On an October afternoon in 1895, a speeding train arriving at the Montparnasse terminal in Paris famously failed to stop; it crashed through the station wall, shattering glass and stone, diving nose-first into the street below. In the photograph by L. Mercier selected for the cover of Laura Marcus’s book, two workers stand at the final point of impact, staring at the ground, their postures expressing bemusement. The train itself dangles ludicrously and terrifyingly from above, as though a barrier between nightmare and reality had suddenly been breached by this mechanical beast. There are no traces in the photograph of the body that had been crushed to death by falling masonry: this one casualty was a woman who—as is so often the case with tragedies—happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. According to Marcus, this accident is connected, both through “affect as well as temporal coincidence,” with another, more notorious, event (3). Not long after the derailment, a crowd gathered in Paris to watch one of cinema’s first films, which documented a train arriving at La Ciotat station. The audience members, as cinema lore has it, screamed and ran away, panicked that the train would hit them. Perhaps those watching had the recent derailment fresh in their memories as their minds struggled to grasp this new technology of moving images.
What seems preposterous to us now (the notion that a train could breach the gap between screen and reality) seemed understandable some decades later, when Virginia Woolf, in her essay “The Cinema” (1926), explained how the minds of film viewers must be roused from somnolence to help the eyes make sense of what they are seeing. Audiences must come to terms with the fact that “[t]he horse” (or the train) “will not knock us down. The King will not grasp our hands. The wave will not wet our feet.” Indeed, we “are beholding a world which has gone beneath the waves.”1 As viewers, we must recognize the pastness of that which is unfolding in the present. This conjunction of the past and present is also revealed to us, at times tyrannically, through the workings of the unconscious, which, as Marcus also points out, was “discovered” by Freud only a few months before the Montparnasse accident. Railways, cinema, and psychoanalysis are phenomena that quite startlingly converge in the year 1895 (or thereabouts—there is some debate over the date of the first screening of the Lumière brothers’ film). They can be seen as sharing interlocking histories and overlapping concerns, including dreams, shock, projection, and fantasy.
Dreams of Modernity, a collection of twelve essays that have each been published elsewhere, either in full or in part, illuminates such convergences, exploring various “[a]ffinities and cross-currents,” interrelations and continuities, between the years 1880 and 1930 (7). The “new conjunctions” that Marcus explores during this period of transition are fresh and at times electrifying (102).
The word “synapse” means a “conjunction,” and is rooted in the Greek words for “together” and “to fasten.” One can imagine, or indeed, almost feel synapses firing as Marcus reveals unexpected and “complex interrelations” between various phenomena of the period, and as she deliberately [End Page 916] bridges the prevailing critical divide between approaches that focus either on cultural modernity or literary modernism (8). A quick glance at the table of contents is enough to convey the satisfying range of topics covered in this work: from a chapter on The Lodger and narratives about Jack the Ripper to one on psychoanalysis and railways, titled “Oedipus Express”; from modernity’s “visual displays” to “city symphonies” of the 1920s and 30s; from the gendered and erotic aspects of reverie to studies of directed dreaming as they relate to Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage; from the genre of “new biography” to the multiple iterations of Virginia Woolf’s “telescope story.” As a collection of essays, Dreams of Modernity is able to take a far more eclectic approach than most monographs might dare...