"The feeling of a century"

The 19th century was generally a big step forward for humanity. The population rose from 990 Million in 1800 to 1.65 billion in 1900. The industrial revolution brought new technology and completed a structural shift from agriculture to the industry. With this came a rapid urbanization. Towards the end of feudalism many people living in rural areas had to sell their belongings/land and move into the city. As a consequence of this the cities grew rapidly. But this wasn’t just a positive development. The new life and work in the cities brought a lot of misery with them. Working conditions in the cities were really bad. 12 hour days were normal, factory accidents a common thing and the pay for this hard work was just barely enough to survive. Even children were forced into this industrial nightmare.

Another thing that became common in the 19th century was city fires. The urbanized cities were a huge fire hazard because of the crammed living spaces and no real fire safety. Also the industrial buildings themselves were not exactly known for their safety measures. In every industrialized corner of the earth the cities began to burn, thanks to the same urbanized conditions everywhere. Not all at once and not on a day to day basis but it was common enough to be a literary theme. After the destruction of parts of the cities there came something new, a rebuilding of the destruction and an improvement to fire safety. The fires showed the contradictions of progress in one of the most brutal ways imaginable: by unleashing hell onto the inhabitants of the bastions of progression. They were a literal embodiment of the destruction and misery but also the hope for building something better, that the industrial revolution brought with itself. There is no phenomenon that describes the general theme of this century better than this one. But why is this the case? How can some random fires with no connection to each other, apart from the preconditions, be more than just that: random fires?

How can something become more than it is by itself? How can something become a metaphor when it isn’t even anything that could even hope to grasp the concept of a metaphor? The answer is trough literature. In the beginning of the 20th century a new movement occurred primarily in Germany: Expressionism. It was a movement involving paintings, dance, cinema, literature and many other art forms. To fully understand the concept of expressionism isn’t important for my point. Our focus right now is on the literature part, especially poems. In literary expressionism, negative sides of the industrial revolution and urbanization were depicted and life in the cities was criticized. On prominent example for this is the German poet Georg Heym. His poems involved destruction of cities trough fires. Sometimes the cause of these fires is also depicted as some sort of god-like creature that is unsatisfied with the life in the cities and unleashes hell onto them. These poems don’t name particular cities but are rather concerned with depicting a general theme and contradictions in all cities. Choosing burning cities as an image to depict everything wrong with urbanization isn’t a coincidence and helps to transform these events spanning a whole century into something connected and into a general metaphor. Through literary work, the fires all over the world can come together as one phenomenon, burning in the human consciousness as the feeling of a century.