Community of Men: Influences on Paul Goodman's The Empire City

Beyond the family structure imposed on us, the school is generally the first instrument of social repression a child meets in life. To the school is assigned the task of breaking the will to individuation, of "channeling the mind," of incapacitating the child with the rules that hold this society together: "This is the way things will be because this is the way they are." The classroom serves to impress through the medium of daily routine that life is essentially following orders, that the choices are always among the given, that control of your life is, and always will be, somewhere else. Passivity is the rule, and all "activity" is planned (except for the frills: the extracurricular, and then some). It is not accidental that the newest school buildings are indistinguishable from the newest prisons or the newest industrial complexes. All the talk around the New York City "school crisis" misses this altogether.

"The Newest School Buildings Are Indistinguishable From The Newest Prisons And The Newest Industrial Complexes"
Council for the Liberation of Daily Life
September 22, 1968

My... defect is that I am an artist and fundamentally unpolitical. I don't (timidly) bestir myself to oppose anything or try to change it unless I first have imagined a simpler and more artistic way to do it, neater, making use of available and cheap materials, less senseless, less wasteful.
Paul Goodman, 1972

"Lies Lies Literature Is Lies!" shouts the first chapter of American author and critic Paul Goodman's monumental work The Empire City. From the narrative standpoint, this statement can undoubtedly be applied to The Empire City itself; suspension of disbelief cannot make the animals being released from the Bronx Zoo or people flying of their own volition realistic scenarios. Such a perspective, however, would miss the main thrust of Goodman's book: The Empire City is a book of grand ideas, where the characters not only espouse or propose them, but put them into action.

This book, in a nutshell, is about a community of people united by their opposition to the social order presented to them by twentieth-century urban capitalism. In part, it is a coming-of-age novel: the protagonist, Horatio Alger (named after a famous nineteenth-century author of rags-to-riches fables), goes through a personal evolution that includes moving from simple rejection of society to an active praxis of opposition. The plot is impossible to summarize in a general fashion; indeed, there is no single plotline, but only a long and convoluted network of intersecting ones. Each of these is inseparable from the sociological ideas of the book. Every character is affected by these ideas. The book is not only a novel: it is a work of sociological, political, and economic theory. Its main focus, aside from a general opposition to the regimentation and repression of capitalist society, is on building healthy urban communities.

Here, I will attempt to trace some of the discursive foundations of this focus. As we shall see, concepts such as the "New Urbanism" of the European avant-garde, Charles Fourier's Utopian Socialist theories of education and community organization, and Gestalt Therapy's ideas of psychological and social health all find their reflection in The Empire City.

"New Urbanism" and The Empire City

This state of affairs, arising out of a struggle against poverty, has overshot its ultimate goal — the liberation of humanity from material cares — and become an omnipresent obsessive image. Presented with the alternative of love or a garbage disposal unit, young people of all countries have chosen the garbage disposal unit.
Gilles Ivain

The birth of avant-garde notions of "New Urbanism," the revolutionizing of urban geography, was contemporary to the writing of The Empire City. Although mutual influence cannot be assured, the ideas come from the same source: a deep dissatisfaction with modern society. In both cases, the idea is to destroy or hijack the structure of the city, which has been created by the society (or, as Goodman calls it, the Sociolatry), and thus reclaim the city for the people.

In October of 1953, Frenchman Gilles Ivain published "Formulary for a New Urbanism" (this New Urbanism not to be confused with that of the 1980s and 90s). This short manifesto was to become one of the most important documents of the revolutionary European avant-garde of the fifties and sixties, including organizations such as the Lettrist and, later, Situationist International. One of the primary members of the latter, Guy Debord, followed up in 1955 with "Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography."

"We are bored in the city," writes Ivain. This is his main point: to propose an architecture for the city of the future, an architecture with "evocative power." He puts forth the idea that the city should be divided into "quarters," which together "correspond to the whole spectrum of diverse feelings that one encounters ... in everyday life." Debord proposes a study, "psychogeography," of the feelings evoked by the geography of existing cities, with a view to revolutionizing it.

Paul Goodman puts forth a critique of New York that in many ways resembles the ideas of Ivain and Debord. Ivain writes, attacking with bitter irony the profusion of advertising in the streets: "The poetry of the billboards lasted twenty years. We are bored in the city, we really have to strain to still discover mysteries on the sidewalk billboards, the latest state of humor and poetry." One of Goodman's characters writes a letter to the New York Herald Tribune, complaining about the "act of vandalism" perpetrated by "a monstrous sign, advertising the roadhouse of one Luis Mendoza ... illuminated a baleful red" (75).

In both cases, the idea of constructive use of negative architectural space is highlighted. Ivain proposes an idea for a "future architecture" where an "empty space creates a richly filled time" and "the absence of &91;an&93; object becomes a presence one can feel." As if adopting his program, Goodman's Committee for Constructive Bombardment aims "to see that the right little items are razed to the ground ... to expose to constructive bombardment the slums that interest us" (169).

The main thrust of Ivain's New Urbanism is the affirmation of the relationship between emotion and movement through a city. Lamenting this relationship's loss, Goodman's Lothair cries that the people of New York "have alienated themselves from the natural generation... They have forgotten the continuous association between their hearts and the way they move about the streets.... Their architects are crazy" (205).

Debord's essay, "Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography," discusses the social background behind the urban geography he hates. Debord writes:

Illusions of privilege are linked to a general idea of happiness prevalent among the bourgeoisie and maintained by a system of publicity that includes Malraux’s aesthetics as well as ads for Coca-Cola.
Satirically attacking capitalism's illusions of benefit, Goodman describes capitalist society: "The great society ... will be organized for the good of all, and will coordinate unchanged its wonderful productive capacities to heighten continually the Standard of Living. You will buy many expensive things that you do not ... need" (277).

To fight the spread of these illusions and to provide people with alternative motivations, Debord suggests "the systematic provocative dissemination of a host of proposals tending to turn the whole of life into an exciting game." Goodman's characters develop just that: "There was to be a pentathlon of dangerous social games.... These were to occur by surprise in moments of expected ease" (220).

Goodman and Debord concur with regard to the notion of the city as a psychic landscape to be studied. Debord tentatively describes psychogeography as "the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals," and proposes that "research" be undertaken on the subject. Goodman presents a "lesson plan," wherein students learn by experiencing the city and observing passersby─part of this lesson consists of looking at buildings and their associations with style and fashion, and another part of contrasting people's reactions to the environment of the subway at different times (126-127). This is a psychogeographical tour of New York City.

Goodman was certainly not alone in attacking the capitalist urban environment. Examining the ideas of some of his overseas counterparts helps to show that New York or the United States is not the only such environment; with respect to New Urbanistic ideas, this may as well be The Empire City: A Novel of Paris instead of New York.

Charles Fourier and The Empire City

It is clear that civilization has changed its character, and that monopoly and stockjobbing, which are two commercial characteristics, have overthrown the old order of things. Is this a subject of congratulation or of alarm? What is the final result foreshadowed by this monstrous irruption of the mercantile power, whose encroachments are constantly on the increase? Charles Fourier (164)

Goodman not only uses ideas from his contemporaries. He also uses, consciously or not, the ideas of classical socialists such as Charles Fourier. This underscores the fact that Goodman's theories are not simply made up on the spur of the moment, but reflect the work of many thinkers before him.

Charles Fourier was an 18th-19th century political philosopher. He believed that people had dominant "passions" (which he developed a hierarchy of), and that society was to be organized based on the various combinations of these passions. He believed in an ideal society─something called the "phalanstery," where labor was meaningful and the distribution of passions ensured harmony. Many of his ideas are represented in The Empire City, most notably his ideas of education and social organization.

Goodman agrees with Fourier on the subject of education. Fourier believes that "the first object" of education should be "to develop in earliest childhood those vocations for which there is a natural aptitude, a natural instinct, and to guide each individual to those functions to which nature designed him" (290). Goodman's Minetta proposes a similar philosophy: "I am pushing a little alteration in our method of ... guidance. We have to find the vocation, the calling." (593)

Furthermore, Fourier disapproves of schools. He writes, "What relation is there between health and the training of our schools? In them the child is shut up ... to plod over obstruse subjects in which it feels no interest. The mind is dulled, while the growth of the body is injured. Our systems of education are then contrary to nature" (295). Goodman expresses this opposition on many occasions throughout the book. His protagonist feels it on an instinctive level: "Horatio visited the school.... The prisoners were chained to their desks, the angry voices thundered from the mountains.... In a very few minutes the scene had Horatio by the throat. And when ... there rang ... the bell of doom that declared that still another hour of springtime life had been sealed in perdition, Horatio became panicky" (551).

Even with regard to the harmful consequences of the traditional family order, Goodman follows Fourier. Fourier notes, "The family bond in the civilizee regime causes fathers to desire the death of their children" (281). Goodman's Horatio realizes this, and tells the mothers at his PTA meeting, "Ladies! When I listen to you ... I get a distinct impression that you ... really want to murder the children" (541).

Goodman's ideas of community organization seem to draw much from Fourier. Fourier describes his passions, then writes, "When the 810 &91;possible combinations of passions&93; are brought together and fully developed ... the poorest individual may develop and satisfy many more of the passions of the soul than the richest potentate can do in the present day" (117). Goodman, similarly, advocates a "Community of Human Relations to provide for the formation of a child's personality" (307)─one which consists of fixed ratios of personality types, much like Fourier's passions.

Both also decry the present organization of society, which seems to have changed little in a century and a half. Fourier writes, "The sovereigns, the notables, and the financial tycoons will always have more than enough; it is thus the masses and not the notables who must be enriched. Such is the problem that eludes the learned: they pacify us ... to mask ... the absurdity of our system of distribution" (156). Goodman echoes this classic sentiment: "Our society had seemed to be organized as a factory and market, in which the majority of ultimate consumers worked hard and accumulated nothing but years, but a small number of enterprisers protected what they had and accumulated more and more money" (149).

The remarkable commonality of ideas between Paul Goodman and Charles Fourier highlights the fact that opposition to capitalist society (whether nascent or mature) is not a new idea. The concept of formation of utopian communities such as that which Goodman illustrates was begun with Fourier and his contemporaries. This shows the continuity and universality of these ideas.

Gestalt Therapy and The Empire City

Well before he had made much of a mark as a social critic, Goodman contributed his lengthy theoretical section to the textbook Gestalt Therapy ... it is Gestalt psychiatry which provides the skeletal structure of any "system" Goodman's thought possesses. Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture, p. 186

One of the primary, and demonstrable, influences on Goodman as a writer and human being were the theories of Gestalt therapy. Gestalt therapy is a psychiatric movement (and the eponymous textbook, its founding text, to which Goodman contributed an entire volume) focused around the notion of "Gestalt" ─ mentally-created "Wholenesses" or "structural relationships" of various forms (Perls viii-ix). It holds that Gestalten are integral to awareness and human understanding; an example of Gestalt formation is the automatic connections the brain makes between three points, visualizing a triangle. According to the Gestaltists, "The formation of complete and comprehensive Gestalten is the condition of mental health and growth." Incompleteness results in "stagnation and regression" (Perls ix).

An outgrowth of this focus on completeness and wholeness is a "mystical 'wholism.'" It extends not only to human psychology but also to sociology and ecology; problems in the environment or society only arise when "psychic factionalism ... segregates from the ecological whole a unit of defensive consciousness that must be pitted against an 'external' reality understood to be alien and ... hostile" (Roszak 187).

Book 4 of The Empire City begins with a lengthy epigraph from Gestalt Therapy. This epigraph describes the impossibility, in present society, of using certain "powers of human nature," and, as a result, these powers' association with "irrelevant" other needs (426). This is well demonstrated in the book. For example, Lothair's sense of justice and being right remains unused, and so someone suggests that he change his focus. He realizes that "to be happy, he only needed many human beings engaged in our common enterprise," and he sees that this enterprise can be music. In this way, his sense of right and working for a common cause is used at concerts instead, and he is satisfied (445).

One important feature of Gestalt therapy is its belief that "annihilating, destroying ... and anger are essential to growth," and that "given rational objects, they are always 'healthy'" (Perls 340). This belief is reflected in The Empire City. During the formation of the "community of human relations," the community, first. agrees that a life must be sacrificed. Space is given for everyone to express their litany of hatreds. Finally, the children are described beating each other as a group, in turn (311-315). The community that they create embraces natural aggressiveness; in the words of Mynheer, "In my opinion there's enough hatred left here to inaugurate community relations. Nothing to found empires on, no spectacular ... curses, parricide and blasphemy─only the ... annoyances ... of 1948; but enough, enough to cement the human relations" (316).

The basic conflict of Gestalt therapy is the question of the origin of unnatural conditions in the "organism/environment field." How does this natural order become suddenly unnatural? Gestalt Therapy acknowledges this problem:

The question may quite seriously be asked, by what criterion does one prefer to regard "human nature" as what is actual in the spontaneity of children, in the works of heroes, the culture of classic eras, the community of simple folk, the feeling of lovers, the sharp awareness and miraculous skill of some people in emergencies? Neurosis is also a response of human nature and is now epidemic and normal, and perhaps has a viable social future. We cannot answer the question (319).
The Empire City confronts this issue also. When Arthur and his committee meet to find a "moral equivalent for war" (one that would fit within Gestalt's criterion of naturalness), the result does not satisfy: "They burst out laughing. For indeed, when it was all added up, they found that their peacable equivalent for the war turned out to be precisely─the war.... It was the solid laughter of comedy, that greets the moment when the great expectation comes to precisely nothing" (220). Although war is unnatural and what they develop is natural, the end result is the same─thus, the criterion turns out to be arbitrary.

The relationship of Gestalt ideas to The Empire City helps to give the latter a solid theoretical footing. The novel's concepts of social and psychological health are grounded in actual research. This serves to emphasize further The Empire City's status as a non-trivial work of social theory, over and above its credentials as a novel.

The Empire City brings out and defends a number of radical and unusual concepts. However, it is not alone in doing so. Its anti-capitalist, anti-statist, and holistic ideas of urban communitarianism fit like a piece of a puzzle into a wide network of similar and related theories stretching back hundreds of years. Analyzing some components of this contextual network helps the reader of The Empire City to appreciate Goodman's work on a deeper level, if not necessarily to agree with him.

Works Cited

Goodman, Paul. The Empire City. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 2001.
Fourier, Charles. Harmonian Man: Selected Writings of Charles Fourier. New York: Anchor Books, 1971.
Perls, Frederick, Ralph F. Hefferline, Paul Goodman. Gestalt Therapy: Excitement and Growth in the Human Personality. New York: Dell, 1951.
Roszak, Theodore. The Making of a Counter Culture. New York: Anchor Books, 1969.
Ivain, Gilles. "Formulary For A New Urbanism." June 1, 2004.
Debord, Guy. "Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography." June 1, 2004.

node your hizomework

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.