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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.

Elisabeth Bronfen
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
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Elisabeth Bronfen

On 25 January 1920 Sophie Freud-Halberstadt, aged twenty-six, died of influenzal pneumonia. She was 'snatched away' in Sigmund Freud's words 'from glowing health, from her busy life as capable mother and loving wife, in four or five days, as if she had never been'. Several commentators have speculated that Sophie Freud in some sense functions as muse for her father's theory of the death drive, though Freud himself acknowledged this influence only in the form of negation. Freud's metapsychological writings distinguish themselves through the addition of an 'economic' point of view to the 'topological' and 'dynamic' factors informing psychic processes. J. Lacan repeats Freud's focalisation, repeats the fading of the maternal body, in order to make the game 'mean'. Lacan emphasises that for a subject to imagine itself as having a stable identity is always an act of mis-recognition, a fiction, an illusion of autonomy.

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
Elisabeth Bronfen
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
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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
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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

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