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
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
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
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
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",
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",
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):
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
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"
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). >