The following text was written for a possible commission for a similar project for the town Marseille in 1991 and summarizes insights in the phenomena of psychogeography as it slowly developed over the previous two decades. The Edo/Tokyo-Amsterdam project is a further detailing of the principles laid down in this essay.
LITERARY PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY1
a project in development
Jeffrey Shaw & Tjebbe van Tijen

Amsterdam 1991




Marking space


Space slips away like sand between fingers, carried off by time. Nothing looks any more like it was. What has remained are fragments, scratches, traces. Tokens able to keep memories alive.

The city is its own book, in which words and phrases are erased continually, pages, even whole chapters are torn out. New editions appear one after the other, with new chapters, annexes, supplements. Initially, only architecture was writing this book: "The City" 2.

Things from nature were put up just as they were found. First letters of an alphabet in the making. Stone upon stone, wood on wood, clay on clay. Stacked, nailed, brushed into words and sentences. Reading was walking. Impossible to know a city without having been there. Travellers' stories were more phantasy than reality. Which kept cities, for centuries, hidden behind veils of myths. The sole  mention of the name of an unknown city evoked fairytale, unrealistic images 3. In the Middle Ages, the religious image of the eternal holy city blots out the view of the people's own times, of their own cities.

The pen becomes stronger than the voice. Writing and copying supersedes oral tradition. The religious aura of writing fades. This monks' work done in the scriptoria of monasteries is taken over by lay people in writing shops. Reading changes too. No longer aloud but in silence, on one's own. Without a word being said or the tongue moving the meaning reaches the soul 4. A new concept of the book is born: no longer a means to spread the faith but an aim in itself.

In those days of manually multiplied books descriptions of cities were contained in songs of praize, chronicles, encyclopaedic enumerations of important buildings and itineraries for pilgrims. Next, contours of cities appear hesitatingly as backgrounds to stories written in vernacular. Characters no longer move around in mythical landscapes only but stories are set in more familiar surroundings 5. Owing to the limited numbers of copies of texts produced this scribal culture has left less traces than later ones with printing facilities.

The city creates the printing press and, with it, a new means to express itself 6. Of piles of stones, thoughts become flights of birds swarming on the winds 7. Loose printing letters free to enter into relationships with other printing letters to form words create never ending possibilities of variation. Man emancipating from his fetters acquires ways to express his individuality by the invention of the printing press and the printed book. The way is open for the birth of that free form of expression which is the novel.

Cities are not only scenes for plots of novels. The diversity in rooms, houses, streets, buildings, areas, the multiplicity of atmospheres and impressions, the simultaneity of individual lives, make cities at the same time models for the structure of novels 8. In various novels cities, from backgrounds become protagonists. People and their lives become mere decors 9.The revolutionary growth of the printing press pushes the number of writers, books and readers up. At the same time cities grow and change.

Novels relate the changes cities go through, revive what can no longer be lived. Their descriptions are often only fragments of the composite wholes cities are with their many different parts. The narrative component tries to offer a view of the whole by connecting the fragments among them. But no novel can ever present all possible visions. There are ever more separate descriptions. Cities no longer are single books but multiplicities of books. Who is able to read all of them? Cities initially purporting to be unities dissolve into multiplicities. They are like trunks of trees disappearing under their foliages.

As seasons rotate leaves wither, fall, are swept away by the winds, become compost in libraries. Conditionally existing images of time and space, scattered over innumerable book cases 10. Every book a unity consisting of a multiplicity of relatively independent parts. Pages, like wrongly addressed letters, wait for brazen readers of their contents. Quotations squirming like earthworms cut to pieces 11. Guided by passages in books describing cities readers create their own spaces. Prescriptions on how to understand novels flutter in the wind. Imposed interpretations donot hold. Every core of understanding is a shell for further interpretations. As long as cities live and grow writers and readers continue to polish their facets.
 

Let reality dream


"Literary psychogeography" is the method to bring all those scattered images within reach, it enables people to wander freely through space and time with eyes and ears / looking and listening. It examines the influence of physical surroundings on the instinctive behaviour of individuals as recorded in literature, literature being understood here in its widest sense of all written records left by a people or an era. Not only the so-called "belles lettres": "belles" by some literary standard. Novels are the main source but poetry and non-literary texts are acceptable as well. The decisive criterium is whether a text contains some "psycho-geographic element" as may occur in a quotation describing physical surroundings and their impact on the mind. A simple mention of topographical names is not enough. The description needs to contain elements which can evoke for the reader a mood produced by the physical surroundings. Also the opposite is possible, the impact of the mind on the surroundings. Certain thoughts can shake buildings on their foundations. Looks can cleave cloudy skies or bring a laugh to chilly streets. The mind's influence on the world around has no limits.

Quotations, passages  are chosen "from what is, with the partiality of despair" 12. The whole literary repertoire relating to a particular city or to a number of cities is eligible for consideration. Passages to be chosen should be as short as possible. Demarcation lines between prose and poetry fade. Loose passages taken from a multiplicity of books and other writings become interrelated and form new frameworks. They are like people returning from dispersion meeting in a country that has never existed. Expeditions, artificial landscapes created through "shrewd imitations"13 are familiar themes in literature. The ever more sophisticated uniformisation and, so, control of all that can be described as information makes the realization of a dream possible. Text, image and sound, separated for such a long time, mix without difficulty 14.

Unbelievable means are available for this expedition. An atlas of bookcases, a time ladder, a palette of spheres give access to this "atopos", this non existing city founded on the existing. Just mention a scrap of title, point to a date or colour and well trained helpful repositery assistants come rushing with the work you wanted, opening it at the spot sought. The traveller can read the text or have it read as s/he likes. At the same time treasure keepers, after an ultra-rapid selection from relevant visual material, elegantly display their portfolios. And while the traveller listens, reads, looks, sounds, texts and images mix influencing each other. Images fermentate, texts curdle, sounds change colour. Even what has never been known can be remembered and that which was known before gets a new meaning. All this the traveller can experience without strain, meeting with the unexpected thanks to this 'literature machine' 15.
 
 

Text by Tjebbe van Tijen, translated by Bas Moreel.

N O T E S

1. The word psychogeography is in use with two groups of researchers: artists and psychologists. Freud writes about it in 1901 in "The Psychopathology of Everyday Life": "A large part  (...) The concept is used in another way by the avant-garde art movements of French lettrists and situationists. It was launched in 1954 in the first issue of 'Potlatch', the French review of the international lettrists, the movement preceding the situationists, in the name of a game: "Le jeu psychogÈographique de la semaine" The psychogeographic game of the week. In a small column readers were asked to "choose an area, a more or less populated city, a more or less lively street", to build a house there, to furnish it, to equip it with what was available in the immediate surroundings, to choose time of year and day, the most appropriate people, grammophone records and fitting alcoholic beverages, to have illumination and conversations determined by outside climate and memories. The column ended with an observation and an appeal: "If no errors have slipped into your calculations your reaction should be satisfactory. (Please send the outcome to the editors.)".

This idea launched lightheartedly was worked out later, in 1955, by Guy Debord in an article in the Belgian review "Les LËvres Nues": "the realization of a situation chosen instinctively is possible only with a thorough knowledge and a careful use of a number of concrete mechanisms".

An important source of inspiration for both texts quoted was a report "Formulaire pour un urbanisme nouveau" Form for a new urbanism written in 1953 by then 19 year old lettrist Gilles Ivain (pseudonym for Ivan Chtcheglov); in a poetic language Ivain sketches the boredom of the modern city, where, it is true, one can still detect some humor and poetry in nameplates and advertising pillars, there remain signs referring to old legends, fleeting perspectives offering some original perception of space but insufficient to create new myths reflecting contemporary science and technological possibilities. In opposition to the existing "mechanical civilization and cold archictecture" Ivain proposes the invention of architecture as "new moving dÈcors", a means to express time and space, "to give shape to reality, to make it dream". An architecture ready to change partially or entirely as wanted by the inhabitants, whose main activity will be "a continuous drifting" (dÈrive continue). Resulting in "a landscape changing from hour to hour" and in a "complete loss of orientation" (dÈpaysement complet). Ivain believes that this process will come to an end, however: "Later, as a result of unavoidable loss of mobility, this drifting will partly leave the field of life for the field of the representation".

A more precise definition of the concept of psycho-geography developed too. It was published in the situationist review "Internationale situationniste": "The search for the exact laws and effects connected with the influence of geographical surroundings, whether or not arranged consciously, on the instinctive behaviour of individuals".

The adjective "psychogeographic" got the same "pleasantly vague" definition: ".. the findings resulting from this kind of research, the effects of their influence on human sentiments and, even more generally: every situation and every conduct belonging to this same exploratory spirit".

The expression "literary psychogeography" was coined by me in 1979 in the title of an essay "An attempt at a literary psychogeography of the Amsterdam's Jewish area", published as an epilogue to Harry Hoogstraten's poem "Kiekjes". Hoogstraten's poem was constructed in William Burroughs' "cut up" technique with passages from a collection of poems of the same name by the Jewish rabbi Meijer de Hond published in 1926, interwoven with free associations by the poet. In my essay I compared Meijer de Hond's description of the Jewish area with descriptions by other authors, from Multatuli till nostalgic post World War II novelists like Meijer Sluizer. I wondered whether certain descriptions are the fruit of literary talents or whether rather, in some cases, the radiance of surroundings has been such that authors could not have described them otherwise. This applies in particular to the similarities in the descriptions of the area's flee market: in spite of fifty years' distance, the descriptions by Multatuli (in "IdeeÎn", "Woutertje Pieterse"; 1876) and Meijer de Hond ("Kiekjes"; 1926) are, in some cases, almost interchangeable. The question whether certain descriptions of cities in literature have influenced their appearance, as wrote Piet Bakker in 1959 in his book "Wel en wee rond het Waterlooplein" Joy and sorrow around the Waterlooplein: "Those who have known the deceased in his full vitality and bustle, have all the time been waiting for the day when those macabre memories of what once was will have gone", or Meijer Sluizer around that same time: "Not only in the Weesperstraat (a street in the former Jewish area) grass should grow, wild grass should cover the ruins of our memories as well ..".

The final paragraphs of the essay describe literary psychogeography as a means to exercise a positive influence on one's own physical surroundings: "The city as spatial history; walking in the city as one of the most popular though for the many unconscious ways of historical research; city renovation, a process more of destruction than of  renovation, as an organized amnesia process".

History as "something which enables people to shape their future by explaining their past" shows a new possibility to use the literature featuring Amsterdam's Jewish area: "a guideline for the future lay-out of the area". A lay-out "able to call images and emotions worth remembering". Hoogstraten's poem using passages from Meijer de Hond's descriptions of former experiences and creating ever new language images by association offers "a taste of what variety and unexpected impressions are possible; possible, one would wish, () not only in fleeting language". >

2. Thoughts inspired by Victor Hugo's "Notre Dame de Paris" (1832). >

3. The name as a mnemotechnical aid. Language was not yet refined enough to describe visual impressions. Its development had not yet surpassed the presentation possibilities of its time. Italo Calvino's novel "Le cittá invisibili" is based on this fact. >

4. As writes (Church Father) Augustine (354-430) in Book IV of his "Confessiones" about Church Father Ambrosius's reading. Jorge Luis Borger also quotes this wellknown passage in his essay "On the book cult" (in "Other Inquisitions", 1937-1952). >

5. In the 14th c., e.g. in Boccaccio's "Decamerone" (1348-1353) and in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" (1387-1400). >

6. Mainz 1454, Rome 1467, Venice 1469, Budapest 1473, Brussels 1475, London 1480, Munich 1482, Lisbon 1487, Lausanne 1493, Danzig 1499, Valenciennes 1500. >

7. Victor Hugo, "Notre Dame de Paris", 1832. >

8. Cf. Volker Klotz, "Die Erzählte Stadt" (The narrated city); 1969, p.438. >

9. E.g. "Ferragus", HonorÈ de Balzac (1833); Paris; "Peterburg", Andrej Belyjs (1916): Peterburg/Leningrad; "Manhattan transfer", John Dos Passos (1925): New York; "Berlin, Alexander Platz", Alexander Döblin (1929): Berlin; "La Ciudad de los prodigios", Eduardo Mendoza (1986): Barcelona. >

10. Conditional to evade the use of the word 'virtual', defined as "conditionally existing, able to become reality or activity" (Van Dale, Dutch dictionary), or as "having the essence of effect but not the appearance of form", or again as "in effect though not in fact" (both in Collins, English dictionary). >

11. Alfred Döblin: "If a novel cannot be cut into ten pieces like an earthworm with each part moving on its own, it is no worth". Döblin, "Aufsätze zur Literatur" Essays on literature, p.21. >

12. André Breton in his novel "Nadja" (1928).>

13. As described in J.-K.Huysmans' "A Rebours" (1884). This book became an important source of inspiration for the surrealists of later days. >

14. By the digitalization of image and sound and by their interactive accessibility. >

15. A concept borrowed from a series of three essays by Italo Calvino: "The literature machine. Essays" (Italian edition 1980, English edition 1982). >