The Electric Underground Cephalopod

Paris Metro vs New York Subway

/ by Noah Charney

It’s easy to project a metaphor onto the Paris Metro. There’s a poetry to it, a feel of Parisian otherness, exoticism, romance, coupled with the element of potential danger and darkness that goes with all things underground. And there’s the whole train-entering-a-tunnel thing that Freud would have something to say about. The Paris Metro, at least in our mind’s eye, feels about as sexy as public transportation gets. Extraordinarily attractive couples kissing against the glossy white tiles of the Odeon station sounds cinematic. Insert the same situation into the New York Subway and it seems, well, kind of skeevy. The New York Subway is likelier to bring to mind visions of smelly commuters, cars crammed with people not making eye contact and all with white earbuds locking them away from social interaction, and the occasional mugging.


Two new projects explore the history and philosophy of underground rail systems. Luka Novak, a Slovenian publisher, writer, and general intellectual superstar, has a recent book published in French called Le Metro: Inconscient Urbain (The Metro: The Urban Unconscious, published by Editions Leo Scheer), an extended essay that plumbs the philosophical and psychological depths of what can be seen as much more than just a means of navigating a city.


The American perspective is covered in Michael Rossi’s new documentary, The Race Underground, part of the “American Experience” series on PBS. It tells the story of one of the hidden geniuses, whose contributions were eclipsed by bigger names and larger firms that bought his ideas, but without whom urban landscapes and circumnavigation would look very different. We have Frank Sprague to thank for bringing subway systems to the United States. Inspired by the coal-powered London Underground (which was built in 1863), Sprague set about to develop electrical railways in the US, financed first by Jay Gould, at least until he was almost set on fire during an early experimental demonstration of his progress—not recommended to endear yourself to angel investors. After an early go in Richmond, Virginia it was in Boston, under the patronage of Henry Whitney, that the first American underground rail system was established. This new-fangled idea was a tough sell: This was still a time of horse-drawn transport, early automobiles, and the association of the underground with Hell and the Devil. A petition of 12,000 businessmen was filed to stop the project in Boston, but it was pushed ahead, despite the mayhem it caused by excavating city streets, sewage systems, electrical and water lines, and so on. It launched on 1 September 1897, with a quarter of a million curious Bostonians riding on the first day alone, 50 million rides in the first year. New York followed next, and other major American cities were not far behind. Sprague’s technology and company were eventually bought out and absorbed into the monolithic enterprise of Sprague’s idol, Thomas Edison. This documentary, well-executed and engaging, helps to bring Sprague back into the light.


Rossi, a veteran of train-related documentaries (he was behind the acclaimed 2014 American Experience film on Penn Station), originally planned to include the New York Subway system in this film. But with only 60 minutes to play with, there was just too much story to tell. Rossi explains, “New York, like Boston, dealt with innumerable obstacles to get its subway system built. The simple fact that New York is larger than Boston meant there were that many more political hurdles and interest groups lobbying for their own cause. The original New York subway plan was larger and the tunnels were deeper.” Rossi is also well aware of the different “feel” of each city’s subway system. Each seems to have a different personality, an attribute projected onto it by its human riders, of course, but one which develops through personal experience with the system and through references in literature, music and film. Rossi continues, “I’ve lived in both Boston and New York. Being from Massachusetts, the T is near and dear to my heart and I’m very familiar with each screeching, squealing turn. Traveling through the tunnels of Boston has an almost cozy feel to it. What strikes me about the New York subway is how truly ubiquitous it is. It literally entwines the five boroughs physically, economically, and emotionally. Walking the streets and sidewalks in Manhattan or Brooklyn, one can’t help but hear, smell, and feel the subway beneath them.”


While London began as underground coal-powered steam engines, contributing mightily to the Sherlock Holmesian London of fog and pollution and stench and smoke, American subway systems focused on clean electrical power. So did the French, with the Paris Metro opening on 19 July 1900. This was only after decades of protracted debates about how to integrate train lines into the capital city, whether they should be elevated or underground. Major cultural figures, including Guy de Maupassant and Victor Hugo, weighed in on the debate, and it was not until 1892, nearly fifty years after discussions began, that a consensus was made to go underground. The project was one of elegance from the start. The first stations were designed by Art Nouveau master, Hector Guimard (86 of his stations still exist). It was conceived as a functional artwork, whereas the American version was about function alone.


Luka Novak first encountered the Paris Metro as a child in the 70s (his father was a foreign correspondent there for a major Slovenian broadsheet newspaper). Of this, he said in an interview in the European Review of Books and Culture, “I was a fanatic, and observing the development of this unique structure of public transport elevated me into an urban psychoanalysis, where the mere observing of a hidden slot of a remote tunnel in the Paris north could represent a kind of infrastructural ‘masturbation,’ to paraphrase Freud, who states that focusing on a distinct part of the body represents perverse behavior, as opposed to the eroticism of contemplating the whole anatomy.” Sometimes a pipe is just a pipe, but rarely is a shaft-shaped train entering a tunnel just a shaft-shaped train entering a tunnel.


When asked to consider the differences between the Paris Metro and the New York Subway, he continued, “If Paris’ unconscious is a sentence, New York’s is a scream. If Paris’ unconscious is shaped as a Flaubert novel, where the story (trajectory) is strictly subject to the rules of classical narrative, or a Proustian stream of thought, always reflecting the neuralgic points of memory, New York’s unconscious is modelled on the vast and straight lines of propulsive caravans, as in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, where the disowned farmers are heading west in a straight and desperate line, or mirroring the dubious grandness of characters like Jay Gatsby.”


My own approach to undergrounds is more prosaic, as I’m sure is the experience of most who ride without analyzing what, how, and where they’re riding. Visiting New York as a child in the 80s, I was nervous about the subway, associating it with graffiti, smelly people, and muggers. That’s no longer the case, but the lurking phantom of that feeling remains. I associate the Paris Metro with living abroad there, aged 16, away from my family for the first extended period, and loving every minute of it. The Boston “T” brought me to Red Sox games and to used CD stores (back when going to used CD stores was a thing). I can still recall a scent to each system, a mood which, Proustian, I associate with it. Like a many-tentacled cephalopod, each system, through decades of use, consideration, artistic reference and analysis, becomes a sort of living thing in minds individual and collective: A nervous system, a catacomb—pick your preferred analogy. Like the richest of universal constructs, subway systems become a Jungian archetype, sustaining whatever metaphor, analogy or allegory you throw at them, and taking on a life of their own.

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.