D.H. Lawrence and Schiele on Eroticism/Pornography: a Modernist Debate.


Last week Dr Gemma Blackshaw presented her paper “The Modernist Offence: Egon Schiele and the Naked Female Body” at the Freud Museum complementing the current exhibition “Schiele: The Radical Nude” at The Courtauld Gallery. Schiele was an Austrian modernist painter in Vienna around the 1910s and 1920s. His portraits and paintings are focused on naked female bodies with particular depictions of the genital organ which led him to big troubles with the Austrian law being accused of indecency and immorality. Vienna was a very important focus of intellectuality at the turn of the century, and also the most important producer of illegal pornographic photography of Europe together with Budapest (which also belonged to the Austro-Hungary empire).

Schiele’s arrest opened the debate around the difference between pornography and art; his supporters argued that Schiele did produce art, and he himself justified it emphasizing that the paintings were not intended to arouse the public. The same dilemma took place for D.H. Lawrence whose novels were sanctioned around the same time in the UK for being too explicit in descriptions of the sexual act. Lawrence in fact wrote an essay entitled “Pornography and Obscenity” (1929) stating the difference between art and pornography of what he was accused for Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). In the 1929 essay, Lawrence accuses Victorian morality of being pornographic in its obsession with negating sex and keep it aside because for Lawrence pornography consists on insulting sex and make it dirty, exactly what the Victorian puritans did, according to him. Lawrence understands sex as something mystical, sacred, the negation of which means a human negation, and, even worst, sex becomes then something to make fun of, to parody because it is kept secret. It is in this context – in the context of the forbidden – that pornography can exist. Indeed, secrecy is pornography, says Lawrence, and that might explain the strong pornographic sense of all 19th C. literature as far as it insists in avoiding it: the sexual obsession under-lives in bourgeois texts.

Eroticism, for both Lawrence and Schiele exists in the realm of art: it is an aestheticism of sexuality, so to say. According to this simple definition, the difference between pornography and eroticism is not found in the content but in the attitude towards the content both from the author and the public. The writer and the painter here had in common their views on the mysticism of sex, and hence its relation to human spirituality and need to represent it without falling into pornography. This attitude towards sex is common in Modernism, and probably Freud influenced on it: sexuality became a topic, and a very present element of the human being.

The Hysterical Discourse of Gender Studies


Surprisingly enough Gender Studies theories have very particular allies: the Victorians. What do these two apparently distant groups have in common? A shared enemy: Freud, and a shared belief: the sexless child. Ironies of history, never better said, it results that these two extremes touch each other in what can be called a fear of the sexual, that is, of the body in its most visible and basic part: as a sexualized entity. The Victorian belief that children were sexless, and that sex did appear as a process of culmination into the adult life, was shown in practices such as for example dressing boys and girls in the same fashion being boys actually dressed as girls (with contemporary eyes). This vision involved a granted naiveté regarding both children and sexuality something demolished with the apparition of Freud’s analysis. The strong Victorian reaction against Freud can only be understood with a complete understanding and awareness of this society, their domesticity and family organization. The earthquake Freud meant is totally comprehensible: he ended with the sexless child myth, therefore, with the supposed innocence of children.

Foucault really had reasons to entitle the first chapter of his History of Sexuality “We Victorians”; this assertion is so real that even those who think be liberating society in the most radical form from old beliefs are trapped in those same beliefs, and that is the case with the so called Gender Studies. What they put into question today is the existence of sex, logically, it may mean the existence of the body because sex is inherent to the body in normal human beings, that is, in exception of rare biological cases. This ideology implies that the human being is born without sex, that is, the body is not a sexualized body, therefore, children are sexless. How should a baby or little child be referred to? I ignore it, maybe ‘it’ like the rest of the pets and objects. What should one do with ‘its’ sexual organs? Or, how should they be interpreted is another riddle. So the big question is: what do we do with the body? Because the body is there from the very beginning, and as far as I know, there is no being without body. But Gender Studies got further than the Victorians and claimed that there is no innate sex because it may not be in accordance with the sexual orientation, therefore it is  better not o treat little children as girls or boys but -I guess- like nothing. Can we disassociate a body from its sex? Are we not sexual beings relating to each other in a sexualized form even outside men/women love relationships? Of course Freud is not welcomed in Gender Studies, instead he is seen as a leader of the patriarchal society for labeling male bodies under the name of ‘man’, and female bodies under that of ‘woman’.

Gender Studies and Victorians seem to share a fear of the sexual body, which is actually, the only proper body. The sense of alienation in one’s body comes quickly to mind: the repression of one’s sexuality since the very beginning. By repression I mean the negation of sexuality even in its idea or theoretical approach, that living with the foreign: my body as different of me, a very uncanny experience in Freudian terms: being not at home with myself. Hysteria is not far from this feeling. Is it possible that radical feminism, in its negation of innate sexuality, be an enlarged branch of Victorian thought in its opposite form? Are radical feminism’s conclusions a neurotic outbreak of a puritan approach to the body outspreading in radical solutions? Is there a relationship between a refused maternity and the fear of heterosexual sexual relationships? Ultimately, does not radical feminism annihilate the sexual body, especially, the sexual female body  introducing theories which demand a deconstruction of the innate sexual body as if terrified by it?

Mme Bovary as Literary Example of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Claims


Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), mother of Mary Shelley, was a feminist author who wrote in 1792,  A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, an exhaustive critique of women’s education in her time, and their consequent place in society. To a contemporary reader, Wollstonecraft’s feminism may be similar to Christian or conservative feminism: she bases women’s right to education on its importance to be a good female Christian, that is mostly, to be a good wife and daughter, and, simultaneously, she exalts the virtue of chastity. Wollstonecraft’s text gives to the reader a good insight of what might be going on in genre relationships at the end of the 18th C. The author repeatedly shows her distress with the position women were left to: objects of desire. The lack of intellectual education was the cause, according to the author, of adultery and debauchery in marriage and within the family, affecting the whole of society. Women’s education taught them to be superficial limiting themselves to elegance and in being worshipped by men, or, and that is the dangerous point for Wollstonecraft, by seducers: ‘The sensualist, indeed, has been the most dangerous of tyrants, and women have been duped by their lovers, as princes by their ministers, whilst dreaming that they reigned over them’.

Understanding is placed as touchstone of domestic virtue and social freedom, while mere female slaves will never really understand their duties becoming thus completely vulnerable and morally weak. Wollstonecraft claims that her contemporary females obeyed without understanding, and, mostly were flattered by their husbands-to-be which supposed that once passion finished, the wife may be in need of another flatterer. If there is an author Wollstonecraft attacks is, easily to imagine, Rousseau who created the ‘angel of the house’ which pervaded the whole 19th C and beyond. Rousseau related knowledge with evil, therefore women should not need the reasons but the aims they were intended to achieved. Wollstonecraft’s reply is: ‘The great misfortune is this, that they both acquire manners before morals, and knowledge of life before they have from reflection any acquaintance with the grand ideal outline of human nature. The consequence is natural. Satisfied with common nature, they become a prey to prejudices, and taking all their opinions on credit, they blindly submit to authority. So that if they have any sense, it is a kind of instinctive glance that catches proportions, and decides with respect to manners, but fails when arguments are to be pursued below the surface, or opinions analyzed’.

Women, follows the author, only learn to imagine and dream with romantic and passionate love; they are taught how to please and expect a perpetual worship from their husbands for the rest of their marriages without any need for intellectual affinities or friendship. The relationship between imagination and adultery, as well as the exaltation of feelings in women brings close the figure of Mme Bovary, especially in this comment: ‘I own it frequently happens, that women who have fostered a romantic unnatural delicacy of feeling, waste their lives in imagining how happy they should have been with a husband who could love them with a fervid affection every day, and all day. But they might as well pine as single, and would not be a jot more unhappy with a bad husband than longing for a good one’. Mme Bovary is a work from 1856, and it is the work of adultery par excellence as the obsessive nightmare of the bourgeoisie. Flaubert describes a situation and a character which Wollstonecraft warned against more than half a century earlier.

Another treat of Emma Bovary is her fetichism and need for consumption, consumption to improve her body, her appearance once she is completely led astray by her multiple affairs. Emma’s debt can be seen as an unlimited desire for physical self which is fed by an unstoppable need for being desired. Wollstonecraft argues women were enslaved to their bodies because they were made weak since childhood paying not enough attention to their health, this situation endured her subjection: ‘Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adore its prison’.

Wollstonecraft finally relates the private with the public sphere, a very Victorian idea: the good inside makes the good outside. The notion of Victorian privacy was crucial (and still is, just look for example to the American relationship between politics and private life) to a welfare state, and here are already some thoughts on that: ‘Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers – in a word, better citizens’.

The author also criticizes the difference in what is expected from men and women: while women are insisted in being chaste, men are forgiven for their lust. Mme Bovary could only die, as it does Anna Karenina or Effi Briest, but there is no a bit of social critique to their lovers. However, as Tolstoi exemplifies in his book The Kreutzer Sonata, male promiscuity affects as much as female the wellbeing of marriage; being women the only bearers of the fault was of course naturally unfair but the conclusion of the whole system of thought Bourgeoisie society depended on.

Aesthetics of the Erotic in Japanese Art and Modernist European Literature

The British Museum exhibits an important Japanese painting collection called ‘Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art’ which displays a high number of both erotic drawings and paintings in Japan since the 16th to the 19th century. The exhibition follows the history and development of this kind of art which became controversial in the early 20th century Japan. Sexuality is mainly explored as something very natural, common and even funny; the aim of these works were to be enjoyed by couples, as guidebooks, or for single stimulation. They present different positions, and erotic stories where usually a third person played a roll such as a jealous wife or a curious observer. Both heterosexuality and homosexuality are equally depicted and a shameless sense of enjoying sex in whatever form or place predominates.

The shunga experienced some popularity in Europe through many artists of the Modernist period who were influenced by the erotic sense of the Asiatic paintings, such as Toulousse Lautrec. In a general sense, Japanese paintings arrive at Europe through vivid colours and sinuous lines; the sense of curve and sensuality is mainly predominant in both the Shunga and Modernist paintings (Tissot, Monet, and Kiyonaga):



In Modernist literature eroticism is also stylised through the use of language or equating sexual and erotic experiences with art and artistic experiences. The whole sexual exploration present in Modernist literature in works from Proust, Gide, or Schnitzler, among others, testify that sexuality, or sensual experiences in general, can also be intellectually enjoyed and considered beautiful in themselves. The use of vivid colours, for example, in Gide’s The Immoralist depicts a sensuous and artistic approach of erotic bodies which are part of the exotic environment they belong to, and therefore, to its beautiful natural scenes. Swann in Remembrance of Time Lost enjoys music and painting as he enjoys his lover, finding difficult to separate artistic from sexual pleasure. His high stylised narrative, moreover, makes it almost impossible to differ between an act of artistic creation and a sexual one.

The close relationship between artistic-visual and sexual pleasure is already defined by Freud in his Essays on Sexuality where the object of beauty may lead to a sexual desire. Japanese art very well attempt this fusion outlining especially curve forms which of all are the most agreeable.

Why The Rule of Metaphor?

beginning,book,clock,life,metaphor,the,book,of,life-90bf7c739b718491e480e40bf3471e4a_h_largeSome 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

Baroque Gaze in Woolf’s Between the Acts

Theatre-MysteryIn 1940 Virginia Woolf finished Between the Acts, a novel close to The Waves and very clearly belonging to her last years in style and narration. Indeed, Woolf’s last novels are characterised by a strong presence of symbolical meaning and language, a very intuitive perception of the world, something which brings her narrative close to Ricoeur’s understanding of the text as a world to be deciphered by means of words and images. Very symbolical and metaphorical as well as very modernist, Between the Acts is a work within a work, more exactly, a play inside a novel.

The meaning of this novel is more apprehensive by intuition than by logical thought, and the interrelation between the play and the novel belongs, I dare to say, to a metaphysical realm. The whole book describes, or re-describes -using Ricoeur’s concept- the meaning of a single day where a play takes place. The play is a historical one, and it shows the  Elizabethan England, that is, the English Golden Age -calling to some world’s conception; and it is displayed between the wars, in 1939. What is put on stage is life in a fictional realm and in the real one, where the reader finds himself. While the novel’s characters are looking at the stage, the reader is looking at them and beholding the whole scene of looking as a theatre. The sense of scenario is strongly presented to the reader, and it implies a sense of volatility, illusion, in the very least, falsehood. Woolf killed herself a year after writing this novel, and it is very interesting to see how the sense of spectacle permeates the text. In A Sketch of the Past, an autobiographical text written by Woolf during the years 1939-40, she outlines the feeling of being in the world as a spectator, as an outsider. Between the Acts expresses this feeling metaphorically presenting life as a play and making of both, the characters and the reader, spectators; she is sharing her existential experience.

Fiction becomes here the only possible world to create a pre-experience of suicide, of despair. A whole day has become a pageant, and this day is linked to the world through the historical moment represented in the play. The idea of being on the stage so properly of the Baroque epoch comes into play in 1940, where death and futileness were present again in a sense of decadence. Shakespeare and Calderon de la Barca make this point central, life is a stage, however, the difference resides in the extension of the drama: in the Golden Age it was cosmological, in Modernism it is individual. It is Virginia Woolf who is properly experimenting her existential inconsistency, and her novel involves daily characters in a normal day. It is daily life what becomes nonsensical, the individual existence is affected by a non-real experience -maybe this same feeling led Walter Benjamin to write The Origin of German Tragic Drama in 1925. But baroque authors were concerned with a world vision theory, so to say, not with a personal experience of annihilation.

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.

Across the Mirror

6206545106_6f3c6fedfc_zThe Others (2001), a film by Pedro Amenábar, is an interesting adaptation, though a very personal one, of Henry James’ novel The Turn of the Screw (1898). If in the film, the two children are alive and the two apparitions represent to be death, in the novel, the two children are death and the supposed phantoms are not so but alive intruders in the house. This difference makes a kind of mirror effect between the novel and the film, both being highly thrilling in their respective forms.

The main point of the story remains in both sides: the role of the children in the relations between death and life. That’s exactly what the first narrator in James’ novel affirms to be “another turn of the screw” as two children in a scary story becomes more dreadful than just one. In fact, the first inhabitants of the house to be aware of the presence of the others are the children. But in this case there is as well another mirror effect. In the novel, the little boy is more liable to see the phantoms, while in the film, it is the girl who first realises of the presence of the others.

Both the novel and the film present together a similar story from different points of view. If true that Amenábar did not offer a faithful adaptation, his creativity is nonetheless valuable. In fact, the best way to approach the film is keeping in mind the novel and vice versa. Moreover, both mediums writing and film making are also complementary which provokes a nice encounter between two different periods of time.     

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.