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Mad, Criminal, and Ambitious

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In late nineteenth-century, literary representations of the new woman approached her autonomy in political, and sexual matters in terms of madness and criminality. Texts such as Lady Audley’s Secret (1862), a sensation novel based on the real case of Constance Kent, and published in a serialized form in the magazines Robin Goodfellow, and Sixpenny Magazine, illustrate Victorian domestic anxieties in the form of a bigamous woman who desserts her child and domestic duties. Zola’s Nana (1880) was another example of female dangerous sexuality embodied in a courtesan whose customers, strongly seduced, follow their own destruction. Lombroso’s psychiatric text Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman (1895) aims at a scientific classification of woman’s nature identifying the ‘normal’ and the ‘perverse’ woman.

Women who wanted to divorce could also be considered as undergoing mental, or physical illness, as The Awakening (1899) illustrates through the relationship between Edna Pontellier and the family doctor who interprets her anxieties of independence from a medical perspective. Popular imagination had it that a woman who did not circumscribed herself to the domestic realm was socially dangerous. For the bourgeoisie and the Victorians, this danger took criminal forms which could involve sexual aggressiveness. The mad woman was another way to represent non-domestic women, and a well-know topic of Victorian literature during the whole of the nineteenth-century.

After sexual mores changed progressively during the twentieth-century, and the emergence of a post-bourgeois, middle-class society took place, the mad and criminal woman disappeared as a source of anxiety. However, popular representations of women today seem to point out to another type of ‘unsettling’ woman: the ambitious female professional. It is striking the number of TV shows – which can be seen as replacing nineteenth-century weekly fouilletons – which present a a young woman between 25-35 years old willing to dangerously do anything for her career. These characters are sexually attractive, and usually facing a choice between her partner and career. As with the mad and criminal woman, the ambitious woman is indeed a woman. These TV shows do not use to put into question men’s ambitions, for whom their profession and family life do not appear as contradictory. Instead, top men use to have a wife who responds to the popular needs of a post-bourgeois society.

The American show Damages (2007-2012) shows the life of a young female attorney, Ellen who, at all risks, decides to work for one of the most terrifying lawyers of New York, Patty Hewes – who also happens to be a woman whose adolescent son has paid for her 30 years of professional dedication. The paternalizing advice Hewes gives to Ellen, “most men don’t handle an ambitious woman. It will take you some trials, but make sure you find one”, aims at showing Hewes’ dark arts in trying to break Ellen’s actual relationship with her boyfriend.

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Damages follows a structure already found in the movie The Devil Wears Prada (2006), where a recent graduated in journalism starts working by Miranda Priestly, the most dreaded chief editor in the fashion world. Like Ellen, the young Andrea destroys her relationship with her boyfriend due to her ambitious career which is also mentored by the old Miranda, whose private life has been a records of defeats.

Andrea’s last move, her final renounce to become Miranda, is nothing but a social negotiation between the values of the post-bourgeois society, and the ways in which this is menaced, mostly, the professional top-woman. If it is true that Andrea changes her life before it is too late, she has already ruined her private life, and achieved what she wanted: a reference from Miranda which put her into a top newspaper. In both cases, however, Patty Hewes and Miranda Priestly embody a dangerous woman everybody is scare of, while their younger doubles represent the social negotiation between the acceptable and the non-acceptable, reminding us that the best choice for a young woman is still family.

These representations of contemporary women are, as they were in the nineteenth-century, structured around a male gaze, which constantly avoids the real solution to the family-work polemic: compatibility. The representation of the ambitious woman as monster in the twenty-first century does not help at all to understand that women do aspire to high positions as well as to build a family. Instead they send the message, ‘a woman who wants to dedicate her life to her career is a bad woman’. The mad, criminal, and ambitious woman is nothing but the a serial of different forms the same old tale takes. Now, indeed, it is ok that a housewife works but not that much.

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

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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.

Faire l’amour, ou la cuisine

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Michel de Certeau (1925-1986) in his two volumes work L’invention du Quotidien (1980) widely explores a range of topics such as the relationship between space and discourse, psychoanalysis, semantics, the body, etc. Indeed, the first volume does look like a miscellaneous where order is difficult to follow from chapter to chapter. The second volume however is far more focused on the activities of inhabiting and cooking as the two most characteristic human activities, belonging to everyday life.

Certeau dedicates extensive pages to the activity of cooking stressing its importance configuring domestic space, a sense of belonging to a particular family, and to tradition. He acknowledges the importance of this repetitive but creative activity which has traditionally belonged to women and has been disregarded, in a similar way Bachelard talks on the ‘wax civilization’ referring to housekeeping work, and its importance on keeping alive memories and an habitable space. Certeau’s poetic text on cooking is worthwhile to consider:

‘Pourquoi être si désireuse et si inquiète d’inscrire dans les gestes et dans les mots une même fidélité aux femmes de mon linage ? […] Peut-être est-ce cela même que je cherche dans mes bonheurs culinaires : la restitution, au travers des gestes, des saveurs et des compositions, d’une légende muette, comme si, à force de l’habiter avec mon corps et mes mains, je devais parvenir à en restaurer l’alchimie, à en mériter le secret de la langue, comme si, de ce piétinement obstiné sur cette terre mère, devait un jour me revenir la vérité de la parole’ (1994: 217).

Certeau, in a certain Barthesian way, establishes the semantics of space, gestures, and the body, also of cooking: ‘légende muette’ where the whole ritual of choosing, buying, preparing and configuring the ailments in a particular way was impregnated by narrativity. The kitchen is the place where this ritual takes place; it is a feminine place on which the whole of the home is sustained: the old hearth of the house was the fire which both cooked and warmth up, all the space (which at the beginning used to be conformed by one single room) was articulated around the fire.

Fire is what might bring together cooking and love – explored in some way also by Bachelard in La psychanalyse du feu (1937). Certeau notes the function of the mouth and the hands in eating and sexuality: ‘Nous mangeons avec notre bouche, orifice corporel dont les parties (lèvres, langue, dents, muqueuses intérieurs) et les fonctions (gouter, toucher, lécher, caresser, effleurer, saliver, mâcher, avaler) interviennent au premier chef dans la relation amoureuse’ (1994: 276). Moreover cooking has always been a tool of seduction, a good dinner – with wine included – is a kind of activation of the unconscious analogies eat and sex have in common, as well as the table and the bed:

‘La nappe est aussi, déjà, le drap du lit ; ses taches de vin, de fuit font penser à d’autres marques. L’odeur accentuée de la nourriture chaude, la proximité du corps de votre invité(e), son parfum éveillent l’odorat, stimulent ses perceptions et ses associations, vous font imaginer d’autres odeurs séductrices, parfums secrets du corps dénudé, devenant enfin tout proche. L’invité rêve, il songe, il espère déjà’ (1994: 279).

Erotic and love language is full of culinary metaphors: ‘L’échange amoureux transforme par instants le partenaire en comestible délectable […] le « dévore du regard, de caresses », le « mage de baisers ». L’aveu des amants séparés reste dans le même registre : « Tu me manques, j’ai faim de toi, je voudrais te manger »’ (1994: 277). Naturally, Certeau reminds of Manet’s painting where this relationship is strongly insinuated:

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The naked bodies and the food in a picnic evokes the image of the bed – also the semi-reclined position of one of the men relates to a laying down with a naked woman in front of him. The depiction of the food suggests they just have eaten, the food is slightly untidy suggesting relax, as well as relax of the body. The viewer is left to end the narrative.

The Hysterical Discourse of Gender Studies

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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?

The body in the private room in Claudine

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Colette (1873-1954) was a French writer belonging to Modernism and one of the most sexual liberal writers of the early 20th C. Her life and her work show her bisexuality, promiscuity and all kind of sexual experiences. Her collection of books known as Claudine – Claudine à l’école, Claudine à Paris, Claudine en ménage, Claudine s’en va – explain the life of Claudine since her adolescence until her divorce. The first of the books takes place in a boarding school where Claudine’s tendency to homosexuality is suggested through her friendship with Luce and where she observes the homoerotic relationship between two teachers of the school. The second book takes place in Paris and describes her new home and the arousing her own erotic consciousness: her body is described in detail with a strong repetitive presence of the mirror, and her room and sense of intimate space appear simultaneously being as well highly described. Claudine’s room is important because is the place where she dreams and where she describes and touches her body; living in a bourgeois house, her room has place for a bath, so all the toilet is done there conforming a very private and personal area. In Paris Claudine falls in love with her uncle, twenty years older than her whom she marries to at the end of the novel. This second book shows a certain degree of plenitude, Claudine does not feel herself alienated with her domestic space neither with her body. She experiences her desires at the same time that a sense of belonging accommodates her in her bedroom.

One of the characteristics attributed to Colette is her willingness to write about the female body and desire as she did. The description of sexual acts from the female point of view was terribly innovative in the 1900, as well homoerotic desire among women. Considering the Victorian context, Colette dared to express through some of her heroines the distasteful sensations of being with lovers or husbands showing female dissatisfaction with her intimate relationships with men and satisfaction being with women suggesting a different sexuality and different requirements among sexes: “Il m’y serre, si tendu que j’entends trembler ses muscles. Tout vetu il m’y embrace, m’y maintient – mon Dieu, qu’attend-il donc pour se déshabiller, lui aussi? – et sa bouche et ses mains m’y retiennent, sans que son corps me touche, depuis ma révolte tresaillante jusqu’à mon contentment affolé, jusqu’àu honteux gémissement de volupté que j’aurais voulu retenir par orgueil. Après, seulement auprès, il jette ses habits comme j’ai feat des miens, et il rit, impitoyable, pour vexer Claudine stupéfaite et humiliée”.

Once married, Claudine starts feeling alienated in her husband’s house: “Pour rentrer! Je n’ai donc pas de demeure? Non! J’habite ici chez un monsieur, un monsieur que j’aime, soit, mais j’habite chez un monsieur! Hélas! Claudine, plante arrachée de sa terre […] Où rentrer? En moi”. The loss of her own room contributes to her feeling of no-belonging, and her husband’s possession of her body probably contributes to this strangeness. Thus Claudine’s remembrances about her friendship with Luce reappear now longing for physical and emotional fulfillment with her regretting her previous despise. It may appear clear that if Claudine does not feel her intimacy in her marital room is due to her impossibility to communicate with her husband, therefore she feels urge to seek outside.

On Crime and Madness: Adultery in Woyzeck

“On Crime and Madness: Adultery in Woyzeck”, Theatralia. Revista de Poética del Teatro XVI. 2014, 227-235.

With this article I aim to introduce the topic of adultery in Georg Büchner’s work with a focus on female sexuality, and the relationship between sex, murder and madness. Adultery appears as a final trigger for madness and murder, which is seen as a substitute for the sexual act between the spouses, especially from the husband’s perspective, when the wife’s adulterous relationship with her lover avoids sexual contact with her legitimate husband. Behind that, the social context where the story develops is especially important for the author’s social critique of German politics in the 1830s under the kingship of Prince Metternich.

Béatrice Didier on L’écriture-femme: Female Writers and their Texts

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‘L’écriture féminine est une écriture du Dedans : l’intérieur du corps, l’intérieur de la maison’; this is a statement which very well exemplifies Didier’s thoughts on female writing in her book L’écriture-femme, a brief but very interesting selection of female writers since the Middle Ages to the 20th century. The book is lovely written and very reccomendable for its analysis of the works of a few authors. Didier approaches her analysis from that which makes singular a female writing in contrast to a male writing; in this context, she outlines writing and text characteristics usually belonging to women writers – she repeatedly warns against dangerous generalizations but insists on a set of particular details usually found in female writings. At the end of the book she calls for a mutual enrichment between male and female authors learning from what they can teach to each other being her critique directed towards the historical Western general exclusion of female approaches to the text and over-valorization of what is masculine. For female writers to be awarded there is no need to write like men but to accept how  – and what – they write.

Historically, being women more confined to their domestic spaces, they wrote about what was inside the house, about topics talked mostly among women, and issues they were concerned about, and they have done it differently than men. Yet in the 20th C. there are big differences between Virginia Woolf and Ford Madox Ford being they both recognized Modernist and cultivated writers. Henry James and Edith Wharton are another example of fellow contemporaries who read each other, and still an attentive reader can draw a line from Jane Austen to Emily Brontë finishing in Wharton, so different from James’s narrative, style and approach to reality. Didier, Cixous did, relates female writing to the female body, but also to women’s relationship with the house and maternity: ‘Le désir d’écrire, aussi fondamental peut-être que le désir d’enfanter et qui probablement répond à la même pulsion, ne pouvait être utilisé de la même façon par la société. Si l’enfantement apparaissait comme la condition même de la survie de tout groupe humain et par conséquent devait être organisé dans une structure sociale, le désir d’écrire, lui, semblait au contraire marginal, subversif, à tout le moins inutile’. Therefore, creation and pro-creation going hand by hand, and indeed, it is not till Modernism that most women wrote and wrote subversive literature. According to Didier, psychoanalysis may have pushed these women to write due to its assertion that differences on identities were important: ‘La véritable conquête de l’écriture féminine moderne aura été peut-être, aidée là encore par tout un courant de pensée issu à la foi de la psychanalyse et de l’existensialisme, d’inscrire différemment l’identité dans le texte’.

Some of the characteristics Didier attributes to female writing are its orality: being women the ones who repeated tales inside the house, they transmitted oral particularities to the written text: ‘une écriture telle que le flux de la parole s’y retrouve, avec ses soubresauts, ses ruptures et ses cris’. Another characteristic is the temporal perception strongly marked by women’s biological cycles: ‘Il est possible aussi que la femme ressente le temps autrement que ne le fait l’homme, puisque son rythme biologique est spécifique. Temps cyclique, toujours recommencé, mais, avec ses ruptures, sa monotonie et ses discontinuités’. And finally the body makes another big difference: ‘‘La présence de la personne et du sujet impose immanquablement la présence du corps dans le texte. Et il est bien évident que c’est peut-être le seul point sur lequel la spécificité soit absolument incontestable, absolue. Si l’écriture féminine apparaît comme neuve et révolutionnaire, c’est dans la mesure où elle est écriture du corps féminin’.

The body is undeniable, and marks a very visible difference and one may say it makes physical the two previous points: voice and biological temporality. But the female also feels different from the male one, and experiences sexuality in another way – being of course, at the same time, different for every single person – so that it may affect the writing. It explains again the boom of female writers, so to say, after Freud, writing not only in a very particular way but of their bodies: the female body, so under control during the 19th C., is put into paper by women- men did it before – at the turn of the century: ‘Monde de sensations jusque-là inexplorées et qui supposeraient, pour etre exprimées, une autre langue’.