- Buried Pleasure: Doctor Dolittle, Walter Benjamin, and the Nineteenth-Century Child
“Imagination,” asserted the journalist John Hollingshead in Dickens’s weekly All the Year Round in 1861, “loves to run wild about underground London, or the sub-ways of any great city.”1 Seldom, however, have imaginings about the subterranean nineteenth century been unequivocally pleasurable in substance. When praising the order and cleanliness of the modern technology that provided water, drainage, gas, telegraph, transportation, and electricity to the metropolis, scientific discourse never fails to reveal a concomitant concern over the consequences of a failure of technology to fulfill its promise: disorder, accident, death. Nor, for that matter, can one quite bring oneself to describe the scientistic discourse of progress as more than an extremely attenuated form of pleasure. In contrast, there is certainly pleasure and desire at stake in the nineteenth-century fascination with poverty, crime, sex, drugs, and other attributes of the human underbelly of the modern city. Nevertheless, journalistic and literary discourses never fail to displace that desire by measuring the cost of excessive dabbling in the urban underworld. Like the Hays Code that mandated the punishment of any deviant behavior before the closing credits of mid-century Hollywood films, codes of nineteenth-century visual and verbal representation ensured that very seldom indeed would any alternative space or behavior in the city receive a wholly positive representation.
This should strike us as an unusual state of affairs, for the topics located underground during the nineteenth century—utopian hope in progress and the improvement of the city and desire for individual pleasure—are fundamental sources of happiness. [End Page 857] In political terms, this situation is perfectly comprehensible: however technocratic it may appear, subterranean infrastructure promised to resolve the pressing problems of sanitation and circulation that arose from the population explosion in nineteenth-century cities such as London and Paris, while progressive authorities and radical activists were appalled by the conditions of the urban poor and exploitative structures within the criminal and sexual underworlds that were most effectively represented as infernal. Consequently, both discourses presented themselves as pragmatic, rationalistic, and sober responses to grave problems of the modern city, with no place for excess of any kind. But excess has long been a characteristic attributed to the underground, as subterranean space has accreted to itself associations both with hell and with paradise, with imprisonment and with shelter, with punishment and with pleasure. What occurs in the dominant framework described above is that pleasure and desire cease to be articulated directly as such, and representations of underground space become split between a technological utopianism and a social miserabilism. The nature of the split manages to excise key and imaginatively powerful elements of the conventional associations of the underground: to wit, the happiness to be derived from the pursuit of individual desire and of social action. The mythic conventions that had located the Elysian Fields within the Roman underworld or romance and adventure within the Celtic otherworld were transformed into the anodyne and universal pleasure of an efficient drainage system and a congestion-free transit system. The individualistic pleasures of the mythic underground manifested themselves only in the highly displaced form of transgressively animal desires, invariably base, selfish, and self-conflictive, and invariably punished severely, either through legal strictures or through narrative conventions. These twinned threads of underground discourse continued to dominate urban writing through the twentieth century: by and large, scientific discourse would focus on the development of infrastructure in terms of technological progress while the humanities and the social sciences would plumb the depths of the “infernal wen,” “the city of dreadful night,” and the many other faces of the infernal metropolis.
Neither of these dominant discourses is precisely wrong, however; what I want to argue is that the specific constraints of their spatial representations militate against uncovering and articulating alternative spatial practices and possibilities buried within them in the same way that certain medieval crypts incorporate within their Christian depths the material traces of earlier, less orthodoxly religious structures. The conceptual spaces of the nineteenth century may not have found a visible place for them, but these buried pleasures nevertheless do begin to take...