Metamorphosing Cities: Urban Diegesis and the Manifestation of Spatial Psychology in Literature and Film

Edward Falvey, University of Exeter

[The Rhythmanalyst] will come to ‘listen’ to a house, a street, a town,
as an audience listens to a symphony […]
He who walks down the street is immersed in the
multiplicity of noises, murmurs, rhythms.1

A city is not a homogeneous entity. Rather, it is a place characterized and shaped by those who inhabit and perceive it. The bustling melee of a metropolitan space may be aptly described as a socio-spatial arena into which all walks of life are compressed. These walks of life – often diverse and innumerable – can be labeled ‘city rhythms’ when observed in unison, a perspective adapted by Henri Lefebvre in one of his final major works, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. The quotation cited above intends to demonstrate the ways in which these rhythms represent the countless, interconnected walks of life that operate and exist within a city and within a text. In essence, rhythms are the ties that bind a metropolitan space together; they form invisible trails that reflect the mechanisms of life as they exist in the city. However, despite the musical inference of discussing ‘rhythms’, which might suggest harmony, it is the primary interest of this article to observe metropolitan disparities (a phenomenon Lefebvre has dubbed arrhythmia) in relation to literature and film. In his aforementioned text, Lefebvre declares that ‘it is only in suffering that a particular rhythm breaks apart [;] the analysis comes closer to pathology than habitual arrhythmia’.2 The sentiment of this quotation reflects an essential aspect of my argument: that literature and film can be seen as reflections of suffering, as textual instances in which normative and healthy urban experiences are compromised by a disorientated and subversive experience of the city.

Furthermore, it may be said that literature and film are also reflections of diegetic space, the constructed world that populates any given text. Narratological concerns with diegesis, space, and character date back to the earliest literary criticism developed by Plato and Aristotle. Considering Homer in ‘The Style of Poetry’, Plato states that ‘the poet is speaking in his own person; he never leads us to suppose that he is anyone else [,] but […] then he does all that he can to make us believe that the speaker is not Homer, but [the character] himself’.3 According to H. Porter Abbott, Plato argues that diegesis is the world of the story as realized by the poet until that world becomes a reality in its own right.4 Diegesis has also been dealt with by Gerard Genette as a component of narrative discourse; he considers the effect of distancing the reader from the narrative in order to fashion a specific sensation due to the regulation of narrative information or, in other words, the diegesis. Diegesis, in this sense, relates to what Russian formalists such as Eichenbaum and Sklovskij call the ‘fabula’, or the ‘story-stuff’ aspect of a novel.5 Genette continues by considering that ‘thematic relationships can, when […] perceived by the audience, exert an influence on the diegetic situation’.6 Whereas Plato imagines diegesis as a world created and imitated through literature, Genette’s discussion extends this idea to consider the ways in which that fictional world is communicated and his notion of distancing corresponds with the conceptualisation of shared space. Diegesis in literature and film, or the ways in which the narrative space is conveyed, can create contrasting depictions of urban spaces. This article will address, through a series of case studies, the ways in which the diegetic representation of a city creates a modified urban space that reflects and/or stimulates a shared psychological space.

Lefebvre’s discussions surrounding space, arrhythmia, and pathology are inextricably linked to literature and film in that both media have a subtle if regular tendency to exist in the margins of ‘real life’. With the exception of the science-fiction and fantasy genres (and even those, despite their implausible plots, work to allow for largely ridiculous premises in familiar settings), a large part of fiction’s appeal, be it on page or screen, lies in its ability to make the familiar strange and the unfamiliar instantly recognisable.7 In this sense fiction takes it upon itself to manifest textual worlds in which both the real and the unreal coexist; this process of disorientation is key to understanding how cities exist in fiction. Both literature and film take familiar people and places and distort them in order to heighten the reader/viewer’s empathetic response. So it may be said that fiction is sadistic. One does not need to look far beyond the canon to see that both literature and film make a habit of exhibiting suffering (and usually allow those characters to overcome said suffering). By placing recognisable characters in unique situations, fiction rises to fill the space between the mundane and the fantastical, a psycho-spatial wasteland shared between the viewer/reader and the characters of any given text. In light of this, cities must not be seen as mere backdrops or incidental settings so much as fully transforming and immersive characters in their own right. This metaphor intends to address the subjective and ever-changing nature of metropolitan spaces. Like most characters, cities have voices and the voice of the city exists directly inside the diegetic space of any given text.

The notion of ‘shared space’ – although in this context my own term – is, once again, drawn from Lefebvre’s text. The chapter titled ‘Seen From the Window’ expresses a belief that the city must be experienced from both inside and out, thus affirming the importance of the viewer/reader being a spectator of that cityscape. Lefebvre notes that ‘he who walks down the street […] is immersed in the multiplicity of noises, murmurs, rhythms’.8 He acknowledges that ‘in order to grasp [rhythms] it is necessary to situate oneself simultaneously inside and out [;] a balcony does the job admirably’.9 Lefebvre places an intense emphasis on marginal perspectives upon the city; this is a trait that may be usefully transferred to the study of literature and film and, furthermore, the study of cities in these media. Lefebvre’s ‘balcony’, the place from which the viewer/reader perceives a city space can be viewed analogously as a vantage point from which a city can be experienced both internally and externally. This is an idea that works alongside Genette’s previously discussed notion of ‘distancing’ wherein the separation of the reader from the text allows for an increased sensation of the space and/or information that is being communicated. However, my idea of ‘shared space’ differs slightly in that I value the reader/viewer’s capacity to be immersed in a text rather than distanced from it. In light of this, ‘shared space’ can be seen as the epicenter of a tripartite of influences: the space shared between the viewer (and/or reader), the author, and the characters who populate this textual world.

  1. Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life (London: Continuum, 1992), pp. 22-24 []
  2. Lefebvre, p. 27. []
  3. Plato, ‘The Republic’, in The Dialogues of Plato, trans. Benjamin Jowett, vol. III (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1892), p. 77. []
  4. H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 68. []
  5. Boris Eichenbaum, ‘The Formal Method’, in Literary Theory: An Anthology, eds. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), p. 12 []
  6. Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method [1972], trans. Jane E. Lewin (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980), p. 233. []
  7. It is worth noting the debt that this idea owes to Freud’s 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’. []
  8. Lefebvre, p. 28. []
  9. Lefebvre, p. 27. []

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