Friday, March 1, 2013

The Devil's in the Portrait



Clairin Entering the Harem (1870)
I have been enjoying -- very much -- reading a variety of works about portraiture (but who has time with a newborn baby?!).  My intention has been to write a series of posts about this theme in literature.

While reading, however, I wanted to pause and address a thread from a past series of mine: the devil in literature.  I find, not surprisingly, that there are many intersections between the portrait and the devil in the texts I have read.
One of these, in particular, feels most fundamental to a study of the devil in portrait: Nikolai Gogol's "The Mysterious Portrait."  Gogol hinges his short story upon many almost-universal topoi, found in related works such as Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Balzac's "The Unfinished Masterpiece," Poe's "The Oval Portrait," Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, Stevenson's "Markheim," and even Faulkner's "Evangeline" (to only name a small handful that come to mind).

The first topic that struck me in reading about the portrait in literature is that the beauty of the portrait is that an author/artist can project how the subject wants to look or how he views the subject, and not necessarily how that subject did look. (That has always been why one of my favorite rooms at the Museum of Fine Arts is the early American portraits.) This adds layers to a tale, complicating the status of reality, opening the door, of course, to the supernatural.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Murder Fantasies in Twentieth Century Male Fiction

Collier, The Plague
I didn't intend to read book after book in which men fantasize about murdering or torturing women but this is exactly the kind of ride I've been on just by undertaking reading some random twentieth century fiction.  This month I read four novels that seemed to be connected to each other through the trope of fantastical misogyny.  Nabokov's Lolita, Thompson's The Nothing Man, Ellis's American Psycho, and Hamsun's Hunger(ok, this novel isn't quite 20th century --1890 -- but is considered an important landmark novel that inspired 20th century fiction).  In each of the these texts the hero's actions are propelled forward through his obsessively imagining the physical abuse of the women around him.  The thought of brutally murdering these women -- anyone from strangers and ex-wives, to wives and mothers -- seems, at times, to be the only force  pushing him onward through his unique journey.

I can't help, of course, but to view the murder fantasies of male heroes in male fiction as a continuation of sorts from nineteenth-century sensational fiction (and even, while I think of it, even of amatory fiction of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries -- Eliza Haywood and Aphra Behn come to mind).  I find Nabokov's, Thompson's, Ellis's, and Hamsun's writing of ravaging, segmenting, eating, or stabbing women very "sensational" in just this nineteenth-century sense.  Just as Mary Elizabeth Braddon or Wilkie Collins used the sensational genre to expound upon the unique life of women and men in the the domestic sphere, these twentieth-century novelists are also interested in exploring issues of gender and sexuality in their historical moment, and in their modern spaces: particularly that of masculinity.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Ruth Hall and Homeopathy

Vermeer, A Lady Writing
Ruth Hall is, as its author Fanny Fern is careful to note, a "continuous story" rather than a novel.  It is a work marked by a few covert postmodern gestures such as its vignette style, fragmented narrative, and its layers of subjectivity.  At its core Ruth Hall takes up the popular nineteenth-century question of female authorship.  Fern, like Marie Corelli in novels such as The Sorrow of Satan or The Murder of Delicia, manifests a literary protagonist who much resembles herself.  Yet unlike Corelli whose reflective authoresses strive to suture together female literacy with morality, Fern brings together women's writing and economics.  The "domestic tale" is steeped in matters that extend beyond the usual domestic realm as Hall is forced, after the death of her doting husband, to provide a liveable environment for her two daughters in the aftermath of rejection from her rich relatives.    

Although Fern's marriage of writing and economy stood out as noteworthy what seemed most interesting for me was the thread of medicine and its connection to women's writing.  Like Madame Bovary in Flaubert's classic tale, Hall is thrown with marriage into a world governed, to some degree, by medical discourse.  "The doctor," Hall's father-in-law is, like Charles Bovary, a mediocre physician.  His feeble attempts to govern the Hall home lead to his son and daughter eventually relocating, escaping the doctor's negligence and "Mis. Hall's" jealousy and frugality.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Dickens and the Excrement Product


From Our Mutual Friend
Freud’s claim that excrement is ailment makes a tidy frame for the familiar portrait of Victorian London, or what Dickens in Bleak House calls a “filthy wilderness.” Excrement, defined in the OED as “that which remains after a process of sifting or refining,” emerges from a laborious and sometimes painful process of internalization and elimination that is both visceral and psychological. To excrete is to rid the body of what was once inside it, creating a product with pungent olfactory properties.  Andrea Tanner has explained that as an affront to civilized society, just the smell of excrement was believed by Victorians to carry disease. The correlation between smell and disease prompted upper class Victorians to demand that the metropolitan local government install a program for waste removal, which created a new class of manual laborers to fill the urban streets.  Dirt sweepers and dustmen were employed to help dispel the threat that excrement (and especially horse manure, of which each horse produced between 15-30 pounds daily) posed to both the upper class body and its material possessions. These laborers may have given the upper class peace of mind but at a high price, as sweeping streets and emptying dustbins also acquainted laborers with a more epicurean lifestyle.  The popular “Educated Dustman” figure was held in contempt yet grudgingly admired by some upper class Victorians.  Engaging in self-improvement through reading, challenging the status quo, and acting as “heroic warriors” in the battle for social progress, the Educated Dustmen of London posed a threat to rigidly defined borders of rich and poor.  Because sanitation issues were connected to the poor, the dirty body came to symbolize a social discourse obsessed with sanitation.  The excrement product -- dirt, dust, and waste that has material value -- suggests a breakdown of social hierarchy. This excrement product has material value, first, in its contribution to creating the liminal spaces of public and private life.  Secondly, the excrement product has social weight as capital.  Finally, the excrement product itself produces social identity by engendering the racially transgressive body, providing a basis for colonialism and constructing theories of reality in the nineteenth century.
         

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Mysticism in Woolf's The Waves


Draper, Flying Fish
Virginia Woolf perhaps does, as Walter Allen suggests, look to art to make order from chaos, substituting art for religion with the “mystic’s intuition.” Allen bestows Woolf with the agency of a mystic, assuming that intrinsic intuition is the medium from which her art is wrought. Definitively, a mystical visionary strives to bring the human experience of the phenomenological world to a place painfully out of reach for even (and maybe especially) the most outstretched finger. Mysticism, as an act of self-surrender, aims to uncover truths that lie beyond the human scope or ordinary experience. Mystical writers, like W.B. Yeats, for example, strive to illustrate the shortcomings of the human consciousness by actively undermining language in a medium that relies upon language to communicate. To transcend the earthly ties of language a mystical writer may emphasize style – the form – as the mystic’s tool: the mind’s eye, not the mind’s mouth. 

Yeats’s poetry, for example, often centers on the complications of the ego as it attempts to surrender the “self” by stalking through uncertainty and cosmic darkness. In “Man and the Echo,” Man seeks absolution, acknowledgment, and reassurance in his quest for happiness by attempting to uphold language as spectacular (as spectacle). Man struggles to establish an elite identity by showing his relationship with/to words, trying to prove that his use of language manifests a kind of reality; “Did words of mine put too great strain/On that woman’s reeling brain?/Could my spoken words have checked/That whereby a house lay wrecked?”

In the poem Echo responds with terse repetitious phrases to Man’s paroxysms: “Lie down and die,” she says. For Yeats the nemesis of ego is death and old age.  However, there are other sponges by which ego becomes absorbed. “Meditations in Time of Civil War” shows both the constructed, artificial world (“rich man’s flowering lawns,” “a grey stone fireplace,” “my house,” “my table”) and the natural world (“the bees,” “the mother birds,” “white glimmering fragments of the mist”) as obfuscating forces to the identity of a once “growing boy.” Yeats juggles ego with the sublime or the beautiful so consciousness is negotiated – it is beyond language. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Missing Masterpiece: Balzac's Take on Pygmalion

Gerome, The Marble Work
Either the picture portrays the core of a man or it is not a picture.
 - William Carlos Williams, A Recognizable Image

In the "The UnKnownMasterpiece" Balzac takes up the age-old debate about where nature ends and art begins.  He does so, not surprisingly, through the most classic medium: the nude female form.  Or, more precisely, he enters the debate of art versus nature by writing about the painting of the nude female form.  This in itself -- before I considered the plot or the style or the significance of the short story -- already had me thinking of Etienne Gilson's argument that "true painters know full well that, while they are painting, they are neither writing nor talking," in conjunction with Foucault's theory that "either the text is ruled by the image [...] or else the image is ruled by the text."  Gilson and Foucault stress that language and image can never peaceably coexist on the same plane of meaning.  But I found myself questioning this basic assumption when reading Balzac.

This is my first time reading Balzac even though I have a bookcase full with at least four of his novels.  So, I am not interested at this point in considering how "The Unfinished Masterpiece" fits into his panoply of works but rather I am invested in what the short story has to say about portraiture in literature. This is the second installment of my latest series of exploring the portrait in literature.

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