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 4 out of 5 by from Soul and the City A bit difficult to hear at times. The range of topics and their connections to one another is imaginative and well presented. Good course-would like Professor Weinstein to do a similar lecture focusing on American cities alone in the future. Overall, solid course!
Date published: 2019-12-22
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not as good as others by this lecturer The lecturer purports to connect cities and urban living to his selected examples of literature. Yet these connections seem less than convincing to me. Other courses by this professor are much better.
Date published: 2018-06-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Video Option Needed This is a difficult course to take as well as to review. It was difficult for me to take, as Professor Weinstein has chosen to look at city life from a perspective that was new to me (and I suspect new to a great many others). Dr. Weinstein has chosen to illustrate and comment on the city and life in it via the arts. In the main poetry (his first lecture uses Blake’s poem “London” as the basis for a point of departure in examining city life. Professor Weinstein makes the point that artists and their art can consider issues that are not immediately apparent when just considering hard facts. I find this to be an intriguing approach, but one that in execution has some problems. As an example, different artists and writers look at the same world in very different ways. Dr. Weinstein has chosen many of my favorite writers and artists to illustrate his points. Dickens, Blake, Defoe Hogarth, Goddard, Lang, Munch, Melville, Monet, Hopper and more are all used to illustrate points that they are attempting to make. Along the way Dr. Weinstein comments usefully and knowingly on their writings, paintings or films. And herein lies a problem: most of these writers and artists tend to have a similar view of the city qua city, something that Professor Weinstein acknowledges in his last lecture. Clearly other writers and artists could have been chosen who would have had different perspectives on cities and city life. But given the limitations of having only eight lectures that may not have been possible. On the very positive side, the course opened me to different way of looking at the city environment and some of the lectures were truly original and insightful. To cite just one example, lecture two uses the myth of the Minotaur to consider how city planning and space are used. The lecture jumps from Theseus and ancient Crete to the design and construction of Petersburg. Simply brilliant. I was less convinced of his use of “Alphaville” (a movie I love) used to illustrate cities reducing the population to machines. Less positively, Dr. Weinstein often refers to paintings that he is showing to his audience, often commenting on details of the work he is showing. Perhaps this is carping, as one reviewer noted that one could easily look up any of those paintings on the internet. But for me (even though I was familiar with most of his examples), I listen to audio courses during my morning walks or while driving, so that is not really an option. If TTC had offered a video version of this course, I would have no complaint had I chosen the audio version. But there is no current video option. I really missed, for example, not seeing Hopper’s “Nighthawk” when it was being discussed. While I am intrigued by the decision to present such an offbeat course, and while I enjoyed many parts of it, I cannot recommend a course using visuals that has no visual option available and must also deduct a star.
Date published: 2017-06-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Great Course About Literature I bought this course because I had just moved to a big city, and I thought this course was one of those "Better Living" courses that offers tips and advice. In my case, I was hoping to learn how one adjusts to living in a metropolis, things like how to hail a cab, how to fend off panhandlers, how to deal with a mugging, and so forth. It turns out this course is actually about literature, so while, I was surprised at first, I was really glad in the end because this has probably been one of my favorite courses so far. Thanks to this course, I have returned to reading Blake. Weinstein is a fine teacher, too. He's got a slight southern accent (I think), but his close reading and elucidation of the texts is nothing short of amazing. After listening to this course, I checked out a few of his books from the library, and they are great, too. I see that Weinstein has a few other courses available, and as soon as a get a few bucks together, I'll probably buy them all. I have one other one, which I'm listening to right now, and I'll review it later, but I've got some other things to do the dishes and the laundry, and I think the cat needs to some attention. One other thing: I listened to Lecture Three of this course while I was sitting on top of my file cabinet -- one of those tall, three-drawer jobs, and somehow I fell off. I don't blame the lectures or "The Great Courses" company, but if you listen to these courses while sitting on a tall piece of furniture, be careful!
Date published: 2016-08-14
Rated 3 out of 5 by from not for me, may be better in video Besides what I thought was sub-standard audio quality (MP4 format) this course just isn't my cup of tea. As I have said before in my review of "Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind" allusion and symbolism just don't interest me that much. This one is all about allusion and symbolism. It is not so much about art as how art relates to life in the city. I hesitated to review this course because, as evidenced from other reviews, many find this course valuable and well done. Perhaps someone out there of my ilk will find my brief observation valuable. Also this course may be better in video due to references the professor makes. It's a marginal call.
Date published: 2016-07-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Appreciate cities more I bought this because I have a disdain for city life. This course opened my mind and gave me an appreciation I did not have ...unfortunately I listened to it and would have enjoyed the video better since the lecturer showed works of art of city life. I still don't want to live in a city but when I go to one I will see what before I did not.
Date published: 2016-07-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Just a bit "late" in coming! I'd agree with many of the other reviews posted for the most part. I only wish that this was of more recent vintage... the experience of 9/11 so fundamentally affected our views that would like to have an updated reflection. As pointed out above, it is technically less adept than more recent offerings, but it did rather take me back as well, to my first TeachCo experiences ca 1999.
Date published: 2016-03-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic! This course is amazing. Professor Weinstein's easy manner engaged me instantly, and the content is very interesting. It's much more that a course about cities or a course about literature. Professor Weinstein educates and entertains at the same time by making connections between the ancient and the modern, the myths, the poems, the art, and it all weaves seamlessly into a fascinating story about the human experience. I stumbled onto this course by accident, while looking for something to listen to during my walks. And I'm so glad I found it. Hopefully, there are more courses by this professor. He's super smart, inspirational, very interesting, and presents information very well. Wonderful!!!
Date published: 2016-03-04
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