July 18, 2003

Dealing with Medusa

A quick post before I run off to try to clear up my issues with the library. Next to campus parking, I cite the library as one of the biggest extortionists on campus. Anyway, on to the post....

I just finished an article this morning by Jane Headley titled, “Sylvia Plath’s Ekphrastic Poetry” from the Raritan: A Quarterly Review (v.20 n.4). Three things strike me about this article right away. First, Hedley makes the claim that through the process of writing ekphrastic poetry, Plath is able to open up to herself more personal and emotive landscapes because she could use a figure within the painting (a “beautiful disassociated object” (quoted by Hedley from Nancy Vickers) to deflect the gaze from herself onto the painting. Second, Hedley’s argument hinges on her believe (a highly convincing one) that Plath “harbored within herself both the chaste maiden and the strumpet is a theme of Plath’s journals…” (41). Of the journal entries, Hedley describes them as “an explosive mixture of contradictory longings…brought into focus by a self-awareness that is intense, grandiose, and strongly theatrical. If this intellectually and sexually ambitious young woman is prone to making a spectacle of herself for others, she is one to herself as well” (41). Ekphrasis, then, provided Plath with a way of moving herself out of the focus of the gaze and of depersonalizing the speaker of the poem as a figure within the painting itself. Through ekphrasis, Hedley postulates that Plath drew confessionalism and New Critical poetics together within her own unique aesthetic.

The third thing that interests me about the article, however, is the brief interlude that the article takes in order to deal with criticism in late 20th century studies of ekphrasis and how gender has been treated. As far as I can tell, Hedley, other than Beth Loizeaux, is the only other person to have said something like this. Hedley begins by pointing out previous studies by Mitchell, Heffernan, Paul Fry, and Jean Hagstrum. She points out that critics point to the practical, material difference between text and image which by extension present a metaphysical dilemma… one which dominates human communicative behavior by loading text and image with ideological assumptions about the proper sphere for differing artistic media (male/active/voice, female/passive/object). She also points out that Mitchell and Heffernan both seem to point to a predestined gendering of ekphrasis. She quotes Mitchell’s statement from “Ekphrasis and the Other” stating “that female otherness is an overdetermined feature in a genre that tends to describe an object of visual pleasure and fascination from a masculine perspective.” This male perspective, as both Mitchell and Heffernan note, frequently takes the shape of the male voice (as Beth likes to say) “having his verbal way” with the feminized art object. The most typical example of this comes by way of Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” in which the male speaker addresses the urn as an “unravished bride of quietness.” That bride, however, is a threatening and frightening object because its stillness (and one might assume quietness) poses the threat of castration to the “bold Lover” who chases the bride as well as the poet through her motionlessness and refusal to consummate their male desire. The speaker, however, is able to force the bride out of her quietness by giving her voice, essentially forcing her to speak.

As Hedley rightly points out, though, there is a limitation to this castration-anxiety approach. Theory that begins with the presupposition of fear by the male speaker of castration by the passive, female object of the gaze depends on the presence of the male speaker. In other words, gender is determined before even the first utterance. Many scholars cite Laura Mulvey’s classic feminist essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in which she argues that women can choose either to participate in the objectification of the female body by the male lens (remember, this is film theory), or to deflect visual desire and satisfaction through anti-illusionist images that frustrate that gaze.

This particular approach seems effective to me in the realm of film studies, but less effective in the field of ekphrasis. Primarily, this is because women have been looking at and writing about art for many years. True, these poems have been neglected, lost, or even erased, but the point is that either they existed or still do exist. Furthermore, women have been enjoying what they’ve looked at, and not, I would assume, from a transgender position as man, but from their own individual position as woman. For example, Renaissance playwright Elizabeth Cary makes reference in her play The Tragedy of Marian to a portrait, which Marian’s mother describes as “competition” for the daughter. In her poem “The Greek Slave,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning makes rather direct commentary on the odd condition of a white male artists’ creation of a white nude form shackled to a wooden stump and partially covered by an elaborate tapestry. The poem scoffs at the position of the American artist whose work chastises the enslavement of the Greeks, while the piece was cast in a country where economic development depended on the slavery.

The point is that Mulvey offers us one, helpful and insightful way in which to approach ekphrasis, but that it is too limiting as the only approach. Even W. J. T. Mitchell points out that “all this would look quite different if my emphasis had been on ekphrastic poetry by women.” And, as Hedley points out, it would be, because Mitchell’s theory depends on male fear of female otherness and castration. My point is that women poets do not adopt a kind of male-prosthetic voice whose motivation comes from the fear of possible castration.

Hedley also addresses Heffernan’s attempt to account for some ekphrastic poems by recounting the tale of Philomela. Through weaving tapestry, Philomela is able to communicate through visual medium, identify her rapist, and reclaim some ability to speak. As Hedley points out, though, Heffernan’s examples include only one poem by a woman—Adrienne Rich’s “Mourning Picture.” Much to Hedley’s credit, she also points out that this does not spur Heffernan on to discus women’s ekphrastic writing, but merely furthers the paragonal struggle between visual and verbal fields.
Hedley’s point isn’t to discuss women’s ekphrastic writing, either. Her explicit point is to explain that Plath “was drawn to ekphrastic writing because she was a spectacle to herself, a woman who played to the gaze self-consciously and with considerable ambivalence” (47). She does attempt to disrupt the “Medusa” theory (fear of castration) of ekphrastic gender relations by arguing “Medusa was her ally and her adversary, inextricably both.” However, Hedley invites us to take a closer look at the “overdetermined” gendered nature of ekphrasis and to explore alternatives to existing theories that accommodate a long tradition of poetry by women that take visual art as their subject. This, in effect, is what my dissertation will attempt to do.

Posted by c_jane at July 18, 2003 1:23 PM | TrackBack

It has been ages since I read Laura Mulvey's reconsideration of the famous essay.

Mulvey, Laura. "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema' Inspired by King Vidor's Duel in the Sun. " 1981. Rpt. in Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989. 29-38.

However I have a clearer memory of Kaja Silverman's The Acoustic Mirror; The Female Voice in Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Indiana University Press, l988). Silverman's analyis of films whose meaning turns on the (non)synchronization of female voice and visuals is likely a more interesting place to continue to theorize the ekphrasitc moment and the play of distance.

Posted by: lachance, francois at July 22, 2003 2:59 PM |

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