The Devil’s in the Portrait

I have been enjoying — very much — reading a variety of works about portraiture (but who has time with a newborn baby?!).  My intention has been to write a series of posts about this theme in literature.

While reading, however, I wanted to pause and address a thread from a past series of mine: the devil in literature.  I find, not surprisingly, that there are many intersections between the portrait and the devil in the texts I have read.

One of these, in particular, feels most fundamental to a study of the devil in portrait: Nikolai Gogol’s “The Mysterious Portrait.”  Gogol hinges his short story upon many almost-universal topoi, found in related works such as Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Balzac’s “The Unfinished Masterpiece,” Poe’s “The Oval Portrait,” Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, Stevenson’s “Markheim,” and even Faulkner’s “Evangeline” (to only name a small handful that come to mind).

The first topic that struck me in reading about the portrait in literature is that the beauty of the portrait is that an author/artist can project how the subject wants to look or how he views the subject, and not necessarily how that subject did look. (That has always been why one of my favorite rooms at the Museum of Fine Arts is the early American portraits.) This adds layers to a tale, complicating the status of reality, opening the door, of course, to the supernatural.

Gogol easily invokes the supernatural in the opening scene of “The Mysterious Portrait” as the young “artist of talent” Tchartkoff finds a rare work among other “monstrosities in the shape of pictures” in a shop that “belongs rather to a manufacturing automaton than to a man.”  Already, the stage is set.  Tchartkoff finds himself attracted to a dirty portrait of:

an old man, with a thin, bronzed face and high cheek-bones; the features seemingly depicted in a moment of convulsive agitation. He wore a flowing Asiatic costume. Dusty and defaced as the portrait was, Tchartkoff saw, when he had succeeded in removing the dirt from the face, traces of the work of a great artist. The portrait appeared to be unfinished, but the power of the handling was striking. The eyes were the most remarkable picture of all: it seemed as though the full power of the artist’s brush had been lavished upon them. They fairly gazed out of the portrait, destroying its harmony with their strange liveliness.

We all know, without further ado, exactly what this means.  It means that, like the poor weapon expert Cosmo von Wehrstahl in MacDonald’s Phantastes who is drawn to buy an old mirror that he can’t afford and finds the soul of a woman trapped inside it, Gogol’s protagonist comes face to face with the temptation of what he wants most.  For Tchartkoff, this is money and fame.  He buys the wayward painting because he falls in love with it, its undeniable expression of talent and of something else: its evocation of the feminine diabolical. What makes this devil — like so many devils before and after it in literature — “feminine” is its Asiatic garb: an aesthetic that Gogol does not want his readers to overlook.  Edward Said would have a lot to say about that.  And so do I, but that is for a longer piece.

Gogol’s portrait of the Asiatic devil has eyes like those in the portrait of John Melmoth’s namesake in Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer.  They are alive. Burn the portrait as he may, Melmoth cannot rid himself of that ubiquitous traveler and his temptations. Similarly, despite the artist’s nephew’s attempt to purchase the portrait and burn it after Tchartkoff dies, someone steals it from the auction; the devil lives on. His soul has been captured in the painting of his eyes.

Just as Culwin is haunted by the eyes of Alice Newell in Wharton’s short story “The Eyes,” Tchartkoff is haunted by “the two terrible eyes” which fix upon his face; “‘It looks with human eyes!'” he exclaims.  The eyes torment the young artist to such an extent that he suffers from a series of dreams-within-dreams in which he is never sure if he is awake or sleeping.  (Again, Gogol’s story could serve as the prototype for nineteenth-century topoi — this time, the “dream-within-a-dream” fascination exemplified by authors such as Poe,  Mallarme, Baudelaire, Shelley, or Grillparzer.)

Tchartkoff’s dream becomes reality as the dead man rises from the grave, jumps out from the painting, and fondles his roll of gold which, of course, makes the poor artist salivate.  The artist fantasizes about his life with that gold.  Lo! and Behold! the roll falls to the floor as the distracted devil finds his way back into the frame.  With the money from the devil Tchartkoff buys and writes himself an advertisement in the newspaper boasting of his talents (Geoffrey Tempest contemplates doing a similar thing in Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan). An aristocratic woman appears on his doorstep with her sallow, sickly daughter.  For the first time, Tchartkoff is asked to used his brush to lie.  The mother wants her daughter portrayed as robust and healthy: a very Psyche.  Tchartkoff weighs the options.

He lies with his art.  The devil has won.

Tchartkoff goes on to live a life of wealth and unhappiness.  Unhappiness leads to paranoia.  Paranoia leads to madness.  Madness leads to death when he makes a final, futile attempt to reclaim his forgotten real talents.  He dies while milking his last drop of blood to create a genuine piece of art.

In Part II of the tale Gogol reveals how the portrait came to be.  A talented artist was petitioned to paint a strange dying man’s portrait in the days before drawing his last breath.  The artist developed reservations when coming to terms with his subject’s eyes.  After painting them, he realized their supernatural powers — he refused to paint more.  No problem; the damage was already done.  The devil had been immortalized.  The poor artist was haunted by demons until he finally, many years later, created an angelic work inspired by Jesus and redeemed himself.  To save the rest of his family, the portrait must be found and burned.  No, never!

The portrait, like the devil, lives on.

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Balzac’s Take on Pygmalion

Either the picture portrays the core of a man or it is not a picture.

– William Carlos Williams, A Recognizable Image

In the “The UnKnownMasterpiece” Balzac takes up the age-old debate about where nature ends and art begins.  He does so, not surprisingly, through the most classic medium: the nude female form.  Or, more precisely, he enters the debate of art versus nature by writing about the painting of the nude female form.  This in itself — before I considered the plot or the style or the significance of the short story — already had me thinking of Etienne Gilson’s argument that “true painters know full well that, while they are painting, they are neither writing nor talking,” in conjunction with Foucault’s theory that “either the text is ruled by the image […] or else the image is ruled by the text.”  Gilson and Foucault stress that language and image can never peaceably coexist on the same plane of meaning.  But I found myself questioning this basic assumption when reading Balzac.

This is my first time reading Balzac even though I have a bookcase full with at least four of his novels.  So, I am not interested at this point in considering how “The Unfinished Masterpiece” fits into his panoply of works but rather I am invested in what the short story has to say about portraiture in literature. This is the second installment of my latest series of exploring the portrait in literature.

Budding artist Nicholas Poussin sacrifices his lover, Gillette (think Galatea) for the sake of art when he hands her over to genius painter Frenhofer, student of the aged Mabuse.  Mabuse and his entourage possess “the secret of giving life” to their figures, especially the female figure (think Pygmalion).  For these men, creating life is the same a taking it, as Frenhofer’s portrait of Gillette suggests.  Frenhofer’s painting of Gillette is a vampiric act, as “he anticipated the triumph of the beauty of his own creation over the beauty of the living girl.”

Poussin writhes in jealousy as his coy mistress absorbs the attention of painter.  Frenhofer is proud of his work and boasts its achievement:

“Aha!” he cried, “you did not expect to see such perfection! You are looking for a picture, and you see a woman before you. There is such depth in that canvas, the atmosphere is so true that you can not distinguish it from the air that surrounds us. Where is art? Art has vanished, it is invisible! It is the form of a living girl that you see before you. Have I not caught the very hues of life, the spirit of the living line that defines the figure? Is there not the effect produced there like that which all natural objects present in the atmosphere about them, or fishes in the water? Do you see how the figure stands out against the background? Does it not seem to you that you pass your hand along the back? But then for seven years I studied and watched how the daylight blends with the objects on which it falls. And the hair, the light pours over it like a flood, does it not?… Ah! she breathed, I am sure that she breathed! Her breast—ah, see! Who would not fall on his knees before her? Her pulses throb. She will rise to her feet. Wait!”

But Poussin and his idol Probus cannot see anything on the canvas but “confused masses of color and a multitude of fantastical lines that go to make a dead wall of paint.”  Then on closer,look, among “the chaos of color, half-tints and vague shadows that made up a dim, formless fog” they spy one bare foot.  Frenhofer goes on about his masterpiece — the shading of the figure’s bosom, the curve of her face — until he is made to realize momentarily that “there is nothing there.”  But no, everyone is jealous!

The so-longed-for reproduction of Gillette’s body renders it and her actual body invisible, as she cowers in a corner where no one can see her anymore — neither lover nor painter nor stranger.  Gillette is so horrified by her disappearance that she begs to die.  The subject of the art has lost its meaning in the process of objectification, and this injury cannot be undone.  The injury itself cannot even be seen.  Franhofer has internalized Gillette — eaten her up — so thoroughly that he dies as an engorged, gluttonous man who has, through his art, stolen and consumed the meat of his work.  Gillette is hen-pecked.  The death of Franhofer is the achievement of art because it conquers nature.

And yet, it is Balzac’s words that outlast them all.

About Face: Cranley’s Bust in Portrait of the Artist

One topic that interests me in literature is portraiture. I’d like to kick off a new series about portraits in literature with some snippets from an essay I wrote a few years ago about James Joyce’s Portrait.

The “portrait” in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is upheld by Joyce as textual, communicating meaning through words and associations. His denotative question, “Why own a thing when you can say it?”reveals his bias; instead of upholding the visual quality of the art, shown through ocular imagery and aesthetic, Joyce uses the intangible word to create mental pictures and manifest beauty.

Throughout the text Joyce is cognizant of the ironic truth that words present, poking fun at his own medium; “Wells must know the right answer for he was third in grammar.” By insisting that Wells, at classmate of Stephen’s at Clongowes, harbors the ability to distinguish truth because of his elite understanding of language Joyce challenges Stephen’s (and in a roundabout way, his own) role as artist. His etymological search for answers contests Oscar Wilde’s belief that the artist’s role is to put forward problems without answering them, for Stephen’s superior sense of savvy is borne from his developing command of language. Although Joyce merges imagery and aesthetic with words, there is little doubt that his love of language conquers his love of the visual. When Stephen, for example, considers why he is bothered by his classmates’ presence on the street he ponders whether it is their colors (their tangible, visual existence) or the representation of them (their association through words) that constitutes the problem: “was it their colors? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colors: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and color?” The movement of color in Joyce’s portrait, points to Stephen’s answer as “yes.” He, like Joyce, favors the verbal to the visual. Even the presentation of portraiture seems to resemble neat linguistic vignettes: “[Stephen] passed along the narrow dark corridor, passing little doors that were the doors of the rooms of the community. He peered in front of him and right and left through the gloom and thought that those must be portraits. It was dark and silent and his eyes were weak and tired with tears so that he could not see. But he thought they were the portraits of the saints and great men of the order who were looking down on him silently as he passed.”

Stephen’s vague conceptualization of his surroundings as portraiture is a motif carried throughout the text, although the reference becomes more obscured. The blurry vision, caused by Stephen’s “weak and tired” eyes full of tears, is the artistic eye through which he makes art. He essentially transforms every persona into an ambiguous portrait; and it is only later, when the portrait attains an elevated status reflecting the order of saints and great men, that Stephen will admit he has also become a portrait of his original self.

Envisioning the text as a composite of visual elements, instead of linguistic, unveils the structure as portraiture, making the subject of Joyce’s Portrait less obfuscated.

When upholding Joyce’s text as portraiture, identifying and describing the subject becomes, ironically, the most difficult task. Certainly a portrait by definition is a depiction of a person, and usually that person’s bust (or head and shoulders). Hugh Kenner, in his introduction to Portrait, presents a theory using a linear plane of subject/object relationships to explain the process and result of creating portraiture: Background//Painter//Mirror//Painter’s Image// Background’s Image. Kenner marks the center object, the mirror, as the refracting point of transference where Joyce the artist becomes Stephen the subject. Lewis Carol in Through the Looking Glass presents similar chiasmic symmetry; Alice who represents the Joycean artist uses the mirror as a medium to traverse new territory and recreate herself. Alice, like Stephen, passes literally through what Lacan terms “the mirror stage,”arriving at the other side where the artist’s image embodies more personas than its own. Alice’s Red and White Queens are synonymous with Stephen’s Bird Woman and figures like Father Dolan who pull him, often severed, in opposite directions. Psychologically these personas are refracted images of Alice/Stephen as ego/alter-ego. Kenner, who grazes by the psychological element, fails to identify a clear subject of Joyce’s portrait; he simply polarizes Joyce and “Joyce” (Stephen). “Joyce” becomes a linguistic reproduction of the original. The replica, instead, should be further dissected according to its visual elements; Carol, like Joyce, uses color to distinguish ego from alter-ego for a reason.

The style of Joyce’s artistic replication (the visual portrait of Stephen) involves variance of colors and contrasts made up by what John Paul Riquelme calls “verbal texture.” Color for Joyce, like for Thomas Carlyle, is a pigmentation of temper and heart. The white which pervades the beginning of the text does not signify the innocence of young Stephen; instead, white is a perpetual source of the “cold and damp.” From the porcelain lavatory to the religious altar to the fleshy nakedness of the Irish human body, whiteness is connected to a near-comatose state or, as shown through Stephen’s consideration of Eileen’s white, tower-like hands, a perpetual point of contention. Other colors are brought back for discernment against the pasty white of Stephen’s youth. White is the medium through which he derives meaning, a color associated with the moist chill of urine-soaked bed sheets: a color always slightly tinged and off-white despite the scrubbing.

As Stephen experiences temptation white purples to a grayish hue which comes to represent the general air surrounding his life: waves of pollution rolling through water and sky. The gray cloud of his environment, the melancholic lacquer of the Dublin atmosphere, shows a slight shift in Joyce’s artistic template. Before the eternal darkness at the ending of Ulysses in which Stephen finds a kind of solace, there is an absence of color in Portrait which, ironically, is borne of an absence of face.

For Joyce, the lack of a face is the lack of substance, the lack of existence. When Stephen tries to imagine himself as someone different, to project another version of himself upon the canvas, he visualizes his face as faded and imperceptible: “The color faded and became strong like a changing glow of pallid brick red.” The absence of color is neither white nor black but akin to a muted red: a smudged face maintaining only body heat. The medium employed by Joyce to achieve this pellucid color is not the common tool of the painter. Joyce does not view himself as a mere painter but as creator. Like the ultimate creator, Joyce forges Stephen from the most pliable stuff on earth; as the priest says to Stephen of god during confession, “He made you out of nothing.” Stephen struggles to build Aquinas’ prerequisites for beauty upon this non-existent constitution but, as expected, the theories of symmetry, integrity, and radiance have no meaning for him in a portrait without true color or, more importantly, without a face.

Stephen’s missing face is a mere symbol for a larger question: what is the subject of the portrait?

Joyce’s struggle to establish face may spring from a singular point of variance: the subject of the portrait is not of a man at all. Anthony Burgess suggests that “in A Portrait Stephen has become godlike, containing everybody else.” In this view the tangible, visual portrait becomes one not of one subject, but of infinite subjects. Stephen, the simultaneous artificer and art-object, becomes “other” to himself by projecting everybody else on the canvas in the desire to see himself.  Like the queen from Grimm’s fairy tale of “Little Snow White,” Stephen strives to see a reflection of himself as the predominant specie of Darwinian natural selection, chosen for the best display of what he values most. The queen values beauty and so does Stephen. When the queen asks the mirror (her medium of understanding the outer world) who is the fairest of them all, she sees someone other than herself reflected. Stephen too approaches his medium for understanding the outer world, the canvas, and asks, am I the subject of my own portrait? Just as when Father Dolan beats his hands, Stephen thinks of himself as a disjointed representation of his surroundings: “To think of [his hands] beaten and swollen with pain all in a moment made him feel so sorry for them as if they were not his own but someone else’s that he felt sorry for.” Stephen looks at his tangible body and envisions someone else’s, finding a kind of solace in allowing the “other” to fill the canvas in times of trial or uncertainty: a substitute ego manifested by Stephen.

At times the ubiquitous “other” as the subject of Joyce’s portrait seems to have a definite face. Stephen often views a reflection of himself as the young man others want him to be. When thinking of himself as the Reverend Stephen Dedalus, S. J., “His name in that new life leaped into characters before his eyes and to it there followed a mental sensation of an undefined face or color of a face.” Stephen as a subject of others’ desires and ambitions renders the portrait blank of his own face. He becomes an impressionistic rendition of himself. At the same time that Stephen compromises his own image in exchange for others’ “characters,” critics like Suzette Henke view Stephen’s predominant role as asserting his “budding manhood against totalitarian power,” like that of Fathers Dolan and Conmee.

However, the establishment of this power does not stem from his role as a developing adult but as a perpetual infant. Stephen’s motions to maintain himself as subject of Joyce’s portrait are all made with the backing of childhood innocence; as Henke observes, “in order to confess his sins of impurity, Stephen must revert to a state of childhood innocence. He allows himself to be infantilized.” The powerful subject then, is a child and not a man. Likewise, when Stephen considers his vehicles of deliverance from sin he envisions god’s love of little children. Thus, the engraved word “Foetus” in the wood of his desk suggests another portrayal of the subject of Joyce’s portrait. As Burgess theorizes, “embryonic growth is used to symbolize the spiritual history of a young poet…The static and passive organism, which does not move of its own volition but on which growth is miraculously imposed, is a very Joycean concept.” In this view Stephen, as the subject of Joyce’s portrait, is a nearly inhuman growth without agency, as a foetus, feeding off whatever is offered him, reacting to his environment as a lump of cells, in a constant state of immaturity and underdevelopment, perpetually anticipating formation. There is no growth in A Portrait of Stephen’s stagnant existence; “The foetus has had a premonition of release, but there is still a long time to go before emancipation…He is still held down in the womb of matter, longing for birth but compelled to remain an embryo driven by an enclosing will to take further, more grotesque, shapes before release into the air.” In Stephen’s striving to lead the chain of evolution he places himself at the bottom of it.

Joyce at the same time diachronically attributes Stephen with the paramount ambition of the foetus: to birthe itself. Just as the crowning accomplishment of the artist is to paint herself, Stephen’s conquest as foetus is to father himself, enacting a kind of aesthetic creationism upon his existence. His disjointed and gendered association of birth with males reflects the early Puritanical doctrine of the new convert in America during the 18th century where men of religious insight were viewed, according to Dillon, as “nursing fathers” in which “a male convert describes himself as a womb receiving sperm.” The Puritan male’s religious experience as the Bride of Christ is then “feminized” and gender roles are inverted. Women’s actual, physical womb and breast milk as foundation for and nurturer of life is sublimated in exchange for the theoretical milk of men, bestowed upon them by god. Stephen’s existence as simultaneous foetus and “nursing father” reflects this Puritanical theology. The literal inability of Stephen’s body, as a man, to birthe anything living is a clear destruction of classical associations with the male body. Perhaps Joyce deconstructs his portrait to insist on Stephen’s separation from the body. The religious undertones are obvious, but Joyce is also working from Romantic ideology of the body, as shown by William Blake in The Daughters of Albion, that connect the feminine to bodily desire and carnal existence. The androgynous state that is Blake’s ultimate vision absorbs the female into the male, dissolving the physical into the spiritual. Joyce struggles with this tender balance between Stephen’s bodily and religious desires, eventually imposing an androgynous state on him. Ellen jocosely mistakes Stephen’s gender when he enters the room; “I thought it was Josephine. I thought you were Josephine, Stephen. And, repeating this several times, she fell to laughing feebly.” Later, his orgies with prostitutes and his sexualization of the Bird Woman recover an association with heterosexual masculinity to Stephen. But Joyce dances the line of gender and desire again when Stephen comes upon his male peers splashing in the water. This scene of “wet nakedness” prompts perhaps the most significant flight imagery in the text. The eroticized bodies of the young men, smacking each other with wet towels, with sea and brine in their hair, unbuttoned collars, without belts or coats invokes a “swordlike pain” from Stephen’s body (182); from this scene Joyce uses climactic language and the orgasmic imagery of quick breathe, trembling heart, and wild spirit to attribute Stephen with a “desire to cry aloud.”  It is unclear whether Joyce is reclaiming the body (and its association to the feminine) like Wilde and Pater, or if he, as Tracey Teets Schwartz claims, “de-essentializes the notion of masculinity in general by divulging its changing, constructed, performative nature.”

Joyce doubtlessly recognizes what Wilde describes as the painter’s shortcoming in producing art: “the painter is so far limited that it is only through the mask of the body that he can handle ideas; only through its physical equivalents that he can deal with psychology.” If Joyce attempts to relinquish Stephen’s association with the body, then the subject of the portrait becomes instead, the soul. Faceless and ambiguous, the soul as subject becomes emblematic of the art of decadence and the Art of Death as typified by the “Parnassian” group and anti-Romantic objectivity. The soul becomes Joyce’s establishment of cultural sickness as art, diseased and vulgar. Stephen’s own soul “was fattening and congealing into a gross grease, plunging ever deeper in its dull fear into a sombre threatening dusk, while the body that was his stood, listless and dishonored, gazing out of darkened eyes, helpless, perturbed and human for a bovine god to stare upon…He, he himself, his body to which he had yielded was dying.” The personification of the soul results in emotional detachment and loss of human quality, making the artist’s subject material inaccessible to a subaltern public. The only tactile part of the portrait becomes, then, the brush-strokes or surface texture, assuming it is globular enough for the public to wrap its hands or minds around.

These two images of the subject of Joyce’s portrait, of Stephen as foetus and as soul, offer binary views of life and death, both equally abstract. Less abstract perhaps is the role of the narrator in establishing the subject of this admittedly obscure portrait. Narration is the subject that Joyce upholds when all others fail. By obscuring the narrator, developing what Riquelme defines as an “oscillating narrator,” Joyce conveys Stephen’s emotional detachment from his own life. The consonance between Joyce and Stephen allows a covert narration where narratorial mediation is minimized. The narrator as subject, although empty of human quality itself, may seem more strongly connected to the sympathetic world because its use of language. However, Joyce’s narrative device succeeds in revealing its own artifice in a way similar, as Riquelme explains, to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Language succeeds in making Stephen less human, less accessible; the portraiture must, as I have begun to show, be upheld as an optical illusion.

The visual element is a composition of Joyce’s and “Joyce’s” vision of himself. By projecting himself through the refracted mirror of language or portraiture, Joyce attempts to destroy himself as a mere vision, striving to “fly by those nets” of convention. Instead, the defacement of his portrait becomes the portrait itself. Like the picture of Dorian Gray, even the defaced portrait maintains a face of sorts. Dorian’s portrait rots from the sin and death that Dorian avoids in daily life, as Wilde manifests a second face for his protagonist: a death mask. Stephen, likewise, equates portraiture with death. Upon examination of his grandfather’s portrait he observes, “He was condemned to death,” seeing beyond the life-likeness of his grandfather’s face, straight to its associations with the grave. Strangely, the physical existence of a contained portrait, or image, has more life than the subject it contains. As Stephen rambles in the night he longs to encounter, not a person, but an image; “He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. He did not know where to seek it or how: but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him. They would meet quietly as if they had known each other and had made their tryst, perhaps at one of the gates or in some more secret place. They would be alone, surrounded by darkness and silence: and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured.”

Stephen here seems to uphold the visual over the linguistic, emphasizing his desire to encounter an “image.” However, this image is “unsubstantial,” meaning that it has for Stephen, ironically, no visual element at all. The image’s darkness and lack of sound eliminates both the visual and the linguistic, leaving Stephen longing to encounter its reaper-like agency. As he observes toward the end of the novel, “Reproduction is the beginning of death” — portraiture, as a reproduction of a person’s face, illuminates death-like instead of life-like characteristics. Like Dorian Gray who, angered at his own disillusionment, hungers to ignite his thwarted demise by pulling the veil from his portrait, Stephen’s fantasy is to unsheathe and confront death. Surely Stephen, by the close of A Portrait has found the language of death. His struggle is to find instead the image of death.

The last chapter is plagued with Stephen’s attempt to understand images and their relation to language. Like Blake whose engravings often reflect an antagonistic message to his words, or Rene Magritte who uses black cut-out shapes of familiar objects and then labels them with incompatible names, Stephen uses the language of death to represent images of life. His consideration of Cranly’s bust, the head-and-shoulder figure he observes rising above the “meekly bent” heads of his other classmates, illustrates this trend in Chapter V. First he distinguishes the image of another from his own, and then transforms that living image into dead language: “Another head than [Stephen’s], right before him in the first benches, was poised squarely above its bending fellows like the head of a priest appealing without humility to the tabernacle for the humble worshipers about him. Why was it that when he thought of Cranly he could never raise before his mind the entire image of his body but only the image of the head and face? Even now against the grey curtain of the morning he saw it before him like the phantom of a dream, the face of a severed head or deathmask, crowned on the brows by its stiff black upright hair as by an iron crown. It was a priest- like face, priest-like in its pallor, in the widewinged nose, in the shadowings below the eyes and along the jaws, priest-like in the lips that were long and bloodless and faintly smiling.”

Stephen is unable, at this point in the novel, to think of his peers as anything more than portraiture. His study of Cranly’s bust takes a living man and transforms him into an artistic figure with a severed head, deathmask, an iron crown (seeming like Jesus dying on the cross), and bloodless lips; Cranly’s bust embodies death. Even Stephen’s lusty consideration of the female body turns to artistic creation, cold and removed from the living world. The female form, in all its previous sexuality, has been hardened to a mere statue with eyes “that seem to ask me something. They do not speak.” Stephen struggles to see the world in his attempt to feel it around him. He tries to remove the sturdy platform of language that he has striven so hard to create, from under him. Stephen buckles under his inability to interpret the world through images. He notices their shortcoming immediately; they do not speak.

Joyce’s support of the linguistic element contends the visual aspect of portraiture, obscuring the subject (which is visual despite itself) by contorting its face to a death mask. The subject of the portrait is severed from its creator who is also the subject of the portrait.‡ Joyce maintains the linguistic element at a high price. He negotiates the face of the subject, trading life for death, in his conquest to elevate language. Joyce strives to remove the visual element from portraiture, replacing the subject’s face with language.

Emma Courtney’s Memoirs of Stalking

Mary Hays is an eighteenth-century author obsessed with proving that she — like her romantic contemporaries — can use highfaluting language as an argument for virtue: her own virtue.  Memoirs of Emma Courtney is not an easy read although it is short, but the pay-offs are big.  My jaw was hanging down to my feet from practically the first page.  I have rarely — never? — encountered such a female heroine in English literature in my oh-so-many dimly-lit reading frenzies.

At first, there is nothing really astonishing about Emma Courtney, a well-read, imaginative orphan who blames her heightened sensibilities on her education.  You think, of course, of Victoria de Lauredani or Oliphant’s Hester, or Isabel Gilbert. Except, there never was such a sentimental heroine in all of human existence.  Marianne Dashwood, stand back!

When I learned about the “cult of sensibility” in my “Making Sex” class at Clark University many years ago I wish that Professor Kasmer had made me read Hays’s novel.  There never was such a clear exploration of sentimentality, such a over-the-top articulation of the power of a girl gone wild with emotion.  Hays’s novel, which is often in an epistolary style, becomes repetitive and excessive as Courtney actually makes her obsessive love apparent to a young man she has only seen in a portrait, stuffing a letter into his hand before he departs his mother’s estate, where Courtney is hiding out from her cruel caregivers.

I was shocked.  Never before have I read of a woman from the eighteenth century who is so bold as to confess her plump lust and love for a man.  But she goes on to expound about her passion many times over yet Hays never calls into question her heroine’s virtue.  Contrarily, Hays insists, like Courtney, that she is an exemplar of virtue and is blameless of the havoc wreaked on characters, including a man she marries to rescue herself from poverty.

The novel was not pleasant to read: overwrought.  Yet, reading this novel is a must for anyone interested in gender play during this time in England.  I was floored.  Here is a heroine — virtuous, no less — who throws herself at a married man, drives a husband to suicide, neglects her daughter for love, and blatantly tells off her elders and superiors (men, no less).  To say that Courtney is “a romantic enthusiast” as she “melts into tears” at every turn, is a bit of an understatement.  She won’t leave the object of her passion alone, stalking him endlessly until I had a headache.  She practically masturbates herself through the whole novel.  Three cheers.