The city. A chaotic place for individuals, where the individuals lose their individuality in the expansion of their egos. It’s a place whose description often displays paradoxes and conflicting representations. As back as 1895, Belgian poet Emile Verhaeren published his poem collection “Les villes tentaculaires“, literally “The Tentacular Cities“. Yes, the city. Because it was beginning to have such a strong impact on human life, and its tentacles were giant monsters of iron and cement built by men to please men, like a trap nobody was really trying to escape from. Where does the feeling of having to deal with a monster come from? Well, cities often exaggerate vices and virtues of people, which in turn forces the inhabitants of a city to come face to face with their passions, but also their fears. When we speak of ‘stress‘ every time we go to a big city (or if you live in one, you might understand this better), it’s because people deliberately chose to enjoy each other’s company but forgot they also have to bear each other’s faults.
We know how homes tell a lot about their owners, so in big cities skyscrapers are the concrete embodiment of what a city stands for. It’s the super ego of people, a proud result of their efforts, but also a haunting and daunting complex.
In its first conception as ‘modern city‘, so many joined forces to live in the same area, mainly and initially just for work, forming groups and communities of people with less connections than those paradoxically deeper one would have maintained in the countryside with people they had known their whole life. Industrialisation created what we have today. On the subject of cities as a reflection of human vices and virtues, was Verhaeren right when he compared cities to monsters? Is this how we perceive cities today?
German sociologist Georg Simmel would, a few years later, publish an essay titled “Die Großstadt und das Geistesleben“, “The Metropolis And Mental Life“, originally lectures which were intended to explain what intellectuals could give the city, but ended up posing the question of what the city gives to intellectuals. I can’t help wondering, if the question was starting to reverse even back then, at its initial developments, how do we fare in such contemporary complexity? The city is created with a purpose, it has very specific functions and therefore everything that comes with it tends to take on traits of functionality. Think prepacked food for those returning home late from work, cash machines and personal services in every corner, café full of people who type at their laptops. Without a doubt, the city was founded with the purpose of satisfying the needs of the individual, and it’s no wonder it became such a symbolic ideal for the modernist movement, always so attentive to the needs of the human subject.
What a forerunner to Modernism Verhaeren was. His depiction of life in the city and symbolic places like squares and statues came a few years before Joyce’s “Dubliners” or Woolf’s “Kew Gardens” on the other side of the English Channel.
Another heavy element haunting the reader from beginning to end of the Belgian poet’s collection is the abandonment of the countryside in favour of cities, and the place of origin, where things had always grown and evolved was being abandoned for the bright lights of cities. From the perspective of a countryside lifestyle, the city is all smoke and mirrors and cannot wait to grab its victims with its tentacles, stealing man power away from the fields. Even Verhaeren saw things in such perspective, ending up exploring the theme of city only after writing and publishing “Les campagnes hallucinées” (“The Hallucinated Countryside“), where he presents us with a picture of what the human kind has left behind in order to pursue the dream of a urban life. Was it all worth it? more than a century later, we seem not to have found an exhaustive answer.
The picture is a detailed and elaborated version of George Grosz’s Metropolis (Grossstadt). 1917