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Death, femininity and the aesthetic

Narrative and visual representations of death, drawing their material from a common cultural image repertoire, can be read as symptoms of our culture. The feminine body appears as a perfect, immaculate aesthetic form because it is a dead body, solidified into an object of art. This book explores the conjunction of death, art and femininity, which forms a rich and disturbing strata of Western culture. It unfolds the psychoanalytic and semiotic terminology and raises issues concerning representation, the interstice between the dead body and the image, sacrifice of the body for the production of art and re-establishment of order. The book then explores myths of femininity and beauty, and presents a socio-historical discussion of death since the mid eighteenth century and in its relation to the new value ascribed to femininity during this period. Using Lacan's typology of gender constructions, it presents Jane Eyre as the typical Victorian example for a tripartite feminine death figure. The book also focuses on the way that the death of the bride constitutes social bonds much as the more obvious bartering of daughters for purposes of marriage does. The concluding chapters focus on the issue of dead brides, and how women writers install, comply with, critique and rewrite the cultural image repertoire that links the feminine subject position to a speaking through and out of death. The book is richly illustrated throughout with thirty-seven paintings and photographs.

On the cultural afterlife of the war dead
Elisabeth Bronfen

This chapter illustrates the interconnection between representations of war and Gothic imaginary. It presents a reading of WWI poetry in conjunction with George Romero's Diary of the Dead (2007), Ambrose Bierce's Gothic description of his Civil War experience and the American military involvement in the Caribbean. Romero's distinctively self-referential style is read as a reflection of the monstrosity of the cinematic medium itself, conjoining on the thematic level the return of soldiers as zombies and on the extradiegetic level a visual language returning both as spectral bodies on screen. The war zone is depicted as a realm between life and death, as though the Gothic mode were the only way the truth can be told in a situation of catastrophe. The zombie, poised in this space, functions as a trope used to confront us with the ethical crisis raised by a ubiquity of digital images at the beginning of the 21st century.

in Monstrous media/spectral subjects
Elisabeth Bronfen

This chapter presents narratives where the equation of corpse with artwork means a translation that erases rather than preserves the body. It also presents narratives of portraits which substitute for dead bodies, and which, as representations of representations, are twice removed from their object of reference. The coupling of a beautiful dead woman and her image is taken up by Edgar Allan Poe in his metapoetic story about creation and image-making, 'The Oval Portrait'. He does this in order to problematise the conventional idea of art as transformation of living matter into inanimate form. In D. G. Rossetti's poem 'The Portrait', the painted double of a beautiful dead woman is used as a displaced representation of the viewer's own mortality. This is done so that a blurring of portrait and self-portrait emerges as yet another semantic instability inherent in the uncanny image.

in Over her dead body
Elisabeth Bronfen

This chapter discusses two novels by Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D'Urbervilles, to illustrate the strategy of self- protection and self-generation. Sacrifice and art come to pose as diametric opposites, both feeding on death and femininity as semiotic mobility. The chapter describes examples where a desire for closure encounters an opposing desire that undermines this totalising ambition. This subversive tendency emerges on the very site of presumed mastery and control, the feminine corpse. The exchange of female bodies and the forms of exchange occurring at their bodies prove how fatal it can be to confuse a body with a sign. In a particular instance, the dead body functions as the necessary prerequisite for the aesthetic and hermeneutic process.

in Over her dead body
Elisabeth Bronfen

Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton probably come most readily to mind when one thinks of twentieth-century woman poets who resort to the topos of the dead woman as muse. Virginia Woolf's model grounds writing in the death of a woman. Yet the paradox that emerges in her anecdote is that, having inspired the writing of other women, the dead woman poet as muse will come into being again, for the first time. As women writers reflect upon the relationship between authorship and feminine death, the crucial point is that femininity, which in its linkage with death marks uncanny difference within, has not been translated into canny Otherness. In Lady Oracle, Margaret Atwood explicitly thematises the proximity of death to the production of fictions of the self and to issues of feminine authorship.

in Over her dead body
Elisabeth Bronfen

The dead woman who remains and in so doing engenders narratives, functions as a body at which death is once again coupled to the other central enigma of western cultural representation, femininity. A perturbing Victorian example of the interstice between feminine speech and death is Robert Browning's poetic rendition of the Roman trial and execution in 1698 of Guido Franchescini, The Ring and the Book. As T. Todorov notes, detective fiction tells two stories, the story of the crime and the story of the investigation. As such it depicts two murders, the first committed by the actual murderer, the second by the pure and unpunishable murderer, the detective. In Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Bram Stoker's Dracula, the duality of these two plots is such that two events collapse.

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

This chapter discusses Samuel Richardson's Clarissa, Alfred Tennyson's Lancelot and Elaine and Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, which depict a woman using death as a conscious act of setting a mark. It shows death as a form of writing with her body where the sheer material factualness of the dying and dead body lends certainty, authority and realness to this attempt at self-textualisation. The chapter also discusses two thematic concerns. Firstly, the representation of a woman killing herself in order to produce an autobiographical text can serve as a trope for the relation of the writing process to death in general. The second concern is that of the position culture grants femininity. Both concerns, however, involve a central contradiction, for the aesthetical staging of suicide always implies a turn to the sheer materiality of the dying and dead body to legitimate textualisation.

in Over her dead body
Elisabeth Bronfen

This chapter begins with an anecdote where a woman's suicide uncannily transcribed literary cliches into real death in such a way as to position her staged corpse ambivalently between victimisation and self-assertion. Charlotte Stieglitz's suicide, and the rhetoric surrounding it, point to the interconnection between artistic renewal as a form of giving birth and death. Although Charlotte's death failed to inspire a new phase of poetic creativity in her husband, it did make her into a public muse. As the poet repeats the depths of silence and the fecund night in his artistic representations, images which one could say are drawn from the enmeshed paradigms of femininity and death. By doing so, he seemingly triumphs over and defies his own mortality, his material facticity. The rhetorical invocation refers quite literally to a female body, as though not only the poet's gift but also the fading metaphor were to be reanimated.

in Over her dead body
Elisabeth Bronfen

This chapter explores how western culture uses narratives to establish not only myths and stereotypes about the essence of Woman, but also about the relation between femininity and social order as this involves death. Both femininity and death inspire the fear of an ultimate loss of control, of a disruption of boundaries between self and Other, of a dissolution of an ordered and hierarchical world. While western cultural discourses construct the self as masculine, they ascribe to femininity a position of Otherness. As Other, Woman serves to define the self, and the lack or excess that is located in the Other functions as an exteriorisation of the self, in respect to both gender and death. Woman comes to represent the margins or extremes of the norm, the extremely good, pure and helpless, or the extremely dangerous, chaotic and seductive.

in Over her dead body