Saturday, August 7, 2010

Norming the Female Body: Discourses of Sexuality in Charles Swinburne (Third Part) by Lai Sai Acon Chan

Kristevan semiotics, asserts Toril Moi, “emphasizes the marginal and the heterogenous as that which can subvert the central structures of traditional linguistics” (161).  In this sense, Swinburne’s poetry can be said to manifest marginal types of discourse, especially in “Dolores” and in “Anactoria.”  His portrayal of a sadomasochistic unchaste virgin and of a lesbian with destructive-creative impulses typify Julia Kristeva’s process of signification and Hélène Cixous’ writing the body, both processes that aim at deconstructing the linear, goal-oriented language of patriarchy .  Dolores is the embodiment of goddess and demoness.  As a virgin, she is certainly an unorthodox one.  Rather than a more joyful or pious type of virgin, the mystic and somber Dolores is Our Lady of Pain, a cruel patroness.  Her physical description is utterly disturbing and points at the destruction and pain she is capable of inflicting:  cold eyelids, heavy white limbs, hard eyes, cruel red mouth, lips full of lust and laughter, fangs, ravenous teeth.  However, the effect she has on an acolyte is actually soothing as he urges her to “press with new lips where [she] pressed.  For [his] heart too springs up at the pressure” (28-29), so that he could be filled with pleasure.  By calling her Notre-Dame des Sept Douleurs, Swinburne mocks the authority of the Christian faith and shakes one of the pillars of patriarchal Western thought, the church.  Dark, pagan, overtly-sexualized goddesses like Dolores, Astarte, and Venus, not God, become the object of worship of fervent followers of a semiotic cult verbalized in what in Kristevan terms is “the discourse of the illogic, the unconscious, the impulsive, the repressed, the transverbal, the atemporal” [my translation] (Macaya 87).  This discourse that usually manifests itself in the gaps and inconsistencies of the linear, rational language of patriarchy, surfaces in “Dolores” and in “Anactoria” as a language of the female body, that is, as what Cixousian critics have termed “écriture feminine”[1].
To Cixous, writing that is said to be feminine comes from the eroticization of the body.  “Almost everything is yet to be written by women about femininity:  about their sexuality, that is, its infinite and mobile complexity, about their eroticization, sudden turn-ons of a certain miniscule-immense area of their bodies [. . .].  A woman’s body with its thousand and one thresholds of ardor [. . .] will make the old single-grooved mother tongue reverberate with more than one language” (885) .  In this sense, Dolores’ is a sexuality that celebrates transgression while it functions as a type of bodily, erotic discourse.  Constant references to her body’s transformative powers render it a site of “jouissance.”  One can imagine her “lips full of lust and of laughter” (25) curb in a sardonic smile as she blows, bends, and breaks the bodies of those willing to follow her to her “house of unquenchable fire” (23) and writhe but in ecstatic pangs:  “Ah, feed me and fill me with pleasure,/ Ere pain come in turn” (31-32).  Like female sexuality, writing said to be feminine is “a multiple and inexhaustible course with millions of encounters and transformations of the same into the other and into the in-between, from which woman takes her forms” (Cixous 883), that is multiple instead of single, diffuse instead of focused, oriented toward process instead of goal-oriented.  Indeed, the structure of the poem is more diffuse and process-oriented, and the signs are multivalent.  Unlike more readable types of poems such as ballads and narrative poetry, Swinburne’s “Dolores” does not tell a story with a discernible beginning and a clear-cut end.  On the contrary, the poem concentrates on extricating the different possible meanings of Dolores’ body:  “splendid and sterile” (71), “bitter and tender” (87), “sanguine and subtle” (103), “fierce and luxurious” (135), “my sister, my spouse, and my mother” (151), “sleepless and deadly” (215), “a goddess new-born” (336), “a mortal, a maiden/ A queen over death and the dead” (347-48), “Most fruitful and virginal, holy” (351).  Instead of telling a linear, logical story about Dolores, those sets of contradictory meanings render her as a process of endless signification rather than as a Manichean type of ambiguity that is solved from the start.  Finally, by stressing the multiple values of the female body, Swinburne writes and rewrites the body of Dolores giving it a different meaning each time anew.  Thus, she has “cold eyelids” but they “hide like a jewel” (1).  In the same way, hers are “Hard eyes,” yet they “grow soft for an hour” (2); hers is the “bosom [that] no fasts could emaciate,/ No hunger compel to complain/ Those lips that no bloodshed could satiate” (261). “The white wealth of [her] body [is] made whiter/ By the blushes of amorous blows” (267-68) because Dolores is “fed with eternal breath/ And alive after infinite changes” (58-59).  Since this is a language that mimics the subversive laugh of an ultimately abnormal woman (in allusion to Cixous’ groundbreaking homonym article, “The Laugh of the Medusa”) it is intended to “wreck partitions, classes, and rhetorics, regulations and codes” (886).
“Anactoria” is Swinburne’s celebration of homoerotic love and still another attempt at developing marginal discourses springing from the female body.  It is through a boundless, more often than not, violent ardor that Sappho’s and Anactoria’s bodies are able to go past the lily/rose constraint.  As lesbians, neither one can fit into the conventional roles as mothers, wives or femme fatales that originate in biological circumstances. Thus, they stand in direct opposition to normalcy and, to a certain extent, represent what Cixous called the third body.  The constant references to seemingly destructive actions like blinding, burning, dividing, severing, crushing, bruising, scourging, and consuming among many others in the lesbian sexual act, would point to an utterly destructive kind of love and a canceling out of each other; however, in accordance with Cixousian thought they actually “offer the gift of alterity, producing rather than reducing difference” (Bray 63).  In “Anactoria,” Sappho starts by urging the object of her love to see what the effects of that love have caused: 
                        My life is bitter with thy love:  thine eyes
Blind me, thy tresses burn me, thy sharp sighs
Divide my flesh and spirit with soft sound,
And my blood strengthens, and my veins abound.
I pray thee sigh not, speak not, draw not breath;
Let life burn down, and dream it is not death. (1-6)
A love like Anactoria’s is so irreverent in the patriarchal world that it has the power to erase all traces of convention, and rather than in the logical language of the Father, this love is expressed in the transverbal language of the Mother.  The great love between the women is then expressed through pulsations coming from the body.   But in the process a strong clash between the bodies of Sappho and Anactoria must necessarily occur:  “”I feel thy blood against my blood: my pain/ Pains thee. And lips bruise lips, and vein stings vein” (11-12).  And so does the third body emerge, as “that which is created through the exchange, the flow, of desire” (Bray 64), but also as an unlawful entity that exists in “Anactoria” only as the product of the consummation of two female bodies rather than as the more conventional union of a male body and a female body.  
            Like the dark and diseased pre-New Woman figure that Christina Rossetti sketched in some of her literary works, Swinburne’s primordial women and terrible women offer a third possibility for the nineteenth century women within the limits of the dominant sexual politics of the time.  His marginal discourses, ambiguity, and never-ending signification are an expression of what Allison Pease calls the aesthetics of obscenity.  Pease argues that the nineteenth century “inherited the oppositions between pornography and aesthetics that were created in the eighteenth century” (38).  It is not until the sexual body is elevated to the status of art and included in the realm of legitimate culture that marginal, ambiguous, open-ended discourses like Swinburne’s are normed.  In stylizing “panting bodies typically associated with pornography,” “sexually enumerated” bodies through “sexually suggestive quotes” (64-65) that, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti once worried, would “make a few not even particular hairs stand on end, to say nothing of other erections equally obvious” (qtd in Pease 38) , Swinburne blurs the line between low and high culture, the erotically perverse and the properly decent, the aesthetically obscene and the distastefully lewd.  In the process, his poetry (just like C.G. Rossetti’s literary production) “represents what Raymond Williams calls residual and emergent culture, either of which stands outside of the dominant culture and must in some way be incorporated lest they continue to pose a threat” (Pease 64).  Once again, abnormal discourses on sexuality get caught in an endless game of normalizing the unstable, the aberrant, the eccentric.  The marginal illusively moves to the center, but is actually incorporated and blended into a “new” center and, thus, an essentializing hegemonic discourse on sexuality belies it.  

[1]    Cixous has always refused to refer to feminine writing or masculine writing.  She prefers to make a distinction between writing said to be feminine or writing said to be masculine.  Interview with Verena Andermatt Conley in Hélène Cixous:  Writing the Feminine.