Jan Michelle Andres
Claremont Graduate University
The Voice of “A Girl Like I”: Containment and Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
In a speech delivered to Congress in March 1947, President Harry S. Truman adopted “containment” as official United States Policy – what would later become known as the Truman Doctrine. A middle ground between appeasement and rollback, this basic United States strategy for fighting the Cold War aimed to “contain” Soviet Communism “within a clearly defined sphere of influence” (May, Homeward 16). Containment would prevent a “domino effect” in which other nations would fall to Communism, and would ultimately protect the United States from Soviet attack (“Truman”). Containment policy often took the form of granting economic aid to countries fighting Communist subversion. United States capital, it was believed, could help stop the spread of Soviet Communism and support “free peoples” from “totalitarian regimes” (“Truman”). Thus, containment and capitalism were linked from the time the Truman Doctrine became the official policy of the State Department. This foreign policy, as Elaine Tyler May has noted, also became “an overarching principle” that guided Americans in their personal lives and focused primarily on strengthening the American home (May, Homeward 16). With the home as the nation’s number one defense against Communism, women were particularly targeted by domestic strains of containment. Not only were they subject to “sexual containment” as disruptive sexualities threatened the stability of the home (May, Homeward 16), but as homemakers, women were also subject to a type of consumptive containment, as their purchasing patterns were driven by consensus ideologies (May, Homeward 158). Containment, capitalism, and women were thus inextricably intertwined in Cold War America – women’s bodies needed to be contained through capitalism, in the form of government-sanctioned consumerism, which would in turn strengthen the home against Soviet Communism.
Dina Smith demonstrates the links between containment, capitalism, and women’s bodies in her observation of the postwar penchant for films based on the Cinderella fairy tale. According to Smith, because of the way this familiar fairy tale “helped narrate the story of fifties’ affluence,” 1950s popular culture “circulated” around the story (“Traveling”), as exemplified by Cinderella films such as Blake Edwards’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954). As the Cinderella figure “goes to the ball dressed in gold, silver, and glass – important commodities,” Smith writes, “she literally becomes ‘capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.’ The Cinderella makeover finds the ‘useful’ girl turning into an ‘exchangeable’ woman by ‘putting on’ the right clothes” (Smith, “Traveling”). Smith’s language depicts a kind of containment of the female body that must occur before the Cinderella figure can be transformed. Only when she is contained within the “right clothes” can the 1950s Cinderella win the heart of her prince. This, in turn, further contains the woman, positioning her both in a home where she can participate in consumerist containment behavior, and in a heterosexual marriage that safeguards against disruptive sexualities. The Cinderella narrative was therefore a story that spoke directly to containment culture and lent itself to consensus ideologies.
One of the most popular Cinderella films of the 1950s was Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the most successful musical film produced by Fox (Bogdanovich 352). Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is true to the spirit of the Cinderella tale: it not only deals with “anxieties and conflicts about courtship and marriage,” but it also features the familiar “rags-to-riches trajectory of the tale’s heroine” while “plac[ing] a premium on surfaces” (Tatar 29). Released in 1953, the film features Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe as Dorothy Shaw and Lorelei Lee, a pair of showgirls from Little Rock, a “backwater city” in Arkansas (McGurl 106). When the film opens, Lorelei has just gotten engaged to Gus Esmond, a millionaire whom she calls “Daddy,” and who sends Lorelei, with Dorothy as her chaperone, on an all-expenses-paid cruise to Paris. A private detective employed by Esmond’s father follows them with the goal of ascertaining if Lorelei is a gold-digger. Unfortunately, Lorelei is unable to resist flirting with the diamond mogul Sir Francis Beekman, or “Piggy,” as the girls call him, and she soon finds herself the subject of some compromising photographs that result in the termination of her engagement. In the end, however, Esmond cannot stay away from Lorelei; he follows her to Paris to win her back. The film’s final scene depicts Lorelei and Esmond’s wedding, through which Lorelei has been lifted out of Little Rock and into the social and financial security of marriage.
Though Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’s ending depicts the containment of Lorelei in the institution of marriage, this consensus image is disrupted as the film continually highlights an aspect that by definition cannot be contained – voice. One film theorist has described how voice has a “double-edged” quality: when used, the voice evokes an “intangible, aphysical spatiality” that “controvert[s]” the “materiality” of the body (Sjogren 25). When voice leaves the body, it inherently “contradicts” its source (Sjogren 25). While this theorization of voice could be applied more generally to all speaking roles in the film, it is the female voice that is at the forefront of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes;since Dorothy and Lorelei are showgirls who sing for a living, their voices are especially featured. In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which would not exist without the voices of its female leads, then, the female voice becomes a locus of contradiction. As an entity that cannot successfully be contained, even when Lorelei “puts on” the right attire to look the part of a Cold War consensus-approved female, her voice betrays her. Indeed, though the Cinderella makeover depicted in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes demonstrates the strength of American capitalism and dramatizes the process of containment, when Lorelei speaks (and sings), she lets loose that which the process of her commodification has failed to contain. As an entity that resists containment because it must transgress the limits of the body to become reality, Lorelei’s voice is thus positioned to directly contradict the official American policy of containment, as well as domestic versions of it, becoming a source of anxiety that challenges consensus ideologies of the Cold War era.
From the inception of the sound film, the female voice has been a particular source of anxiety in the cinema. During the transition to sound, “movie actors were revealed to possess a heretofore unnoticed flaw: they lacked both intelligence and the ability to speak proper English” (Crafton 449). When film studios established vocal training departments in order to “improve” the voices of their actors, women were especially targeted because their voices were thought to be inherently weaker (Crafton 453). Significantly, the growing importance of elocution in the film industry took place in the 1920s, the same decade that Anita Loos’s novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, on which the 1953 film is based, became a bestseller. The concurrence of these two events indicates that anxiety surrounding the female voice underlies the original story of Lorelei and her friend Dorothy. This is compounded by the fact that Loos was herself involved in the growing film industry as a screenwriter and film producer (Hammill 34). Loos was thus particularly attuned to the apprehensions inspired by women’s voices in film, which, arguably, translates into the novel’s most distinguishing characteristic – Lorelei’s “childlike” or “unrefined . . . middle-class patter” (Dolan 82-84). Moreover, Lorelei in Loos’s novel was also an aspiring screen actress. Like one of those early sound film actors, Lorelei reveals through her voice that she is lacking in both intelligence and the ability to speak English. The character of Lorelei, as originally conceived by Loos, directly speaks to the anxiety over women’s voice in film. When Lorelei speaks language taken from Loos’s novel in Hawks’s film, the disquieting nature of Lorelei’s voice is carried over into the postwar version of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In the process, the original anxiety housed in Lorelei’s voice becomes ascribed with new meanings particular to 1950s America.
To be sure, some things, like the indisputable incorrectness of Lorelei’s signature phrase – “A girl like I” – will always grate against the ear and cause discomfort to grammarians anywhere, anytime. In Loos’s novel, this expression, along with Lorelei’s “cute misspellings” and other speech idiosyncracies, is often understood as a means through which Loos satirizes the middle class of the 1920s, thereby exposing class anxieties and concerns over the status of art in the face of a rising mass culture, which of course included movies (Hammill 29). This is certainly still a preoccupation of Hawks’s film. It depicts two women – “kids from a small street” who do “very well on Wall Street” without ever “own[ing] a share of stock” – who succeed in breaking down class barriers. And Lorelei, who misuses French at various places in the film – at one point she wishes “a very pleasant au revoir” to Piggy and his wife – is still a striking example of the decline of culture, degrading the high culture of Europe by blending it with vulgar American English. During the postwar era, the status of high culture was still a cause for concern. In the 1950s, as cookie-cutter “ranch-style” houses sprung up all over the suburbs and became the ultimate and omnipresent symbol of postwar America, artists rebelled against these “aesthetic disasters” and the rise of American kitsch, seeking to save art from mass culture through more authentic avenues of expression (Clark 184). When Lorelei speaks in the film, she voices a tension between high and low culture initially associated with the emergent consumer society of the 1920s (Hegeman 533), which resurfaced in the “consumer paradise” of the 1950s (Susman 21). That these same anxieties over class and the status of art reemerge and still manage to resonate in Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes indicates a fundamental failure of domestic containment ideology. As Lorelei gives voice to these anxieties, she underscores how these are persistent problems that cannot be contained – the danger of mass culture embodied in Lorelei’s voice is an issue that cannot be blanketed over by the consensus image of affluence.
Conversely, Lorelei’s misuse of French might be understood as a means through which the film promotes a dominant foreign policy narrative of the time which depicted Europe in need of an American savior (Smith, “Global” 27). For Lorelei, French is not something that needs to be revered. Always decked in diamonds and butchering the French language, Lorelei expresses the postwar narrative that American wealth was of more consequence than European culture. Lorelei’s voice, however, exposes yet another contradiction – American wealth relied on Europe for continued growth, as United States markets greatly expanded into Europe during the postwar years (Smith, “Global” 29). When Lorelei’s fiancé breaks off their engagement, she and Dorothy revert to being showgirls in Paris, billed as “Les Chantuses Americaines.” As Lorelei and Dorothy sell their voices – and their bodies – in France, they become Americans who are sustained through European capital, effectively reversing the policy of containment that dictated the pouring of wealth into foreign countries in order to rebuild them and edify them against the existing threat of Soviet Communism.
Esmond eventually rescues Lorelei from her reliance on European capital, restoring the economic order promoted by United States foreign policy, but only after Lorelei can convince Esmond Sr. of her good intentions. “Don’t you know that a man being rich is like a girl being pretty?” Lorelei asks the elder Esmond. “You wouldn’t marry a girl just because she’s pretty, but my goodness, doesn’t it help?” Lorelei’s perfect logic belies her dumb blonde façade; through her voice, Lorelei raises the anxiety over intellectualism in postwar America. Lorelei, as she tells Esmond Sr., “can be smart when [she] need[s] to be.” With this ability to read people and situations and adapt to them accordingly, Lorelei for the most part manages to stay a step ahead of those around her, demonstrating not only savvy but also intelligence – she knows when and how best to use her intellect to her advantage. At times, Lorelei voices such superior intelligence that it goes unacknowledged. For instance, after she confronts Malone, the private investigator who has taken compromising photos of her, Lorelei quickly dismisses him, saying, “Pray, scat,” as she defiantly throws back her thumb and points him out the door. While this sounds ridiculous, and though Malone all but rolls his eyes at her for saying it, Lorelei’s usage of the archaic word “pray” is completely correct, as she uses it to “add ironic politeness to a…request” (“Pray”). Through this inconsequential phrase, Lorelei demonstrates a sophisticated facility with the English language. Taken with the ungrammatical, “A girl like I,” and her admission that she can be smart when she needs to be, it suggests that Lorelei has such an understanding of language that she is able to manipulate it in ways that no one else in the film can. The political climate of the postwar years discouraged nuances such as those exhibited in Lorelei’s speech. In Cold War discourse, political positions were reduced to “dualistic images” (Cuordileone 515) – for example, President Truman’s depiction of the Cold War as a battle between “totalitarian regimes” and “free peoples,” or later, President Ronald Reagan’s description of the Cold War as a fight between the good guys and the “evil empire” of Communism. The tendency to polarize images was motivated by an underlying current of anti-intellectualism in the postwar years (Hodges 427). Because of her nuanced speech, Lorelei discredits polarized categories encouraged by postwar discourse and advocates intellectualism that challenged the dominant paradigm of the time.
While Lorelei’s ability to manipulate her voice helps her get whatever she wants, ranging from men to diamond tiaras, it would be foolish to discount her sexuality, emphasized in Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes through the “big, buxom, [and] glittery” (Hegeman 547) figure of Marilyn Monroe, who plays Lorelei in the film. Like other 1950s bombshells, Monroe represented “the destructive power of female sexuality” (May, “Explosive” 165). However, as Susan Hegeman notes of women’s sexuality in the film, it is “a literally visible, and therefore relatively containable, problem” (548). Whereas Lorelei’s “visible” sexuality can be contained and domesticated, her voice remains unrestrained. Her voice is so uncontainable, in fact, that at times it becomes disembodied from her and placed into a foreign body. Since, as film theorist Mary Anne Doane has noted, the separation of a voice from its bodily source is always an “uncanny” and disquieting experience (166-67), it is when Lorelei’s voice strays the furthest from her body that anxieties become most apparent in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. After trying and failing to find the incriminating roll of film in Malone’s room, Lorelei finds herself locked in and must resort to leaving the room through a porthole. The young Henry Spoffard III finds her stuck in this awkward position, and though he is at first reluctant to help her, he gives in because she has “a lot of animal magnetism.” Meanwhile, Piggy wanders out on deck, threatening to catch Lorelei in the act of her crime. To help Lorelei avoid detection, Spoffard throws her a blanket, instructing her to hold it around her neck, as he quickly hides underneath it. He thus stands in place for Lorelei’s bottom half; when Piggy approaches Lorelei, she merely appears to be sitting on a rail in order to get a better view of the ocean. Observing that Lorelei looks “a bit flushed,” Piggy insists on feeling her pulse. As she refuses, saying “Oh, no, please don’t,” Spoffard sticks his hand out from under the blanket and gives it to Piggy, who assumes that he is holding Lorelei’s hand. In this instance, her voice is literally disconnected from her body, which does one thing while her voice contradicts it. Spoffard has made it clear that he is attracted to Lorelei, a woman who is many years his senior. When her body becomes conflated with his underneath the blanket, the film hints at an inappropriate relationship between Lorelei and the young boy.
As the scene continues, Piggy kisses Lorelei’s “hand,” which causes Spoffard to order him to “Stop that” from his hiding place under the blanket. “Lorelei’s” voice originates from Spoffard, from a point completely outside of her real body. Though, in a later scene of the film, she will allow Piggy to kiss her hand without a thought, here, through Spoffard, she refuses Piggy’s advances. Lorelei’s relationship with Beekman, the scene implies, is not what threatens the sexual order in the film – Lorelei’s engagement remains intact when she rebuffs Piggy. Instead, Lorelei’s relationship with Spoffard is the cause for alarm. When Lorelei is finally freed from the porthole, she tells Dorothy that she is “bruised” because “Mr. Spoffard pulled [her] too hard.” In response, the latter raises an eyebrow, giving lie to the innuendo. The intimation of an inappropriate relationship between Lorelei and a young boy evokes Cold War fears of perverse sexuality (May 91). In this scene, her body merges with Spoffard’s; because her voice cannot be contained, Lorelei is exposed as a sexual deviant who disturbs consensus-approved notions of sexuality. Not only is she a temptation to married men like Piggy, but, more disturbingly, also to young boys like Spoffard. More generally, Lorelei’s perverse sexuality, which is made apparent only through her voice, is a threat to national security, and it makes the nation vulnerable to Communist subversion.
At the climax of the film, Lorelei’s voice once again becomes disconnected from her body – this time threatening democracy itself. Accused of stealing Lady Beekman’s diamond tiara, the female protagonist has been ordered to court. To stall while Lorelei tries to extract the cost of a diamond tiara from Esmond, Dorothy goes to the courthouse wearing a blonde wig, furs, and diamonds and proceeds to impersonate Lorelei, making sure to utter her signature phrase, “A girl like I,” along with other witticisms that sound like they have been taken straight from her mouth. This scene demonstrates the extent to which Lorelei’s voice is uncontainable. As the distinctive voice enters the courtroom through Dorothy, Lorelei’s body is somewhere different, completely outside of the frame. And when it is so far removed from its body, it poses the greatest danger. In the courtroom, as the female protagonist’s voice speaks through Dorothy, the judicial system becomes a farce. The impersonator dances around in a burlesque and distracts the members of the court by doing a reprise of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” which Lorelei has just performed in a previous scene. When the tiara is retrieved, and the name of the accused is cleared, the implication is that order has been restored by Dorothy’s shimmying and Lorelei’s song. Though this scene takes place in a French court and not an American one, it nonetheless undercuts the idea of a democracy championed by the United States. While not a totalitarian operation by any means, the lack of propriety and order in the courtroom makes a mockery of the judicial branch of a democratic society, which is supposed to ensure equal justice under law. Without a proper judicial system, totalitarianism becomes a looming threat. Lorelei’s voice, aided by Dorothy’s body, disturbs the very foundations of a democratic system, and makes it susceptible to Communist takeover and helps enable the “domino effect” that containment was supposed to prevent.
Though the film ostensibly contains both Lorelei and Dorothy in the final double wedding scene of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the female voice – Lorelei’s in particular – cannot be repressed, not even by a white nuptial gown. As the two friends walk down the aisle, they sing a reprise of their opening number. This is not a surrender of voice in the accepted realm of marriage; rather, since the women alter their words to fit the occasion but sing to their original tune, they maintain control over their voices. Ultimately, through their voices, Dorothy and Lorelei not only resist containment, but also challenge domestic versions of containment in the process. Indeed, during the ceremony, the brides do not stare lovingly into the eyes of their respective grooms, but instead smile at each other (Arbuthnot and Seneca 83). Lorelei and Dorothy win their princes and transform into Cinderellas, all the while resisting containment. They are capitalist dreams who give rise to Communist nightmares.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is a film that participates in the national project of depicting the superiority of American democracy and capitalism over the system of Soviet Communism. While Hollywood musicals are often derided for their departures from cinematic realism, written off because of the genre’s “realistically impossible conventions,” and disregarded as “escapist” spectacles (Cohan 2-3), the fact remains that they are important historical artifacts. In fact, as a genre, the film musical is emblematic of postwar thought in many ways. Often scrubbed of markers of racial and ethnic difference (Cohan 15), for instance, film musicals supported consensus imagery of the affluent, white, suburban-dwelling family. Moreover, just as American thought sought to preserve the Cold War family by championing heterosexuality through the castigation and repression of “perverse” sexualities, the film musical, as Rick Altman has observed,“seems to suggest that the natural state of the adult human being is in the arms of an adult human being of the opposite sex” (32). In addition, in the same way that postwar domestic ideology placed a premium on an idealized image of femininity (May, “Explosive” 166), film musicals “fetishiz[ed]” female bodies (Cohan 15). And, as “expensive” productions (Cohan 3) characterized by excess, film musicals exemplified postwar American capitalism at its finest.
Thus, as “commercial product[s] designed to appeal to a mass audience,” film musicals “clearly reproduced the values of the mainstream culture [they] addresse[d]” (Cohan 14-15). Film musicals like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes are intimately interwoven with the preoccupations of the American society that produced and consumed them. Since the film musical genre dominated screens throughout the 1950s, studio-era film musicals are rich sources of information that can provide insight into the ideas that dominated the American mindset in the postwar years. They are “peculiarly American concept[s]” (Barrios 3) that deserve much closer scrutiny than they are afforded; as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes exemplifies, film musicals managed to capture authentic anxiety and illuminate the ways in which national policy trickled down into the life of average Americans – and all in spite of the musical’s propensity for narrative improbabilities.
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Hodges, Donald Clark. “Anti-Intellectualism in a Society of Eggheads.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology 25.4 (1966): 427-37. JSTOR. Web. 10 December 2009.
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University of Łódź
Monstrous Mother, Monstrous Body: On David Cronenberg’s The Brood
1970s is a decade that witnessed a dramatic development in horror as a cinematic genre. New subtypes of horror flourished, ranging from Satanic thrillers such as William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) or Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) to slasher movies, with John Carpenter’s oeuvre in the foreground (1978’s Halloween, 1980’s The Fog). Amid these, a particularly intriguing genre appeared. The so-called family horror turned out quite revolutionary as it thoroughly deconstructed the image of a family, pulverizing any of its positive connotations. It rejected a traditional portrayal of family as an immaculate foundation of society, focusing instead on all the atrocities that could occur within it or on heinous crimes committed by its members. Tobe Hooper’s cult Texas Chainsaw Massacre series (1974 onwards) or the infamous The Hills Have Eyes (1977) by Wes Craven both “dr[e]w their terror from the frenetic primal violence of the ‘uncivilised’” (Rockoff 48-49), simultaneously popularizing a model of a dysfunctional family as a collective murderer in the horror genre.
The role of serial killers in this subtype of horror was ascribed both to adults and children (or even toddlers, as in, e.g., It’s Alive series, started in 1974). Unsurprisingly, the genre shocked not only with gruesome violence, but also with a distracting contrast between relentless sadism and perversely manifested kin affection. What could have outraged the most was the intentional (mis)representation of a mother figure. David Cronenberg’s seminal movie, The Brood (1979), seems to constitute an interesting and adequate comment on the popularity of family horror, being more than just a repository of bloody images created for mere shock value. It plays with a particular cinematic genre per se, and it interacts with a widely understood cultural background. The Brood’s depiction of an evil mother character can be successfully juxtaposed with the radical feminists’ take on family and motherhood, the notions discussed extensively in the 1970s. It is especially worthwhile to confront the movie with The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for the Feminist Revolution, a milestone text by Canadian-Jewish feminist author Shulamith Firestone, and with Julia Kristeva’s theory of abject body of a female/mother, appropriated for cinematic analysis by Barbara Creed. The Brood rather equivocally intersects with Firestone’s and Kristeva’s ideas, hence, the aim of this article is to try to investigate these intersections. It will be of interest to find whether Cronenberg, voluntarily or not, criticizes radical feminists’ approach towards motherhood, and to investigate whose fears or desires the film embodies. The author will also take a closer look at the corporeal aspect of the movie.
Cronenberg, a Canadian-born filmmaker, gained fame for his body horrors, disclosing a keen interest in the “interminable transformations [of the body] – its decay, its mutation, its potential for possession and inhabitation by other life forms” (L.R. Williams 33). Shivers (1975) and Rabid (1977) are the prime examples of the early phase of his uncanny fascination. Yet it was his next movie, The Brood, that went beyond the exploration of generic clichés and, besides exposing the bodily deformations, offered an interesting outlook on motherhood as such. Its distinctness came also “from the filmmaker’s own testimony: Cronenberg has volunteered that it is a version of the traumatic experience of divorce from his first wife and anxieties over the custody of his daughter Cassandra” (Beard 71). In one of the interviews, he also jokingly emphasized that The Brood is his rendition of Kramer vs. Kramer, at that time a very popular melodrama (1979, dir. Robert Benton) and a movie that also portrayed a divorce and a parental conflict, but in a more conventional way (Beard 91). Such a personal background at least partially explains the director’s hostility towards the female protagonist, Nola Carveth, who acquires the traits of a monster, literally and symbolically.
Nola is a patient of the Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics, a medical research institution managed by Dr. Hal Raglan. There she undergoes an innovative therapy where frustrations and apprehensions gain a tangible shape of skin growths. Her insecurity stems from the unhappy childhood, inextricably linked with an abusive mother, a tacit indifferent father, as well as a turbulent marriage with Frank and their subsequent divorce. Nola unfortunately repeats the family pattern and starts to beat her daughter. As a result, the woman is locked in a mental institution. Nola believes that Raglan’s therapy will stabilize her outbursts of rage and help her regain full custody over her daughter. However, her aggression engenders much more than skin changes. During regular fits of passion, she gives birth to the eponymous brood of sexless children who savagely murder her enemies. The brood eliminates her parents and Candy’s school teacher, whom Nola believes to be her ex-husband’s current mistress. A sequence of consecutive episodes gradually proves the monstrosity of Nola as a wife, mother, and, finally, a woman and a human being. In the shocking climax, Nola reveals her monstrosity in full effect. Following an argument with her estranged husband, she lifts her robe and shows Frank a blood-covered sac hanging loosely from her abdomen. To Frank’s disgust, Nola tears it open with her teeth and licks the blood off another of her sexless babies, a new product of her emotional imbalance. According to Linda S. Kauffman, this is when Nola “literally embodies the intimacy of terror” (125). This particular scene clearly situates Nola in the position of the monstrous Other. To make matters worse, it appears that she exerts a toxic influence on her daughter as Candy also reacts to stress with skin changes.
As mentioned before, Nola’s monstrosity stems from several key factors that continually overlap. First of all, she is a powerful, but emotionally unstable woman. The movie continually hints that her imbalance results from a strained mother-daughter relationship, giving a somewhat misogynous impression. Candy’s specifically manifested susceptibility to stress only enhances this effect. As Barbara Creed observes, the movie “suggests that this rage is passed down through the female generation as if it were some kind of inherited disease” (46). It appears that being a bad mother or being a monstrous female runs in the family. But Nola acquires the qualities of a monster not only because she is a bad mother (“a fucked up mommy,” as she refers to herself), but simply because she is a mother and stands for all the transformations the female body has to undergo during pregnancy.
The way Cronenberg faces the female body and childbirth suggestively intertwines with the dramatic shift in feminism in the 1970s. The second wave of feminism, which already started in the 1940s, step by step covered more topics and introduced more radical solutions to problems women had. In 1949 Simone de Beauvoir published her seminal The Second Sex, where she stated that woman was the Other in relation to a man. Her existentialism-inspired work influenced other female activists and writers, among them Betty Friedan, the author of The Feminine Mystique (1963), an apt analysis of uncomfortable female condition in the USA of the 1950s. 1960s witnessed a passing of Equal Pay Act (1963), bridging the pay gap between men and women, or Civil Rights Act (1964), penalizing discrimination based on gender. The second wave gradually grew in power and turned towards radicalism, which resulted in the publication of groundbreaking manifestos such as SCUM (1967) or The Redstockings (1969), and the emergence of many radical feminist organizations (e.g., New York Radical Feminists). Women demanded the right to voice out their fear of and dissatisfaction with their situatedness within the patriarchal milieu. They criticized the conventional power distribution between the sexes and, eventually, “attacked” the sacred institutions of marriage and motherhood. In 1970 Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for the Feminist Revolution entered the market and caused much controversy. Firestone, a prominent figure of libertarian feminism, supports the eradication of reproduction and family in its entirety, promoting the use of artificial womb as a liberation for female bodies. In a chapter entitled “Feminism and Ecology,” Firestone notes: “the biological family unit has always oppressed women and children, but now, for the first time in history, technology has created real preconditions for overthrowing these oppressive ‘natural’ conditions, along with their cultural reinforcements” (192-93), naming controlled reproduction and cybernation the solutions to rape on the female body, i.e., pregnancy and childbirth. Firestone claims that “pregnancy is [a] barbaric . . . temporary deformation of the body of the individual for the sake of the species” (198). What is more, “childbirth hurts,” which is illustrated by a graphic and very direct comparison to “shitting a pumpkin” (198-99). Such an approach to motherhood, drastically differing from the perennially celebrated image of a mother, must have evoked criticism. One of the symptoms of backlash against radical tendencies within women’s movements could have been observed in cinematography. There appeared several movies that featured powerful, independent mother characters as antagonists (e.g., 1976’s Carrie by Brian de Palma or the already mentioned Kramer vs. Kramer), thus indirectly lessening the impact of the women’s lib. Such seems The Brood as it
deals with feminist-inspired hostility, especially that of women toward the physical reality of childbirth and the demands of childrearing. The Brood argues implicitly for the nonpropagation of the species by showing violent children – born from a sac outside the mother’s body – who come to embody all the tensions and hostilities reposited in the nuclear family. (Derry 331)
Therefore, Cronenberg’s production may be considered an unveiled attack on feminist radicalism, with Nola being Otherized on many levels at the same time. She is monstrous as she is the mother and embodies the male fear of a changing female body, a body that becomes no longer fully controllable and malleable. But she is also a bad mother, mistreating her daughter and regularly spawning the brood. Moreover, her monstrosity is rooted in her lack of need for male assistance in the process of conception; a perennial male role is thus effaced, which naturally causes the feeling of discomfort in men. Nola’s giving birth to children parthenogenetically stands for a symbolic castration. The man is somehow castrated with the very thought of his exclusion from the act of conception. Already in The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir had noticed that “no one is more arrogant toward women, more aggressive or scornful, than the man who is anxious about his virility” (15). The portrayal of Nola as the powerful castrating avenger brings to mind the notion of vagina dentata, a Freudian concept related to male castration anxiety. As Barbara Creed argues, an image of female genitals with a set of teeth parallels the fear of annihilation and being swallowed up (109). Hence, Nola becomes a symbolic object herself.
Such a depiction of a woman is not a novelty in Cronenberg’s movies, for the director relishes a specific representation of his female protagonists. His early works openly reveal “obsessionally neurotic treatments of sexuality, violence, and repression” (Shaw 119). In Shivers, an excrement-shaped insect infects people regardless of their sex and transforms them into sex-crazed zombies, yet many scenes specifically explore the process of a woman-to-monster mutation. One of the most evocative and unambiguous scenes portrays a young naked woman in a bathtub, who is infected by a phallic insect entering her vagina. Rabid explores a similar motif. This time a young girl spreads the disease using a phallic sting concealed under her armpit. Therefore, a woman who acquires a male element not only disturbs the balance between the sexes, but also contributes to the sense of unrest. In a similar vein, The Brood graphically portrays corporeal mutations of a female, with the final scene epitomizing Cronenbergian morbidity and commenting on subconscious masculine desires to save the patriarchal model of the society. Nola becomes too male-independent or too masculine-empowered, thus, as a paragon of the threatening Other, she has to die. Frank strangles her and restores the “proper” gender order. A female intransigence is sufficient to put a woman in the category of the Other.
Nola is indeed Otherized and, so to speak, “abjectified,” for abjection is “immoral, sinister, scheming, and shady; a terror that dissembles, a hatred that smiles, a passion that used the body for barter instead of inflaming it, a debtor who sells you up, a friend who stabs you” (Kristeva 13). She is abject as she “is bound to the messy world of menstruation, childbirth, lactation, breast-feeding” (Kauffman 125). Her abjection stems from her motherhood, from the quality of her children, from the physical transformations she undergoes. In the final scene Nola, having noticed Frank’s disgust at her malformed body, shouts: “I disgust you! You hate me!” What strengthens this disgust is her animal-like behaviour. The ultimate scene of Nola’s delivery of the brood situates her in the role of the wild, untamed, and natural. According to David J. Hogan, “Nola is a splendid savage animal – her pride in her accomplishment [i.e., giving birth to the brood] is readily apparent” (278). A recurrent link between women and nature is thus established, with men/culture correspondence as its opposite. Moreover, Nola, being Dr. Raglan’s most important patient, acquires a nickname “Queen Bee,” given to her by Raglan’s male patients, envious of her status in the clinic. Robert Rawdon Wilson perfectly sums up her role in the movie:
The woman who breeds half-formed monsters from an egg-like bag, growing like a genital appendage, a bloody and bleeding ovisac, clearly recalls Medusa and other female monsters whose deformed and horrifying genitals . . . frighten male characters. Nola functions as both a monstrous womb and as a castrating mother. She is only one more, though complexly overdetermined, female figure from the male imagination, at once dangerous and a premonition of a dreaded destiny, that swarms through the history of horror literature. (226)
As such, Nola fulfills the conditions to be termed the “monstrous-feminine,” her monstrosity being equally connected with the horror of her body and her animality. Even though her corporeity shuns any mechanical manipulation, it does remind one of Firestone’s concept of the liberated female body/womb and, furthermore, cyberbodies, discussed by e.g., Donna Haraway. Nola’s disruptive cyberbody “allows normative gender identity to be reinscribed” (Wolmark 228). Having disposed of male participation in conceiving the brood, Nola becomes a transitional being, partially an animal, partially a human, partially a cyborg. Having an ability to be at the same time a mother and a father of her children, she frees her body from, as Firestone would put it, “the tyranny of biology” (193). However, such a subversive, “unnatural,” spiteful and men-endangering creature, a Medusa and a symbolic castratrix has to be eliminated. Therefore her death can be viewed in terms of “positive benefits” (Wilson 226) – being an embodiment of so many male frustrations she is somehow destined to perish in the end.
What is The Brood then? A criticism of new womanhood in general or rather a criticism of a traditional model of a nuclear family? An acquiescence to or rather a complete disavowal of Firestone’s ideas? Cronenbergian vision definitely complements Firestone’s as both portray the departure from the classically perceived idea of childbirth. But one may claim that, in general, the director presents quite a misogynic image of a female, her body being filthy and abject, and the idea of man-free conception a dangerous aberration. Undoubtedly, both Cronenberg and Firestone approach the female body as a territory of conflict. Barbara Creed states that in The Brood there exists a clash of desires, so the eponymous children, if treated as a natural continuation of Nola, are in fact the tangible manifestations of not only her anger and frustration, but also her desires. “First, the desire – conscious or otherwise – for woman to give birth without the agency of the male; and second, woman’s desire to express her desires, specifically her anger” (Creed 46). The final confrontation of the spouses reveals Frank’s fear of new Nola. She asks “Are you ready for me, Frank?” to which he shudders, proving he is unprepared to accept her new face and, on a more symbolic level, the face of a new woman of the 1970s – independent, powerful and subversive. Therefore, such an unsympathetic depiction of Nola, viewed through the prism of radical feminist background, makes the movie an indirect criticism of second-wave and libertarian feminism, even though Cronenberg rejected such an interpretation: “[t]he misogyny attack annoys me, but no more than any militant prepackaged approach annoys me. It’s very distorting. I don’t like people who have a rigid construct of beliefs and ideas” (Gale 1). Additionally, in all three of his early movies, i.e., Shivers, Rabid and The Brood, these are the male scientists to commence experiments with the female body, turning it into the epitome of horror and abjection. Therefore, contrary to Cronenberg’s attempts at self-defence, it poses much difficulty not to consider his production an attack on a certain model of femininity.
Badley, Linda. Film, Horror, and the Body Fantastic. Greenwood: Greenwood P, 1995. Print.
Beard, William. The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg. London: U of Toronto P, 2006. Print.
Beauvoir, Simone de. “The Second Sex.” Feminism in Our Time: the Essential Writings, World War II to Present. Ed. Miriam Schneir. New York: Vintage, 1994. 3-20. Print.
The Brood. Dir. David Cronenberg. Perf. Samantha Eggar, Oliver Reed, Art Hindle. CFDC, 1979. DVD. Anchor Bay, 2005.
Chaudhuri, Shohini. Feminist Film Theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Creed. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.
Collings, Michael R. The Films of Stephen King. Rockville: Wildside Press, 2006. Print.
Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1993. Print.
Derry, Charles. Dark Dreams 2.0: A Psychological History of the Modern Horror Film from the 1950s to the 21st Century. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2009. Print.
Firestone, Shulamith. The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for the Feminist Revolution. New York: Bantam, 1972. Print.
Gale, David. “David Cronenberg &Naked Lunch.” The Sunday Times, November 1991. Web. 10 Oct. 2012.
Hogan, David J. Dark Romance: Sexuality in the Horror Film. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1986. Print.
Kauffman, Linda S. Bad Girls and Sick Boys: Fantasies in Contemporary Art and Culture. Berkeley: U of California P, 1998. Print.
Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1982. Print.
Rockoff, Adam. Going to Pieces: the Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film, 1978-1986. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2002. Print.
Shaw, Daniel. “Psychological Determinism in the Films of David Cronenberg.” The Philosophy of David Cronenberg. Ed. Simon Riches. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 2012. 113-25. Print.
Williams, Linda Ruth. „The Inside-out of Masculinity: David Cronenberg’s Visceral Pleasures.” The Body’s Perilous Pleasures: Dangerous Desires and Contemporary Culture. Ed. Michele Aaron. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1999. 30-49. Print.
Williams, Tony. “Trying to Survive on the Darker Side: 1980s Family Horror.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: U of Texas P, 2008. 164-81. Print.
Wilson, Robert Rawdon. The Hydra’s Tale: Imagining Disgust. Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 2002. Print.
Wolmark, Jenny. “Cyberculture.” A Concise Companion to Feminist Theory. Ed. Mary Eagleton. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. 215-36. Print.
Maria Curie-Skłodowska University
The Ageing Body and Mind in Margaret Atwood’s Short Stories: “The Labrador Fiasco” and “The Bad News”
“The Labrador Fiasco”and “The Bad News”are short stories from Margaret Atwood’s latest collection titled Moral Disorder. The book was published in 2006 and it is devoted to the life of one woman, presented through interrelated events from different periods of time. The book gives detailed insight into various stages in her life, emotions and anxieties connected with them. Moral Disorder is considered by many critics the most autobiographical work in Atwood’s literary career. It seems that the author, slipping into old age, is becoming much more interested in themes connected with ageing. As Heidi Macpherson states in her book, “the component parts of Moral Disorder offer a clear link, as well as semiautobiographical narrative tracing house moves, ghostly visitors, photograph albums, ageing parents and ageing bodies” (101). This essay will examine how Margaret Atwood perceives ageing in this collection of stories and how she portrays its impact on human corporeality and mentality.
The first of the stories, “The Labrador Fiasco,” is a young woman’s report of her father’s life after a stroke. He used to be an adventurous traveller and canoeist. Now he is disabled physically and his only joy is listening to Dillon Wallace The Lure of the Labrador Wild, read to him, over and over, by his wife. As he follows the story of a failed expedition to Northern Labrador, he becomes weaker with every successive failure of the explorers. Their eventual failure and death coincides with another stroke he suffers, which renders him completely lost and oblivious of the surrounding world. Nell, the daughter who narrates the story, although concerned with the father’s deteriorating condition, is still a young adult, for whom the problems of old age seem quite distant and they do not dominate her life. Even so, she offers a very sorrowful and moving vision of ageing.
“The Labrador Fiasco”is a story about lost hopes and the inescapability of fate, shown through the parallel Atwood establishes between the father and the explorers in The Lure of the Labrador Wild. The father knows the story perfectly well, but each time he hears it, he finds pleasure in assuring himself about his own abilities of coping with a similar environment and in similar circumstances. He prepares lists of supplies that the explorers should have taken and reacts lively to the mistakes they made in the wilds.
My father says, “They took the wrong supplies.” This pleases him: he himself would not have taken the wrong supplies. In fact he would never have gone on this ill-advised journey in the first place, or – although he was once more reckless, more impetuous, more sure of his ability to confront fate and transcend danger – this is his opinion now. “Darn fools,” he says, grinning away. (“The Labrador…” 190)
There is only one character, whom the father considers reasonable. George, a Cree Indian is for a long time a source of hope for the travellers and their expedition. Still, as the reader soon realizes, there is nothing that could change their fate.
As is later revealed in “The Labrador Fiasco,”the father gradually becomes weaker and more apathetic. He spends more and more time sleeping and he does not want to exercise as “he doesn’t see the point of walking just to walk . . . If you’re not going anywhere” (“The Labrador…”105). As the explorers commit further errors and become less and less likely to succeed, the father loses appetite and interest in any activity. When the explorers’ fate becomes sealed, the man’s physical and mental state deteriorates; all hope for recovery becomes groundless. As Macpherson asserts, “They [the explorers] are destined to fail – they take the wrong equipment and do not listen to (or understand) the advice they are given” (103). The story of the adventurers serves as Atwood’s metaphor for the father’s fate. Similarly to the explorers, he bases his hope on illusions and, like them, is doomed; they will die of cold and starvation, he will yield to the progressing illness. When the father realizes that there is no rescue for the explorers, he becomes disillusioned with his own future. Finally, he is afflicted with the inevitability of his fate, with no hopes for recovery.
Ageing in Atwood’s story is presented as dominated by painful monotony. The father’s life is considerably limited by his disability. When the narrator visits her parents at the beginning of the story, she describes her father in the following way: “My father is sitting in his armchair by the fire. He has on his black-and-white checked dressing gown, over his other clothes, and his old leather slippers, with his feet propped up on a hassock. Therefore it must be evening” (“The Labrador…”189). His situation gets even more tragic after the second stroke. His condition declines dramatically: “This time [the stroke] knocks out half the vision in each eye and his short-term memory, and his sense of where he is” (“The Labrador…”201). The father’s illness progresses and takes control over his life. As Heather Gardiner states in The Portrayal of Old Age in English-Canadian Fiction, “The physical deterioration that accompanies old age often makes it difficult to move at all and the image of the house of the ageing body as a form of confinement is common in the literature of old age” (27). In “The Labrador Fiasco,”the father’s body, stricken with disease, becomes a form of captivity, that deprives him of strength and dignity. Apart from being constrained physically, he becomes trapped in his deteriorating mind. The father is no longer able to experience anything new, and he can only re-experience the explorers’ story and his own memories of the past, over and over again. Finally, the second stroke deprives him even of this last privilege and he stops experiencing the outside world altogether.
Another aspect of experiencing old age presented by Atwood is the desire to escape the constraints of ageing. As Gardiner explains, “many of these old protagonists displace their restlessness into a journey away from the body and into the mind . . . the journey into memory is selective and makes use of the imagination to find some meaning and order at the end of a long life” (63). The father’s behaviour illustrates this statement. The man is occupied with planning and analyzing the trip of the two explorers of Labrador. He has quite an emotional attitude to the book which helps him recall his own past experience:
“[Labrador]’s a rough country,” says my father. “No moose. Not even bears. That’s always a bad sign, no bears.” He speaks of it with admiration and nostalgia, and a kind of ruefulness. “Now of course you can fly in. You can cover their whole route in a couple of hours.” He waves his fingers dismissively: so much for planes. (“The Labrador…”197)
Following the explorers’ journey is supposed to serve as a kind of therapy for ageing body and mind. However, as it turns out, it has the opposite outcome – the father gets so involved in the plot of the book, as well as in his own memories, that he begins to see his situation as depressing and hopeless. The explorers’ failure becomes his own personal tragedy.
“The Labrador Fiasco”is, to a large extent, a story about one’s helplessness in the face of misfortune. It also deals with the theme of regret and disappointment with life and other people. The second stroke impairs the father’s mind. Despite the fact that he does not understand what is happening around him, he continues to express the feeling of having been let down by his daughter. He tells her:
“You seem to have become very old all of a sudden,” . . . As far as we can tell he’s missing the last four or five years, and several blocks of time before that as well. He’s disappointed in me: not because of anything I’ve done, but because of what I’ve failed to do. I’ve failed to remain young. If I could have managed that I could have saved him; then he too could have remained as he was. (“The Labrador…”201)
The truth that nothing can be done to reverse the process of ageing is disturbing for the narrator, who feels vaguely guilty but is, at the same time, awareof her inability to change anything. The reader of the story is left with the same sense of discomfort and resignation.
Finally, Atwood’s short story shows the unbearable loneliness which characterizes every kind of suffering, especially the suffering brought about by old age. Although taken good care of by his wife and daughter, the father loses touch with the external world after the second stroke. He thinks he is in a forest, feels lost and scared. The narrator unsuccessfully tries to soothe his fears. The last lines of the story summarize the state the father experiences, that of complete disorientation and confusion:
“there is not enough wood.” He’s anxious about this; he says it every day. His feet are cold he says. “We can get more wood,” I say. “We can cut it.” He’s not so sure. “I never thought this would happen,” he says. He doesn’t mean the stroke, because he doesn’t know he’s had one. He means getting lost. (“The Labrador…”203)
Communication between the narrator and her father breaks down. There are no words that could calm the man down and make him feel safer. Here Atwood seems to be much more pessimistic than Gardiner who claims that “Old age is often synonymous with the acquirement of wisdom” (93). In “The Labrador Fiasco” such wisdom does not seem to come, as senility imposes its own rules on the mind.
The other story, “The Bad News,”opens the entire collection, but takes place several years after “The Labrador Fiasco.” The narrator is now an elderly woman and her perspective has considerably evolved. The story describes the morning ritual she goes through together with her husband, Tig. Both retired now, they begin every day with sharing bad news reported in local newspapers. The couple always tries to get through the news. This is their way of preparing for the news that is certain to come one day, namely the death of one of them. However, their strategy proves to be ineffective.
“The Bad News” shows how the perspective changes when one has to face one’s own ageing. In “The Labrador Fiasco”the narrator is obviously moved by her father’s fate but does not yet think about ageing in the context of her own life. As it turns out, getting old is equally painful for her despite her physical health. The narrator did not expect that this stage of life would be so difficult for her. She recalls having joked about old age: “I can remember when I used to tease our daughter, back then, when she was an adolescent. I’d do it by pretending to be old. I’d bump into walls, drop cutlery, fake memory loss. Then we’d both laugh. It’s no longer such a joke” (“The Bad News”4). Now the narrator is no longer able to treat her advancing age with humor. She is also full of apprehension about her future: “this has become my picture of my future self: wandering the house in the darkness, in my white nightdress, howling for what I can’t quite remember I’ve lost. It’s unbearable” (“The Bad News”5). The narration in the story is much more emotional and dramatic than in “The Labrador Fiasco.” It captures the personal experience of confronting the passage of time rather than merely being a witness of someone else’s suffering.
The dominant issue in the story is the fear of losing the beloved one. What is most depressing for the narrator is that she knows death is certain to come one day, and getting old means waiting for this moment. Both the narrator and her husband live with the terror of this fact. However, they do not want to express their anxiety openly: “ ‘We’re lucky,’ says [the husband]. I know what he means. He means the two of us, sitting here in the kitchen, still. Neither of us gone. Not yet” (“The Bad News”7). The thought that Tig might die accompanies the narrator constantly, but even when each morning she finds him alive again, she remains aware that this tragedy can happen at any time: “I wake up in the night and reach out to make sure Tig is still there, still breathing. So far, so good” (“The Bad News”5). The habit of reading bad news every morning is supposed to work as a remedy for such fear, but also as a kind of preparation. The narrator of “The Bad News”explains the issue of “getting through” the news. According to her, people often claim to have got through something they do not even fully understand: “we got through it. That’s what people say, about things that happened before they were born, or while they were still thumb-sucking. I love this formulation: We got through it – that’s bracing. It means dick shit when it’s about any event you personally weren’t there for” (“The Bad News”3). There is no way to prepare for a personal tragedy as we never get close enough to experiencing it until it really happens to us. That is why even the worst news will not make the couple ready for death.
What links the two stories discussed here, is the absence of any prospects for the future and the absence of hope. Ellen McWilliams points out in Margaret Atwood and the Female Bildungsroman that “Nell fears the indignities of age and is acutely aware of the trap of the present and the relative uncertainty of the future tense” (128). Similarly to the father from “The Labrador Fiasco,”she is circumscribed by her age, however in a psychological, not physical, sense. She reflects that “These are the tenses that define us now: past tense, back then, future tense, not yet. We live in the small window between them, the space we’ve only recently come to think of as still, and really it’s no smaller than anyone else’s window” (“The Bad News”4). The narrator is aware that there is no way out of getting older and older. Yet, she tries to make a mental escape to an imaginary world. She imagines herself living in ancient Rome. In this fragment, Tig brings bad news about the approaching barbarians who are preparing an attack on the empire. However, the ending in this story is different from the ending of the explorers’ trip. Although the attack is certain to happen, Nell and Tig, the inhabitants of the imaginary ancient Rome, find a temporary peace of mind:
“We’ll get through it,” I say. Tig says nothing. It’s such a beautiful day. The air smells of thyme, the fruit trees are in flower. But this means nothing to the barbarians; in fact they prefer to invade on beautiful days . . . Still, they’re very far away . . . They won’t get here for a long time. Not in our lifetime, perhaps. Glanum is in no danger, not yet. (“The Bad News”9)
The father in “The Labrador Fiasco”collapses when he is faced with the failure of Hubbard and Wallace. Nell and Tig, on the other hand, are conscious that every day brings them closer to the disaster of death but decide to appreciate what they yet have. In this sense, “The Bad News”ends on a faintly more optimistic note.
Both in “The Bad News”and in “The Labrador Fiasco”ageing is associated with physical infirmity. Nell is now in a good physical condition, but she sees health deterioration as something inevitable. She recalls her ill cat and predicts that a similar fate is awaiting her – “Poor Drumlin used to prowl the house at night, yowling in an unearthly fashion. Nothing gave her solace: she was looking for something she’d lost, though she didn’t know what it was . . . This has become my picture of my future self” (“The Bad News”5). Such descriptions of the ruined body are combined with the reports of deteriorating mind which, apparently cannot withstand the burden of old age. Perhaps, Nell’s fear stems from the reminiscence of her father’s illness, which she now understands in a new, more personal way.
Margaret Atwood’s short stories offer a detailed insight into the process of ageing. Although narrated from different perspectives, both “The Labrador Fiasco” and “The Bad News” present ageing as a period dominated by fear and suffering. The characters in the stories share similar problems and limitations, which they cannot overcome. Therefore, ageing becomes a burden, depriving them of strength and dignity. Atwood does not leave the reader with much hope, but rather underlines the fact that getting old is inevitable, however distant it may seem.
Atwood, Margaret. “The Bad News.” Moral Disorder. New York: Anchor, 2006. 1-9. Print.
Atwood, Margaret. “The Labrador Fiasco.” Moral Disorder. New York: Anchor, 2006. 189-203. Print.
Gardiner, Heather. The Portrayal of Old Age in English-Canadian Fiction. Toronto: National Library of Canada, 1997. Print.
Macpherson, Heidi Slettedahl. The Cambridge Introduction to Margaret Atwood. New York: Cambridge P, 2010. Print.
McWilliams, Ellen. Margaret Atwood and the Female Bildungsroman. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009. Print.
Maria Curie-Skłodowska University
“Nature Never Deceives Us; It Is Always We Who Deceive Ourselves.” Sexuality, Nature and Culture in Alice Munro’s “Vandals.”
Alice Munro has made the following remark about her literary method:
I don’t take up a story and follow it as if it were a road, taking me somewhere, with views and neat divisions along the way. I go into it, and move back and forth and settle here and there, stay in it for a while (qtd. in Foy 152)
The stories in her critically acclaimed collection Open Secrets are the most accurate illustrations of this comment. Their nonlinear, multilayered narration results in ambiguous, often confusing plots. “Vandals,” the collection’s closing story, is exemplary in this respect, as it not only illustrates unclear relationships between the characters, but it also reveals their complicated attitude towards the issues of sexuality, nature and culture.
Munro’s story starts with Bea Doud writing a letter to Liza, a young woman who used to live across the road from the property of Bea’s lifelong companion, Ladner. The letter, which is actually never sent to Liza, conjures up Bea’s memories of the seemingly blissful past. She also wants to thank the younger woman for checking on their house while she and her partner were away in Toronto for his bypass operation that, although believed to be simple, proved to be fatal for him. During Bea and Ladner’s absence, as Liza informed the couple, their house had been vandalized. In the latter part of “Vandals,” Munro adds a twist to the story by revealing Liza’s version of the same events – both of the distant past and of the vandalism episode. As it turns out, apart from being a talented taxidermist and children’s educator, Ladner was a child molester. Liza’s report of the abuse she experienced is rather puzzling as she seems to have been strangely attracted to her oppressor. Moreover, it is actually her who vandalized Bea and Ladner’s house in revenge for what Ladner had done to her and what Bea pretended not to have seen. The deliberate ambiguity of the “Vandals” about the characters’ real motives is enhanced by Munro’s fragmented narration. She skillfully shifts not only between various times and places, but also between conflicting perspectives.
There is also an element of ambiguity in Munro’s presentation of the crucial metaphor in the story – taxidermy. Initially, the stuffed animals in Ladner’s garden seem to capture the truth about nature. Peter Parr, with whom Bea visits Ladner for the first time, is impressed with the latter who
had bought up four hundred acres of unproductive land, mostly swamp and bush, in the northern part of the country, in Stratton Township, and he had created there a remarkable sort of nature preserve, with bridges and trails and streams dammed up to make ponds, and exhibits along the trails of lifelike birds and animals. (Munro 266; emphasis added)
In this fragment, Ladner is presented as an almost godlike creator, a man who has turned barren land into the Garden of Eden, where people and animals live in harmony. His Lesser Dismal stands for “[r]espect for nature, cooperation with the environment, opportunity to see at first hand” (Munro 268). The stuffed animals are there to capture the beauty of nature. However, there is no coincidence in the fact that Peter’s perception of Ladner proves to be erroneous. His belief in the innocence and authenticity of the garden is also misguided. As noticed by Dawson: “Ladner’s idea of Dismal as a prelapsarian, and, by implication, preindustrial landscape is also deeply ironic because the garden itself is full of thinly veiled manufactured things” (76). What is supposed to represent the natural is, in fact, fake.
By presenting Ladner’s garden, Munro skilfully introduces taxidermy as a metaphor of deception. Although real-looking, his stuffed animals will never be real. Although lifelike, they will never be alive. Intended to capture and preserve the beauty of the living nature, they are, in fact, artifices, products of human culture. Carrie Dawson acknowledges the importance of taxidermy metaphor in understanding the story, as she states that “the diorama, as a simulation of a natural environment, provides fertile ground in which to explore the willing self-deception at the centre of this complex, chilling story” (69). The discrepancy between what things look like, and what they actually are, marks not only the taxidermic diorama, but also the characters of “Vandals.” Apart from Ladner, who is a taxidermist in the literal sense, we can also identify other “taxidermists” in the story whom I would like to call “cultural taxidermists.”
Cultural taxidermy is the process by which one’s instinctive sexual behaviour is suppressed by means of cultural, social or religious pressure. As it is the culture that determines which kinds of sexual behaviour are acceptable and which are not, those unacceptable are stigmatized and become taboos. But although culturally suppressed, such needs and behaviours continue to exist, they are nature’s creation. To avoid stigmatization, people are often forced to overcome their natural sexual drives, and “stuff” themselves with cultural norms instead, in other words, to perform a cultural taxidermy. “Vandals” presents three types of sexual behaviour that is socially stigmatized in the Western culture: Ladner’s pedophilia, Liza’s early sexual awakening, and, to a lesser degree, Bea’s promiscuity.
Ladner is a master of taxidermy. He is capable of both manipulating animals’ dead bodies so that they look real, and manipulating the truth. Although Bea tries to convince the reader that there is “nothing so very mysterious about him, maybe nothing even so very interesting” (273), he is the most enigmatic character in the story. Most of his past remains unknown, and so do his reasons for coming to Canada: after the Second World War “[h]e had not left England immediately but had worked for years there, in a museum, until something happened – Bea never knew what – that soured him on the job and the country” (267). By concealing the truth about his past, as well as about the present, Ladner also comes to be a taxidermist in the figurative sense of this word. Under the cover of being Liza’s friend and teacher, he disguises his needs and urges – those of a pedophile. In this respect, he resembles the stuffed animals he creates: beautiful on the surface, inside they are only an ugly mess of “wires and burlap and glue and mushed-up paper and clay” (286).
Although it is never explicitly stated in the story, Liza was sexually abused by Ladner. She talks enigmatically about “the secret life” (289) she shared with him and about the things “she knew not to talk so much about” (286). From the perspective of the contemporary Western culture, her position as a victim is unquestionable. Paedophilia is believed to be a dangerous deviation punishable by the law. However, numerous passages in “Vandals” may be puzzling for a reader, as they indicate that Liza’s feelings about the abuse were rather mixed. Even as an adult, she does not condemn Ladner, but, surprisingly, admits that “[i]n the secret life she had with him, what was terrible was always funny, badness was mixed up with silliness” (290). In the places where Ladner abused her, Liza sees “a bruise on the ground, a tickling and shame in the grass” (291; emphasis added). Juxtaposition of bruise and shame with tickling, which has playful connotations, suggests that Liza might have also derived some pleasure from her sexual encounters with Ladner. The abovementioned passages shed new light on several prior scenes in the story. For example, the scene in the pond when Liza notices Ladner maliciously mimicking Bea:
[t]his was thrilling and shocking. Liza’s face was trembling with her need to laugh. Part of her wanted to make Ladner stop, to stop at once, before the damage was done, and part of her longed for that very damage, the damage Ladner could do, the ripping open, the final delight of it. (288)
On first reading, this description seems to relate only to the incident in the pond. However, one may easily notice that Liza reveals here her strange attraction to Ladner. Dawson states that “Munro does not suggest that the children sexually desire Ladner, but she does represent them as sexual beings whose behaviours and motivations are as complex and conditioned as those of adults” (79). The eleven-year-old Liza’s reaction to the abuse was complicated. She did not want to be molested, but at the same time, she experienced a kind of delight when she was with Ladner.
Bea’s attraction to Ladner is also of a complex kind. As Foy argues, Bea does not want to admit that Ladner’s appeal to her is primarily sexual (167). She stops sending letters to her friends as she would have to reveal that “she had gone after Ladner because he was rude and testy and slightly savage” (Munro 268). Bea’s sexuality also becomes an object of cultural taxidermy. The numerous affairs she has before she meets Ladner are a source of joy and pleasure to her, but she speaks of them unwillingly. Munro writes: “When Bea spoke of having had a checkered career, she was taking a sarcastic or disparaging tone that did not reflect what she really felt about her life of love affairs” (265). And what she really felt was happiness, the satisfaction of being adored, of receiving “tributes and attention” (265). But what Bea enjoys, “what you might politely call the conduct of [her] life” (262) is considered to be promiscuity and is condemned by Carstairs, the small town she lives in. Thus, Bea has to conceal her considerable sexual needs in order to be accepted by the “proper,” mid twentieth century small-town society. That is why she now writes letters only in her head.
It is debatable whether Bea knows about Ladner’s abuse of Liza. Nathalie Foy argues that the two women “simultaneously occupy entirely different spaces on Ladner’s property and in his narrative life” (154), and thus, Bea does not understand her potential position as Liza’s protector against Ladner; “Bea is unaware . . . of the weight of expectation that has been placed on her” (Foy 155). This could be supported by Liza’s words: “What Bea has been sent to do, she doesn’t see” (Munro 293).
On the other hand, there are several more convincing indications in the text that Bea does know about Ladner’s paedophilia yet she makes “a bargain not to remember” (Munro 293). Liza states that “Bea could spread safety, if she wanted to” (293), which may suggest that she only pretended not to see what was happening between Liza and Ladner. In this respect Bea’s dream from the beginning of the story is the most telling. In this dream, she finds herself in an odd place, surrounded by many people, some of whom are wearing green surgeon aprons. She soon realizes that everybody has come to the place to claim the bones of their deceased friends and relatives, seven years after their death. When she is handed a plastic bag with some bones inside, she is sure that she is holding the remains of Ladner. However, her confidence soon decreases as she is asked: “[d]id you get the little girl?” (263). Then she notices that her bag is too small and too light to contain the bones of a heavily built adult Ladner was, yet she cannot relate the bones to any little girl. Instead, she suggests that the bones may belong to Kenny, Liza’s younger brother who died in a car accident a few years earlier. Bea refuses to admit to herself what she knows deep down – that her interpretation of the dream is incorrect. She pretends not to remember that Kenny has died only recently, and mentions reluctantly that he “was no longer little when the accident happened” (263). Evidently, she is unwilling to face the bitter truth and acknowledge that the bones are in fact Liza’s. Bea feels guilty, as she contributed to Liza’s metaphorical death as a sexual being. It was Bea’s decision to send the girl to college, implicitly, to keep her away from Ladner. In college Liza undergoes a dramatic metamorphosis. She becomes a born again Christian and starts a new way of life. The old, sexually active Liza dies, which is clearly reflected in Bea’s dream. The dream plays a crucial role in understanding the whole story, which is cleverly hinted at by Munro on the last page of the “Vandals.” There readers learn that the key to Bea and Ladner’s house is hidden in the tree, in a plastic bag; similarly, the key to Munro’s story is hidden in the plastic bag from Bea’s dream.
This key is Liza’s figurative death, i.e. her transformation. The “new” Liza distinctly distances herself from the past. She does not share the story of her childhood even with the person closest to her – Warren, her husband. He is ignorant of his wife’s history of sexual abuse but he reminisces: “[s]he said she had been wild before becoming a Christian. ‘Even when I was a kid,’ she said” (281). By saying this, Liza reveals something about her role in the complicated relationship with Ladner. She does not consider herself a victim. She does not accuse the older man, she claims that she herself was “wild” and derived pleasure from these experiences. Children’s sexuality is a taboo subject in Western culture. When the adult Liza realizes that, she feels ashamed and guilty, and, by imposing the restrictions of her new religion on her needs and her memories, she becomes yet another “cultural taxidermist” in the story. What is very important in the quotation above is that Liza “had been wild before becoming a Christian” (281; emphasis added). Conversion to Christianity is a turning point in her life. She becomes a born again Christian, which symbolizes her change into a new person. Liza undergoes a(n illusory) metamorphosis. She starts leading a very strict life: “[s]he never drank alcohol now, she never even ate sugar. She . . . got up early in the morning to do knee bends and read Bible verses” (Munro 276). Christianity becomes Liza’s means of suppressing her “wildness.” Nevertheless, her efforts are only partially successful, as they are not natural to her, but forced. Liza works very hard to keep appearances, she is very concerned with the rules of her new faith, but her real nature emerges spontaneously in unexpected situations: “[s]he was a girl who wouldn’t say ‘Jesus!’ but who would, in moments of downright contentment and meditative laziness, say ‘Well, fuck!’” (Munro 281). Warren also recounts the day when he and Liza went to a Christian rock concert (280). Since this kind of music was considered controversial among Christians in their Fellowship, Liza seriously considered whether or not they should go there. However, when the concert started, she no longer expressed doubts. She started to dance in a wild and excited way, “the crazy, slithery spirit . . . possessed her” (Munro 280). Her real nature, suppressed for so long by the religious and cultural norms, took the upper hand. Thus Liza’s controlled attempt to metamorphose is yet another example of cultural taxidermy. Similarly to stuffed animals that are “wonderful construction[s] of wires and burlap and glue and mush-up paper and clay” (Munro 286), Liza is also a wonderful, yet fake construction. Instead of wires, paper and clay she is stuffed with social and religious norms imposed on her by the dominant culture.
According to Munro, people are remade by cultural norms in the same way as dead animals are remade by a taxidermist to look like what they are not; in the process both people and animals become fake in the same way. In the struggle between nature and culture, it is culture that seems to take the upper hand. Natural instincts are often perceived as primitive and backward. However, at the end of the “Vandals,” Liza’s natural “wildness” unexpectedly prevails, as she demolishes Ladner’s and Bea’s house. Her act of vandalism is an ultimate proof that natural instincts and urges can never be totally suppressed by culture and its norms. Nature always wins, no matter how hard we try to fight it. As the motto of the story and an inscription displayed in Ladner’s garden say: “[n]ature never deceives us; it is always we who deceive ourselves” (268).
Such an interpretation of “Vandals” may be puzzling for a reader. How should we take Munro’s bewildering message that some types of sexual behavior – even pedophilia – considered deviant in our culture are in fact only natural? Is natural always good? Munro leaves it for the reader to reflect upon the problem, and, possibly, to judge it. She is not a preacher. She neither affirms nor denies socially stigmatized needs or acts, but merely signals their presence. It is our task to read her confusing hints carefully and give them a thought.
Dawson, Carrie. “Skinned. Taxidermy and Pedophilia in Alice Munro’s ‘Vandals.’”Canadian Literature 184 (2005): 69-83. Academic Search Complete. Web. 01 May 2012
Foy, Nathalie. “’Darkness Collecting’: Reading ‘Vandals as a Coda to Open Secrets.” Essays on Canadian Writing 66 (1998): 147-69. Academic Search Complete. Web. 01 May 2012.
Munro, Alice. Open Secrets: Stories. New York: Vintage, 1995. Print.
University of Łódź
Metaliterariness in Oscar Wilde’s “Sphinx without a Secret”
Wilde’s short story “The Sphinx without a Secret” was first published in 1887, under the title “Lady Alroy” and then reprinted with revisions, among them the change of the title, in the collection Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories in 1891, the year of the publication of Intentions – his collection of essays including “The Critic as Artist” (Sloan xi). As pointed out by Bashfold, the story “attracted scant attention from critics.” He enumerates several different approaches to the work, as distinct as Nils Clausen’s biographic perspective and Jarlath Killeen’s analysis that turns to religious, Protestant-Catholic tensions. However, it seems to him that, to interpret the story, one needs to place it in a broader context of Wilde’s writings, as it appears to be “a piece of something larger, as having a significance for its author that doesn’t get fully expressed even though the story is complete in its own terms” (Bashford). He examines the work in relation to “Wilde’s inquiry into the concept of truth,” at the same time pointing to its interpretative potential as a constituent of “a more comprehensive philosophical project – an inquiry not just into truth but into a whole cluster of concepts that interested Wilde” (Bashford).
The analysis of “The Sphinx without a Secret” in the present paper is focused on one of these concepts, namely, critic’s relation to art. The story is linked in this respect to Wilde’s critical thought as expressed in “The Critic as Artist,” and the examination of the story in the context of Wilde’s essay gives rise to an interpretative possibility of recognizing the work as a metaliterary expression of the assumptions concerning art criticism similar to those contained in the essay. The term metaliterariness is used here in two meanings: in its broader sense, with reference to literary works which provide in themselves a comment on literature in general, on the process of its creation, or, as in the case of the story discussed, its interpretation – in other words, to those writings that “explore a theory of fiction through the practice of writing fiction” (Waugh 2; emphasis original); and in the more specific sense, which Hutcheon calls diegenetic self-awareness (22), where the term is understood as self-consciousness, manifesting itself in the unfolding of the mechanisms of a given work’s convention or narrative processes through its “formal self-exploration” (Waugh 3).
Wilde himself suggested that his works fall outside traditional categorisations into fictional and theoretical ones when he referred to his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray as “an essay on decorative art” (qtd. in Sammels 10). In fact, especially in the case of Wilde’s prose writings, one can speak about varying degrees and proportions of the two elements rather than about explicit labels of either work of fiction or art criticism; the two categories interpenetrate, and the blurring and shifting of the line operates in both directions: as an introduction of fictional elements to the essays and the interspersing of the narratives with the elements of Wilde’s art theory. The tendency might be observed on the level of the structure of the two texts in question for “The Sphinx without a Secret,” displays a close affinity to that of“The Critic as Artist” in this respect. The story in its substantial part assumes the form of a dialogue. The narrator recounts his chance encounter with an old days schoolmate Gerald, who told him about a mysterious woman he had met recently. The conversation resembles in its form the dialogue between Gilbert and Ernest, speakers from “The Critic as Artist.” Also, the main plot structure of the story is not much more elaborate than that sketched in the essay. A fully developed storyline is present only in Gerald’s account embedded in the main course of narration, while on the level of the frame story one can hardly identify the plot understood as a sequence of events leading to a climax and a denouement. In fact, the action consists in the meeting of two friends who dine together and then converse, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. The situation is analogous to the one from the essay, where Gilbert and Ernest talk about art, devoting themselves meanwhile to the same pastimes. In other words, the characters from both “The Critic as Artist” and “The Sphinx without a Secret” are men of words rather than of actions, which, according to the essay, is far more difficult and demanding a task (CaA 100).
Two interpretative possibilities arise in the view of the comparison. It might be assumed that the situation of the meeting serves as a mere frame for the story told by Gerald. If that is the case, the text emphasizes the action of the embedded account. However, the parallelism with the structure of the “The Critic as Artist” suggests quite the opposite, namely that the story of the relationship is a pretext for introducing, through the heroes’ conversation, the argument of a more general character. Given this parallelism, the emphasis of the story is shifted to the dialogue about Gerald’s relation, and, as a consequence, the role of critics may be attributed to the characters – according to the essay, not only is talking more difficult than acting, but also, more significantly, it characterizes the true critical spirit (CaA 100-01). Accepting that the narrator and his schoolmate possess the critical faculty, one may determine which of them plays the role assumed in the essay by Gilbert and Ernest, that is the function of “master and pupil” (Stokes 23) respectively. To assign these roles, firstly, the actual subject of criticism in question needs to be established.
While the dialogue from “The Critic as Artist” revolves around the topic of art and criticism, the characters from “The Sphinx without a Secret” converse about the woman that Gerald met and about his peculiar relationship with her. Since it is the woman, not art, that becomes a subject of their analysis, the narrator and Gerald seem not to be critics in the same sense as Gilbert and Ernest. However, when deliberating the lady’s appearance and behaviour, the interlocutors use specific imagery and metaphors that bring associations with art or even create an impression that the characters are, indeed, discussing a piece of art.
The figure of the heroine is introduced to the story through the narrator’s description of her photograph shown by his friend, not of the woman in person. Moreover, the presentation of the picture is not accompanied by Gerald’s revealing the lady’s name (the narrator and readers get to know that she was called Lady Alroy later in the course of the character’s account), her identity, the character of their relationship, or any other details that would make the presentation of the picture a mere pretext to introduce her as a person. Instead, the very image of the heroine becomes a subject of discussion, which creates an impression of her being a part of the world of art rather than the real, i.e. represented, world. This effect is reinforced by the narrator’s description of her as “strangely picturesque” (SwS 133) and by the very first opinion about her that he shares with Gerald: “she is the Gioconda in sables” (133). The words are preceded by the reflexion about the mystery that the face from the photograph is shrouded in. According to the narrator, the beauty of the face is “a beauty moulded out of many mysteries – the beauty, in fact, which is psychological, not plastic” (133). When juxtaposed with the preceding reflection, the narrator’s statement appears to constitute a paradox, as, on the one hand, he says that the lady is a figure from da Vinci’s painting, which suggests that he treats her like a work of art, while, on the other, he thinks that the beauty of her secret is psychological and not plastic, so it may appear that he perceives her as a real human being; but in fact, with the statement about the face, he confirms rather than rejects his approach to the woman as a work of art – he draws conclusions about her psychological beauty on the basis of the two-dimensional image and not on the grounds of the conversation or observation of the lady’s behaviour, that is he interprets the photograph in the same way as a critic would discuss the picture of Mona Lisa. When Gerald recounts his first meeting with the woman in person, he also creates an image of her as a painting, recollecting that he caught a glimpse of her when she was peeping through the window of a brougham (SwS 134), as if the window was a frame into which the portrait of the woman was put. That particular image of the woman’s face “fascinated [Gerald] immediately” (134).
The lady is perceived not only through the prism of painting. While talking about his acquaintance with the heroine, Gerald gradually ascribes to her successive properties of works from different fields of art. When the first conversation with the woman is described, he mentions not what she said, but how “she spoke very little, always in the same low musical voice” (SwS 135). The description of the sound associated with the lady, parallelly to the account of the first sight of her, is followed by the remark about Gerald’s passion for her, which is, in fact, the affection for the artistic property of her voice. The woman is also compared to “one of those strange crystals that one sees in museums” (136). Finally, the narrator says that she was “imagining she was a heroine” (140), so he refers to her as a literary figure and claims that she was the eponymous Sphinx, which brings connotations with, on the one hand, a sculpture, and on the other, a character of ancient myths. Thus, although the characters apparently converse about events from Gerald’s life, in fact they seem to treat the main participant of these occurrences as a work of art. Such a presentation of the woman enables one to read the story as a metaphor of the process of interpretation of art, with the two characters functioning symbolically as critics who try to find the secret of the work they analyze.
Having altered the name of the subject of discussion in the story and acceped that the woman symbolizes art, one may see the opinions about the heroine voiced by the narrator as conveying the essence of an approach to art presented in “The Critic as Artist.” Such an implicit expression of these views may be found in the following dialogue: “‘I don’t understand women well enough,’ he answered. ‘My dear Gerald,’ I said, ‘women are meant to be loved, not to be understood’” (SwS 132). Upon substituting the word ‘women’ with ‘art’ in the narrator’s statement, one arrives at the synthesis of the aesthetic model of the perception of art, according to which
[art] does not spring from inspiration, but it makes others inspired. Reason is not the faculty to which it appeals. If one loves Art at all, one must love it beyond all other things in the world, and against such love, the reason, if one listened to it, would cry out. (CaA 148)
The dialogue between Gerald and the narrator may be seen as expressing a contrast described by Baldick as one of the “chief items on the agenda of literary-critical discussion in the period between 1890 and 1918,” namely the tension between the aesthetic approach to criticism based on subjective impression, as opposed to the scholarly one, relying on objective knowledge (20). While Gerald represents a critic who tries to understand art, the narrator expresses the aesthetic view, elaborated on by Gilbert in the essay:
Art is a passion, and, in matters of Art, Thought is inevitably coloured by emotion, and so is fluid rather than fixed, and, depending upon fine moods and exquisite moments, cannot be narrowed into the rigidity of a scientific formula or theological dogma. (147)
The notion of theological dogma leads to another crucial assumption of the essay expressed between the lines in “The Sphinx without a Secret.” In the aforementioned fragment when the narrator analyzes the woman’s photograph he says that “it seemed to [him] the face of someone who had a secret, but whether that secret was good or evil [he] could not say” (133). The fact that the narrator is not able to ascribe moral value to the mystery that the picture portrays signalizes the departure from the perception of art through the prism of morality – the main demand of the Aesthetes, underlined in “The Critic as Artist”: “[t]he first condition of criticism is that the critic should be able to recognize that the sphere of Art and the sphere of Ethics are absolutely distinct and separate” (149).
The two processes of interpretation presented in the story may be distinguished. The first one was undertaken by Gerald when he was getting to know the woman and trying to find her secret. The second one is carried out by the narrator when he analyzes the photograph and then interprets the lady’s behaviour on the basis of the story told by his friend. Gerald underlines that the passion and fascination accompanied each of his encounters with the woman. After glimpsing her for the first time, he was so preoccupied with her image that he returned to the place where he had seen her, “peering into every carriage, and waiting for the yellow brougham” (SwS 134). Gerald’s passion gradually turns into an obsession with the mystery of the “work” he interprets, or rather with its revelation. The compulsion leads the character to investigate this enigma outside the work, which is symbolized by Gerald picking a handkerchief from the pavement – the proof of the woman’s hiding of a secret. In this way, he does not act according to the model of criticism proposed in “The Critic as Artist”:
criticism’s most perfect form . . . is in its essence purely subjective, and seeks to reveal its own secret and not the secret of another. For the highest criticism deals with Art not as expressive but as impressive only. (CaA 110)
As Gerald does not find a satisfying interpretation of the lady’s behaviour and therefore seems to suffer defeat, it is the narrator who, similarly to Gilbert from “The Critic as Artist,” represents the master figure acting as the exponent of the truth about the woman and, by extension, the truth about art and its interpretation. This role seems to be confirmed by the firm, at times patronizing tone that the narrator assumes when he addresses Gerald: “‘Then why did Lady Alroy go there?’ ‘My dear Gerald,’ I answered, ‘Lady Alroy was simply a woman with a mania for mystery’” (SwS 140). The narrator, that is the master, in the substantial part of the story formulates concise simple sentences, in which, however, he contains the essence of the story as a symbol of the process of interpretation. At the beginning, he builds the image of the woman as a work of art with the short statement “She is the Gioconda in sables” (133). At the end, he comprises in his final comment on the Lady’s behaviour the main idea of the story:
“My dear Gerald,” I answered, “Lady Alroy was simply a woman with a mania for mystery. She took these rooms for pleasure of going there with her veil down, and imagining she was a heroine. She had a passion for secrecy, but she herself was merely a Sphinx without a secret.” (140)
This conclusion could be complemented with the fragment of “The Critic as Artist”:
[t]he critic will certainly be an interpreter, but he will not treat Art as a riddling Sphinx, whose shallow secret may be guessed and revealed by one whose feet are wounded and who knows not his name. Rather, he will look upon Art as goddess whose mystery it is his province to intensify, and whose majesty his privilege to make more marvellous in the eyes of men. (122)
With these words, and with the aforementioned fragment about Mona Lisa, Gilbert from “The Critic as Artist” provides the precise reason for the failure of Gerald as a critic, which is his struggle to reveal, rather than intensify the secret. According to the essay, an interpretation should be the process entirely opposite to Gerald’s actions. It should be based not on a desperate search for the art’s true, ultimate meaning hidden under the guise of its form, but on accepting that, in fact, art is a form and it is the critic who makes it meaningful. Indeed, throughout the whole story, the lady is presented as a form – the photograph without the identity of the person it depicts, the voice without the content of the utterance, the actions without their aim – and the narrator notices this regularity, understanding at the same time what the character from the essay states explicitly:
the real artist is he who proceeds, not from feeling to form, but from form to thought and passion . . . the mere form suggests what is to fill it and make it intellectually and emotionally complete. From time to time the world cries out against some charming artistic poet, because, to use its hackneyed and silly phrase, he has “nothing to say.” But if he had something to say, he would probably say it, and the result would be tedious. (CaA 155)
One could characterize Gerald as a representative of “the world [that] cries out” – a person who is convinced that there must be a meaning hidden behind the form and who demands from art to reveal this secret, just like “the world” demands from “some charming artistic poet” to have something to say (155). The narrator, in turn, is a critic that identifies himself with the idea that such a demand is not justified and who resembles in this respect the authors of metafiction, whose immanent trait is the questioning and rejection of “the rational connection between what characters ‘do’ and what they ‘are’, the causal connection between ‘surface’ details and the ‘deep’, ‘scientific laws’ of existence” (Waugh 7)
The commentary on the process of interpretation provided by “The Sphinx without a Secret” is not the only source and justification of the application of the term metaliterariness to the short story. In fact, the abovementioned interpretation allows for the recognition of the elements thanks to which the work meets the criteria of metaliterariness understood in its more specific sense, that is with reference to the process of commenting on itself. To examine the way in which “The Sphinx without a Secret” unfolds the mechanisms of its own convention and its effect on the reader, it should be useful to return to the image of the woman as a symbol of art.
The Lady possesses the features of different art pieces, and thus might be regarded as a symbol of art in general. However, “The Critic as Artist,” suggests one particular field of art that combines properties of all the others, namely literature. According to the essay, words have the music of instruments, the vividness and richness of the colour of paintings, the plasticity of sculptures, and also “thought and passion and spirituality are theirs . . . are theirs indeed alone” (CaA 95). Following from this, the woman may be interpreted as a symbol a literary work.
In this context, the simile between the woman and “one of those strange crystals . . . which are at one moment clear, and at other clouded” (SwS 136) acquires a new meaning. Primarily, the image is to reflect Gerald’s difficulty in understanding the lady – he would probably wish her to be clear, that is transparent all the time, so that he could see through the form and discern the hidden meaning, but it is impossible because of the cloudy surface. However, the crystal has yet another property connected with its structure, differentiating it from other minerals and gaining significance in the context of this analysis. It is a stone consisting of constituents that are identical and appear in a recurring pattern. In other words, on the basis of one constituent, it is possible to reconstruct the structure of the whole stone. One can then say that crystals contain within themselves information on their overall structure and properties. Assuming that the woman, who resembles a crystal, is at the same time a symbol of a literary work, one may presuppose that the woman is not only a symbol of literature, but of literature that comments on itself and in this way is self-reflexive and self-conscious.
The story provides yet another image that leads to a similar conclusion. In the course of Gerald’s account, it turns out that when the woman came to the mysterious house she spent time there reading books, which means that she was preoccupied with literature, but also, as the narrator notices, with creating her own enigmatic image, strengthening the impression of her secrecy in Gilbert. She was consciously undertaking the process of self-creation as “she took these rooms for the pleasure of going there with her veil down, imagining she was a heroine” (SwS 140). Both self-commentary and self-creation are the manifestations of a work’s consciousness of its being an artistic act and of its own convention; in other words, they are the elements of metaliterariness in the specific meaning of the term. “The Sphinx without a Secret,” just like the woman, and thus the work of art she symbolizes, possesses these features and therefore, the lady may be interpreted as a metaphor of this particular story.
One could say that metaliterariness understood as self-reflexivity is realized in “The Sphinx without a Secret” in its absolute form, as the relation between Gerald and Lady Alroy is at every single point of the work a reflexion of the relation of the reader to the story. He or she gradually gets to know the plot when the protagonist finds out more and more details about Lady Alroy. Each time he fails to discover the woman’s secret, the reader feels that he or she fails to recognize the mystery of the story. The information about the lady’s death is for him tantamount with the end of his attempts at uncovering the enigma and for the reader it indicates that the denouement has already occurred, when the woman had told, during the meeting which turned out to be the last one, that she was not hiding anything. Yet, both Gerald and the reader do not cease their search/reading in the hope that the revelation will, eventually, occur. When finally it does, with the landlady telling the protagonist about the woman, it turns out to be a disappointment to him, as he does not get to know anything new. Such a conclusion may also seem unsatisfying for the reader who expected to find the meaning of the story. The narrator provides an answer to this disappointment by explaining how the woman’s behaviour and, by extension, the story, may be interpreted. The fact that, according to the narrator, Gerald should have focused on the form, that is on the surface and not on what is hidden beneath, behind this form, directs the reader to pay attention to the surface of the story, namely to the main narration, which only apparently constitutes a mere frame for Gerald’s account. In fact, just as the form allowed the narrator to interpret the woman, the surface narration in the story is the key to its interpretation. The alteration of the title from “Lady Alroy” to “The Sphinx without a Secret” when the story was reprinted, seems to emphasize the shift in the focus and the advantage of the narrator’s account, during which the phrase from the title appears, over Gerald’s experience and the lady he talks about. The new title deprives the embedded story of its essence, as the reader may guess from the very beginning that the lady is the Sphinx from the title and does not possess any secret, which relieves the tension before Gilbert even starts to build it.
Words spoken by the characters at the same time contribute to the story and constitute a comment on the process of interpretation of art and of the work itself. Gerald’s final remark “I wonder?” (SwS 140), uttered after glancing at the photograph for the last time, expresses his doubts concerning the lady, but possibly also the reader’s confusion connected with the interpretation of the piece. The diversity of the existing readings, ranging from Clausen’s analysis of “The Sphinx without a Secret” as autobiographical, through Bashford’s interpretation of the story as “Wilde’s inquiry into the concept of truth,” to Killeen’s discussion of the work in terms of Protestant-Catholic tensions (Bashford, “Thinking in Stories…”), suggests that, indeed, both Gerald and the critics still wonder whether the story, like the lady, is the eponymous Sphinx without a secret or whether one may find the “true meaning” of it, if not through revelation of its mystery, then through treating it “as a starting point for a new creation” (CaA 112).
 In parenthetical documentation referred to as “CaA”
Baldrick, Chris. Criticism and Literary Theory 1890 to the Present. Harlow: Longman, 1996.
Bashford Bruce. “Thinking in Stories’: Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Sphinx without a Secret.’” Oscholars 4.42 (2007): n. pag. Web. 6 Jan 2012.
Hutcheon, Linda. Narcisstic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 1980. Print.
Sammels, Neil. Wilde Style: The Plays and Prose of Oscar Wilde. Harlow: Longman, 2000. Print.
Sloan, John. Oscar Wilde. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print
Stokes, John. Oscar Wilde. Harlow: Longman, 1978. Print.
Waugh, Patricia. London: Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction. Routledge, 1984. Print.
Wilde, Oscar. “The Critic as Artist.” Intentions. London: Unicorn P, 1947. 77-167. Print.
—. “The Sphinx without a Secret.” Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and other Prose Pieces. Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1909. 131-40. Print.
University of Warsaw
Lesbians (Un)Gendered: On (Not) Queer Perspective
The text is going to be an academic reflection based on my personal discontent with how mistreated a significant text of culture has been. Namely, I am going to take up The L Word once again and look into it, and the surrounding discussion, from the perspective of a queer scholar observing, and influencing, social situation from the margin as defined by bell hooks. Though many an analysis appeared in the period following the broadcast, they were all of rather malcontent nature, and the series’ political and sociocultural significance has not been appreciated properly. Since the reception of The L Word showed how unpolitical and self-defeating detractors may be, I feel the need to critically respond to the direction that the international discussion took. I will draw attention to the actual importance and potential the series has offered. I will, then, draw a direct comparison with Queer as Folk‘s subversive value in order to further illustrate and enhance my case. The paper is not going to contain behind-the-scenes details such as films creators, storylines or cast involved, the underlying assumption being that the reader is familiar with the series. My overall objective, inspired by the severe criticism The L Word has gained, is to propose a new way of reading lesbian bodies – one that goes in sync with the kind of fight for identity that queer perspective offers. Therefore, apart from forming a sociological analysis, the text is also going to be a political manifesto.
A few years ago Showtime’s TV series The L Word became the world of and for Lesbians. It challenged us and honoured us, and simply made us happy. Because gay women in particular form an underrepresented group and had thus been waiting for a (re)presentation and deconstruction of the lesbian as a taboo, this came as quite an event. The themes The L Word familiarized its audience with include relationships that non-heterosexual women develop among themselves and with people around them, their problems and desires, pains and passions, or struggles and lifestyles. At the same time, the word ‘representation’ has quickly become a bone of contention for lesbian viewers as well as various reviewers and critics involved in the so far heated debates over the series’ content and social impact. As Chris Jones observes, “Representation . . . produces signs which reflect underlying sets of ideas and attitudes” (308). A dictionary definition of the word ‘representation’ says that it is “something that represents, an image or likeness of something” (American Heritage College Dictionary qtd. in Pratt 135). If this is so, what should the representation of lesbians entail? I tend to argue that it should be based on capturing a certain kind of desire, experience, passions, and states of mind that are specific for lesbians. These qualities refer to both the emotional and the sexual, but because there is no discourse for and about lesbians, much less in Poland, the subject is not being elaborated on. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called this phenomenon “the power of ignorance,” meaning that, socially, lesbians do not exist (qtd. in Jonet, and Williams 150). And here The L Word came as a breakthrough and, as a visual text which always builds up a particular version of reality and has the power to refute or confirm stereotypes, it was charged with even more responsibility. As Richard Dyer observes:
Because [authors are] lesbian or gay, they [can] produce lesbian/gay representations that could themselves be considered lesbian/gay, . . . because they [have] access to, and an inwardness with, lesbian/gay sign systems that would [be]like foreign languages to straight filmmakers. (34; emphasis added)
One of the obstacles, however, seems to be to capture and understand the language – a challenge that The L Word posed, and that many viewers failed to rise to. For sure, the series moved away from the tormented and angst-ridden lesbians of previous televisual and filmic discourses; moreover, its whole storyline is about and for non-normative women, which makes it the first project of this kind ever.
Thus, it should be understandable that with this kind of a show expectations came
as a major issue. The gay women community had been underrepresented, so it should not be surprising that the first series immediately came under scrutiny of a crowd of angry lesbians, as well as anxious reviewers and theorists concerned with the issue of lesbian visibility and representation. The one immediate and most frequently repeated response from the engaged crowd has been over The L Word‘s characters’ exaggerated glamour and femininity. The much disliked fact that most characters of the project are glamorous and feminine is usually perceived as an attempt to appeal to the heterosexual norm, since lesbians “are not supposed” to look that way. Thus, the representation is perceived as “cottage industry for heterosexual men,” to use Sedgwick’s phrase (xix). I will claim that the glamour is a strategy for, in fact, subversion of the norm, e.g. by challenging the stereotype of lesbians being ugly. However, now that the characters do not look like lesbians “should,” but rather self-consciously perform the notion of “real womanhood” instead, they resemble heterosexual women, so this aspect is also perceived as conforming to the heteronormative pattern; both ways are unsatisfactory, as a result of which a vicious circle has evolved. So, on the one hand, the show tries to resist what is considered the heterosexual norm, but on the other hand it is accused of conforming to the norm precisely because of its attempts to escape it. These few characters who do conform to the visual expectations entailed by the notion of “lesbian,” are, in turn, overlooked or perceived as insufficiently representative or unrepresentative at all. What is the solution, then? The audience’s negative criticism has obviously been driven by the desperate need for full representation. I consider it a fortunate thing that the project evoked so many emotions and provoked heated discussions; the very fact that the creators managed to get into so many hearts, causing quite a stir whichever way, already proves the groundbreaking character of the show, but it also shows the need for presenting lesbianity in more appropriate terms and, definitely, more frequently. The attachment to the significance of the visual form stems from a lack of any serious discourse on the subject and depicts the urgent need of the lesbian community not only for any representation at all, but for the representation, one that would be most accurate. Let me shatter the illusions: there will always be someone un(der)represented. There is no possibility of setting up countless combinations and extremes like a lesbian priestess, a lesbian cowgirl, a Black lesbian or forever-in-love lesbians within one TV show – needs that the viewers continued to express after the broadcast (The L World: Documentary). Also, the action takes place in Los Angeles, so the economic circumstances require that the characters be more “glamorous” and “carefree.” This does not make lesbians all over the world misrepresented, though. Thus, a shift of focus is necessary, since the trouble with looking into The L Word seems to be that non-heterosexual women internalized a certain visual meaningfulness of the notion of “lesbian” as differing from other women in terms of appearance, outfit, and style in general. The characters are all expected to be butches, since it is this concept that is associated with lesbians primarily, and the creation and representation of the lesbian community is thought to be possible only, or mainly, through the visual medium. As one of the actresses observed, “Gender is the whole spectrum and it can’t be defined just in these tiny little boxes we’ve been given” (The L World: Documentary; emphasis added). And yet, the lesbian audience managed to see only two ends of the spectrum – the butch, interpreted as the true and actual lesbian, and the femme regarded as her opposite. I want to present this as most reductive viewpoint, and one that is most distant from what the actual concern of the series (and – thereby – lesbianity) is.
First of all, critical voices tend to ignore the fact that beautiful gay women really do exist.
It is taken for granted that if a series is about lesbians, its characters “must” somehow be less attractive than those of a non-lesbian film. The beauty accusation is a perpetuation of a reductive stereotype of a butch as the only possibility of performing lesbian identity. A notable critic Malinda Lo states: “[If] we are committed to fighting discrimination and stereotypes, . . . we really need to have a few butch haircuts too” (qtd. in Roripaugh, and Wolfe 44). The authenticity is expected to be achieved through visual means – the worst possible direction one could take when in the quest for lesbianity. As Rebecca Beirne puts it, “The butch [Shane] is seen as the authentic lesbian, who is figured as the desiring party with a higher sex drive than the femme, and the sexual top” (106). Yet, even she “does not register explicitly butch signifiers but rather is implied as contextually butch when positioned alongside the other characters’ femme gender displays” (Moore, and Schilt 161; emphasis original). The trouble with such analysis is serious since it perpetuates stereotypical thinking among the most interested – lesbians themselves – or, even worse, it is created by them. This will be, most probably, the result of what Mary McIntosh called “the homosexual role” in her 1968 article of the same title. The anthropologist formulated the famous stance that homosexuals “become fixed” in the behavioural labels attached to them by the society and, in this way, they play the social role that is written for them and further explained as the essential condition (35). Little has changed since McIntosh’s article and, along the same lines, lesbians tend to act out butches. Thus, as long as lesbianity is seen as a concept based on the very opposite of womanhood and glamour, as long as lesbians themselves furiously fight for recognition of their butchness and are committed to playing this role so much that they make the whole lesbianity dependent on the visual aspect only, and, finally, as long as there is no discourse covering the issue, we cannot expect being taken into account seriously and justly.
Thus, what may be the solution to this stigmatizing situation? To begin with, I would like Judith Butler’s consideration of gender performativity to be acknowledged. In the article titled “Experimental Desire,” theorist Elizabeth Grosz summarizes Butler’s category of gender as one that “[marks] the discontinuity, . . . the possibility of masculine behaviours in a female subject and feminine behaviours in a male subject, the subject performatively repeating but also subverting heterosexual norms and imperatives (213; emphasis added). Gender is performative not because we can act it out whichever way we want, but because it is a certain task to be fulfilled by our bodies every day, and through its fulfilment we perpetuate the established norm. We do fulfil the task because of both constant social control and internalized disciplinary power that we impose on ourselves, as Michel Foucault observed. In this context, The L Word‘s characters perform what the outraged lesbian audience labelled as femininity. However, it is arguable whether the women really are feminine, since this performed notion is nothing more than a social construct and, in this respect, several stereotypically masculine traits could be indicated in the characters’ ways – something the audience and critics do not mention. It is more significant, however, that in the dangerous quest for a “typical lesbian” detractors and activists fiercely stick to the construct of the feminine, and thus reinforce oppositions and barriers. Whilst I do not expect everyone to be a sociologist acknowledging complex processes of construction and imposition, I would expect minorities themselves to give up stigmatizing notions from the 1960s and move towards more practical ways of understanding, thinking, and fighting their own struggle for freedom.
Judith “Jack” Halberstam describes some of the show’s characters simply as “queer performers who destabilize the normative values that make everyone else feel safe and secure” (qtd. in Douglas 207). The world is expected to be fixed and stable, with everything having its own place and nothing disturbing it. The women’s sexual identity is externally unmarked and thus invisible to the heterosexual world. They navigate through the hetero-space unrecognized and are socially included in its reality, because they pass for straights. This blend of their communal world with normative signifiers is what the lesbian audience see as both dangerous and scandalous. However, do we have and do we need a lesbian community that would map out the route for all non-heteronormative women? I would say no. The concept of lesbian or gay communities is a broad one and indicates shared social experience and sometimes history, and yet it became the term for homogeneous representation of the one and only lesbianity/gayness. One of the series’ critics said angrily: “If lesbians have to choose between remaining invisible to the mainstream, or being represented by Showtime’s clipped and plucked lesbians, I choose invisibility” (McCroy qtd. in Wolfe and Roripaugh 44). This declaration of choice proves identity politics and “homosexual role” to be still well and constantly defended, and the harm inflicted by them to all lesbians is not acknowledged. Stacey D’Erasmo’s statement seems even more valuable, “Visibility is a tricky thing. Is someone visible when you can point her out in the crowd, or when you understand what her life feels like?” (qtd. in Heller 67). In this respect I, personally, feel visible whenever I watch the series, but I feel less visible when I read that I should be more or less feminine or masculine because that is what lesbianity is about. As Alexander Doty wrote after cinema moved from portrayals of angst-ridden queers of stable identity, “Ultimately, the theories, criticism, and film and popular culture texts produced within this definition of ‘queer’ would seek to examine, challenge, and confuse sexual and gender categories” (150). Perhaps the reason why The L Word‘s creators decided not to make the gender category the primary one is that it is not so crucial afterwards, because the first lesbian series is not supposed to revolve around the body or body politics, this not constituting the core of lesbianity. And the actual exclusion of too popular butchness may prove to be the most essential strategy to confuse the usage and perception of gender and sexual roles. In this respect, I want to suggest queer perspective.
There is no such notion as lesbian identity, neither in positive nor negative terms, just like no particular lesbian community exists. These may constitute certain shortcuts that facilitate social functioning and communication, but they should not be part of a political strategy or grounds for heated debates and thorough analyses leading to fierce divisions, since these are purely social constructs established to support a particular social and communal order. Such assuming of lesbian subjectivity, as I have argued, does not force any change in the complicated social status of lesbians. It should finally be acknowledged that the series’ characters’ flawless appearance may actually contribute to the social image of non-heteronormative women rather than make them under- or misrepresented. As soon as this is achieved, one can go one step further in recognizing lesbianity, and move towards the much despised interpretation that there is no universal lesbian body that can be conceived of, described and portrayed. Hence, The L Word has got one crucial advantage over its most engaged audience, i.e. it managed to escape the imposed common interpretation of the lesbian – something that too many non-heterosexual women still stick to and perform in their lives much on principle, because they mutually regulate each other in the visual terms. Sadly, this kind of performance resembles the panopticon as a means of social/communal control, a concept defined by Foucault. Though I generalize most of the time when I say “the lesbian audience,” the heated debate that followed the broadcast of the series showed that this was actually the main problem in the so-called lesbian community. I claim that it is much the community as such that trapped themselves in the body politics, causing internalized and internal homophobia flourish, The L Word‘s perception and misrecognition being the perfect example of it. The butch/femme division prevailed, with the butch part being too popular to cast a new light on the identitarian question. My answer is that lesbians are not gendered so much and, more significantly, they do not need to be. There are various and diverse types of us, so expecting one over any other seems – along with recognizing only two of them – most reductive and even irresponsible when it comes to the fight for justice and social recognition. At this point, I invoke queer as a perspective that offers a more down-to-earth and less theoretical point of view. Since it destabilizes all particular notions of gender not through their rejection, but rather total inclusion when it comes to innumerable identities realized through body, it could prove an invaluable political strategy. Assuming queer perspective in analyses of non-normative representations would result in a shift from the visual and the external to the more factual and substantive issues that matter, which could productively move the fight for recognition. It is particularly significant in the case of lesbians, since within the LGBT discourse the L part is omitted at almost all times. When talking about femininity, I shall invoke Erin Douglas, who successfully captured the point of view that I am trying to present here. She stated:
Once we as viewers and readers of femininity can read fem(me)ininity queerly, the focus can shift from issues of visibility, where femininity is read and connected to female bodies, into other directions, (re)makings,and (re)styling of fem(me)ininity. (207-08)
The bottom line here would be, first, that there is the need to quickly divert from lesbian subjectivity based on body politics, and, second, to alter expectations towards cultural texts of representation. The turn, however, has to come from gay women themselves and be based on their self-perception – only then will a change in the common social recognition be possible. With regard to the bodily aspect of identity politics of the 1960s the “homosexual role” must cease to be performed by lesbians themselves, since otherwise they are a fertile source of stigmatization. In this respect, I suggested queer perspective as most vital tool for altering the obvious and the expected, and thus freeing identity from the body.
This case is neatly illustrated by another non-normative TV series, Queer as Folk (the American version was broadcast between 2000 and 2005). Though one needs to realize there is a difference between lesbian and gay experiences, and thus the difference in expectations of the audiences, the text of culture allows for a certain reference. Namely, its content is beautifully queer. On the one hand, there may be plenty of outraged gay men out there who do not identify with the portrayal involving constant clubbing, casual sex or AIDS associations. First, however, queer is not strictly about refuting stereotypes, but about awareness of their source, which is a fear of diversity. Queer reveals the source and reveals the fear. And since diversity is what queer celebrates, Queer as Folk is a sumptuous feast. Second, the series is quite inclusive and multifaceted. Through bold affirmation of gay night life, both brief and long-term gay relationships, meaningful sex life and sex drive on its own, sexuality at large, friendships, marriages, civil rights, teen problems, problems at work, social problems, medical problems, and many others, the text does present most touchy aspects of what is commonly associated with the homosexual, but, at the same time, it cannot be accused of conforming to any pattern. More significantly, the series is most self-conscious and shows a profound understanding of queer politics. Paradoxically, it is the most “stereotypical” hero that is responsible for challenging blind prejudices and legitimizing queer life rather than essentially gay one. Not only do Brian’s lines contain golden thoughts and witty remarks on gay relationships and struggles, but many a time he also gives explicit statements as to the urgent need for separation from the heterosexual and heteronormative patterns and lifestyles. Though he never questions his own or anyone else’s identity, the underlying assumption being that all the characters are essentially gay, he is otherwise the staunchest advocate of the value of queer in that he valiantly fights for the recognition of difference and diversity. On many occasions he emphasizes, “we are queers.” And when there is a serious bombing in the protagonists’ beloved gay night club, Brian states, “Fucking is the best revenge,” by which he means continuing to be proudly different in spite of all the hate that the non-heterosexuals get (Queer as Folk, 5:11).
The series also promotes what Michel Foucault used to call “eroticising of the body,” i.e. sexually acting according to one’s own impulses and needs, engaging the whole body and not imitating common practices and concepts of (heteronormative) sex as based on (genital) penetration only. Also, the underlying logic behind Queer as Folk is that a stereotype is not a stereotype, but was made to be one in order to stigmatize – the point behind queer perspective as well. Since the series presented the particular lifestyle consciously and manifestly, thus subversively taking over the tool of labelling, it cannot be accused of superficial and conventional portrayal of gays. For whenever there is politics embedded in commonly recognized ways of a minority group in place of a single stereotypical trait taken out of context, as it often happens when a popular TV series decides upon introducing a gay protagonist, there is no heteronormative harm. These members of gay audience who are still outraged at the portrayal should notice there is much regular devotion and long-term emotional and sexual commitment going on in the plot as well – the series, like queer, is not one-track and there is a lot to choose from. Similarly, the audience of The L Word remained involved, but sceptical and dissatisfied, almost malcontent.
Here I would like to give one more example of the trap of heteronormativity, in which lesbian viewers tend to get caught in. The American version of Queer as Folk introduced one lesbian couple, regularly featuring throughout the seasons. Melanie and Lindsay used Brian as a donor and are now bringing up a kid, Melanie being professionally active and Lindsay spending most of her time at home. This – and the fact that at one point they tackle personal issues, like communication problems or infidelity – resulted in outrage among lesbian viewers arguing that not only does Queer as Folk feature only one lesbian couple, but the one family is further unrepresentative because it reinforces stereotypes. The lesbian audience following the storyline of the gay series usually mention gender role-playing, the aforementioned infidelity and so-called “lesbian bed death” as these aspects of the representation that tarnish the image of lesbians once again. As I see it, this is yet another example of injustice and self-inflicted harm. First of all, Melanie and Lindsay do negotiate their gender roles in the course of action; Lindsay realizes there is something else out there than being put in labelled boxes by default, as a result of which she intends to pursue her career as well. The thread is a perfect example of a process of self-discovery: one feels confined, one acknowledges the construction of social categories and roles, one tries to leave them. And because Lindsay succeeds – her and Melanie working on this aspect of their relationship – there seems to be nothing stigmatizing or unreal in the representation of it. On the contrary – it seems to me rather liberating. Secondly, infidelity seems to be an issue here, and it may be handled twofold: there is a romance with another woman first, and then one with a man. Upon the latter one Lindsay is going through yet another process of self-reflection, which – by the lesbian audience generally – is regarded as betrayal to lesbian identity. My question here would be, why? And my answer is that the “homosexual role” still works too effectively. Lindsay’s situation is, in fact, the epitome of social construction of sexuality in that she recognized certain desires, needs and fluidity in spite of her love to Melanie. She needed to consciously acknowledge her identity instead of taking it for granted. Obviously, since the couple suffers from communication problems at one point, the situation provided the lesbian viewers with an argument for Lindsay’s manifestation of evil and her purposeful escape. However, are not communication issues and following crises much common in any relationship and irrespective of the configuration? As I see it, the heterosexual romance was not supposed to be a getaway, and it certainly does not unmake anyone a lesbian. I am personally thankful for such plot development since it offered a realistic insight into a functioning of a lesbian identity and relationship, and how they can work within a larger non-heteronormative context. What is more significant, the issue only uncovers the aforementioned internalized homophobia within the community – one visible in heteronormative patterns and tendencies behind the quest for “the true lesbian.” The final question, to which I respond most staunchly, is the allegation regarding the “lesbian bed death” in the characters’ relationship quite amusing. It seems to me that the only depiction the lesbian audience would accept as representative of their lives is eternally hectic, exciting and active sex life. Should one make of it that lesbian identitarian, emotional and sexual lives are both homogenous and flawless? Tellingly, the “lesbian bed death” was a concept formulated by a sociologist Pepper Schwartz in 1983: his survey is said to have provided statistics that ostensibly proved that lesbian sex life tends to be most limited (in terms of both quantity and quality) and least intense of all relationship configurations. As such, it quickly became a point of departure for American (male!) clinicians, which resulted in the production of yet another stereotype. I honestly cannot understand why non-heterosexual women should identify with yet another patriarchal idea derived from medical discourse, or why they seriously treat it as a means of social (self-)discipline. Of one thing I am, though, sure: influential as Mary McIntosh was, she would not like to see her statement from 1968 so predictive and valid in the 2000s.
Taking all the aforementioned aspects into account, my final question based on the general tendency of lesbian viewers/critics is, why do we need to be so malcontent? We crave for representation, and yet – no matter how accurate it actually becomes – we accept none. The broader perspective is that in both cases – Queer as Folk’s storyline and The L Word’s representation – what we eventually get is an in-depth overview of “gayness” as a complex and certainly not essential concept – a lifestyle with a particularly wide variety of emotions and needs, proudly different and equally legitimate. Though The L Word does not manifest such political content as Queer as Folk does, or does not play with the most common stereotypes, it still has much to offer in terms of what is actually behind the visible, and by this I mean an accurate depiction of lesbian desire and a wide choice of lesbian drives. Just like Brian seems superficial and possesses the attributes assigned to a “real” homosexual, but at the same time is politically the queerest of all the protagonists, similarly The L Word‘s characters may seem too flawless and unconcerned, but still do convey the actual point – the lesbian meaning. Hence, my grounds for comparison are that while Queer as Folk blatantly constitutes such political statement, The L Word‘s assuming of the difference is subtler, but equally important. While Queer as Folk visually uses stereotypes for subversion, The L Word‘s visuality queers expectations. In consequence, both series disclose the uniquely non-heterosexual. Both make a difference. Both are non-heteronormative.
Thus, I should repeat: The L Word managed to capture passions, processes, and states of mind that no other series had even tried to show. It is precisely thanks to such inclusion of unique lesbian experience that the text is non-heteronormative and does represent gay women. As long as the fact remains unrecognizable for the sake of perpetuating body and identity politics, lesbians all over the world will remain captivated in front of the TV on the one hand, but still restricted by the stereotypes and labels of the real world, and their own, on the other. In order to produce any change of lesbians’ marginal status among other sexual minorities, lesbians need to be noticed, acknowledged, understood, and appreciated. Not only is this not to be achieved through the visual, but it is also going to be further delayed precisely because of it. My stance is that it is lesbian experience, lesbian desire and some corresponding emotions that constitute the primary means the characters express lesbianity through, and body should not be specified among them. When discussing “the politics of subversion,” Samuel A. Chambers states:
Particularly when it comes to the idea of challenging norms, subversion is best thought of as a practice that works from inside the terms of the norms. This means that subversion must operate from below. Norms of gender and sexuality cannot easily be overthrown from the outside, but they can be overturned from the inside.(106-07; emphasis original)
Thus, my overall reply to the accusation of the series’ heteronormativity in terms of the body is that it is not The L Word that is such, but to expect it to be one way and not any other is to rely on a heteronormative way of thinking and to reinforce the most limited and limiting stereotypes of both lesbians and women in general. It is even more dangerous and sad that the expectations are built up and held by the lesbian audience themselves, since it shows the strength of “the homosexual role” and does not let us divert from passé, restrictive and wrong identity politics. As one of The L Word‘s main characters states, “We’re all connected. Through love, through loneliness, through one tiny, lamentable lapse in judgement” (The L Word, 1:3). Yes, we are. As well as through experience and the duty of recreating and queering the lesbian discourse in such a way that would free us from self-imposing essentializing categories. Because lesbian bodies is the one thing that we do not share.
Beirne, Rebecca. “Mapping Lesbian Sexuality on Queer as Folk.” Televising Queer Women: A Reader. Ed. Rebecca Beirne. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 99-107. Print.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.
Chambers, Samuel A. The Queer Politics of Television. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009. Print.
Doty, Alexander. “Queer Theory.” The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Ed. John Hill, and Pamela Church Gibson. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. 148-52. Print.
Douglas, Erin. “Pink Heels, Dildos, and Erotic Play: The (Re)Making of Fem(me)ininity in Showtime’s The L Word.” Televising Queer Women: A Reader. Ed. Rebecca Beirne. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 195-209. Print.
Dyer, Richard. The Culture of Queers. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Random House, 1995. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Historia seksualności. Trans. Bogdan Banasiak, Krzysztof Matuszewski. Warszawa: Czytelnik, 2002. Print.
Grosz, Elizabeth. “Experimental Desire.” Space, Time, and Perversion. By Elizabeth Grosz. New York: Routledge, 1995. 207-27. Print.
Grosz, Elizabeth. “Refiguring Lesbian Desire.” Space, Time, and Perversion. By Elizabeth Grosz. New York: Routledge, 1995. 173-85. Print.
Heller, Dana. “How Does a Lesbian Look?” Reading The L Word: Outing Contemporary Television. Ed. Kim Akass, and Janet McCabe. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006. 55-68. Print.
hooks, bell. “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness.” Yearning: Race, Gender and Cultural Politics. By bell hooks. Boston: Sount End P, 1990. 145-154. Electronic.
Jones, Chris. “Lesbian and Gay Cinema.” An Introduction to Film Studies.By Jill Nelmes. 2nded. London: Routledge, 2001. 307-44. Print.
Jonet, M. Catherine, and Laura Anh Williams. “’Everything Else Is the Same’: Configurations of The L Word.” Televising Queer Women: A Reader. Ed. Rebecca Beirne. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 149-162. Print.
Kosofsky Sedgwick, Eve. “The L Word: Novelty in Normalcy.” Reading The L Word: Outing Contemporary Television. Ed. Kim Akass, and Janet McCabe. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006. xix-xxiv. Print.
The L Word. Ilene Chaiken et al. Seasons 1-6. Showtime, 2004-2009. DVD.
The L World: Documentary. Larin Sullivan. Showtime, 2006. DVD.
McIntosh, Mary. “The Homosexual Role.” Queer Theory/Sociology. Ed. Steven Seidman. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996. 33-40. Print.
Moore, Candace, and Kristen Schilt. “Is She Man Enough? Female Masculinities
on The L Word.” Reading The L Word: Outing Contemporary Television. Ed. Kim Akass, and Janet McCabe. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006. 159-71. Print.
Pratt, Marnie. “’This Is the Way We Live… and Love!’: Feeding on and Still Hungering
for Lesbian Representation in The L Word” Televising Queer Women: A Reader.
Ed. Rebecca Beirne. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 135-47. Print.
Queer as Folk. Michael DeCarlo, John Fawcett et al. Seasons 1-5. Showtime, 2000-2005. DVD.
Roripaugh, Lee Ann, and Susan J. Wolfe. “The (In)visible Lesbian: Anxieties of Representation in The L Word.” Reading The L Word: Outing Contemporary Television. Ed. Kim Akass, and Janet McCabe. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006. 43-54. Print.
Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań
Between the Subject and the Object: Chris Burden’s Body Art
Chris Burden is one of the most influential but also controversial figures in the American art of the 1970s, both an enfant terrible of the alternative art and a classic of the radical artistic actions. Born in 1946 in Boston, Massachusetts, he moved to California in the 1960s to study visual arts, physics and architecture, at the same time pursuing an artistic career and creating his first body pieces. Investigating the psychological experience of personal danger and physical risk, Burden used his own body as an art object in outrageous acts, allowing himself to be physically tormented, shot, crucified, almost drowned, burnt, and electrocuted. Burden’s best known pieces include among others: Five Day Locker Piece (1971), Shoot (1971), Bed Piece (1972), Match Piece (1972), Deadman (1972), Icarus (1973), Movie on the Way Down (1973), Through the Night Softly (1973), Doorway to Heaven (1973), Fire Roll (1973), Trans-fixed (1974), Velvet Water (1974), and Doomed (1975).
Shocking as his actions may be, the value of Burden’s works lies not in their sensationalism but in a new and, at the same time, radical approach to one of the most artistically captivating subjects – the human body. The artist’s pieces pose fundamental questions about corporeality and its use, including the social, cultural and political tensions within the body seen as a concept, a symbol, and an entity. In this article I will critically examine the notion of Burden’s body art, focusing on three of his most prominent and interpretatively complex pieces – Shoot, Through the Night Softly and Doomed. I will argue that the body for the artist is a space of transgression between the subject and the object, where the boundaries between the two spheres become fluid, if not questionable. A brief insight into the historical and critical considerations surrounding the phenomenon of body art will be provided first, followed by an overview of critical interpretations of Burden’s works and an analysis of the artist’s three pieces in relation to the notion of transgression.
The possibilities which the body opens before artists are innumerable in their diversity, range and plasticity. As Bryan Turner, a British sociologist and researcher of the body phenomenon, puts it, “body is at once the most solid, the most elusive, illusory, concrete, metaphorical, ever present and ever distant thing – a site, an instrument, an environment, a singularity and a multiplicity” (53). Considering the vastness of prospects provided by the body, it is surprising that for many years it had been reduced to playing a purely figurative and visual function in art as a form, an image, and an inspiration, recreated in painting or sculpture and used only in a conventional modeling manner. A breakthrough and, consequently, a full realization of the potential that corporeality carried came in the late 1960s, when body art was born. It should be noted here that the artistic practice, as known and researched in the field of art history, is not a universal phenomenon but one with a clear historical and social foundation. It is namely a subcategory of performance art that emerged in the late 1960s and became accepted as a new artistic language in the 1970s (Goldberg 7), taking the art scene by storm and quickly finding its followers in the alternative artistic circles all over the world. The United States, with its potent West Coast and New York international artistic communities, seem to have immediately nurtured the impulse of the new art form. With artists such as Vito Acconci, Bruce Nauman, Marina Abramovic, and Caroleen Schneemann working in New York, and Chris Burden exploring the genre on the West Coast, body art proved to be a major artistic force of the era.
Art critics link body art to the cultural and ideological changes of the 1960s (Goldberg 152), such as strong opposition towards The Vietnam War and the social revolution of 1968, which inspired artistic explorations into the previously unknown areas. Artists sought an innovative, radical, and universal means of expression that would address and challenge the artistic status quo. The new language, the novel art form, was to question the accepted definitions of the concept of art itself and redefine its meaning and function, oppose the requirements of the art market, go beyond traditional art materials such as brush, paint or canvas, and, finally, grant creators more instant access to the audience. Body art, the use of the one’s own body as material, enabled artists to achieve all of the above-mentioned postulates. Stemming from the conceptual background of performance art, body art preserved performance’s freedom, temporariness, and anti-commerciality. The pieces were almost with no exception characterized by their transitory and ephemeral nature. Once performed, they could not be recreated, and because of their character they could not be subject to commercial exchange and other business transactions. This aspect, in combination with a drastic intensity of action, and, in some cases, a very intimate relationship between the artist and the audience, determined the new mode’s considerable artistic impact.
Indeed, the spectrum of artistic acts in the domain of body art is wide. In his analysis of the phenomenon, Hal Foster, an American art critic, distinguishes three most common models of the art form, the categorization being based on the very treatment of the body and the ways of exploring it. The first model, Foster writes, is body art seen as action, “affirming the heroic, often spectacular gesture of the artist” (565). The second model is the artistic practice as a task, a bodily routine, testing the physical limits of the body. And finally, the third is the mode perceived as ritual, an attempt to resacralize art, with the artist as the priest very often offering himself on the altar of art.The categorization proposed by Foster, combined with the historical foundations of body art described above, serves as the basis for the critical readings of Burden’s pieces. In fact, two major trends can be distinguished in the interpretation of the artist’s works.
The first trend foregrounds the importance of the Vietnam War (1955-1975), its impact on American society and the atrocities committed during the war. As Schjeldahl and Gadd point out, the time of Burden’s artistic activity in the domain of body art (1971-1976) partly overlapped with the final, most brutal years of the American involvement in Vietnam. As Gadd puts it, “the Vietnam era of the 1960s and 1970s . . . was marked by violence and a collective confusion over the reasons behind that violence” (11). The American public was not only frustrated with their losses but could also no longer tolerate the violence and civilian deaths, not to say mass murders, among the Vietnamese. Newspapers and magazines reinforced the image of destruction and fatality with articles and photographs, such as the 1972 iconic image of the Vietnamese girl running naked down the street after a napalm attack.
In view of the above, the critical readings of Burden’s pieces emphasize the fact that brutality in the artist’s works is a sign of vulnerability of the human condition brought about by the military conflict. As Peter Schjeldahl writes, “by constructing shocking situations of self-mutilation, the artist’s works conveyed the reality of pain and violence.Enacting violence was a supposed sign of protest against the war or the political disarray.” Moreover, the employment of cruelty by Burden was, as Schjeldahl puts it, creating “a double bind” for viewers. Through his shocking actions, Burden was to confront the audience, make them passively witness and accept the savagery, questioning the safe role of the viewer, who avoids ethical responsibility in beholding cruelty. Respectively, Gadd interprets the performance of violence by Burden on his own body as a political act, an act of opposition against the war, a painful and powerful statement on war atrocities (19-21). In a sense, Burden’s body art constituted a social commentary validated by Foucault’s claim that “the body is . . . directly involved in the political field; power relations have an immediate hold upon it; they invest it, mark it, train it, torture it, force it to carry out tasks, to perform ceremonies, to emit signs” (100). In this understanding, the body explored through the artist’s actions was a political and social one.
The second trend in the interpretation of Burden’s works draws on the model of body art as action or ritual. The focus is on the artist’s heroic, spectacular and shocking actions. RoseLee Goldberg, an American art historian and body art critic, describes Burden’s works in terms of reenacting “certain American classics – like shooting people,” claiming that “Burden’s performances, involving real danger, had a grandiose aim – to alter the representation of such themes for all time” (159). Foster, on the other hand, describes Burden’s works referring primarily to Trans-fixed, as offering the viewer a “sacrificial” theater with a ritualistic basis (568). Viewed in this dimension, Burden’s actions appear to be close in form and function to a ceremony, an offering of the self, where the artist’s every gesture is of crucial importance.
Having summarized the critical readings of Burden’s works present in the art historical discourse, it is time to engage in a new perception of the artist’s actions with regard to the problematics of the body. It should be noted that although the above-described interpretations of Burden’s body pieces are not without their sound foundations, they do nevertheless constrain the artistic impact of the artist’s body works. The perspective adopted by the critics is always that of the outsider or the viewer. In other words, the critical eye focuses on a careful observation of Burden’s actions, or their documentation captured on film, and attempts to describe the results with regard to the audience, art history, visual tradition, or society at large. The artist’s perspective, the intricate relationship between the doer and the receiver, the performer of actions and the substance upon which the performer acts, a notion of an individual characterized by inherent duality, is not mentioned. Therefore, I would like to depart from the limiting interpretations discussed above and to introduce a yet another mode of body art, arguing that the problematics intrinsic to Burden’s works extend beyond the clearly delineated historical and visual boundaries.
The fourth model of body art, which I would like to adopt to discuss Burden’s works, is that of transgression, as discussed by Łukasz Białkowski, a philosopher and art critic, in his short study on the subject entitled Body Art: A Transgressive Situation. Here, transgression is described as the defining characteristic of the art movement. Body art serves as a means of investigating the unknown or the repressed areas of oneself through the exceeding of due bounds or limits, crossing of the body’s boundaries, questioning of the self. As Białkowski writes, based on the assumption that the human being is a complex psychophysical structure where the body and the mind are interconnected, the body artist is simultaneously “I, the self” and “the material” upon which the self acts. The body is both the subject and the object of the work but they are not rendered as one, hence allowing the act of transgression to take place. And if, as Białkowski claims, to:
act upon the flesh means to affect the psyche,violent means should be applied to throw the body off balance, to disrupt the body’s stability in order to bring forth what is deeply hidden in a person. The body is here not only a tool for the evocation of some experiences, but their primal source.
In other words, body art is not seen as a static aesthetic act performed for the viewing pleasure but a dynamic action, a dialogue between intense physical and mental experiences, the power of the work lying in the very process of moving from one sphere to the other. And it is precisely what Burden does in his works – through pain and other extreme physical acts, he explores the unknown area between the subject and the object. The nature of this process can be demonstrated on the example ofthree of his most notorious works.
The first body piece to be analyzed, Shoot (November 19, 1971, F Space, Santa Ana, California) is, perhaps, Burden’s best-known work. The artist’s account of the whole act maintains a matter-of-fact tone. Burden clearly rejects the masochistic label, saying: “At 7:45 P.M. I was shot in the left arm by a friend. The bullet was a copper jacket .22 long rifle. My friend was standing about fifteen feet from me” (qtd. in Horovitz 26). For Burden, the central meaning of the piece did not lie in its visual qualities, the reenactment of a dangerous situation as seen on television or in movies, but in the complex psycho-corporeal experience, a reaction of the body to a painful stimulus. As the artist himself recounted, “the idea of being shot at to be hit . . . it’s something to experience” (qtd. in Loeffler and Tong 73). Indeed, the whole event was organized around a single, drastic, and, what is important, very brief and virtually instantaneous act – a gunshot that violates the artist’s body and influences his entire self.
Burden stands before the man with a rifle as a person, still as an “I” who has control over what is happening to him. A brief moment when his subjectivity is breached follows when the bullet goes through his arm. The artist is no longer Chris Burden, a person, but merely a piece of flesh. The body is experienced as a burden, an entity whose boundaries can be broken, but it is precisely through this realization of the corporeal margins, limitations and materiality that the artist can fully apprehend himself as an individual. The subjectivity is regained after the whole act is over, yet still the pain and the wound are tangible reminders of the duality of the self and the act of transgression that has just taken place. Shoot preliminarily explores the very reversibility and fluidity of the subject-object transgression, experiencing it in such a brief period of time. Interestingly enough, the inherent duality in unity, a sensation of being simultaneously the subject and the object, experienced by Burden within himself is expressed externally through the counterposition of two persons: the artist, representing the acted-upon, and the man with the rifle, representing the acting-upon. Both of them form this powerful work – they are one as double, the shooting man representing the active and Burden – the passive.
Burden further investigates the phenomenon of transgression in the piece entitled Through the Night Softly (September 12, 1973, Main Street, Los Angeles). Again, the artist’s description of the act is very simple and devoid of sensationalism. “Holding my hands behind my back,” Burden recounts, “I crawled through 50 feet of broken glass. There were very few spectators, most of them passers-by” (qtd. in Horovitz 28). The artist was naked and his arms were tied behind his back, which simultaneously hindered the body’s movement and increased the intensity of the experienced pain as he was dragging himself over the sharp and wounding surface. Again,self-exposure is crucial in the interpretation of this piece. However, whereas in Shoot violence was inflicted upon the artist by a third party, here, Burden is both the agent and the object of his actions. What is more, the physical experience now encompasses the entire body and the whole piece lasts much longer than Shoot, which, consequently, influences the entire intense exposure and presents the transgressive body as experienced through a course of action and not just a single, reversible act. Indeed, the ephemeral situation of transgression is now enacted as an ongoing process, a continuous and complex action where subjectivity and objectivity constantly intertwine. Inflicting pain on oneself and the very act of striving under the burden of physicality (hands held behind the back, hindering movement, the very act of crawling) indicate objectification, degrade and turn the subject into mere flesh. On the other hand, however, the fact that the artist is, at the same time, the agent and the fact that it is through his efforts of will that he proceeds, goes forward and endures, point to the artist’s status as the subject. Through the Night Softly examines the transgressive body as both a phenomenon of duration and a field of struggle, where the subject and the object exist as coeval polarities.
The third and final Burden’s piece to be analyzed in this article is entitled Doomed (April 11-13, 1975, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago). In terms of its execution and the arrangement of the entire situation, this performance differs greatly from the above-described two works. As Peter Schjeldahl reports:
[Burden] set a clock on a wall at midnight, and lay down on the floor under a leaning sheet of glass. Viewers came and went. Burden didn’t move. Inevitably, he soiled his pants. (“It was awful,” he recalled.) Forty-five hours and ten minutes passed. Then a young museum employee named Dennis O’Shea took it upon himself to place a container of water within Burden’s reach. The artist got up, smashed the clock with a hammer, and left. He never again undertook a public action that imperiled himself.
In contrast to the above-discussed works, here, transgression is initiated not by the experienced or inflicted pain but by physical endurance and going to the limits of physicality. On one level, the struggle between the subject and the object goes on in the artist’s body in much the same manner as in previous works. The self-imposed suppression of movement and the following reduction of the body to a mere material presence is the manifestation of the artist’s objectivity, while the experienced frustration with such a status of the body demonstrates the artist’s role as the subject. However, the subject-object dichotomy is also expressed on a different level – through the manner in which the whole performance is arranged, the glass pane being the crucial element of the art work. As has been mentioned, Burden becomes the object through his imposed passivity and through the fact that he presents himself as an object to the viewers (he lies motionlessly behind the glass pane, like a commodity on display). On the other hand, the fact that Burden distances himself from the viewers and introduces a physical, although transparent, barrier points to the experience of the self as an enclosed individual, the subject standing in opposition to other individuals and society rather than merging with them. Through the exploration of the physical endurance experienced in Doomed, Burden reaches a conclusion about the inevitability of the subject’s and the object’s independent, yet interrelated status.
To recapitulate, the body for Burden is the field of struggle and the space of transgression, where the boundaries between the subject and the object become fluid and indefinite. The aspect of the body as material mingles with the notion of the body seen as an agent only to form a complex and contradictory combination. Through his exploration of this subject-object dichotomy, Burden implies other polarities as well: the body as active or passive, expressive and oppressive, material and mental. Precisely in this double, tense and contradictory character lies the power of these works. Robert Rauschenberg once said that as an artist he tries to act in the gap between art and life. To paraphrase, Burden tries to act in the gap between the subject and the object.
Białkowski, Łukasz. “Body Art: Sytuacja Transgresyjna” [“Body Art: A Transgressive Situation”]. Institute of Philosophy at the Jagiellonian University. 2003: n.pag. Web. 21. Feb. 2012.
Burden, Chris, Anne Ayres, and Paul Schimmel. Chris Burden: A Twenty-Year Survey. Newport: Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1988. Print.
Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York: Penguin, 2005. Print.
Foster, Hal, et al. Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004. Print.
Foucault, Michel. “The Political Investment of the Body.” The Body: A Reader. Ed. M. Fraser. London: Routledge, 2005. 100-04. Print.
Gadd, Jordan. “Performing Violence: The (Un)reality of War – Chris Burden, Edward Kienholz, Wafaa Bilal.” Diss. Pomona College, 2009. Pomona Senior Theses. Web. 21 Feb. 2012.
Goldberg, Rose Lee. Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995. Print.
Horovitz, Robert. “Chris Burden.” Artforum 14.9 (1976): 24-31. Print.
Jones, Amelia. Body Art: Performing the Subject. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1998. Print.
Loeffler, Carl, and Darlene Tong. Performance Anthology: Source Book of California Performance Art. San Francisco: Contemporary Art P, 1980. Print.
Licht, Ira. Bodyworks. Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1975. Print.
Schjeldahl, Peter. “Performance: Chris Burden and the Limits of Art.” The New Yorker 14 May 2007: n.pag. Web. 20 Feb. 2012.
Turner, Bryan. The Body and Society: Explorations in Social Theory. Boston: Blackwell, 1984. Print.
Zaner, Richard. The Problem of Embodiment: Some Contributions to a Phenomenology of the Body. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1964. Print.
University of Silesia
My Body Is a Cage. Mimicry and Colonisation of the Body in Nisi Shawl’s “Deep End”
Even though science fiction is a genre which can be characterized by its orientation towards the future and the unknown, to view it solely as a speculation on the possible futures of the humankind would seem too simplistic. As Alan Clarke says in his essay on history, heritage, and ideology: “Many writers and critics have noticed that sci-fi can tell us more about the times in which they were produced than they can about any future they depict” (70). Similarly, in his definition of the genre, Damien Broderick emphasizes the metaphorical and metonymic properties of science fiction, which he sees, as Adam Roberts puts it, “as an open-ended cultural phenomenon, which is particularly good at reflecting times of great cultural and technological change, of which our present age is a good example” (13). Therefore, if science fiction can be indeed seen as a mirror reflecting the issues that the human race has been struggling with for a long time, then postcolonial science fiction could be regarded as the inevitable reaction to the essentially colonialist roots of mainstream science fiction (Reid 257). Moreover, given the fact that postcolonial science fiction addresses and reworks the major science fiction themes of colonial expansion and conquest, it can be also viewed as a subversive subgenre which addresses the colonial past and reclaims the voice of the Other. Nisi Shawl, in her short story “Deep End,” approaches some of the most commonplace themes of science fiction from the postcolonial perspective and attempts to write back to the colonial centre, exploring the themes of colonisation and the condition of the identity of the colonial subject from the perspective of the Other. With that in mind, the following paper seeks to analyse the repeated patterns of colonial experience presented in the story and argue that it is possible to see the trope of the body presented as a locus of colonisation in terms of a metaphor for the phenomenon of mimicry – a direct result of the presence of the colonial system.
In “Deep End,” Nisi Shawl approaches the story of colonisation from the perspective of the colonial subject, Wayna, one of the prisoners on Psyche Moth, a spaceship carrying the convicts found guilty after an uprising against the white oppressors to a prison-colony on a planet called Amends in order for them to breed and spread human (that is: white) DNA. The prisoners, who are all people of colour, become subject to a process of colonisation which is not connected with the conquest and appropriation of the land (at least not directly), but it reaches even deeper than that, addressing the most fundamental locus of colonisation, that is the colonial Other. By downloading the consciousness of each and every prisoner into a virtual reality called freespace and destroying their physical bodies, the oppressors find the means to punish and subjugate the Other, at the same time deconstructing the very image of the colonial subject, who ceases to have a physical form, and reconstructing it in a way which they deem more acceptable. By removing the physical aspect of the Other – which, to a large extent, can be considered one of the most important markers of the Self-Other dichotomy based on the system of binary oppositions – the colonizer chooses to resolve the issue of racial tension by eradicating it, at least on the surface; here, people of colour become nonphysical entities and only as such are they allowed to remain in their original state. By violating the bodily autonomy of the subject, which deeply affects the creation of the identity of the Other as a colonial subject, the colonialists seek to ensure their dominance over all spheres concerning the colonial paradigm – there can be nothing that escapes their control, even the most intimate, personal aspects become politicized as the invaded bodies of prisoners become reshaped as part of the discourse. Moreover, in order to complete the process of colonisation and to construct the Other as a mirror image of the Self, the only way in which the white authorities allow the prisoners to function outside of freespace is through uploading the mind of a person of colour into a white body, thus providing the perfect deconstructed and reconstructed civilized image of the Other.
The practice described by Shawl is deeply rooted in the mechanism of mimicry, discussed by Homi Bhabha in his essay “Of Mimicry and Man.” There, he argues that one of the most fundamental aspects of the so-called civilising mission, which had been used as a means of validation of the colonial expansion and imperialism, is the intent to create a new, more civilized image of the Other who would be moulded to reflect the values and manners characteristic of the colonial centre, but who would at the same time remain distinct from the Self. According to Bhabha, that dichotomy must prevail, since it constitutes the basis for identification of the Self as well as for the justification of the colonial conquest. Therefore, following the Lacanian definition of mimicry as camouflage, “not a harmonization of repression of difference, but a form of resemblance, that differs from or defends presence by displaying it in part, metonymically,” (Bhabha 90) he concludes that “colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same but not quite” (86). In “Deep End,” the reader may observe the theme of mimicry taken to the extreme, as the minds of the prisoners are uploaded into white bodies of their oppressors, thus forcibly creating the seemingly perfect colonial mimic man who resembles the Self in almost every way possible – at least on the outside – at the same time deconstructing and reconstructing the colonial Other.
This approach allows for an interesting analysis of the way in which the identity of the Other is constructed in such unusual circumstances, via the experience of the body as well as the experience of bodily difference. The overall feeling is the sense of disconnect between the identities of the convicts and the bodies they are assigned, since the white bodies inhabited by the prisoners seem to be merely empty vessels carrying their minds, and the people of colour do not see them as integral parts of themselves, which becomes evident in the language used by the prisoners to refer to their physical bodies. In the story, Wayna thinks of herself at one point: “Now she spent most of her time as meat” (Shawl 13). By focusing on the metaphor of meat, Shawl emphasizes the significance of the body in the process of self-identification and protecting one’s native legacy in the face of colonisation and the imminent attempts at eradication of the ethnic culture. Thus, if the ethnic body becomes destroyed, it is possible to observe the emergence of the image of an incomplete, destabilized colonial subject who is denied a crucial part of their identity and therefore incapable of proper functioning. This issue, faced by the incomplete, deconstructed colonial Other, finds its symbolic representation in Wayna’s health problems – it appears that her ethnic identity (since there can be no doubt that she identifies herself as a person of colour) literally rejects the white body she is forced to occupy if she wishes to possess a physical form. This dichotomy is even more emphazied by the way in which the author chooses to represent the bodily element. In freespace, where the prisoners’ avatars are allowed to look the way they did before their bodies had been destroyed, the body and its sensuous, corporeal nature are heavily emphasized, especially in the scenes where the characters engage in sexual intercourse. On the other hand, outside of freespace, the focus on the body – if it appears at all – is much more clinical and detached in nature. When Wayna analyses the malfunctions of her clone, she thinks of it mostly in terms of a tool rather than an entity she could identify with. What emerges here, then, is the opposition between the perfect imperfection of the black bodies and the imperfect perfection of the white bodies, which appear to facilitate only the creation of the inevitable split in the psyche of the colonial subject. Moreover, the metaphor of meat returns several times throughout the story and serves to further emphasize the strangeness and, ironically, otherness of the bodies imposed on the prisoners by the white authorities in order to manifest the extent of the encroachment upon the identity of the colonial Other inherent in the workings of the colonial discourse. Here, once again, it is the Other who is forced to adapt – literally, by adapting to the new, white body – to the expectations of the colonizers, losing the sense of one’s true identity in the process of becoming the mimic man, the distorted mirror image of the Self.
Furthermore, even though it seems that the colonisation of mind and body in the story is not complete and the characters retain a part of their agency, upon closer examination it becomes evident that the illusion of at least partial freedom is just that – an illusion, as the authorities exert control over both bodies and minds of the convicts. Aboard the ship, everything is controlled by Dr Ops, an Artificial Intelligence manifesting itself as a white man, designed to be the avatar of the white hi-tech society and, consequently, stand for the detached, absent true colonizer. Therefore, even in freespace, where the prisoners’ avatars are allowed to be the manifestations of their ethnic identities, they can never achieve total freedom, since they lack the physical bodies and can exist only in a virtual environment created and controlled by the white authorities. On the other hand, if they decide that they wish to be uploaded into a white body, they become trapped in a different form of prison, forced to live in the bodies of their oppressors and more than encouraged to internalize their own colonisation. Here, Shawl plays with the notion of mimicry and partially calls into question the destabilising effect it has on the colonial system as a whole. In the world of Psyche Moth, even mimicry, which Bhabha sees as a means of resistance and disruption of the status quo in the colonial discourse (Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin 175-76), cannot be utilized by the Other in order to defy the hegemonic power structure, exploit the uncertainty of the colonizer and question the validity of the assumptions underlying the colonial system.
Consequently, it is possible to claim that in the microcosm created by Nisi Shawl nothing apart from the colonial system exists, that it is impossible to occupy a space located outside of that discourse. With the colonisation of both body and mind, which the prisoners are subject to, comes the inevitable, literal internalisation of their colonisation, as they cannot free themselves in any way or occupy any space in between. Therefore, even though on the surface it might seem that the freedom of choice exists, it is nothing more than a false sense of security. In Shawl’s story, the two possible answers of the colonized formulated by Albert Memmi – that is, assimilation or revolt (120) – still exist: the prisoners can either conform and upload into one of the white bodies, or they can resist and choose to remain in freespace, but either answer is already inscribed into the colonial paradigm, thus ultimately making any attempt at trying to rebel against the system completely futile. In Memmi’s theory, the colonial system is considered to be an unstable construct, bound to be overthrown by the colonial subject who, by means of revolting and regaining the lost identity and agency, leads to its ultimate demise (Memmi 120). However, Shawl once again draws on the colonial narratives of our past in order to imagine a world from which there is no escape, in which, whatever the colonial Other might do, they will always be controlled by the hegemonic power structure, however unstable. In this way, she describes a reality that achieves what the colonial system of our world never managed to achieve – colonisation of the body resulting in perfect mimicry.
Nevertheless, it would seem that, even though the system described in the story ensures that there is no means of escape for the colonial subject, Shawl suggests that even such a seemingly perfect system is not free of the colonial tensions, that even though it strives to eradicate all signs of dissent, it still remains a deeply unstable construct dependent on an equally fragile equilibrium. Despite the fact that they have managed to subjugate the Other in all possible ways and create the seemingly perfect mimic man, the colonialists still seem to be haunted by what Albert Memmi refers to as Nero complex – a situation in which the more the colonizer oppresses the colonized, the more aware he becomes of his status as a usurper, up to the point in which he wishes for the Other to disappear altogether, relieving the oppressor of his burden (Memmi 52-53). However, the colonizers are still aware of the fact that without the presence of the Other, the whole system would cease to have any meaning at all, and the anger which stems from the realisation of that fact is always aimed at the colonized (Memmi 66). In the story, the Nero complex manifests itself first and foremost in the form of what could be referred to as the withdrawn colonizer, represented only by an AI. The colonialists are, in this way, able to distance themselves from the Other in the spatial sense while still maintaining control. In such a way, they do not have to face the atrocities of the system in which they occupy the central position as the oppressors. This, in turn, points to the fact that Shawl sees the colonial system as an ultimately unstable construct, where even such elaborate attempts at total control do not result in complete eradication of the colonial tensions, where, no matter how far one is willing to go in order to justify one’s hegemony, there can be no escape from the fact that the colonial paradigm is nothing more than an intrinsically flawed construct, doomed to be haunted by its own creations.
All in all, it could be argued that in “Deep End,” by presenting the phenomenon of colonisation of the body – understood as a metaphor for mimicry – and taking that trope to the extreme, Nisi Shawl exposes the mechanisms that govern the colonial system and calls into question some of the fundamental assumptions underlying the colonial paradigm. On the one hand, the colonial order described in the story has managed to achieve the level of utmost perfection and to become the ideal imperial power structure, with the mechanisms of assimilation and revolt already inscribed into the system itself, rendering all forms of resistance ultimately futile. Yet, on the other hand, by revealing the true nature of the operation which stands behind the actions of the white authorities, as well as the precarious position of the colonialists, the story challenges the actual stability of the system and the legitimacy of the so-called civilising mission, which has been used in order to justify the imperial expansion in the colonial discourse. In “Deep End,” the oppressors do very little to pretend that their ultimate aim is only to create the perfect mimic man who would be the mirror image of the Self but at the same time would not disturb the status quo. In fact, this aspect of the civilising mission seems to be absent from the story, as there is nothing that would suggest that the white authorities want to, to quote Rudyard Kipling’s famous phrase, “take up the white man’s burden” (Kipling) and spread civilisation for the supposed benefit of the colonized. What is emphasized instead is the implied goal of dissemination of the human (understood here as white) DNA – the primary motive behind the colonisation of space. The fact that Shawl exposes the claim that the alleged civilising mission had been the main reason behind the colonial expansion to be completely hollow can be seen as an attempt at reclaiming the voice of the Other and writing back to the centre, telling the story from the perspective of the colonial subjects, who up to this point have been denied their own voice, and addressing the issues concerning the identity of the Other, overlooked by the colonial discourse. In emphasising the fact that in the process of colonisation the body becomes politicized as part of the discourse, Shawl implies that the bodily element seems to be indispensable in the development of subject’s identity, thus allowing the experience of the body to come to the foreground of the debate concerning the creation of the colonial subject. At the same time, the way the story deals with the theme of colonisation of space and the sacrifices that are to be made, mainly on the part of the Other, in order to facilitate that endeavour, questions the legitimacy of one of the most prevalent themes in the science fiction genre, that is, the colonial expansion and conquest of space, and raises the issue of the possible new forms of racial tension that may have a profound impact on the identity of the colonial subject.
Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures (New Accents). London: Routledge, 2002. Print.
Bhabha, Homi K. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse.” The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. 85-92. Print.
Clarke, Alan. “Past Tense: History, Heritage and Ideology.” Britishness and Cultural Studies: Continuity and Change in Narrating the Nation. Ed. Krzysztof Knauer and Simon Murray. Katowice: Wydawnictwo Śląsk, 2000. 70-82. Print.
Kipling, Rudyard. “The White Man’s Burden.” Internet History Sourcebooks. N.p., Aug. 1997. Web. 22 Oct. 2012.
Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993. Print.
Reid, Michelle. “Postcolonialism.” The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint. London: Routledge, 2009. 256-66. Print.
Roberts, Adam. “Defining Science Fiction.” Science Fiction: The New Critical Idiom. London: Routledge, 2000. 1-46. Print.
Shawl, Nisi. “Deep End.” So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction and Fantasy. Ed. Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2004. 12-22. Print.
University of Łódź
Body, Language and Identity – a Meditation on Metamorphoses in Yann Martel’s Self
Yann Martel’s first novel, Self, delves deeply into the now-fashionable topics of body, gender, language and cultural identity. The whole work is greatly focused on the sensual experience and is, at times, exceedingly naturalistic. From the first scene – the first memory of a Self, that is the potty training, through the difficult process of puberty, bodily metamorphoses and sexual experiences, the reader is thoroughly aware of the carnality and sometimes even taken aback by the thorough descriptions of all of its elements: sweat, blood, semen, etc. As the back cover of 2003 Faber and Faber edition reads, the book may be considered “a vivid expression of a fragmented self” and “a fascinating story of transformation . . . [and] a serious look at who we might be beyond our knowing” (Scotland on Sunday qtd. in Martel; The Times qtd. in Martel).
The transformation, or, in other words, metamorphosis, is the process that exists in the book on many levels – the central character of the novel, the Self (we never get to know his/her name, and although it shares many features with the author of the book, the work cannot be considered an autobiography) undergoes physical modifications – his sex changes twice in the course of the narrative, and we are made thoroughly aware of the process of his/her maturation, as it recounts its childhood, puberty, and young age. The metamorphosis also concerns the changes of the environment – Self, being the child of Canadian diplomats, often changes addresses, and, later in the novel, travels extensively on its own. Last but not least, the transformations of language are also of great importance – code-switching features largely in the novel, and the readers are forced to compare the characters’ utterances in various languages (ranging from Czech and German to French, Spanish, and even Hungarian) with their equivalents in English. The novel has a fragmented, postmodern structure – it is an unconventional memoir, a collage of various loosely connected memories, images and metaphors, resembling a scrapbook or a draft of a certain novel that is meant to be written by the title character. Though the theme of literature features largely in the novel, the emphasis is put not so much on literary creation, but on direct experience.
The Self tries to build an identity for himself/herself, and this process involves asking the first questions about the nature of the world, a philosophical system built out of his mother’s theories and own experience. Martel seems to understand philosophy as connected with the body, similarly to Foucault, who, in Shusterman’s words, claims that:
philosophy can be a matter not of texts, but of an embodied life – practice . . . the bios philosophicus is the animality of being human, renewed as a challenge, practiced as an exercise – thrown into the face of others as a scandal. (156)
The Self, as a child, ascribes equal importance to the process of cooking the carrots and the intricate theories of Enlightenment philosophy. Doing the laundry even becomes a sort of a religious, mystic experience for him. The trite details of domestic life and the emotions aroused by them, as well as the sensual experiences connected to them help to create a new system of beliefs and identity for the Self. It is first visible in the quest for the definition of love and the clarification of this curious phenomenon. When the Self sees the documentary on ocean life on the TV, he immediately connects love to this pleasurable experience, making up his own theory about the fishes living in people’s eyes, awakening to swim as their owners fall in love. What is more, he thus describes one of his first infatuations:
I have no idea why I fell in love with Noah Rabinovitch . . . When I was alone, I was happy and whole, but when we were together, the whole was greater. There was an added brightness to things, a deeper perspective. But I would say the same thing to only slightly a lesser degree, of other people . . . There was more to it than that, only I don’t know what. I think I remember that I liked the way Noah walked. He walked, therefore I loved him. (Martel 20)
We can see that the classical statement of the Enlightenment, coined by René Descartes “I think, therefore I am,” becomes curiously distorted here. The original emphasis on a cognitive process (I THINK), leading to the realization of existence (I AM) is completely lost. Instead, there is a focus on the physical activity, dynamic change (HE WALKED), which leads in turn to somewhat absurd conclusion – the declaration of the feeling (I LOVED HIM). It shows us that our world is not built on logical reasoning, that emotions connect more to the physical experience than the conscious thought. Paradoxically, in the postmodern universe, the role of the former diminishes, for, as Richard Shusterman states “reason is increasingly recognized as historically variable, shaped by changing social conditions and serving as an equivocal tool of deeper irrational forces” (163) and the body takes its place as “a site of self definition through which even consciousness can be refashioned” (162). We witness this transformation of consciousness later in the novel, as the Self becomes a woman, and then, a man once again, which contributes to the change in his/her perception of reality.
The notion of gender is, in fact, one of the most gripping concepts in the novel. The Self tries to formulate his own theories about it. The parents tell him that the word “opposite” should not be used when talking about sexes, as it is “aggressive, defines by negation, says very little” (Martel 19). Instead, they encouraged him to call them “complementary,” which leads to confusion – the child is convinced that multiple genders must exist, as there is a complementary person for everyone. This variant of the old Greek theory of the halves seeking to become the whole proves erroneous and leads to a great disillusionment when the child discovers that there are only two sexes. He rebels against the imposed dichotomy of the male/female, and seeks to debunk it in a talk in French with his mother:
Et nous sommes And we’re only on this
seulement sur cette planet?” I said, looking out
planète-ci?” je dis, regardant the window, as if the edge of
par la fenêtre, comme si le the planet were just beyond
bord de la planète était juste the field. . .
passé le champ. . .” “Just here?”
“Seulement ici?” “Just here.”
“Seulement ici.” “Erth?”
“La Taire?” “Earth.”
“La Terre.” “Female and male?”
“Femelle et mâle?” “Male and female.”
„Mâle et femelle.” (Martel 23-24)
The mother explains to him that the people on Earth have only two sexes, and that the word Earth in fact comes from Greek and Latin and means literally “here.” However, it is curious that both in English and French the child makes a mistake spelling the word. The French word “la Terre” means exactly the planet Earth, but “se taire” is a verb meaning “to be quiet” or even “to conceal.” It may be that it signifies the simple fact about language – the Earth, the natural world does not speak it, as the language is an arbitrary system, imposed on objects by people, and discovering the world with the help of instinct or bodily experience is better than just talking about it. Later, the Self seeks the explanation of the duality of sexes in French language, as he/she notices that there are only two grammatical genders in this language, the same as there are only two sexes in the real world: female and male:
I turned to French language, which gave me the gender of all things. But to no satisfaction. I would readily agree that trucks and murders were masculine while bicycles and life were feminine. But how odd that a breast was masculine. And it made little sense that garbage was feminine. (Martel 61-62)
However, he does not find it there, so he turns to his own experience for the definition of the gender:
I would look up at the male yellow sun and the male blue sky. I would turn and smell and feel the female green grass. Then I would roll over and over and over down the incline till I was dizzy, mixing up the colours and the genders. I felt neither masculinity, nor femininity, I only felt desire. (62)
The Self thus observes that the nature of things does not lie in their gender, or their imposed roles, and it is similar with the nature of people. He prefers the labels FRIENDS and ENEMIES to the notions of male and female, and rejoices at the idea of a worm possessing two sexes at the same time, which would soon become to a certain extent similar to his own future.
The theme of metamorphosis in the novel is strictly connected not only to the body and gender, but also to the language. From the beginning the narrator observes that change is the major principle governing the world; he boils carrots to observe the curious process of softening, wonders at the loss of his deciduous teeth and the change of seasons, and concludes that life is “a series of metamorphic changes, one after another, to no end” (Martel 9). He experiences such changes every day, as a child of diplomats, switching places, continents, languages and cultures and coping with different stereotypes and mentalities (his long hair and even homosexuality arouse no interest in France, whereas in America he is insulted and condemned as “a faggot” only because of his slightly feminine appearance). However, he admits that those experiences enable him to change identities and put on different masks (“At each change I had the opportunity to re-create myself, to present a new facade, to bury past errors and misrepresentations” [Martel 9]), and shelater tries it out in the multicultural environment of Montreal, where “the mix seemed easy between the variously integrated ethnic groups, the Anglophone university students and the Francophone Quebeckers” (238) – but it proves elusive – some people are able to recognize her not so Quebecoise French, and the younger generation of Hispanics resents her speaking Spanish to them.
There is this instinctive feeling of recognition of the other, the outcast not fitting in the system. The identity, both cultural and sexual, appears to be something rather intuitive, a hazy concept of belonging to a particular group, rather than a stable and fixed image of the self. As Shusterman notes, “multiculturalism’s radical emphasis on diversity . . . spawns an unhealthy fragmentation of the social body into opposing fractions, thus robbing the country of a wider sense of national identity” (183). On the other hand, multicultural society is said to require solving the “problem of the individual’s need for distinctive self-expression and self-fashioning” (Taylor qtd. in Shusterman 187). The Self of the novel refuses to put down roots in a certain country, settle down, but, although his/her gender identity fluctuates and the cultural identity appears to be exceedingly vague, there is no doubt about its nationality– she defines herself as Canadian and struggles to defend the idea of the country’s uniqueness. When the American soldiers stationed in Turkey say that there is no difference between Americans and Canadians because of their having the “[s]ame language, same TV, same culture, same everything,” (Martel 150) the Self searches for a defining quality that could be used to refute their arguments, and she finds nothing except her will to be Canadian (“the only irrefutable difference I could come up with was that I wanted to be different . . . Je ne veux pas etre comme toi . . . I don’t want to be like you” [Martel 151]). Thus, although in the end she refuses to embrace politics as limiting the individual, her nationality is fixed.
The overwhelming will of an individual is, perhaps, the only notion that defines identity in the text. After the tragic death of his parents, Self feels that that was “another stage in my ever-expanding, metamorphic life,” (Martel 94) and perhaps this is the reason for his becoming a woman. The symptoms of the change are visible before, but the complete metamorphosis takes place overnight. Curiously, though, at the beginning the Self awakens confused as to her linguistic identity. She says:
Je savais que je pensais en francais, ca au moins, c’etait sur. Mon identite etait liee a la langue francaise. Et je savais que j’etais une femme. Francophone et femme, c’etait le coeur de mon identitee. / I knew that I was thinking in English, that much I knew right away. My identity was tied to the English language. And I knew that I was a woman, that also. English speaking and a woman. That was the core of my being. (107)
She quickly embraces the bodily change and does not question it, only the linguistic identity becomes dualized. Perhaps, this dualization of linguistic identity happens as she becomes aware of the fact that the double language adds up to one national identity in the case of Canada, or, on the contrary, it is again emphasized that language cannot really define a person or give real names to objects – it is only experience that connects the names to certain sensations and creates associations in the mind. This is also reflected in the parallel columns in different languages and English scattered over the text – sometimes the English version is a direct translation, sometimes it is just a different monologue, and in some cases it describes the feelings of the person hearing the other language (as is the case with Hungarian).
The second bodily change comes as somewhat expected – after the brutal rape scene, the protagonist loses her will to live and, consequently, though again unconsciously, sheds her own skin and becomes a male. This can be understood as the result of her willingness to shelter herself from the sudden violence inflicted on her, or her desire to conceal herself. In both cases, the physical metamorphosis and the subsequent change of gender identity appear to be very sudden, but they are readily embraced, which may, perhaps, be a sign of the fact that, as Virginia Woolf has put it some time ago “different though the sexes are, they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place” (92). The text only shows it in a more literal and direct way than a wholly realistic narrative.
The matter of identity, however, still remains unresolved. Is there anything that creates a sense of belonging, of definiteness? I strongly support the statement that such feelings are created by common experience. As the narrator says “memory is a glue, it attaches you to everything, even to what you don’t like” (Martel 100). For him/her/the Self, this memory starts in his/her own country, and no later images can overwrite or blur it. The basics of the human identity thus lie in the body and mind’s will to memorize the more conspicuous points of everyday reality. The human body and mind are arbitrary like the languages created by people – they contain certain elements of experience while rejecting the others. Thus, what to me is distinctly human about the Self is that it tries to remember every moment of its existence and savour it – live the life to the fullest, to be, in Hollingshead’s words, “[a] self busy being a self: watching itself, blind to itself” (1).
Hollingshead, Greg. “Review of Self: A Novel By Yann Martel.” Quill and Quire. Quill and Quire Mag., April 1996. Web. 11 May 2012.
Martel, Yann. Self. London: Faber and Faber, 2003. Print.
Shusterman, Richard.Performing Live: Aesthetic Alternatives for the Ends of Art. Cornell: Cornell UP, 2000. Print.
Woolf, Virginia. Orlando: A Biography. Ware: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1995. Print.
University of Łódź
Towards the Theatre of Cruelty? A Study of the Theatrical Language in Sarah Kane’s Cleansed
The early 1990s in British drama were a period of artistic stagnation. With the scarcity of works by new playwrights being staged, theatre was facing a major crisis. Theatre-goers were mostly members of one age group, and their numbers were steadily decreasing. People closely associated with art, like the back then newly-appointed artistic director of the Royal Court theatre, Stephen Daldry, complained about the audience being middle aged and wanted the adolescent people to become a part of their public as well (Sierz 235).This situation may have been rooted in the fact that younger generations found the psychological drama and the state-of-the-nation plays to be outdated, and it seemed that there was nobody to change it. The playwright David Hare also noticed the lack of new, vibrant writing in the decade and claimed that
when Stoppard and Pinter looked behind their backs they saw us coming up . . . when Howard [Brenton] or I look back – we see no one – no young writers coming up to challenge what we stood for. (qtd. in Saunders, ‘Love Me or Kill Me’ 2)
On top of that, groups like the Young British Artists were growing increasingly popular. Works such as My Bed by Tracey Emin or A Thousand Years by Damien Hirst, which intended first of all to evoke powerful emotions in the viewers by means of defamiliarizing objects one encounters every day, were quickly subsumed under the label of mainstream art and they heralded that a new sensibility was arising.
It was in this atmosphere of yearning for revitalization of the British theatre that the change eventually transpired. In the 1994-1995 season Royal Court prepared a number of performances by young, unknown, provocative playwrights. Sierz refers to the project as the “advent of in-yer-face provocation,” claiming that it was the key moment for the British theatre of the 90s, and that “the key play was Sarah Kane’s Blasted” (234). However, despite the fact that the critics craved new plays and new means of expression, their response to Kane’s innovative debut play was hysterical. It was vociferously criticized for its blatant depictions of violence and taboo violations. Due to its themes, imagery and the storm of controversy it was engulfed in, Blasted had become arguably the most recognizable and the most influential work of in-yer-face theatre.
Apart from acting as a catalyst for the change in British drama, Sarah Kane’s oeuvre also proves to be a worthy object of study in terms of its experimental form. The young playwright seems to have been greatly aware of the fact that the verbal language was not exactly fit to describe the world accurately. Thus, instead of designing lengthy monologues, she incorporated an abundance of understatement into her plays. Moreover, instead of assigning the spoken word with paramount importance, Kane adopted a visceral approach allowing her to communicate her meaning more efficiently. The stage language that she used is constituted by various elements such as lighting, mimicry, decor, or gestures. The message of her plays emerges from a set of complex signs, and hardly any element remains meaningless in the broader context of the production of her plays.
Sarah Kane claims to have been profoundly influenced by a 1992 project called Mad, but her views regarding theatre and her approach to playwriting are strikingly reminiscent of those proposed approximately 60 years earlier by Antonin Artaud in his collection of essays entitled The Theatre and Its Double. In one of his most famous manifestoes, he propagated the idea that the playwrights ought to “rediscover the idea of a kind of unique language somewhere between gesture and thought” (Artaud, Artaud on Theatre 101). He advanced a method of improving performances by introducing a new theatrical language whereby even lighting and stage set would prove capable of evoking a predetermined intellectual response from the audience. Kane and Artaud shared a number of ideas about theatre, but, interestingly enough, in a 1998 interview the British playwright claimed that “a lot of people said to me that I must really like Artaud, and I hadn’t read any of that . . . so I only started reading him very recently” (qtd. in Saunders, About Kane 87). In view of the fact that Kane’s Cleansed was written in the period during which she was allegedly unacquainted with the essays of the French theorist, the play deserves an analysis intent on proving that Sarah’s dramatic vision had a lot in common with the ideas about stage language propagated in The Theatre and Its Double. Furthermore, I will also try to determine how the approach to stage imagery advanced by the French critic and that implemented by Kane affect the process of theatrical communication.
Antonin Artaud’s artistic endeavours did not yield him much renown during his lifetime. His contemporaries did not take a liking to the plays he directed, nor to the ones he had written. On top of that, his surrealist manifestoes came under trenchant criticism by a number of writers, including Ionesco, who claimed that “Artaud’s messianic ambition surpassed his intellectual capabilities,” or directors such as Grotowski who believed that the critic’s theatrical recipes had no practical application (qtd. in Artaud, Teatr i jego sobowtór 5). The two were probably right in that certain elements of the Artaudian concept of theatre, such as the ideas pertaining to what the theatrical stage should look like, proposed in “The Theatre of Cruelty – First Manifesto,” are hardly applicable in reality. However, in a broader perspective, history proves both Ionesco and Grotowski to be wrong. In the introduction to Artaud on Theatre, Claude Schumacher argues that
as actor and director, he [i.e. Artaud] failed. As a theorist, his influence was confined initially to a handful of Parisian intellectuals . . . But since the sixties and particularly since May 1968, Artaud, his ideas and his example, have become, for theatre people a compulsory source of reference. For many commentators, contemporary theatre which does not plunge its roots in the world of Brecht stems from Artaud.[] (xii)
In view of the fact that the ideas that Artaud put forward were rather radical and innovative, it is hardly surprising that the reception of his works, principally in his lifetime, was greatly varied. The critic firmly rejected a number of deeply ingrained dramatic conventions, especially those related to the stage language. Such an approach might have resulted in the audience being bewildered upon attending a performance that deliberately flouted the fixed theatrical norms. The controversy surrounding his manifestoes may also have stemmed from the fact that Artaud believed that in order to make it possible for the audience to fully understand and identify with the performance, it does not suffice to use verbal language. For this reason, a number of his manifestoes switched the central focus onto the mise-en-scène which was to constitute the bulk of the theatrical signs. Ideally, such an expressive system would be “composed of everything filling the stage, everything that can be shown and materially expressed on stage, intended first of all to appeal to the senses, instead of being addressed primarily to the mind, like spoken language” (Artaud, Artaud on Theatre 93). Hence, the critic believed that lighting, mimicry, voice inflection, sound and rhythm were all on a par with the verbal language, and suggested that none of these elements were to dominate during the performance. Furthermore, he wanted each of these components to combine and form complex signs and, thus, to constitute the intellectual message that the performance conveyed. Once this elaborate semiotic system is employed one will be able to
turn theatre into a function in the proper sense of the word, something as exactly localized as the circulation of blood through our veins, or the apparently chaotic evolution of dream images in the mind . . . truly enslaving our attention. (Artaud, Artaud on Theatre 101)
Artaud seems to believe that the dream-like quality of his theatre of cruelty enables one to identify with the events depicted on the stage and also to “transgress ordinary limits of art . . . to produce a kind of total creation . . . where man must reassume his position between dreams and events” (Artaud on Theatre 101). One could argue that the confrontation of the oneiric and the material reading of the stage allows for what Limon labels as theatricality effect to occur. This, in turn, enables the audience to partake in the process of theatrical communication and to recognize and decode the signs that are being used (Limon 30).
Despite the initially negative reception of his manifestoes, Artaud’s ideas about theatre have clearly prevailed and managed to affect a number of writers, directors and artists. This did not have to happen by means of straightforward borrowings or inspiration as some artists may have arrived at similar conclusions independently. Such may be the case with Sarah Kane whose Cleansed shares a number of affinities with the ideas propagated by Artaud (consciously or not is beyond the point). It is the third play of the British playwright, and, at the same time, the last one written before she got acquainted with the works of Antonin Artaud. The drama marks a further shift towards the experiential theatre, and makes a great use of virtually all of the constituents of theatrical language to convey its message. Thus, the fact that Aleks Sierz deems the play to be Kane’s “most ambitious and intellectual play” (115) is scarcely surprising.
The setting of Cleansed bears the bulk of its meaning. Its action takes place within the boundaries of a university which is bordered with a perimeter fence, and the characters never get to leave the site. During a few scenes, however, the ‘outside world’ manifests itself through the sounds of a cricket match or the voice of a child singing a song. Saunders argues that “this refusal to set the play in a specific location or time does much to give it the feeling of occupying a dreamscape” (‘Love Me or Kill Me’ 94), thus fulfilling one of the Artaudian postulates.
The second scene of the play provides an interesting example of how a theatrical setting may affect the action by means of defamiliarization. It is set “on the college green just inside the perimeter fence of the university. / Midsummer – the sun is shining. / The sound of a cricket match in progress on the other side of the fence” (Kane, Cleansed 109). The scene is clearly a cliché from Hollywood romance or family films which often employ establishing shots of two lovers sitting in close proximity to a university building or a playground, openly expressing their passion. In this context, however, Kane skilfully manipulates the expectations of the audience by juxtaposing the familiar background with a homosexual relationship, thus forcing the viewers to ponder about the change that the playwright implemented. At the same time, this particular use of ostranenie foregrounds the sexuality of the two characters.
Another way in which the setting exerts an influence on the intellectual message may be observed on the basis of the series of scenes set inside the round room, that is, a former university library, a place where Grace attempts to educate Robin. The boy learns to read, write and count. Paradoxically, once he is able to use an abacus, the newly-acquired knowledge leads to his death. He attempts to count the amount of time he has to stay within the institution, and upon realizing that he still has to serve thirty years, he commits suicide. One could argue that Kane, yet again, plays with what the audience is used to, namely the concept of scientia potentia est.
The remaining scenes are set within the black room that is in the “showers in the university sports hall converted into peep-show booths,” the white room – “the university sanatorium,” and in the red room – “the university sports hall” (Kane, Cleansed 112; 116; 121). Michał Lachman rightly points out that the colours of the three areas “are associated with the actions that take place within . . . [and] with the content imposed by the subconsciousness” (205). Furthermore, it may be argued that Kane juxtaposes the events that transpire within these places with their original function for the purpose of further defamiliarization. Hence, the red room which used to be the university sports hall, a site where one builds up their stamina, becomes the space within which people are tortured in order to test and strengthen their love. Similarly, the former university sanatorium which once used to be a place where people were cured now serves as the an area within which Tinker’s inhumane pseudo-medical activities, such as Grace’s phalloplasty and cleansing, are performed. The contrast between its original and current function is emphasized by the statement that the overseer concludes the operation with, that is, “I’m sorry. I’m not really a doctor” (Kane, Cleansed 146). Finally, the privacy of the university showers is confronted with the commercial aspect introduced by the peep-show booth. According to some critics, the peep-show booth also points to the existence of “a reality of emotional substitutes,” and refers to “recognizable context of mass culture, to its pornographic dimension” (Lachman 204).
Interestingly, in the case of Rod and Carl, the setting is often used to reflect the status of their relationship, thus making use of the semiotic process of transcodification. Hence, once the latter character betrays his lover, the college green becomes “a patch of mud just inside the perimeter fence of the university. / It is raining. The sound of a football match in progress on the other side of the fence. / A single rat scuttles around” (Kane, Cleansed 129). The betrayal is also emphasized by the appearance of rats as the species has strong connotations with treachery. Similarly, transcodification is employed after Scene Eleven where Grace is tortured and one gets to see her in “the White Room. / Grace lies sunbathing in a tiny shaft of light coming through a crack in the ceiling” (Kane, Cleansed 134). The rupture in the ceiling, which was never mentioned in the preceding scenes, might be an externalization of Grace’s psychological state, and thus constitute a symbolic sign in the Peircean understanding and refer to the irreparable damage that was inflicted on her psyche.
Kane’s play also proves to be an interesting object of study in that it does not use stage directions to provide instructions on how a certain conversation should be delivered, but uses punctuation or lack of it to imply emotions and capital letters to differentiate between normal delivery and screaming. Hence, in Scene Four, when Carl is being tortured by Tinker it is fairly apparent that the exchange needs to be acted out in a particular way. One may also notice the use of punctuation in the oppressor’s composed utterances, and its disappearance when he tries to imitate one of the lovers:
Tinker Do you take it up the arse?
Tinker Don’t give it, I can see that. . .
Carl Please don’t fucking kill me God
Tinker I love you Rod I’d die for you.
Carl Not me please not me don’t kill me Rod not me don’t kill me ROD NOT ME ROD NOT ME. (Kane, Cleansed 117)
Another means of communicating meaning in the play is the use of silence, which Kane employs in order to signify feelings and states that are too painful to verbalize. In Scene Three, Grace asks Robin to take off all his clothes. Uncertain what to do, the boy simply looks at Tinker as he is unable to act without his permission. This is a gesture of complete submission to his oppressor’s will. Once he has undressed, he stands still in silence, deeply humiliated, and does not dress again until Grace orders him to do so. Another example of an interesting use of silence as a meaningful constituent, this time combined with a communication failure, is visible when Tinker leaves the room:
Grace Write for me.
Grace I need you to tell my father I’m staying here.
Robin Leaving soon. Going to my mum’s.
Robin If I don’t mess up again. / Going to my mum’s, get myself sorted so I –
Get sorted. . .
GraceWrite for me. (She rattles her handcuffs.)
Robin Voice told me to kill myself. . .
Grace You can’t write, can you.
Robin (Opens his mouth to answer but can’t think of anything to say.) (Kane, Cleansed 114-15)
This quotation illustrates the fact that, once again, Robin is too ashamed of his inability to write to admit it openly. Instead of doing that, he attempts to avoid addressing Grace’s request and tries to conceal this fact from her by the use of small talk. Furthermore, the colloquy between the two characters clearly flouts the Gricean Maxim of Relevance, thus making the receiver focus on the implications carried by the form rather than the content of the message.
The final example of how Kane’s use of verbal language fits into the Artaudian model of theatre is to be found in Scene Seven, which is set in the round room and depicts the education that Robin receives from Grace. The characters converse throughout the process. Their interchange, however, is slightly bizarre due to the fact that the female protagonist’s brother is also present in the room. The complexity of the situation stems from the fact that the man died in the opening scene of the play and he can now be seen only by his sister. This does not prevent the ghostly relative from participating in the conversation and speaking simultaneously with Robin, which results in Grace’s remarks being rendered ambiguous as it is not always clear whose question she is answering. This type of exchange also helps to build up the dreamscape quality of the play and, once more, foregrounds the form and makes the audience ponder over whose questions Grace is answering as opposed to what is being said. This, in turn, allows the viewer to question the psychological state of the female protagonist.
Finally, a number of elements integrally related to the theatrical language, such as lighting, sound or gestures are used to add another dimension of meaning to the play. These elements are mostly employed to provide information about the characters, their motives, or to serve as a commentary on the events that take place. The scenes involving Carl and Rod are full of such meaningful constituents. For instance, the ring exchange between the two homosexuals is a major theme in the play. Michał Lachman argues that this particular piece of jewellery “becomes a symbol of suffering,” and adds that it has strong religious and social connotations that are juxtaposed with the fact that the two men are not heterosexual (204). The symbolism, however, goes even further as the ring is eventually fed to Carl in an act that bears a marked resemblance to a disfigured holy communion. Interestingly, the entire sequence of sin (Carl’s betrayal), confession/repentance (his ‘dance of regret’ and various attempts to apologize), penance (the overseer mutilates him) and finally the Eucharist (Carl being asked to swallow the ring) is preserved. Not only does it serve an emphatic purpose, but also introduces even stronger religious connotations, thus making Tinker and the entire institution even more mysterious.
Another sharp contrast is highlighted by the song that a child sings on the other side of the perimeter fence in Scene Thirteen. It has been claimed that the song “Things We Said Today” by Lennon and McCartney “expands the cultural contexts of the scene” and its lyrics “[‘l]ove is here to stay. And that’s enough / To make you mine, girl[’], when related to feelings of two men, acquire an unusual meaning” (Lachman 218). However, it may be argued that it also serves as a bitter reminder of Carl’s act of betrayal, and this, combined with his gestures, allows for the formation of a complex sign. Hence, upon hearing the lines “[t]hen I will remember / The things we said today,” Carl, who was previously dancing “a dance of love for Rod,” now “jerks and lurches out of time, his feet sticking in the mud, [he dances] a spasmodic dance of regret” (Kane, Cleansed 136).
The non-verbal aspects of the performance are also used to define the character of Grace. Her struggle to foster the incestuous relationship with her dead brother is, in fact, one of the most important themes of the play. The scenes involving the two characters are highly ambiguous, as at the very beginning of the play Graham dies of an overdose. It is thus very probable that from then on he exists just as a projection of Grace’s mind. This fact also imposes a more symbolic reading of the scenes that involve physical contact between the two. At one point “Graham dances – a dance of love for Grace. Grace dances opposite him, copying his movements . . . she mirrors him perfectly as they dance exactly in time” (Kane, Cleansed 119), the scene quickly evolves into an act of making love, where the siblings do it in exactly the same rhythm. The way they dance and engage in sexual contact clearly emphasizes the unity and bond between them. The scene concludes with a single sunflower bursting from the ground, a sign which further heightens the atmosphere of happiness.
Finally, elements such as lighting or sound are also of some importance. They need not be disregarded because of the fact that the meaning they convey is hard to determine. Arguably, they should be viewed as constituents of the theatrical language that place a growing emphasis on the events presented. Thus, the final stage directions of the play that read “[t]he sun gets brighter and brighter, the squeaking of the rats louder and louder, until the light is blinding and the sound deafening” (Kane, Cleansed 151) need not be interpreted on their own, but should rather be viewed as an inherent part of a complex sign and an aesthetic element concluding the play without violating its dreamscape quality. Such an ending also appeals to multiple senses of the audience and is likely to cause distress. When combined with the play’s fairly enigmatic nature this fact may force one to ponder whether the ending is positive or negative. On the one hand, it may, for instance, be argued that the final stage directions present the apocalypse. On the other hand, they may well indicate that the characters have been released from their anguish – after all, being bathed in a shaft of light tends to evoke positive connotations.
In the introduction to his influential book, Aleks Sierz observes that Kane, Anthony Neilson and Mark Ravenhill had a great influence on the British theatre as they transformed the theatrical language “making it more direct, raw and explicit” and claims that “they also pushed the theatre into being more experiential . . . making audiences feel and respond” (xii-xiii). This is especially true in relation to Kane’s third play, Cleansed, which, apart from being representative of the in-yer-face aesthetic, is largely reminiscent of the postulates that Antonin Artaud included in his manifestoes. The British playwright relied on the extralinguistic constituents of the stage language to communicate most of the play’s meaning, just like the French critic proposed around 60 years earlier. She also introduced a number of oneiric elements into her drama and frequently resorted to defamiliarization, thus echoing Artaud’s idea that a theatrical performance should be like a dream. The contrast between the material and oneiric elements allows for theatricality effect to occur, and this, in turn, facilitates semiotization. On top of that, Kane frequently makes use of transcodification to comment on the events depicted within the play. When combined, the verbal and extralinguistic signifiers employed in the play form complex signs and the message that emerges is communicated through all of the constituents of stage language, producing a kind of total creation and a rich semantic structure that Artaud envisaged.
Artaud, Antonin. Artaud on Theatre. Ed. Claude Schumacher. London: Methuen Drama, 1991. Print.
—. Teatr i jego sobowtór. 1938.Trans. and ed. Jan Błoński. [Warszawa]: Czuły Barbarzyńca Press, . Print.
Aston, Elaine, and George Savona. Theatre as Sign System: A Semiotics of Text and Performance. London: Routledge, 1991. Print.
The Beatles. “Things We Said Today.” Parlophone, 1964. MP3.
Elam, Keir. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.
Kane, Sarah. Complete Plays. London: Methuen Drama, 2001. Print.
—. Cleansed. Complete Plays. By Sarah Kane. London: Methuen Drama, 2001. 105-51. Print.
Lachman, Michał. Brzytwą po oczach: młodzi doświadczeni w angielskim i irlandzkim dramacie lat dziewięćdziesiątych. Kraków: Księgarnia Akademicka, 2007. Print.
Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk, Barbara, ed. Ways to Language. Łódź: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego, 2002. Print.
Limon, Jerzy. Trzy teatry: scena – telewizja – radio. Gdańsk: słowo/obraz terytoria, 2003. Print.
Pfister, Manfred. The Theory and Analysis of Drama. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.
Saunders, Graham. About Kane: The Playwright and the Work. London: Faber and Faber, 2009. Print.
—. ‘Love Me or Kill Me’: Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2002. Print.
Schumacher, Claude. Introduction. Artaud on Theatre. By Antonin Artaud. London: Methuen Drama, 1991. xii-iv. Print.
Sierz, Aleks. In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today. London: Faber and Faber, 2001. Print.
Wąchocka, Ewa. Milczenie w dwudziestowiecznym dramacie. Kraków: Księgarnia Akademicka, 2005. Print.
 In parenthetical documentation referred to as “SwS”
 In Hutcheon’s study, this mode of metafiction is placed within the frames of other opposition, namely it is contrasted with the linguistic self-awareness (22-23)
 In fact, an interpretation of da Vinci’s painting appears in “The Critic as Artist,” quoted from Pater’s Renaissance, serving in the essay as an illustration of the thesis that the intentions of an author should not be a restriction for the critic, as it is the critic who imparts the meaning to a form created by the author (CaA 112). This context for the narrator’s metaphor will prove to be of considerable importance in the further analysis.
A reference to “Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Openness” by bell hooks, in which the authoress defines two possibilities of how minorities can use their marginal status; one of them is to consciously speak from the margin in a way that subverts language and norms, and deprives normative majorities of the possibility to manage the margin in various ways. Since this approach originally was, and should remain, a basis for doing queer, it is precisely this stance that I adopt both throughout this essay and my whole academic work.
Though I do not intend to exclude anyone from reading the paper, its main focus is a particular kind of criticism that The L Word has received. For the reader to be able to understand the problem as well as my line of defence, I find it necessary that they have prior knowledge of the content.
 There is much controversy as to The L Word‘s (non)normativity. One of my points throughout the paper is exactly to prove the validity of this claim of mine.
 Throughout my academic activity I shall purposefully promote the representation of lesbian practices through this nominal term. Though such item is unlikely to be found in a dictionary, it places emphasis on experience and quality rather than a particular state, which is the case with the? more common “lesbianism” – a word of either/both dismissive or/and medical connotations. I am appealing for discontinuance of the latter.
 In Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison (see: Foucault 1995), which is a crucial work of his, Foucault redirected the concept of the panopticon as designed in the 18th century by social theorist Jeremy Bentham. Originally, the panopticon is supposed to be a prison constructed in such geometrical form, as to instil a sense of being constantly watched in inmates, even though this need not be necessarily true. Within this type of architectural structure the inmates are exposed, but the watchman is hidden in a built-up observation post in the very middle; (s)he can be watching at any moment, but the prisoners do not know when, so they have to be constantly on alert. Such a system is supposed to serve as a punishment and establish a certain routine within the inmates. For Foucault, the panopticon serves as a metaphor of social/communal control that is ubiquitous and that further results in individuals subconsciously exercising control over themselves and one another. At the grass-roots level this is especially true for non-heterosexuals, who have to constantly watch themselves in the public sphere, so as not to give their identity away and, thus, risk being oppressed.
Although the two series tend to be apposed on many occasions, there was, originally, supposed to be no correlation between them. I, personally, choose to mention Queer as Folk for political and sociological reasons only, and am not looking for a connection between the storylines; the very fact that both texts deal with non-heterosexual characters allows for certain comparisons, but does not legitimise treating the storylines on a par, which was often the case.
 This results from different functions that the male-dominant culture imposes separately on women and men. Respectively, gay women and men will suffer from dissimilar effectuation of discrimination and, thus, experience. I omit elaboration on this as irrelevant for the text, though. It is worth mentioning, however, that the difference in experience translates into a certain difference in resistance – gay males tend to be more subversive, while for some reasons (to be looked into in my subsequent works) non-heterosexual women do not go queer and blatantly political that often. The presented analysis does confirm this, although I do not wish to generalise.
 As Foucault and McIntosh teach, the same happened to all the other stereotypes regarding the homosexual as well as the very emergence of a homosexual is the result of the aforementioned process, i.e. through the combination of the patriarchal and the medical. I omit the full explanation of it here as irrelevant for the article.
I hereby pay tribute to the recently departed sociologist and anthropologist, whose powerful work and far-reaching research has largely shaped my thinking about sexuality. Mary McIntosh died January 5th, 2013.
A reference to Grosz’s essay “Refiguring Lesbian Desire,” in which the philosopher defines the notion as a “pure positivity, production,” a certain force based on “impulses, pulses of feeling, the coming together of two surfaces.” According to the authoress, desire has no other purpose than its own intensity. My defence of The L Word as a significant and unfairly treated text of culture derives from applying this concept to lesbian lives.
 I feel obliged to mention that – to the best of my knowledge – The L Word‘s creators did not pay attention to the visual aspect so much, and were surprised at the audience’s reception and accusations. This is why I do not insist on the term “subversion” here, since subversion is a conscious practice. However, since this confirms how unimportant the visual aspect was while trying to represent lesbianity, I refer to the question politically.
 The author calls the practice “undermining from within,” which is his reflection upon his reading of Judith Butler’s works. Since this reminds me of bell hooks’ conception of the margin and was precisely the point behind the emergence of queer politics in the late 1980s, I fully adopt and promote such understanding of subversion.
Most of the pieces were documented either in the form of photographs or videos. The complete documentation can be found in Chris Burden: A Twenty-Year Survey (1988). As from 1976, the artist gradually ceased to be involved in body art and set to explore other domains of art instead, working in sculpture and installation art.
 Although this transient status of body art determined its uniqueness, it also proved troublesome when it came to preserving the works for future generations. Only some body art performances where recorded on film or captured in photographs. Nevertheless, despite the problems with compiling a collection, the first exhibition of body art pieces was mounted at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago as early as in 1975. Cf. Ira Licht’s catalogue from the exhibition entitled Bodyworks (1975).
Trans-fixed took place on April 23, 1974 in Venice, California. Burden lay face-up on the hood of a Volkswagen, his both palms nailed to the car and his arms extended, the whole posture being similar to crucified Christ. Then the garage door was opened, the car rolled out for two minutes with the engine running, after which the car rolled back and the garage door was closed.
The study of the complexities of the body notion constitutes the very foundation of contemporary body art research and dates back to the 1920s and John Dewey’s ideas about body and mind. The unity of body and mind is fundamental for Dewey– it is a tense unity because of our ability to separate both spheres, but a unity nevertheless (1-20). Dewey was one of the first philosophers to argue that the mental life emerges from the body’s basic physical functions, thus opposing the long-standing contempt for the body viewed in opposition to the “superior” mind and arguing that “biological” factors are the “roots of the esthetic,” which shape even the most spiritual experiences of fine art and imaginative thinking (26). This idea of unity in duality and duality in unity was further discussed by inter alia Richard Zaner, who explicitly claimed that the body both “is me and expresses me” (261), and most recently by Amelia Jones who takes the discussion into the era of postmodernism and identifies the basis of body art in “particularization of the subject (as body/self)” (26).
 The Self undergoes two gender changes throughout the novel. I have decided to call the Self ”he” when it is a man and ”she” when it becomes a woman. At times it is, however, difficult to determine which pronoun to use.
 The following explanation of the mistakes made in spelling is my invention and the French words are also translated by me.
 Their first exhibition took place in 1988, but the following decade was the period in which they were most prolific.
 Interestingly enough, Kane noted that “the week the play opened there was an earthquake in Japan in which thousands of people died, and in this country a fifteen-year-old girl had been raped and murdered . . . but Blasted gotmore coverage in newspapers than either of these events” (qtd. in Saunders, About Kane 53).
 As defined by Limon (45).
 A show by Jeremy Weller that was performed in Edinburgh (Saunders, About Kane 46).
 Schumacher then proceeds to list artists who have been inspired by Artaud’s ideas, and, despite Grotowski’s criticism of the French critic, he is to be found on the list (Artaud, Artaud on Theatre xii)
 As opposed to the “futile” attempts at mimetic representation of reality.
The critic also claims that the university was converted into a death camp (‘Love Me or Kill Me’ 93), however, in view of the fact that the characters decided to stay there voluntarily, his claim seems to be very questionable. It is largely based on the fact that one of Kane’s inspirations while writing the play was Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse. She said that the French literary critic claims that “the situation of a rejected lover is not unlike the situation of a prisoner in Dachau” (qtd. in ‘Love Me or Kill Me’ 93).
 All the quotations from the works written in Polish have been translated by the author of the present article.
 The peep show booth could, perhaps, be argued to be a private place. However, due to the fact that one has to pay to enter and watch, it may be devoid of the privacy in the most strict sense.
As defined by Elam (10-14).
 For a detailed study of the use of silence in drama see Wąchocka.
 This particular use of small talk seems to be largely reminiscent of the one between Rose and Bert in Pinter’s The Room, both in terms of the form and in terms of the function – that is, trying to deal with the unpleasant atmosphere and sense of insecurity introduced by silence.
 As defined in Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk’s Ways to Language (162).
 This also accounts for the fact that nobody, except for Grace, is able see him. The issue is fully explored in another of my articles.