The Soul and the City: Art, Literature, and Urban Living

Course No. 484
Professor Arnold Weinstein, Ph.D.
Brown University
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Course No. 484
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Course Overview

As the great English author Samuel Johnson once said "A great city is, to be sure, the school for studying life." We spend our lives building in empty spaces. Out of nothing, we make something. We fashion jobs, relationships, structures, and meanings. Without these creations, we would live in a wasteland.

The Soul and the City: Art, Literature, and Urban Living is not a compendium of statistics on city life, a guidebook, or a historical look. This course focuses on complex artistic representations of city life from the 18th to the 20th century.

Brown University's Professor Weinstein (Ph.D., Harvard University) selects particular moments and cities to illustrate urban themes such as anonymity, orientation, and exchange. You visit St. Petersburg just before the Russian revolution, the industrial age in the novels of Charles Dickens, and the present global electronic era on the cinematic screen. Professor Weinstein serves as a literary theorist, cultural critic, and philosopher.

Portraits of humanity come through several great artists in a variety of mediums:

  • Painter Edvard Munch depicts the emptiness of urban living.
  • Poet Charles Baudelaire celebrates how crowds impact his imagination.
  • Author Daniel Defoe dramatizes the freedom the city offers people who want to change their identities.
  • Author Theodore Dreiser views the city as a huge, brutal, industrial machine that systematically grinds up individuals.
  • Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believes that the city is like the mind: a receptacle for the past, as well as for hidden lives and passions.

"We can think of the city artist as a mapmaker, subjectively representing these themes by surveying and chronicling the urban environment," states Professor Weinstein.

"But why use art as a guide to city life? Art usually supports what we learn from scientific studies of urban life. Art provides us with something social science cannot: a subjective rendering of city experience that is not quantifiable. Such a depiction includes our fears, desires, and dreams. Art serves as a record for these experiences."

Dr. Weinstein has been teaching courses on European, English, and American literature at Brown University since 1968. He has received the Younger Humanist Award from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a Fulbright Senior Lecturer Award.

He is the director of an NEH-funded program in Great Books. In 1995 he received Brown University's award as best teacher in the humanities. Brown's Student Course Evaluations, summarizing the results of end-of-year surveys, reported: "By far, students' greatest lament was that they only got to listen to Professor Weinstein once a week."

What You Will Learn: The City as Art Ultimately, The Soul and the City: Art, Literature, and Urban Living is a celebration of humanity and the rich texture of human experience.

In these eight lectures, Professor Weinstein reveals several vital themes that appear in artists' subjective renderings of urban living:

  • orientation, finding our way
  • the marketplace, exchanging goods and services
  • anonymity, experiencing solitude or freedom
  • encounters, fearing or choosing connections with others
  • history, maintaining contact with other times
  • cultures, entering the cities' ever-changing cultural forms.
Lectures 1-4: The Urban Artist of the 18th and 19th Centuries

The first four lectures focus primarily on 18th- and 19th-century city art, examining the themes of orientation, anonymity, the marketplace, and encounters. You come to understand how the urban artist orients you spatially and temporally. You investigate the secrets of urban encounters—how people fear unexpected links with others, or value their chosen connections.

In the first lecture, you consider how art creates speculative rather than quantitative accounts of city life. For instance, you see how William Blake's poem, "London," provides a rich, condensed picture of how people live in a city environment, making visible the relationships between individuals and institutions, and showing how anonymity can lead to urban freedom.

Lecture 2 explores the role of design in the domestication of city space. You learn how, in the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, the building of the labyrinth renders the tale a parable of urban design. You also come to see how the planning of Petersburg leads to the construction of a modern, European, imperial city that becomes a fertile theme in Russian literature. You examine the designs and challenges of other cities and city planners.

Lecture 3 examines the central defining feature of cities: the marketplace. As backdrop for Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders and two sequences of paintings by William Hogarth, you are presented with an historical recounting of 18th-century London as a city of increasing financial power and materialist spectacle.

Literary plot and the bonds between people in urban art are central in Lecture 4. You learn how plot in detective fiction relies on fitting clues into a pattern so that the environment becomes readable, and how the unexpected links between people are made explicit. You also learn through works by Dickens, Balzac, and others how the city can be a place where even the poor and the rich are related, and where blood ties can be replaced by a newly created family.

Lectures 5-8: The Urban Artist of the 19th and 20th Centuries

The final four lectures focus primarily on 19th- and 20th-century urban art, investigating the themes of history, the marketplace, and cultures. You examine the frightening possibility of entire cities being annihilated, and the role that understanding one's life can play in the saving of a city. You explore the idea of the city as a container of histories and the importance of the machine in the marketplace of the industrialized city.

Lecture 5 focuses of the substratum of terror that stalks human life in the city, especially as it relates to the decimation of urban existence in the form of the plague. You learn not only about the Black Plague, but also how plague has been used by urban artists as an allegory for other forms of city apocalypse, such as the German occupation. You come to see nuclear annihilation as another kind of urban apocalypse.

In Lecture 6, you consider how the city is a container of history that can enlarge our sense of ourselves through contact with ideas and cultures beyond our own. This living chain of cultural memory stored in the city is infinitely more complex than the intricate circuitry of the electronic machines we use for work, especially when we consider art's simultaneous representation of different ages of the city.

In Lecture 7, you see how artists both criticize and celebrate machines and the industrialized city. While artists like Monet and Leger see in the advent of the machine a mode of extraordinary elegance, beauty and power unmatched in history, others see a world where work has become so specialized and automated that people are reduced to machines. We explore how the stimuli of the industrialized city can overwhelm and capsize us but also lead to kinship with the homeless, the outcasts, and the dehumanized.

In Lecture 8, you conclude by considering how the life and soul of the city has changed from commercial, to industrial, to corporate. You discuss Marshall McLuhan's postulation that artistic media must be understood as an extension of the human nervous system, and receive a final affirmation of the city as sumptuous container of nutrients, sounds, sights, and experiences.

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8 lectures
 |  Average 45 minutes each
  • 1
    The City as Container, the Artist as Mapmaker
    Using William Blake's poem "London" (1793) as an illuminating centerpiece, Dr. Weinstein outlines the fundamentals of city life—anonymity, encounter, exchange, orientation—and goes on to show how works of art—often considered "soft" by social scientists—provide a unique map of these elements, showing us what we cannot see with our own eyes. x
  • 2
    Lost in Space
    Arguing that space is the basic medium of the City, Professor Arnold Weinstein discusses key issues of Design and Order, understood in terms of city planning, social philosophy and ancient myths. Of special interest is the potential arrogance of city building, especially those examples of "grand design" foisted on Nature, such as St. Petersburg and Washington. x
  • 3
    The Marketplace
    Dr. Weinstein focuses on the living conditions of 18th-century London, as represented in the fiction of Defoe and the paintings of Hogarth, in order to guage the unprecedented freedoms, constraints and ethical challenges made possible by the new mercantile urban order. x
  • 4
    The Family Plot, or Municipal Bonds
    Plot entails connection, the linking together of discrete elements into a causal pattern. This elemental dynamic is at the heart of much fiction, and it is particularly at home in city art. 19th-century artists and writers, attuned to the crisis in "family values" produced by early capitalism, wrestle incessantly with the unmaking and making of the family in the city. x
  • 5
    Urban Apocalypse
    Going back to the Old Testament and Boccaccio and forward to Camus and Bergman, Dr. Weinstein sketches out the ramifications of the Destroyed City, with special attention to the role of plague and its modern equivalent, nuclear war. Against this backdrop of destruction and disappearance, the saving graces of memory, language and art appear. x
  • 6
    Transmission and Storage
    This lecture articulates the master plot of the entire series: the city as the place where the flow of history, culture and information is passed on—living—to human beings. Cities are not only repositories of history, they are the locus of a vital chain of being, and they make available to their inhabitants something of the rich store of the past. x
  • 7
    The Industrialized City and the Machine Vision
    Very often the city engages artists and writers because of its energy, vitality and technological power. Yet, the human corollary of such an urban scheme is frequently anomie, alienation and anonymity. Art offers us a privileged optic on this drama; drawing on Leger and Lang, Melville and Rilke, Munch and Hopper. x
  • 8
    A Movable Feast
    This lecture challenges the argument that the electronic revolution has rendered the city obsolete; as information now moves over the wires, the notion of a place for exchange may no longer be viable. The response to such claims comes from the physical character of our life-in-the-city: we experience buildings, streets, museums, restaurants, theater and, above all, people in rich unmediated ways that no computer can rival. x

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 37-page digital course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
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Your professor

Arnold Weinstein

About Your Professor

Arnold Weinstein, Ph.D.
Brown University
Dr. Arnold Weinstein is the Edna and Richard Salomon Distinguished Professor at Brown University, where he has been teaching for over 35 years. He earned his undergraduate degree in Romance Languages from Princeton University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University. Among his many academic honors, research grants, and fellowships is the Younger Humanist Award from the National Endowment for...
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The Soul and the City: Art, Literature, and Urban Living is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 24.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Gem I didn't know how much I didn't know - and that's the fun part. The lessons were enriching and made me want to learn even more. I would recommend this course to anyone who wants to learn more about history, art and literature.
Date published: 2016-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prof Weinstein is the best. I have purchased each of Prof. Weinstein's courses and never been disappointed. This is no exception. His presentation is thoughtful and interesting and frankly very original. Please ask him to do another, soon.
Date published: 2016-01-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I Never Thought I'd Buy Literature Courses I'm a science and history guy. Ok, music too. But art and literature? No way. Then this course happened. It was a great price and no shipping since it was a download so I figured what the heck. As a result of this course, I have been completely turned on to the literature courses offered by The Great Courses. Why? Several reasons: 1. Although I've known since high school English classes about the relationship between the arts and civilization, this course made it really clear. I regularly found myself amazed at the connections. Was I ignorant? Perhaps. But not any more. 2. This course illustrated that a good professor can convey the quality, meaning, and importance of a piece of literature or a work of art in a single lecture. 3. This course made me want to learn more about other works of art and literature. While I admit that some of the discussions were a bit out of my depth, I enjoyed the lectures nevertheless and am disappointed that there were only 8 lectures. This course gets 5 starts because it turned me on to an area of study I never thought I would like.
Date published: 2015-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Buried Treasure AUDIO DOWNLOAD I learned a lot from this course, not only adding depth to my knowledge of a great number of works of art, but also gaining information about cities which I had not been aware of or had failed to appreciate before. This course is like buried treasure. And it is available at a bargain price! So impressed with Professor Weinstein’s other TC courses, I took a chance on this really early one, from 1991. I am glad I did. This short course (eight lectures, averaging forty-five minutes) does well in holding one’s attention from beginning to end. Though Professor Weinstein has much to say on a surprising number of novels, short stories, and poems, he also makes many references in his lectures to slides being shown of paintings, buildings, and other visual art. His descriptions of these in the audio version, the only format now available, are exceptionally good. I did supplement the lectures, however, with visits to Wikipedia and other internet sites to view works by William Hogarth, Claude Monet, and others referred to by Professor Weinstein. More difficult for many might be viewing the older films mentioned. Here again, though, Professor Weinstein does a great job in description. Professor Weinstein says it best about the importance of art to the city and the course’s structure and scope: “Art represents the city in ways that go beyond quantifiable measures, serving as a record of subjective experience and providing a rich picture of how we live in an environment. Several vital themes appear in artists’ subjective renderings of urban living: orientation, finding our way; the marketplace, exchanging goods and services; anonymity, experiencing solitude or freedom; encounters, fearing or choosing connections with others; history, maintaining contact with other times; and cultures, entering the cities’ ever-changing cultural forms. City art incessantly draws the map on which we live, showing us that coordinates in time and space are larger than we might think, and helps us to a richer, fuller picture of ourselves...The series concludes with an examination of how urban culture has changed, from commercial, to industrial, to corporate, and a final affirmation of the city as sumptuous container of nutrients, sounds, sights, and experiences” (Course Guidebook, Page 1). Among the many high points in this course for me are Professor Weinstein’s treatment of William Blake’s poem ‘London’, providing excellent background on 18th century London; interpretation of Charles Baudelaire’s poem, ‘The Swan’, showing how it can best be understood within the context of Napoleon III’s mid-19th century Parisian urban renewal project; the comparing and contrasting of Dickens’ and Balzac’s approaches to the city in their novels; explanation of how well Hogarth’s work captures and comments on 18th century London; and description of Jean-Luc Godard’s futuristic film ‘Alphaville’, with the message that “…the city dies by forgetting… stag[ing] a choice between electronic retrieval versus human recall” [Page20]. There are many more artists, several cities, and a great number of works dealt with or referred to in these fine lectures. Though the course focuses on the 18th through the 20th centuries, Professor Weinstein occasionally reaches further back in making connections, even, several times, to Sophocles’ Oedipus (notably, for example, in discussing Roman Polanski’s film ‘Chinatown’). Though well-constructed and delivered, the lectures are best described as high-level ruminations and speculations. At one point Professor Weinstein even refers to his comments as “meditations,” into which he weaves quite interesting and pertinent personal experiences. This lends an easygoing informality to the lectures, making them even more appealing. Though in the last lecture Professor Weinstein offers an off-hand apology for having dwelt so much on the “negative” regarding city life, I think his choices are just about right. In any event, he ends the course with very positive comments on the future of the city, noting that (as of 1991) many consider it declining in importance, being done-in not least by the “electronic revolution.” Not so, he asserts: “We can still find value in the city, though, because it is the most promising spacio-cultural arrangement that humans have yet devised, and like art, it is potentially a feast that nourishes” (Page 25). Considering the age of this course, many of Professor Weinstein’s expressed concerns about contemporary city life, such as the negative impact of Walkman devices, seem quaint, but many others are still relevant. I am especially impressed not only by his use of such classic texts on the city as those by Lewis Mumford (who crops up quite frequently in the lectures and provides important historical/analytical framework) and Jane Jacobs, and, most engagingly, Marshall McLuhan on media, but also how well those classics (considered so even in 1991!) stand up today. Most likely, Professor Weinstein would have a different take on city life in 2014 (how about those smart phones?), but I do not think it would be so far off from what he presents here. I highly recommend this course!
Date published: 2014-02-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from
Date published: 2014-01-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Sparkles from The Wheel Near the beginning of this course, Professor Weinstein refers to a poem by Walt Whitman, "Sparkles from the Wheel," in describing some of the unexpected joys of being in the city. In the poem, the poet joins a group of children, marveling at the sight of a knife-grinder at work at his wheel, and living in and relishing the whole scene - the experience with others of "the light-press'd blade, diffusing, dropping, sideways-darting, in tiny showers of gold, sparkles from the wheel." I must say that the poet's feeling there - the sudden golden glow in an unexpected place with unexpected fellows - feels akin to mine in the experience of this utterly sparkling course on the city. First, aesthetically, the course is brilliant and beautiful. Weinstein does what I wish other professors would do more often. He picks a topic of keen interest - here, the soul and the city - and then weaves together insights from a wide spectrum of the arts in literature, painting, film, philosophy, and other work of the intellect to support his own fine and artful picture of the subject and its importance in our lives. Weinstein begins in the early lectures with a focus on 18th and 19th century art to provide orientation as well a sense of the main urban themes of anonymity, encounter with others, exchange of goods, culture, and history. We see the urban artist as a mapmaker, in part, as a guide to help us understand the design and use of space in the city. Weinstein does exceptional work here in bringing the wisdom of relevant and significant ancient literature as well as urban design to bear in his teaching. Toward the middle of the course, the key theme of the city as an extraordinary place where bonds between people are forged is fully developed. Weinstein shows both the beautiful and the ugly dimensions of the connective tissue in cities. We have the image from Whitman and the paintings of Monet and Leger to show wonder and beauty in the city. But then we get images of plague and poverty and perdition in Dickens, Poe, and Brecht, among others, and the paintings of Hogarth and Toulousse-Lautrec. There's so much more remarkable work the professor has done in the course, but the other element I want to commend is his conclusion. After all the history and all the accounts of art in the city, most of which create quite a picture of decay and downside in the city, the professor concludes on a credible, hopeful note. The city is a feast, he teaches; it sustains and nourishes. For all its ugliness and all the reasons to give up on it, Weinstein inspiringly shows how there's no better substitute for providing needed human encounter than what we find in the city. "The city," he concludes, "has a plenitude, an immediacy, a dimensionality, and excitement that no transcription of it can have." Bravo, Professor Weinstein! You have spun out "tiny showers of gold, sparkles from the wheel" in your teaching here.
Date published: 2013-12-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Classic 'Oldie But Goodie' I never took a Weinstein course I didn’t like. This course, recorded over 20 years ago, is startlingly different from TTC’s modern, crisp, high-tech offerings. You hear people in the audience coughing. Papers are rustled. Actually, I really liked the ‘oldness’ of this course. It took me back to my college days in the 60’s. Real classrooms, real ‘live’ lectures––cool! Yes, the professor presents slides we can’t see, and I wish the artwork he analyzes were in the guidebook. But a few keystrokes using google, and you have almost any art you want (including Hogarth’s amazing ‘Harlot’s Progress’). The professor laments that the politically correct crowd is ‘not a friend of artists,’ but he’s also reticent about pursuing this topic because of his own political correctness. I wish he had gone deeper into this topic. While these lectures were offered before iPhones, DVR’s and google maps, it does not seriously affect Weinstein’s masterful metaphors, big ideas, and subtle but super creativity. The city is more than ‘place,’ of course, and we might be losing some of its humanizing function as we go about plugged into our iPods (or an obsolete Walkman) ignoring each other. I found myself taking more than a few notes as I listened. We just can’t see ‘clear,’ Weinstein argues. We’re in a heavy fog. But with Weinstein’s tools for seeing, we’re in good hands, as usual. Only Weinstein could posit that we are moving ‘from being to having to appearing.’ I love this of stuff. You just might love it too.
Date published: 2012-12-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting Insights Having lived in and visited many cities, I appreciated the professor's selection of literature and art related to the city life. This subject is very large and the professor narrowed it down to significant creative works that explain life in the city. I started to listen to the course about a year ago and then put it aside. I tried again and it was very engaging. There is a lot to think about when participating in this course.
Date published: 2011-09-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting! This course deals with how art celebrates the city. A very broad view is taken and works discussed include novels, paintings, films and poetry. Authors quoted range from Daniel Defoe to Ernest Hemingway and the scope is international, including not only US cities but also London and Paris. Though issued in 1991, the course is still largely relevant and some of the ideas brought forward now appear prophetic. Potential buyers should be aware that the video version would definitely be preferable as paintings shown on ‘slides’ are discussed.
Date published: 2010-12-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Ah-ha theory in action... You can't go wrong with any course by Professor Weinstein. Thought provoking and a lot of "ah-ha's" when he puts things together that I just hadn't thought about before. I highly recommend this course and love the audio version as I can sew and learn at the same time.
Date published: 2009-04-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Best Teaching Company Purchase Ever! I have purchased many excellent courses from the Teaching Company, but this is the only course I come back to at least once a year. Each time, I am reeled in by a different hook, by something else that I would like to pursue further. Professor Weinstein is always superb, but in this course he is also a genius at making compelling connections between art and city life. This course will have you thinking long after you have left the car and started your day.
Date published: 2009-03-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from It would have been better if this course were in DVD format, as the professor refers to (and seems to be using) pictures of paintings in the lecture.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I will be 85 in May.these courses keep my brain active. I love learning and can listen to courses every day.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I found this course gave me an idea of how living in a city can, without the people knowing it, teach them to live together.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have become "hooked" on Teaching Company tapes, videos, & CD's. They enrich my life!
Date published: 2008-10-17
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