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Chapter One: The Monster Sublime
For the creator himself to be the child new-born he must also be willing to be the mother and endure the mother's pain.— FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE, 1895
Man owes it to his incongruously developed reason that he is grotesque and ugly. He has broken away from nature. He thinks that he dominates nature. He thinks he is the measure of all things. Engendering in opposition to the laws of nature, man creates monstrosities.— HANS ARP, 1948
In the twentieth century, the avant-garde declared a clean break with history, but their hostility to the female subject and the beauty she symbolized had deep roots in the past. It arose from the Enlightenment notion of the sublime and from a disgust toward women and the bourgeoisie that had been building throughout the nineteenth century among increasingly disaffected artists and writers. During the very period, in fact, when the female subject was the predominant symbol of beauty in all the arts, an ideology was taking shape that would displace her entirely, and that ideology became the basis of the twentieth-century avant-garde.
Though few modernist artists were trained in systematic philosophy, like most people they were influenced by "leading ideas," and the Enlightenment had flooded the Western imagination with ideas about art. This was the period when philosophical aesthetics came into being, most notably through the writings of Immanuel Kant. Kant taught that when we judge something beautiful, we do so as beings standing outside the contingencies of flesh-and-blood existence, freed of individual interest, become ideal, pure, almost godlike in our consciousness. The experience of beauty provides a taste of transcendent freedom from the human condition, and the avant-garde were strongly drawn to it in their Promethean striving.
However, women, according to the popular prejudice of the day, were unsuited to such transcendence. As what Madonna would later call "material girls," they were incapable of enjoying it or inspiring it, too frivolous and physical for aesthetic elevation. Though sometimes possessed of beauty, they used it for gain rather than as an end in itself, employing their attractions to acquire the respectability, financial support, and children that came with marriage. In this respect, they were just like the rising bourgeois classes, always turning value into profit. And the product women sold was often as shoddy as the bourgeois's, degenerating into domestic anomie or vampiric parasitism as soon as the deal was struck. The avant-garde conclusion was clear: woman and bourgeois alike were Mammon, enemies of transcendent, liberating art.
The avant-garde portrayed their resistance to philistines — women, the middle classes — as a heroic martyrdom, and they were so convincing in this role that it is hard even today not to believe in and respect their self-sacrifice. Like Socratic gadflies or Shakespearean fools, avant-garde artists told a truth that undermined the pious hypocrisies of conventional existence. They suffered (or embraced) ostracism for their pains, but that isolation from everyday life was, after all, what aesthetic experience was in fact all about. The artist lived art in his countercultural alienation. What could be nobler?
If we have trouble finding fault with this stance or imagining any other for the serious artist, we might remind ourselves that in the early nineteenth century, producing art was not yet synonymous with experiencing alienation from the values of one's society. A nineteen-year-old woman of the day took one look at Kantian aesthetics, however, and saw that it would lead in just that direction. Horrified, she registered her concern in a novel that still terrifies us, though for other reasons: Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Mary Shelley prophesied the modernist trouble with beauty with astonishing percipience. Her misguided scientist is a Kantian artist and the inevitable product of his dehumanizing creativity is a monster disjoined from any possibility of love, beauty, or connection to everyday existence. The scientist's "art" destroys what we value in life.
Mary Shelley had read closely in Madame de Staël's multivolume study, De l'Allemagne, "the importance of which to Frankenstein has not so far been recognized." There she would have found an admiring assessment of Kant as the greatest force in German thought of his own and the following generation. She would have discovered that the philosopher did not venture into the realm of passion, but remained solitary throughout his life, and that his dry, didactic reasoning was meant to oppose the philosophizing of dreamers, with whom he had no patience. His overarching aim, de Staël wrote, was to overcome the effects of materialist philosophy, which had reduced the beautiful to the agreeable, thereby locking it within the realm of sensations where it was subject to the accidents of individual differences. Instead, the beautiful must belong to the ideal, universal sphere.
Madame de Staël also provided an account of the Kantian sublime, an experience of beauty as superhuman chaos and might. In the sublime, "the power of destiny and the immensity of nature are in infinite contrast to the miserable dependence of the earthly creature; but a spark of sacred fire in our breast triumphs over the universe....The first sublime effect is to crush man; the second, to raise him up again." Mary Shelley seems to have had her doubts as to whether "a creature of the earth" could ever recover from such an overwhelming and inhuman beauty, and indeed, whether beauty that required the transcendence or annihilation of everyday reality was not, instead, monstrous. Her critique of Kantian aesthetics has given us one of the most haunting myths of alienation since Genesis.
Though she was only nineteen when she wrote Frankenstein, Mary Shelley had packed more experience of life and ideas into those years than most people do in a lifetime. Her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, who had written A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, died just days after her birth, leaving a daughter bereft of maternal love, like the monster the girl was to imagine. With only treatises on women's rights to mother her, Mary Shelley grew amid the radical social reformism of her famous father, William Godwin, whose friends were the leading literary and political figures of the day. Coleridge recited "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" in their living room, and Mary met her future husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, when he was respectfully calling on her father. At seventeen, she ran off to the Continent with the married Percy, where they stayed in Switzerland with Lord Byron. She had lost a baby daughter and given birth to a son by the time the talented young people, bored by the confinement of inclement weather, entered into a competition to write ghost stories. Frankenstein was Mary's entry in their game. Within a few short years, Percy's estranged wife had killed herself, Mary's half-sister had drowned, and two more of her children had died, followed swiftly by Percy himself and then Byron. From this perspective, the monstrous Frankenstein had a staying power rare in Mary Shelley's experience. It would survive as a parable of her life, in which reproduction, creativity, and loss were inextricably mingled.
Frankenstein is as important an investigation of creativity and aesthetic experience in the realm of fiction as Kant's Critique of Judgment was in the realm of philosophy. In the novel, a scientist fabricates a living being out of inert body parts, but is appalled at the ugliness of his creation and judges it a monster. The monster, in turn, becomes a yearning connoisseur, constantly observing people from afar without himself being seen. He watches through windows or from hiding places, or finds sleeping beings to stare at — human images as unavailable to him as stage characters or statues or portraits. Unlike the scientist, the monster finds the creatures he beholds surpassingly beautiful and is moved by that beauty to love them. He tries to improve himself so as to become worthy of them, but no matter how knowledgeable and refined he becomes, as soon as they see him they flee in terror, and the monster's love turns to hate. Finally, he asks Frankenstein to fabricate a bride as ugly as he is, so that he will at least have a companion in his sad existence. The scientist refuses, fearing to give his creature the power to become a creator himself and overrun the earth with monsters.
This fable of aesthetic creation and judgment is replete with the anxieties of its day. For Mary Shelley, steeped in literature, reformism, and loss, the models of creativity occupying public attention were distressing: the cold, overreaching adventurism of science, the mechanical productivity of industrialism, the greed and oppression of empire. Even art was not immune from this dehumanization. Kant and Burke had bequeathed to the West a taste for the sublime, an aesthetic experience in which beauty is a confrontation with the unknowable, the limitless, the superhuman. The sublime turned the act of aesthetic judgment into a brush with abstraction, alienation, death. Here was no joyous birth, no discovery of the self in an Other, no gratitude for that recognition or striving to attain to the Other's worth. All mutuality is blocked or denied in the sublime as the puny self shivers in the presence of the unknowable immensity of the Other.
Kant had argued that beauty existed both in nature and in art, and that it came, in either case, in two varieties: the beautiful and the sublime.
The beautiful in nature is a question of the form of the object, and this consists in limitation, whereas the sublime is to be found in an object even devoid of form, so far as it immediately involves, or else by its presence provokes, a representation of limitlessness, yet with a super-added thought of its totality.
The experience of the sublime is provoked when nature exceeds human limits. "It is rather in its chaos," Kant wrote, "or in its wildest and most irregular disorder and desolation provided it gives signs of magnitude and power, that nature chiefly excites the ideas of the sublime." The Alps and the polar ice cap were Kant's archetypes of the sublime, and these are precisely the blasted landscapes of Frankenstein and his alienated monster.
Kant believed that the perceiver does not experience this chaos as actually life-threatening. Remember that the judgment of beauty occurs in a state removed from normal needs and desires. If the chaos one encounters makes one fear for one's life, self-interest would destroy the aesthetic purity of the experience, making it "monstrous." A moment is sublime for Kant when the perceiver can take in, securely, the sheer magnitude, limitlessness, and chaos of the scene and see it whole. And thus, the monstrous and the sublime are antithetical. "For in representation of [the sublime] nature contains nothing monstrous...the magnitude apprehended may be increased to any extent provided imagination is able to grasp it all in one whole. An object is monstrous where by its size it defeats the end that forms its concept."
This is the apparent crux of Mary Shelley's opposition to Kantian aesthetics. For in Frankenstein, she presents sublimity as monstrous by definition. It defeats "the end that forms its concept" by turning a person into an abstraction. Thus, Victor Frankenstein disdains home and family to become a scientific titan, a "modern Prometheus." The creature that comes of his art is a sublime monster, and the experience of its sublimity is filled with horror and self-destruction. The sublime eliminates the experience of beauty as a part of normal life or even a pleasurable ideal. Its thrill is a glittery-eyed madness in which the perceiver is released from the constraints of the human condition. In Frankenstein, chaos is never experienced in a state of control, and the rational suspension of interest is nothing but inhumane heedlessness. Transcending human limits for Mary Shelley means losing all that is human; the monster is likewise doomed to an existence of loneliness and homelessness. Sublimity, supposedly transcendent in value, is in fact a destruction of the common values and pleasures of human existence.
Mary Shelley signals the inhumanity of the sublime in the terrible dream that overcomes Frankenstein immediately after he creates the monster. His fiancée Elizabeth appears to him "in the bloom of health....Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel." The creation of the monster, a superhuman triumph of scientific inquiry, brings about not sublime uplift but the death of a beautiful loved one, symbolic incest, and contact with physical decomposition.
Dr. Frankenstein's monster is a reflection not only of the Kantian sublime but of industrial production. Mary Shelley traced the genesis of the novel to a discussion with Byron and Percy Shelley about the "nature of the principle of life," in which they considered whether "perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together and endued with vital warmth." This notion of reproduction through factory assembly recalls ancient fables of composition: Apelles forced to cull one feature here, another there, from the many lovely faces he examined as models for Helen of Troy; or Zeuxis selecting from five beautiful maidens of Kroton the perfect limbs of one, the perfect breasts of another for his Aphrodite. The search-and-assembly procedure "reappears in the earliest treatise on painting of the postantique world, Alberti's Della Pittura," writes Sir Kenneth Clark. "Dürer went so far as to say that he had 'searched through two or three hundred.' The argument is repeated again and again for four centuries." In these stories, the artist picks and chooses among body parts like a male-chauvinist graverobber, or like the dark scientist Frankenstein.
This classical recipe for beauty (assemble the parts and add life, electricity, art) was a cause of anxiety by Mary Shelley's day. Industrial manufacture had produced Blake's "dark Satanic mills," and the mechanical metaphor of creativity threatened to disconnect art from nature altogether. Mary Wollstonecraft had insisted on Coleridge's notion that art was an organic whole rather than a mere assemblage: "It was not...the mechanical selection of limbs and features; but the ebullition of an heated fancy that burst forth....It was not mechanical, because a whole was produced — a model of that grand simplicity, of those concurring energies, which arrest our attention and command our reverence." Likewise, Mary Shelley's contemporary, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, stated that "The opinion...is absurd,...that the Greeks discovered the established ideal of human beauty empirically, by collecting particular beautiful parts, uncovering and noting here a knee, there an arm." Percy Shelley and Byron's conversation about "the nature of the principle of life" ran counter to romantic aesthetics, and of course the two must have known this, however fascinating the possibility of such "mechanical reproduction" must have seemed. Mary Shelley likewise understood, for she demonstrated the error in her monster, assembled out of beautiful but oversized body parts and electrified by the maniacal scientist, Victor Frankenstein. "I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God!"
If beauty is an idea in the artist's soul made real in the act of creation, there should be a bond of likeness between the creator and his creature. This is specifically what Dr. Frankenstein will not acknowledge: his kinship to his offspring, in effect, his fatherhood. The belief in this subject-object unity — in perception or in art — was, according to the historian Peter Gay, the crux of "the quarrel between the heirs of the Enlightenment and the romantics....What the natural scientists in Goethe's, Schelling's, and Coleridge's day were deploring as a liability that investigators must train themselves to overcome, the romantics took to be humanity's greatest asset in the quest for the divine," as they fought for "the re-enchantment of the world." A loving mother and author, Mary Shelley herself accepted the analogy between artwork and child, despite the gothic horror of her monstrous creation. "I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper," she wrote in the introduction to the third edition of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. "I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happy days."
Dr. Frankenstein's lack of sympathy with his creation makes him not only a mechanical artist and a failed father but a perverse lover. In traditional myths of aesthetic creation, such as Pygmalion and Galatea, a male artist produces a female artwork that is warmed into a real woman by his love. But sublimity denies the possibility of empathy between creator and creation. Thus, a sublime Pygmalion would give life to Galatea, but be unable to love her. This is just the case in George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, though in the musical adaptation of My Fair Lady Professor Higgins grudgingly admits, "I've grown accustomed to her face" and ends up marrying his creation. To create a work of art or a woman in sublime logic, however, is to bring a beauty into the world that one holds at bay, feeling awe toward it, but not connection. For Mary Shelley, this is not beauty at all, but a horror.
The audience of sublime art suffers a similar alienation. In the various scenes where the monster stares at sleeping people or at pictures, he becomes the perceiver of an Other. He happens upon Frankenstein's little brother William, for instance, who is wearing a miniature of his beautiful mother — the same woman whose worm-eaten corpse appears in Frankenstein's dream. "I saw something glittering on his breast," the monster narrates. "I took it; it was a portrait of a most lovely woman. In spite of my malignity, it softened and attracted me. For a few moments I gazed with delight on her dark eyes, fringed by deep lashes, and her lovely lips; but presently my rage returned: I remembered that I was for ever deprived of the delights that such beautiful creatures could bestow." Furious, the monster kills the little boy. Here Mary Shelley is echoing a passage in Paradise Lost in which Satan is so struck at the sight of Eve's beauty that he is stopped in his tracks, becoming "stupidly good." However, realizing that such beauty can never be his, he reverts to his destructive ways and brings about the fall of humankind. Female beauty in this tradition has the power almost to transform the King of Darkness into a virtuous being, except that Satan knows this beauty is not for him. Beauty cut off from the spectator's life — suspended from his interest, his pleasure — is an outrage rather than a blessing, and "disinterested beauty" looses the same violence as Frankenstein's unloving procreation.
For Mary Shelley, this is the human cost of a sublime aesthetics, as applied — or no doubt, misapplied — to gender relations. And people have applied it, however imprecisely, in just this way. Male-female relations have perennially been used to understand those between artist and artwork, and correspondingly, the experience of art has been compared to infatuation, lust, and love. "Be beautiful if you want to be loved" is a perennial message of Western culture to its women. But if being beautiful means evoking a disinterested, dehumanized state of consciousness, the beautiful woman is artifactual, formal, and cut off from warmth and concern. Twentieth-century "glamour" is one version of this untouchable state of beauty, inducing adoration but not connection. The interconnection of human and artistic beauty in Western culture has had far-reaching results for both art and female identity, and the dilemma of the beautiful woman in a culture at war with beauty is a repeated theme in early twentieth-century fiction.
It is worth stopping briefly to review what Kant actually said about beauty, since though his ideas may have reinforced these problems, the Critique of Judgment is not overtly a treatise on gender relations. We have noted his famous concept of disinterested interest in which taste involves the experience of pleasure without interest: "Taste is the faculty of estimating an object or a mode of representation by means of a delight or aversion apart from any interest. The object of such a delight is called beautiful." This judgment of beauty, since it is suspended from particular interests, is universal, "making a rightful claim upon the assent of all men." Further, it is definitionally unconcerned with the actuality of the subjects represented: "One must not be in the least prepossessed in favour of the real existence of the thing, but must preserve complete indifference in this respect, in order to play the part of judge in matters of taste." As a result, for Kant taste is the only experience of pleasure that is free, and hence it is intrinsically human: "beauty has purport and significance only for human beings....Taste in the beautiful may be said to be the one and only disinterested and free delight; for, with it, no interest, whether of sense or reason, extorts approval....FAVOUR is the only free liking." Aesthetic judgment thus permits the exercise of the most essentially human of our aspirations, freedom.
Frankenstein, as we have seen, presents this heroic freedom in an opposite light, as cruel and destructive of social relations. It is detrimental to what humans value as human: gratification, love, comfort. Kant had differentiated the pleasure associated with beauty and that associated with charm or the agreeable. "The agreeable is what GRATIFIES a man," Kant wrote, and what is gratified is desire, need, interest. There is nothing universal about gratification, and when the adage, "chacun à son goût," is invoked, it is not taste but gratification that is at issue. For the man of taste, many things may "possess charm and agreeableness — no one cares about that; but when he puts a thing on a pedestal and calls it beautiful, he demands the same delight from others. He judges not merely for himself, but for all men, and then speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things." Note that for Kant, judgment of the beautiful should lead to an objectivity in which beauty becomes "a property of things." This is precisely the opposite of the interactive experience of beauty modeled in the myth of Psyche and Cupid, in which beauty provokes desire and love and a striving for equality. But for Kant, any representation that evokes appetite is outside the realm of the beautiful; a notion of beauty as a human interaction rather than a "property of things" risks the introduction of impure interests.
Mary Shelley takes Kantian aesthetics to task for its disqualification of charm from aesthetic experience. Frankenstein may roam the Alps or the polar ice cap, but the natural habitat of his Wordsworthian friend Henry Clerval is the Rhine valley, a romantic setting of gentleness and spiritual soothing. "The mountains of Switzerland," Henry says, "are more majestic and strange, but there is a charm in the banks of this divine river that I never before saw equalled." He goes on: "Oh, surely the spirit that inhabits and guards this place has a soul more in harmony with man than those who pile the glacier or retire to the inaccessible peaks of the mountains of our own country." Frankenstein himself is moved by these surroundings: "Even I, depressed in mind, and my spirits continually agitated by gloomy feelings, even I was pleased." However drawn the scientist was to this charm, however, he renounced it in the pursuit of knowledge, leaving it to his doomed friends and loved ones.
Henry is steeped in chivalry and romance, and Frankenstein's betrothed, Elizabeth, "was the living spirit of love to soften and attract." Like a proper man of taste, Frankenstein disdains charm, softness, love, and attraction in favor of reason. "While my companion contemplated with a serious and satisfied spirit the magnificent appearances of things," he says of Elizabeth, "I delighted in investigating their causes." As a scientist, he revels in the discovery of causes, not remembering that it was specifically the eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that Satan promised would allow Adam and Eve "to discern / Things in thir Causes." Elizabeth, in contrast, is satisfied by appearances, in an anti-Platonic turnabout of values in which Mary Shelley elevates the pleasing surface of experience over the ideal (or tortuous) depths below.
Throughout the novel, the more the scientist separates himself from love and domesticity, the more he undermines the affective basis of his values. He becomes a wanderer in a hostile world, and produces the same fate in his creature and his loved ones. His father, having lost most of his family to the monster's depredations, enters an internal sublime, the chaos of madness and death: "His eyes wandered in vacancy, for they had lost their charm and their delight." If Kant associates the charming and agreeable with meretricious beauty, sentiment, and the allure of surfaces, Mary Shelley redeploys his terminology to explain her belief in "the amiableness of domestic affection, and the excellence of universal virtue." For her, the agreeable and the good coincide in an aesthetics of charm, which for Kant would be a contradiction in terms.
This "soft," "feminine" aesthetics was problematic in Mary Shelley's day, as it is in ours, not only because it contradicts Kant but because it raises the specters of sentimentality, seductiveness, and domesticity associated with the allegedly inferior mentality of women. One cannot imagine a less Kantian view than the suffering monster's reproach to his creator Frankenstein that God, the Arch-Creator, had "made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image." "Alluring" goes further even than "charming"; it suggests desire and sexuality, facets of experience that are suppressed in a sublime aesthetics. This impure aesthetics is connected to the spontaneity and ecstasy of Wordsworthian nature. In a direct quotation from "Tintern Abbey," Frankenstein says that nature for his friend Henry was "An appetite, a feeling, and a love."
Henry's death prompts a "gush of sorrow" in the scientist, whose heart is "overflowing with the anguish which his remembrance creates." These words may seem to echo Wordsworth's definition of poetry in the preface to the Lyrical Ballads as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" originating in "emotion recollected in tranquillity," but they in fact parody it, revealing how distant Wordsworthian creativity is from the Frankensteinian sublime. The scientist's recollections are never tranquil, and even the word recollection sounds too pacific for the hideous memories that torment him. In fact, the plot of Frankenstein is a demonic parody of the epiphanic "spots of time" in Wordsworth's The Prelude. Every episode in the novel is the same trauma nightmarishly repeated: the loss of a loved one. Frankenstein himself declares that surviving another's death is far worse than dying oneself: The dead "can no longer be a subject for pity; we must reserve that for his miserable survivors." But he cannot see the implication of this truth, instead maniacally pursuing the monster rather than defending his loved ones at home. The monster's threat, "I shall be with you on your wedding-night," goes right over Frankenstein's head. No reader is in doubt as to its meaning, however: that the fiend is planning to attack not him, but Elizabeth. The monster, denied love since his engendering, understands that the worst pain is deprivation, bereavement. The demonic torture of Frankenstein's "recollections" is just the opposite of the recuperative warmth and charm of Wordsworth's poetic memory.
Mary Shelley thus pointed out the irony of the sublime: that in providing supposedly the most human of mental states, freedom, it utterly disregards love and family and pleasure, which have at least as much claim as freedom to define "the human." Creativity and aesthetic experience should follow a different model. She presents it by allusion to the scene in Paradise Lost in which Adam awakens after God has used his rib to create Eve. Frankenstein's monster, however, is never permitted to dream his Other into existence. Frankenstein refuses to make him a bride, and so he never experiences the coincidence of wish and reality that is companionate love. Neither does his heartless creator, although Frankenstein's dream of Elizabeth as a corpse certainly comes true!
Keats, writing at the same time as Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, saw Adam's dream as an allegory of the imagination. He compared the imagination to Adam's "waking dream" in Paradise Lost, in which Adam "awoke and found it truth." He dreamt Eve and woke to find her actually alive. Unlike Kant, the value of the imagination and art for Keats lies in its capacity to "come true." Art is dream realized, and this is why we value it — as an earnest that our dreams might be realized in life. The experience of art is thus a profoundly "interested" mental state; we are not indifferent to the possibility that what it depicts may be real. This is one way to construe Keats's "Beauty is truth, truth beauty": that beauty is this realization of the ideal on earth.
Moreover, Adam's dream creation, made from one of his ribs, is intrinsically connected to him — an expression of his very being, a companion to him, and an object therefore of his love. To love Eve is to love himself, for she is flesh of his flesh. We recall the monster's reproach to his creator that God had "made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image." Creators and creations echo each other in this model, and are tied in a bond of love that involves self-realization. The engine of this imaginative connection is beauty. But the monster is monstrous — ugly, bereft of beauty. His creator dreamed him into reality and then despised him, denying him love, a mate, a dream come true.
It is not irrelevant that Adam's dream is a story of the creation of Woman, or that for Mary Shelley the imagination involves a recognition of identity between male and female, subject and object, creator and creation. If Kant wanted to detach aesthetic experience from self-concern, she shows that this detachment leads to a devaluation and indeed a dehumanization of the feminine and the domestic leading to the direst of consequences: war and political oppression. She has her saddened scientist realize in retrospect that "if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquillity of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country, America would have been discovered more gradually, and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed."
Of course, Kant did not limit beauty to the sublime. The other variety of aesthetic experience was termed, somewhat confusingly, "the beautiful." Taste is the judgment of beauty, which occurs in two forms: the beautiful proper and the sublime.
the beautiful is directly attended with a feeling of the furtherance of life, and is thus compatible with charms and playful imagination. On the other hand, the feeling of the sublime is a pleasure that only arises indirectly, being brought about by the feeling of a momentary check to the vital forces followed at once by a discharge all the more powerful, and so it is an emotion that seems to be no sport, but dead earnest in the affairs of the imagination. Hence charms are repugnant to it; and, since the mind is not simply attracted by the object, but is also alternatively repelled thereby, the delight in the sublime does not so much involve positive pleasure as admiration or respect,...a negative pleasure.
The language of this passage, as of others in Kant, renders the beautiful feminine (connected with charm and the furtherance of life) and the sublime masculine (involving a "discharge all the more powerful" and a businesslike "dead earnest in the affairs of the imagination"). But the crucial Kantian distinction between charm and beauty — and hence, between mere gratification and taste — is utterly unstable. The beautiful is distinguished from the sublime through its positive pleasure, its boundedness, its charms, its furtherance of life, and its imaginative playfulness, whereas the sublime is related to negative pleasure, limitlessness, reason, a check to the vital forces, "no sport, but dead earnest," a repugnance to charm. Kant goes on to associate the beautiful with love, and the sublime with esteem. "The beautiful prepares us to love something, even nature, apart from any interest: the sublime to esteem something highly even in opposition to our (sensible) interest." Though Kant describes the beautiful as preparing us to love something apart from any interest, its connection to charm and the furtherance of life would seem to interfere with this purity. William Blake suggests this in his opposition: "The head Sublime,...the genitals Beauty" (although Blake viewed the role of the genitals in art with a very un-Kantian enthusiasm).
In other words, in the course of the contrast between the beautiful and the sublime, the beautiful and the charming fall together, both are connected to the female and to love, and the sublime ends up the only uncompromised experience of beauty. Though Kant stated overtly that the beautiful was as legitimate an experience of beauty as the sublime, modernists responded to the metaphoric undertones of his words. The ideology of the avant-garde was based on the uncompromising, "masculine" distance of the sublime.
But though the problem with feminine beauty is presumably its threat of impurity, Mary Shelley saw that even a pure version of the beautiful was vulnerable. She shows the monster looking upon the sleeping Justine, a virtuous family servant of the Frankensteins. He finds her beautiful, but almost immediately, he realizes that if she woke up and saw him, she would flee from his ugliness. Her beauty is not "for him"; that is, it is separate from his interests. This distance infuriates him. In revenge, he incriminates Justine in a murder that leads to her execution. Like the heroine of Sade's eponymous novel, this beautiful Justine is oppressed by monstrous male forces who ultimately bring about her death.
We do not know whether Mary Shelley had in fact read Sade, but the coincidence of "Justine" in both authors is worth considering. In Frankenstein, Kantian aesthetics seems to be responsible for a dehumanization of women that has certain parallels to Sade's violent pornography. When the monster realizes that Justine's beauty is inaccessible to him, she becomes a hateful deprivation, an object to which he owes no ethical responsibility. She is not his, but irredeemably Other, and as such, she is an affront, a threat that must be eliminated. The need to destroy the power of this beautiful Other is an outcome of her very purity, her separateness from the perceiver's interest. Thus, as Mary Shelley presents it, the purity of Kantian beauty is a deprivation that inevitably evokes the enmity of the perceiver, who wants to punish it for its inaccessibility and distance. When woman is the embodiment of that beauty, she is at risk.
This "logical" progression from ideal beauty to inaccessible woman to dehumanized object to corpse is the horror story lurking in Sade, who sometimes seems a parodic alter-ego of Kant. Indeed, as Octavio Paz describes him, Sade seems a veritable embodiment of the sublime: "Volcanoes fascinated him. He saw them as the incarnation of his thought: the gigantism, disproportion, isolation, and reconcentration of the libertine; the inhuman heat and cold; lava, hotter than semen and blood; ashes, frozen stone. Creation and destruction sealed in violence."
Sade's male libertine is "a solitary who cannot ignore the presence of others," according to Paz, for their existence is a precondition of his: "If I wipe out that consciousness, my pleasure and my own consciousness, my own being, will disappear." Thus, the libertine must establish a "negative relation" to the other; "the erotic object must enjoy a sort of conditional consciousness, to be dead in life or an automaton." The female Other is either a helpless victim or a cruel tyrant, Justine or Juliette. Both are images of each other, and both, ironically, are images of the libertine in his inability to know himself. Sublimity turns woman into a victim or a victimizer, but never an empathetic equal. The pure abstraction of Kant and the pure pornography of Sade were to become the two faces of the twentieth-century avant-garde.
Caught in a sublime disinterest, twentieth-century art hunted the female subject into the ground. Like Frankenstein raging over the Arctic in pursuit of his despised creation, modernist artists have hounded and destroyed their female subjects, whom they, after all, created in the first place. "Qui suis-je?" demanded the surrealist André Breton at the start of Nadja, asking "Who am I?" and "Whom do I follow?" in the same breath. The artist is endlessly in pursuit because he is hopelessly pursuing himself. For Frankenstein, the monster appears to destroy everything of value in his life, but Mary Shelley lets us know directly that the monster is as innocent a victim as the others who die in the novel, with the unloving creator the real cause of the destruction. In art, the female subject is turned into a monster — an animal, an exotic, a prostitute — and killed off in the name of purity and civilized virtues. She is the self the male creator cannot recognize or will not claim his own.
Mary Shelley's gothic fantasy helps explain why the conception of beauty as allure, charm, and sensuousness was exiled or vilified in avant-garde art and in the process, why the female subject became so problematic. From a Kantian standpoint, a nonidealized female subject could produce only an impure response because she appealed to the flesh-and-blood "interest" of the perceiver. But for Mary Shelley, even an idealized female subject, such as Justine or Elizabeth, would have to be eliminated in art, since her purity and inaccessibility were so threatening to the perceiver that he would have to destroy her. Pollution or deprivation, the female subject became an untenable symbol of beauty, or if she could not be separated from what she had symbolized for so long, the logical response was for artists to reject beauty altogether.
As the nineteenth century proceeded, this misogyny fused with a growing hostility to the middle classes. In The Pleasure Wars, Peter Gay claims that the romantics were the first artists to define themselves in opposition to society: specifically, in opposition to the bourgeois. "Throughout virtually all of recorded history, the makers of high culture were fully integrated into their society....Then, toward the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, this tacit, durable cultural compact was radically subverted....As the Victorian century went its way, painters, composers, and the rest formed avant-gardes to fight lively and implacable pleasure wars in which they confronted the dominant, hopelessly conventional middle class with all the energy at their command." Flaubert signed himself "Bourgeoisophobus," but was too self-indulgent to dismiss middle-class pleasure entirely: "one should live like a bourgeois and think like a demi-god," he declared. George Sand was less compromising: "Axiom: Hatred of Bourgeois is the beginning of all virtue." Gay shows how "Quarrels over the arts became quite directly quarrels over politics." Class conflict was fundamental to the avant-garde.
In the early twentieth century, the Dadaist Hans Arp described this artistic class struggle as slapstick comedy:
The bourgeois regarded the Dadaist as a dissolute monster, a revolutionary villain, a barbarous Asiatic, plotting against his bells, his safe-deposits, his honors. The Dadaist thought up tricks to rob the bourgeois of his sleep. He sent false reports to the newspapers of hair-raising Dada duels, in which his favorite author, the "King of Bernina," was said to be involved....[Dada games] were devised to show the bourgeois the unreality of his world, the nullity of his endeavors, even of his extremely profitable patrioteerings. This of course was a naïve undertaking on our part, since actually the bourgeois has less imagination than a worm, and in place of a heart has an over-life-size corn which twitches in times of approaching storm — on the stock exchange.
The Dadaist is a self-styled monster whose mission is to torment the bourgeoisie. However, unlike Mary Shelley's monster, who longs for wife and home and reproductive warmth, as Tristan Tzara wrote, "Every product of disgust capable of becoming a negation of the family is Dada."
Post-Enlightenment artists may have defined themselves in opposition to the bourgeoisie, but they did not consider themselves part of the proletarian masses either. Indeed, Marx had done them no favor in arguing that the rise of the bourgeoisie had simplified the European class structure into these two categories. For just as surely as the avant-garde denied any kinship to capitalists, they (for the most part) fled from the masses. Individualism was a crucial value for them. Kierkegaard had claimed that "a crowd in its very concept is the untruth," and Nietzsche denounced the "universal green pasture-happiness of the herd." Bohemian poverty was not the same as proletarian poverty; the difference in consciousness between the suffering artist and the underfed masses was decisive. When artists likened themselves to the people, this was often only a kind of ethnographic slumming; class primitivism was thus a crucial aspect of modernist aesthetics even before the racial primitivism of Gauguin and Picasso.
Even the consolidation of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat into a unified "viewing audience" in our day has not led artists to make their peace with either class. The public is meant to receive art as manna from the demigod artist and to accept the insult that goes along with it: that they are, by virtue of their status as nonartists and capitalists, incapable of truly understanding high culture. They should consume art, because that is all they know how to do with anything, but leave the judgment of art to its priests. This attitude has changed little since Flaubert expressed it in the 1850s:
In an age when all common bonds are snapped, and when Society is just one huge brigandage...more or less well organised, when the interests of flesh and spirit draw apart like wolves and howl in solitude, one must act like everyone else, cultivate an ego (a more beautiful one naturally) and live in one's den. The distance between myself and my fellow men widens every day. I feel this process working in my heart and I am glad, for my sensitivity towards all that I find sympathetic continually increases, as a result of this very withdrawal.
Nineteenth-century painters, as we might expect, found formal as well as semantic means to torment their audience. The critic Brian O'Doherty describes the difficulties that even Impressionism imposed on its first audiences, who lost the subject as soon as they tried to verify its presence by going closer to the picture. The "Spectator began to utter his first complaints: not only 'What is it supposed to be?' and 'What does it mean?' but 'Where am I supposed to stand?' Problems of deportment are intrinsic to modernism. Impressionism began that harassment of the Spectator inseparable from most advanced art." O'Doherty isolates hostility to the audience as "one of the key coordinates of modernism."
This hostile, isolationist strain in the avant-garde further exaggerated the virtues of the sublime over the beautiful. The beautiful is an experience of measure, stability, order, and harmony, whereas the sublime entails limitlessness, dynamism, chaos, and self-annihilating threat. Kant himself dissociated taste from the application of principles and stable rules: "In forming an estimate of Objects merely from concepts, all representation of beauty goes by the board." In the German Sturm und Drang, the connection between rule-abiding artists and burghers was clear. "A man who follows the rules will produce a 'correct' work of art, just as a good bourgeois who obeys the rules of society will live a correct life." The early romantic, William Blake, ever outspoken, wrote that "Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by Incapacity." Whether one was a rationalist or a romantic, to be lawless, boundless, even monstrous was to prove one's true artistic nature and one's disdain for all things bourgeois.
And who was more the enemy of titanic striving than women? Mary Wollstonecraft herself reminds us that Zeus punished Prometheus for his theft of the divine fire by creating Pandora, the first woman, whose curiosity loosed evil into the world. Woman was subversive of the sublime in all ways. Female beauty was hopelessly compromised — interested — since women used it, gaining power over men by means of it. "Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre," Wollstonecraft writes, "the mind shapes itself to the body, and, roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison." Such instruction causes women to be "gentle, domestic brutes," she claims, and "if women then do not resign the arbitrary power of beauty — they will prove that they have less mind than men."
Wollstonecraft criticized women's utilitarian approach to beauty in order to urge equality of education, and she was not alone. Jane Austen satirized well-bred women who took a turn about the drawing room in order to show off their figures to advantage, or played the piano, however indifferently, in order to display their dimpled arms and graceful shoulders. Schopenhauer, unconcerned with improving the lot of women, believed that they were incapable of aesthetic experience altogether. Like the middle classes, they talked during the theater and despite endless painting lessons they had never produced a work of art worth the name: "Women are, and remain, thorough-going philistines, and quite incurable," he concluded.
Of course, Schopenhauer was a complete misogynist, alienated from his mother and convinced that love "is rooted in the sexual impulse alone." For him there was no danger of seeing the female form as an expression of Kantian beauty. "It is only the man whose intellect is clouded by his sexual impulses that could give the name of the fair sex to that undersized, narrow-shouldered, broad-hipped, and short-legged race....Instead of calling them beautiful, there would be more warrant for describing women as the unaesthetic sex." Others detached the feminine from the beautiful for different reasons. The neoclassical aesthetician Winckelmann had found reinforcement of his homosexuality in the aesthetic principles of the Greeks, believing that "a beautiful male body is the precondition for valuing great art, and...only men stirred by male comeliness possess the true sense of beauty."
Abigail Solomon-Godeau argues that the artistic ideal shifted from male to female beauty after the French Revolution. At this great historical turning point, "the beautiful male body ceded its dominant position in elite visual culture to the degree that the category 'nude' became routinely associated with femininity." Sir Kenneth Clark writes that by the mid-nineteenth century, "naked women took the place of men as the models in art schools," but women were not allowed to attend these schools until much later. With woman the predominant subject of art, the preferred model for art, but seldom the maker of art, the "nineteenth-century female nude [emerged], a body designed for display and delectation, a 'legitimized' sensuality that henceforth the male body must nominally abjure."
Dominant in art but powerless in life, woman's beauty was a sign of her social inferiority. And this inferiority, according to Mary Wollstonecraft, made women slaves to their sensations. They "look for happiness in love, refine on sensual feelings, and adopt metaphysical notions respecting that passion." Kept from participating in important concerns, for them "sentiments become events." As a result, they are enthralled by "the stupid novelists" rather than "serious" literature, which sold in pitifully few copies at the time. Female beauty was weakness and women's taste was sentimentalism, according to the "angry and disheartened camp of high literature."
The split between bourgeois and high taste coincided with a full-scale critique of the ideology of love, which continued into modernism. Fairy tales, medieval quest romances, and the Courtly Love tradition launched by twelfth-century troubadours may have been the stuff of romantic and Pre-Raphaelite poetry, but nineteenth-century realists and the twentieth-century avant-garde subjected the idealization of love to devastating irony. It was declared a matter of feminine excess, undisciplined emotionalism, melodrama. The value of women was similarly demoted. Mary Wollstonecraft had specifically blamed the inferior situation of women on the romance ideology of love: "Novels, music, poetry, and gallantry," she wrote, "all tend to make women the creatures of sensation." And the misogynist Schopenhauer is only too grateful to Byron for teaching him the errors of gallantry. Schopenhauer wants to eliminate the honorific "lady" altogether as a word and an idea.
In Europe the lady, strictly so-called, is a being who should not exist at all; she should be either a housewife or a girl who hopes to become one; and she should be brought up, not to be arrogant, but to be thrifty and submissive....even Lord Byron says: Thought of the state of women under the ancient Greeks — convenient enough. Present state, a remnant of the barbarism of the chivalric and the feudal ages — artificial and unnatural. They ought to mind home — and be well fed and clothed — but not mixed in society. Well educated, too, in religion — but to read neither poetry nor politics — nothing but books of piety and cookery. Music — drawing — dancing — also a little gardening and ploughing now and then. I have seen them mending the roads in Epirus with good success. Why not, as well as haymaking and milking?
"The barbarism of the chivalric and feudal ages" turned women into ladies; rationalism should turn them back into the domestic philistines they are! No wonder Mary Shelley filled the gentle Henry Clerval with thoughts of chivalry and gallantry. The aestheticizing of women was thoroughly endangered, even by those like her mother who were on the side of women. Whereas for Wollstonecraft, courtly romance had kept women unliberated, and for Byron and Schopenhauer it had misrepresented their nature and given them inappropriate social expectations, for Mary Shelley romance was the necessary precondition for an ethical aesthetics in which subject and object, creator and creature, could experience value and emotional depth. If the romantics sought to "reenchant the world," this could never happen, Mary Shelley understood, if they discredited the ideology of romance.
In the assault on chivalry, the beauty of the romance heroine was not an incidental factor. Beauty was the most consistent symbol of the heightened value of woman, the hallmark of romance. Heroes take on any danger or sacrifice in order to win the fair maiden. Moreover, good characters in romances are beautiful, whereas evil ones are ugly. Aesthetics and ethics coincide. There may be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing here, as when an apparently beautiful woman turns out to be a hideous sorceress, or when a virtuous crone is revealed to be a princess suffering under a spell. The coincidence of beauty with goodness allowed sophisticated romances to function as aesthetic allegories in which the beautiful woman played a double role as both the heroine of a love story and the symbol of the beauty and value of the work in which she figured.
Nineteenth-century critics of the romance disjoined the beautiful from the good. This separation of ethics from aesthetics had been a philosophical aim of Kant's as well, and was entwined in the reformist or misogynistic beliefs of Wollstonecraft and Schopenhauer, respectively. It has an age-old currency in Christian antiornamentalism and distrust of appearance. Umberto Eco quotes the medieval Saint Bernard, that "Interior beauty is more comely than external ornament, more even than the pomp of kings." Mary Shelley is quite unconventional in depicting Frankenstein's beloved Elizabeth as unapologetically enthralled by the "magnificent appearances of things."
But for many nineteenth-century female novelists who followed her, for example, Charlotte Brontë or George Eliot, the unlinking of beauty from virtue was an important goal in the creation of aesthetic and human sympathy, for love was not a response to surface appearance but to deep character. Brontë's Jane Eyre is unredeemedly plain, and consents to marry her lover only when she is financially independent of him and invisible to his blinded eye. George Eliot makes her pretty characters foolish and her complex heroines plain. "All honour and reverence to the divine beauty of form!" she writes. "But let us love that other beauty too, which lies in no secret of proportion, but in the secret of deep human sympathy." For Eliot, love and sympathy produced the experience of beauty — value — and not the reverse. "Yes! thank God; human feeling is like the mighty rivers that bless the earth: it does not wait for beauty — it flows with resistless force and brings beauty with it." Eliot and Brontë were wise, but the men who set out to dismantle the romance association of beauty and virtue were not typically motivated by sympathy for plain women. Indeed, sympathy was what they were fleeing altogether.
In the general anxiety over the ideology of the literary romance, the nineteenth century reworked it in a variety of distortions: the gothic novel, melodrama, and the stylized revivals of the Decadents. One of the standard scenes in literary romances, and one that challenged the disinterest of neoclassical aesthetics as none other, was the stripping of the heroine. We think of this as the stuff of bodice-rippers or burlesque theaters, but scenes in which a heroine is stripped of her clothing or threatened with such stripping are found in the most classic of romances, for example, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene. Sometimes a veil is removed to reveal a celestial purity that had previously been kept from profane eyes. Or sometimes, in diametrical opposition, a heroine such as Oscar Wilde's Salome sheds veil after veil in an accession of female power. Mary Wollstonecraft suggests the complexity of this motif in the following statement: "while [women] have been stripped of the virtues that should clothe humanity, they have been decked with artificial graces that enable them to exercise a short-lived tyranny." Throughout the discussion of women, it is unclear as to whether female virtue is a matter of covering or uncovering, and what covers or is uncovered in the process.
Whatever the meaning of stripping in a given romance — and there is a huge range of such meanings — it points to one of the most volatile issues associated with woman: the ethics of ornament. Women are stripped because women are ornamented. E. H. Gombrich describes the long association between ornament and women in aesthetic and moral thought in The Sense of Order, noting that neoclassicism perennially identifies "crowded ornament with feminine taste" and suppresses it in the name of decorum. Kant was thus typical of his age in condemning ornament or "parergon" as an instance of charm: "if it is introduced like a gold frame merely to win approval for the picture by means of its charm — it is then called finery and takes away from the genuine beauty."
In her reformist zeal, Wollstonecraft expresses the typical association of ornament with feminine triviality and moral weakness: "Can that soul be stamped with the heavenly image, that is not perfected by the exercise of its own reason? Yet outwardly ornamented with elaborate care, and so adorned to delight man, 'that with honour he may love,' [a quotation from Paradise Lost] the soul of woman is not allowed to have this distinction." Whenever a woman, ornamented or plain, is rendered in art, she threatens the purity of the judgment of taste, conjuring up charm, or in extreme form, prurient allure. These have no place in a "high" aesthetics, but belong to the bourgeois marketplace of culture. Artists themselves were only too aware of this fact. For example, the Victorian painter William Mulready wrote in his sketchbook: "female beauty and innocence will be much talked about, and sell well. Let it be covertly exciting." To this day, the asking prices for premodernist paintings with female subjects are typically higher than for paintings with male subjects by the same painter, and if the subjects are young women, the price is higher still.
In contrast, an art based on the beauty of form eliminates the problem of charm or titillation. Manet's Olympia, an openly erotic nude that did not employ the subterfuge of an allegorical or mythological title, caused a scandal in its day. Zola defended it by claiming that the subject of the painting was not a naked woman but form. Zola "dismissed the question whether the painting was charming or obscene as simply irrelevant. Manet's nude was a purely Formalist composition exhibited by an 'analytical painter' far less concerned with bodily shapes than with 'vivid contrasts and bold masses.'"
This alchemy, in which a female subject is transmuted into pure form, may be witnessed, too, in Edgar Allan Poe's 1846 essay, "The Philosophy of Composition." In this remarkable rationalist analysis (or spoof?), which became a touchstone for twentieth-century formalist aesthetics, Poe explains the genesis of his poem "The Raven." The poem had nothing to do with creative frenzy, he claims, but like all art grew out of a sequence of rational decisions: first, the choice of the effect, then of the tone, the length, and the desired impression. Properly Kantian, Poe wanted his poem to be "universally appreciable" and thus opted for an impression of beauty. "Beauty is the sole legitimate province of the poem....That pleasure which is at once the most intense, the most elevating, and the most pure, is, I believe, found in the contemplation of the beautiful."
An impression of beauty required a sad tone, and a striking refrain would create the pleasure of repetition in the expression of that sadness. The most effective refrain, Poe reasoned, would be a single word, and the saddest would be one with the sounds of long o and r. "Nevermore" was the inevitable choice. But what would be the vehicle of this repetition? A parrot would do perhaps. No, a raven would be more suitable for melancholy. And what theme would be most conducive to all this sadness?
I asked myself — "Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?" Death — was the obvious reply. "And when...is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?"...the answer...is obvious — "When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world."
In Poe's Formalist account of poetic beauty, the death of a beautiful woman is the perfect subject. The pursuit of beauty in a rationalist framework elevates form to the highest value. In the process, the female subject, whose being is reduced to form, becomes a mere trace, a memory unendingly mourned by the artist who has excised her yet does not take responsibility for his act. He is much more engrossed in the logic of his Formalist decision-making than in the woman he has sacrificed to it.
Poe's essay was beloved by French realists and Symbolists alike, and twentieth-century Russian Formalists treated it as prophetic. For all of them, the substitution of reason for emotion and of fetishized form for woman is a cause of celebration, not despair. Edmond and Jules de Goncourt's account of reading Poe in the 1860s is exemplary:
After reading Edgar Allan Poe. Something the critics have not noticed: a new literary world, pointing to the literature of the twentieth century. Scientific miracles, fables on the pattern A + B; a clear-sighted, sickly literature. No more poetry, but analytic fantasy. Something monomaniacal. Things playing a more important part than people; love giving way to deductions and other sources of ideas, style, subject, and interest; the basis of the novel transferred from the heart to the head, from the passion to the idea, from the drama to the dénouement.
Flaubert went so far as to state that "What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the strength of its style." His mother apparently complained that "The mania for phrases has dried up your heart," but Flaubert had just such a "pitiless" art in mind, impersonal, scientific, formal. "The price of beauty is self-denial," he boasted, denying his mother.
If woman is too implicated in ornament, charm, and gratification to produce a pure aesthetic experience, or on the contrary, too inaccessible and threatening in her purity, then artists have no choice but to kill her off by transmuting her into form. Otherwise, they encounter formidable risks to purity: the barbaric, the obscene, the idolatrous. "Taste that requires an added element of charm" says Kant, "...has not yet emerged from barbarism." "Surely these weak beings [women] are only fit for a seraglio!" exclaims Wollstonecraft, and elsewhere: "Chastity will never be respected in the male world till the person of a woman is not, as it were, idolized." It is perhaps not surprising that in tracts on aesthetics and feminism a certain space is always devoted to animadversions on impurity and fetishization. What is surprising is that these tend to be such similar animadversions in each case, and that they take up so much room. The casting out of ornament and the transmutation of the female subject into form seem to go hand in hand with an almost obsessive preoccupation with woman as an exotic fetish — primitive, prostituted, idolized.
In Evil Sisters: The Threat of Female Sexuality and the Cult of Manhood, Bram Dijkstra describes the association of the female and the primitive in the figure of the twentieth-century vampire, the vamp. "The later nineteenth century used Darwin's discoveries," Dijkstra writes, "to transform the scattershot gender conflicts of earlier centuries into a 'scientifically grounded' exposé of female sexuality as a source of social disruption and 'degeneration.' At the opening of the new century, biology and medicine set out to prove that nature had given all women a basic instinct that made them into predators, destroyers, witches —...a harbinger of death to the male." Whereas man strove for rationality and "higher" values, woman, "the feminine principle of nature, was the thief of progress. She was interested only in quantity, in species survival, in maintaining life in all its forms. She had no interest in 'quality,' in the 'virile,' elitist principles of the evolutionary advance." As in the contemporary world, an interpretation of Darwin buttresses male fears by picturing women as unalterably Other. In early modernism, the thrill and danger of this exotic figure played directly into the Kantian sublime, causing artists to recast the female subject in frightening and dehumanized ways.
It is interesting that the ideology of the avant-garde was driven by such seemingly contradictory impulses: on the one hand, the retreat from the deathliness and dirt of the ornamental woman into the purity of form, and on the other, the fascination with exoticism and fetish. The fetish itself enshrines this contradiction, as Anthony Shelton suggests: "'Fetishism' has paradoxical meanings. In early theories of religion, in psychiatry, and in the work of Freud and Lacan, 'fetishism' comes to be associated with deficiency, loss and disavowal, while for others, including Marx, Bataille and Baudrillard, it signifies excess. Frequently, deficiency and excess occur in the work of the same writer." Of course, modernists often pretended to be taming the excess of the fetish by appropriating merely its formal qualities, as with African sculpture, but it is hard to maintain such discipline in the act of borrowing. When you appropriate an aspect of something, other aspects of it may come along for the ride, appropriating you.
Primitivism, the engine of modernist fetishism, is obviously connected to the genre of the gothic, of which Frankenstein is a prime example. Gothic fetishes are everywhere in nineteenth-century fiction. In Sheridan Le Fanu's novella Green Tea, for example, the protagonist devotes himself to the study of ancient religion and art. "Paganism is all bound together in essential unity, and, with evil sympathy, their religion involves their art, and both their manners....It thoroughly infected me. You are to remember that all the material ideas connected with it were more or less of the beautiful, the subject itself delightfully interesting." This "delightfully interesting" subject, beauty, leads to the protagonist's suicide, as he is haunted by, of all things, a monkey. Though Green Tea leaves something to be desired as fiction, it is a clear example of the late-nineteenth-century entailment of beauty in the fetish.
Mary Shelley represents this fetishism symbolically in Victor Frankenstein's love-hate relation to his creature, his meddling with corpses and alchemy, and his fascination with "chimeras of boundless grandeur." There seems to be a psychic algebra in play here. If you deny yourself gratification, seeking beauty in abstract form rather than femininity, charm, allure, domesticity, and love, you must compensate for this loss with some other source of gratification. But one gratification is as bad as another unless you can show that you are not really gratified by it, that it belongs to someone else — an exotic, a primitive, a being far below you. You are unmoved by the ornamental, sexualized fetishes that fill the primitive imagination, though as a modern person you have enough ethnographic curiosity and formal sensitivity to "appreciate" the fetishes that fill primitive peoples with awe and desire. You may include some of these fetishes in your art to show yourself reading through desire to pure form. It is a good lesson to instill in your audience as well.
Modernists regularly embraced this mystification, eliminating ornament, turning the female subject into pure form, and then sneaking in desire, passion, charm, and gratification through the back door in the form of safe quotations from dangerous sources. This is the recipe for modernist art: a laboratory in which creators chose form and fetish over a more "agreeable" beauty. Abstraction, alienation, and sublime thrill are the result — marks of the Promethean "Victor," modernist experimentalism.
Mary Shelley offered a different wisdom: that we accept the humanizing pleasure of art, and thus reinstate a circuit of "natural affection" between the moral and the aesthetic spheres. Her warning, however reasoned and erudite, has sounded merely timid next to the heroic challenge of Frankensteinian inquiry, and posterity has preferred horror over healing. I have an intimation that now, after more than two centuries of rationalist aesthetics, things are starting to change. But we can make this judgment only by tracking the fortunes of those touchstones of twentieth-century beauty: form, fetish, ornament, and woman.
Copyright © 2001 by Wendy Steiner
Posted October 16, 2011
No text was provided for this review.