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  • Metropolis on the Styx: The Underworld of Modern Urban Culture, 1800-2001
  • Deborah Epstein Nord (bio)
Metropolis on the Styx: The Underworld of Modern Urban Culture, 1800-2001 by David L. Pike; pp. 377. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2007. $27.95 cloth.

David Pike has been drawn to the subject of underworlds from the start of his scholarly career. His first book, Passage Through Hell (1997), considered the underworld as a modernist trope with origins in medieval imagery and myth, and his second, Subterranean Cities: The World beneath Paris and London, 1800-1945 (2005), began an exploration of the real and metaphoric underground spaces of the modern city that continues in the book under review here. Pike is a literary scholar and prodigious researcher who brings a background in both comparative literature and film studies to bear on an extremely wide-ranging investigation of Paris and London over a period of some two hundred years. In these last two [End Page 271] books—companion volumes of a sort—he virtually reshapes the way we think about the nineteenth- and twentieth-century city, making it no longer possible to conceive of modern urban space as anything but vertical: not a broad, horizontal panorama but an above- and below-ground space of sewers, viaducts, tunnels, bridges, arches, towers, bird's-eye views, the metro, and the tube.

Metropolis on the Styx remains, for the most part, underground. It is more focused on imagery than Subterranean Cities, as well as on the imaginative and theoretical frameworks that below-ground sites have inspired. Pike suggests in his first chapter that many theorists of modern life depended or drew upon the experiences and symbolism of urban spaces, especially, though not exclusively, subterranean ones. In the cases of Walter Benjamin and Lewis Mumford, for example, this seems obvious, though well worth remembering. But for others, like Freud, Bakhtin, and Henri Lefebvre, it is less so, and Pike invites us to think about Freud's "topographical model of the individual and society based on a new form of underground, the unconscious"; Bakhtin's "vertical division of the [Christian] body"; and Lefebvre's notions of "abstract space" (10-11, 58). In this period, "underground" became a social, psychological, and political category, and it did so, Pike argues, in relation to the experience of urban space. The relationships between high and low, heaven and hell, aerial and subterranean fed into a dialectical vision of modern life, with Blake seeing progression only through contraries and Hegel and Marx following not too far behind.

Whether we can say with certainty that modern dialectics and theories of stratification in general are always linked to the vertical city is unlikely, but it is worth considering that, sometime in the nineteenth century, the city, with its above- and below-ground spaces, became the secular version of heaven and hell in modern consciousness and thus helped theorists to conceptualize a variety of systems of ethics, philosophy, and psychology. In Pike's second chapter, "The Devil Comes to Town," he focuses on the satanic vision of the city. His secular London devils include Robert Louis Stevenson's Mr. Hyde and Bram Stoker's Dracula, and his secular hells the world of child prostitution uncovered by W.T. Stead in his muckraking "Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon," George Gissing's "netherworld," Arthur Morrison's Jago, and Jack London's abyss (the number of late nineteenth-century book and chapter titles that feature the word "abyss" in reference to London is startling). In his sweep of centuries, Pike flashes to urban hells of the recent pop-culture past, with Polanski's Rosemary's Baby as a vision of New York's Upper West Side as fertile ground for Satan and the Rolling Stones' "Paint it Black" and "Sympathy for the Devil" as evocations of 1960s London as underworld.

From satanic abyss, Metropolis on the Styx moves to the realm of mystery and to the genres that the urban underworld created over decades. Popular fiction in both England and France reflected the association between the city and hidden mysteries of all kinds—criminal, psychological, social—in scores of volumes, most published between 1840 and 1870. Eugene Sue's...


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