Archive | December 2012

Nature and the Expression of the Feminine

bathers-two-nudes-in-an-exotic-landscape-1905Kate Chopin, the American female writer during the last 19th Century, presents a a very suggesting atmosphere in her great novel The Awakening. Indeed, the first part of the novel is settled in Grand Island, a place which seems to be catch by a mysterious and spiritual environment. The novel is full of symbology: birds, music, dreams, the sea, the moonlight, are some of the elements which appear repeatedly. The dreamlike atmosphere is present most of the time in Grand Island, and with it, the references to “sleeping” and “awakening”, as metaphors for the acquisition of self-consciousness and the birth of a new self, remind psychoanalysis, especially, The Interpretation of Dreams. 

Women have a prominent place in the story establishing between them peculiar relations. The friendship between Edna and Mademoiselle Reisz, for example, is close to be that of master and disciple. Mdm. Reisz is an old and unconventional woman, she’s gifted with the piano, and knows the secrets of Edna’s heart. She seems to light up Edna’s new way to arrive at her new self, and she also advises her of the difficulty of the task:  “The artist must possess the courageous soul that dares and defies.” But Edna is not just an artist is a woman who wants to live like an artist and to get her own income. In contrast to Adèle Ratignolle, who is a wonderful wife and a charming mother, Edna represents the New Woman of the turn of the century. Her position is thus between Mdm. Reisz, a pioneer, and Adèle, a traditional woman. Neither the former nor the latter lack in attractiveness, and in fact, Edna is moving around these two figures. Mdm. Reisz possesses independence while Adèle is beautiful and fertile.

It could be interesting to analyse the relation between the symbology and the female characters of the novel. The moon has been traditionally linked to the feminine,the sea, as Langer affirms, is a powerful expression of life which can be associated to female fertility (it is interesting to see how it appears in several novels with strong connections with women), music and dreams are both mysterious and they suggest an intuitive mode of knowledge. The list could go on.

“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?”

Soul and Body in the Adulteress

1-anna-karenina-ludmila-kalmaeva“For this violation of natural law, she must die”, that’s the statement of Edwina Cruise in her article Women, sexuality, and the family in Tolstoy. Is Anna Karenina a fact of laws? I don’t think so. It could be dangerous to pack such a great topic as is Anna Karenina in itself in these kind of reductive judgements. The whole article gave me an impression of judgement which fails in its attempt to approach Tolstoy from a feminist perspective. I’d say such a perspective is too poor to cover a writer who is always trying to go beyond materialism. It’s just at the end of the article where there’s a reference to Anna’s spiritual struggle, which I guess is the main point of the novel. Who cares about society or ideologies reading hundreds of pages about illusion, hope, remorse and desperation? The story of Anna Karenina is emblematic for itself, it needs nothing else than Anna herself, it’s a defence of individuality and conscience. The evolution of Anna from the very beginning to the end shows in accurate detail every step which leads her to kill herself. It’s a human work of art.

Anna is so well constructed as a character that in fact the novel it’s not just a matter of soul, it’s also concerned with the body and the affects. Anna is a woman clearly with soul and conscience but also with an unsatisfied sensuality and frustrated emotions. She doesn’t fulfil all her personal spheres: her husband isn’t aware of her sexual desire, she’s a mother of just one child which limits her emotional fulfilment. Moreover, boredom is an easy consequence of such a panorama if a woman is supposed to spent all her energies within the domestic realm.

These characteristics are also found in other literary adulteress such as Madame Bovary or the female character in The Kreutzer Sonata. But Anna Karenina especially represents a woman as a whole human being with spiritual, emotional and physical realities being interconnected with each other. Anna mustn’t die because she has been a bad wife and mother, she dies because of her personal dilemma, her individuality finds no place as a whole. Her death isn’t a punishment, is a consequence of the negation of herself as a whole woman.

Crossing borders in Tolstoy’s writings

tolstoyAndrew Wachtel explains in his article History and autobiography in Tolstoy how literary genres are merged to achieved the goal which Tolstoy sought: truth. The technique employed by the Russian writer is highly interesting, he melts autobiographical and fictional elements in a work which results neither biographical not fictional. The difference between fictional and non-fictional isn’t a problem for Tolstoy who was concerned just with truth and the display of the universal. Watchel gives a wonderful example, the relation between Anna Karenina and A Confession. The latter was written after the former and seems, according to Watchel, an ending for the great novel. The idea of marriage in A Confession is linked to the character of Levin in Anna Karenina. In fact it’s difficult to differ from the thoughts of the writer and his works, and I want to point out here such difficulty regarding The Kreutzer Sonata and What is Art?. The final moral claims in Tolstoy’s essay reminds the plot of the novel, moreover, The Kreutzer Sonata seems to be a graphical example of the essay. According to Tolstoy, the perversion of art by the upper-class leads to a perversion of the habits, and that’s what we see in The Kreutzer Sonata, music taken as an excuse for adultery.

There’s another point in these relations between Tolstoy’s thoughts and fictions, that’s “honesty”. In fact, Tolstoy in his essay affirms that the main cause for such a perversion is the artificiality of the “artist”. Tolstoy remains faithful to this idea as he gives expression to his believes, he’s honest, he’s a true artist. Therefore, the close proximity between real life and fiction seems to be justified in Tolstoy’s theory of art.

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?

“The Awakening”, a feminine metaphor

woman-in-a-mirror-theo-van-rysselbergheThe Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899) has been seen as a novel of adultery, as for example, Madame Bovary, but I don’t really think that the main problem of Edna- The Awakening‘s main character- is a matter of love. Edna is much more than a problem of  satisfactory marriage, she incarnates the history of women in the Western society. Edna is introduced to the reader reflecting a problem of identity, her unhappy marriage is just a parcel of such problem. Edna doesn’t know neither who she is nor where’s her place in the world. At the beginning of the novel, the reader finds Edna as a wife concerned  about her husband, trying to do her best to get a peaceful home. However, something is awoke within herself while listening a piano concert; here music plays a significant role. I’m currently working on this topic in my research, that’s the influence of music in the souls, and especially in the novel of adultery. By now, I’ll go on  with the idea that music, and later, her relation with Robert, make her conscious of herself, of her inward. I’d say the sea plays a role here as well, but that’s another topic for another moment. Thus, adultery is just a tool through which she becomes aware of her whole life, and it’s from this point she decides to change. The next step is painting, so art. She loves painting but she had never before taken it seriously. Painting is the first expression of her awareness. I find it a very interesting point; she becomes more and more herself through her artistic expression, I think that’s another point to analyse: how art is related to self-consciousness. Finally, she becomes independent, she earns her own money and buys an apartment. At this point, her love relations aren’t so important, that’s the reason I think adultery isn’t the main point in the novel. Instead, we can se how Edna acquires consciousness of herself as a woman in society (the title itself refers to an awakening) which corresponds to the history of the independence of women. I guess the important point in such a history isn’t sex or money but consciousness, and through it, inner-freedom.

Tolstoy, a lover of the simplicity

tolstoyLeoTolstoy1Reading Tolstoy nowadays is an encounter with a kind of relief. Simple, clear and with no considerations for the politically correct, Tolstoy just claims for innocence, truth and peace. Lover of the simple life, as we see in Anna Karenina’s character Levin,  and the rural calm, he also has something to say about art. In his long essay What is Art?, Tolstoy upholds the plain character of the classical art in opposition to the new modern and subjective one such as Impressionism or late Romanticism. This new artistic form in his days, says Tolstoy, is due to the Aristocratic corruption whose new thoughts are mainly exported from Europe. Simple people such as the rural worker can’t understand this new art, why?- wonders Tolstoy- because it’s not art, it’s just a decadent self-expression and the manifesto of a perverted upper-class unable to feel the sublime. Is not the worker the guilty of his misunderstanding in modern art, is the artist himself who can’t express what he feels, mainly, because he feels nothing, his art is artificial, not natural, his art is learned in a school of art which, says Tolstoy, is to kill the art itself. Therefore, the upper-class is now educated in order to understand this new art, which means, art is being enclosed in a group of people. So art is not more universal and that’s no art. Art becomes thus a prostitute because the aim of the artist is money, so he makes what can be sold. And in all this lack of artistic honesty, art perverts its consumers, that’s the upper-class, because art has no more value in itself. Then we can see how in The Kreutzer Sonata lessons on art are just an excuse for adultery.

Tolstoy would say, “if you want to know what is art, go and ask the farmer if he enjoy this or that. If he does, then it’s art”.

You can agree or not, but I think it deserves a thought.

Embodied Feelings

kreutzer_sonataAmbiguity is one of the most current terms in literary aesthetics. It plays with our perceptions and it’s said to be settled in a blurred border between the conscious and the unconscious; it says without saying and knows at the same time it doesn’t. It’s part of the real world as well as inhabits in the fantastic. In brief, it’s the paradox of “to be and not to be”. The ambiguous likes to go from our dreams to our daily life and makes us grow in the uncertainty. Uncertainty is, I guess, the favourite concept of Todorov talking about the Uncanny which differs from the Marvellous precisely because of this characteristic. Freud refers to the Uncanny as being familiar and not at the same time which is no more than another ambiguity, and this feeling begins in the thresholds of our mind. Like Scnitzler does in A Dream Story where Florin is startled by doubts of perception, or fears or maybe desires, who knows.

Ambiguity is also the language of  sensuality where to want and not have filled pages of adultery. Ambiguity serves the speechless language where embodied metaphors, images or melodies become read by those who are playing the game. Feelings take form in both The Awakening and The Kreutzer Sonata by means of rhythm. What conscious can’t afford is exposed by aesthetic experiences which, like  dreams, translate darkness into light.

Part of the knowledge about the self finds no expression in words, that’s what art is, Tolstoy would say, the communication of what can’t be said, the universal history of feelings.