Published: July 20, 2000 By

[1]   It is possible now to speak of a triumph for women in the register of philosophical aesthetics, especially since this word identifies precisely what aesthetic thought has always denied them. We are well aware that Western philosophy has been notoriously gender-biased, despite claims of universality in its premises and propositions (Agonito, Nye). That bias has prompted the exclusion of women from the arena of theoretical discourse, and from the possibilities of creative mastery and the phenomenological ascendancy that the aesthetic savors. We have only recently begun to interrogate the biases of philosophical aesthetics, by explicating the relations among art, gender, and culture; complicating received constructions of the viewing subject; offering more egalitarian aesthetic criteria; attempting to revise and adapt the categories of the beautiful, the sublime, and the grotesque; and elaborating the repression of the female body (see, e.g., Hein and Korsmeyer, Brand and Korsmeyer).

[2]   It is a well-worn observation that woman has been excluded from spheres of intellection and artistic productivity based upon the understanding of her body as an obstacle to reason and morality, faculties required for philosophic-artistic competence. The view that feminine flesh defies order and reason has early expression in Aristotle’s pronouncement that because woman is of the flesh, she has no association with the activity of mind. Echoed with some variation time and again, notably by Augustine, Aquinas, Rousseau, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud, this view finds its way into modern aesthetic theory through Kant, Hegel, and Schopenhauer in particular, who focus directly on the relationship of women’s fleshliness to their intellectual and moral inferiority. Feminist interventions rest on the perception that traditional aesthetics repudiates a female or feminine of its own construction, and seek the reconstruction of the female body as an aesthetic force. Patricia Yaeger and Mary Russo, whom I treat at greater length below, rehabilitate the female body in the service of a feminist aesthetic. In their work, the abject woman becomes a subversive trope of female liberation: she speaks an alternative, disruptive language, immersing herself in the significances of the flesh, becoming willfully monstrous as she defies the symbolic order. The abject woman abandons her oppressive confinement to the category of the beautiful, reforms her association with the grotesque, and contests her expulsion from the sublime.

[3]   In the history of philosophical aesthetics, woman has been associated with the categories both of the beautiful and the grotesque, but not with the sublime (see, e.g., Freeman). Edmund Burke defines the beautiful–connoting smallness, smoothness, fragility or delicacy and light–as quite distinct from the sublime, which he describes in terms of vastness, ruggedness, heartiness, and darkness or obscurity (124). Kant genders Burke’s distinction by declaring that women are beautiful, men sublime: “[C]ertain specific traits lie especially in the personality of this [the female] sex which distinguish it clearly from ours and chiefly result in making her known by the mark of the beautiful” (76). Burke and Kant are bringing to resolution a deliberation on the status of the beautiful initiated by Plato, who provides the impetus for the modern conclusion that the beautiful is an inferior aesthetic value, producing pleasing feelings, but not the superior powers that describe sublimity: ecstasy, bliss, and a sense that the divine has been approached. Plato speaks of beauty in many of the dialogues, including Cratylus, Gorgias, Phaedo, Phaedrus,Philebus,Republic, and Symposium, often in an effort to give it place in the physical world. Philebus is perhaps the most forthcoming on “the qualities of measure and proportion [that] manifest themselves in all areas as beauty and virtue”: the beautiful is what pleases ear and eye, is associated with ideal proportions in the relation of part to part (good measure, symmetry), and is smooth, clear, white, simple, unified, and regular (454). For Socrates/Plato, however, the concern is not so much with beauty as a body than as a transcendent idea. It is a Platonic commonplace that all actual or material objects may be beautiful insofar as they imitate their non-material archetype, but they are always inferior copies of a superior original that lies beyond the full reach and understanding of the human senses. In sum, ideal beauty is the early and long-standing philosophical solution to relativity in human sense perception and taste, and to mutability in material nature.

[4]   Women have been assigned to the category of the beautiful precisely because that category is bound up with mutability. The (feminine, sensual) beautiful serves as a suitable repository for this source of consternation in the aesthetic. Kant says that when women lose their physical beauty, they require greater character to counteract the decrease in outward bodily splendor:

In my opinion, the whole perfection of the fair sex in the bloom of years should consist in the beautiful simplicity that has been brought to its height by a refined feeling toward all that is charming and noble. Gradually, as the claims upon charms diminish, the reading of books and the broadening of insight could refill unnoticed the vacant place of the Graces with the Muses, and the husband should be the first instructor. Nevertheless, when the epoch of growing old, so terrible to every woman, actually approaches, she still belongs to the fair sex, and that sex disfigures itself if in a kind of despair of holding this character longer, it gives way to a surly and irritable mood. (Agonito 141)

For Kant here, woman is always threatening to become a grotesque as she ages and displays her withering skin, graying hair, and shriveling body.

[5]   Because the history of attitudes toward woman’s body has long been structured with reference to the traditional aesthetics of the beautiful and the grotesque, which women can represent, and the sublime, which they cannot, feminists have been motivated to reconsider these categories. Simone de Beauvoir makes an early effort in this direction when she proposes that woman can signify in drastically opposite ways because she is passive, rather than active like men. Men are defined through their acts, she proposes, while women, inactive, are defined wholly by the ideas of men. Thus, the female body is sometimes figured as compensatory to a woman’s intellectual weakness–provoking poetic inspiration–other times as a token of the corruption that confronts the aesthetic ideal. For de Beauvoir, woman’s body is the repository both of men’s fears and his desires, of his repulsions and his dreams (Second Sex 139-198). The psychological ambivalence de Beauvoir describes informs the cultural identification of the female body with the beautiful and the grotesque, and as an obstacle to the sublime.

[6]   Patricia Yaeger’s 1992 essay on the “maternal sublime” proposes that women refuse the weak category of the beautiful, and look, instead, to the grotesque and the sublime to serve a feminist aesthetic. Observing that “the world of the beautiful can be treacherous for women” (5), Yaeger notes that this measure of women’s value is instrumental in keeping them in invisibility, paralysis, and confinement. She discusses Mary Oliver’s poem “Strawberry Moon” in this context: Elizabeth Fortune, having had a romantic experience with a young man who then abandons her for another woman, retires to the attic, where, it is suggested, her life simply stops. She has a child by her lover, but the child is whisked away, the blood from the birth washed clean and the sheets burned, as if the birth were a dirty secret. Following this birth, Fortune spends 40 years confined to the attic room. Yaeger notes that while Fortune is imprisoned in obscurity, the father of her child goes out into the light of day, to marry, father legitimate children, and work. He may be a common laborer, but at least he is free. Later in Oliver’s poem, however, things begin to change: women begin to take on more aggressive postures, they sometimes “want to lash out with a cutting edge” (Yaeger 8). For Yaeger, Oliver’s “scrappy women refuse to lie down” (9); they represent a conversion for femininity.

[7]   We have seen that in traditional aesthetics, sublimity is privileged over the beautiful and the grotesque, and associated with ecstasy, force, and movement. For Yaeger, sublimity bespeaks “the noumenal power of the once-inferiorized [self]” (Yaeger 9), but is “unavailable to the spatially constricted woman” (Yaeger 6). This woman, I would add, is the “angel in the house” who became a conventional female type in the nineteenth century, and who is associated with passivity, invisibility (except when she presents quiet beauty to the world), and invalidism. But Yaeger’s sublime woman involves herself in “joy and vaunting,” a self-glorying that refuses “constriction and miniaturization” (6). Women refuse the beautiful and embrace the sublime by emphasizing their own powers of generativity, specifically their maternal power. Asking whether “there is room for women’s reproductive labor in the smoke-filled rooms” of the Romantic sublime (9)–associated with conversion, spatiality, and personal power–Yaeger argues that maternity, despite its traditional connection with the grotesque, can belong also to a sublime poetics. She adapts Edmund Burke’s view that terror is the whole basis of sublimity, and, noting that the mother’s body has often been defined as defiled, ruptured, and unclean–abject in Kristevan terms–she posits the birthing woman as a type of grotesque that sublimely terrifies. The mother’s body registers the dread prerequisite to sublimity; abjection conditions the embodiment of robust motion and gore.

[8]   Mary Russo’s 1995 Female Grotesque also conjoins grotesque and abject in the development of a new aesthetic. Emphasizing “grotesque performance” for women, Russo admires Amelia Earhart’s aerobatic stunting for its refusal of conventional femininity. The history of literary and artistic representation, as well as the history of public and political discourses, reflects and reinforces the imperative that women keep themselves small and unseen, that they neither take up too much space in the world, nor make spectacles of themselves. As a subversive alternative, Russo prefers that women make themselves prodigious and visible, that they seek majesty, and so disrupt long-standing definitions of the ideal woman as restrained and diminutive. A grotesque performer like Earhart practices philobatism, or the will to be suspended in mid-air, defying her groundedness within and through traditional femininity. The grotesque performer, because ugly and aberrant according to conventional culture, refuses the imperative that she stay beautiful and domesticated, and seeks the heights of self-fashioning with reference to a body that does not obey prescribed limits. For Russo, Earhart’s stunting is both a model of female exceptionalism, and an instance of woman as sideshow object, simultaneously demonstrating and rebuking her cultural status as a monstrous body.

[9]   Noting that the grotesque body is always a social body, Russo rehabilitates the identification of the grotesque–noted by Bakhtin–with “the lower bodily stratum and its associations with degradation, filth, death, and rebirth.” She argues that traditional aesthetics has devalued the grotesque body, preferring the classical body, which is “transcendent and monumental, closed, static, self-contained, symmetrical, and sleek . . . identified with the ‘high’ or official culture of the Renaissance and later, with the rationalism, individualism, and normalizing aspirations of the bourgeoisie.” By contrast, she identifies the grotesque body, “open, protruding, irregular, secreting, multiple, and changing,” with the social rebirth and reformation called for by “the non-official ‘low’ culture or the carnivalesque.” Russo suggests that the ideals upon which Western subjectivity has relied for the construction of its values and knowledge–normalcy, purity, transcendence–constructs itself in opposition to the qualities with which the grotesque is associated: the abnormal or perverse, the filthy or tainted, and the earthly or grounded. The grotesque is also the Freudian uncanny, because Western subjectivity refuses through its ideals precisely what cannot be refused: the mortal corporeality that incites human fears (8-10).

[10]   For Russo, the female grotesque and the abject woman are related, since the maternal body has long been associated with the grotesque. The grotto-esque cave, she notes, may be compared to the cavernous anatomical female body. She makes this connection through Bakhtin’s “senile, pregnant hag,” and through “a vein of nonacademic ‘cultural feminism'” that valorizes the earth mother, witch, crone, and vampire, arguing that these figures “posit a natural connection between the female body (itself naturalized) and the ‘primal’ elements, especially the earth” (1). In addition, she maintains that the locating of the grotesque in art “as superficial and to the margins” suggests “a certain construction of the feminine” as equally devalued and disenfranchised” (6). The maternal partakes of the uncanny to the extent that it threatens “always to monstrously reproduce,” to double as conjoined self and other (18); the philobatic imagination, too, “operates, at different stages, bothwithin and away from the maternal body” to the extent that subjectivity is formed through the simultaneous love and repudiation of the mother (36). Russo recognizes that “it is an easy and perilous slide from these archaic tropes [woman as earth, cave, witch, and vampire] to misogyny [since] all the detritus of the body that is separated out and placed with terror and revulsion (predominantly, though not exclusively) on the side of the feminine–are down there in that cave of abjection” (20). However, she would exploit the association in the direction of a liberation strategy: the woman as “monstrous” defier of social norms.

[11]   In their emphasis on the monstrous woman, both Yaeger and Russo join a movement that has informed significant feminist typologies at least since the advent of Cixous’ “Laugh of the Medusa” (see, for instance, Daly, Haraway, Heilbrun). More explicitly than other theorists of the monstrous, they involve the abject woman in the construction of a contemporary feminist aesthetic. And at the same time, Yaeger and Russo continue to give prominence to the established aesthetic terms, sublime and grotesque. To focus the question of how the use of patriarchal category-terms can affect a feminist aesthetic, I want to ask here whether “grotesque” and “abject” ought to be as easily conflated as they are for both Yaeger and Russo. In this connection, I have been thinking for some time about our difficulty as human beings and as critics with encountering the suffering, wasting body, and trying to understand it as an aesthetic body. My central example here of this difficulty, an example I will bring to bear upon the relationship of the grotesque to the abject, and upon current attempts to depart from traditional aesthetics, is the set of critical responses provoked by Hans Holbein’s Dead Christ in the Tomb; these responses largely reference the sublime or the grotesque, in the face of a painting that–as I will argue–defies those categories.

[12]   Abjection is a supple term: it names the undesirable contents of our being–pain, disease, body waste, and death–as well as our active repudiation of these contents. It names, too, the condition or state of being both downcast and outcast, of being both burdened and outraged by our mortality, and of being rejected or scapegoated as a representative of that which is undesirable. As Kristeva proposes, the sublime emerges as abjection sublimated, as a religious and aesthetic strategy for coping with and mastering abjection. Holbein’s Dead Christgives us a picture of abjection in its barest form, a picture of common, ugly mortality, though this bare meaning does, as we will see, prompt the desire to replace abjection with more pleasing and comforting interpretive categories. Noting critical associations and dissociations of the sublime, grotesque, and abject, I propose that the grotesque–the term most readily applied to Holbein’s painting–is neither a departure from the sublime nor a condition of the abject, that through its connection to the sublime in the aesthetic tradition, the grotesque can keep us from full recognition of our physical abjection. Kristeva’s theorizing of the abject–which I invoke more explicitly below to underscore my reading of Holbein–suggests to me the possibility for an aesthetic of the dissolute body that differs from, and intervenes in, the aesthetic of the grotesque. I also focus here on Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion as a counterpart to the Holbein, because in it, we have a model of transcendence that depends upon the grotesque for its power. In the Grünewald, the aesthetics of the grotesque and sublime are played out upon the body of Christ, so that He is the grotesque figure made sublime.

[13]   I will have more to say about Yaeger and Russo following my reading of Holbein, but as I approach Holbein, I want to say a bit about my choice of the body of Christ for analysis. Christ is, of course, the most prominent figure in the history of Western artistic production. Because of its identification with both crucifixion (which illustrates the grotesque) and resurrection (which accomplishes the sublime), Christ’s body is central to defining the terms of Western aesthetic thought. Unquestionably, Christian ethics and visions superintend the received history of Western art, and the eighteenth-century foundation of modern aesthetic theory is full of linkings of sublimity and divinity (see Ashfield and de Bolla). From a feminist viewpoint, we also recognize that Christ, far from being a representative of generic human suffering, is primarily a figure of transcendence identified with masculinity (see, for instance, Daly,Beyond God the Father 81-92).

[14]   One of Yaeger’s and Russo’s aims is to prompt men to accept their relationship to an abject body, and to the abject bodies of others, to crawl into the cave of abjection with their mortal sisters. With that aim in mind, I focus on a depiction of Christ not in order to return us to the old humanism of a shared nature, but to press further the resonances of an aesthetic of the abject, and to add some further dimension to the rehabilitation of the sublime and the grotesque. My interpretation of Holbein is aimed not at the level of people’s beliefs in or hopes for an afterlife, but at the heart of an aesthetic that defines itself with reference to the myth of the resurrected man and the long-suffering woman. As I have proposed to this point, this aesthetic tradition has had no small role in defining this gendered dynamic with its identification of women with the grotesque, with abject fleshliness, or with the beautiful that both flees and reabsorbs this classification. Finally, I note that my discussion of Grünewald retains the customary associations of the grotesque with material excess, overstatement, and the luxury of distortion (Barasch, Harpham, Kayser), and that my reading of Holbein challenges this tradition to strip off its transcendental cover. Thus I write here (in tension) with Yaeger and Russo, and offer a version of abject criticism.

A Dead Man: Beyond the Grotesque

[15]   Holbein’s Dead Christ in the Tomb (1521-1522) depicts a rotting corpse, appearing to be Christ, but in an uncharacteristic form: decaying on the draped slab of a desolate tomb–his fingers bony, green, some clenched, one reaching; the back of the hand traumatized by the red wound that has conspired in the body’s death (figure 1). [Scan by Mark Harden] It is a grim work, featuring the ugly influence of putrefaction on the newly dead body. Holbein’s model may have been the body of a drowned man pulled from the Rhine (Rowlands 52), a possibility that reflects the starkly stated cadaverousness of Holbein’s subject. Mouth agape, eyes rolled up into the head, the man’s face bespeaks aggrieved resignation to an excruciating end. His end. Perhaps ours. That thought is all too distressing, and makes us look away from the face in search of an end that is not our own.

 Hans Holbein, The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb. Offentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel.

[16]   The hand and side wounds suggest that this is Christ. Yet not a single sign of renascence inhabits the body; the corpse exhibits nothing more, nor less, than permanent, wretched death. Dostoevsky, who was haunted by the work from the time he saw it hanging in Basel, expresses dismay at the decomposing Christ through The Idiot‘s Prince Myshkin: “Why, some people may lose their faith by looking at that picture” (236). Ippolit, a double for Myshkin, elaborates:

Strange to say, as one looks at the dead body of this tortured man, one cannot help asking oneself the peculiar, arresting question: if such a corpse (and it must have been just like that) was seen by all His disciples, by His future chief apostles, by the women who followed Him and stood by the cross, by all who believed in Him and worshipped Him, then how could they possibly have believed, confronted with such a sight, that this martyr would rise again? (418-20)

As Myshkin’s outcry suggests, such vivid distress and decay imputed to the body of Christ disputes the Gospels’ story of Resurrection. Is this Christ, then? Holbein likely did not title the painting, and this gives rise to another possibility: that this man is not Christ, that he is not destined for resurrection. More so than other non-spiritualized dead Christs produced in the sixteenth century (by Basaiti, Carpaccio, and Mantegna), Holbein’s painting is striking for its stark and haunting representation of an ordinary mortal, his body rotting.

[17]   The painting is known by different titles, none of which is given by Holbein: The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb, Dead Christ, andChrist in the Tomb . I propose another title: A Dead Man. In plain support of my own reading, this title borrows from the 1586 Amerbach inventory, which lists “a picture of a dead man by H. Holbein, oil on wood, with the title, ‘Jesus Nazarenus Rex'” (Ganz 218). Obeisant to this listing, critics widely regard Holbein’s composition as a study of Christ (rather than as the picture of a mere dead man). The wounds do indicate Christ’s death by crucifixion, and Holbein did indeed paint an array of unmistakable Christs around the time of A Dead Man‘s composition. However, most hold that the “Jesus Nazarenus Rex” is not Holbein’s imposition that of an unknown person. The one critic who does presume that Holbein is responsible for what appears in Amerbach says that Holbein originally intended the painting to be an anatomical study of a dead man, and only later identified the painting’s subject as Christ in order to give the painting “marketable value” (Chamberlain 102). In short, the divinity of Holbein’s subject is by no means fixed, despite the many follow-up titles that impute the Christ identity. This identity was, in any case, established near the end of the sixteenth century when a wooden border bearing the words in the Amerbach inventory–“Jesus Nazarenus Rex”–were appended materially to the work. The border, or frame, bearing the name of Christ is also inscribed with five blue-winged angels, each carrying a symbol of the Passion, so that the painting is insistently rescued from the Dostoevskyan pessimism. By encircling earth with heaven, the framer provides a rehabilitative rejoinder to the painting’s bleak bodyscape, and paves the way for affirmations of its godliness and piety in later centuries. This act of framing is unremarkable in its conventionality, but significant as a gloss that evades the wasting body that so crudely and so thoroughly occupies its visual space.

[18]   Questions about the identity of Holbein’s subject, and about the painting’s meaning, have been pursued along with acknowledgments that the painting is an example of the grotesque. Both Julia Kristeva and James Snyder have considered Holbein’s vision in light of the grotesque, both regarding Holbein alongside Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion, from the Isenheim Altarpiece, painted c. 1510-15 (figure 2), [Scan by Mark Harden] a painting that no doubt did influence Holbein. 
 Matthias Grunewald, Crucifixion from The Isenheim Alterpiece. Musee d'Unterlinden, Colmar.Kristeva and Snyder point out that Holbein had indeed seenCrucifixion, and suggest that he was perhaps imitating one part of Grünewald’s triptych. Both do finally recognize, however, that there are disparities between Holbein and Grünewald, and this is what I wish here to further remark. Crucifixion shows us a violated Christ of the fiercest proportions, with flesh lacerated by thorns and developing gangrenous sores. It is an instance of fantastic, unregulated, monstrous flesh, here a picture of the spirit under assault. The body is hideous: the head and neck appear dislodged from the torso, the upper and lower bodies as if they would rupture apart at the pinched waist; the ribcage swells out from upward pressure, and every nerve and sinew throughout the body stretches tight from the tug on them in opposing directions; the feet appear monstrously enlarged, the hands and fingers paroxysmally outspread by the bore of the spikes rammed through them; viscous blood streams from the wounds and pools at the ground directly beneath toes gnarled from pain. Grünewald is absorbed with the extravagant desecration of the body; Holbein, however, with ordinary, ugly decay.

[19]   Holbein insists on a naturalistic space, and actually underrepresents the injurious impact of scourging and crucifixion on the body (see Zugibe). Though we recognize that the puncture wounds signal crucifixion, the wounds as wounds have little to do with the repulsive force of the body on our sensibilities. The puncture in the hand and split in the side are fairly unremarkable, neither raging nor large-scale. The side wound, especially, appears relatively clean and small, and the condition of the hand in particular, is presented with more emphasis on normal decay than on outward violence. A Dead Man is a study in injured and decomposing flesh, though not expressly or exclusively, crucified flesh. We notice also that the forehead of Holbein’s subject is not distinctly lacerated from a crown of thorns, his torso not marred from scourging, omissions that both render the death the more prosaic, and press the question whether this body belongs to Jesus Christ. As Snyder observes, the work “seems more the product of a scientist fascinated by a post-mortem examination of a corpse . . . than an artist painting a dirge on the mourning of a martyr” (Snyder 387). Indeed, the morgue-like aspect of the close and desolate tomb reinforces the mundane quality of this man’s death. Grünewald’s Christ, by contrast, is gallingly grotesque, hyperbolized far beyond the ordinarily ugly body of decay that engages Holbein.

[20]   The grotesque, as we find it here, more readily lends itself to emphases on transcendence than does Holbein’s ordinary abject body. The Grünewald operates under the psychological assumption that the greater the pain and suffering, the more radical the appeal to redemption, the desire to reverse the process. Huysmans gives us a striking assessment of the relation between the grotesque and its overcoming:

Never before had a painter so charnally envisaged divinity nor so brutally dipped his brush into the wounds and running sores and bleeding nail holes of the Savior. Grünewald has passed all measure. He was the most uncompromising of realists, but his morgue Redeemer, his sewer Deity, let the observer know that realism could be truly transcendent. (quoted in Meyer 136)

As Huysmans indicates, the mangled body coexists with spirit in Grünewald, and the promise subtending the image is that spirit and order will ultimately overcome it. Just as Huysmans looks past the crude materiality in Grünewald, so does Rowlands look past rigor mortis and decay in the case of Holbein’s Dead Man: “Far from conveying despair, [the painting’s] message is intended as one of belief, that from the decay of the tomb Christ rose again in glory on the third day” (52-3). This conclusion is no doubt what the unknown framer had in mind, and what critics who accord evangelical emphases see in the painting. However, the fantastic distortion that urges transcendent relief in Grünewald, and justifies its categorization as grotesque, is absent in Holbein. Grünewald’s spectacular Crucifixion imagery applies to us only after the fiercest stretch of the imagination, while the picture of an ordinary dead man is indeed what we face. When we view Holbein’s subject as, instead, a Dead Christ, it appears shockingly iconoclastic because it bids us look through God at what we assiduously refuse to authorize: the common wasting body without hope of revival.

[21]   While the Holbein is not deliberately iconoclastic or impious, it nonetheless always threatens to beaffectively so, as both Dostoevsky’s and Prince Myshkin’s repulsed reactions indicate. In The Idiot, Ippolit adds dimension to this point when he gives a distorted account of Holbein’s Christ: “In the picture the face is fearfully crushed by blows, swollen, covered with fearful, swollen and blood-stained bruises” (395-6). The description is certainly exaggerated, anxiously repetitious, yet this is left unremarked by readers of Dostoevsky, including Kristeva, who cites Ippolit at length to dramatize the chilling effects of Holbein’s representation, but does not question the accuracy of his report (Black Sun 107-109; see also Meerson, Miller). Ippolit does impute greater violence to the dead man’s face than actually appears, a vision we might understand as generated by fear (just so, Dostoevsky responded to his first viewing of the painting with “the frightened look which [Anna Dostoevsky] had seen many times during the first moments of his epileptic fits”; Magarshack 384). Ippolit, who describes the painting from memory, is dying of tuberculosis. By featuring what he has seen in spectacular, contorted terms, he maintains a difference between this death and his own fate. He puts himself, and us, more in mind of martyrs than of ordinary dead men, and returns us to the transcendent flesh that Huysmans remarks in Grünewald.

[22]   Identifying Holbein with the grotesque, however, is an error, insisting upon an aesthetic of appallingly feral flesh which the painting does not accommodate, though the “test” that it administers to the viewer is not unlike that of Grünewald. Like the Grünewald, Holbein’s painting demands faith in a way that most representations of Crucifixion do not. But in the Holbein, I would argue, the demand is always potentially too great, as Dostoevsky’s and Myshkin’s responses, as well as the painting’s anonymous framer, reinforce. The framer, in particular, reveals the fact that bodily decay, in Christ and in general, troubles us deeply, so that to see it in anyone, but especially in Christ, is to be always repulsed and dismayed. Holbein supplements the biblical tradition, which is utterly silent on the fate of the corpse in the tomb, to meet the demand of the logic of the real, the demand for decay, what the miracle of Resurrection overcomes. The reversal of decay is what both the frame with its angels, and critics who rehearse evangelical emphases, insist upon. Dead flesh horrifies, and against it we pray for extrication.

[23]   In sum, A Dead Man reveals a fascination with bodily decay that resists or exceeds the conventional Christian paradigm as it is codified in the Bible, and reiterated in major traditions in the history of Western art (Crucifixion, Man of Sorrows, Lamentation, Resurrection). As Dostoevsky and his characters demonstrate, Holbein strips away (at least momentarily) the supernaturalized telos (the habitual way through which we repress the problem and concept of mortality), and effects the repulsive moment (when the repressed contents of the mind impinge upon consciousness). Dostoevsky’s Ippolit asks whether physical law can be subverted: “[I]f death is so awful and the laws of nature so mighty, how can they be overcome?” (396). My question here is not whether nature’s laws can be overcome, but how it may be possible to legitimize as an interpretive option the body as natural wasteland. Only then can we reside in the cave of abjection as subjects fully aware of the limitation that may bind us together.

[24]   In Black Sun, Kristeva offers a compelling study of Holbein’s Dead Christ that approaches the set of significances that I have been pressing for the painting. She features Holbein’s oeuvre, and the Dead Christin particular, as depicting a melancholic, or depressive expression of art and the death of the body. For Kristeva, melancholy defies a salvific principle that, through signs, binds the promise of Resurrection to the sufferer: medieval and Renaissance Italian iconography, for example, depicts Christ surrounded by figures both steeped in mourning and expectant of Resurrection (112). Thus, melancholy is subtended by abjection, and we see that Holbein’s Christ is alone in the void, deprived of supplicants, a detail that prevents the life of the body a restored place in the imagination. The lack of signs indicating grief and desire allows Kristeva to adapt Holbein to her discussion of the melancholic “hiatus,” or “caesura,” in which the loss of (a salvific) language makes life border on a death-like abyss wherein extreme meanings–in this case, pain and redemption–are suspended. Holbein, she argues registering differences from Grünewald, represents “severance,” or the partition between the “Gothic eroticism of paroxysmal pain,” and the promise of the beyond found in contemporary Italian art (136).

[25]   For Kristeva, Holbein takes us to the threshold of abjection, providing a moment for the contemplation of the loss of the symbolic. Pressing our own engagement with A Dead Man beyond that threshold, to a point where we cannot retreat from melancholy into meaning, involves one final step inside the tomb. And it is, ironically, the symbolic that invites this step: Holbein has glossed the work with his own initials (HH) carved into the stone at the dead man’s feet. Met by wounded and decaying limbs, the alphabet that names the author and represents the symbolic order is both seal and boundary, both the impermeable inside of the cave of abjection and the impossible dream of escape into signification, encrypted in both senses: as a code that provokes the desire for meaning, and as a sign that the author’s own body is trapped down here too. Though the Symbolic invades the cave of abjection, as must be the case in a post-semiotic world, it is allowed no release into the psychological and aesthetic binding of pain and hope. The dead man constitutes the surplus value of the symbolic order and its attendant aesthetics, signifying only the hard, plain fact of our universal end.

Abjection Sustained

[26]   With this reading of Holbein, I do not wish to point to a kind of unwitting transcendentalism in Yaeger and Russo as they argue for a rehabilitation of the grotesque and the sublime. Russo does not conceive of an aerobat who lifts more than one foot off the ground at a time. Noting that “the normal [what feminism threatens to become] is not the same as the ordinary” (vii), Russo tells us that the ordinary can of itself be disruptive: an ordinary feminism–“heterogeneous strange, polychromatic, ragged, conflictual, incomplete, in motion, and at risk” (vii)–locates the grotesque in between the ordinary and the extraordinary. Because withering, decaying, ill bodies, and body waste are customarily kept out of sight, a display of these normal phenomena and substances is in this context extra-ordinary; Russo cites May Stevens’ exhibition, Ordinary/ Extraordinary, which depicts once notable women now aged in hospitals and nursing homes, and she displays a Cindy Sherman photograph that depicts expelled body contents such as vomit or saliva. Yaeger’s sublime “mother” seeks an “appropriate aggression” (16), one that abandons the reproductive woman of the masculinist imagination (who is mute, passive, and prostrate), but does not abandon her own body. Yaeger thinks, in paradoxical terms, that women should not try to transcend their bodies through emphasis on the sublime, but instead access the sublime through bodies that bespeak limitation and trial. The maternal sublime is a communal poetic–dividing itself from a past sublime that valued rugged individualism, in favor rather of solidarity among women, and among humanity. The “language of blood” is an aesthetic recognizing that actual childbirth is not necessarily a euphoric experience for all women at all times, that birthing women do experience agony and tragedy, that some do not welcome their pregnancies, and that modern technologies oftentimes rob women of some experiential aspect of giving birth. Additionally, Yaeger claims not to define women by their reproductivity, not to make inferior the childless or non-maternal woman, since in a sense, all women are defined, culturally speaking, as potentially grotesque in body; and all persons, to the extent that they are mortal, are tied up with cycles of birth and death.

[27]   However, in continuing to press for an abject-grotesque aesthetic, we must at least note the traditional tendency for the grotesque to abandon the ordinary-material. Its representations have often included a fetishistic excess and distortion that is either well beyond the normal, or which defines the normality of the body in terms of the psychological horror with which this body is typically met (see, e.g., Harpham). Russo’sFemale Grotesque continues this tradition with pictures of physical freaks–conjoined twins and human-animal hybrids–whose bodies fall beyond the pale of normality, but whose defining as grotesques may remind us how phobic we are in the presence of bodies that do not obey our aesthetic preferences and conventions, in the presence of the ordinary that we must–as Russo understands–render extra-ordinary in an act of dissociation.

[28]   In Powers of Horror, Kristeva emphasizes the sheer physical repulsion that attends abjection. The abject body excretes bodily fluids and substances as waste product. We disavow (abject) our excretory bodies because they signify mortality: “Such wastes drop so that I might live, until, from loss to loss, nothing remains in me and my entire body falls beyond the limit–cadere, cadaver” (Powers 3). Discarded flesh and fluid posit the convergence between the living body that I am and the dead one that I must one day become. We sicken when confronted by the decay that our bodies at once betoken, contain, and try to expel (see also Mary Douglas on “dirt,” and Buckley and Gottlieb). While abjection is a form of body repudiation, it is also a critique of such repudiation. Faced with the inseparability of body and waste, abjection finds no objects whose repudiation can permanently save it. The wasting body is an incessant reminder that the subject abides under his own radical splitting, into disruption, psychic disturbance, the dissolution of boundaries, limits, identity, and flesh. Flesh is never so much delivered of its waste as it remains immersed in it. Because the corpse is the waste (the wasting) from which the subject cannot in the end separate, he lives in a constant state of failed aversion from his own atrophy. He is painfully aware of the presence of disorder, filth, and difference that resides within his own body, and is discharged of illusions of self-purity. Interiorized abjection then, distinct from the projected abjection that sponsors the othering of woman, is the unhappy recognition that no one can abject the abject.

[29]   Yaeger and Russo both recognize abjection as a distinctively female burden, one which adds dimension to the monstrosity of the maternal sublime and the female grotesque. Abjection “disfigures” the sublime and grotesque, intensifying powers that are distinctly female. However, all of us are aware that it continues to be too easy for women to slide back into “that cave of abjection,” so long as women preserve a unique connection to the abject, and so long as philosophical aesthetics continues to discard its own decaying body, and celebrate the anima that is “separated out.” In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir observes that men are not, culturally speaking, abject: “[S]ince woman remains always the Other, it is not held that reciprocally male and female are both flesh” (167; see also Schehr 11). As she goes on to argue, women do not exist, however, in a specialized relation to fleshly troubles at some necessary level, but have this relation enforced through cultural practices. Above and beyond the actual facts of human biology–that we all expel body waste, deteriorate, experience pain and disease, and eventually die–abjection is also a product of a system of gender relations involving phobia, dominance, and displacement. In this context, we may hear a new call to write a narrative that inscribes the male abject (see, for instance, Yaeger and Kowaleski-Wallace, Bordo, Faludi, Goldstein, and Schehr).

[30]   In Beyond Power, Marilyn French submits “power over” as descriptive of gender relations throughout history, and proposes that this organization be replaced by “pleasure-with” (504-12; see also Tong). This model is relevant to the many feminist embraces of jouissance, in which woman overturns the psychoanalytic proposition that she is a dark continent, bespeaking lack and indecipherability. In tension with French’s prescription, gender relations might also be envisioned as a “suffering-with,” in which women and men view themselves as partners in susceptibility and obligation to the troubles of the flesh. The question whether abjection is being equitably shared–which I have asked here with reference to its distribution as an aesthetic term–generates a method for reenvisioning gendered social, political and sexual relations, as well as providing a critical approach to other forms of exclusion. An aesthetics and ethics grounded in concern for the body of the Other will lead us to mark the evasions and impositions of abjection, and to read the full inventory of cultural hierarchies in these terms. A focus on shared abjection can reveal much about our common cultural anxieties attendant to disease, disability, physical weakness, penury, pain, aging, and death, contributing to the general project of re-historicizing and critiquing constructions of human difference. Such a project allows us to continue to historicize and confront constructions of woman as objectified, mortified flesh, as well as to qualify our inspired hopes of throwing off such flesh; it allows us to read the burden of women’s greater share of abjection not only in the ferocious marketing of face-lifts, tummy tucks, skin peels, and liposuctions, and in the continuing parade of beauty queens on camera, but also in the pressure on women to retire from plastic achievement, as well as in the subversive woman’s desire to inhabit alternative bodies and spaces.


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