- Architecture and Modern Literature
David Spurr’s new monograph, which argues for the centrality of “literature’s encounter with the built environment” in the emergence of modernity (ix), is a wide-ranging and intellectually ambitious contribution to an emerging field of scholarship. His rather brief definition of the widely—and variously—used term “modernity” has obvious consequences for his approach and object of study, and it is predicated on the notion that the early nineteenth century witnessed urban industrial change on a hitherto unprecedented scale, which “[threw] into disarray whatever harmony may have existed among the arts” (3). He goes on to argue that these conditions produced a crisis of meaning for literature and architecture, leading to two very different expressions of modernist aesthetics. In his introduction, Spurr outlines an impressive grasp of architectural theory and traces the analogies between literary and architectural form in the European philosophical tradition; he examines the evolution of the concepts of “dwelling” and “home” from their “foundational myths” of Babel and the Odyssey (6), and he outlines the key concepts that structure his subsequent readings: namely, ruins, the fragment, interiors, the body, materials, and forms. While these themes are not new, Spurr’s detailed analysis of the interaction between literary and architectural works in the production of their meaning leads to some innovative readings.
The subsequent chapters are case studies of key texts and historical moments. ”An End to Dwelling” explores the revisioning of this concept in works by Dickens, Proust, Woolf, and Beckett. The analysis of Bleak House uses the work of Walter Benjamin to demonstrate how Dickens subverts the ”bourgeois Victorian aesthetic that he appears to celebrate” (57), and it is an excellent example of how architectural theory can invigorate critical readings of home and space in Victorian fiction. The argument that Endgame embodies both the nihilism and resistance to nihilism of some modern architects is convincing for its attention to Beckett’s use of theatrical space in addition to its attention to the text. The reading of Mrs. Dalloway, however, adds little to the current body of work on thresholds, gender, and the city in Woolf’s writings. In general, there is a striking lack of reference to the recent scholarship on literature and architecture, a point to which I will return.
The chapters “Demonic Spaces” and “Allegories of the Gothic in the Long Nineteenth Century” both focus more explicitly on the question of memory. The first of these chapters explores the “demonic unconscious” that underlies “enlightened” modernity in works by Sade, Dickens, and Kafka. Much of the discussion here, which focuses on the ethical function of architecture and the ways in which this function is violated in these texts, could usefully inform readings of gothic fiction. The specific focus on the church tower in The Castle—“firm in its architectural and spiritual definition[,] . . . [it] gives meaning to the everyday muddle of life’ (91)— masterfully invokes a peripheral symbol, subjects it to intense architectural scrutiny, and in so doing finds new meanings in literary language. The subsequent chapter examines the responses of Goethe, Wordsworth, and Ruskin (as well as, briefly, James, Pater, and Adams) to the gothic cathedral, analyzing how their attribution of meaning to the gothic reveals their proposed solutions to modern crises of meaning. It might have been useful, though, to consider more deeply how the conventions of literary genre—the essay, travel writing, poetry—were modifying these writers’ responses, which seem to be read as “authentic.”
The following chapter, “Ruin and Restoration,” probes the modern function of gothic architecture more deeply by comparing Ruskin’s “nostalgic,” Christian response with Viollet-le-Duc’s “practice of restoring buildings from a priori principles rather than historical evidence” and [End Page 815] thereby making the cathedral into a secular and aesthetic object (150). Spurr proposes that “the opposition between an aesthetics of architectural ruin and restoration” can be compared to the nineteenth-century opposition between allegory and symbol (143), invoking the work of Walter Benjamin and Paul de Man and the literary and architectural symbol...