Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture by Bram Dijkstra, from Oxford University Press.
Bram Dijkstra is a comparative literature professor who specializes in the relationship of literature to the visual arts. Do not be misled about this book, though. It is a book about an ideology, and only concerned with art and literature to the extent that they express and facilitate that ideology. Now, I agree with Dijkstra in large measure regarding the interaction of ideology and culture. In particular, he insists that “by retracing the visual origins of the ‘great’ literary works of turn-of-the-century writers we tend to find ourselves uncomfortably back in a world of intellectual cliches which, in their written form, were elegantly obscured by the apparent profundities embedded in the necessary ambiguities of language.” (150) He is also on-target when he remarks the many cases in which “To suggest, as cultural historians have been wont to, that paintings such as these were naive, unconscious images of archetypal sexual symbols whose real meaning the psychoanalysts were in the process of uncovering at just this time represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the anything but unconscious prurience of the nineteenth-century art world.” (301)
Alas, it pains me to report, Dijkstra makes it difficult to agree with him. His presentation is so sententious and sanctimonious that it is decidedly off-putting. I am myself a feminist, and so I tended to sympathize with the values that motivated Dijkstra to the reams of condemnations which are the meat of this book. But he never explicitly offers and justifies those values: he just seems to think they go without saying, and that makes him appear to be exchanging an old form of moralistic bigotry for a new one. Perhaps academics in California in the 1980s could afford to think of their perspective as the abundantly vindicated status quo, but that blinkered assumption doesn’t play well when addressing a larger readership.
The author is a “man with a hammer,” as the saying goes, and misogyny is his nail! There are certainly a few instances where he overplays his hand in the search for supporting instances. His appraisal of Leon Frederic’s painting “The Stream” (1900) is a special case-in-point, with overheated rhetoric that is sadly typical of Idols of Perversity:
“How nightmarish painters’ dreams of infantile flesh could ultimately become is graphically demonstrated in Leon Frederic’s monumental triptych ‘The Stream’ [VI, 25], in which this artist, ostensibly to illustrate Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ symphony, created with insane literalness the ultimate representation of the familiar equation between water, women, and the world of the child in a carnal orgy of infant flesh. When images of this sort, of this extreme paranoia, arise in man’s imagination, can Buchenwald be far behind?” (197)
All right, then. I have been fortunate enough to see the original of “The Stream” at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. (This digital reproduction of the middle panel does it even less justice than the half-page black and white version in Dijkstra’s book.) Water and children are certainly abundant in it, but I can’t figure out where it makes any sort of statement about “women.” And the impression it gave me was not one of threat founded in “paranoia,” but simply joyful exuberance. It suggested to me a hope for and confidence in the future, emblemized by an irresistible force of humans-becoming. Honi soit qui mal y pense!
Here’s another one: Dijkstra’s gloss of “The Unknown” (ca. 1912) by John Charles Dollman. (See the image here.) He insists that this painting shows “how monkeys and women, equally childlike in their ignorant astonishment, tried to cope with the concept of fire in the primeval world.” (290) Several details of the painting contradict this explanation. The sophisticated textiles worn by the woman disprove the notion that the setting is “primeval,” and her imperious gesture makes it clear that, rather than being astonished by the fire, she is using her knowledge of it to dominate the monkeys. The lack of visible fuel for the fire even makes it seem as though she has just conjured it into existence.
Many of Dijkstra’s assessments are perfectly reasonable, however, and his summaries of Victorian gender theory are clear, and probably valuable to 21st-century readers who have been sheltered from the likes of sexist savant Otto Weininger. His analysis of the codified misogyny in Stoker’s Dracula is precise and accurate, and his indictment of the vampire genre as a whole appears to be massively supported by the current Stephanie Miller Twilight phenomenon.
I had been hoping, throughout this long text, that Dijkstra might conclude on a more reflexive note, one that would observe the persistent chauvinism in late 20th-century Western culture, and how it could be grasped in terms of the earlier currents that the book studies. This hope was more than disappointed when he used his final chapter to “go full Godwin.” Not content merely to apply every negatively-charged adjective in his thesaurus to the ideological male chauvanism of the period, he goes on to postulate a causative relationship by which it led to the ascendancy of Nazi power. He had already remarked in earlier chapters, duly and sufficiently I thought, on the eliminationist rhetorical elements in the “bio-sexism” (his term) of the Victorian and Edwardian eras. But to finish the book with a meditation on Nazi genocide seemed to me like it undercut his argument as a whole, and its relevance to the reader. The sort of exceptionalism that makes the Nazi Holocaust into the great demonstration of pure evil also seems to make it into an expiation, a sobering episode that has ensured that “we” not-Nazis won’t take any of the ideological wrong-turns that were involved in Nazism.
Other than the dust jacket, there were no color reproductions among the many scores of art illustrations in the book. That was disappointing, but entirely in keeping with the authorial agenda to use these as evidence in a larger ideological thesis, rather than works of inherent interest. Strangely, the image on the front cover juxtaposed with the title Idols of Perversity is one of the few contextualizing counter-examples that Dijkstra provides. He points to Ella Ferris Pell’s “Salome” (1890) as a conceptually feminist treatment of a literary theme that had been a staple of misogynist art. In fact, this passage, along with another in the first chapter where he contrasts the gender conceptions underlying 17th- and 18th-century couples portraiture with that of the 19th century, were among the most effectively argued in the book.
My own initial interest in this book stemmed from my attraction to the Symbolist, Decadent, and Academic Orientalist schools of aesthetics, and in particular the way that many of their originally misogynist productions have been later revalorized by proponents of female sovereignty. I did get some valuable pointers to artists and authors I might otherwise have neglected, but always in the context of another interminable sentence of “guilty.” I’ll take my guilty pleasures where I can find them, thanks. [via]