And moreover, Barth summarizes Sennett's book as a discussion of how "eighteenth and nineteenth-century Paris and London" reflected an "erosion of public life through an analysis of middle-class behavior in the theater and on the street."
And Barth adds that Sennett's work "...lacks the terse logic of comparative history," and "makes many excursions into fleeting aspects of culture, yet in its discussion of the theater misses the rise of vaudeville house and music hall as the nursery of a new urban audience." Yes, Barth concludes, Sennett is correct that "public and private behavior changed between the three decades," but instead of documenting those public and private changes, Barth continues, Sennett calls upon (in Sennett's words) "...the expectations of a sophisticated, intelligent general reader."
And if that reader discovers (continuing with Sennett's words as quoted in Barth's essay) "a reasonable analysis of how a malady of modern society has come about, the book has succeeded; if after finishing the book, he thinks of an alternative logic for explaining this distress, so much the better," Sennett offers on page 43. Still, Barth says "the prose is bad" and is "burdened with jargon" while sentences "stagger under the weight of subordinate clauses laden with abstractions."
The legacy of Western values over the past two centuries - as portrayed by Sennett - is that they have evolved "in a wholly disastrous way, from a public to a private center, from impersonality to intimacy, from performance to self-revelation, and from engagement into withdrawal from urban life," according to Marshall Berman writing in The Nation (Berman 118). When people began to "get serious about their inner lives" and "devalue the art of public performance," Berman writes, they began to pursue "emotional 'authenticity'" and apparently "lost all interest in public life."
The passion of urbanites, Berman believes Sennett to be saying - though Sennett doesn't say precisely when this occurred - became one of "hermetic self-absorption (alias 'narcissism'); they withdrew from the urban forum into a walled intimacy of ghettos and suburbs."
And yet, Berman is convinced that while Sennett champions the "emotional satisfaction" and "balance between private and public life" that urban people in the 18th Century supposedly enjoyed, Sennett lacks knowledge of "the content of 18th Century drama." Indeed, though Sennett apparently is educated about the "forms" of city society, how does Sennett know that the "forms" of city life in the 18th Century "didn't make people unbalanced and miserable?" Berman asks in The Nation (Berman 119). Samuel Richardson and Rousseau, who were cultural giants of the 1750s (Sennett's golden decade), had as a common theme in their writings "...the frightful disparity between current social conventions and the depths of the human heart."
Taking Rousseau's writing a bit further (since Sennett admires the French philosopher so much and made much of him in the book), Berman points out that when Rousseau actually "attacked the Parisian theatre (which Sennett equates with the Athenian one), what he [Rousseau] was really attacking was Play." What Rousseau "really wanted," Berman continues, was a "regime of work and strict duty and nothing else, in which men would privately search for personal authenticity, while publicly submitting to totalitarian tyranny." So Berman, in short, clearly believes that Sennett has taken editorial liberties with 18th Century city / social history, in order to build a case for his view that society was very playful and energetic on the public stage then, juxtaposed with what he sees as today's irreverence, indifference, and privacy-obsesses urban culture.
Rousseau's "public man" doesn't match up well with the picture that Sennett attempts to paint of the 18th Century dynamic, according to Berman. Rousseau, in fact, did not view the French theatre as public; "These exclusive spectacles that close up a small number of people in a gloomy cave, that keep them fearful and immobile, in silence and inaction, that show them only prisons, lances, soldiers, and images of servitude and inequality."
Moreover, Berman wonders why Sennett, who taught at NYU during the time the book was published - and hence worked on Washington Square - can't see the "overflowing life all around him," but rather sees the city as a wasteland where modern men "are wrapped up in themselves, oblivious to the "hundreds or thousands of people of every race and age, acting and interacting; making music, harmonizing and improvising...making love, or looking for some; agitating arguing, distributing leaflets in every known cause...performing magic tricks for love or money." It is a pity Sennett doesn't see the playful vitality on the streets of the most vibrant city in America, Berman continues, "...because this public life...can rescue us from our personal sorrows and anxieties, nourish us and renew our strength, help us make it through the day and night" (Berman 121).
Meanwhile, the city (and its teeming humanity) in modern literature is presented very colorfully and graphically by author Claude Levi-Strauss in his book Tristes Tropiques (Part Four, "The Earth and its Inhabitants," Chapter 15). Levi-Strauss writes of the "conglomeration of millions of individuals for the simple sake of conglomeration, regardless of physical conditions." The urban realities for those millions in Calcutta include "filth, promiscuity, disorder, physical contact; ruins, shacks, excrement, mud; body moistures, animal droppings, urine, purulence, secretions, suppuration - everything that urban life is organized to defend us against, everything we loathe, everything we protect ourselves against at great cost...constitute the natural setting which the town must have if it is to thrive."
There are powerful similarities between Sennett's themes of real time play-acting drama and Levi-Strauss's anthropological narrative. Indeed, while Sennett viewed 18th Century Parisians as characters in an ongoing interactive theatrical environment, Levi-Strauss, upon leaving the Calcutta Hotel - "beleaguered by cattle and with vultures perched on the window-sills" - becomes "the centre of a ballet, which I would find comic, were it not so pitiful" (Levi-Strauss, 134).
And each of the following characters in Levi-Strauss's ballet has "a leading part": the shoe-shine boy "dashing to my feet"; the "small adenoidal child"; the "cripple, practically naked so that you can see in detail the knobs of his limbs"; the pimp ("British girls, very nice..."); the clarinet dealer and "New Market" porter.
And finally," the author continues, with the theater theme intact, "the whole troupe of minor characters, touting rickshaws, taxis and gharries." Levi-Strauss sees the citizens of the city of Calcutta (in 1955) as "...the clinical symptoms of a death-agony. All these despairing mimes have one origin - the haunting nightmare of hunger; that same hunger which drives the crowds in from the countryside...the hunger which heaps the fugitives up in railway cul-de-sacs...asleep on the platforms, huddled in the white cotton print which is today their dress and tomorrow their shroud."
Levi-Strauss's grim description of city life in a third world country takes a dramatic detour from Sennett's 20th Century city where citizens are sulking behind closed doors but apparently well-fed and clothed and not desperate for attention. "Everyday life [in Calcutta] appears to be a permanent repudiation of the very notion of human relationship," Levi-Strauss continues. And as to the rickshaw boys, who "are more ignorant of the route than you yourself," how is a person of Western extraction "...to keep one's temper and to refrain from treating them like animals, when they force one to look on them as if they were, by their own unreason?" (Levi-Strauss, 136).
And while in Sennett's view the public men in New York City are still quite human (albeit they have gone underground), the public men in Calcutta, according to Levi-Strauss, are like "...the grey-necked crows incessantly cawing in the trees..." Beware, Levi-Strauss, of actually meeting the gaze of a Calcutta beggar; "the slightest pause will be interpreted as weakness, as purchase for importunity." And while a person may wish to recognize the beggar as a human being in need, and even give him "alms," all the initial situations "which define relationships between persons are falsified...for if you tried to treat the destitute as equals, they would protest against your injustice." Those destitute souls in the streets "implore you to annihilate them with your eminence," Levi-Strauss asserts, "because it is the extent of the gulf which separates you from them which determines their expectation of your charity."
Levi-Strauss even invokes the idea of a "golden age," albeit not the golden age that Sennett embraces from the 18th Century; the very absence of any golden age for the teeming masses in the streets of Calcutta "...leaves one a prey to this single conviction: all these people one passes in the street are slipping towards extinction." In the end of his essay in Chapter 15, Levi-Strauss laments, "Are not the executions and tortures, the funeral-pyres...the product of some monstrous game... The gulf between excess of luxury and excess of misery shatters the human dimension."
Meantime, when it comes to literature describing the American metropolitan landscape, writers speak far more to the issue of "The destruction and disfunctionality of the core" of cities than they do of…