Tag Archive | Proust

Aesthetics of the Erotic in Japanese Art and Modernist European Literature

The British Museum exhibits an important Japanese painting collection called ‘Shunga: Sex and Pleasure in Japanese Art’ which displays a high number of both erotic drawings and paintings in Japan since the 16th to the 19th century. The exhibition follows the history and development of this kind of art which became controversial in the early 20th century Japan. Sexuality is mainly explored as something very natural, common and even funny; the aim of these works were to be enjoyed by couples, as guidebooks, or for single stimulation. They present different positions, and erotic stories where usually a third person played a roll such as a jealous wife or a curious observer. Both heterosexuality and homosexuality are equally depicted and a shameless sense of enjoying sex in whatever form or place predominates.

The shunga experienced some popularity in Europe through many artists of the Modernist period who were influenced by the erotic sense of the Asiatic paintings, such as Toulousse Lautrec. In a general sense, Japanese paintings arrive at Europe through vivid colours and sinuous lines; the sense of curve and sensuality is mainly predominant in both the Shunga and Modernist paintings (Tissot, Monet, and Kiyonaga):

 James_Tissot_-_La_Japonaise_au_bainClaude_Monet-Madame_Monet_en_costume_japonais

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In Modernist literature eroticism is also stylised through the use of language or equating sexual and erotic experiences with art and artistic experiences. The whole sexual exploration present in Modernist literature in works from Proust, Gide, or Schnitzler, among others, testify that sexuality, or sensual experiences in general, can also be intellectually enjoyed and considered beautiful in themselves. The use of vivid colours, for example, in Gide’s The Immoralist depicts a sensuous and artistic approach of erotic bodies which are part of the exotic environment they belong to, and therefore, to its beautiful natural scenes. Swann in Remembrance of Time Lost enjoys music and painting as he enjoys his lover, finding difficult to separate artistic from sexual pleasure. His high stylised narrative, moreover, makes it almost impossible to differ between an act of artistic creation and a sexual one.

The close relationship between artistic-visual and sexual pleasure is already defined by Freud in his Essays on Sexuality where the object of beauty may lead to a sexual desire. Japanese art very well attempt this fusion outlining especially curve forms which of all are the most agreeable.

Remember

7608020870_f534eb495a_zIt is widely known how memory is important in Proust’s work. In “Swann in Love”, its main function is to reveal the truth, especially, the truth about Odette and Mme Verdurin. As Deleuze writes, “the objective is to find the truth and memory serves to this purpose (Proust and Signs, 3)”.

Mme Verdurin’s behaviour acquires a new significance upon the light of Odette’s truth. Now, Swann reminds some moments putting them together and seeing the whole picture:

“Oh, Mme Verdurin, she won’t hear of anyone just now but me. I’m a “love”, if you please, and she kisses me, and wants me to go with her everywhere, and call her by her Christian name’

Through memory, there is the possibility of encountering two stories or worlds: one while reading, and the other one remembering the reading. For Swann it means a difference between living and remembering something. The significance of memory is very close to psychoanalysis, where one changes the meaning of the past remembering it and the self acquires its real truth. These two worlds conform two different entities of significance and are related to oneself and to one’s perspective of the reality, and to the others, which are important so far as they conform such worlds. In Swann’s case, his experience was determined by Odette’s several worlds and their respective selves.  Her changes have a strong sexual component, which make her to perform different “Odettes” in front of the other. Each “Odette” is a lie if it is seen as the total Odette, and that was Swann’s problem: he took the part for the whole. However, every Odette configuring a complete picture is the truth about Odette. In this case, a multiple sexual life. Rivers emphasises homosexual characters in Proust as being considered as actors: ‘these characters display a constant, theatrical interpenetration of various modes of identity: half-hidden selves (…) and selves which are projected in order to survive’ (Proust and the Art of Love).

In fact, memory gives us a more complete meaning of our past experiences as our current distance allows us to get the part and insert it into the whole of our self which is rarely displayed as such.

The Truth about Odette in “Swann in Love”

-1040x940-15When Swann meets Odette he does not like her as her beauty responds to a traditional conception. She is not a cultivated woman as she shows, for example, asking if Vermeer, who died in 1675, is still alive. She seems to be seduced by Swann’s intelligence and cultural interests. She appears as someone who looks for affection and is devoted to Swann; she is sensitive in love matters in contrast to Swann’s first frivolity. Her main interest seems to be that of seeking a husband and a marriage in which she could develop her wife’s duties.

 In opposition to Swann, she appears as naïve and innocent; in fact, she looks as a Swann’s perfect victim. Moreover, she lacks personality or an own life. That is also one of the reasons she is a perfect Verdurin’s faithful.

The fact that she has no personality is related to her unknown past and it is expressed in her high attachment to Swann’s desire. She appears as unable to say “no”, which makes her a potential sexual slave and extremely vulnerable. Moreover, she is someone in relation to Swann, to his perspective or presence, which in this case, is that of the reader too. Odette is not presented as a consistent self; it suggests again the idea of performance (like Mme Verdurin) as far as she is not for herself but for the other. When she meets Swann, she performs a self: a delicate and helpless Odette; she performs a sexuality: she is heterosexual and a beauty expression of the Western canon; and these two performances belong to a specific world constructed by herself which gives to Swann and the reader an image of Odette based on a lie. It is a lie, as we will see later, because the part of Odette is presented as the whole.

Among all the topics which can be found in the story, Odette is one of the most important; she herself constitutes a topic. Odette begins to be suspicious for both Swann and the reader, as the process of discovering Odette is the same for they two. The first sign of Odette’s falsehood is suggested by her financial necessities which make Swann a necessary help for her.  Swann begins to spy Odette because he thinks she is been unfaithful. At this point he is excited by the idea of knowing Odette’s other life, which remains a secret for him. He is fascinated with the idea of discovering the truth about Odette, which is especially related to her sexual life. His first attitude regarding Odette’s infidelity is that of a scientist or of a doctor in sexual matters. At the same time, he is an artist finding out the secret of a masterpiece. A potential forbidden life of Odette makes her more attractive to Swann as a mystery which involves a work of art.

Swann discovers that Forcheville met Odette in her house. Forcheville becomes a rival for Swann. Mainly because Mme Verdurin sees the relationship between Swann and Odette too dangerous for her. Swann is taking away Odette from Mme Verdurin. That is the reason for finding a substitute for Swann. From now on, Swann is put apart from the faithful.   Swann discovers gradually Odette’s multiple affairs in France and abroad. She has had a lot of lovers both for money or pleasure. At this point the missing past of Odette begins to appear. Swann is now completely jealous of been missing Odette. He feels anxious and he needs to know everything about her.

The second important scene regarding Odette’s truth takes place when Swann receives an anonymous letter containing all Odette’s affairs (hetero- and homosexual ones).

Finally, Odette tells the truth to Swann who is horrified by it. Swann’s approach to Odette’s sexuality is mainly conformed by a medical perspective. As Rivers argues, the characters in the novel show contradictory selves (‘kindness and cruelty, sadism and altruism’). According to him, this expression concerns mainly the 19th century medical idea of a homosexual person as a kind of schizophrenic. Proust would include himself in this group and it could also explained the idea earlier mentioned of “performing selves”.

Together with Odette’s confession, the approach to sexuality conforms Foucault’s explanation concerning the relation between the discourse of confession and the scientific sexual discourse, both of them extremely important in the Western history and culture. According to Foucault, the methodology of confession is similar to that of science as they are based in observation and interrogation. The ‘truth of sex’ was born in the Western and institutionalized by religion and then, by the medical science which gave the correct view of sexuality. However, in this case, Odette has another truth which conforms a very challenging idea of the genre. A whole new set of sexual possibilities is being presented in literature, as Freud did in psychology. As Rivers points out, the whole assumptions of female roles in the Western world are completely distorted provoking thus a revision of the meaning of “man” and “woman”.

The whole past of Odette comes out: she was sold by her own mother. This particular fact could be seen in relation to her successively acts of selling herself. A possible psychoanalytical explanation could be that of “the compulsion to repeat” explained by Freud. It consists in a traumatic experience lived in childhood which the subject makes to come back again and it is related to the death drive because it is presented as a threat for the self. The compulsion to repeat would be an instinct because it is stronger than the pleasure principle. This behaviour of Odette is linked to a sadomasochist figure who, as Haberdstadt affirms, connects cruelty with pleasure. The sadomasochist used to find love in his childhood in exchange of something else which could not be pleasurable.

Finally, the relationship between Swann and Odette is inverted regarding the beginning, as it is Swann who becomes the victim of Odette’s lies.

Fetishism in Proust’s “Swann in Love”

cover_9070727_clippedIn In search of Lost Time, there are many topics regarding sexuality which can be analysed. I will be posting them during the next days as part of my MA research, all them based on the chapter “Swann in Love”. By now, there is here a brief thoughts on Fetishism.

The first scene suggesting fetishism takes place at the Verdurins. Mme Verdurin likes to touch the bronze grapes and to think her husband feels jealous about it. Swann too engages with this pleasure. It is a slight suggestion of Mme Verdurin homosexuality as the round form of the grapes reminds a feminine body or some parts of it. Moreover, Swann, of whom we know to be heterosexual, enjoys it too.

A similar scene takes place in the carriage between Swann and Odette. Swann finds a new pleasure touching Odette’s cattleyas, which will result later on in the sexual act. Even language itself expresses a continuum from the object, which is also related to her breast, to the whole woman, that is from the part to the whole – which is typical in fetishism. The use of the metaphor ‘do a cattleya’ becomes a substitute for “making love”. Thus, the “cattleya” becomes a sexual symbol which refers to the object itself and to a reality beyond itself.

‘And long afterwards, when the rearrangement (or, rather, the ritual pretence of a rearrangement) of her cattleyas had quite fallen into desuetude, the metaphor “Do a cattleya”, transmuted into a simple verb which they would employ without thinking when they wished to refer to the act of physical possession (…) And perhaps this particular manner of saying “to make love” did not mean exactly the same thing as its synonyms’.

Art and love, as well as the artistic and sexual object are slightly confused with each other. It is the music of Vinteuil which makes Swann feel love. As a result, he thinks to love Odette, however, he could be in love with the music or with what music provokes on him. Later on, Swann will ask Odette to play this some piece of music again. He feels pleasure listening it, especially when it is played by Odette. Music works as a substitute for the sexual act; it is a part of Odette who plays it. And, again, like the cattleyas, music is a continuum of Odette, and the sexual desire goes from the artistic object to the real person, which in this case becomes the sexual object. This relation between sex and music is clearly expressed by language identifying ‘playing again’ with ‘kissing again’.

Painting too is involved in Swann’s love for Odette. She represents Swann’s aesthetic values and she resembles Botticelli’s portrait of Zipporah, of which Swann in in love. Swann likes Odette because she represents Zipporah’s features. Therefore, Odette is subordinated to the aesthetic values at the same time that she herself has a value making possible an aesthetic experience.

Odette embodies art in the tangible world joining the artistic object and the sexual one in herself. It fits with the idea of Halberdstadt who argues that in perversion, a part of the lover believes in the real beloved and, another part, in the fantastic one.

‘Or else she would look at him sulkily, and he would see once again a face worthy to figure in Botticceli’s “Life of Moises”; he would place it there, giving to Odette’s neck the necessary inclination; and when he had finished his portrait in tempera, in the fifteenth century, on the wall of the Sistine, the idea that she was non the less in the room with him still, by the piano, at that very moment, ready to be kissed and enjoyed, the idea of her material existence would sweep over him with so violent an intoxication that (…) he would fling himself upon this Botticceli maiden and kiss and bite her cheeks’

I would like to note that, according to Deleuze, in Proust, the revelation of the essence belongs to art. In this case, Swann apprehends Beauty through music and painting, and then he is able to find this essence in Odette, who becomes a part of the work of art.

The important point is that Odette never constitutes a sexual object by herself but it is always needed the presence of a mediator, in this case, of art.