Tag Archive | German Modernism

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.

Materiality and Corporeality: The Body in Popular Fiction and Visual Culture

“Contemplating the Male Body: From Aesthetics to Sexual Pleasure in Homosexual Literature”. Materiality and Corporeality: The Body in Popular Fiction and Visual Culture. University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth, 6 June 2013.

In this paper I analyse the representations of male bodies in André Gide’s The Immoralist (1902), Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) and D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love (1920), with a particular focus on the perception with which the perceiving subject beholds the body. The male body is often turned into a voyeuristic spectacle when it is described in elaborate detail and perceived by an attentive subject whose gaze enjoys the contemplation of the object-body. On the one hand, the bodies that are objectified in that manner become objects of aesthetic contemplation. On the other hand, however, they also become potential sources for sexual pleasure. This article investigates the ways in which perceptions of male bodies are aestheticized and/or eroticised in these texts.

From the Aesthetic to the Erotic Gaze (IV)

2007BM5740_michelangelo_david_plaster_castThe Immoralist, Death in Venice and Women in Love all share a strong presence of the visual field, which places them at the birth of a new culture in the first part of the twentieth century: the culture of vision. Detailed descriptions, especially of the human body, anticipate what will be central in the new seventh art. The pleasure of looking gains prominence as it becomes part of a new popular visual art that is much more culturally extended than painting ever was. But it is not so much in the fact of seeing where most of the pleasure is felt as it is in the object presented to the gaze: the human figure. Laura Mulvey, in her analysis of cinema, argues:

 ‘The cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking […] the conventions of mainstream film focus attention on the human form. Scale, space, stories are all anthropomorphic. Here, curiosity and the wish to look intermingle with a fascination with likeness and recognition: the human face, the human body, the relationship between the human form and its surroundings, the visible presence of the person in the world’. (‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ 4)

However, cinema was born from a new technological context that led to a new conception of art and the human being. Visual pleasure is not free of a massive superficial valorisation of aesthetics, which reduces art, and with it the human body, to mere exhibitionism. Walter Benjamin argues, in ‘The Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, that modern art has replaced the cultural value of art with exhibitionism; therefore, the work of art has no meaning in itself, but rather acquires significance insofar as it acquires a function, in this case, the function of being exhibited: “[through] the absolute emphasis on its exhibition value the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions, among which the one we are conscious of, the artistic function, later may be recognized as incidental” (619-20). If then, as Mulvey argues, the human body has become a source of artistic pleasure in the current epoch, it is also not free from becoming a mere instrument, and that is the danger Benjamin refers to when he says that the human figure has become the centre of a cult, since “its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order” (634).

The aesthetic value of the human being calls for a rebirth of the artistic sense in contemporary society beyond the significance of technology. The three texts here analysed express a necessary sensibility towards the human figure’s ability to arouse wonder in the reader. The gaze can only be surprised by discovering the unique and by avoiding endless mechanical reproduction. The historical moment when these novels were written is not unimportant, since they give testimony to both aesthetic and human value, reminding, as Plato’s Prophetess does, that “such a life as this, my dear Socrates, ” exclaimed the stranger Prophetess, “spent in the contemplation of the beautiful, is the life for men to live […]” (The Banquet 103).

From the Aesthetic to the Erotic Gaze (II)

veniceIn Death in Venice, Aschenbach experiences a similar situation to that of Michel. During his holidays in Venice, Aschenbach reconsiders his previous life as an artist and his conception of art, under the inspiration of the young Tadzio, who becomes the representation of Beauty with his young and well-proportioned body. Unlike Michel, Aschenbach dedicates a long time to the contemplation of Tadzio and his reflection about beauty, and it is not until almost the end of the novel that he experiences a rebirth in himself. This process is analysed by the narrator from a Platonic perspective, regarding beauty as a powerful force which can be both divine and dangerous. Classical references appear starting with Aschenbach’s first encounter with Tadzio:

 ‘With astonishment Aschenbach noticed that the boy was entirely beautiful. His countenance, pale and gracefully reserved, was surrounded by ringlets of honey-coloured hair, and with its straight nose, its enchanting mouth, its expression of sweet and divine gravity, it recalled Greek sculpture of the noblest period; yet despite the purest formal perfection, it had such unique personal charm that he who now contemplated it felt he had never beheld, in nature or in art, anything so consummately successful’ (Mann 219).

The artistic reference behind Aschenbach’s reflections on Tadzio’s beauty is the perspective of the Classical Age. Indeed, Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus (370 BC) is quoted at Aschenbach’s most crucial moment, that is, shortly before he becomes aware of his own desire for Tadzio. Hence, the Phaedrus introduces the debate about the two sides of Beauty, those of divine contemplation and human temptation, just when Aschenbach finds himself at a crux between them. In fact, Aschenbach’s approach to Tadzio’s figure is similar to Plato’s approach to beauty as an image of God or divinity. Moreover, in The Banquet (380 BC), Plato affirms through the figure of Diotima that “love is the desire of generation in the beautiful, both with relation to the body and the soul” (92). Love, then is love for the generation of beauty and not of the beauty itself (The Banquet 93), a fact related to Aschenbach’s artistic production, and especially to what he writes upon seeing Tadzio. The narrator relates how Aschenbach “embraced that noble figure at the blue water’s edge, and in rising ecstasy he felt he was gazing on Beauty itself, on Form as a thought of God […]” (Mann 237), and later on, the narration continues: “And Socrates, wooing him with witty compliments and jests, was instructing Phaedrus on desire and virtue. He spoke to him of the burning tremor of fear which the lover will suffer when his eye perceives a likeness of eternal beauty” (Mann 238).

However, the aesthetic vision is not completely free from arousing sensual pleasure and the temptation to turn the latter into the predominant focus. The narrator in Death in Venice reminds Socrates’ warning about how beauty can be a path either to the spirit or to debauchery:

‘[…] do you believe, dear boy, that the man whose path to the spiritual passes through the senses can ever achieve wisdom and true manly dignity? Or do you think rather (I leave it to you to decide) that this is a path of dangerous charm, very much an errant and sinful path which must of necessity lead us astray?’  (Mann 264)

Arthur Schopenhauer formulates the dilemma in these terms: “How is it possible for us to take pleasure in an object when this object has no kind of connexion with our desire?” (155). Schopenhauer argues that in beauty what is perceived is the Platonic Idea, the essence, and this perception abolishes the human will, which is the source of all pain. Therefore, aesthetic pleasure resides mainly in a negative act, i.e. the inability to suffer. The abolition of the will implies that of desire, because the subject is unable to want (Schopenhauer 155-6). However, Plato attributes the capacity of suffering to the beholder of the beautiful: ‘In this state of mingled pleasure and pain the sufferer is perplexed by the strangeness of his experience and struggles helplessly; in his frenzy he cannot sleep at night or remain still by day, but his longing drives him wherever he thinks that he may see the possessor of beauty’  (Phaedrus 58).

Moreover, if love is love of the generation of beauty, the contemplation of it engenders desire and action, a desire to eternally live in the presence of beauty, and thus to actively seek it (Plato The Banquet 93-4). As a consequence, aesthetic contemplation easily arouses desire in the subject even if, as Schopenhauer argues, the beholder takes pleasure from the contemplation of an essence. Indeed, there is a process in which, starting with the discovery of aesthetic pleasure in a human figure, the gaze approaches a threshold after which it will encounter a sexualized body. At this point, if the distance between the beholder and its object remains, the act of viewing becomes a substitute for the sexual act. The importance of sight at this crucial moment introduces the topic as analysed by Freud in his work “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality”. Freud considers the “optical impression” as the starting point for sexual arousal (69). Indeed sight is –as Plato holds in both Timaeus (65) and Phaedrus (57)– the primordial human sense, through which a first curiosity towards the outside is born. Moreover, sight awakes in men the desire for love (Phaedrus 57) and the pursuit of beauty. For Freud it means a longing for sexual union with the object of beauty, which in turn becomes identified with the sexual object. Admiration of the human figure is what Freud calls artistic sublimation, and belongs to an intermediate state between an initial attraction by such a figure and a completion of the sexual act (“On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” 69). However, if there is no sexual act properly speaking, but instead the sight substitutes for this pleasure, then it is possible to talk about exhibitionism and voyeurism.

Unlike Michel, the character of Aschenbach in Death in Venice never achieves a close relationship with Tadzio, his sole object of beauty. The distance between the two men reinforces the act of seeing, which remains predominant throughout the whole novel. If in Michel’s case there is an evolution towards sexual consummation suggested at the very end of the novel, Aschenbach finds no other pleasure beyond that of contemplation.

The crucial moment for Aschenbach’s gaze arrives at almost the end of the novel, when he seems to glimpse Tadzio’s smile; Aschenbach’s “eyes met those of the returning absentee –and in that instant it happened that Tadzio smiled: smiled at him” (Mann 244). It causes an immediate reaction in Aschenbach, whose desire is completely aroused: ‘And leaning back, his arms hanging down, overwhelmed, trembling, shuddering all over, he whispered the standing formula of the heart’s desire –impossible here, absurd, depraved, ludicrous and sacred nevertheless, still worthy of honour even here: “I love you!” (Mann 244).

Aschenbach experiments contradictory feelings; he is now on the threshold of a new gaze that expresses a different approach to Tadzio. From this point on, Aschenbach’s and Tadzio’s eyes will meet again, and Tadzio’s awareness and passivity will suggest a pleasure in being looked upon. A similar scene takes place when Aschenbach “ventured to steal a glance at Tadzio, and as he did so he became aware that the boy, returning his glance, had remained no less serious than himself […]” (255). Because a physical encounter never takes place between the two, sight becomes the predominant sense as a source for sexual pleasure. An indication of the sexual importance of these meetings is brought out by Aschenbach’s Dionysian dream:

‘It began with fear, fear and joy and a horrified curiosity about what was to come […] from far off a hubbub was approaching, an uproar, a compendium of noise, a clangour and blare and dull thundering, yells of exultation and a particular howl with a long-drawn-out u at the end –all of it permeated and dominated by a terrible sweet song of flute music […] they were himself as an orgy of limitless coupling, in homage to the god […] his very soul savoured the lascivious delirium of annihilation’ (Mann 259-61).

Conference: Nineteenth- Century Aetiologies, Exoticism, and Multimodal Aesthetics

“Uncanny Aesthetics in Kafka’s America or The Man who Disappeared”. Nineteenth- Century Aetiologies, Exoticism, and Multimodal Aesthetics Conference, Liverpool University, Liverpool, 2 April 2013.

This paper analyses the aesthetic creation of the Uncanny in the narrative of Kafka, especially in his novel Amerika, first published in 1927. The paper argues how the Uncanny can be perceived through the descriptions the main character does of the closed spaces or buildings which appear in the novel. The subjective perception of Karl Rossmann is linked to his unconscious and indicates a presence of the ‘unintentional return’ of a threat, in this case the threat of being expelled once and again which justifies his endless wanderings in America.

 

The Unknown Guilt of Herr K.

j0395954Even if Kafka’s works are rich in interpretations there is a possible “core” to be found in them, especially in The Trial. The main topic of this novel is the guilt and its relation to the Law. Joseph K. bears a guilt, but it is not any guilt, it is an Unknown Guilt, or even better, The Unknown Guilt. Herr K. is accused by the Law which is personified by high hierarchy members of the system. One can be tempted to look for some guilt in K.’s story, some wrong acts but Herr K. is not dealing with material crimes, he is dealing with himself, with the very fact of existing. It is an existential guilt which leads K. to look desperately for help. The whole nonsense of the situations and dialogues expresses the impossibility to deal with the Law; it is an irrational one. Herr K. looks for meaning, that is, sense, reason, but there is no one and with the lack of reason comes the lack of redemption, of solution. He is guilty and he will die guilty. This statement is put clearly in different moments of the novel, how impossible is to make the Court change its opinion. Moreover, K. is not the only one trapped in a nonsensical Law, other men are waiting since ages and ages to be told what they are accused of. But there is no answer. That is exactly the point, there is no answer and there will be no answer.

All the other topics are related to and acquire their meanings depending on their position to the Law. Women are marginal to the Law, as it is explained in the previous Post, and Herr K. is not interested in women, his goal is to achieve the Law. K. has no sexual aim regarding women; all possible sexual encounters have a place in relation to the Law. That is why women become a door, they can open the way to the Law if the accused pays a sexual price (from K’s perspective, which can be wrong). Women are the really ones interested in sex, not Herr K. And that is the way in which women are presented as monstrous.

Therefore, to analyse sexuality in Kafka it is necessary to place it in its correct position and such a position is to be define regarding the Law. Sex is submitted to the Law and thus related to the sense of guilt, as it is for example, in Amerika when Karl Rossmann is expelled by his father because of a sexual encounter with the maid.

Kafka’s Women: In the Borderline

tumblr_m8uulbQX5O1qc5h1co1_1280In The Trial, women configure a particular atmosphere in a mainly masculine world. Joseph K. appears as an isolated male figure, naive and innocent paying punishment for a Law of a very patriarchal structure and hierarchy. There are only men in the judicial system while women stand on marginal positions around the core of the Law. They constitute a sort of borderline between the Law and the accused; they are at the same time inside and outside the system. Thus, they are ambiguous characters, at least unfaithful because of such ambiguity. Unfaithful for both those who are inside the system and those who are outside it. This characteristic is expressed through their promiscuity, that is, through sexuality which is properly what defines them. Indeed, they are highly sexualised beings and their sexuality is always involved in helping the accused. They are mainly prostitutes as their mode of interchange is always physically: they obtain favours from the Court members in exchange of their bodies. Its use is what their master overall.

Women, as a figure bordering the Law, suggest the idea of entrance which is related to the sexual body. The man who wants to go inside the Law -in this case Joseph K.- should penetrate the threshold. In fact, Joseph K. refuses any complete sexual encounter with the nurse or the washerwoman and he loses their respective help. Joseph K. does not pay the price to be helped and his attitude contrasts with the “sexualised woman”; his virility is diminished. Kafka’s male characters are usually confronted with sexualised women and they are unable to master the situation. Men use to be shy or “sexually inferior” than women who are very self-confident. Kafka inverts the classical Western gender roles. It is possible to see how these women cause confusion in the main male characters who find themselves overcame by the situation.

The inability of male characters to engage with sexual matters is present through the whole Kafka’s work. Women are presented as inaccessible or unmastered. They can appear as strongly independent, manipulative, funny and sexualised. However, in some cases, the figure of the mother appears as a sexless and helpful woman even if her good intentions are always cast off by a male authority.