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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.

Madness and Domesticity in Eline Vere

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The Dutch novel Eline Vere (1889) is another late nineteenth-century bourgeois example of failed female domesticity. Eline is a young dreamy girl whose basic problem is, like Emma Bovary, a deep boredom; although Flaubert’s novel is in many senses superior to that of Couperus’- Emma’s psychological characterization is one of the best of the nineteenth-century together with that of Anna Karanina – , as well as influential to the latter, both Emma and Eline share a passion for romantic novels, high expectations which are always damned to fail, and a too restless character to conform to bourgeois domestic expectations. Even if Eline Vere is not a novel of adultery, it presents a lot of the classical elements Flaubert introduced to represent a mediocre and regional bourgeois society.

Homes and objects are overall represented according to a bourgeois approach and meaning: they signify, they keep memories and serve as a medium to introduce class and imperial topics. The reader can travel from house to house and see their inhabitants and objects, which accordingly to the novel’s milieu are totally interrelated. Eline Vere can be described as a novel of domesticities, and it is in this context that Eline can be better approached: she does not fit within the domestic network; she is homeless and presents a deep sense of the un-domestic. Eline cannot be domesticated even if she wishes so in order to conform to the house with the rest of its inhabitants and objects.

Domestic space is mostly perceived as a prison by Eline, who, as single woman has nothing to do, no one to care for. Interestingly, in this case is not adultery but hysteria – then wrongly understood as madness – what springs up in Eline in the last third of the novel – the best part of the text in terms of dramatic tension and psychological insight. Eline, as a late 19th C. female bourgeois belongs to Freud’s context and very well might represent some of his patients trapped between a social discourse and personal desires. The domestic setting surrounding the text thoroughly constitutes a static and oppressive spatial frame which emphasizes Eline’s stillness and incapacity to change direction:

 ‘She now spent hour upon hour racked with doubt as to what she could possibly do with her useless body and her useless existence, dragging herself from one spasm of coughing to the next on the prison of her rooms’

 Madness then comes out as a means to escape such physical and psychological pressure, and it is a quite widespread topic during the 19th C. including even a biographical text The Yellow Wallpaper (Perkins 1892). Rooms experienced as prison also affect the body, which, alongside with an obsession for covering it – the 18th C. was far more permissive in this topic -, amounts of clothes reproduced the same spatial domestic configuration, where the sexual body is suffocated.

Death is a common end for most of 19th C. heroines – or anti-heroines -. In Eline’s case, however, the border between suicide and accidental death is well worked out, although for a modern reader the accidental might be read as an unconscious wish given Eline’s previous thoughts on suicide. The room then ‘was transformed into a dark crypt, a mausoleum of blackness in which a lifeless body lay, ghostly white’. This last representation of the room is one of the most powerful: the room is not a room anymore but a crypt. Domestic space is not only able to become a prison but it can be death itself; Eline, one may say, is killed by the space she is forced to inhabit. If one takes Eline Vere as representative of Dutch bourgeoisie, then Bourgeois Dutch domesticity dies in this room.

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.

The Human Beast in Thérèse Raquin

thereseA Zola’s novel hardly leaves anyone indifferent; he is the artist par excellence of the darkest human side. It is not just in his topics and characters, it is in his narrative style as well where Zola depicts brutality in a very brutal way: without judgement. There is no the slightest moral voice in his work to relief the reader of the tragedy, instead, the reader is trapped in a hopeless world completely alone without finding an accomplice in the narrator. That is what makes Zola especially terrible, his objective display of the human beast.

Such a thing as a ‘good character’ is impossible to find in Thérèse Raquinthere are just evil and less-evil characters  in the Parisian novel. No one is free or innocent, all of them are accomplices in some way or another of the murder of Camille, even Camille himself. All the characters present in the novel are especially concern with themselves, their own interests, which lead them to cause unfair situations in an endless chain of guilty. Surviving is the main objective for each one until the only possible way to do so is suicide. Death freed Thérèse and Laurent of their crime remorses after months of mutual hate and misbehaviour. Camille, Madame Raquin, Thérèse and Laurent are all victims and guilty; even secondary characters can be accused of selfishness looking just for self-satisfaction. The characters’ descriptions and the atmosphere of the novel is quite animalistic. The word ‘animal’ to design desires or feelings is used repeatedly for Thérèse and Laurent and it is full of animal similes which refer to their bodies as well. Sexuality between the lovers is mainly aggressive and even masochistic, it is just of an instinctual kind.

The adulterous affair between Thérèse and Laurent corresponds actually to that of Rougemont’s theory in The Love in the Western World. After committing the crime killing Camille, Thérèse’s husband, Laurent and Thérèse cannot feel attract to each other any more. Moreover, they will progressively hate each other after their marriage, which was the goal killing Camille, until ending in death. Indeed, the adulterous affair is exciting because of the obstacle, it is the romantic love which is thrilling and such a thrill is possible due to the obstacle, in this case, the husband. Passion was possible for the lovers because of their consciousness of braking the rule and their passion needed always an obstacle, otherwise, it dies. No passion lasts forever and there is no passion in marriage actually after a certain time. Marriage is not properly the place for sexual passion, this one should be found outside ‘conformity’. The problem then with passion is that neither every obstacle lasts forever, so death is the last solution and, Rougemont would say, the lover’s most secret desire. Death is the only obstacle which remains forever and which feds lover’s ‘love’. Thérèse and Laurent can just kill themselves because they have discovered that marriage’s happiness was a mirage, they needed Camille to find the passion. And actually the only scene of relief in the whole novel is at the very end, when they decide to commit suicide:

‘Suddenly Thérèse and Laurent burst into tears, and in a final breakdown fell into each other’s arms, as weak children. Something gentle and tender seemed to awaken in their breast. They wept and said nothing, thinking of the sink of filth in which they had been living and would go on living if they were cowardly enough to remain alive. And then, as they remembered the past, they felt so weary and sick of themselves that an immense longing for rest an oblivion came over them. They exchanged one last look, a look of gratitude in the presence of the knife and the glass of poison. Thérèse took the glass, drank half of it, and gave it to Laurent, who finished it in one gulp. It was as quick as lightning. They fell on each other, struck down instantly, and at last found consolation in death.’

The Other and My-self

Poe_william_wilson_byam_shawYou have conquered, and I yield. Yet henceforward art thou also dead – dead to the World, to Heaven, and to Hope! In me didst thou exist – and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself. That’s the ending of “William Wilson” (1839) by Allan Poe, a short story which shows the dreadful life of someone who introduces himself as William Wilson, and who is horrified by the presence of someone identical to him. This “other” has his same name and appearance and, according to the narrator – which is William Wilson-, his objective seems to be that of interfering with all what William attempts to do. The terrible whispering of the “other” tortures William every time it suddenly appears along his life, since he’s a child. Indeed, the “other” seems to become the whispering which actually unmasks every unfair action William pretends to achieve. While the weary presence of the “other” increases, William’s dreadful desires do too. He escapes all through Europe (Oxford, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, etc.) from the tormenting whispering however impossible it results to be.

This disturbing presence in fact reminds Sartre’s theory of the Other in Being and Nothingness (1943). William Wilson becomes catch by the “other” every time he tries to achieve a goal by suspicious means; he is shamed by the presence of the “other”, who, moreover, interferes with his will. Both William and the “other” incarnate a fight to impose their respective wills on each other:

Thus far I had succumbed supinely to this imperious domination. The sentiment of deep awe with which I habitually regarded the elevated character, the majestic wisdom, the apparent omnipresence and omnipotence of Wilson, added to a feeling of even terror, with which certain other traits in his nature and assumptions inspired me, had operated, hitherto, to impress me with an idea of my own utter weakness and helplessness, and to suggest an implicit, although bitterly reluctant submission to his arbitrary will (…) I began to murmur, -to hesitate,- to resist. And was it only fancy which induced me to believe that, with the increase of my own firmness, that of my tormentor underwent a proportional diminution? Be this as it may, I now began to feel the inspiration of a burning hope, and at length nurtured in my secret thoughts a stern and desperate resolution that I would submit no longer to be enslaved.

The dialectical relation “master-slave” is explained by Sartre, among others, to argue that the encounter with the Other takes place in terms of competition among different personal interests; just one will can win. That seems very likely to the relation William expresses regarding the “other” which in this case is “his other”. And it adds a challenging point as in Poe’s story the disappearance of one seems to imply that of the other, or the other’s, that of the one’s. This fact brings back again the importance of the “other’s look” in Sartre. It could be argued that William needs to be looked at in order to exist, as the “other” tells him to be living in the other’s self. So William can just survive in relation to the Other, acquiring a position regarding the Other, which turns him in the other’s object.

In William’s case this dialectic is enhanced by the ambiguous fact of the other’s identity; at the same time, it’s very nicely presented as a metaphor of the double or the split self which is presented as the own’s other. It gives a wide range for interpretation together with Sartre.   

Beyond Difference: Let them be

Einstein-semilla-11Diderot shows in Rameau’s Nephew a conversation between an enlightened philosopher and a quite extravagant musician, Rameau. While the former argues for virtue and education, the latter enjoys vices and art. Several topics are discussed across the dialogue such as ethics and aesthetics, education, or moral, all them upon the light of the Enlightenment. However, one important idea, which goes across from the beginning till the end, is the acceptance of the different by the society as an expression of the genius.

Rameau explains to the philosopher his dissolute life and his unacceptable thoughts. The philosopher thinks of Rameau to be a complete madman, and Rameau says of the society to be completely hypocrite. In fact, as the philosopher realizes at the end, Rameau says what everybody think and do without saying it. Rameau has a gift, an excellence sensibility for music and, at the same time, he is terribly honest. He is different. He is different because he is not playing the social rules, he is unconventional. Instead of accepting the norms, he unmasks them and the game people play.

Therefore, madness is, until certain point, an institutional tag,  and doctors are the new high caste of the Western modernity, especially psychiatrists. Medicine has become a new control of society, especially when it is ruled by doctors who serve the Pharmaceutical industry. Rameau is a genius, therefore, superior, therefore dangerous for those who attempt to avoid difference. As Tony Tanner interprets in The Novel of the Adultery: Contract and Transgression, the real occupation of the pharmacist, Monsieur Homais, in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, is to label people, among them, the adulteress. Labelling here is linked to the lack of freedom and to the adulteress’ suicide.

The different has been avoided until today. Medicine becomes stronger and stronger and there is no acceptance of the being. The popular TDAH (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), for example, affects to a great number of children and teenagers. The secondary effects of the drugs which are employed to avoid some of the TDAH symptoms are terrible. One of them is schizophrenia. But the Pharmaceutical industry makes great amounts of money with such treatments.

I propose a reflection about the difference and the individual freedom to consider if we should permit to be labelled.