires.
Up the index of night, granite and steel—
Transparent meshes—fleckless the gleaming staves—
Sibylline voices flicker, waveringly stream
As though a god were issue of the strings. . . .
(The Bridge, VIII: “Atlantis”)

What I can’t help noticing here is the effort to transform a modern structure (Brooklyn Bridge) into something distinctly older, the celebrated Romantic motif of the Aeolian harp. Yet the idiom remains decisively modernist, decisively 20th century. So we have “Taut miles of shuttling moonlight” that “syncopate” (echoes of jazz) the “whispered rush.” And the materials involved (“granite and steel”) are, likewise, emphatically modern. So even if what finally issues from this bridge are “Sibylline voices,” we can nonetheless see these as very much a 20th century creation, committed to the forging of a poesis not backward-looking to the Romantic era but one very much meant for the modern age.