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THE CITY'SEYE OF POWER: PANOPTICISMAND SPECULAR PROSTITUTION IN DREISER'SNEW YORK AND GROVE'SBERLIN Irene Gammel Visibility is a trap. MichelFoucault To go to the city is the changeless desire of the mind. To join in the great, hurrying throng; to see the endless lights, the great shops and stores, the towering structures and palatial mansions, becomes a desire which the mind can scarcely resist. TheodoreDreiser Chicago and New York, Dreiser's celebrated New World cities, energize the movement of author and characters with their raw, sensual drive. They also imbue the newcomer with a sense that it is right, and even necessary, to base one's life on a principle that can be summarized in just two words: "I want." Evoking the big city in female terms, Dreiser presents it as the illusory fulfilment of all dreams, as a fictional cornucopia of pleasure, beauty and sex in a framework of moral laxity. In a newspaper article written in 1896, Dreiser allegorizes this seductive potential of the city in the prostitute, a figure who appeals to the pleasures of the eye, titillating the scopophilic voyeur: Like a sinful Magdalen the city decks herself gayly [sic], fascinating all by her garments of scarlet and silk, awing by her jewels and perfumes, when in truth there lies hid beneath these a torn and miserable heart, and a soiled and unhappy conscience. 1 Mary Magdalene is the traditional icon of the virtuous prostitute with the compassionate heart, who "holds up a comforting mirror to those who sin and sin again, and promises joy to human frailty."2 Dreiser's analogybetween the city and Mary Magdalene fits the title heroine of Sister Carrie (1900), who innocently (and almost unknowingly) leaves victims in her wake. 212 Irene Gammel "Yet amid all, men starve," Dreiser continues in his article, deliberately disrupting the initial image of peace and compassion by cataloguing the "misery,"the "hunger," the "isolation and loneliness" and "the rummaging in garbage cans" of the "wild-eyedshrunken outcast" who lives in the midst of the city glamour.3 Like George Hurstwood in Sister Carrie,who ends as a Bowery bum, the suffering outcast in this earlier article is "a wretched, dwarfed specimen of masculine humanity"; thus Dreiser evokes the image of the male as metaphorically "castrated" by the female city.4 Here, the earlier image of the city-prostitute inevitably slips from the compassionate Magdalene to the Whore of Babylon, who already carries death in her body.5 The cityturns into a female threat, an aggressive freak, a destructive monster; she is the man-destroyer, a paralyzing Medusa-figure, whose seductive and destructive aspects are unified in the image of the cityprostitute who may turn around to hunt and haunt the unsuspecting newcomer. Given the female city's potential for destruction, it is a space where "man" can only survive by entering into it like a conqueror or like the dragon-slayer Perseus. For this city-dragon-slayer, "looking" is one of the weapons or, as Peter Conrad puts it in his discussion of Dreiser's own experience of New York, "seeing the city is for Dreiser an acquisition of power over it, a visual annexation of terrain.116 From this angle of the city's sexual, specular power-play, I suggest a comparison of Sister Carriewith Frederick Philip Grove's first novel, Fanny Essler (1905). In the latter, the female protagonist-actress is also identified with the modern metropolis and becomes a desirable object for the male gazer at the same time that, endowed with an apparently insatiable body, she is presented as the incarnation of desire. FannyEssler--published under the author's German name, Felix Paul Greve, and rediscovered by Douglas Spettigue in his search for the "real" Grove--is closelybased on the early life of Grove's German wife, Else Ploetz, the later Else Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven, whose own (as yet unpublished) memoirs closely overlap Grove's novel.7 Both the novel and the Baroness's memoirs and letters trace her flight to Berlin at the age of eighteen, her posing for "Marble Figures," her '"trying to do art"' and her attachment to artist circles in Munich and Berlin. 8...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 211-227
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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