Psychogeography: A Tale of Two Cities

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“Yes, sir. We have oftentimes the honour to entertain your gentlemen in their travelling backwards and forwards betwixt London and Paris, sir. A vast deal of travelling.”[1]

                                                                                – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

 

The originator of psychogeography was writer and theorist Ivan Chtcheglov, who laid the foundations in the influential essay ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’[2] in 1953. The actual word “psychogeography” was later coined by French philosopher and activist Guy Debord in his 1955 essay ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’. Debord defined psychogeography as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals”.[3] Psychogeography is best examined at the origin where the psychology and geography axes intersect. If you want to talk the talk, so the phrase goes, you have to walk the walk, and psychogeography if anything is a practice, long in historic use way before the label ever crystallised in print. I will examine this act from the position of its dual birthplace, Britain and France, and investigate how the practice of writing with the foot, subversive in nature, has, by cross-pollination, had a huge impact on both countries’ politics, culture and literature.

One hundred and fifty years before Guy Debord’s fantastic Parisian political call to legs, in the hills of the British Lake District, a young William Wordsworth was using his lower limbs as an extension of his artistic palette. Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, noted, “For Wordsworth walking was a mode not of travelling, but of being.”[4] This act of being was at once both innovative and revolutionary; none before Wordsworth had come even close to putting the pedestrian on the literary map as he did. Even in the late eighteenth century travelling on foot was a highly dangerous and difficult feat. Wordsworth ignored the perils of highwaymen and ragged weather to embark on wanderings that generated rich-textured narratives that would later be recognised as the hallmark of his unique brand of romantic poetry.

Wordsworth’s mammoth wandering autobiographical poem The Prelude, published posthumously by his wife in 1850, is perhaps one of the finest as well as earliest examples of psychogeographic literature. The pedestrian is placed firmly at the centre of the text, where landmarks of memory mark out various points of a lifelong journey. Wordsworth’s voice changes with the various bumps in landscape, a form of topography that rides the very contours of soil beneath his feet, echoing, as he scales the dizzying heights of mountains, summarising life in one long and lasting psychogeographical poetic drift. It is worth noting in the interest of this essay the political impact that revolutionary France had upon and the education it gave to the 19-year-old Wordsworth. In 1790, one year after the storming of the Bastille, Wordsworth visited France and witnessed “human nature seeming born again”.[5] The Prelude, a homage to the beauty of landscape and life, is simultaneously a glowing English tribute to the French Revolution:

Twas in truth an hour

Of universal ferment; mildest men

Were agitated, and commotions, strife

Of passion and opinion, filled the walls

Of peaceful houses with unquiet sounds.

The soil of common life was, at that time,

Too hot to tread upon[6]

As inspired by revolution and rebellious in poetry as Wordsworth may have been, in the end, his unintentional legacy was to kick-start the tourism of the picturesque. The subversive and revolutionary democratic idea of walking was to be, like much grassroots art and culture, co-opted, tamed and framed into a commodity for commercial gain.

Thomas De Quincey picks up where Wordsworth left off, documenting his drug-fuelled wanderings in the underworld of subterranean London. “London brothels”,[7] “unfurnished lodgings,”[8] “youthful sufferings”[9] and “prodigious echoing”[10] rats replace “green peninsulas”,[11] “enticing vallies”,[12] “youthful strength”[13] and “rich plumes of tropic birds”.[14] De Quincey is often referred to as the urban Wordsworth, surveying the dark cobbled streets of smog-filled London with equal eye for detail and ubiquitous poetic flair. De Quincey’s observational wanderings bear remarkable similarities to those of a latter-day flâneur, although it is highly debatable whether a Londoner could ever truly fit into such a distinctively Parisian brand of walker. De Quincey’s literature was to have a profound influence on both the French and the British schools of psychogeography. De Quincey’s immediate influence can be seen on the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire: the latter translated and adapted  Confessions of an English Opium-Eater into ‘Les paradis artificiels, opium et haschisch’. De Quincey was a pioneer fuelled by the very soul in his feet. He dug deep into the hidden soil of the city and exposed it for all its worms with sharp cutting wit, imagination and vivid memory. Grime gained an equal importance alongside the picturesque, placing the heart of the city firmly on the literary map.

The influence of both Wordsworth and De Quincey has been documented widely on both sides of the Channel, but I think it is vital in this essay to reiterate an illuminating point made by Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust:

It is impossible to overemphasize how profound is the effect of this revolution on the taste for nature and practice of walking. It reshaped both the intellectual world and the physical one, sending populations of travellers to hitherto obscure destinations, creating innumerable parks, preserves, trails, guides, clubs, and organizations and a vast body of art and literature with almost no precedent before the eighteenth century.[15]

 

One writer who helped spread and influence psychogeography more than most was Edgar Allan Poe, a poet who bridged the choppy waters of the Atlantic and English Channel to reach the shores of revolutionary France and become one of the most influential writers in the French school of thought. Ironically, Poe was an American, but his dark twisting tales bore more similarity to communal France than to the individual conservatism of native English-speaking countries. It is in one of Poe’s most influential works, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, that the flâneur gets his debut, “forc[ing] his way to and fro, without aim, among the host of buyers and sellers”,[16]while the crowd takes centre stage as the asylum shielding the asocial, criminally dubious old man from his persecutors.[17]

Charles Baudelaire in his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ referred to the flâneur as l’homme des foules (the man of the crowd). Baudelaire was a passionate translator of the work of Poe, whom he saw as his American kindred spirit. Baudelaire’s description of the flâneur was an acute adaptation of Poe’s man of the crowd.

The crowd is his element… His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite… The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.[18]

 

The distinct English solitary figure of Wordsworth or De Quincey wandering alone documenting city and hill alike was to be replaced by a new and more nuanced complex French observer: the man in the crowd. The Marxist geographer David Harvey in Paris, Capital of Modernity importantly points out, “Baudelaire would be torn the rest of his life between the stances of flâneur and dandy, a disengaged and cynical voyeur on the one hand, and man of the people who enters into the life of his subjects with passion on the other.”[19] So it was down to a brilliant German writer by the name of Walter Benjamin to provide the best possible critique of Baudelaire’s and Poe’s flâneur.

Walter Benjamin is one of the most celebrated cultural commentators of our time and analysed much of Baudelaire’s poetry. In his essay ‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’ he interprets the flâneur as an alienated product of advanced European capitalism “abandoned in the crowd”[20] strolling the Parisian arcades at the pace of a turtle[21] against a hectically forced metropolitan modernity, drunk off a crowd intoxicated by commodities.[22] The flâneur mocks the dazzling array of goods on offer with observation and as a gentleman of leisure protests against the division of labour which makes people into specialists.[23] An offcut of advanced capitalism safely accosted into a façade of reality. His new home is the Intérieur; a corridor of commodities. Benjamin parallels the Parisian arcade with the department store in Poe’s ‘Man of the Crowd’ and poetically views it as “the last promenade for the flâneur”.[24] Benjamin explains:

If in the beginning the street had become an Intérieur for him, now this Intérieur turned into a street, and he roamed through the labyrinth of commodities as he had once roamed through a labyrinth of the city. A magnificent touch on Poe’s story is that it not only contains the earliest description of the flâneurbut also prefigures his end.[25]

 

Although the flâneur’s historic roots lie strangely in the dark Dickens-inspired[26] streets of London, Walter Benjamin makes clear “the flâneur could hardly have assumed the importance it did without the [Parisian] arcades”.[27] Benjamin highlights the impact and effect of local geography upon ideological philosophy. Directed by Napoleon III, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’scrude renovation of Paris saw the arcades torn down and streets inorganically widened for military purpose. This crass attempt at quelling insurrection forced the flâneur to hang up his boots and in turn paved the way for a more militant political walker, one whose sole aim was to destroy the system that had alienated him and then stolen his only home; the urgent objective was now to reclaim the streets.

Enter Guy Debord, the man with a crowd. One of the most influential French philosophers of his time, he viewed Haussmann’s redevelopment of Paris as nothing more than “facilitating police control”: “Haussmann’s Paris is a city built by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”[28] Debord’s mission was to redevelop Paris in the psychological image of the people, the antithesis of one single militarist’s crude attempt at authoritarian control, and expose the society of the Spectacle.[29] Influenced by the avant-garde art of surrealists Louis Aragon and André Breton and with the help of fellow Marxist intellectuals in the Letterist International, Debord usurped the Unitary Urbanism of Chtcheglov, draining it of artistic merit to make room for more political direction. The Situationist International was formed. It was in the midst of this political whirlwind that the term “psychogeography” was born, feet first and crying slogans.

The architectural tool that would remap Paris in the image of Situationist thought was the “dérive. Debord, building on Chtcheglov’s “drifting”, defined it thus:

A technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences, dérives involve playful-constructive behaviour and awareness or psychological effects… From a dérive point of view cities have psychological contours with constant currents, fixed points and vortices that strongly discourage entry onto or exist from certain zones.[30]

 

Debord draws inspiration from Marx to lend political weight to his call to remap the city via the dérive writing, “Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves, their very landscape is alive.”[31] It was here, in the radical post-war conditions of the Left Bank, that the cocktail of the psychological, the geographical and the political mixed with explosive potency, later bubbling over to help drift France into the May 1968 protest’s. The dérive was at best practised in a group, starkly at odds with its more solitary English cousin. The dérive was the Situationist weapon of choice, reappropriated by Debord from a French military tactic. The dérive simultaneously allowed the Situationist to redraw the map of Paris and familiarise, by preparation, the revolutionary with his or her terrain, a form of revolutionary training that was to bear fruit commencing insurrection.

Revolutionary politics have never been top of the agenda for the British psychogeographer, due the political ground upon which he or she treads, never bearing the fruits of a successful revolution. William Wordsworth was fortunate enough to bask in the aftermath of a French one, but he never got to feel the tectonic plates of his native soil shake with the self-determining demands of an oppressed proletariat. That is not to say that British psychogeography is devoid of the political – far from it. It could be argued that the re-emergence of the psychogeographer in the centre of London in the late 1980s had everything to do with the redevelopment of the British landscape in Thatcher’s ugly image. If Hausmann’s authoritarian architecture paved the way for Debord, the hatchet work of Thatcher’s Tory cabal made it possible for the wandering dissenters, Patrick Keiller and Iain Sinclair.

Keiller edges closer to the French school of thought than Sinclair, referencing the likes of Poe and Baudelaire. In London, Keiller’s narrator Robinson sets out on a dérive to remap London “based on a belief that English culture had been irretrievably diverted by the English reaction to the French Revolution”.[32] Questioning Britain’s radical impotency. It is interesting to note that Keiller’s political savvy and obvious thirst for change do not make him immune from that very English reaction. His art although heavily influenced by the French school is too weighed down by the poetry of Wordsworth to sound a serious assault upon the Tory government. The beauty of his work is that he knows this. Unfortunately this leaves the door open for political ambiguity, illustrated by one fan commenting on YouTube, “The visuals for this film are beautiful and shows how beautiful and wonderful England is.”[33]

Will Self, in his introduction to Peter Ackroyd’s novel Hawksmoor inspired by Iain Sinclair’s Lud Heat[34], explains that upon migration across the Channel:

psychogeography has undergone significant alterations at the hands of English writers. For Sinclair, the derive is a mystical rite that gifts him with Privileged insight into an ulterior city… For Ackroyd, London is a persona that can be understood by examining its different neighbourhoods as if they were separate characters united in an esemplastic street theatre, whereby the sentience of the city becomes self-conscious through its own inhabitants’ amused and ironic contemplation.[35]

 

It could be argued that disengagement with wider political movements and lack of revolutionary fervour could be the reason for a more mystic, occultish approach. Yet for all its political naivety we would be foolish to denounce such work as hocus pocus. On the contrary, their poetic arguments are positively compelling and harbour unexplained truths. But it does serve to highlight a deep chasm that separates the two schools of thought.

Today, maybe our best hope for unification is Will Self, like a reverse Edgar Allan Poe, Self is cultivating his own brand of psychogeography, importing heavily from the French school of thought. Like Poe before him, Self bridges the cross-Channel gap by binding British mysticism with French activism, a poetic-insurgent walking against the grain with concern for society in each solitary stride. This hybridity is evident in his excellent piece ‘Walking to New York’, a “quest for identity”[36] which desires to re-pierce “the fabric of reality, [and] sew up this singularity…[this] tear in the space-time continuum through which medievalism had prolapsed”[37] via the art of walking. The political, for instance 9/11 and its ramifications,[38] becomes just as much of the journey as the personal. The lines between poetry and politics, British and French, become blurred. John Lennon slept in; Will Self walked out.

The differences between both schools of psychogeography can be ultimately traced back to two greatly influential factors, geography and politics. Paris and London set the stage with marked differences, with size influencing politics and politics influencing size. But maybe it is the idyllic detour to the hills of the Lake District that blunted Britain’s radical cultural edge. Picturesque tourism, our very own Parisian arcade.

Yet for all their differences, throughout history, practitioners on both sides of the Channel have embarked on dérives straying beyond the other’s borders, bringing with them their own seeds of thought, in the grooves of their soiled boots. Carrying away germs of ideas to ferment in the imagination of the voyage. Hopefully, a new breed of psychogeography will continue striding forward, marching to the meeting of minds: one that seeks to radically address and challenge society’s ills rather than idyllically just observe them. If the act of walking is revolutionary, then the walker is by de facto the agent of change. His aim should be to document and agitate. A new man in the crowded oppressed, championing the poor with the rich style and poetic flair they wholeheartedly deserve.


[1] Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (London, CRW Publishing Limited, 2003), 36.

[2] Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, in Situationist International Anthology, edited and translated by Ken Knabb (California, Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), 1-8.

[3] Guy Debord, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’, in Situationist International Anthology, edited and translated by Ken Knabb (California, Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), 8.

[4] Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (London, Verso, 2001), 104.

[5] William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book 6, ‘Cambridge, and the Alps’, 342.

[6] William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book 9, ‘Residence in France’, 161-7.

[7] Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings (London, Penguin Classics, 2003), 26.

[8] Ibid., 30.

[9] Ibid., 9.

[10] Ibid., 20.

[11] William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book 5, ‘Books’, 436.

[12] William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book 6, ‘Cambridge, and the Alps’, 502.

[13] Ibid., 366.

[14] William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book 8, ‘Retrospect, Love of Nature to Love of Man’, 94.

[15] Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (London, Verso, 2001), 85.

[16] Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, in The Penguin Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (London, Penguin, 2011), 480.

[17] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’, in Walter Benjamin: 1938-1940 v. 4: Selected Writings, edited by Michael W Jennings and Howard Elland (London, Harvard University Press, 2006), 21.

[18] Charles Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, edited and translated by Jonathan Mayne (London, Phaidon Press, 1995), 9.

[19] David Harvey, Paris, Capital of Modernity (Oxon, Routledge, 2006), 14.

[20] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’, in Walter Benjamin: 1938-1940 v. 4: Selected Writings, edited by Michael W Jennings and Howard Elland,(London, Harvard University Press, 2006), 31.

[21] Ibid., 32.

[22] Ibid., 31.

[23] Ibid., 31.

[24] Ibid., 31.

[25] Ibid., 31.

[26] Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, ‘The Magnifying Glass: Spectacular Distance in Poe’s “Man of the Crowd” and Beyond’, Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism, Volume 36 (2003), Issue 1-2, 9.

[27] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’, in Walter Benjamin: 1938-1940 v. 4: Selected Writings, edited by Michael W Jennings and Howard Elland (London, Harvard University Press, 2006), 19.

[28] Guy Debord, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’, in Situationist International Anthology, edited and translated by Ken Knabb (California, Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), 9.

[29]Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (New York, Zone Books, 1995).

[30] Guy Debord, ‘Theory of the Dérive’, in Situationist International Anthology, edited and translated by Ken Knabb (California, Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), 62.

[31] Ibid., 63.

[32] Patrick Keiller, London, BFI, 1994.

[33] Patrick Keiller, Robinson in Space, London, BFI, 1997, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XY2O16FmHxs

[34]Ian Sinclair, Lud Heat: A Book of the Dead Hamlets, (Cheltenham, Skylight Press, 2012)

[35] Will Self, ‘Introduction’, in Peter Ackroyd, Hawksmoor (London, Penguin Decades, 2010), viii.

[36] Will Self, ‘Walking to New York’, in Psychogeography (London, Bloomsbury, 2007), 48.

[37] Ibid., 14.

[38] Ibid., 14.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Baudelaire, Charles, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, edited and translated by Jonathan Mayne, London: Phaidon Press, 1995

Benjamin, Walter, ‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’, in Walter Benjamin: 1938-1940 v. 4: Selected Writings, edited by Michael W Jennings and Howard Elland, London: Harvard University Press, 2006

Chtcheglov, Ivan, ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, in Situationist International Anthology, edited and translated by Ken Knabb, California: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006

De Quincey, Thomas, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings, London: Penguin Classics, 2003

Debord, Guy, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’, in Situationist International Anthology, edited and translated by Ken Knabb, California: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006

Debord, Guy, Society of the Spectacle, New York: Zone Books, 1995

Debord, Guy, ‘Theory of the Dérive’, in Situationist International Anthology, edited and translated by Ken Knabb, California: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006

Dickens, Charles, A Tale of Two Cities, London: CRW Publishing Limited, 2003

Keiller, Patrick, London, BFI, 1994

Keiller, Patrick, Robinson in Space, London: BFI, 1997, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XY2O16FmHxs

Poe, Edgar Allan, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, in The Penguin Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, London: Penguin, 2011

Self, Will, ‘Walking to New York’, in Psychogeography, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007

Sinclair, Ian, Lud Heat: A Book of the Dead Hamlets, Cheltenham: Skylight Press, 2012.

Wordsworth, William, The Prelude, England, 1850.

Secondary Sources

Harvey, David, Paris, Capital of Modernity, Oxon: Routledge, 2006

Self , Will. ‘Introduction’, in Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd, London: Penguin Decades, 2010

Solnit, Rebecca, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, London: Verso, 2001

Sweeney, Susan Elizabeth, ‘The Magnifying Glass: Spectacular Distance in Poe’s “Man of the Crowd” and Beyond’, Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism, Volume 36 (2003), Issue 1-2

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