URBAN REALISM AND THE COSMOPOLITAN IMAGINATION IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY by Tanya Agathocleous, Reviewed by Joseph McLaughlin
 

URBAN REALISM AND THE COSMOPOLITAN IMAGINATION IN THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
By Tanya Agathocleous
(Cambridge, 2011) xxii + 266 pp.
Reviewed by Joseph McLaughlin on 2011-07-02.

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Trying to imagine the world around us, we might picture it as an extended city. Imagining the world as a metropolis, however, presents its own epistemological and ethical complexities. Here Tanya Agathocleous provocatively investigates the mid-Victorian roots of our conflicted responses to urbanization and globalization. In tracing this dichotomy through the vogue for "panorama" and "sketch," through the Great Exhibition and a burgeoning international periodical culture, as well as through The Prelude and Bleak House, Agathocleous strikes a dialectical balance between utopian and dystopian visions of the city in the second half of the nineteenth century, and, simultaneously, between Enlightenment dreams of a universal "brotherhood of man" and decadent nightmares of degeneration. In so doing, she rejects long-held assumptions (established by Raymond Williams and Georg Simmel) that "identify the early twentieth century as the moment when the city's 'far flung' role begins to affect artistic form and modes of subjectivity" (19). Instead, Agathocleous convincingly argues that the mutual imbrication of "city" and "world" underlies the bagginess (or capaciousness) of the Victorian novel and its oscillation between totalizing vision and intense local scrutiny. Indeed, it is precisely the inability of late-Victorian and modernist writers such as Conan Doyle, Henry James, William Morris, "General" William Booth, Joseph Conrad, and Virginia Woolf to comfortably mediate the discourses of panorama and sketch that propel their formal complexity and experimentation.

Agathocleous' book joins a growing body of work that examines, she says, how late-Victorian writing is "shaped by its consciousness of global and metropolitan space and mediates between totality and detail in representing collectivity" (5). She thus aligns her study with books such as James Buzard's Disorienting Fiction (2005), Jonathan Schneer's London 1900 (1999), John Clement Ball's Imagining London (2004), and my own Writing the Urban Jungle (2000). One of her most distinctive insights is to question the central place that "nation" and "nationalism" have had in this desire to represent collectivity, showing instead how representing the metropolis was a more urgent concern. In reaching for a vision of city and world, Agathocleous compels us to consider how important the category of the nation really was for the authors she studies.

In her introductory chapter, Agathocleous explains why her organizing term is "cosmopolitan"--increasingly common in Modernist Studies-- rather than alternatives such as "geopolitical," "international," "transnational," and "global." In the later nineteenth century, she notes, "cosmopolitan" was commonly used "to name the condition we now call globalization" (2), a condition "closely connected to the spread of global capital." She also highlights its association with "a more idealistic Kantian mode [used] to evoke the ideals of 'perpetual peace' and 'universal brotherhood' that might accompany economic globalization." These connotations of "cosmopolitan" anticipate our contemporary debates about globalization. Does it lead to worldwide injustice, inequity, alienation, and homogenization, or does it increasingly join disparate cultures into a highly connected community of shared opportunity and development? Then as now, writers read their urban and global presents and futures in utopian or dystopian modes. One of the things I like best about this book is its author's unwillingness to pitch her lot with either the optimists or the pessimists. This allows her to see texts in a fashion that does justice to their messy mix of hope and fear, and--in her own fully justified words-- "to move beyond the impasse between recuperative and skeptical views of cosmopolitanism by posing more open-ended questions" (13). Central among these questions is "how literary texts construct a sense of global totality while creating a detailed, realistic sense of local geographies," a representational challenge she labels "cosmopolitan realism" (12).

Agathocleous examines "cosmopolitan realism" in four chronologically arranged chapters, each organized around a pairing that allows readers to discern unique approaches to shared questions. The first of these chapters examines not single texts or authors, but rather larger cultural phenomena: the Great Exhibition of 1851 and a range of periodicals published in the second half of the nineteenth century that strove to both encompass and instantiate international cultural and intellectual networks.

Rather than analyzing the Exhibition exclusively, Agathocleous examines responses to it in the popular press and from leading cultural voices such as Prince Albert, Thackeray, and Mayhew. These voices formed two opposing camps. While one embraced the liberal humanist vision of global capitalism launching an age of universal brotherhood, the other criticized the forces of globalization. In looking at these conflicting accounts of a new world, she chronicles "the range of different ways of conceptualizing totality that characterizes the accounts--a phenomenon that rendered the meaning of the event more rather than less ambiguous" (40). In texts like Thackeray's "May-Day Ode" to the Exhibition, she writes, its "cathedral-like" appearance "helps to make concrete, and physically all-encompassing, the image of the Crystal Palace as the New Jerusalem incarnate, with God's light shining over all" (41). Solutions to the epistemological problem of how to represent the world give rise to ideological problems such as how to represent the totality of the world while also giving diversity its due. What kinds of exclusions were necessary to present global society in a way that could be encompassed at a glance? How did visions of the New Jerusalem coexist with visions of an all-encompassing disciplinary system that we can see as the forerunner of Orwellian and Foucauldian nightmares? As I have already mentioned, Agathocleous does her material justice by refusing to take sides in these political debates, setting herself instead the task of describing the ways in which Victorians came to understand the Great Exhibition as a formal attempt to give shape to their world. Some of the best material she has uncovered in her fine archival work aimed to satirize the hubris driving the Exhibition's will-to-totality. In the hands of satirists, the nobility of Albert's vision and its admirers gave way to what in hindsight we might read as anti-imperialist lampoon and witty criticism of the arrogance of the quest itself.

Besides uncovering satirical responses to the Great Exhibition, Agathocleous examines periodicals of varying duration with names like The Cosmopolitan Review, The Cosmopolitan, and Cosmopolis. Published simultaneously in London, New York, Paris, and Vienna between 1896 and 1898, Cosmopolis featured writers such as Stevenson, Turgenev, Schreiner, Conrad, Kipling, Yeats, Shaw, and Nietzsche. Though its table of contents organized articles by the nationality of each author, Agathocleous convincingly argues that "the explicit goal of many of [its] articles was to transcend cultural bias" (65). In form as well as content, these publications-- like the Exhibition itself--strove to imagine a global culture that transcends nationalism. At the same time, she notes, contributors to Cosmopolis such as Edmund Dicey demonstrated that the cosmopolitan critic could not only "set nationalism aside but also...exercise this impartiality by virtue of being liberal and English" (67). By thus moving beyond canonical works of literature into the work of largely forgotten periodical writers, Agathocleous shows how cosmopolitan ideas permeated both elite and popular culture.

Having formally examined the cultural phenomena of the Exhibition and periodical culture, Agathocleous turns in Chapter Two to literature. She uses the genre of "sketch" and "panorama" to show how oscillations between all-encompassing global visions of totality complement more local scientific scrutiny or particularities in what appears to be the golden age of cosmopolitan realism. Finely scrutinizing Wordsworth's 1850 Prelude and the fiction of Dickens, she also shows that by contrast with the writers who came just after them at the turn of the century and beyond, the writers of the later nineteenth century were much more confident in using urban London as a simulacrum of the world.

This chapter surveys a rich archive of the Victorian sketch and sketch collections found in the works of Dickens, Mayhew, Doré, and Jerrold, and in the Illustrated London News. "If realism involves the search for totality," Agathocleous writes, "it relies methodologically on the observation of parts" (71). Observing the delineation of metropolitan types, usually determined by ethnicity or occupation, she labels these reading practices the "moral-allegorical," the "transnational-comparative," and the "artistic-anthropological." Thus she shows how Victorian conceptions of totality depended upon a careful delineation of particularities, and how the sum of these particularities, placed into larger geographical and historical frameworks, constituted a London that "becomes either the world itself or a figure for global modernity" (72). Besides scrutinizing Victorian sketches, Agathocleous also considers the impact on urban audiences of the panorama, such as the one in Regent's Park (at the time of the Great Exhibition) that claimed to provide a view like what one might see from the top of St. Paul's Cathedral. Panoramas such as this, writes Agathocleous, "were a portal to the rest of the world" (89) and "perform[ed] a complementary function to modern technologies of travel and communication" (90). The sketch and the panorama, then, combine to bring under control a dizzying heterogeneity and, at the same time, give Victorians something like a global perspective.

It is this dual perspective or meeting of modes that, Agathocleous argues, structures Wordsworth's vision of an urban sublime. "A crucial element of the panorama's effect," she writes, "...is its ability to proffer both an abundance of detail and an experience of the sublime" (93). Agathocleous ingeniously argues that in Book 7 of The Prelude, it is precisely a "panorama" moment that soothes the dizzying alienation Wordsworth experiences in the city and paves "the way for the culmination of the poet's egalitarian vision of a unified humanity in the second half of the poem" (98). Indeed, Wordsworth's turn to Nature and "aesthetic wholeness" requires both the "destabilizing presence of the city" (99) and the "sublime effects" of the panorama (form and content) that enable "visions of totality and infinity" (97).

By contrast with Wordsworth's utopian vision of harmony and brotherhood, Bleak House exemplifies for Agathocleous a dystopian vision of the city. Aptly citing Mrs. Jellyby's "telescopic philanthropy," and reading Harold Skimpole--in a highly original way-- as the (highly-negative) embodiment of cosmopolitan detachment, Agathocleous argues that for Dickens, "London's global dimensions are only ever part and parcel of its problems" (110). Globalism, she claims, left Dickens cold. In a number of sub-plots that she links to the "sketch" tradition, Esther's narrative and story furnish ample evidence for Dickens's heavy investment in the domestic, the family, and the virtues of personal relations and intimacy, and they also reveal his "antipathy to the global imbrications of urban space" (110). In light of this claim, we do well to remember that Bleak House was written in the years following the Great Exhibition, which Dickens loathed. In contrast, I would argue that in his last three completed novels, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, and Our Mutual Friend, Dickens developed a much fuller and more open attitude to the "global imbrications of urban space" with transnational protagonists (Carton/ Darnay, Pip, and Rokesmith) and ideals.

Turning in Part Two of her book to the late-Victorian period and into the modernist moment, Agathocleous argues that its authors could not sustain the realist mode, could not --like their precursors-- effectively link urban realism with a global imaginary. Indeed, precisely because earlier writers generated a worldview that was simultaneously urban and global, we can see in late-Victorian writers a struggle, sometimes unsuccessful, to imagine the city as the world. "By the century's end," Agathocleous notes, "writers were more aware than ever of the city's international imbrications, but this heightened awareness of the necessarily global scale of the urban plot made the carefully delineated social vision of realist narrative… harder to reproduce" (119). One can see this most clearly in the first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. In this tale, the tensions between urban realism and imperial romance are highly evident in the bifurcated plot of the novel, which starkly contrasts an urban detective story with a tale rooted in the Utah desert. Intriguingly comparing Conan Doyle's narrative with a work of greater stylistic complexity, Henry James's The Princess Casamassima, Agathocleous shows how both authors were responding to a metropolis increasingly perplexing to its inhabitants. But whereas Doyle, via Holmes, seeks to untangle the web of urban complexity and offer a knowable community through the simplistic form of romance, James eschews such an oversimplification and "refuses the comforts of a merely artistic solution to any of the thoroughly political questions he raises" (142). In James's novel, unlike Doyle's story, the romance plot is not the solution to the complexities uncovered by realism.

Having thus defined the uncomfortable co-existence between realism and romance in Doyle and James, Agathocleous performs one of her strongest readings in a chapter that pairs William Morris and General William Booth. Examining two utopian texts, Morris' News from Nowhere and Booth's In Darkest England, she finely explains how they attempt to marry urban ethnography--one of Victorian science's exemplary discourses--with an allegorical tradition that can be traced back to religious and medieval roots. But in seeking this difficult synthesis, she argues, they expose the limits of realism. When Morris and Booth were writing, a Victorian ethnography strongly influenced by E.B. Tylor and his notion of a universal developmental trajectory was giving way to an understanding of separate cultures that emphasized their incommensurability. Thus, the moralistic emphasis of cosmopolitan realism grounded in an image of a common brotherhood contrasted sharply with a descriptive practice grounded in essential differences. As a result, the religious language of allegory in both Booth and Morris is, if not strained, at least strongly at odds with the descriptive work performed by their texts. That is to say, if the Great Exhibition and mid-century writers like Dickens had been able to successfully mediate the particular (sketch) and universal (panoramic), by the end of the century this "ambition… had reached a point of aporia" (151) signaled by the uncomfortable co-existence of allegory and ethnography. Agathocleous demonstrates this point through compelling close readings that contrast the written word with a number of graphic materials--illustration, maps, and typography-- deployed by Booth and Morris. The Kelmscott edition of Morris's News, she finds, suggestively highlights a tension between the "English narrative" and "the lingua franca of its visual aesthetics" (162).

Concluding with two works from the modernist period, Agathocleous forcefully makes her most important point: that modernist formal experimentation is a response to the failure, or perhaps one might more accurately say, breakdown, of cosmopolitan realism and of a belief in the unifying overview (of city and world) that had its greatest success in the 1850s. According to Agathocleous, Conrad and Woolf reject "nineteenth-century visual epistemologies and spatial overviews" that were important to Dickens, Wordsworth, the editors of Victorian cosmopolitan periodicals, and the organizers of the Great Exhibition. Instead of writing novels that attempt to map and shape the spatial complexity of city and world, Conrad and Woolf instead focus on the "deployment of time, as a substitute for totality" (175). The modernist novel, then, shifts from space to time: from reconciling the particular and universal in space to resolving--or aiming to resolve--the tensions between the "momentary" and the "apocalyptic" or "evolutionary" time. If the utopian impulses of Morris and Booth betrayed a strained quality in their uneasy formal tensions, Mrs. Dalloway and The Secret Agent dwell upon the "seeming impossibility of a utopian cosmopolitanism" (177). In Conrad, as many others have pointed out, this sense of alienation and loss of the utopian is experienced as despair and tragedy, while it paradoxically and simultaneously functions as a re-affirmation of those things felt strongly through their absence. Woolf, by contrast, is seen as much more affirming of modern urban existence. Mrs. Dalloway, writes Agathocleous, "suggests that the ability to form community is necessary and ethical, but that the capacity to draw apart is both of these things as well" (195). Woolf's Clarissa positively experiences her city and world "as a heightened temporal experience" (197) characterized by the flux between deep time and the moment. Given the obvious similarities between this flux and the synthesis of panorama and sketch offered by cosmopolitan realism, Agathocleous shows how the shift in authorial attention from space to time calls forth a new kind of literary form and language.

Effectively tracing the "long literary history of London-as-cosmopolis" from the 1850s through the 1920s, this book demonstrates its author's strengths as an archivist and her engagement with the growing body of scholarship on this topic. In her introduction and a brief concluding chapter, Agathocleous forcefully shows the value of taking the long view instead of artificially limiting her focus to Victorian or Modernist texts. In doing so, she convinced me of the relevance of these works for thinking about epistemological and ethical tensions between the utopian desires for global forms of community and brotherhood, grounded in the Kantian Enlightenment, and dystopian visions of global homogenization and degeneration, all of which still confront us in a postcolonial world. Rather than throwing in its lot with political epistemologies of hope or dread, this book admirably traces these deep-seated worldviews back to a Victorian moment when they came into sharp focus.

Joseph McLaughlin, Associate Professor of English at Ohio University, is the Editor for the Ohio University Press series in Victorian Studies and the author of Writing the Urban Jungle: Reading Empire in London from Doyle to Eliot (2000).


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