I Can’t Forgive Alice Vavasor

Victorians were skeptical, to say the least, of forgiveness.  The process seemed destabilizing at best, insincere at its worst.  Forgiveness never really leaves the map of the Victorian literary landscape and yet authors attempt to push it to the margin.  Dismissing forgiveness as impossible or undesirable appears to be an unrealistic a goal in many of the texts of major and minor writers of the period.  An obvious reason for this quandary is that forgiveness is deeply engrained in gender issues that seem difficult to resolve.  In Tess, Thomas Hardy manifests the nature of gender and forgiveness when he writes of Angel’s response to his abused wife’s confession of past errors.  Tess, ravaged by Angel, forgives him and admits to her own sexual transgressions, seeking a kind of equal ground.  Angel cries that such absolution is outlandish: “O Tess!  Forgiveness does not apply to the case!”  Numerous instances like this in Victorian literature manifest that gender and forgiveness are intertwined.  What is forgivable for a man is often at odds with pardonable actions from a woman.

In his novel Can you Forgive Her? Anthony Trollope makes the connection between gender and forgiveness apparent.  Here, readers are asked to pardon the wayward yet irritatingly proper Alice Vavasor her sexual transgression, as she takes her place in literary history as one of the earlier female jilts in the British canon.  She — and readers, no doubt — are perplexed and perhaps a little angered that characters in this novel as so quick to forgive her societal sins in which she breaks off an engagement with a handsome, rich, and even-tempered Parliament shoe-in for her macabre, facially-scarred, violent, and disinherited cousin.  Like Dorothea Brooke, the protagonist in Mary Anne Evans’s Middlemarch, Vavasor looks to a man to manifest her own dreams.  Brooke craved intellectual acclaim; Vavasor wants to be a member of Parliament.  Both women project their desires — which are beyond their prescribed gender role — onto their male lovers in the hopes of finding fulfillment through them.

John Grey, the jilted but devoted lover of Vavasor, forgives his lover as soon as she breaks off their engagement. Her cousin Kate — whom appears asexual at times or in love with Vavasour at others (perhaps I will take this up in a later post) — has no problem ignoring Vavasor’s second rejection of her brother.  Her noble relatives — all of them! — immediately acquit her of her emotional trespass.  There never was so much easy forgiveness in a Victorian novel.  Vavasor feels this, and it pisses her off.  She doesn’t want to be forgiven.  She pleads with her friends and family to consider and reconsider her actions and to judge them  harshly.  End at the end of the novel, Vavasor is quite disgusted by the fact that society at large can turn its head the other way and allow her to rejoin the ranks (as a government-official’s wife, no less) as a decorous woman.

If all of the world forgives Alice Vavosor then she is determined to never forgive herself, come what may.  No, never.  Readers are taught through Trollope’s novel that Vavasor, despite her mistakes, is an exemplary woman.  She has a heightened sense of justice, morality, and propriety despite her obvious errors: more than any other character.  So, Trollope teaches his readers to trust Vavasor to show them the way.  And the way is quite clear: a woman ought not to ever forgive herself — no matter who else might forgive her — her sexual transgressions.

Self-forgiveness is the thing, perhaps, that Victorians can’t let go.  This type of forgiveness, more than any other, is so bound to gender issues and also to the rhetoric of the times, that authors can’t seem to leave it alone despite their apparent desire to dismiss forgiveness altogether as a necessary or possible action.

Forgiveness is a return to the self, to the individual…and we all know how much Victorians adored the individual.  The individual was the goal, the backbone, the god.  Individuality was the saving grace in the face of error.  Individuality was a social performance, like gender.

At the close of Can you Forgive Her? readers are asked to follow suit and forgive Vavasor — easily — for what she has done.  As a reader in the 21st century I could really care less about her jilting Grey; I once jilted a lover.  What I struggle to forgive in Vavasor is her insistence that she can never want to forgive herself.


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.

Murder Fantasies in 20th-Century Male Fiction

I didn’t intend to read book after book in which men fantasize about murdering or torturing women but this is exactly the kind of ride I’ve been on just by undertaking reading some random twentieth century fiction.  This month I read four novels that seemed to be connected to each other through the trope of fantastical misogyny.  Nabokov’s Lolita, Thompson’s The Nothing Man, Ellis’s American Psycho, and Hamsun’s Hunger(ok, this novel isn’t quite 20th century –1890 — but is considered an important landmark novel that inspired 20th century fiction).  In each of the these texts the hero’s actions are propelled forward through his obsessively imagining the physical abuse of the women around him.  The thought of brutally murdering these women — anyone from strangers and ex-wives, to wives and mothers — seems, at times, to be the only force  pushing him onward through his unique journey.

I can’t help, of course, but to view the murder fantasies of male heroes in male fiction as a continuation of sorts from nineteenth-century sensational fiction (and even, while I think of it, even of amatory fiction of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries — Eliza Haywood and Aphra Behn come to mind).  I find Nabokov’s, Thompson’s, Ellis’s, and Hamsun’s writing of ravaging, segmenting, eating, or stabbing women very “sensational” in just this nineteenth-century sense.  Just as Mary Elizabeth Braddon or Wilkie Collins used the sensational genre to expound upon the unique life of women and men in the the domestic sphere, these twentieth-century novelists are also interested in exploring issues of gender and sexuality in their historical moment, and in their modern spaces: particularly that of masculinity.

The texts reveal something about a fear of masculinity unraveling.  Thompson’s novel, perhaps, is most clear in presenting this overarching theme.  The body of his protagonist, Clinton Brown, paints the entire picture of this fear.  Without a penis, Brown will go to great measures to keep his lack a secret.  He will take any measures to cultivate a feeling of masculine power.  What seems to make him feel most powerful is fantasizing — and perhaps actually performing — the murder his lovers, past and present. Patrick Bateman, too, turns to misogyny in order to hide characteristics of his sexuality that might emasculate him — in this case, his homoerotic desire.  The fantasies of both Bateman and Brown are relayed through a baroque style in which every movement is exaggerated in order to emphasize the reality of their dreamworld.  By using such a style, Thompson and Ellis conflate reality and fantasy for the reader, making it difficult to determine if their heroes’ violent actions actually take place or if, as we might expect, these men lack the drive to perform their part in their own delusions.

For the unnamed protagonist of Hamsun’s novel and for Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, the line dividing fantasy and reality is a bit more distinct.  Humbert, for example, daydreams about killing Charlotte Haze, the mother of his beloved nymphette Lolita, but readers are able to distinguish between his real and make-believe actions, for the most part.  When Haze is run over by a car we know that although Humbert would have liked to have been driving that car, he wasn’t.  Similarly, Hamsun’s hero stalks a prostitute through the streets of Oslo and imagines inflicting on her all kinds of terrors.  It is clear, however, that he does not act on his desires, mostly because he is far too weak from starvation.

In each of these novels, the male protagonists seem generally “too weak” in contrast with the forceful power of their fantasies, to take action. The only character who does eventually move forward is Hamsun’s, who boards a vague ship — to which he makes reference through the novel — that may symbolize death.  He goes  on to places unknown, but at least he ends the novel in a place different from that in which he began.  The same cannot be said for Humbert, Bateman, or Brown.  Not really.

Fantasizing about murdering women serves the characters in these twentieth-century novels by allowing them to remain, for the most part, stagnant.  Dreaming of violent action pushes them to remain mostly inactive.  Imagining their own uber-masculinity highlights their diminutive roles as players in the patriarchal apparatus. It seems to me that the role of misogyny of these texts does not help the male protagonists accomplish anything significant.  So what, then, is the function of such  murder fantasies?  At least the women in Braddon’s novels got something done.

Ruth Hall and Homeopathy

Ruth Hall is, as its author Fanny Fern is careful to note, a “continuous story” rather than a novel.  It is a work marked by a few covert postmodern gestures such as its vignette style, fragmented narrative, and its layers of subjectivity.  At its core Ruth Hall takes up the popular nineteenth-century question of female authorship.  Fern, like Marie Corelli in novels such as The Sorrow of Satan or The Murder of Delicia, manifests a literary protagonist who much resembles herself.  Yet unlike Corelli whose reflective authoresses strive to suture together female literacy with morality, Fern brings together women’s writing and economics.  The “domestic tale” is steeped in matters that extend beyond the usual domestic realm as Hall is forced, after the death of her doting husband, to provide a liveable environment for her two daughters in the aftermath of rejection from her rich relatives.

Although Fern’s marriage of writing and economy stood out as noteworthy what seemed most interesting for me was the thread of medicine and its connection to women’s writing.  Like Madame Bovary in Flaubert’s classic tale, Hall is thrown with marriage into a world governed, to some degree, by medical discourse.  “The doctor,” Hall’s father-in-law is, like Charles Bovary, a mediocre physician.  His feeble attempts to govern the Hall home lead to his son and daughter eventually relocating, escaping the doctor’s negligence and “Mis. Hall’s” jealousy and frugality.

Moving away from the doctor’s home does not, however, put an end to the Hall’s interaction with the medical world. In fact, her exposure increases when Daisy, Halls’s first daughter, becomes deathly ill and eventually dies when “the doctor” is reluctant to attend to her.  The death of Harry, Hall’s husband, brings another episode that is framed by the medical field.  Again, traditional medicine fails and leaves Hall with overwhelming, nearly insurmountable, feelings of loss.

Hall is forced to strike out on her own after these two failures of traditional medicine leave her and her living daughters starving.  She takes up residence at a boarding house governed by Mrs. Waters where she is thrown into a different kind of medical discourse.  Waters proclaims herself to be a “physician — none the less for being female.”  Her room is lined with “boxes of brown-bread-looking pills” and bottles with “labels that would have puzzled the most erudite M.D. who ever received a diploma.”  Waters is quick to wait on Hall in her poverty-stricken sicknesses but Hall refuses her services; “if there was anything Ruth was afraid of, it was Mrs. Waters’s style of woman.”  Afraid of Waters’s brand of medicine Hall goes on suffering until she meets one of Waters’s other borders, Mr. Bond.

Bond is, like Waters, a dabbler in medicine.  Hall hears the whir-whir-whir coming from his room and is curious about its origin until he offers to heal her sick daughter with “homeopathy,” with which he “always treats” himself and has a “happy supply” always with him.  He has had the “pleasure of relieving others in emergencies.”  Bond has an air of “goodness and sincerity” that influences Hall to accept his help where she would not consider Waters’s offers.  Hall goes on to admire Bond as her “senior” who is so much like what she would want her own father to be.

Bond’s medicine is the only medicine in the novel that actually cures its patient.  Developing a relationship with him leads Hall to renew her trust in people and encourages her to reach out to Mr. Walter, a publisher who recognizes her writing talent and makes her an offer in a more humane position with good pay.

Walter is not blind to Hall’s talents yet he, too, must submerge her into medical discourse before he will proceed with his plans to increase her fame and fortune.  Upon meeting Hall he asks, “Have you ever submitted your head to a phrenological examination?”  She admits that she has no faith in this “science,” to which Walter laughs and hires a professor to do an in-depth analysis of the shape of Hall’s head.  The chapter in which the professor conducts this analysis is the longest chapter of the book.  Fern goes into great detail about the characteristics that phrenology reveals about Hall’s character: ultimately, she is a genius.

Feeling affirmed and confident, Walter undertakes raising Hall up from her drudgery.  Upon meeting her youngest daughter, who is much like Hall, Walter insists that she, too, should have her head examined.

The movement from traditional medicine (which is portrayed as quackery at its worst) to the outrageous branch of “female” medicine, to phrenology struck me as interesting.  Hall is so dredged in medical discourse that I found it problematic that phrenology — of all medical branches — is finally the outlet through which the truth is made evident.  It is, in fact, the tool that reveals the value of female authorship.  It is, too, the backbone of this “domestic tale.”

Dickens and the Excrement Product

Freud’s claim that excrement is ailment makes a tidy frame for the familiar portrait of Victorian London, or what Dickens in Bleak House calls a “filthy wilderness.” Excrement, defined in the OED as “that which remains after a process of sifting or refining,” emerges from a laborious and sometimes painful process of internalization and elimination that is both visceral and psychological. To excrete is to rid the body of what was once inside it, creating a product with pungent olfactory properties.  Andrea Tanner has explained that as an affront to civilized society, just the smell of excrement was believed by Victorians to carry disease. The correlation between smell and disease prompted upper class Victorians to demand that the metropolitan local government install a program for waste removal, which created a new class of manual laborers to fill the urban streets.  Dirt sweepers and dustmen were employed to help dispel the threat that excrement (and especially horse manure, of which each horse produced between 15-30 pounds daily) posed to both the upper class body and its material possessions. These laborers may have given the upper class peace of mind but at a high price, as sweeping streets and emptying dustbins also acquainted laborers with a more epicurean lifestyle.  The popular “Educated Dustman” figure was held in contempt yet grudgingly admired by some upper class Victorians.  Engaging in self-improvement through reading, challenging the status quo, and acting as “heroic warriors” in the battle for social progress, the Educated Dustmen of London posed a threat to rigidly defined borders of rich and poor.  Because sanitation issues were connected to the poor, the dirty body came to symbolize a social discourse obsessed with sanitation.  The excrement product — dirt, dust, and waste that has material value — suggests a breakdown of social hierarchy. This excrement product has material value, first, in its contribution to creating the liminal spaces of public and private life.  Secondly, the excrement product has social weight as capital.  Finally, the excrement product itself produces social identity by engendering the racially transgressive body, providing a basis for colonialism and constructing theories of reality in the nineteenth century.

Because excrement is ailment, it embodies human struggle.  As one of the most universal sources of human struggle, the private/public divide is marked by the excrement product.  During the sixteenth-century, French edict required that human waste be kept in the home rather than thrown into the street.  Fecal waste became an excrement product that had value in its very social uncouthness; it was an unsavory product that must be restricted to the home.  As Dominique LaPorte argues, “As a ‘private’ thing […] shit becomes a political object through its constitution as the dialectical other of the ‘public.’”  Women, described by Ruskin in Sesame and Lilies as “rulers” of the private sphere during the Victorian period, were expected to tend to this political object (shit).  Both women and their private sphere provided ways to measure the “health” of the nation.  Poor reports of sanitation in the city lent health reporters to blame female labor, especially in factories, that took women out of the home, for not only urban sanitation problems but also for moral pollution (see Marjorie Levine-Clark’s Beyond the Reproductive Body).  This political objectification of the excrement product helped mark the home as a distinctly “private” sphere capable of pollution, denoting the “private” as a place to hide dirty possessions and immoral habits.

As a symbol of feces for Freud, gold and money are “brought into the most intimate relationship with dirt.”  The tendency of the rich to hoard money away in private easily lends itself to a relationship with excrement.  For example, Norman Brown asserts that a child in the anal stage “holds dear his excrement so he can share it with others.” However, through acculturation the child must learn to repress his desire to publicize his excrement product (or wealth) which, according to Brown’s theory, indicates that the privatization of the excrement product is somewhat responsible for miserliness. Wealth becomes, like excrement, aversive and repressive.  And like the word “shyte” in Thomas Elyot’s 1538 Dictionary, excrement has social value in its aversive qualities (while other “dirty” words, like “cunt,” have no social value – Melissa Mohr’s “Defining Dirt” is a useful article to note here).  Moreover, becoming wealthy and maintaining wealth is a process of subordination.  As Ruskin argues in Unto This Last, “the art of making yourself rich […] is equally and necessarily the art of making your neighbor poor.” More money leads to further consumption, which creates more waste.  Wealth births poverty, and poverty births excremental dirt; therefore, riches are excrement (Christopher Herbert makes this point in his article “Filthy Lucre”).  Just as prevalent a theme in Victorian fiction as the public/private divide, social class is a driving force in fictional representations of excrement. Indeed, as Natalka Freeland posits, “social problem fiction is defined by its dirtiness.”  As William Cohen’s description in Filth conveys, wealth can be read as both a “dystopic pollution and utopian resource.”  Victorians renounced their attraction to/relationship with the excrement product, replacing that satisfaction with the private hoarding of capital.  Hoarded capital, or what Catherine Gallagher terms “illth,” is a life-sucking possession capable of causing bodily harm (such as the spontaneous combustion splattering the pages of Bleak House).  Like the blood that bubbles from Richard Carstone’s lips after he loses the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit, capital infects people from the inside, inviting vampires like Mr. Vholes to suck them dry.  If we read “illth” as a kind of excrement product then those most associated with capital are interpolated as “dirty,” and capable of contamination and harm.

Despite the possible associations between excrement and wealth, contamination was often synonymous with poverty.  Ironically, the disposal of waste was cheaper for the rich.  As a leading fear in the aristocracy, threats of contamination from the poor were personified by a rising middle class and increasingly visible lower class.  Dirt and dust evidenced the dreaded economic and social invasion of the poor.  Like poverty, dirt is a byproduct of industrialization. Dirt and poverty demarcate obscenity, immorality, and death.  To be aware of dirt and poverty is to acknowledge the existence of a system that creates dirt and poverty.  But dirt also indicates a breakdown of that system. The excrement product, then, is a product of civilization; it is a product that marks the body.  Dirt epitomizes social identity through its markings of the body and the body’s relationship to it.  No body wears the markings of dirt more than the impoverished body.  Using the body as a medium, the markings of excrement (ailment) visibly move in and out of the impoverished body.  Disease, odor, dirty clothing, unsanitary living situations, and emaciated flesh mark the lower classes as a kind of excrement product that should be avoided in the public sphere.  If dirt indicates a breakdown of a system then dirt may also indicate the breakdown of a body.  Psychoanalytic discussions of the “dirty” posit the body, and especially the maternal body, as an abject figure susceptible to excretions.  In her Powers of Horror, Kristeva suggests that society is “horrified” by the breakdown of meaning that the abject maternal figure presents because the “dirty” body relates a breakdown between subject/object or self/other which disrupts order.

Powerful because of its intimacy with the body and its ability to deconstruct order, then, the dirty, impoverished body threatened aristocratic stability.  Cleanliness was the difference between order and disorder. Moreover, as Anne McClintock explains, dirt disrupts “the domestic fantasy of cleanliness depended upon by an empire that worked to clean up colonies that were dirty.”  Because many of the theories concerning race, gender, and difference during the nineteenth century relied upon a language of cleanliness and purity, racial hybridity and trangressive women were markers of contamination.  English colonization was partially enabled through the dichotomy of the dirty and clean, equating cleanliness with Christian ideals of purity (think Leviticus).  The fear of dirt sanctioned English government to take control not only of other countries, but also of England itself.  The Victorians’ desire to avoid dirt (and the poverty it symbolized) authorized English law to infringe upon certain human rights.

The establishment of the law, championed by the aristocracy, not only attempted to make the impoverished body invisible, but also to make the workings of its own institution invisible.  This is nowhere more evident than in Dickens’ Bleak House.  The shroud of suffocating fog that permeates “the dirtiest streets” of London at the opening of Bleak House finds its way into every crevice of modern life, from Tom-all-Alone’s to the Dedlock estate.  The “undrained, unventilated, deep black mud and corrupt water”of Tom-all-Alone’s invades even Chesney Wold where “the little church in the park is mouldy, the oaken pulpit breaks into a cold sweat; and there is a general smell and taste as of the ancient Dedlocks in their graves.”  The excrement product in Bleak House is inescapable: Esther wears the markings of social infection on her face, Lady Deadlock’s mildewed hair prevents immediate identification, the thick humidity that “breaks out like a disease” transforms London into an “ocean,” the stench of corpses remain in Jobling’s apartment, Ghost’s Walk, and the graveyard, Peepy’s dirty body makes everything wet, Jo’s tears are dirty, Phil Squad is a “dirty little man,” Chadband has a dirty thumbnail, Young Turveydrop’s apprentices wear dirty gauze dresses.  But over all this dirt looms the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit, which touches every character of the novel.  The finger of the law is dirtiest of all.  It, like Dickens, shines light into all corners of London to reveal the dank and dirty conditions of modern life.  Krook, who incarnates the Jarndyce and Jarndyce lawsuit, spontaneously combusts.  His body “smears like black fat” on Guppy’s sleeve, like the fog of London that persists with its “smouldering, suffocating substance vapour.” The excrement of a body possessed by the law revolts against the body itself.  Among other things, Dickens uses excrement product to highlight the fear that that which does not belong will find its way in, and destroy order.  Like Dracula who Leila May argues is the “emblem of the nineteenth-century horror of disease,” excrement enters through the private quarters, contaminating women first; social “others” and the poor follow.

Although excrement is ailment, Freud upholds in his Letters that it is also “unavoidable and asks to be treated humanely.”  The excrement product is a materialization of the social, sexual, political, and economical issues of Victorian England.  These elements combine to illustrate what Dickens describes in Oliver Twist as his objective in novels to portray “miserable reality” by focusing on the “squalid…dirtiest paths of life.” For Dickens, the excrement product provides the necessary tool to create realism.  The realism that Dickens portrays reflects concerns with the health of modern society.  Like the world he depicts, it is a kind of realism that “ought to clean itself up.”  Realism and the excrement product are inseparable; they are both the truth and the repression of the truth.   As Jo indicates in Bleak House, all people do is die.  Dickens connects the impoverished and the cadaverous body to show the excrement product as the final form of reality as the body decays, becomes part of the earth, and provides the sheets of dust on streets and belongings. The body becomes the excrement product, wearing its poverty even after (and perhaps especially) in death.  As the ultimate symbol of excrement, then, the body leaves its mark on all classes as the flakes of flesh that continue to invade civilized life, despite death.

Mysticism in Woolf’s Waves

Virginia Woolf perhaps does, as Walter Allen suggests, look to art to make order from chaos, substituting art for religion with the “mystic’s intuition.” Allen bestows Woolf with the agency of a mystic, assuming that intrinsic intuition is the medium from which her art is wrought. Definitively, a mystical visionary strives to bring the human experience of the phenomenological world to a place painfully out of reach for even (and maybe especially) the most outstretched finger. Mysticism, as an act of self-surrender, aims to uncover truths that lie beyond the human scope or ordinary experience. Mystical writers, like W.B. Yeats, for example, strive to illustrate the shortcomings of the human consciousness by actively undermining language in a medium that relies upon language to communicate. To transcend the earthly ties of language a mystical writer may emphasize style – the form – as the mystic’s tool: the mind’s eye, not the mind’s mouth.

Yeats’s poetry, for example, often centers on the complications of the ego as it attempts to surrender the “self” by stalking through uncertainty and cosmic darkness. In “Man and the Echo,” Man seeks absolution, acknowledgment, and reassurance in his quest for happiness by attempting to uphold language as spectacular (as spectacle). Man struggles to establish an elite identity by showing his relationship with/to words, trying to prove that his use of language manifests a kind of reality; “Did words of mine put too great strain/On that woman’s reeling brain?/Could my spoken words have checked/That whereby a house lay wrecked?”

In the poem Echo responds with terse repetitious phrases to Man’s paroxysms: “Lie down and die,” she says. For Yeats the nemesis of ego is death and old age.  However, there are other sponges by which ego becomes absorbed. “Meditations in Time of Civil War” shows both the constructed, artificial world (“rich man’s flowering lawns,” “a grey stone fireplace,” “my house,” “my table”) and the natural world (“the bees,” “the mother birds,” “white glimmering fragments of the mist”) as obfuscating forces to the identity of a once “growing boy.” Yeats juggles ego with the sublime or the beautiful so consciousness is negotiated – it is beyond language.

If Woolf creates art through the mystic’s intuition then she, like Yeats, should illustrate a sacrifice of ego in her texts which amounts to an absorption of consciousness into something more obscure and perhaps more significant. In The Waves Woolf juxtaposes consciousness with the natural flux of the ocean tide. She initially establishes six individual ego systems, shown through six different characters, to blur the boundary between self and other. The narratives of Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis begin in youth where they as characters and we as readers struggle to establish their identity. Woolf mocks both her characters’ and her readers’ desire to distinguish one consciousness from another. She posits that we/they cannot count on language to define an ego. Yet by allowing each character her own set of qualities, Woolf invites the illusion that individual human consciousness is possible.

Each character does seem to possess unique markings. Bernard is easily identifiable by his phraseology and reliance on language; “I require the concrete in everything.  It is so only that I lay hands upon the world. A good phrase, however, seems to me to have an independent existence.  Yet I think it is likely that the best are made in solitude.” While he seems stalwart in the belief that he possesses an individual, separate consciousness from the other characters, there are moments in which he is able to transcend this ideology. Bernard mentions, “I am only superficially represented by what I was saying tonight,” and “the truth is that I need the stimulus of other people. Alone, over my dead fire, I tend to see the thin places in my own stories.” Bernard has moments of epiphany, like these, that transform the representations of his individual consciousness into a lie. He remains unaware of using other characters’ linguistic refrains in his own language. When he uses the word “hoarder,” for example, he is unaware of both Susan’s and Jinny’s reference to their hoards. Similar to Bernard, when Louis “tore the date from the calendar” he makes no reference to Susan’s antics of tearing calendars in her youth. Each character believes that his actions or thoughts belong to himself.

At some point in the novel all six characters embrace Bernard’s utterance that “I am one person — myself.” But these collective thoughts are complicated by Rhoda’s obsessive identification with the vanishing, nonexistent, or merged self. Bernard later reflects Rhoda’s philosophizing when observes that “to be myself (I note) I need the illumination of other people’s eyes, and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is my self.” Bernard, perhaps, changes more than any other character in The Waves, as his movement from one extreme to another shows his attempt to embody ideology (as Byron in particular), individuality (as himself), universality (as everyone else), and his failure in each of these endeavors. Woolf chooses Bernard to house all other characters’ conscious experiences by the conclusion, giving the impression that he has reached the highest plane of truth. He has recognized other’s consciousness, he has deconstructed his own, and he has built an empire of language and torn it down again. In this way, Bernard showcases Woolf’s use of the mystic’s tool. As in Yeats’s poetry, Bernard’s final narration is a motion to negate ego.

The similarities, however, end there.

Bernard shelves the egos of others and discovers the contradictions of his own ego in this way. He finds his voice amidst other human voices. Ego becomes dissolved by ego. Woolf ironically leaves the phenomenological element of “other” right outside Bernard’s door, but he fails to recognize it. His consideration of the waves, which symbolize an ultimate surrender of ego and consciousness, amounts to a mere acknowledgment without understanding, an aesthetic observation; “But for a moment I had sat on the turf somewhere high above the flow of the sea […and had seen] the waves breaking.” An old nurse tells Bernard, “‘Look. This is the truth,” but his narration continues to use language in the same form. Despite the waves outside his window he fails to move beyond this collective – shelved – consciousness which persists in taking the ego as foundation.  Even his last apostrophe, “O Death!” arises from an extensive linguistic and egocentric remembrance of the past. In this way Woolf, unlike Yeats, does not use the tool of the mystic’s intuition to create art, as Walter Allen suggests, but rather to reaffirm the stronghold of an intelligible world: a reality shaped by the intersecting voices of history, perception, experience, and nature. Bernard’s louder voice is that of the solo white male.

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.