Tag Archive | 19th century

Rethinking Colonialism: The Post-Bourgeoisie in Mars

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Almost three hundred years have passed by since Daniel Defoe represented the colonizer’s experience embodied in the enlightened bourgeois Robinson Crusoe in 1719. Remarkably, these three centuries have seen the process of decolonization and the birth of post-colonialism. Robinson Crusoe is widely considered the first bourgeois novel: the detailed reproduction of the domestic realm in an unknown, untamed space stands for the expression of the settlement of a new social class, and culture: the bourgeoisie. Robinson Crusoe not only strives to reproduce his domestic space with its rooms and functions, or collection of objects, but he also reproduces its domestic rituals around food and eating, time marking, and especially, the writing of the self in a diary.

Robinson Crusoe is no less formidable for being a representation of a process of domestication of foreign lands, strongly attached to an imperial era. Enlightenment, and its strong belief in education and reason, carries with itself the responsibility of knowing the world, and sharing with it the glories of the Age of Reason. The relationship between Enlightenment and the bourgeoisie is especially seen through the importance of free thinkers and the raise of liberal professionals. Colonization and  cultural imperialism are well understood in this context.

Surprisingly, a film such as The Martian (2015) finds a wide and massive reception in an era when post-colonialism have shown the shames of colonization for decades. The ‘complex’ of the white man being charged with a shameful responsibility, cannot however stop him of feeling admiration in front of a potentially new era of colonization: the conquest of space. The Martian presents a new Robinson Crusoe, a man lost in Mars, a hostile land, who strives to survive through the colonization of this new space. The lost astronaut indeed domesticates this land through his technological devices and knowledge, as well as Crusoe did until being saved by his compatriots. What this film puts into question is the still present culture of colonization and the ‘white man’.

Let us go a step further: what if in this new planet the ‘white man’ finds a new being? What if it happens to be a being pretty similar to himself? Would then be so difficult to imagine our discussions on this new man’s soul? His inferior, or superior culture? Would we strive to impose him our education system? Taking a new form, curiosity for the unknown and anxieties of conquest merged into a new direction, relegating decades of critique, and showing, perhaps, that little has changed in this born conqueror?

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.

Narratives of Domesticity

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It is commonly forgotten that the bourgeoisie was not born in France, neither in England, but in the Netherlands; it was not born in the 19th C. but as early as the 17th C., but as usual small countries and ‘rare’ languages fall in oblivion. Witold Rybczynski, a Scottish architect living currently in Canada, has a wonderful book which just fall in my hands some days ago: Home: A Short History of an Idea (1986). This book is a little jewel written by a humanist architect, what can be called a mini version of Philippe Ariès huge work.

Rybczynski approaches the idea of home historically, since its birth until nowadays. The concept of home different from that of house was born in the bourgeoisie, as such, it conforms the values of the former which, clearly, remain until today. The author has a wide knowledge on history and the arts, and he continuously provides artistic and literary examples of his statements. The one I wish to focus on in here is his comparison between 17th C Dutch paintings and Jane Austen narratives.

Rybcznski shows the first representations of domestic space in Dutch paintings to exemplify the first idea of domesticity and privacy, arguing how ‘there was one place, however, where the seventeenth-century domestic interior evolved in a way that was arguably unique, and that can be described as having been, at the very last, exemplary […] In short, at a time when the other states of Europe remained primarily rural […] the Netherlands was rapidly becoming a nation of townspeople. Burghers by historical tradition, the Dutch were bourgeois by inclination’. However, the Dutch 17th C has not left bourgeois literature as has done the 19th C in other European countries, instead it left pictorial representations of domestic space:

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The above painting by de Witte in 1660 is not only a domestic painting but it also contains the bourgeois topic per excellence: adultery. One can carefully see a man hidden in the bed of whom Rybcznski introduces an explanation, hence a narrative, and a domestic narrative. This painting is thought of as domestic space, wanting to englobe the whole of the home in the depiction of several rooms. The woman playing the piano with half-open curtains, the daylight suggesting a non-orthodox hour for intimacies as the owner of the house might be working, the clothes untidily left on the chair: all that narrates a story. Like him, and other contemporary painters, Jane Austen, a century later, ‘single-handedly invented, and brought to perfection, what could be called the domestic genre of novel-writing, the literary equivalent to the seventeenth-century Dutch school of interior painting’. This comparison between painting and writing is very interesting, and they show the same social and class frames in two different moments and times. This historical difference confirms domesticity as bourgeois topic: Austen belonged to the late 18th C. new English bourgeoisie, the concept of home landed to Enlgand, which was also heir of Dutch tastes in interior design.

Austen scenes are typically feminine; women present the whole narrative perspective, it is a world conformed indoors and managed by women and their topics. Love and marriage, as well as real estate, are favorite talks in the drawing or tea room (and it might be reminded that the so tea British tradition came from the Netherlands in the 17th C.). As Rybcznski says, Austen’s plots are simple, no big tragedies or dramas are told, but she has become a national figure, why? Apart from Austen’s deep insights in the human heart, it is indeed a sense of domesticity what her texts bring out: home sweet home, the British nostalgia for quiet familiar and well-being scenes.

On Androgyny and the Primitive Mind

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Androgyny, the union of female and male characteristics, is considered by psychoanalysis as a ‘primitive state of mind’, as Jung says, a place and time when differences, or opposites, were not separated but conformed a whole. When exactly this happened is left unclear however this wholeness or androgyny state reminds at the unconscious level where consciousness has not yet processed pairs of opposites. This union of opposites does not only refer to sexual differences but to any kind of contraries which, especially the Western civilization, have carefully and ‘logically’ separated. For Jung this is part of the white civilization problem: binary opposition rather than help, confuses as it consists in separate and eliminate part of the human wholeness. Evil/goodness, weak/strong, light/darkness are some classical examples. Freud’s work might be approached at the light of such conflict in Western culture: instinct/culture, or expression/repression are likely to end up in neurosis or hysteria.

At the linguistic level, androgyny was also suggested by Freud in “The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words” where he states that in an antique era a word might have meant one thing and its opposite. Similarly, Irigaray from a feminist perspective, claims Western discourse being build by men has forgotten its etymological origin expressing both male and female together in a single word. Binary oppositions have been criticized by feminism as something proper of a patriarchal culture, considering psychoanalytical arguments, it is a topic worth to explore. Indeed, asiatic cultures, which are popular defined as ‘feminine’, seem to still include the union of opposites; asiatic medicine is more based on the wholeness of the human being than it is Western medicine, mainly characterize by ‘cutting off’ what does not work, the human body being approached by parts rather than as a whole harmonious unity. It might be interesting to compare both medical discourses.

On space, Lefebvre points out some differences between the Western and the Eastern civilizations on the organization of domestic and public space. The opposition outside/inside is here as well approached differently: the white culture has been characterized by a strong separation of these two spheres, especially since the Modern period and the bourgeoisie, while the East keeps a more fluid relationship between the two spheres stressed trough the importance of the garden, and constructions being part of nature rather than opposite to it.

On the Psychic Home

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Roger Kennedy develops the concept of ‘psychic home’ from a psychoanalytical perspective in his book The Psychic Home (2014) whose theory may feel complemented with that of Jung and Heidegger’s approach to dwelling, as well as providing an interesting relationship between the importance of the bourgeois interior and the emergence of psychoanalysis. Kennedy argues that it is a human need to have a sense of home: ‘We need to feel at home in the world – it makes us feel secure, it provides the base from which we can explore’ (2014: 12). This sense of home is found inside the human being, it belongs to his interiority being extremely related to the physical construction of the house. This strong relationship is expressed through a continuous interaction between the inside and the outside: the psychic house is fed trough the physical space, while the physical interior becomes yearning and expression of the psychic house.

Kennedy differentiates between the interior home and the domestic space: the first one been approached as a given entity, while the second one belongs to a particular historical context. Indeed Histoire de la Vie Privée shows a complete development of domestic space being its high moment found from the French Revolution onwards, especially during the bourgeoisie. This differentiation is important to oppose traditional feminist critique as it shows how the sense of home may be set apart from the material relationship to the house, in other words, feminism fails to differentiate the relationship between the woman and her inner home from that of the material house, and that may be due to its general materialistic approach. However, following Kennedy, the history of the inner home is that of the human being: the value of home belongs to him, as Heidegger says ‘to be is to dwell’ (147); but the historical development and expression of this interiority is subjected to change, and to the materiality of the world. Thus, bourgeois domestic space should be approached from its particular context, as expression of both human interiority and social interactions. This relationship is what can lead to a conflict which is experienced by the adulteress as a central figure in part of the bourgeois novel.

Kennedy establishes the relationship between the development of domestic space and psychoanalysis based on the idea that, in fact, psychoanalysis somehow belongs to the home’s interiority, and to the inner space both psychically and physically (2014: 20): it belongs to the subject who inhabits the house. Thus the psychic home finds a strong correlation with domestic space in the bourgeoisie which is highly concerned with the cultivation of the inner space in both metaphorical and literal meanings:

 ‘One could say that the older notion of the interior as the spiritual and inner nature of the soul became, in Freud, wedded to the emerging notion of the double nature of the interior as site of dream and material reality to create a new notion of private life and of the human subject. The psychoanalytical interior, or what I shall put forward as the notion of a psychic home, becomes a revolutionary account of the human subject, one that challenged bourgeois domesticity while providing a comfortable space for exploration of its conflicts’.                                                                                             (2014: 24)

 Indeed, psychoanalysis is the product as well as the end of the proper bourgeoisie or Victorian domesticity and its core values. Kennedy approaches the discipline as a result of the strong sense of interiority domestic space brought to the individual who was not freed from inner conflicts, but far from that, those were actually caused by the same domesticity. One can then suggest with Kennedy how psychoanalysis was born from the negative side of domesticity: its conflicts; therefore, being the new discipline a cure but nonetheless also a challenge for Victorian values; the end of the restricted and disciplined sexuality, and the beginning of new experiences of the body.

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?