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1.2: Space and Myth

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    The Ideology of Utopian and Heterotopian Representations in the Contemporary Novel

    Sofie Verraest and Bart Keunen


    In spite of what the term seems to suggest, literary space is far from a static, monolithic, or straightforward phenomenon. In the living universe of the novel, space more often defines an experience than simply providing a backdrop. It is marked by a myriad of associations and meanings in the past, present, and future. Taking this observation as its starting point, the present article aims to suggest guidelines for differentiating between the associations and meanings that colour literary space.

    For this purpose, the philosopher Ernst Cassirer proves to be an excellent counselor. The author of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, a three-volume study that was first published between 1923 and 1929, not only fully understood that the human environment is first and foremost a matter of mental modeling but also gave a systematic account of three distinct types of such modeling. Departing from the fact that ‘every apprehension of a particular empirical thing or … empirical occurrence contains within it an act of evaluation’ (31; original emphasis), Cassirer goes on to discuss the three fundamental epistemological forms that spontaneously accomplish this act of evaluation on a daily basis: Ausdrucksfunktion (expressive function), Darstellungsfunktion (representative function) and Bedeutungsfunktion (significative function) [1]. In a slightly different terminology, this article refers to them as the ‘affective’, the ‘representational’, and the ‘conceptual’ form and argues that all of them are at work when characters, narrators or narratees ‘take in’ literary space. Firstly, this article proposes that a Cassirerian approach to literary space not only helps us to distinguish between the panoply of emotions, associations, and meanings with which space is impregnated but, by emphasising that spatial experience often merges more concrete with more abstract meanings, it also allows us to grasp spatial images in their multi-layered richness.

    Secondly, this article also aims to shed light on a perhaps underexposed and certainly under-theorised facet of literary space that would be called ‘mythical’ in Cassirer’s terminology. In the second volume of The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, the philosopher embarks upon an in-depth description of ‘mythical thought’, the most ancient and elementary form of thought that occupied centre stage in the ‘primitive’ perception of space. From a mythical perspective, the surrounding world was animated by magical powers; it appeared as an enchanted and dreamlike place that was out of the ordinary and filled with supernatural tokens and omens. Whereas more rational ‘receptions’ of space have far outstripped the magical one by now, mythical remnants nevertheless resurface in literary space when it becomes the stage of such intense emotions as astonishment, irrational fears, or vehement desires. In what follows, we intend to show how mythical remnants can be detected in literary space and why they can be understood as ‘ideological’ despite the implicit and pre-conscious level of awareness on which they operate.

    With this in view, we adopt Walter Benjamin’s distinction between ideology in the strict sense of the word, as a discourse giving sense to the world in an explicit manner, and ideology in a broader sense, as phantasmagoria. In an outline of The Arcades Project (written 1927-1940) that he sent to a French publisher towards the end of his life, Benjamin stresses the omnipresence of phantasmagorical ‘dreamification’ in the modern era. Akin to the shadow plays of eighteenth-century popular culture, the modern world of technological feats of strength and consumer goods turns into a vaguely surreal space for its perceivers because of the desires and dreams with which they invest it. Man not only tries to make sense of these surroundings through rational, ideological reflection but also through direct, affective ‘illumination.’ Modern objects undergo phantasmagorical illumination ‘not only in a theoretical manner, by an ideological transposition, but also in the immediacy of their perceptible presence’ (Benjamin 1999: 14). Inquiry into the ideology of literary space should include such phenomena, which are ideological in the broad sense of the term, and which, following Cassirer, can be considered contemporary manifestations of mythical thought patterns.

    The third aim of this article is to propose a distinction between two kinds of mythically charged spaces, one privileging conceptual associations, the other affective ones. This contrast allows us to revisit Michel Foucault’s distinction between utopian and heterotopian spaces, as set forth in his famous article ‘Of Other Spaces’, and his claim that present-day space has not been entirely desanctified in practice. We intend to show how the perception of utopian spaces leans to political conceptualisation, whereas that of heterotopias inclines towards affective experience, substituting the political for an aesthetic outlook. The late modern context of the First World has indeed been the setting for such a gradual shift, as we intend to demonstrate.

    For these three purposes, we turn to two novels in which literary space occupies centre stage: Stefan Heym’s The Architects (written in English between 1963 and 1965, and first published in German in 2000) and Benoît Duteurtre’s La cité heureuse (which could tentatively, and for lack of a better alternative, be translated as The Happy City, 2007). In both novels, we focus on a particular place in the fictional universe that is value-laden in a way as to acquire mythical overtones. In the first novel, that place is World Peace Road, an emblematic construction project in East Berlin shortly after the Second World War that is Heym’s fictional variant of the Karl-Marx-Allee. In The Happy City, which is set against the backdrop of an unspecified Central European town in the near future, the focal point is Town Park, a cultural theme park for tourists that has taken possession of the entire city centre. In a way reminiscent of the Paris of 2040 imagined in 1997 by Marc Augé in Une ville de rêve (‘A Dream City’, 173-185), Duteurtre’s novel paints a picture of how a multinational company remodels the different quarters of the centre into themed attractions.

    Ernst Cassirer’s Epistemology and Literary Space

    In our day and age, knowledge and thinking have a ring of consistency and logicality. Cassirer’s epistemology shows, however, that such a form of thought is only the ultimate phase of a drawn-out and very gradual movement of abstraction, which introduces an increasing distance between perceiver and perceived. An array of anthropological studies backs Cassirer’s claim that the earliest, most elementary form of thought is one that we would nowadays consider to be rather ‘thought-less’, but it positively moulded man’s surroundings into a meaningful reality: the direct, emotional absorption of the environment became an affectively charged space. It is only through the introduction of abstraction that man sees not only a merely affective space (first step), but also a stable world of discrete objects that we could label representational space, meaning the visual perception of things, persons, buildings, or landscapes as we know it from daily life (second step). The world of emotional tonalities is now supplemented by a world of stable objects; so-called ‘thing perception’ sets in (1965: 118-141). Further abstraction brings us to the conceptual knowledge of the world (third step). Distancing ourselves even further from what we perceive, we no longer consider entities in and of themselves but see them as mere instantiations of an abstract idea or conceptual system.

    In sum, three kinds of increasingly abstract cognitive interventions mediate our contact with spatial reality and help us to give meaning to the world surrounding us, be it through emotions, ‘thing perceptions’ or concepts. While specific cultures privilege one or the other kind of cognitive intervention – for instance, the conceptual one in modern times or the affective one in the ‘primitive’ stage – all three are simultaneously operative in daily experience. If we are to do justice to this multifaceted richness of space, an analysis on the three levels is required. The analyses of World Peace Road and Town Park will thus set out to demonstrate how concrete representations (or ‘thing perceptions’) are coloured equally by affective and conceptual values.

    Ernst-Wolfgang Orth was right to point out that artistic representations stand midway between mythical and scientific ones in Cassirer’s philosophy (1995: 121). Literary and other artistic representations depict more intellectual experiences akin to scientific thought as well as emotional appeals to the recipient’s (the character’s, narrator’s, or narratee’s) most elementary form of knowledge. Literary and other artistic representations depict more intellectual experiences as akin to either scientific thought or emotional appeals to the recipient’s (the character’s, narrator’s, or narratee’s) most elementary form of knowledge. The latter aspect links literature up with mythical thought. While the knowledge domain, the ‘symbolic form’ (symbolische Form) in Cassirer’s terminology, of literature (and the other arts) is different from that of myth, it nevertheless manifests a strong affinity with it. Spatial images in literature are indeed often permeated by the kind of affective experiences that are central to the mythical world. When looking into the ideology of space (understood in the broad sense), such affective associations are just as relevant as the commonly invoked theoretical and intellectual associations are. If we are to lay bare man’s whole toolkit for making sense of the world, ideology in the narrow sense should be complemented by phantasmagoria.

    Affective Aspects of Mythical and Literary Space

    If a dark forest seems to breathe a menacing atmosphere, or, conversely, a charming house projects conviviality and safety, this divergence is to be situated on the level of affective space. While we no longer pay much attention to the emotions that spaces stir up, they were particularly significant from a mythical (or ‘primitive’) perspective and possessed explanatory power. This is so because, from a mythical point of view, emotions did not originate from the person experiencing them; they were instead magical spirits taking possession of this person as well as certain objects or places. This is why trees, amulets, and fetishes, for instance, were seen as truly animate entities. From a mythical angle, the world is not so much ‘a reality of things, of mere objects, but … a kind of presence of living subjects’ (1965: 62). Cassirer refers to this as the perception of a ‘thou’ rather than an ‘it’, an animated rather than an objective reality (1965: 63) [2]. As long as no distance is introduced between perceiver and perceived, the subject does not distinguish itself from an environment of objects yet and perceives living subjects (spirits) rather than dead objects (inanimate matter). The mythical way to make sense of the world is thus in terms of magical presence. What strikes as meaningful from this perspective, is what is experienced as extraordinary: some spirit or magical force seems to be at work and directly affects the perceiver. Cassirer writes that ‘what seems to remain as the relatively solid core’ of the mythical ‘is simply the impression of the extraordinary, the unusual, the uncommon’ (1955: 77).

    And this way of sense-making persists into the representational space of the mythical mind. Concrete objects and places are viewed in terms of the presence or absence of magical forces. Along the lines of this distinction, the environment is moulded into mythical representations. Some things and places manifest themselves to mythical consciousness with such extraordinary force that they seem magical or sacred, and their significant meaning makes them seem detached from their indifferent surroundings. As such, spatial representation distinguishes between enchanted, affectively charged, extraordinary places, on the one hand, and indifferent, profane ones, on the other: ‘All reality and all events are projected into the fundamental opposition of the sacred and the profane’ (1955: 75). Places that are considered to be sacred and magical are singled out from their profane surroundings as ‘inside’ spaces that are different from ‘the outside’. Cassirer writes that ‘[h]allowing begins when a specific zone is detached from space as a whole when it is distinguished from other zones and … religiously hedged around’ (1955: 99). As such, mythical perception is characterised by a logic of ‘inside and outside’, ‘inward and outward’ (1955: 99).

    It goes without saying that the affective experience of living spirits and the representation of magic inside spaces, which are both so typical for myth, ceased to make sense a long time ago. It is interesting to see what remains of them in a present-day, secular format, however. On the affective level, we need to invoke the persistence of what Cassirer calls an ‘expressive’ or ‘physiognomic’ understanding of places and landscapes, while, on the representational level, extraordinary inside spaces mostly persist in an aesthetic variant of the magical-religious original.

    As regards the affective experience of space, Cassirer points out that while we do not believe in spirits anymore, we still spontaneously tend to ‘read’ the atmosphere of a specific place as a so-called ‘physiognomic character’ (1965: 68), a facial expression [3]. Even though we do not believe inanimate objects to be inhabited by spirits, we still subconsciously endow them with animate characteristics: we suspect something like a soul in what is mere dead matter. As physiognomers determined the characteristics of a person’s character or soul from the outside reality of their face, we are inclined to see inanimate objects as inspired and living when they stir certain emotions in us. For instance, we read a charming landscape as the expression of an inherent kindness, as if it, by nature, had a friendly soul. In response, we feel safe in the landscape, just as we would in the presence of a smiling face. In other words, the atmosphere seems to emanate from the place itself. This is why Cassirer speaks of affective ‘expressions’ rather than ‘impressions’: the effect indeed seems to spring from the perceived space rather than from its observer. Tellingly enough, common parlance tends to express violent emotions as springing from the outside world: one is ‘overcome by despair’, ‘engulfed by fear’ and ‘overwhelmed with happiness’. Likewise, in The Architects, protagonist Julia is affected by what seems to be the character or soul of World Peace Road, the project she is working on with her colleagues of the City Architects’ Bureau of Berlin:

    The vista … was astonishing … the road stretched, wide, handsome … Julia, who had seen it often enough … never failed to be moved. There was poetry in the sight; … not poetry you could put into words but poetry that converted itself from stone and space directly into emotion … she pointed at the old slums to the left and on either side of the Road, the half-destroyed, grimy factory buildings, the bombed-out tenements that were waiting to be torn down. ‘It was all like that,’ she said. (Heym 102-103)

    The impression of certain poetry emanates from the place itself (‘stone and space’) and subsequently ‘converting itself into emotion’ is indeed an example of an expressive reception of space.

    Moreover, the reference to a poetic experience is not without significance and brings us to consider the secularised variants of mythical inside spaces. Cassirer pointed to the fact that in the largely disenchanted context of modern societies, aesthetic experiences seem to have adopted the role that magic used to play (see O’Toole 1996): beauty still enchants. As profane remnants of animist powers, aesthetic stimuli seem to cast their spell so as to create extraordinary inside spaces that detach themselves from a banal and disenchanted world of technological functionalism and cold, utilitarian rationality. The aesthetic is at the basis of a new polarity between the sacred and the profane, between enchantment and disenchantment. While aesthetic contemplation evidently implies more distance from what is perceived than the mythical consciousness was able to take, it still evokes a direct effect of the extraordinary and, with it, an inside/outside contrast. While the mythical mind, to repeat Cassirer’s expression, ‘religiously hedged around’ spaces that were experienced as being out of the ordinary, the modern mind can be said to aesthetically hedge them around. In the quote above, for instance, it is clear that, to Julia, the ‘astonishing’ and ‘handsome’ beauty of the road differs from its surroundings as day from night. Its extraordinarily beautiful appearance makes it stand apart from the rest of the space, which is filled with ‘old slums’, ‘grimy factory buildings’ and ‘bombed-out tenements’.

    In Duteurtre’s The Happy City, we similarly find an inside sphere that appears as immune to the ordinary outside: Town Park is described as a ‘magical enclave, protected from the misery of the world’ (230) [4]. The longer the protagonist (who remains unnamed) lives in the Park, the happier he is with his decision:

    (He is increasingly convinced that he made) the right choice staying in Town Park, as news coming from ‘the outside’ continues to worsen. Out there … it is always the same litany of bankruptcy, refuse collectors being on strike, and crime-ridden districts. Behind our metal gates, we inhabit an enclave in the heart of chaos. (87)

    Radiating the reassuring affective qualities of safety and security, Town Park appears as a place that is disconnected from the ordinary outside world and its problems. With a term from Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity (2000), we could call it one of those ‘purified’ places that late modern public space is so abundant in, according to Bauman, and that is to provide a response to the widespread feeling of discomfort and the irrational fear of ‘stalked streets’ (93). In order to exorcise (rather than confront and negotiate) otherness, they commonly rely on two strategies that Claude Lévi-Strauss described in his Tristes tropiques (1955) and that are employed in Town Park. The first kind of measure to create purified spaces is called ‘anthropoemic’ by Lévi-Strauss. It aims to bar strangers that are felt to be others [5].  For this purpose, the Park is ‘protected by metal gates and surveillance cameras’ (Duteurtre 25). It is conceived as a ‘semi-autonomous territory, managed directly by the Company. All entrances (are) barred by security gates, so as to eradicate crime’, which is on the rise elsewhere in the city; ‘the only obligation (consists) of wearing one’s badge, as an employee or a resident’ (34). All of this in order to keep out ‘the outside, the crowd of indigents and vagrants’ (231) [6].

    The Park, secondly, remains uncontaminated thanks to an anthropophagic strategy: one that consists of stripping strangers of their otherness as soon as they penetrate into the inside [7]. To this end, the Company has ‘animators’ posted on every corner of the street, ‘not … only to inform the clientele, but also to supervise the townies who, for every participants in a costumed intervention, have points added to their electronic counter. They can also report offenses by those who violate the regulations’ (Duteurtre 90). The animators are aided in their task by the surveillance cameras, which equally fulfill the anthropophagic role of monitoring the inhabitants’ and employees’ behaviour. When the latter take to the streets because of the deterioration of working conditions, for instance, ‘(t)he spontaneous gathering (…) (is) harshly crushed by the security forces … under the pretext of protecting the people from terrorist threat’, and the strikers are duly reminded that ‘interior regulations … forbid demonstrations on the public highway’ (232). But the Company’s most effective means of controlling and homogenising behaviour is probably their own competitive version of a social system. A scoring system converts every contribution to the smooth running of things into points. Their accumulation leads to preferential treatment by the Company’s branches, which range from the only supermarket chain in town to health services. While the protagonist is critical of the ‘rampant totalitarianism’ of ‘permanent monitoring’ (12), he is nevertheless grateful that, thanks to such measures, ‘we enjoy exceptional conveniences and security in Town Park’ (12).

    In brief, the positive effects the Park manages to convey issues from the closed character of space, in this case, guaranteed by a disciplinary system of power that insulates the reality of the Park from ordinary shortcomings. The Park is a reassuringly predictable and manageable little world in itself, cut off from a volatile and dangerous outside world. It is no accident that Mikhail Bakhtin, who was unmistakably inspired by Cassirer (see Poole 1998), showed great interest for such enclosed spaces generating a reassuring regularity under the heading of ‘idyllic chronotopes’ in the book-length essay ‘Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel’ (1982: 84-258). In this text, Bakhtin underlined that the enclosed space of the idyll can only be maintained by a regular, cyclical time rhythm (the cycles of the seasons, day and night, sowing and harvesting, death and rebirth). More generally, it is his conviction that the spatiotemporal organisation of the literary world is not incidental, but rather exerts a direct influence on scenes and events as well as, we may add, on their affects. Similarly, the regularity of time patterns in the Park is a part of the aesthetic, affective experience that it generates, just like the enclosure of space is, and both are inextricably bound up with one another. The affectivity of literary space is, in other words, closely connected with specific time-space structures. Spaces are isolated enclaves because their spatiotemporal framework contrasts with ordinary time-space, and thus produces a place that is other. Foucault seems to have understood as much: according to the fourth principle of his proposed ‘heterotopology’, heterotopias, as spaces that are other than the ones we daily traverse (cemeteries, cruise ships, cinemas, certain colonial cities, libraries), are ‘most often linked to slices in time (…) they open onto what might be termed, for the sake of symmetry, heterochronies.’ (26) Heterotopia being merely an ‘effectively enacted utopia in which (…) all the other sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted’ (24), both hetero- and utopia are marked by an inside/outside effect of contestation and inversion that, for Foucault, is also as much a matter of time as it is of space. However, this issue would merit an in-depth development that falls outside the scope of this article.

    Conceptual Aspects of Mythical and Literary Space: Heym’s The Architects

    Spatial representations are also connoted conceptually, not just affectively. As explained above, a conceptual outlook takes so much distance from the surrounding space that its entities are no longer considered for themselves, but as the visible symbols of some abstract, invisible concept, set of ideas, theory, or ideology in the strict sense of the term. Such is the case of World Peace Road, for example, when it is considered ‘no longer solely a local street’ because ‘it (…) has grown into a symbol of socialist reconstruction and a leading example of our aesthetic conceptions in architecture’ (Heym 44). The novel being set in 1956, the Road is indeed of emblematic value for the young German Democratic Republic seeking to legitimise itself.

    The earliest mythical conceptualisation of space can be exemplified by the augurs. They abstracted the area around the temple into four zones divided by two intersecting axes and sought to predict the future from the flight of birds, which bore their own symbolic meaning, over them (Cassirer 1925: 100). Our day and age bears few traces of such early conceptualisation. With time, however, myth stabilises in the well-wrought forms of religion, as another kind of conceptualisation sets in that tends towards the universal and results in the elaboration of an all-embracing body of thought that, once materialised in space, would bring redemption. From Cassirer’s writings on the subject, we can distill two main characteristics of this pattern of thought: an allegorical reading of space and a teleological narrative structure.

    The first feature ensues from the tendency towards the universal. When magical force universalises, it is no longer understood as a particular, instantaneous force acting on a specific place at a given moment because its radius is maximised up to the point of being universal: it is thought capable of laying its spell over the whole of reality, thus turning it into a single, all-embracing inside space. In the second volume of Spheres (a three-volume study first published between 1998 and 2004), Peter Sloterdijk refers to such metaphysical and universalised inside spheres as ‘globes’: ‘the attempts of classical metaphysics to organize the totality of what exists as a concentrically organized monosphere’ (2007: 53). If the magical spirit is universal, it is unique. It is considered the only spirit that can enchant the sum total of reality and serve as a panacea to all of its injustices and imperfections, following a logic that is well-known from monotheistic religions. As a consequence, the magical spirit acquires an undertone of irrefutable truth. The all-encompassing inside space it can create becomes a ‘sacred order’, the sole ‘eternal order of justice and truth’ (Cassirer 1955: 170). Once instantiated, this sacred order would bring ultimate redemption, while conversely, any reality preceding that moment can only signify the absence of sacred truth. Cassirer refers to such a reading of space, which verifies the presence of transcendent truth, as ‘allegorical’. What it registers of reality ‘is never its immediacy but the transcendent meaning which finds its mediated representation in this reality’ (1955: 257; our emphasis).

    In what seems to be a laicised, Marxist variant of allegorical reading, Julia insists that it is ‘obvious to any person of honesty and goodwill that … the Road combined the spiritual essence of the people’s aspirations with the best traditions of the past and symbolized something noble and worth the struggle’ (Heym 21). And hers is not an isolated case: most architects on the team have interiorised the socialist teachings of ‘how to differentiate between right and wrong, good and bad’ (56) in architecture. Since it ‘is un-Marxist … to separate form and content’ (57), a one-to-one relationship links architectural forms to inherently true or false meaning. Where the socialist body of thought applies, such a distinction is easy to make since only socialist-realist architecture ‘rises organically out of the great experiences of mankind’ (47). Other architectural styles can only attest to artificiality, mere appearance, or plain hypocrisy. The functionalist architecture of the West, in particular, is discredited as being ‘in essence negative and soulless, anti-humanistic – repugnant to the healthy instinct of our working people’ (69-70), as Arnold, Julia’s husband and head of the City Architects’ Bureau, describes it. It is nothing but ‘petty-bourgeois radicalism’ (69), ‘decadence, cosmopolitanism’ (209) and ‘mannerism’ (70) looking for cheap success through ‘the sensational, the outlandish, the experiment in-form’ (47). Those who turn against socialist realism can only be ‘detractors and belittlers (…) revisionists and fault-finders’ (211).

    A second characteristic of the mythical conceptualisation of space arises from the first one. In the final analysis, an allegorical understanding of space is always oriented towards an ultimate moment when the whole of space would perfectly materialise the transcendent truth, according to Cassirer: ‘there is one point at which the world of spiritual, transcendent meaning and that of empirical-temporal reality come into contact, despite their inner divergence’, and that is the point of ‘redemption’ to which ‘(a)ll allegorical (…) interpretation relates (…) as its fixed center’ (1955: 257; original emphasis) [8]. This endpoint, the secular remnant of which we would call utopian, is the frame of reference for the allegorical reading of any reality preceding it. Cassirer goes on to explain that ‘(a)ll temporal change, all-natural events, and human action obtain their light from this center; they become an ordered, meaningful cosmos by appearing as necessary links in the (…) plan of salvation’ (257). The whole of reality is thus seen in terms of its utopian telos. From this conceptual angle, spaces tend to be envisaged from the angle of the broader sociohistorical development of which they constitute a phase; they appear as functions of a teleological narrative [9].

    This kind of traditional story arc progressing towards an ultimate equilibrium via a detour of struggle and adventure is, of course, particularly well known from structuralist literary theory (see Keunen 2011: 62 and 71). The conceptualisation of space can thus go hand in hand with such imagined stories or narratives that recount the general future of certain kinds of places, of the city in general, or ultimately, the whole of mankind. In other words, space may be, as Ricoeur would have it, ‘emplotted’ (see Keunen 2011: 14). In Urban Planning and the Pursuit of Happiness (2009), Arnold Bartetzky and Marc Schalenberg put forward that ‘(a)rchitecture and urban planning have played a prominent role in concepts aiming to achieve happiness by means of changing living conditions’, and that ‘(u)rban projects have often been conceived and staged as model islands, in anticipation of a bright(er) future for a city, a country or even the whole of humanity’ (7) [10]. As a showpiece of the socialist society to come, World Peace Road is mainly envisaged from such a broad socio-historical outlook. If the Road has an unusual poetic glow for Julia, it is because she already catches a glimpse of its future guise: the site is laden with concepts of what a socialist world ought to look like. Because of her socialist education, Julia considers things ‘always with the common cause, the common goal in view’ (Heym 15). Similarly, her husband Arnold frequently repeats in front of his team of architects that the project of World Peace Road serves the higher purpose of a better future. The telos precedes the present, and the general conceptual values of the Road overshadow its specificity. ‘(H)ad Marx, Lenin, or Stalin ever promised that the road to socialism would be straight and well-paved?’ (43), Arnold asks his fellow architects, indicating thereby that any problems encountered along the way are but negligible hurdles in the broad socio-historical project of stimulating ‘man’s all-around physical and mental development’ (96).

    It is because of such fierce rhetoric that Arnold is at one point described in religious jargon as a ‘sectarian zealot ready to cut down anyone unwilling to follow his major and minor prophets’ (209). Wollin, another architect, perceives Arnold in this way when Arnold is militantly defending the principles of socialist-realist architecture that had allowed him to make a name for himself. After Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s abuses, however, these principles are in jeopardy because of their ties with Stalinism. In desperation, Arnold tries to defend the teleological narrative of socialist-realist architecture, the backbone of his entire career, in a way that reminds Wollin of the relentlessness and the obduracy of the religious: he ‘continued railing; the spirit was upon him; he must defend his holy grail’ (209). Similarly, when Julia loses faith in socialist realism, she is described as ‘seek(ing) the oracle’ (126-127), which she ends up finding in a new, functionalist architecture at the service of more humane socialism [11].

    Conceptual Aspects of Mythical and Literary Space: The Dehistoricisation of Space in Duteurtre’s The Happy City

    While the logic behind Town Park is the economic one of a private company (simply called ‘the Company’) rather than the political one of an authoritarian ruler, it seems to be just as ‘totalitarian’. ‘(S)ince the end of the totalitarian regime (…) tourists from around the world came flocking in (…) at such an intensity that the whole centre got transformed into a tourist bazaar’ (Duteurtre 29), but the concept of Town Park announces yet another reality:

    (W)ith such a project, something new was seeking to work its way through our minds: entrepreneurial culture, (…) the management of everyday life by a staff of executives, economic organisation controlling every crossroads, every boulevard, every alley (…) (29)

    The protagonist is fully aware that ‘to accept (the Company’s) logic boil(s) down to subject our lives to the results of an enterprise and its strategic choices’ (36-37). Driven by economic rather than political motives, the Company is much less concerned with the broader socio-historical development that their project would be part of than the City Architects’ Bureau of Berlin was. In a way, this is surprising, since the primary function of Town Park is the ‘valorisation of the common patrimony’ (29). While the conceptualisation of the Road in Berlin is more future-oriented and Town Park as a tourist sight is more past-oriented, one might nevertheless expect comparable importance being attached to history. If this is not quite the case, it is because Town Park is ultimately designed to maximise the Company’s profits and should, consequently, attract the broadest possible public by providing an easily accessible kind of tourism. The Park should be entertaining while not being too confronting; it should distract people from their own concerns rather than pointing them to the local ones that have fostered the struggles of history.

    Significantly, the management of the Park does not content itself with simply fencing off an area of the city that is particularly marked by history but also constructs a typically postmodern delocalised collage of various historical epochs. By erecting themed façades in front of some of the real buildings, different quarters of the city are made to seem more in keeping with the era in which they were built, or, more accurately, with the clichés of those periods in the collective memory. The medieval part of town, for instance, presents ‘a reconstruction of ancient Europe under the name of “Historic City”‘ (33), and the industrial quarter is turned into ‘a living museum of the 20th century, rechristened “Liberty City”‘ (33), where visitors can ‘discover the history of modern art, the resistance of our town to totalitarianism, and plenty of jazz and rock bars’ (33-34). The Park should provide entertainment rather than giving the visitors a real sense of history. This is why, in Liberty City, a nineteenth-century square can be named ‘Impressionist Square’:

    In fact, the impressionists have never frequented our town … But one has to simplify the chronology a bit so that the lost visitor can savour, in the course of his walk through our district, an evocation of the great artistic movements – the most famous and the most popular of which is still impressionism. (21-22)

    Stripping history of its less well known, troublesome and unsettling aspects, the Company turns it into an easily digestible spectacle, thus delocalising and depoliticising it. This way, the Park can offer the enjoyment of tourism while avoiding its downsides. It gives a sense of discovery but within the strict sphere of noncommittal leisure far away from the socio-historical reality and its tribulations. On display in the Park is not the actual city where the vicissitudes of history left their traces and scars, but an artificial collage that stages a leisurely experience to be consumed by the clientele.

    Far from being political, then, history is used for its aesthetic qualities and staged as a piece of scenery. It offers the alluring spectacle of a fairytale world that is unspoiled by ordinary reality. The term ‘spectacle’ is not randomly chosen in this context. Our protagonist is presented as an avid reader of Guy Debord’s work: La société du spectacle is mentioned as one of the books that once urged him into leftist political activism (Duteurtre 15), the same activism that initially prompted him to write a combative manifesto against the coming of Town Park. It is only after suffering defeat and coming to realise that his entire political past has been one of hopeless ‘Don Quixote battles’ (Duteurtre 15) that he decides to ‘stay and live in Town Park, this laboratory of the future, where History, entrepreneurial spirit, dream, and entertainment unite’ (19). He is thus well aware that this laboratory of the future is one of spectacle. And Debord himself is unequivocal as to the fate of history once the spatial organisation of cities is left to the capitalist society of the spectacle:

    The capitalist need that is satisfied by urbanism’s conspicuous petrification of life can be described in Hegelian terms as a total predominance of a ‘peaceful coexistence within space’ over ‘the restless becoming that takes place in the progression of time.’ (45)

    As the space of Town Park is ‘refashioned (…) into its own particular décor’ (Debord 45), history thus comes to serve the ‘peaceful coexistence within space’ rather than showing its struggles ‘in the progression of time’. The protagonist himself observes that ‘in certain details, it shows that we are not really living in the world anymore, but in a replica of it on the spot’ (91; original emphasis). As space turns into scenery, history degrades to a dehistoricised spatial collage and can no longer fulfill the role that was so crucial to the political narrative of World Peace Road [12]. If we are to believe Fredric Jameson, this collapse of the historical dimension is to be considered a basic trait of postmodern ideology (1983: 125; see also Keunen 2006: 236). In their introduction to The Jameson Reader, Michael Hardt and Kathi Weeks assert that the ‘lack of historical consciousness is (…) the key to understanding some of the formal and aesthetic characteristics of postmodernism’ (16).

    Late Modernity and the Aesthetic Re-enchantment of Space

    Peter Sloterdijk reaches a similar conclusion concerning the imagination and conception of inside spheres in a late modern context. In ‘societies conditioned in an individualist manner’ (2009: 432), inside spaces rarely take the form of the globes described above. Instead, they are increasingly conceived as ‘multitudes of loosely connected environment cells, in which each separate cell, by virtue of its own volume, has the weight of a universe’ (2009: 432). As such, the universalist, all-resolving globe – ‘the epic of the divine sphere’, as Sloterdijk calls it elsewhere (2007: 490) – makes way for a metaphorical ‘foam’ of situational ‘bubbles’: an ‘accumulation of egocentric, excentered points each with their environments’ (2007: 491). Once the collective project of a socio-historical development for the better is abandoned, spatial organisation increasingly comes to serve a less political project: that of retreating from socio-historical reality altogether and meeting one’s individual needs as best one can. This is why late modern man takes great pains over designing maximally enjoyable bubbles: ‘Significantly, our embedment thinking has suddenly depoliticized after 1945, and withdrawn from the lofty collectivist spheres.’ (2009: 371) Likewise, abandoning his political ‘Don Quixote battles’, Duteurtre’s protagonist decides to ‘accept the world as it is, and try to get to know (him)self instead (…) Is that not a more concrete and inspiring program around which, one day, the human species in its entirety could be mobilized?’ (18-19). He eventually finds himself all too happy to withdraw into the safe enclave of Town Park where he can keep to himself and carelessly enjoy what he likes most in life:

    In the end, I never feel so equilibrated as when I keep to myself. I work in a certain security in my residence … I can revisit the jewels of the past in peace and quiet: download Stravinsky’s integral work …, reread Balzac …, watch all the masterpieces and rubbish in film… All of that almost without getting up from my couch. These frequentations give me a permanent happiness… (40-41)

    In his description of ‘foam city’ (2009: 422-470), Sloterdijk indicates that our contemporary cities are increasingly equipped for such withdrawal into bubbles, a conviction that he shares with Lieven De Cauter, who gave a more detailed outline of this urban trend in The Capsular Civilization (2004). De Cauter speaks of ‘the rise of a heterotopian form of urban planning’ (63). He is convinced that ‘the heterotopia has become the norm in a capsular society’ (68) and considers the Disneyfication of the public domain, the ‘theme park city’, as a symptomatic case in point (58, 70). According to Sloterdijk, contemporary urbanism and architecture increasingly develop entire ‘experiential environments’ (2009: 468), which we could call ‘aesthetic’ in the etymological sense of the word (the Greek aisthetikos, meaning ‘sensitive’ or perceptive’, derived from aisthanesthai, ‘to perceive’ by the senses or by the mind, ‘to feel’) [13]. Rather than as a political experiment, contemporary urban space is more often set up for full-fledged, direct experiences these days: individual enjoyments shielded from all too complex outside conditions. Architectures offering self-contained experiential environments have already by far ‘outgrown the traditional forms of the city park or the greenhouse’, according to Sloterdijk: ‘The motif of encapsulation has become so powerful that it integrates ever vaster, previously external landscapes and urban complexes’ (2009: 468) in the way that Town Park absorbs entire city districts [14].

    The late modern crumbling of political optimism has evidently been described by many others before Sloterdijk, not in the least by Jean-François Lyotard, who put forward that postmodern epistemology is primarily characterised by the collapse of so-called ‘grand narratives’ (1979). Our protagonist, too, has taken note of this development over the years [15], which ultimately brings him to give up on the ‘reforms through which (he) intended to save the world’ and that he, much like Arnold and Julia, used to defend ‘with the self-assurance, the logic, and the anger of the defenders of the truth’ (Duteurtre 17). Instead, he decides in favour of the ‘acceptance of the data of (his) era’ (44). No longer seeking to ‘build history against the tide’, he renounces the ‘detrimental tendency that sought to make politics the centre of (his) existence’ (18).

    It would be wrong, however, to push the analysis only so far and prematurely conclude that late modern man is an utterly disillusioned and demythologised realist. True, idealist political narratives of the kind encountered in Heym’s novel are probably the most salient and visible mythical remnants since they translate into wholly worked-out conceptual constructions and discourses. But space can be the object of a much more subtle mythical enchantment, one that functions on the less tangible, pre-reflexive level of direct, affective experience. As mentioned above, this is the most elementary form of mythical enchantment in Cassirer’s view, which thus has an all the more direct impact on the way we daily experience the world. With his concept of the ‘phantasmagorical’ or ‘auratic’ experience, Walter Benjamin was perhaps the most convincing theorist of such instantaneous re-enchantments of the pre-conscious kind. Underlining, like Cassirer, the physiognomic reading of objects and landscapes it entails, Benjamin writes in Ueber einige Motive bei Baudelaire that ‘(t)o perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return’ (‘Die Aura einer Erscheinung erfahren, heißt, sie mit dem Vermögen belehnen, den Blick aufzuschlagen’; 1974: 646-647), as if it were animated and had a soul of its own. Such phantasmagorical effects are particularly triggered in a consumer society. Consumer goods and leisure spaces indeed capitalise on pre-conscious desires, needs and fears (see also Featherstone 1991). Sloterdijk, too, emphasises that the abundant production of affectively pleasing bubble spaces is primarily a matter of affluent societies and their consumer lures (2009: 547-596).

    The protagonist of The Happy City is indeed not only disillusioned with grand political narratives, but he also relocates his strivings in the aesthetic domain (in the etymological sense described above). Because of his resolution to ‘stop thinking for humanity’ and instead ‘savour every moment and content (himself) with simple pleasures’ (23-24), the protagonist decides to stay in Town Park, a readily ‘dreamifiable’ place apt for phantasmagorical enchantment. The cathedral of Historic City, for instance, triggers such a phantasmagorical effect:

    I love this narrow quarter where one only has to look up to see the medieval clock tower raised in the sky, with its crown of frivolous turrets. These vertiginous niches evoke a fairytale castle (…) This is probably why tourists from around the world seem enchanted: not to discover the real Middle Ages, but something that reminds them of Walt Disney. They look at the old stones as an imitation of children’s books (…) (93)

    Marvelling at such fairytale effects, families in Town Park find themselves ‘happy to relax, determined to enjoy the weekend to the fullest, in this renovated, lustrous, golden décor that still maintains the magic of the real’ (95). Like Benjamin’s flâneur, our protagonist also increasingly manages to ‘find (…) a form of poetry in the whole tourist bazaar’ (96). Again, a lively, poetic glow seems to emanate from the material reality of the Park, as was the case at World Peace Road. But a shift of emphasis has occurred. Whereas both spaces are coloured by affective as well as conceptual associations, World Peace Road was overdetermined by more abstract conceptual meanings because of the political and socio-historical concerns connected with it. In Town Park, on the other hand, the more individualist and aesthetic matter of on-the-spot enjoyable experiences occupies centre stage: it mainly runs on the directly affective involvement of its visitors, and conceptual associations are secondary


    If the collapse of grand narratives initially seemed to relegate inquiry into the mythical aspects of space to redundancy or insignificance, nothing appears to be further from the truth. Rather than a triumph of pure rationalism and pragmatism, the end of grand narratives may well have marked a return to more elementary layers of mythical experience, in which space is directly perceived in the light of a magical glow. Narrative fiction is a privileged medium for rendering the myriad associations that colour spaces, it proves a rewarding object of study for grasping spatial experience in all of its facets. This experience itself, moreover, is highly symptomatic for the more irrational and enchanting features of our times, which can be addressed as mythical remnants. By exposing the mythical colours of concrete spaces, we can procure insight into specific fears and desires that mark a certain era. This aspect constitutes a necessary complement to more traditional literary-sociological approaches, which tend to overemphasise explicit ideological statements.

    This may be of particular importance in an era in which many of the political problems manifest themselves in an unspoken, irrational manner (for instance, the aforementioned fear of ‘stalked streets’, supplemented with the desire for predictable and manageable public spaces). Cassirer had observed this tendency as early as the 1940s. In The Myth of the State, one of his final works in which he analyses the rise of fascism, he shows to what extent our analysis of the political situation is infused with affective imagination. Benjamin proves to share this view when he calls capitalism a ‘natural phenomenon’ that reactivates mythical forces that we believe belong to primitive cultures: ‘Capitalism was a natural phenomenon, which engulfed Europe in a new dream sleep, and, in this, a reactivation of the mythical forces’ (‘Der Kapitalismus war eine Naturerscheinung, mit der ein neuer Traumschlaf über Europa kam und in ihm eine Reaktivierung der mythischen Kräfte' ; Benjamin 1982: 494). Benjamin and Cassirer were right to be concerned about the irrational tendencies of our secularised, objectified, and rationalised world. In such a culture, the flip side of the coin automatically gains equal importance. According to Benjamin, humanity ‘will remain under the power of mythical fear as long as phantasmagoria has a place in that fear’ (Benjamin 1999: 939). That which fascinates in a mythical construction of knowledge equally possesses an element of terror. Uncovering affective fears and dreams in spaces may teach us more about the present condition than any explicit criticism of ideology could.


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    1. An overview of these three knowledge functions is found in the final volume of the trilogy, The Phenomenology of Knowledge (1965).

    2. ‘The farther back we trace perception, the greater becomes the preeminence of the “thou” form over the “it” form, and the more plainly the purely expressive character takes precedence over the matter- or thing-character.’ (1965: 63)

    3. Walter Benjamin hints at the same phenomenon with his notion of the ‘auratic’ experience of landscape in ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’ (‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’; 2002: 104-105), and so does Gilles Deleuze with his concept of the ‘visagéité’ (‘faciality’) of architecture in Mille Plateaux (1980: 211-212) and the description of the ‘visagéification’ (‘face-ification’) that the ‘image-affection’ operates in Cinéma 1 (1983: 125). In a somewhat simplified version, the phenomenon reappears in Alain de Botton’s treatment of ‘Talking Buildings’ in The Architecture of Happiness (2006: 77-103).

    4. Unless mentioned otherwise, all English translations from Dutch, German and French texts in this article are our own.

    5. Bauman gives a few examples of this ‘exile or annihilation of the others’: ‘The extreme variants (…) are now, as always, incarceration, deportation and murder. The upgraded, “refined” (modernised) forms (…) are spatial separation, urban ghettos, selective access to spaces and selective barring from using them.’ (2000: 101; original emphasis)

    6. At the end of the novel, the elements seeping in from the outside are indeed those strangers of the so-called ‘stalked streets’ that provoke fear: the management hires low-salary immigrants who speak no foreign languages as animators, and more and more vagrants wander around the Park.

    7. Examples of such ‘suspension or annihilation of their otherness’ run ‘from cannibalism to enforced assimilation – cultural crusades, wars of attrition declared on local customs, calendars, cults, dialects and other “prejudices” and “superstitions”‘ (101; original emphasis).

    8. Cassirer also describes it as ‘the presupposition that the Logos itself descended into the sensuous world and there was incarnated in temporal uniqueness’ (1955: 257).

    9. See also Bakhtin (1982: 148) and Lotman (1979) on eschatological narratives. For a commentary on both, see Keunen (2011: 54 and 83-84).

    10. Sloterdijk establishes the link with such teleological, utopian narratives when he claims that the actualisation of the globe would mark the end of ‘the confusing human history’, and the beginning of ‘the post-historical … the condition in which space has absorbed time’, the ‘simultaneous world’ of ‘relaxation in the apocalypse of space’ (2007: 427).

    11. Julia’s quest constitutes the main driving force of The Architects because it is a near textbook example of a Bildungsroman. She progressively is disillusioned about the righteousness of the communist party and her husband’s implications in it, and, with every disappointment, grows into a new way of life. This gradual ideological shift from an authoritarian to a more humanist line of socialism eventually dictates changes in both her personal life (she leaves her patronising husband Arnold, for Wollin, with whom she is an equal) and her architectural career (she discards socialist-realist architecture in favour of functionalism). Throughout the novel, the key moments propelling this progressive transition are epitomised by her ever-changing perceptions and conceptions of World Peace Road, which signal her subsequent fears, hopes and dreams.

    12. In the novel, the so-called ‘intellectual tournaments’ (Duteurtre 2007: 90) in the Park clearly mark the depoliticisation that follows such a collapse of the historical dimension. These tournaments are organised every Wednesday afternoon for the entertainment of the Park’s tourists. In them, the protagonist says, we ‘force ourselves to recreate the rebellious spirit of the years of resistance by debating the most topical matters in total freedom of speech’ (2007: 91). The descriptions of these tournaments (2007: 90-91) would provide Zygmunt Bauman with an excellent illustration for his thesis of the public domain being reduced to a mere spectacle in late modernity while abandoning its political role of translating individual concerns into public ones. In Bauman’s view, the result is an era that combines absolute freedom of expression (or de iure autonomy) with a real deficit of truly emancipatory discourse (de facto autonomy) (2000: 16-52).

    13. See

    14. Sloterdijk emphasizes that such experiential ‘containers’ should not be mistaken for mere curiosities, but, instead, testify to a fundamental tendency in affluent societies (468).

    15. ‘Perhaps society knew its own childhood when it envisaged the future as a horizon full of promises, a hope for discoveries, justice and prosperity pushing its limits ever further. Today, our world, having grown up, starts to discern the horizon of its own death – with its … hopeless conveniences (…) (W)e continue a blind march, but the great dreams of history have collapsed.’ (Duteurtre 2007: 183-184) In these circumstances, the protagonist is convinced, we merely foster the ‘illusion of a political life, at a time when we have lost all control over the course of events’ because ‘(t)he new world is regulated by the laws of enterprise’ (2007: 186).

    This page titled 1.2: Space and Myth is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jo Heirman and Jacqueline Klooster (Academia Press) .

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