Tag Archive | Bourgeoisie

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.

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.

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.