City Jungles and Expressionist Reifications from Brecht to Hammett

By Lindh, John Walker | Twentieth Century Literature, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

City Jungles and Expressionist Reifications from Brecht to Hammett


Lindh, John Walker, Twentieth Century Literature


The subject of expressionism, that tortured mutilation of congealed panic and anxiety, emanates its strongest contours when cast against the background of the modern urban landscape. The noisy and unpredictable machinery of the metropolis confronts the subject as an alien force that continuously threatens any vestige of individual autonomy. The harsh juxtaposition of wounded subjectivity with the chaos of commerce, the cacophony of technologies, and the utterly inhuman industrial backgrounds exhibits the dissolution of social community into scattered and disconnected fragments. In the midst of the most developed concentration of the forces of technological achievement and civilized social organization, the isolated and alienated character of the modern subject comes most prominently to the surface.

The urban zone of expressionism is a monolithic entity that antagonizes and annihilates the isolated energies of the subject. Walter Benjamin refers to "the impenetrable obscurity of mass existence" (Baudelaire 64) in which the individual is dissolved into the mob. The city itself figures as the anthropomorphic subject of many modernist endeavors, from Fritz Lang's Metropolis to Alexander Doblin's quasi-expressionist Berlin Alexanderplatz, which depicts a protagonist entirely constructed from the assembled rhythms, ideologies, and fragments of information imposed on subjectivity by the monolith metropolis. In the cityscapes of George Grosz and Otto Dix, the geography of the city resembles the infernal regions of Hieronymous Bosch, where each individual is consigned to a particular torment and compelled to replicate mechanically a specific and pointless task in utter isolation from the swarming multitudes on all sides.

Modern literatures unite the paradoxical vision of the urban landscape as technological anti-utopia with the metaphor of the primeval jungle. Metropolitan technologies contribute to an atmosphere of noise, light, and sudden violence whose obscure origins and unpredictable concatenations conjure visions of jungle environments. The arbitrary violence and apparent lawlessness of city life create an atmosphere of anarchy that recalls social configurations of tribal warfare. Economic imperatives that set individuals in hostile competition replicate primeval conditions where survival is based on a struggle against all others.

The conflation of city and jungle corresponds to a similar conflation of machine and animal. The total mechanization of activity and the subsequent death of inner life experienced by the subject of modern labor is represented by analogies to inanimate mechanical processes or to the unreflective instinctual violence of the savage beast. The absence of civilized responses of sympathy and social conscience, made obsolete by market imperatives of total competition, engender a sense of identity with the amoral extravagances of the animal kingdom.

American gangster and detective literatures fully incorporate the urban mythos of expressionism; the noir genre is based on the exploration of the underside and the unconscious of the city and its geography. Noir film and the detective story of the 1920s and 30s do not merely adopt the landscape of the expressionist scene, but further assimilate and develop expressionist atmospheres, techniques, and theoretical orientations. These genres intersect most prominently in films like Fritz Lang's M and the works of German emigrant Otto Preminger. The expressionist resonances in Dashiell Hammett's work are so pronounced that direct citations from the movement can be clearly identified.

The urban jungle mythos that serves as the background for expressionism and noir is elaborated in Bertolt Brecht's Jungle of Cities, composed in 1924. Brecht constructs a gigantic Chicago of mythic proportions, a metaphysical projection of Chicago in its distorted and transfigured essence in which the audience is instructed to concentrate on the expressionist agon: "concern yourself with the human element, evaluate the antagonists' fighting spirit impartially and concentrate your interest on the showdown" (12). …

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