From the Aesthetic to the Sexual Gaze (IV)

2007BM5740_michelangelo_david_plaster_castThe ImmoralistDeath in Venice and Women in Love all share a strong presence of the visual field, which places them at the birth of a new culture in the first part of the twentieth century: the culture of vision. Detailed descriptions, especially of the human body, anticipate what will be central in the new seventh art. The pleasure of looking gains prominence as it becomes part of a new popular visual art that is much more culturally extended than painting ever was. But it is not so much in the fact of seeing where most of the pleasure is felt as it is in the object presented to the gaze: the human figure. Laura Mulvey, in her analysis of cinema, argues:

‘The cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking […] the conventions of mainstream film focus attention on the human form. Scale, space, stories are all anthropomorphic. Here, curiosity and the wish to look intermingle with a fascination with likeness and recognition: the human face, the human body, the relationship between the human form and its surroundings, the visible presence of the person in the world’. (‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ 4)

However, cinema was born from a new technological context that led to a new conception of art and the human being. Visual pleasure is not free of a massive superficial valorisation of aesthetics, which reduces art, and with it the human body, to mere exhibitionism. Walter Benjamin argues, in ‘The Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, that modern art has replaced the cultural value of art with exhibitionism; therefore, the work of art has no meaning in itself, but rather acquires significance insofar as it acquires a function, in this case, the function of being exhibited: “[through] the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental” (619-20). If then, as Mulvey argues, the human body has become a source of artistic pleasure in the current epoch, it is also not free from becoming a mere instrument, and that is the danger Benjamin refers to when he says that the human figure has become the centre of a cult, since “its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order” (634).

The aesthetic value of the human being calls for a rebirth of the artistic sense in contemporary society beyond the significance of technology. The three texts here analysed express a necessary sensibility towards the human figure’s ability to arouse wonder in the reader. The gaze can only be surprised by discovering the unique and by avoiding endless mechanical reproduction. The historical moment when these novels were written is not unimportant, since they give testimony to both aesthetic and human value, reminding, as Plato’s Prophetess does, that “such a life as this, my dear Socrates, ” exclaimed the stranger Prophetess, “spent in the contemplation of the beautiful, is the life for men to live […]” (The Banquet 103).

From the Aesthetic to the Erotic Gaze (III)

tumblr_luetpht2nO1qjbn98o1_500The relationship between Robert Birkin and Gerald Crich in Women in Love introduces the importance of the gaze in this analysis.[1] All three novels have sight as the central sense involved in contemplation. Both aesthetic and sexual contemplation depend primarily on the gaze of the beholder, who gives a particular meaning to his object. In Women in Love, the beholder of the male body in the scenes here analysed is not always the same, but rather alternates between the narrator and Gerald. In the chapter “Fetichist”, Gerald’s is the most prominent gaze which rests upon the male bodies:

‘Gerald looked at him, and with a slight revulsion saw the human animal, golden skinned and bare, somehow humiliating. Halliday was different. He had a rather heavy, slack, broken beauty, white and firm […] And Gerald realised how Halliday’s eyes were beautiful too, so blue and warm and confused, broken also in their expression. The fireglow fell on his heavy rather bowed shoulders, he sat slackly crouched on the fender, his face was uplifted, weak, perhaps slightly disintegrate, and yet with a moving beauty of its own.’   (Women in Love 64)

In this same episode there are other similar descriptions, especially from Gerald’s perspective, which emphasise the presence of a beautiful male body through the use of colour adjectives that produce powerful aesthetic contrasts: “golden coloured body with black hair” (65), “Birkin, white and strangely ghostly, went over to the carved figure of the negro woman in labour” (65), “the Russian golden and like a water-plant” (65). The most powerful contrast is achieved through opposing the white male bodies to the black female statue, and it is by means of this pictorial scene that an artistic gaze is provoked in the reader, who is the one who can properly behold the totality of the depiction. This gaze, however, is constructed through Gerald’s perspective, the one who is more powerfully looking at the different parts of the scenario. He is also the one who realizes about the African statue, which later makes the colour contrasts clearer:

‘Gerald looked round the room […] there were several negro statues, wood carvings from West Africa, strange and disturbing, the carved negroes looked almost like a foetus of a human being. One was a woman sitting naked in a strange posture, and looking tortured, her abdomen stuck out […] the strange, transfixed, rudimentary face of the woman again reminded Gerald of a foetus, it was also rather wonderful, conveying the suggestion of the extreme of physical sensation, beyond the limits of mental consciousness’. (61)

Unlike The Immoralist and Death in VeniceWomen in Love powerfully channels the gaze of the reader through the characters. In the passages cited above, Gerald’s sight is more an instrument for presenting an aesthetic disposition to the reader’s gaze than an aim in itself; in other words, the aesthetic pleasure is addressed to the reader, who can become wholly conscious of the scene as a whole, rather than to Gerald, who only perceives parts of it. However, both Michel and Aschenbach fully enjoy the visions of Bachir and Tadzio respectively, while the reader is more involved with Michel’s and Aschenbach’s perceptions and not with their objects of beauty. These objects are mediated by the sight and emotions of their beholder, and it is precisely this mediation that is left to the reader, who has no direct access to the object, to enjoy.

 In Women in Love, the sexualized gaze appears through a different but still interesting mechanism. If in the previous analysed passage of this novel the beholder of the male bodies was properly the reader (through Gerald’s perspective), there is another scene which is presented to the reader through the narrator’s vision. This scene shows Gerald’s and Birkin’s naked bodies as they are involved in friendly wrestling. Since both characters are involved in the action, neither of them is able to describe the scene as a whole; therefore, a complete vision can only be achieved through the narrator’s gaze. If before Gerald found himself to be at a distance from Birkin, this distance is now overcome. Contemplation is now replaced by pure action, and is, as in Michel’s case, a fetishistic gaze on each other’s bodies. If the contact between the two bodies arouses any pleasure it can only be of a sexual kind. According to Carolyn M. Jones, the act of wrestling means a breakdown of older forms in Birkin’s and Gerald’s relationship and the establishing of new ones (69), which can also be represented through a new sexualised gaze. However, if between Gerald and Birkin the distance of the voyeuristic gaze is overcome, it still remains between the narrative voice, the reader, and the scene of the two bodies. The narrator and the reader behold a male spectacle, they are voyeurs of a scene described in sexual terms. But there is neither voyeurism nor exhibitionism amongst those enacting the scene:

‘So the two men began to struggle together. They were very dissimilar. Birkin was tall and narrow, his bones were very thin and fine. Gerald was much heavier and more plastic. His bones were strong and round, his limbs were rounded […] they became accustomed to each other, to each other’s rhythm, they got a kind of mutual physical understanding […] they seemed to drive their white flesh deeper and deeper against each other, as if they would break into a oneness’.   (Lawrence Women in Love 234)

This quote exemplifies the narrator’s perspective and the mutual gaze of the narrator and the reader on the scene, as well as the lack of awareness of the whole scenario on the part of the characters. The narration here fully invites the reader to take pleasure in the scene. Linda R. Williams, in her book Sex in the Head, argues that the male spectacle finds often no audience within Lawrence’s work itself (72), however she makes no reference to the non-fictional reality, the reader, who is truly the audience in such cases. In The Immoralist or Death in Venice, however, a fictive spectator also appears together with the male spectacle. It is notable that Williams ignores the reader when she considers the gaze in Women in Love. She claims the function of the female characters’ gaze is to introduce the male spectacle in the framework of a heterosexual relationship between the viewer and the object, and thus avoids a homosexual gaze between men (99). However, the two scenes analysed in this essay indicate the opposite. In the first case, Gerald is the one who sees the male bodies, and in the second case, the narrator is the first spectator; through them both, the reader, who can be considered as an abstract presence without a particular gender, becomes a spectator as well. Therefore, even if it can be argued that Lawrence experiments with a gender split, it does not explain the whole of his work.

[1] Important analyses about the function of the gaze in Women in Love include the studies by Linda R. Williams (1993) and Earl Ingersoll (1994).

From the Aesthetic to the Erotic Gaze (II)

veniceIn Death in Venice, Aschenbach experiences a similar situation to that of Michel. During his holidays in Venice, Aschenbach reconsiders his previous life as an artist and his conception of art, under the inspiration of the young Tadzio, who becomes the representation of Beauty with his young and well-proportioned body. Unlike Michel, Aschenbach dedicates a long time to the contemplation of Tadzio and his reflection about beauty, and it is not until almost the end of the novel that he experiences a rebirth in himself. This process is analysed by the narrator from a Platonic perspective, regarding beauty as a powerful force which can be both divine and dangerous. Classical references appear starting with Aschenbach’s first encounter with Tadzio:

 ‘With astonishment Aschenbach noticed that the boy was entirely beautiful. His countenance, pale and gracefully reserved, was surrounded by ringlets of honey-coloured hair, and with its straight nose, its enchanting mouth, its expression of sweet and divine gravity, it recalled Greek sculpture of the noblest period; yet despite the purest formal perfection, it had such unique personal charm that he who now contemplated it felt he had never beheld, in nature or in art, anything so consummately successful’ (Mann 219).

The artistic reference behind Aschenbach’s reflections on Tadzio’s beauty is the perspective of the Classical Age. Indeed, Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus (370 BC) is quoted at Aschenbach’s most crucial moment, that is, shortly before he becomes aware of his own desire for Tadzio. Hence, the Phaedrus introduces the debate about the two sides of Beauty, those of divine contemplation and human temptation, just when Aschenbach finds himself at a crux between them. In fact, Aschenbach’s approach to Tadzio’s figure is similar to Plato’s approach to beauty as an image of God or divinity. Moreover, in The Banquet (380 BC), Plato affirms through the figure of Diotima that “love is the desire of generation in the beautiful, both with relation to the body and the soul” (92). Love, then is love for the generation of beauty and not of the beauty itself (The Banquet 93), a fact related to Aschenbach’s artistic production, and especially to what he writes upon seeing Tadzio. The narrator relates how Aschenbach “embraced that noble figure at the blue water’s edge, and in rising ecstasy he felt he was gazing on Beauty itself, on Form as a thought of God […]” (Mann 237), and later on, the narration continues: “And Socrates, wooing him with witty compliments and jests, was instructing Phaedrus on desire and virtue. He spoke to him of the burning tremor of fear which the lover will suffer when his eye perceives a likeness of eternal beauty” (Mann 238).

However, the aesthetic vision is not completely free from arousing sensual pleasure and the temptation to turn the latter into the predominant focus. The narrator in Death in Venice reminds Socrates’ warning about how beauty can be a path either to the spirit or to debauchery:

‘[…] do you believe, dear boy, that the man whose path to the spiritual passes through the senses can ever achieve wisdom and true manly dignity? Or do you think rather (I leave it to you to decide) that this is a path of dangerous charm, very much an errant and sinful path which must of necessity lead us astray?’  (Mann 264)

Arthur Schopenhauer formulates the dilemma in these terms: “How is it possible for us to take pleasure in an object when this object has no kind of connexion with our desire?” (155). Schopenhauer argues that in beauty what is perceived is the Platonic Idea, the essence, and this perception abolishes the human will, which is the source of all pain. Therefore, aesthetic pleasure resides mainly in a negative act, i.e. the inability to suffer. The abolition of the will implies that of desire, because the subject is unable to want (Schopenhauer 155-6). However, Plato attributes the capacity of suffering to the beholder of the beautiful: ‘In this state of mingled pleasure and pain the sufferer is perplexed by the strangeness of his experience and struggles helplessly; in his frenzy he cannot sleep at night or remain still by day, but his longing drives him wherever he thinks that he may see the possessor of beauty’  (Phaedrus 58).

Moreover, if love is love of the generation of beauty, the contemplation of it engenders desire and action, a desire to eternally live in the presence of beauty, and thus to actively seek it (Plato The Banquet 93-4). As a consequence, aesthetic contemplation easily arouses desire in the subject even if, as Schopenhauer argues, the beholder takes pleasure from the contemplation of an essence. Indeed, there is a process in which, starting with the discovery of aesthetic pleasure in a human figure, the gaze approaches a threshold after which it will encounter a sexualized body. At this point, if the distance between the beholder and its object remains, the act of viewing becomes a substitute for the sexual act. The importance of sight at this crucial moment introduces the topic as analysed by Freud in his work “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”. Freud considers the “optical impression” as the starting point for sexual arousal (69). Indeed sight is –as Plato holds in both Timaeus (65) and Phaedrus (57)– the primordial human sense, through which a first curiosity towards the outside is born. Moreover, sight awakes in men the desire for love (Phaedrus 57) and the pursuit of beauty. For Freud it means a longing for sexual union with the object of beauty, which in turn becomes identified with the sexual object. Admiration of the human figure is what Freud calls artistic sublimation, and belongs to an intermediate state between an initial attraction by such a figure and a completion of the sexual act (“On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” 69). However, if there is no sexual act properly speaking, but instead the sight substitutes for this pleasure, then it is possible to talk about exhibitionism and voyeurism.

Unlike Michel, the character of Aschenbach in Death in Venice never achieves a close relationship with Tadzio, his sole object of beauty. The distance between the two men reinforces the act of seeing, which remains predominant throughout the whole novel. If in Michel’s case there is an evolution towards sexual consummation suggested at the very end of the novel, Aschenbach finds no other pleasure beyond that of contemplation.

The crucial moment for Aschenbach’s gaze arrives at almost the end of the novel, when he seems to glimpse Tadzio’s smile; Aschenbach’s “eyes met those of the returning absentee –and in that instant it happened that Tadzio smiled: smiled at him” (Mann 244). It causes an immediate reaction in Aschenbach, whose desire is completely aroused: ‘And leaning back, his arms hanging down, overwhelmed, trembling, shuddering all over, he whispered the standing formula of the heart’s desire –impossible here, absurd, depraved, ludicrous and sacred nevertheless, still worthy of honour even here: “I love you!” (Mann 244).

Aschenbach experiments contradictory feelings; he is now on the threshold of a new gaze that expresses a different approach to Tadzio. From this point on, Aschenbach’s and Tadzio’s eyes will meet again, and Tadzio’s awareness and passivity will suggest a pleasure in being looked upon. A similar scene takes place when Aschenbach “ventured to steal a glance at Tadzio, and as he did so he became aware that the boy, returning his glance, had remained no less serious than himself […]” (255). Because a physical encounter never takes place between the two, sight becomes the predominant sense as a source for sexual pleasure. An indication of the sexual importance of these meetings is brought out by Aschenbach’s Dionysian dream:

‘It began with fear, fear and joy and a horrified curiosity about what was to come […] from far off a hubbub was approaching, an uproar, a compendium of noise, a clangour and blare and dull thundering, yells of exultation and a particular howl with a long-drawn-out u at the end –all of it permeated and dominated by a terrible sweet song of flute music […] they were himself as an orgy of limitless coupling, in homage to the god […] his very soul savoured the lascivious delirium of annihilation’ (Mann 259-61).




From the Aesthetic to the Erotic Gaze (I)

Eastman Johnson (American painter, 1824-1906) Negro Boy 1860The following posts will analyse how the contemplation of a beautiful body arouses sexual pleasure within the field of either homophilia or homoeroticism.

In The Immoralist (1902), the healthy state of the bodies where Michel finds beauty has, among other episodes, autobiographical reminiscences. Gide suffered from tertiary syphilis and anaemia during his childhood, something to keep in mind when appreciating the important link between health and beauty in his novel.  Michel’s weak and sickly physical state is aesthetically contrasted with the robust and healthy bodies of African boys, as well as with the exotic setting surrounding him. Michel describes his experience of seeing the young Bachir as follows: “When he laughed, he showed his pure white teeth. He licked the cut blithely; his tongue was pink like a cat’s. Ah, how well he looked. That is what I fell in love with –his health. This small body was in beautiful health” (The Immoralist 26).

Michel is aware of the physical presence of Tunisian boys, who awaken a desire for life and health in him; after the scene quoted above, Michel declares “I had started to love life” (The Immoralist 26), and only then does he firmly decide to improve his state of health. Beauty as represented by a healthy body means for Michel a redemption that is both physical and spiritual. Chapter III is mainly dedicated to Michel’s body, as a means of demonstrating how important physical recuperation is for the rest of his being. The body is an expression of Michel’s interiority, as can be seen throughout the novel, via the respective changes that his body and soul suffer. There is a complete evolution from a disharmony between Michel’s body and inner desires to a harmony between them. His physical appearance changes during the act of discovering himself. There are several references to Michel’s perception of his own identity, starting at the very beginning of the novel, such as “knowing myself so little” (16), “I didn’t know who I was” (24), “was this finally the morning when I was to be born?” (34) “I had a strange moment of self-revelation” (38), “did I know myself?” (43), “from now on, he was the one I intended to discover: the authentic being […] I myself –had tried to suppress” (43), until almost the middle of the novel when Michel quotes “a new self! A new self!” (44). It has been the presence of aesthetically pleasing bodies which has lead Michel to a rebirth.

While Michel is coming to a realisation about his new and authentic self, he experiments “a strange moment of self-revelation” (Gide 38). In the presence of another Arab boy Michel questions himself for the first time about his fascination with young boys:

 ‘Moktir, the only one of my wife’s favourites who didn’t annoy me (perhaps because he was good-looking), was alone with me in my room. Until then I had liked him only moderately, but his dark, brilliant eyes intrigued me. I developed an inexplicable curiosity about him, and began to watch his movements carefully’.                                                                          (Gide 38)

From this point on, words related to the semantic field of the beautiful decrease in favour of terms more linked to that of sexuality, such as “good-looking” (38), “handsome” (61), “attracted” (67) or “passion” (115). In the scene quoted, Michel’s gaze is scrutinizing and consciously looking for satisfaction. It is clearly a “voyeuristic view”, as John Ellis points out: “the voyeuristic look is curious, inquiring, demanding to know” (47). Later on, Michel realises that Moktir was aware that he was looking at him. His colleague Ménalque tells Michel that Moktir “realized you were watching him in the mirror and he caught your eye in the reflection” (Gide The Immoralist 77). It is significant that Ménalque is one of the triggers for Michel’s becoming self-aware of his desire, since Ménalque can be interpreted as a parallel figure to that of Oscar Wilde in Gide’s own life. Indeed, the encounter between Gide and Wilde in North Africa was decisive for Gide’s decision to embrace homosexuality (Sheridan 76). Moktir responds to Michel’s gaze, and even if the novel gives no indication of his feelings at this moment, the fact that he is seen while stealing a pair scissors and does not change his behaviour suggests that he knows what kind of action is taking place. Moktir does not fear being accused by Michel, in fact, he exhibits his own body as he hides the scissors “inside his burnous” (Gide The Immoralist 77).  In the whole novel there is no other pleasure for Michel than these moments of voyeurism; he finds no pleasure in his sexual relations with his wife. This parallels Gide’s own experience, for he considered women to be spiritual-love companions with whom sexual pleasure was difficult to enjoy (Sheridan 62). Therefore, the act of looking at male bodies becomes the greatest source for sexual pleasure. There is in Gide’s life an earlier testimony to such a pleasure. In his autobiography, Gide writes how “the sight of Idrac’s Mercury […] threw me into a stupor of admiration, out of which Marie had the greatest difficulty in arousing me” (If it Die… 50).

The second part of the novel shows the settling of Michel’s new self, and this fact implies a definite change in his own gaze. Michel’s enjoyment of the male body becomes less contemplative and tends subtly towards action. The presence of a gorgeous boy does not startle his sight as before, and he is already familiar with the pleasure that is linked to this kind of vision. Now, Michel seems to seek something more than mere contemplation. Such an experience is made possible by Charles, the son of one of Michel’s workers. Michel describes Charles as “a handsome fellow, so blooming with health, so lissom and well-made” (Gide The Immoralist 61). Unlike with the Tunisian boys, Michel will have a close relationship with Charles, who will be helpful for Michel’s business, and in turn this situation will allow them to spent time together in different activities. This activity breaks the contemplation and introduces action into Michel’s appreciation of the male body; in other words, the voyeuristic view becomes a “fetishistic process”, which Ellis defines as “the abolition of looking itself: bridging the gulf that separates viewer and object” (Visible Fictions 47).

Why the Rule of Metaphor? days ago, I made a comment on the title of the English edition of Paul Ricoeur’s La Métaphore Vive. Well, for those interested  here is the answer of Robert Czerny, the translator; a very nice and welcomed answer. I copy here our respective emails:

Dear Robert,

I wish to make a comment on your title translation (The Rule of Metaphor).
I think La Métaphore Vive is a fantastic theory of hermeneutics at the opposite side of the question of “rule”. If there is something far away from the meaning of “rule”, or “norm”, that is the theory of Paul Ricoeur concerning linguistics. Even a first sight to the words “rule” and “living” shows something wrong with these two words, something unlikely. Indeed Ricoeur is concerned with the most intuitive sense of meaning; the one  blooming at its very perception, which is alive. There is no sense of rule in Ricoeur’s theory of metaphor but sense of endlessly becoming; newness; creation; life. Until some point, rule is death, or at least there is a very first intuition to join rule with lack of creativity, that is, with compliance, uniformity, conservatism, death.
What do you think of that? Why not just a translator like The Living Metaphor?
Best wishes,
Aina Marti
Dear Aina, you are absolutely right about the title.
In fact, I explain the curious title in the third paragraph of the translator’s foreword (I assume it is still there, but perhaps some publishers have removed it – it was in the first edition). The explicit reference to Aristotle is the main clue. I could have added that “Therefore the ‘rule’ is that there is no rule!” but that would be like explaining a joke, and explained jokes are painful.
This humorous, almost oxymoronic title had Paul Ricoeur’s approval. I had the privilege of getting to know him (and his wife) personally in the Fall of 1972 and Fall 1973. He asked me to do the translation in late Fall 1973. He had a good sense of humour, and he liked the irony of the title. (One might also say, the error of the title, if one takes it literally.) Charles Reagan, who has written on Ricoeur, also questioned the title along the same lines as yourself. These are the only two objections I have heard.
Needless to say, I agree with all you say about metaphor according to Ricoeur: blooming, newness, creativity… That is why I added the subtitle (also with his approval – it does not exist in the French) that mentions “creation of meaning in language”.
How did you get to know this book? How does it fit into your interests, studies or work?
With best wishes, Robert

Practical Information on Ricoeur’s Theory Today

paul chez lui, dans la salle 2(2)For those interested in Paul Ricoeur’s hermeneutics and aesthetics, I am glad to show you important projects in which Ricoeur gives a significant base to see how the last research projects develop, especially in the realm of aesthetics.

Moreover, there is emerging a great bibliography source on Ricoeur in cooperation with Sorbonne University and L’Ecole d’Haut Etudes:

All that just shows how important the influence of this philosopher was and is; all kind of contribution will be very welcome for the academic world.

Ricoeur and his Wonderful Worlds

PAUL_RICOEUR_2__c__louis_MonierThe Rule of Metaphor is a betraying translation for La Métaphore Vive (1975), a fantastic theory of hermeneutics at the opposite side of the question of “rule”. If there is something far away from the meaning of “rule”, or “norm”, that is the theory of Paul Ricoeur concerning linguistics. Even a first sight to the words “rule” and “living” shows something wrong with these two words, something unlikely. Indeed Ricoeur is concerned with the most intuitive sense of meaning; the one  blooming at its very perception, which is alive. There is no sense of rule in Ricoeur’s theory of metaphor but sense of endlessly becoming; newness; creation; life. Until some point, rule is death, or at least there is a very first intuition to join rule with lack of creativity, that is, with compliance, uniformity, conservatism, death. The translator for the English edition argues: “I have offered The Rule of Metaphor because of its metaphorical suggestiveness.” Well, I wonder if the word “rule” suggests creativity to anyone, which actually means that this writing will probably end in a claiming letter to this intuitive translator.

Coming back to Ricoeur’s living metaphor, one of the most interesting points of this theory is how language is pushed beyond its limits. Metaphor, says Ricoeur, is the expression of a new reality unable of being referred to with ordinary language. In contrast to the theory of substitution according to which metaphor beckons the same reality with other words, Ricoeur argues how metaphor goes beyond it creating another realm of experience, something which escapes common consensus. Thus, every act of reading will be a “possible world”, a new reality whose meaning is not conventional but alive, new; therefore there are no established words to refer to this realm of existence but the new creation of meaning which metaphor allows. The subject is of course totally involved in the deciphering of the metaphor, and it is following the personal mode of being in the world that the metaphor, or the text, shows its meaning.

Metaphor increases the cognitive field, knowledge, but also the affective realm of existence. Feelings as well are involved in the new search for meaning because metaphor produces images through words that provoke feelings. Here the aesthetic field is linked as well to metaphor through the image or icon. Ricoeur argues how in the image the verbal and non-verbal expressions meet each other causing a new meaning which refer to a new reality. Metaphor shows this encounter of the word and the image in a synthesis which actually creates the new concept. Both the word and the image belong to different domains, but both together configures the thought and expand it with new meanings made up by new unions.

Every meaning a reader gives to a text blooms as a new garden in the field of the understanding; human creativity is an infinite source of creation and meaning which actually is a potential new world in the sense of apprehension of reality. The gaze of the subject again shows its power when referring to the reality, both internal and external, as meaning is able to change the perception of the world, and thus, the whole being in the world of one self.

Our Body, Our Language

dancing,women,art,dance,painting,womans-59550cc39b7428ffade728ba4e533455_h_largeSince the second half of the nineteenth century is possible to see in the history of literature an increasing prominence of the human body and its importance. It was Freud who put into words the relation between our interiority and our body and clearly talked about an interpretation of the physical signs to know our inner problems. The body talks, indeed, as we are a human unit, and it is a pity to see how nowadays medicine is just concerned with the physiological. A lot of health problems have their origin somewhere deeper within us but the fashion today is to cut off what is superficially wrong and, of course, the problem usually comes again later on. Well, the main problem in our medical system is that humanities have absolutely no importance and we find doctors with no idea of what a human being is beyond his or her flesh. But this digression was not my intention.

Coming back to literature, I would say Zola is one of the most important authors concerned with the body reactions to our own actions. In fact, Thérèse Raquin and Laurent after killing Camille do not present spiritual regret but physical regret, to say so. It is a very interesting point how, even when a person could have lost all his or her feelings, the body remains and expresses through illness the consequences of an action. They do not ‘feel bad’ but they feel ill, terribly ill until the point of desiring death. That is what Zola does wonderfully, he experiments with the most physical part of the human being and this part talks as well.

In a more linguistic approach, it is excellent the work of Roland Barthes and even of Michel Foucault regarding the language of the body. Barthes, in The Semiotic Challenge finds a correlate between the body and the language and argues how illness belongs to the language of the body. Foucault in The Birth of the Clinic presents a similar approach regarding the sign found both in the body and the language. It is possible to read a human body as it is possible to read a text and until now the most wonderful example I can give of is Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text. Barthes establishes a parallel between the textual and the human eroticism and seduction. Language and body are extremely related in this case but they are so indeed in a lot of situations.

Lawrence is another author dealing with the language of the body and between bodies. Most of his female characters feel their sexual needs as something which goes beyond the physical and expresses itself in the whole person, something similar happens to Thérèse Raquin. The awakening of the body has consequences all over the psyche and soul of the character and the process of attraction starts with a physical communication which usually is expression of something deeper. When the body is able to express the truly personality of the person harmony is likely to appear.

The Human Beast in Thérèse Raquin

thereseA Zola’s novel hardly leaves anyone indifferent; he is the artist par excellence of the darkest human side. It is not just in his topics and characters, it is in his narrative style as well where Zola depicts brutality in a very brutal way: without judgement. There is no the slightest moral voice in his work to relief the reader of the tragedy, instead, the reader is trapped in a hopeless world completely alone without finding an accomplice in the narrator. That is what makes Zola especially terrible, his objective display of the human beast.

Such a thing as a ‘good character’ is impossible to find in Thérèse Raquinthere are just evil and less-evil characters  in the Parisian novel. No one is free or innocent, all of them are accomplices in some way or another of the murder of Camille, even Camille himself. All the characters present in the novel are especially concern with themselves, their own interests, which lead them to cause unfair situations in an endless chain of guilty. Surviving is the main objective for each one until the only possible way to do so is suicide. Death freed Thérèse and Laurent of their crime remorses after months of mutual hate and misbehaviour. Camille, Madame Raquin, Thérèse and Laurent are all victims and guilty; even secondary characters can be accused of selfishness looking just for self-satisfaction. The characters’ descriptions and the atmosphere of the novel is quite animalistic. The word ‘animal’ to design desires or feelings is used repeatedly for Thérèse and Laurent and it is full of animal similes which refer to their bodies as well. Sexuality between the lovers is mainly aggressive and even masochistic, it is just of an instinctual kind.

The adulterous affair between Thérèse and Laurent corresponds actually to that of Rougemont’s theory in The Love in the Western World. After committing the crime killing Camille, Thérèse’s husband, Laurent and Thérèse cannot feel attract to each other any more. Moreover, they will progressively hate each other after their marriage, which was the goal killing Camille, until ending in death. Indeed, the adulterous affair is exciting because of the obstacle, it is the romantic love which is thrilling and such a thrill is possible due to the obstacle, in this case, the husband. Passion was possible for the lovers because of their consciousness of braking the rule and their passion needed always an obstacle, otherwise, it dies. No passion lasts forever and there is no passion in marriage actually after a certain time. Marriage is not properly the place for sexual passion, this one should be found outside ‘conformity’. The problem then with passion is that neither every obstacle lasts forever, so death is the last solution and, Rougemont would say, the lover’s most secret desire. Death is the only obstacle which remains forever and which feds lover’s ‘love’. Thérèse and Laurent can just kill themselves because they have discovered that marriage’s happiness was a mirage, they needed Camille to find the passion. And actually the only scene of relief in the whole novel is at the very end, when they decide to commit suicide:

‘Suddenly Thérèse and Laurent burst into tears, and in a final breakdown fell into each other’s arms, as weak children. Something gentle and tender seemed to awaken in their breast. They wept and said nothing, thinking of the sink of filth in which they had been living and would go on living if they were cowardly enough to remain alive. And then, as they remembered the past, they felt so weary and sick of themselves that an immense longing for rest an oblivion came over them. They exchanged one last look, a look of gratitude in the presence of the knife and the glass of poison. Thérèse took the glass, drank half of it, and gave it to Laurent, who finished it in one gulp. It was as quick as lightning. They fell on each other, struck down instantly, and at last found consolation in death.’

Kafka’s Women: In the Borderline

tumblr_m8uulbQX5O1qc5h1co1_1280In The Trial, women configure a particular atmosphere in a mainly masculine world. Joseph K. appears as an isolated male figure, naive and innocent paying punishment for a Law of a very patriarchal structure and hierarchy. There are only men in the judicial system while women stand on marginal positions around the core of the Law. They constitute a sort of borderline between the Law and the accused; they are at the same time inside and outside the system. Thus, they are ambiguous characters, at least unfaithful because of such ambiguity. Unfaithful for both those who are inside the system and those who are outside it. This characteristic is expressed through their promiscuity, that is, through sexuality which is properly what defines them. Indeed, they are highly sexualised beings and their sexuality is always involved in helping the accused. They are mainly prostitutes as their mode of interchange is always physically: they obtain favours from the Court members in exchange of their bodies. Its use is what their master overall.

Women, as a figure bordering the Law, suggest the idea of entrance which is related to the sexual body. The man who wants to go inside the Law -in this case Joseph K.- should penetrate the threshold. In fact, Joseph K. refuses any complete sexual encounter with the nurse or the washerwoman and he loses their respective help. Joseph K. does not pay the price to be helped and his attitude contrasts with the “sexualised woman”; his virility is diminished. Kafka’s male characters are usually confronted with sexualised women and they are unable to master the situation. Men use to be shy or “sexually inferior” than women who are very self-confident. Kafka inverts the classical Western gender roles. It is possible to see how these women cause confusion in the main male characters who find themselves overcame by the situation.

The inability of male characters to engage with sexual matters is present through the whole Kafka’s work. Women are presented as inaccessible or unmastered. They can appear as strongly independent, manipulative, funny and sexualised. However, in some cases, the figure of the mother appears as a sexless and helpful woman even if her good intentions are always cast off by a male authority.

Uncanny Aesthetics in Kafka

MMA_IAP_10310749191Kafka’s America shows the story of Karl Rossmann, a young boy who is forced to leave home due to his affair with the maid. He is send by his parents on a ship to New York with nothing more than a suitcase. The novel describes all Karl’s adventures through the American country, which includes places where he lives and people whom he meets.

A general view to the novel shows that every place is a place of expulsion, in other words, Karl is successively involuntary thrown away from one place to the other. Anderson suggests this idea affirming that Karl has no “sense of place” in New York. The novel, as a whole, presents a sense of “unintentional return” or “repetition” which Freud refers to the Uncanny. Even if Freud uses the term “return” implying a coming back to the same point, in Karl, this return is metaphorical, experimented through the feeling of being again expulsed. Behind it, helplessness accompanies this repetition, as Karl finds himself in animosity with his expellers. The return becomes here an experience of repetition of the unsettlement whose origin is the expulsion of Karl by his parents. It exemplifies what Freud calls “the impulsion to repeat” which is found in the unconscious and proceeds from instinctual impulses. Such compulsion is related to the repression of drives and its common in neuroses. At the end of the explanation, Freud concludes, “anything that can remind us of this inner compulsion to repeat is perceived as uncanny”. Therefore, the reader encounters the Uncanny through the general wandering of Karl and the places which once and again force Karl to such wandering.

It is important to note how the structure of the buildings in general helps to maintain the suspense. As Gellen points out, Kafka presents and “architectural narration”, in other words, the structure of the buildings has a narrative function, they are “a mode of expression”. In fact, they are the “thought” of the “non-thought”; the materialization of what is hidden to the conscious (Rancière). The “architectural narration” is characterized by an over perception of the atmosphere, as Fuchs points out, Karl experiments a hyper-reality of the sensual perception, which leads to an anti-mimetic expression. The buildings represent a sort of aesthetic experience, in this case, an uncanny one. The reader knows Karl’s inner-state through the descriptions of the places as Karl’s self is projected on them. As Freud suggests, through aesthetics an author can achieve the goal of communication provoking in the reader, or public, the same feelings which lead him to make the work of art. He particularly refers to the sculpture due to its speechless form, but the mechanism of arousing feelings in “America” is near to that of speechless arts. The reader just perceives a few literal words appealing Karl’s state, the main information is put into images that create feelings.

In conclusion, the four closed spaces in America bring together an aesthetic concept taken from Psychoanalysis with the narrative of Kafka, particularly, its aesthetic effects. All of them arise the Uncanny through different spatial dispositions and situations, but the feeling is based in all cases on the “impulsion to repeat” the appearance of something threating for the self.

 America is an unfinished novel, however, there is one testimony in Kafka’s diaries of a possible ending. On the 30th of September, 1915, Kafka wrote, “Rossmann and K., the innocent and the guilty, both executed without distinction in the end, the guilty one with a gentler hand, more pushed aside struck down”. This testimony closes the circle of the Uncanny whose latest manifestation is the ultimate accomplishment of a repetitious threat, which is death. It is the death returning once and again, and it seemed to be Karl’s destiny. Exactly as E.T.A Hoffmann does with Nathaniel who finally dies because his threat, the Sandman, always reappears until becoming something inescapable.

The similarity the whole story presents with Charles Dickens’ wandering boys is also something undeniable, as Kafka itself notes in his diary:

Dicken’s Copperfield. “The Stoker” a sheer imitation of Dickens, the projected novel even more so. The story of the trunk, the boy who delights and charms everyone, the menial labour, his sweetheart in the country house, the dirty houses, et al., but above all the method. It was my intention, as I now see, to write a Dickens novel […]

However, a deep analysis of America shows how it results to be a more complicated novel than, at first sight, one can realize. The presence of the Uncanny introduces a self continually threated by the unconscious, and far from David Copperfield, Karl Rossmann, not just descends in the social scale but he also presents a very destabilized self. Indeed, a self which can be analysed upon the light of Psychoanalysis; he is a very modern character.


7608020870_f534eb495a_zIt is widely known how memory is important in Proust’s work. In “Swann in Love”, its main function is to reveal the truth, especially, the truth about Odette and Mme Verdurin. As Deleuze writes, “the objective is to find the truth and memory serves to this purpose (Proust and Signs, 3)”.

Mme Verdurin’s behaviour acquires a new significance upon the light of Odette’s truth. Now, Swann reminds some moments putting them together and seeing the whole picture:

“Oh, Mme Verdurin, she won’t hear of anyone just now but me. I’m a “love”, if you please, and she kisses me, and wants me to go with her everywhere, and call her by her Christian name’

Through memory, there is the possibility of encountering two stories or worlds: one while reading, and the other one remembering the reading. For Swann it means a difference between living and remembering something. The significance of memory is very close to psychoanalysis, where one changes the meaning of the past remembering it and the self acquires its real truth. These two worlds conform two different entities of significance and are related to oneself and to one’s perspective of the reality, and to the others, which are important so far as they conform such worlds. In Swann’s case, his experience was determined by Odette’s several worlds and their respective selves.  Her changes have a strong sexual component, which make her to perform different “Odettes” in front of the other. Each “Odette” is a lie if it is seen as the total Odette, and that was Swann’s problem: he took the part for the whole. However, every Odette configuring a complete picture is the truth about Odette. In this case, a multiple sexual life. Rivers emphasises homosexual characters in Proust as being considered as actors: ‘these characters display a constant, theatrical interpenetration of various modes of identity: half-hidden selves (…) and selves which are projected in order to survive’ (Proust and the Art of Love).

In fact, memory gives us a more complete meaning of our past experiences as our current distance allows us to get the part and insert it into the whole of our self which is rarely displayed as such.

The Truth about Odette in “Swann in Love”

-1040x940-15When Swann meets Odette he does not like her as her beauty responds to a traditional conception. She is not a cultivated woman as she shows, for example, asking if Vermeer, who died in 1675, is still alive. She seems to be seduced by Swann’s intelligence and cultural interests. She appears as someone who looks for affection and is devoted to Swann; she is sensitive in love matters in contrast to Swann’s first frivolity. Her main interest seems to be that of seeking a husband and a marriage in which she could develop her wife’s duties.

 In opposition to Swann, she appears as naïve and innocent; in fact, she looks as a Swann’s perfect victim. Moreover, she lacks personality or an own life. That is also one of the reasons she is a perfect Verdurin’s faithful.

The fact that she has no personality is related to her unknown past and it is expressed in her high attachment to Swann’s desire. She appears as unable to say “no”, which makes her a potential sexual slave and extremely vulnerable. Moreover, she is someone in relation to Swann, to his perspective or presence, which in this case, is that of the reader too. Odette is not presented as a consistent self; it suggests again the idea of performance (like Mme Verdurin) as far as she is not for herself but for the other. When she meets Swann, she performs a self: a delicate and helpless Odette; she performs a sexuality: she is heterosexual and a beauty expression of the Western canon; and these two performances belong to a specific world constructed by herself which gives to Swann and the reader an image of Odette based on a lie. It is a lie, as we will see later, because the part of Odette is presented as the whole.

Among all the topics which can be found in the story, Odette is one of the most important; she herself constitutes a topic. Odette begins to be suspicious for both Swann and the reader, as the process of discovering Odette is the same for they two. The first sign of Odette’s falsehood is suggested by her financial necessities which make Swann a necessary help for her.  Swann begins to spy Odette because he thinks she is been unfaithful. At this point he is excited by the idea of knowing Odette’s other life, which remains a secret for him. He is fascinated with the idea of discovering the truth about Odette, which is especially related to her sexual life. His first attitude regarding Odette’s infidelity is that of a scientist or of a doctor in sexual matters. At the same time, he is an artist finding out the secret of a masterpiece. A potential forbidden life of Odette makes her more attractive to Swann as a mystery which involves a work of art.

Swann discovers that Forcheville met Odette in her house. Forcheville becomes a rival for Swann. Mainly because Mme Verdurin sees the relationship between Swann and Odette too dangerous for her. Swann is taking away Odette from Mme Verdurin. That is the reason for finding a substitute for Swann. From now on, Swann is put apart from the faithful.   Swann discovers gradually Odette’s multiple affairs in France and abroad. She has had a lot of lovers both for money or pleasure. At this point the missing past of Odette begins to appear. Swann is now completely jealous of been missing Odette. He feels anxious and he needs to know everything about her.

The second important scene regarding Odette’s truth takes place when Swann receives an anonymous letter containing all Odette’s affairs (hetero- and homosexual ones).

Finally, Odette tells the truth to Swann who is horrified by it. Swann’s approach to Odette’s sexuality is mainly conformed by a medical perspective. As Rivers argues, the characters in the novel show contradictory selves (‘kindness and cruelty, sadism and altruism’). According to him, this expression concerns mainly the 19th century medical idea of a homosexual person as a kind of schizophrenic. Proust would include himself in this group and it could also explained the idea earlier mentioned of “performing selves”.

Together with Odette’s confession, the approach to sexuality conforms Foucault’s explanation concerning the relation between the discourse of confession and the scientific sexual discourse, both of them extremely important in the Western history and culture. According to Foucault, the methodology of confession is similar to that of science as they are based in observation and interrogation. The ‘truth of sex’ was born in the Western and institutionalized by religion and then, by the medical science which gave the correct view of sexuality. However, in this case, Odette has another truth which conforms a very challenging idea of the genre. A whole new set of sexual possibilities is being presented in literature, as Freud did in psychology. As Rivers points out, the whole assumptions of female roles in the Western world are completely distorted provoking thus a revision of the meaning of “man” and “woman”.

The whole past of Odette comes out: she was sold by her own mother. This particular fact could be seen in relation to her successively acts of selling herself. A possible psychoanalytical explanation could be that of “the compulsion to repeat” explained by Freud. It consists in a traumatic experience lived in childhood which the subject makes to come back again and it is related to the death drive because it is presented as a threat for the self. The compulsion to repeat would be an instinct because it is stronger than the pleasure principle. This behaviour of Odette is linked to a sadomasochist figure who, as Haberdstadt affirms, connects cruelty with pleasure. The sadomasochist used to find love in his childhood in exchange of something else which could not be pleasurable.

Finally, the relationship between Swann and Odette is inverted regarding the beginning, as it is Swann who becomes the victim of Odette’s lies.

Fetishism in Proust’s “Swann in Love”

cover_9070727_clippedIn In search of Lost Time, there are many topics regarding sexuality which can be analysed. I will be posting them during the next days as part of my MA research, all them based on the chapter “Swann in Love”. By now, there is here a brief thoughts on Fetishism.

The first scene suggesting fetishism takes place at the Verdurins. Mme Verdurin likes to touch the bronze grapes and to think her husband feels jealous about it. Swann too engages with this pleasure. It is a slight suggestion of Mme Verdurin homosexuality as the round form of the grapes reminds a feminine body or some parts of it. Moreover, Swann, of whom we know to be heterosexual, enjoys it too.

A similar scene takes place in the carriage between Swann and Odette. Swann finds a new pleasure touching Odette’s cattleyas, which will result later on in the sexual act. Even language itself expresses a continuum from the object, which is also related to her breast, to the whole woman, that is from the part to the whole – which is typical in fetishism. The use of the metaphor ‘do a cattleya’ becomes a substitute for “making love”. Thus, the “cattleya” becomes a sexual symbol which refers to the object itself and to a reality beyond itself.

‘And long afterwards, when the rearrangement (or, rather, the ritual pretence of a rearrangement) of her cattleyas had quite fallen into desuetude, the metaphor “Do a cattleya”, transmuted into a simple verb which they would employ without thinking when they wished to refer to the act of physical possession (…) And perhaps this particular manner of saying “to make love” did not mean exactly the same thing as its synonyms’.

Art and love, as well as the artistic and sexual object are slightly confused with each other. It is the music of Vinteuil which makes Swann feel love. As a result, he thinks to love Odette, however, he could be in love with the music or with what music provokes on him. Later on, Swann will ask Odette to play this some piece of music again. He feels pleasure listening it, especially when it is played by Odette. Music works as a substitute for the sexual act; it is a part of Odette who plays it. And, again, like the cattleyas, music is a continuum of Odette, and the sexual desire goes from the artistic object to the real person, which in this case becomes the sexual object. This relation between sex and music is clearly expressed by language identifying ‘playing again’ with ‘kissing again’.

Painting too is involved in Swann’s love for Odette. She represents Swann’s aesthetic values and she resembles Botticelli’s portrait of Zipporah, of which Swann in in love. Swann likes Odette because she represents Zipporah’s features. Therefore, Odette is subordinated to the aesthetic values at the same time that she herself has a value making possible an aesthetic experience.

Odette embodies art in the tangible world joining the artistic object and the sexual one in herself. It fits with the idea of Halberdstadt who argues that in perversion, a part of the lover believes in the real beloved and, another part, in the fantastic one.

‘Or else she would look at him sulkily, and he would see once again a face worthy to figure in Botticceli’s “Life of Moises”; he would place it there, giving to Odette’s neck the necessary inclination; and when he had finished his portrait in tempera, in the fifteenth century, on the wall of the Sistine, the idea that she was non the less in the room with him still, by the piano, at that very moment, ready to be kissed and enjoyed, the idea of her material existence would sweep over him with so violent an intoxication that (…) he would fling himself upon this Botticceli maiden and kiss and bite her cheeks’

I would like to note that, according to Deleuze, in Proust, the revelation of the essence belongs to art. In this case, Swann apprehends Beauty through music and painting, and then he is able to find this essence in Odette, who becomes a part of the work of art.

The important point is that Odette never constitutes a sexual object by herself but it is always needed the presence of a mediator, in this case, of art.               


“Play it again, Sam…”

SONY DSC“As for my wife, I’d never seen her looking as she did that evening (…) her radiant eyes, her serenity, the gravity of her expression as she played (…) I saw all this but I didn’t attach any particular significance to it, beyond supposing that she had experienced the same feelings as I had”. That’s what Pozdnyshev, in The Kreutzer Sonata, thinks when he sees the concert his wife and the violinist, Trukhachevsky, perform. After Pozdnyshev feels, following Nietzsche, the intoxication of music, he thinks his wife’s radiance is due to the same experience. However, the facts are others.

As Pozdnyshev explains, Trukhachevsky “searched the strings with careful fingers and provided a response to the piano. And so it began…” . The Kreutzer Sonata is a dialogue between the violin and the piano; the last unfinished sentence becomes suggestive. It is supposed that what begins is the concert but as the sentence remains open, it calls for ambiguity. What begins together with music is the performance of adultery or sexual act, as far as the open sentence outlines that what follows cannot be said. Rhythm here becomes the key point.  Following Langer, an american philosopher of music, it can be said that the essence of a composition is its movement, and movement is expressed through rhythm. It is the “regular recurrence of events” , an endless preparation from one event to the next. Rhythmical events configure a whole unity of significance with a beginning and a consummation of the fact. It can be said of both the adultery as a relationship, articulated by a chain of events which ends with the sexual intercourse, or of the sexual act, from the beginning until the consummation of it with its respective rhythms.

One of the first things Pozdnyshev remembers about the concert is “how they looked at one another”. That is usually the first contact between lovers. Following Eguchi, the rhythm of the Sonata follows as “restlessness and agitation result (…) from constant eight notes, rhythmic dissonance, dynamic contrast, and ascending passages” . It is not a quiet melody but an exciting one; even silent moments serve to reinforce the passion tone, as Eguchi notes, “Beethoven’s rhetorical pauses create moments of powerful silence, or relative silence, at moments of great emotional intensity”. The silent of the music is that of the lovers, which, in fact, are a speechless language. Therefore, music is the embodied excitement of the lovers, and Mrs Pozdnyshev reveals herself to her husband, as he explains, “everything was against her, particularly that damned music”. The day after the concert, while Pozdnyshev is away from home, the images of the concert begin to invade his mind, and he, for first time thinks “about the two of them making love together”, as he explains, “it was only then that I began to remember the way they had looked that evening when, after they’d finished the Kreutzer Sonata, they played some passionate little encore (…) some piece that was so voluptuous it was obscene (…) Surely it must have been obvious that everything took place between them that evening?”