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
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  • 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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