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The urban space in fiction.

How and why can we read the city?

The optimistic pronouncements (that in any discussion of contemporary America and how its people live we must inevitably start with Manhattan, "a glistening modern giant of concrete and steel," reaching "to the heavens and cradling in its arms 7 million--happy beneficiaries of the advantages and comforts this great metropolis has to offer, with its "fine, wide boulevards" facilitating the New Yorkers' "carefree, orderly existence," with a transportation system second to none in passenger comfort," with "quaint little sidewalk coffees" made for "leisurely, gracious living" that open director H.C. Potter's film Mr. Blandings builds his dream house (1948), a light-hearted comedy that revolves around the title character and his wife, a middle-class urban couple who attempt to escape their cramped existence as "modern cliff dwellers" by buying land in the country and having a house built to their own specifications, only to discover it is a lot more trouble than they set out for. The voiceover narration paints the image of a highly desirable and welcoming metropolis, the ideal combination of modern functionality and comfort. However, the shots themselves belie the narrator's ironical and cheerful voice, as they project a completely different world of chaos, claustrophobic congestion, bustle and lack of privacy. This short filmic passage introduces thus two opposite, and at the same time complementary, dimensions of the great metropolis, a dichotomy that will be instrumental in our efforts to read the American big city.

But how can we read the city? And why should we even attempt to? After all, the urban settlement is something material, fixed, tangible. A relatively large, more or less organized conglomeration of buildings and people connected with each other through highly specialized, advanced systems of sanitation, utilities, land usage, housing and transportation--an intricate network of machine-centered innovations and pedestrian routes. Is it not? If we choose to look merely at the external, physical dimension of the city, it may indeed appear to be so. But this unidirectional, limiting approach ignores the most essential aspect of the urban settlement. Every definition must and does mention this element: explains the city as "a center of population, commerce and culture; a town of significant size and importance," but also as "the inhabitants of a city considered as a group." Britannica Concise Encyclopedia refers to the city as a "relatively permanent and highly organized center of population, of greater size or importance than a town or village," while Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary mentions, among other meanings, "thepeople of a city." In every one of these definitions (and they are only a slight selection), the defining human element runs hand in hand with the criteria of size and organization, indeed even precedes them. And it confers upon the city a dynamic complexity and multifacetedness that escape fixation and definition. The city thus becomes a labyrinthine web of significations weaving from the individual definitions that crisscross one another and compete with each other, so that certain interpretations will emerge at specific points in time with more authority and subsequent power than others. The result is "a gathering of meanings in which people invest their interpretations and seek to create their own (hi)story, and therefore resembles a text." (Campbell & Kean 1997: 162)

Here then is the answer to our questions. If the "city is constructed like a text...'an inscription of man in space,' unfolding, challenging, confusing, thrilling and threatening all at the same time" (Campbell & Kean 1997: 162), it inevitably invites reading and interrogation. It creates in us a fascination, fueled by the need to comprehend the different layers of meaning within the city, this creation of ours that has somehow become mysterious to its creators. And there is a wide range of discourses and interpretations that exploit the endless possibilities of the city and which depend largely, as Campbell and Kean point out, on where we read the metropolis from: high or low, skyscraper or street level, uptown or the ghetto, inside or out, feminine or masculine, rich or poor, and so on.

In the present paper we attempt to read this intertextual concoction that is the modern city (and especially the modern American metropolis), using as guideposts two novels that utilize the "great city" as backdrop and central focus, discussing, valorizing and inscribing it. The first of these books, Theodore Dreiser's Chicago novel Sister Carrie (1900), captures the on-coming consumption culture and the rapid urban growth of the 19th century, as well as the city's alluring glow that hides a well of despair. The continually changing city of Dreiser's novel stands as a representative of modern American society. Dubbed as "a tale of two cities," the second book discussed here, Saul Bellow's "wintry" novel The Dean's December (1982) dislocates the geographical anchoring of the great metropolis. The novel takes a comparative approach, superimposing a Chicago that has turned into "the United States' center for contempt" on the communist bleakness of Romania's capital, Bucharest, only to arrive at the conclusion that "every man's inner inner city" is responsible for external slums.

The theoretical city

Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once read the (ancient) city as a trope for our language, even speaking of the suburbs of language.

French social theorist Michel deCerteau (1988: 91), on the other hand, turns a more critical interpretative eye on the modern urban setting, and looking at New York City from the top of the now defunct World Trade Center, he reads the city as a text "in which extremes coincide--extremes of ambition and degradation, brutal opposites of races and styles, contrasts between yesterday's buildings, already transformed into trash cans, and today's urban irruptions that block out its space." While we are not concerned in the present paper with New York City, we cannot help but remark that New York indeed stands--as the narrator in Mr. Blanding declares--emblematic for the modern metropolis in general, and the American metropolis in particular.

The city that deCerteau (1988: 91) perceives is defined by the principle of what he terms coincidatio oppositorum, a melange of dynamic and contrasting characteristics and components (illustrated most eloquently in the city's architecture) that constantly reinvent themselves "from hour to hour, in the act of throwing away its previous accomplishments and challenging the future." However, in order to perceive the metropolis from this vantage point, what deCerteau needs to do is extract himself from the crowds and, just like the long crane-shot in a movie, gradually move up and look at the metropolis from above.

The city becomes, thus, a "stage of concrete, steel and glass ... [on which] a giant rhetoric of excess in both expenditure and production" is inscribed. In other words, deCerteau (1988: 92)--along with every other "body no longer clasped by the streets that turn and return it"--transforms into a voyeur, under whose searching "solar Eye" the city turns into a spectacle mounted on a stage, or a text inviting reading. This is the theoretical city, the city that has swallowed its individual inhabitants and has extracted from their energy an identity of its own, a discursive existence that makes possible panoptic analyses, readings and re-readings.

In the influential chapter "Walking in the city" we refer to here, the French theorist also proposes and describes another important notion, directly connected with that of the theoretical metropolis: "the city" as a "concept," generated by the strategic maneuvering of governments, corporations, and other institutional bodies which produce things like maps that describe the city as a unified whole, in the way it might be experienced by someone looking down from high above.

By contrast, we have yet one more city taking shape: at street level, where the walker moves in ways that are tactical and never fully determined by the plans of organizing bodies, taking shortcuts or meandering aimlessly in spite of the utilitarian layout of the grid of streets. These acts of walking deCerteau (1988: 97) correlates with our linguistic speech acts, or uttering of statements, and identifies three main functions, or what he calls "a triple enunciative function":

1) a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian--i.e., by walking, the pedestrian takes the city as belonging to them and not to the panoptic voyeur or to the institutionalized organisms. Just like when speaking, the speaker starts from the assumption that they own language and can modify it according to their own needs and intentions, so the walker "transforms each spatial signifier" by choosing or avoiding, for instance, the constructed order of established streets, or by creating shortcuts and detours.

2) a spatial acting-out of the place

3) relations among differentiated positions.

Thus, it is the pedestrian who at street level constantly creates and re-creates the city, which nevertheless remains inaccessible to his individual consciousness because he lacks the panoptic perspective that makes available not just the components (of the metropolis), but also the intricate, web-like connections between them.

An uneasy balance between order and energy, tension and spectacle

The modern city dweller struggles to maintain their individuality in the face of the assimilating forces/pressures of the metropolis. This idea is the urban equivalent of what German theorist Georg Simmel (403-324) means when he states that "the most modern form of the conflict which primitive man must carry out with nature [is the struggle] for his own bodily existence." Or, in other words, the (modern) individual permanently endeavors to wrestle from society and its sovereign powers some degree of freedom and individuality.

In his essay "The Metropolis and mental life," Simmel (1903: 325) contrasts the rural small town with life in the metropolis in terms of their mental dimension: the psychological and sensory rhythm of the first is defined by a slower, smoother, and more habitual flow, while the second is dependent on the rapid telescoping of violent stimuli which address that primal psychological dimension of man as "a creature whose existence is dependent on differences" (Simmel 1903: 325). Life in the big city presupposes, therefore, an intensified emotional life, the cause of which is precisely the "swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli." From the most mundane of actions, such as crossing the street, to the entire tempo of the economic, occupational and social life, the metropolitan inhabitant finds himself/herself caught in a whirl of different impressions, all of which vie for a portion of his mental energy.

Not to be understood, however, that metropolitan existence is merely a more emotionally dynamic version of the so-called tranquil life in the small town. What happens, in fact, is a shift in the locus of reaction. The often traditional, custom-oriented rural settlement rests more on feelings and emotional relationships than the essentially intellectualistic metropolis. Town and city, therefore, situate themselves progressively on a vertical axis of the psyche, two strata of the human mind. While the emotional relations that take central stage in the more conservative rural environment are rooted in the deeper, unconscious levels of the psyche, the source of the rationality that so characterizes the urban space is "in the lucid, conscious upper strata of the mind ... the most adaptable of forces." The relationships and concerns of the typical metropolitan resident are so manifold and complex that, especially as a result of the agglomeration of so many persons with such differentiated interests, their relationships and activities intertwine with one another into a many-membered organism. (Simmel 1903: 328)

This image inevitably recalls Plato's metaphor of the city as the body of the individual. Just like in the human body distinct parts relate to and depend on each other in order to satisfy needs, so in the body of the city people renounce their individuality in order to function as body parts geared towards a larger, common good:

A City(-State), I said, arises, as I conceive, out of the needs of mankind; no one is self-sufficing, but all of us have many wants. Can any other origin of a City be imagined? [...] Then, as we have many wants, and many persons are needed to supply them, one takes a helper for one purpose and another for another; and when these partners and helpers are gathered together in one habitation the body of inhabitants is termed a City(-State). [...] And they exchange with one another, and one gives, and another receives, under the idea that the exchange will be for their good. (Plato 1960: 368)

One other very interesting point that Simmel (1903: 331) proposes and which is important for our analysis--although not central to his essay --concerns a peculiarity that characterizes the mental attitude of city dwellers. "The mental attitude of the people of the metropolis to one another may be designated formally as one of reserve. If the unceasing external contact of numbers of persons in the city should be met by the same number of inner reactions as in the small town, in which one knows almost every person he meets and to each of whom he has a positive relationship, one would be completely atomized internally and would fall into an unthinkable mental condition." This danger of internal dissolution then is what triggers in the metropolitan a mechanism of protection, of self-preservation, namely the blase attitude. This typically urban phenomenon has a very physiological source. The city bombards its inhabitants with an incredible number of stimuli, whose constant and violent change excites "the individual to the highest degree of nervous energy" (Simmel 1903: 330). The nerves then are strained to the maximum of their adjustment possibilities, until finally having exhausted all their adaptive energy they cease to respond at all. The urban blase attitude is therefore the result of an excessive nervous stimulation.

Like opium to the untried body

Indiana-born author Theodore Dreiser took Chicago, and later New York, as they were, with the good and the bad, and recorded them in critically acclaimed realistic prose that rivaled those of Honoree de Balzac and Charles Dickens, outstanding urban interpreters of the nineteenth century. And he caught the significance of what he witnessed: Chicago was an unequal place to watch what he called "a new world in the making."

Change, in its various shades of evolution, progress, mobility, transience and displacement, is thus the central theme of Dreiser's Chicago novel, Sister Carrie, which captures the on-coming consumption culture and the rapid urban growth of the 19th century. Carrie Meeber, the central character, leaves her countryside home in rural Wisconsin at the impressionable age of eighteen, drawn to the lights of Chicago--as young Dreiser had been--like a moth to a flame. There, she enters the glittering department store, and finds herself wanting things she's never seen before, the very moment she sets eyes on them. In this sense, the novel brilliantly captures the changing nature of dress as an indicator of class and social station. In the 19th century city, it seems, it was possible to move up in life simply by buying the right clothes, or, as Carrie does, by having her lover buy them for her.

Dreiser speaks for those who insist that the city should be allowed to grow freely and naturally, achieving a kind of messy vitality. And as such, the continually changing city symbolically stands for the modern American society. The metropolis, for Dreiser, seems to embody uninhibited progress, so that all the tendencies in the novel are subsumed to the ceaseless motion and overwhelming dynamism of the modern metropolis. And in this sense, as Hurm quoting Gelfant points out, Sister Carriehas rightfully been described as the "generic novel" of modern American city fiction.

Drawing on the realist tradition--which sought to read the city in close-up, with attention to the street, in the hope of exposing its practices and some of the environmental determinants shaping people's lives (Campbell & Kean 1997: 171)--Dreiser intends to portray the city honestly, from both an aesthetic and a scientific vantage point. However, as Hurm remarks, his decision to concentrate merely on the "surface scene" as a disengaged observer can be read as a withdrawal from evaluation. What is more, just like the realist paradigm, Dreiser's naturalistic model discloses only a partial portrait of the metropolis. The vantage point is that of white middle-class, the alternative discourses of the poor, oppressed, exploited and ethnic being effectively silenced or ignored--the truthfully recorded urban experience thus grates against the condescending tone that overflows from the more philosophical passages. The result is an ambivalent attitude towards the American metropolis, as Dreiser both condemns the evil materialism of cities and revels in the material pleasures they offer. What the novel displays, then, is a truly radical city image.

For Dreiser, the city lures with a mysterious promise, but the alluring glow hides a well of despair, where wealth is disguised in the terrible labors of the poor and exploited, and where the dream of a good life is constructed around the needs of the commercial culture of greed (Campbell & Kean 1997: 172):

It is like a chemical reagent. One day of it, like one drop of the other, will so affect and discolour the views, the aims, the desire of the mind, that it [the mind] will thereafter remain forever dyed. A day of it to the untried mind is like opium to the untried body. A craving is set up which, if gratified, shall eternally result in dreams and death. Aye! dreams unfulfilled--gnawing, luring, idle phantoms which beckon and lead, beckon and lead, until death and dissolution dissolve their power [...]. (Dreiser 1917: 322; 1986: 305)

The image set up here is that of the city as a drug, the consumption of which only leaves the consumer more unsatisfied, creating an endless circle of craving and lack. This echoes Henry Adams's 1905 comment:

The outline of the city became frantic in its effort to explain something that defied meaning. Power seemed to have outgrown its servitude and to have asserted its freedom. [...] The city had the air [...] of hysteria, and the citizens were crying, in every accent of anger and alarm, that the new forces must at any cost be brought under control. (Adams 1907: 436; cf. also Campbell & Kean 1997: 172; emphasis added)

The idea that transpires in this passage is that of the city as out of control, ruled by forces too powerful for the individual to contend with, so that he/she loses even the most tentative grip and becomes swept along in the metropolis's wake. Indeed, in Dreiser's account, the city becomes almost a malevolent entrapper in whose "cunning wiles" unsuspecting moths like Caroline Meeber are ensnared when they give in to "the gleam of a thousand lights" (Dreiser 1986: 4). As readers, we have privileged access to this dark side of the city brought into focus in such episodes like when the innocent Carrie approaches the metropolis with hope, but the omniscient narrator instills in the reader's mind doubts about the nature of her destination:

To the child, the genius with imagination, or the wholly untraveled, the approach to a great city for the first time is a wonderful thing. Particularly if it be the evening--that mystic period between the glare and gloom of the world when life is changing from one sphere or condition to another. Ah, the promise of the night. [...] What old illusion of hope is not here forever repeated! Says the soul of the toiler to itself [...]. "The streets, the lamps, the lighted chamber set for dining, are for me. The theatre, the halls, the parties, [...] these are mine in the night." Though all humanity be still enclosed in the shops, the thrill runs abroad. [...] It is the lifting of the burden of toil. (Dreiser 1986: 10)

Carrie perfectly qualifies for at least two of the categories most susceptible to the city's siren song, for, she "had little power of initiative, but nevertheless she seemed ever capable of getting herself into the tide of change where she would be easily borne along" (Dreiser 1986: 321). And she is soon turned into a commodity, a mere object swept along in the urban tide, "stared at and ogled ... in the fashion of the throng, on parade in a showplace" (Dreiser 1986: 3234). It is only when she obtains wealth and power that Carrie can move beyond this condition, but only at the expense of others, for by then she has lost her individuality, "she was capital" (Dreiser 1986: 447) and her transformation testifies to the city as a place of hierarchy and status where alienation, superficiality and selfishness are the norm.

The city is "no longer a location ... only a condition"

The conclusion (that "cities [are] moods, emotional states, for the most part collective distortions, where human beings thrive and suffer, where they invest their souls in pains and pleasures, taking these pleasures and pains as proofs of reality."--Bellow 2008: 285) Albert Corde, the protagonist of The Dean's December, reaches after his incursion into the communist bleakness behind the Iron Curtain, is that "cities (are) moods." A former newspaper correspondent in Paris, Corde grew weary of dancing attendance to the ephemeral ebb and flow of daily events and returning to his hometown took refuge in the academy. Currently the dean of a Chicago college, he becomes caught in the toils of his administrative problems and tasks. But when his Romanian mother-in-law suffers a stroke, Corde is temporarily relieved of his professional responsibilities and accompanies his wife Minna, a world-renowned astronomer, home to Eastern Europe to visit her dying mother.

In a Bucharest immersed in "funeral weather," littered with the rubble of a recent devastating earthquake (the 1977 Vrancea earthquake with a magnitude of 7.2) and suffocated by the "cast-iron gloom" of the totalitarian regime, the American Corde finds himself physically, socially, professionally and linguistically cut off from his regular life in Chicago. And slipping into a mood of reclusive meditation that will dominate the book, he becomes a visiting consciousness in an alien environment that prompts him to juxtapose and examine the two diametrically opposed worlds of Bucharest and Chicago. The novel's two cities will thus come to stand as representatives of the dialectic between East and West, totalitarianism and democracy: two social systems with equally exhausted opportunities that inevitably lead to the alienation and destruction of the individual.

Arriving in Bucharest in a state of exhaustion, Corde welcomes his sudden isolation as it offers him the chance to reflect on the recent storm of publicity at home, brought on by a couple of articles on Chicago that he wrote for Harper's magazine. Profoundly disenchanted with his hometown, the dean "had long ago decided that Chicago was the contempt center of the U.S.A." (Bellow 2008: 42), "Cain's city built with murder" (Bellow 2008: 285), the city of crooks, the first city of heroin--"Dodge City," "H-1" (Bellow 2008: 11); he has therefore suffused his depiction with apocalyptic images of decay and disaster that have managed to incite almost everybody in Chicago, including the management of his college. Adding to the public displeasure with Corde and his own administrative headaches is a murder trial for two blacks accused of killing a white student at his college. For Corde thus, Chicago is Babylon, "a damn tough city, and damn proud of being tough" (Bellow 2008: 153). It breeds equally tough, brutal people, who pride themselves on their cunningness and their ability to survive in the jungle-like suburbs of the city. People like Zaehner, Corde's brother-in-law, who "was tough. His face was changed with male strength in all the forms admired in Chicago. A big fellow, he was forceful, smart, cynical, political, rich, and he had no use for those who weren't. In the city that worked, he was one of those who gave people the works" (Bellow 2008: 84). Zaehner epitomizes in fact a whole breed of Chicago inhabitants: the La Salle street characters, who "were impressive because they had the backing of the pragmatic culture of the city, the state, the region, the country" (Bellow 2008: 42). For Zaehner, just like for Corde's entrepreneur father, Chicago represents a unique city, large, vital, new, the greatest place on earth--"the most American of all American cities" (Bellow 2008: 300). Likewise, for Corde's sister Elfrida, Chicago is enough to replace the philosophical divagations of Proust or Freud, Krafft-Ebing, Balzac or Aristophanes.

However, to Corde, who in the eyes of Zaehner is nothing but "a cop-out, a snob" (Bellow 2008: 84), the city speaks with a poisoned voice and embodies "the spirit of the age speaking from its lowest register; the very bottom" (Bellow 2008: 42). The Dean recognizes the existence of a corporate Chicago with its flourishing banking businesses and electronic computers in high sky-scrapers, the symbols of ultimate power and achievement; its affluent occupants see nothing wrong with lavishing their dogs with expensive gifts on the special occasion of the animals' birthday. There is also an historic Chicago, with its old neighborhoods, their architecture, trees, earth, water and changing light--these interest Corde enough to research and note in his article the opinion of famous visitors.

Nevertheless, what prompts in him the apocalyptic discontent and the moralizing impulse is the low Chicago, the Chicago populated by a "black underclass ... locked into a culture of despair and crime ... a doomed people" (Bellow 2008: 206), as much as by drug addicts, thieves and prostitutes--those categories which (in the ironic words of Corde's nephew) represent nothing more than mice to the "thinking population," to "establishment intellectuals" (Bellow 2008: 36) or to the ruling class. The white middle-class society has failed to approach, to seek real contact with this population; in fact, it hasn't "even conceived that reaching it may be a problem. So there is nothing but death before it" (Bellow 2008: 207). The communication gap is filled by drugs, crime, and sexual assault: the means by which a doomed population speeds the tortuously slow process of its extinction. In a visit to Chicago's derelict South Side, Corde reads the signs of this human impoverishment. Noting the "low sky, wind, weed skeletons, ruin," he gets "out of the car feeling the lack of almost everything you needed, humanly. Christ, the human curve had sunk down to base level, had gone beneath it. If there was another world, this was the time for it to show itself. The visible didn't bear looking at" (Bellow 2008: 188-189; emphasis added). Still, Corde continues to look attempting to bear witness to such unbearable conditions--and discovers that "Chicago wasn't Chicago anymore. Hundreds of thousands of people lived there who had no conception of a place." And his old friend Dewey Spangler echoes his sentiment that the city is "no longer a location, it's only a condition.'" (Bellow 2008: 237)

It is no more than what he will discover in Bucharest: a different social system but the same image of the city as a great center of delusion, bondage and death (as proposed by Blake). Even the weather is similar: "no more sun, that was gone, only linty clouds and a low cold horizon ... It was like the Chicago winter, which shrank your face and tightened your sphincters" (Bellow 2008: 208). Despite the geographical, historical, and political differences between the two far-flung cities--"what? five thousand, six thousand miles from Chicago?" (Bellow 2008: 272)--Corde is drawn to contemplate a deeper affinity: "If the cold reminded you of Chicago, the faces [in Bucharest] were from the ancient world. But then in Chicago you had something like a vast international refugee camp, and faces from all over" (Bellow 2008: 209) as well. "It was in Chicago after all that he [Corde], a Huguenot-Irish-Midwesterner and what not else, found the Macedonian-Armenian-Turkish-Slav woman [Mina] who was exactly what he had been looking for." (Bellow 2008: 209)

Similarly, the "air-sadness" of the Romanian atmosphere is not simply a climatic condition. "Everywhere in Bucharest, the light was inadequate"; and every day, in "the final stage of dusk," the fall of night brings "a livid death moment" (Bellow 2008: 3). Like the Chicago winter it constantly recalls, December in Bucharest heralds more than the end of a year. More than the old social world is dying. At both ends of the world, Bellow suggests, the values by which humankind has aligned itself with creation are being obliterated. Ethical principles, the distinction between good and evil, have been forsaken; mechanistic concepts and data are the only approved of signposts of reality. Machines multiply, the mighty prosper--but the moral center is crumbling. As the Dean notes, "they set the pain level for you over here. The government has the power to set it. Everybody has to understand this monopoly and be prepared to accept it ... America [on the other hand] is never going to take an open position on the pain level, because it's a pleasure society, a pleasure society which likes to think of itself as a tenderness society." (Bellow 2008: 275; emphasis added)

Corde comes to Romania imagining that "Bucharest would be a Mediterranean sort of place, a light city not a heavy one; rococo. Rococo!" But what he finds is "mass after mass of socialist tenements and government office buildings" (Bellow 2008: 17), covered with huge portraits of the dictator (Corde calls him "the President" in something of a democratizing effort): "his face, five stories tall, flapped and floated in gusts of rain. This must have been his way of resisting Christmas sentiment. He interposed himself" (Bellow 2008: 171). This is a closed world in which only the dogs dare, at times, to bark "a protest against the limits of dog existence (for God's sake open the universe a little more!)" (Bellow 2008: 10). On the rhythmic percussion of carpet beaters, the city life crawls along in dark colors and "gloomy queues--brown, gray, black, mud colors, and an atmosphere of compulsory exercise in the prison yard" (Bellow 2008: 52). The tentatively heated flats, electrically dim, with "radiators [that] turned cold after breakfast" and faucets that "went dry at 8 A.M. and did not run again until evening," the bathtub with no stopper and the toilet "flushed with buckets of water" (Bellow 2008: 8) as well as the "squally orange rusty trams hissing under trolley cables" (Bellow 2008: 1), with their "pale proletarian passengers," give Corde the sensation of being pulled back in the past, to a by-gone United States existing before the era of total comfort. "You saw the decades in reverse. Even the emotions," he notes, "belonged to an earlier time" (Bellow 2008: 107). Here, "intensive care [women] doctors could light candles for the dying, [and] secret agents could mourn their adoptive mothers. There was sentiment all over the place" (Bellow 2008: 184). This emotional life, however, is a very crippled one. Emotions may appear to be better recognized here (Corde sees them by comparison to America, where he declares affections to be more superficial), but this is a very small portion of individual territory allotted by the omnipresent party and state to the people deprived of any personal rights.

Ironically enough, it is this gloomy Romanian solitude that permits Corde to attain some critical distance from his much contested two-part article on Chicago and the conditions in the city's jails and hospitals. Overcome with an impulse he cannot understand himself, the dean "had let himself go, indignant, cutting, reckless" (Bellow 2008: 12) in a sort of "bristling gunboat attack" (Bellow 2008: 277); but all the "disobliging remarks about City Hall, the press, the sheriff, the governor" had stirred up an unanticipated storm of critical indignation--"so much trouble. Trouble was still raging" (Bellow 2008: 11-12). In Bucharest, the "December brown [that sets] in at about three in the afternoon" and "the impure melancholy winter effluence" (Bellow 2008: 3) as well as his confinement to his motherin-law's apartment--he "might have gone rambling about the city, but Minna was afraid the securitate [the secret police] would pick him up" (Bellow 2008: 10)--have the unforeseen effect of making Corde aware that the article may have been an attempt to define the self and determine what is eternal in the human soul, yet at the same time he criticizes certain excesses in his style and approach. But what he most deplores in the writing is "the generalizing, philosophizing passages," as they come across as "irritating" when set against the "straight narrative [which] was a relief and a consolation" (Bellow 2008: 160). And he is convinced that "the increase of theories" and of abstract "discourse" has contributed to "false consciousness"--to "new stage forms of blindness," which in the spiritual impoverishment afflicting modern society is all the more dangerous and crippling. The idea that Corde--as an alter ego (or rather an alter voice) of Bellow ultimately seems to assert is that "every man's inner inner city" (Bellow 2008: 207) is responsible for the external slums. Urban ghettos are a concrete embodiment of internal slums: overcome by apathy and extreme skepticism, modern people have lost their sense of enchantment with reality and their deeper connection with spiritual roots and life in general.

Can we then read the city? A popular conception of America is as a vast city recreated from half-remembered fragments of film, television dramas, popular music, and a thousand advertising images. "Quite simply, American cities appear to be all around us" (Campbell & Kean 1997: 162). America itself has been represented from the very beginning as a heavenly city, "a City upon a Hill," a metaphor illustrative for the utopian dreams so often associated with the city as orderly and godly.

However, the real city escapes, as we have seen, such idealistic confines and in the process of its evolution and expansion recreates itself, consciously or not as a multiplicity of discourses. We have thus the city of the voyeur, of the panoptic eye that pulls itself back and looks at the city as a spectacle and a text to be deciphered; we have the concept city maneuvering governments, corporations, and other institutional bodies which produce things like maps that describe it as a unified whole; and we have the city of the flaneur, of the pedestrian who appropriates and acts out the urban space through his act of walking. We also have the city of Dreiser, alluring and deadly at the same time, the Chicago of Bellow, decayed, proudly brutal and violent, and not much better than the claustrophobic Bucharest behind the Iron Curtain.

How then can we confine the city to one reading? "If the city is an 'imagined' place that we all create for ourselves in the very acts of existing within it" (Campbell and Kean 1997: 185), then it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to grasp the urban experience in a finite, quantifiable way.


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Alina Anton, PhD; Associate Professor, Kobe University; Kobe, Japan;
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Author:Anton, Alina
Publication:Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2016
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