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Elisabeth Bronfen

In Arthur Schnitzler's text undressing a bride is fatally at stake, in that, once exhibited, the undressed body of superlative feminine beauty literally transforms into a corpse. Sigmund Freud ends his lecture 'On Femininity' with a discussion of the woman at thirty. Feminist critics have argued that by virtue of the 'cadaverous' connotation of the word Starrheit, Freud unwittingly exposes the mortifying tendencies western culture inflicts on its daughters. Assimilating the prescribed position of femininity is a 'death sentence' for women. Critiquing Freud, Sarah Kofman argues that the designation 'Woman's death-like rigidity' implies the desire to put an end to the enigmatic and ungraspable nature of Woman, to the perpetual shift between masculinity and femininity. The fatal logic within which the feminine body is placed is that, as site at which culturation occurs, it must be destroyed to let subjectivity emerge.

in Over her dead body
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Elisabeth Bronfen

The literary convention of the deathbed scene of a virtuous young woman has its most distinguished source in Samuel Richardson's novel, Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady. Its heroine, Clarissa Harlowe, setting an example for the triumph of virtue by giving up her life willingly, is the most striking model for all subsequent narrative representations of a 'good death'. She gives up her life after several attempts at eluding her rapist Lovelace and asserting her independent will against the tyranny of her family. The author presents an analysis of deathbed scenes from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise, and then from two Victorian examples: the deaths of Charles Dickens's Little Nell and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Little Eva. The main purpose of Julie's deathbed scene is to name successors to her social role and assure the preservation of family unity.

in Over her dead body
Elisabeth Bronfen

Edgar Allan Poe's famous proposition, 'the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world', has made his essay 'The Philosophy of Composition' an infamous text. This chapter discusses his poetics in-depth and questions the presuppositions underlying his claim of conjunction of femininity, death and aesthetics. The questions point to a strange and trenchant contradiction, which is further enhanced by the popularity of an aesthetic coupling of Woman and death. The fashioning of beauty is intimately connected not only with the protection that fantasies of gender afford, but also with the apotropaic power ascribed to the imaginary faculty in the face of death. Poe's choice of the superlative indicates that the literary depiction of feminine death is not limited to the thematic dimension of a representation. Rather it includes a reference to a text's poetic effectiveness, as this is contingent on self-referentiality.

in Over her dead body
Elisabeth Bronfen

This chapter presents the way Jacques Lacan positions masculinity and femininity in relation to cultural laws, to the unconscious, to imaginary objects of desire and to the non-semiotic real. This is done so as to elaborate the mythic association of femininity and death. Femininity is culturally constructed as a figure of contradiction, and positioned as the symptom at which culture's repression of death re-emerges. In the chiasmatic relation of woman figured as death/death figured as woman, the referent woman is absent from the text. But this absence is occulted by myths of femininty, even as absence (or death) is equally 'missing' from the text, beyond representation, yet rendered at and over representations of a woman's dead body. Like an aesthetic order, a social order is constituted by virtue of what is seeks to evade, and Woman is set up as the guarantee of a social system.

in Over her dead body
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Elisabeth Bronfen

Storytellers are positioned in an intermediary site between life and death. They are absent from the world and therefore 'dead' as a social person. They feed off previous 'inanimate' texts and produce fictions that in turn are alive in the realm of the imaginary but immaterial in respect to social reality. Charles Dickens's Great Expectations can be read as a novel about the way the art of storytelling conjoins representation with the revenant and with the intermediary. This novel centres on Miss Havisham, a woman who remains beyond her social death to provoke a mystery and inspire a tale. This novel links femininity, death and the emergence of fiction over the body of a revenant bride. Imaginary activity, symbolisation and the creation of fictions serve to negate reality, to repair or mitigate one's own destructive impulses and patch up wounds to one's narcissism.

in Over her dead body
in Over her dead body
Elisabeth Bronfen

Between February 1914 and January 1915 the Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler made over seventy sketches, gouaches and oil paintings of his mistress Valentine Gode-Darel, as she was dying of cancer. Hodler's sketches and paintings meticulously document the progress of her illness. This chapter discusses an aspect of our culture's need to ground theoretical and aesthetic representation on the displayed 'erasure' of the feminine. By addressing the issue of how different discourses, depending on their epistemological and political interest, in turn represent the interrelation between death, femininity and aesthetisation, the chapter talks about representations of feminine death. Within particular theoretical frame Hodler's representations of a dying and dead feminine body, a dynamic interplay with violence can be seen. While one image could conceivably have a stabilising, securing effect, the sequence exemplifies how the violence of the real is translated only precariously into representations.

in Over her dead body
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Elisabeth Bronfen

Unlike Clarissa Harlowe's relatives and friends, content with seeing and embracing her corpse one last time, Samuel Richardson's rake Lovelace, upon hearing of Clarissa's death, devises a monstrous scheme. His amorous fantasies show how fetishism can serve as a strategy to occult death and female sexuality simultaneously. Lovelace's desire to preserve the body of his dead beloved in such a way as to make it indefinitely available to his sustained gaze is not all that unusual for eighteenth and nineteenth-century cultural imagery. This is further corroborated by one of the most popular folktale images, Snow White. Snow White's displayed body auto-iconically gives figure to death in order to assure that, though death is undecidable and uncertain, it is not inconceivable. It is part of representation's fetishistic quality that by offering a stable image it confirms the viewer's position even as its semantic encoding is that of the instability of death.

in Over her dead body
Elisabeth Bronfen

Death and femininity are culturally positioned as the two central enigmas of western discourse. Significantly, Sigmund Freud aligns a fear of death with the radical Otherness of Woman not only explicitly, but also implicitly in his late writings, given that writing on both subjects involves speculation and incompletion. The represented corpse effects a freezing of rupture, an erasure that transforms the threat of ambivalence posed by the living woman into the survivor's aesthetic gain. This chapter addresses the question of an uncanny interplay between ambivalence and recuperated stability. The riddle of death can be solved by solving the riddle of Woman and vice versa, with the speculating man in the position of the analyst, trying to discover the concealed secret. The chapter discusses three types of femininity: 'hysteric' woman, 'narcissistic' Woman and 'affirmative' Woman.

in Over her dead body
Elisabeth Bronfen

The pictorial representation of dead women became so prevalent in eighteenth and nineteenth century European culture that by the middle of the latter century this topos was already dangerously hovering on the periphery of cliche. The author has chosen to concentrate on Gabriel von Max's painting Der Anatom for the reason that at first glance it is exemplary of nineteenth century salon painting: commonplace, spectacular, kitsch. It was commonly believed that the hypnotised, often feminine medium, in its corpse-like state, could gain access to the realm of the dead and enter into a dialogue with the deceased. The image of a feminine corpse presents a concept of beauty which places the work of death into the service of the aesthetic process. This form of beauty is contingent on the translation of an animate body into a deanimated one.

in Over her dead body