Speaker at the Magical Realism and the City conference

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talk

Description of Activity

Speaker on 'The City-as-Hell: Horror, Hispanophobia and Orientalism in British and American Literary Constructions of Manila 1852-2013'

Western literature has been likening cities to the Christian hell for at least 700 years. At one end of this spectrum of representations are urban spaces that are mildly redolent of hell or that have hellish features which are explicable rationally in what Tzvetan Todorov, inspired by Sigmund Freud, calls ‘the Uncanny’. At the other end of the spectrum are cities that are closer imitations of hell – such as the fiery metropolis of Dis in Dante’s Inferno – as it has been limned in religious texts, and that therefore belong to Todorov’s category of ‘the Fantastic’, where people and places in narratives are only comprehensible in supernatural terms. Furthermore, each textual city-as-hell is shaped by cultural and material determinants specific to its historical moment; for example, Joan M. Ferrante observes that Dante populated Dis with suffering heretics because that sin was ‘intimately associated with politics for Dante’s audience’. The politics of the time were notable for Pope John XXII’s clampdown on opponents who rejected Christian dogma, and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II’s conflation of religious dissent with sedition.
This paper analyzes how, since the mid-nineteenth century, a trajectory of British and American fiction and narrative non-fiction writing has marshalled the city-as-hell motif in its constructions of Manila, the capital of the Philippines. These representations share many of the characteristics Todorov mentions above and, like Ferrante’s critique of Dante, can be understood with reference to their various social and political contexts. Moreover, they cohere with Orientalist idées fixe about the inferiority of Eastern beliefs, mores and power structures, as articulated most famously by Edward Said and less famously by the French theorist Alain Grosrichard, who asserted that French Enlightenment commentators on the Arab World conceived of a ‘despotic state’ that ‘tends to reduce itself to one vast single city, surrounded by an infinity of ruins and fallow land.’ Aside from targeting the ‘savage’ Asians that are the staples of Said’s and Grosrichard’s Orientalisms, the early exponents of Manila-as-hell were strongly critical of the reputedly illiberal, impious and arcane Spanish Catholic colonial regime in Manila.
Period9 Jul 2021
Event titleMagical Realism and the City
Event typeConference


  • Philippine
  • literature
  • Manila
  • Asian Studies
  • horror
  • supernatural