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 (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).

Conference: Nineteenth- Century Aetiologies, Exoticism, and Multimodal Aesthetics

“Uncanny Aesthetics in Kafka’s America or The Man who Disappeared”. Nineteenth- Century Aetiologies, Exoticism, and Multimodal Aesthetics Conference, Liverpool University, Liverpool, 2 April 2013.

This paper analyses the aesthetic creation of the Uncanny in the narrative of Kafka, especially in his novel Amerika, first published in 1927. The paper argues how the Uncanny can be perceived through the descriptions the main character does of the closed spaces or buildings which appear in the novel. The subjective perception of Karl Rossmann is linked to his unconscious and indicates a presence of the ‘unintentional return’ of a threat, in this case the threat of being expelled once and again which justifies his endless wanderings in America.


The Unknown Guilt of Herr K.

j0395954Even if Kafka’s works are rich in interpretations there is a possible “core” to be found in them, especially in The Trial. The main topic of this novel is the guilt and its relation to the Law. Joseph K. bears a guilt, but it is not any guilt, it is an Unknown Guilt, or even better, The Unknown Guilt. Herr K. is accused by the Law which is personified by high hierarchy members of the system. One can be tempted to look for some guilt in K.’s story, some wrong acts but Herr K. is not dealing with material crimes, he is dealing with himself, with the very fact of existing. It is an existential guilt which leads K. to look desperately for help. The whole nonsense of the situations and dialogues expresses the impossibility to deal with the Law; it is an irrational one. Herr K. looks for meaning, that is, sense, reason, but there is no one and with the lack of reason comes the lack of redemption, of solution. He is guilty and he will die guilty. This statement is put clearly in different moments of the novel, how impossible is to make the Court change its opinion. Moreover, K. is not the only one trapped in a nonsensical Law, other men are waiting since ages and ages to be told what they are accused of. But there is no answer. That is exactly the point, there is no answer and there will be no answer.

All the other topics are related to and acquire their meanings depending on their position to the Law. Women are marginal to the Law, as it is explained in the previous Post, and Herr K. is not interested in women, his goal is to achieve the Law. K. has no sexual aim regarding women; all possible sexual encounters have a place in relation to the Law. That is why women become a door, they can open the way to the Law if the accused pays a sexual price (from K’s perspective, which can be wrong). Women are the really ones interested in sex, not Herr K. And that is the way in which women are presented as monstrous.

Therefore, to analyse sexuality in Kafka it is necessary to place it in its correct position and such a position is to be define regarding the Law. Sex is submitted to the Law and thus related to the sense of guilt, as it is for example, in Amerika when Karl Rossmann is expelled by his father because of a sexual encounter with the maid.

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.

Baroque and Modernism: Two Styles, Two Souls

3965eadf8b2b9be1b353f0f6b2b1faa3_660The narrator of Death in Venice suggests a very interesting and challenging topic. Among all the worries about art, so typical in Mann’s novels, this one particularly presents a thoughtful question. Is the artistic style and form linked to morality? One could write pages and pages trying to reply and analyse such a dilemma, because it is a dilemma as far as such a reflection involves not just art but the whole of society.

Gustav Aschenbach, the main character of the story, is an artist and as such he is experimenting a change in his conception of beauty. Gustav’s art, since its beginning, has represented the European decadence, a feeling broadly felt in Europe since the turn of the century. But Gustav feels a rebirth in his appreciation of beauty, one which has to do with simplicity. At this point, the narrator shows a chain of reflections, of wonderings regarding such simplicity. If art is simple in its forms, will then moral suffer a simplification?

“does not this in its turn signify a simplification, a morally simplistic view of the world and of human psychology, and thus also a resurgence of energies that are evil, forbidden, morally impossible?”

He is completely joining the representation of art, that is, of aesthetics, to morality. Modernist works indeed are replete by discussions on ethics and aesthetics. To simplify the form of art could mean here for the narrator a primitiveness, a coming back to human simplicity on its moral statements, a less deep thought.

It is possible however to take a general look in the history of literature to affirm, until some extent, the possibility of this statement. If there is a moment in which the form, the style and the meaning of art is opposed to the simplicity looked for by some modernists artists, it is Baroque. The Spanish Golden Age is full of incomprehensible poets, it can be actually considered the most difficult literature in Spain. And, indeed, this literature coincides with the Imperial time, the discovery of America, and the Inquisiton. All that is marked by a strong institutional power, especially the reign, the state and the Church in their most hierarchical display. There is a lack of simplicity both in art and in the representatives of society. It is the opposite side of Mann’s dilemma; the moral code was highly established and controlled. Moreover, when Modernism arrived at Spain, it was condemned by the Church, especially because of its simplistic and free spirituality, which comes back to Mann’s idea.

Modernism is also known by its polemical topics which have to do with their aesthetic representations. Therefore, Mann is not far away of reality, and the adequacy of style and interiority seems to be a fascinating topic within the sociology of literature.

Time in European Modernism

clock-screen01 CFP MDRN conference 1: Time and Temporality in European Modernism and the Avant-Gardes (16-18 Sept. 2013)
Call for papers
Time and Temporality
in European Modernism and the Avant-Gardes (1900-1950)
16-18 September 2013 – KU Leuven, Belgium
This three-day conference aims to canvass the breadth and depth of the issues of time and temporality in European modernist writing and classic avant-garde literature.
It has often been argued that so-called “high” modernist and avant-garde writing were perhaps the first to investigate in detail the problems of time and temporality. As a result, reflection on both issues in (“new”) modernism and avant-garde studies abounds. To date, however, we lack a systematic understanding of the different forms and functions of time and temporality in the writing from the period. It is this lacuna the present conference aims to fill. We are particularly interested in (general as well as innovative case-based) considerations of modernist and avant-garde writing and practices that tackle one of the following questions:
  • How was time represented? What genres, techniques and means were deployed to evoke time?
  • In what ways was the literary representation of time influenced by (changes in) other media and art forms?
  • Which temporalities (bodily and natural time, mechanical and machine time, private and public time, etc.) were evoked and how did they interrelate?
  • How was the flow of time conceived (teleological, multilayered and -directional, cyclical, etc.) and what temporal regimes (for example, favoring the present, past or future; continuity and tradition or rupture and revolution) were at work in modernism, the avant-garde, and cognate phenomena like the so-called arrière-garde? What hitherto ignored temporal modes require further scrutiny?
  • What were the ramifications of modernist and avant-garde conceptions of time for the practice of reading, the history of the book (classics, pockets, …), and more generally for the social and cultural legitimation of literature?
  • What other (perhaps less well studied) discourses (physics, biology, engineering, philosophy, etc.) informed literary reflection on time and temporality and how were insights from these other discourses translated in literary practice?
  • How was time experienced and what were its implications for our understanding of the modern body, identity and subjectivity?
  • Were there noticeable variations in how time was dealt with in modernist and avant-garde writing in different parts of Europe (and beyond)? What, more generally, were the implications of the views of time for the understanding of space and place (in writing)?
  • Does the conception of time change in the course of the period 1900-1950, and, if so, what are the (social, literary, philosophical, …) conditions of emergence and consequences of these changes?
We welcome paper and panel proposals before 15 February 2013 on these and other questions crucial to any mapping of the literary timescape between 1900-1950. By analyzing in-depth how modernist and avant-garde writing reflected on time and change, we ultimately aim to explore the ramifications of these ideas for the literary historiography of the period.
Proposals are welcome from individuals, and from panels of three or four. We especially welcome panel proposals and prefer panels where members are drawn from different institutions, preferably across national boundaries.
Panel proposals should include the following information.
  1. Title of panel
  2. Name, address and email contact of Panel Chair
  3. A summary of the panel topic (300 words)
  4. A summary of each individual contribution (300 words)
  5. Name, address and email contact of  individual contributors
  6. Short biography of all contributors, incl. main publications and areas of expertise
Individual proposals should include the following information.
  1. Title of paper
  2. Name, address and email of contributor
  3. A summary of the contribution (300 words)
  4. Short biography of the contributor, incl. main publications and areas of expertise
Guided tours of the Husserl archive at KU Leuven will be offered to delegates upon request. A conference website is under construction. With proposals or any further questions at this stage

From German Modernism to Spanish Golden Age

Dickens_DavidCopperfieldI wish just to recall some influences on Kafka’s Amerika. This novel introduces the wanderings of a young boy, Karl who’s thrown out from home due to his “affair” with the maid. Karl arrives to America alone with a small suitcase and nothing else than his wit to survive. He lives one experience after another, each one more curious than the previous, and meets all kind of people who actually decide his new course. Kafka wrote on his diary on October 8, 1918:

“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, but enhanced by the sharper lights I should have taken from the times and the duller ones I should have got from myself”.

In fact, the adventures of Karl remain the reader Dicken’s boys in the Victorian England. Karl solitude to face all his misfortunes are similar to those of English 19th C. novels. However, if Copperfield ascends in wealth and social position, Karl actually descends (as far as we know in the novel; it’s unfinished). The figure of the wandering boy is also linked to this of the Spanish “pícaro”. The latter could actually be seen as a predecessor of those of the realistic period. The poor origin and the longing for ascending are common in both groups, but I think the cunning of the “pícaro” is something missed both in Copperfield and Karl. However the three types find themselves submitted to different authorities until achieving autonomy or more freedom.

Karl is settled in New York, which I find quite properly for the beginning of the 20th C. New York is the new alienated place of modernity where both fortune and misfortune are possible and dependent to the subject’s sagacity. In short, I think Kafka has placed himself also in the Western tradition of the young wandering born in Spain.

A Claim for…

girl-in-front-of-the-lion-cage-1901A Hunger Artist is another of Kafka’s short stories which, I guess, leads no one indifferent, at least the reader become angry in front of such an apparent senseless riddle. A Hunger Artist shows the story of a faster artist who lives in a cage and is visited by the public. The main point of the attraction is the fasting of the artist who feels misunderstood by the walkers. Some people are always trying to find the hiding food in the cage because they don’t trust the artist’s capacity for fasting. However he’s very proud of his fasting and wants to go on with it without interruption. I think the hunger artist thinks to be making a work of art of his own body. That’s not explicitly said in the narration however it can be interpreted due to the lack of understanding between the artist and the public: people is unable to appreciate art. They don’t like the aspect of the starving artist, in fact, it’s not a beautiful expression, but Kafka is constructing a metaphor through which express the problem between art and the public. How can such a subjective expression be understood by everybody? The communication between artist and public fails because of the self-expressivity of the work. Coming back to my old comment on Tolstoy’s theory of art, we see here the opposite point. Tolstoy said a good work of art should be understood by everybody, but Kafka could be expressing a completely different perspective: because art is so personal, it’s impossible to be understood. But there’s a meeting point between the extremes. Tolstoy supports his statement arguing that when the artist is being honest expressing his feelings he can’t fail in doing so, and Kafka could be appealing to the same honesty with the opposite result.

Later on in A Hunger Artist, the artist dies in a cage because no one looks at him, and he’s replaced by a panther which attracts all the attention. Why does the panther success? Maybe it represents another kind of art? Of beauty?  Has it something to do with consciousness? The artist is conscious, not the panther. So for what are people attract? Maybe for some kind of hypnotising appearance instead of  for an intellectual presence? Have society killed art by its indifferent attitude towards life?

Schnitzler, “A Dream Story”

200px-ArthurSchnitzler_DreamStoryThe friendship between Freud and Schnitzler is also reflected in their respective works. Freud said of his friend to be doing the same psychoanalytic work in his novels with an especial reference to A Dream Story. In fact what Schnitzler presents in his book is a blurred border between life and dreams. Fridolin, a young doctor, lives quite strange adventures in the time of a whole night which lead him to experience a surrealistic world and  mysterious facts. Moreover, the novel is aesthetically very well constructed and the role of Fridolin’s wife in his marvellous night is quite intriguing. The relationship of the couple where desire and rancour merge is another fact to be explored.

Europe in War

I wouldn’t recommend anyone to read Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger who was not interested in a kind of “war report”. In fact, Jünger wrote his war diary during his four years in the World War I and he gave us a piece of faithful events without space for feelings or emotions. This lack of “humanity” has been the cause of several critics,which, like Walter Benjamin, accused Jünger of complicity with the idea of “cult of the war”. The mere fact of describing war events instead of showing a personal experience or an inner-reaction lead some part of the critics to see in Jünger’s narrative a pure “war for war’s sake”.

But before going on, let us see what’s written about war in female fictions. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway shows some male consequences after being in the World War I. Woolf, as in general all women writers of this period, focuses on the consequences of war on human relations. In fact, the general is unable to react to her wife’s demands with any kind of empathy, he’s completely out of question in his returning to London. The main problem is that he can’t express himself what is going in his inner-self. And that, I guess, is the point: the lack of expressivity of the emotions. Woolf’s general, like Jünger, don’t talk about anything which is not outside themselves. The general becomes mad, but his madness is a kind of frustration because of his past experience and it’s related to the breakdown between war what he feels and what he achieve to say. The reader of Woolf knows the female side of the war and feels the destruction of the relationships between women and men. The female suffering, in contrast with Jünger’s, is narrated by an over-expression.

Therefore, I’d say both narratives are coherent with each other even if being so different in style and form. They complement both views which I find a quite interesting topic to analyse.