Whirlpools of Modernity: European Naturalism and the Urban Phantasmagoria
Drawing on Georg Simmel's theories of metropolitan consciousness, this chapter focuses on the representation of the experience of urban modernity in novels by Gissing, Emile Zola and Benito Perez Galdos. The chapter argues that despite their typically broadly positivist position, recording the straggle for survival within the modern city and picturing those who thrive upon and those who succumb to its influences, all three writers ultimately eschew a crudely deterministic scientific ideology in their ambivalent fascination with the phantasmagoria of urban modernity. The modern city's 'immense abundance' of products, influences and interests, Simmel argues, results in 'endless habits, endless distractions and endless superficial needs' through which the modern urban dweller becomes estranged from his most distinctive and essential being. In an account that echoes Gissing's image of the whirlpool of modernity, Simmel notes: The specialization of our times produces the rush from one impression to the other, the impatience for enjoyment, and the problematical strivings to compress together.