Materiality and Corporeality: The Body in Popular Fiction and Visual Culture

“Contemplating the Male Body: From Aesthetics to Sexual Pleasure in Homosexual Literature”. Materiality and Corporeality: The Body in Popular Fiction and Visual Culture. University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth, 6 June 2013.

In this paper I analyse the representations of male bodies in André Gide’s The Immoralist (1902), Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) and D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920), with a particular focus on the perception with which the perceiving subject beholds the body. The male body is often turned into a voyeuristic spectacle when it is described in elaborate detail and perceived by an attentive subject whose gaze enjoys the contemplation of the object-body. On the one hand, the bodies that are objectified in that manner become objects of aesthetic contemplation. On the other hand, however, they also become potential sources for sexual pleasure. This article investigates the ways in which perceptions of male bodies are aestheticized and/or eroticised in these texts.

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).

The Touch of Him

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“The touch of him,” said Connie.

“That’s it, my lady, the touch of him! (…).”

H.D.Lawrence has usually been considered as an erotic writer, and as a misogynist, and I wonder what does it mean. Lawrence does not simply write erotic scenes, he is concerned with sexuality in an existential manner; and he is not simply a misogynist when he is able to display women’s concerns in their love relationships with such accuracy. Indeed, if Lawrence understood something it was the woman -strange enough for a man to sink into a female’s heart.

For Lawrence, sexuality conformed an important part of the human life and it meant something for him.  He does not literally describe physical contact, but he goes beyond it trying to get a deeper meaning usually through the metaphor. There is something fulfilled in the sexual encounters so needed for the person as other aspects of his or her reality. Lawrence’s characters use to experience their body as a very integrated part of their souls, and it communicates part of his being, especially, through sexuality. In Lawrence’s works, men and women should note a physical compatibility between them to find a complete meaning to their love relationships. In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Connie’s husband paralysis becomes as well her own, and she submerges herself into a lifeless world. Connie’s rejection of her active sexuality implies that of her truly self and need for life. The interesting point in Lawrence’s analysis is that he relates the personal experience of his characters’ sexuality with their self. Mr Chatterley for example is a man of business and industry; he owns mines, machinery, he is hard and cold -like Gerald in Women in Love. However, Connie does not deal well with the technical world, but with the natural life. This difference between them two separates them, and it finds a corresponding expression in their respective sexuality. Lawrence uses to critique the negative effects of industry upon nature and the human being, and it is normal to find in his works negative associations with the industrial man. Mr Chatterley represents infertility with his paralysis and impotence; he is away from nature, from his and his wife’s biological being. But Connie lives suffocated under the industrial business of her husband, until she meets a worker of her husband’s properties.

Lady Chatterley’s lover represents the contact with nature and primitivism for both his low status and his life in the woods. Their meetings take place in the hut, which is actually a very primitive space compare to the Chatterley’s mansion. Nature is the surrounding of their sexual desire, and it means life and fecundity. Connie feels properly like a woman when she fulfils her sexuality, something very important for Lawrence who considered the heterosexual complementation as source of life and energy. The sexual descriptions have the function of outlining the male and female reactions to each other, and their mutual necessities only to be satiated with each other. Connie needs him to touch her to find her complete womanhood, and he needs her to kill his loneliness. That is why penetration is always described as an entrance into her; the references to the inside are important as they reach a spiritual meaning, a mutual completeness.

Physical Consciousness in “Women in Love”

ron-edwards-exhibition-man-on-bucking-horseEven if Women in Love (1920) by D.H. Lawrence explicitly shows the problems between two heterosexual couples -Gerald and Gudrun; Birkin and Ursula-, it is nonetheless concern with masculinity depicting both the male body and the relationships between men. The focus on the male body is probably due to Lawrence’s misogyny and homosexuality (properly maybe bisexuality). Lawrence’s opinion of women is clearly expressed in his fictional works as well as in his essays such as Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922).

The male body appears especially as a source of power and strength; its physical characteristics are linked to one of the male goals which is the domination of the woman both physically and intellectually. This perspective towards the male body shows Lawrence’s ideas about the human sources of energy, which are mainly two: the one coming from the upper part of the body (sympathetic and intellectual energy), and the one coming from the lower part of the body (sensual and vitalistic). The second one includes as well the sexual desire and energy, in fact, sex means for Lawrence energy and the sexual act acquires a strong energetic significance beyond the fact of reproduction or the sense of pleasure.

The male body refers in Women in Love to animalistic and primitive conceptions. It is significant that scenes where the man shows his body or his physical strength or aims of domination, contain often animals establishing images between the man and the animal in a purely physical way. Moreover, it is this biological aspect which attracts women, especially Gudrun, to men. There is a first instinctual and biological attraction of the sexes, the man as a male and the woman as a female is what first constitutes the love relationship. Gudrun is consciously attracted by Gerald in the scene where he dominates the horse, which implicitly shows a parallelism in his later attempts to dominate Gudrun:

‘Gudrun was as if numbed in her mind by the sense of indomitable soft weight of the man, bearing down into the living body of the horse: the strong, indomitable thighs of the blond man clenching the palpitating body of the mare into pure control; a sort of soft white magnetic domination from the loins and thighs and calves, enclosing and encompassing the mare heavily into unutterable subordination, soft blood-subordination, terrible’.

She also perceives the manly attitude of the mine’s workers who, belonging to a lower social class, are free from cultural conventions and gentleness behaving properly as men. (According to Lawrence, culture has completely feminise men killing their innate vitalistic attitude).

The sexual act is mainly described through images of power and strength and the woman’s submission to them (it is supposed that women like it; it is not a forced submission). The word ‘energy’ is often used to express sexual experiences, as well as ‘dark flood of electric passion’, ‘rich new circuit’ or “new current of passional electric energy’; this energy comes mainly form the man’s body which, in a warm overcomes the woman’s passivity:

‘She closed her hands over the full, rounded body of his loins, as he stopped over her, she seemed to touch the quick of the mystery of darkness that was bodily him (…) the marvellous fullness of immediate gratification, overwhelming, out flooding from the source of the deepest life-force, the darkest, deepest, strangest life-source of the human body, at the back and base of the loins (…) She had thought there was no source deeper than the phallic source. And now, behold, from the smitten rock of the man’s body, from the strange marvellous flanks and thighs, deeper, further into mystery than the phallic source, came the floods of ineffable darkness and ineffable riches’.

In contrast, there are no such descriptions concerning the woman’s body; the woman is just a man’s recipient, which could be seen according to her  sexual function, nonetheless appealing to an exaggerating passivity. Lawrence sees the woman as the ‘place’ where the man comes back after his active daily life. He needs her to fulfil himself and to accomplish this mission women mustn’t be intellectual. The intellectual woman means death for both herself and the man. The woman’s self-consciousness is dangerous as Eve became dangerous through the temptation of the knowledge. Women must remain in a purely sensual state and never attempt to reach what should be just for men. The intellectual women in Women in Love, Gudrun and Hermione, are destructive and they tend to kill men in their love affairs. Gerald does not achieve to submit Gudrun as he does with the horse, and even if Gudrun is first fascinated by his manliness she finally acquires a stronger self-consciousness and choses her artistic career. Instead of her sister, Ursula, who accepts Birkin ideas of genre-relationships.

Lawrence is very extremely and critique regarding female positions. There is no middle point between an instinctual and biological attraction and the intellectual female world. He does not consider that both options are possible in a woman. However, the female fulfiment seems likely to be in the fusion of these two realities as they allow a complete sensual and sexual life experimented in the totality of the ‘being woman’ in the most biological sense, and a self-awareness which brings understanding and control of any experience and the self, and not necessarily destruction as far as one is able to avoid it.