Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Western alchemy: The Greek principle of domination by the beautiful person as work of art is implicit in western culture

Western alchemy: The Greek principle of domination by the beautiful person as work of art is implicit in western culture. Camille Paglia's Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, 1990.

The Greek principle of domination by the beautiful person as work of art is implicit in western culture, rising to view at charged historical moments. I see it in Dante and Beatrice and in Petrarch and Laura. There must be distance, of space or time. The eye elects a narcissistic personality as galvanizing object and formalizes the relation in art. The artist imposes a hieratic sexual character on the beloved, making himself the receptor (or more feminine receptacle) of the beloved’s mana. The structure is sadomasochistic. Western sexual personae are hostile with dramatic tension. Naturalistic ally, Beatrice’s expansion into a gigantic heavenly body is grandiose and even absurd, but she achieves her preeminence through the poet’s sexually hierarchizing western imagination. The aesthetic distance between personae is like a vacuum between poles, discharging electric tension by a bolt of lightning. Little is known of the real Beatrice and Laura. But I think they resembled the beautiful boy of homosexual tradition: they were dreamy, remote, autistic, lost in a world of androgynous self-completion. Beatrice, after all, was barely eight when Dante fell in love with her in her crimson dress. Laura’s impenetrability inspired the “fire and ice” metaphor of Petrarch’s sonnets, which revolutionized European poetry. “Fire and ice” is western alchemy. It is the chills and fever of Sappho’s and Plato’s uncanny love experience. Agonized ambivalence of body and mind was Sappho’s contribution to poetry, imitated by Catullus and transmitted to us through folk ballads and pop torch songs. Western love, Denis de Rougemont shows, is unhappy or death-ridden. In Dante and Petrarch, self-frustrating love is not neurotic but ritualistic and conceptualizing. The west makes art and thought out of the cold manipulation of our hard sexual personae.

Domination by the beautiful personality is central to Romanticism, specifically in its dark Coleridgean line passing through Poe and Baudelaire to Wilde. The Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti, imitating his namesake, invented his own Beatrice, the sickly Elizabeth Siddal, who obsessively appears throughout his work. That Siddal, like Beatrice and Laura, was a female version of the beautiful boy is suggested by the speed with which her face turned into the face of beautiful young men in the paintings of Rossetti’s disciple, Edward Burne-Jones. The beautiful boy’s narcissistic remoteness and latent autism became somnambulism in Rossetti’s pensive Muse. Antinous, Beatrice, Laura, and Elizabeth Siddal passed with ease into art because in their cool, untouchable impersonality they already had the abstract removal of an objet d’art. Transcendance of sexual identity is the key.

[...] The absence of moral obligation in this sexual religiosity explains the amorality of aestheticism. Oscar Wilde believed the beautiful person has absolute rights to commit any act. Beauty replaces morality as the divine order. As Cocteau said, following Wilde, “The privileges of beauty are enormous.”

The beautiful boy, the object of all eyes, looks downward or away or keeps his eyes in soft focus because he does not recognize the reality of other persons or things. By making the glamourous Alcibiades burst drunk into the Symposium, ending the intellectual debate, Plato is commenting in retrospect on the political damage done to Athens by its fascination with beauty. Spoiled, captivating Alcibiades was to betray his city and end in exile and disgrace. When the beautiful boy leaves the realm of contemplation for the realm of action, the result is chaos and crime. Wilde’s Alcibiades, Dorian Gray, makes a science of corruption. Refusing to accept the early death that preserved the beauty of Adonis and Antinous, Dorian compacts with a fellow art object, his portrait, projecting human mutability onto it. The ephebic Dorian is serene and heartless, the beautiful boy as destroyer. In Death in Venice , Mann’s homage to Wilde, the beautiful boy does not even have to act to destroy.  His blinding Apollonian light is a radiation disintegrating the moral world.

The beautiful boy is the representational paradigm of high classic Athens. He is pure Apollonian objectification, a public sex object. His lucid contour and hardness originate in Egypt’s monumental architectonics and in Homer’s gleaming Olympian sky-cult. The Apollonian beautiful boy dramatizes the special horror of dissolved form to Pheidian Athens, with its passionate vision of the sunlit human figure. Unity of image and unity of personality were the Athenian norm, satirized by Euripides in his chthonian dismemberments, symbol of fragmentation and multiplicity. The androgynous beautiful boy has an androgynous sponsor, the male-bom Uranian Aphrodite whom Plato identifies with homosexual love. While the Archaic kouros is vigorously masculine, the early and high classic beautiful boy perfectly harmonizes masculine and feminine. With the Hellenistic tilt toward women, prefigured by Euripides, the beautiful boy slides toward the feminine, a symptom of decadence.

Praxiteles registers this shift in his ephebic Hermes (ca. 350 b.c.), which misaligns the elegance of classic contrapposto. Hermes awkwardly leans away from the engaged leg rather than toward it, curving his hips in a peculiar swish. His arm, supporting infant Dionysus, rests heavily on a stump. Farnell says of the Praxitelean “languor,” “Even the gods are becoming fatigued.” 16 Kenneth Clark finds in high classic Greek art a perfect “physical balance of strength and grace.” 17 In the Hellenistic beautiful boy, grace drains strength. Rhys Carpenter sees Praxiteles’ Knidian Aphrodite as a sexual degeneration of Polycleitus’ canonical fifth-century Doryphoros , a “languid devitalization of the male victor-athlete into an equivalent feminine canon.” 18 Hauser says of the Hermes and Lysippus’ Apoxyomenos , “They give the impression of being dancers rather than athletes.” 19 Jane Harrison denounces Praxiteles’ Hermes on the grounds that as Kourotrophos (“boy-rearer”) he “usurps the function of the mother”: “The man doing woman’s work has all the inherent futility and something of the ugly dissonance of the man masquerading in woman’s clothes.” 20 Again, Harrison recognizes sexual duality but finds it repugnant. Clark points out that wherever contrapposto appears in world art, it shows Greek influence, even in India, to which it was carried by Alexander. Originally a male motif, it entered female iconography to become “a vivid symbol of desire.” 21 What seems overlooked is that contrapposto was erotic from the start, in the dignified exhibitionism of the early classic kouros. Hellenistic ephebes use a more extreme hip-shot pose, ripe with sexual solicitation.  It is the street stance of harlot and drag queen, ancient or modem. Male contrapposto with hand on hip, as in Donatello’s David, is provocative and epicene.

Portraits of Dionysus illustrate the sensual feminization of male personae in Greek art. The Archaic transvestite Dionysus fuses a bearded adult man with a sexually mature woman. In the fifth century, he loses his beard and becomes indistinguishable from the ephebic Apollo of the Parthenon frieze. The Hellenistic Dionysus is a voluptuously appealing beautiful boy. A third-century head at Thasos could be mistaken for a woman, a movie queen, with thick shoulder-length hair and expectant parted lips. Scholars have generally been repelled by these beautiful objects, with their overt homoeroticism. Even Marie Delcourt, in her excellent study, Hermaphrodite , attacks the “effeminacy” of the Hellenistic Dionysus, which “pandered” to Greek homosexual desire. 22 But it was the Hellenistic Dionysus and Apollo who were the androgynous models for the exquisite Antinous sculptures.

The long, decentralized Hellenistic era was like our own time, lively, anxious, and sensationalistic. Hellenistic art teems with sex and violence. High classic Greek art honors ideal youth, while Hellenistic art is full of babies, brutes, and drunks. Athenian eroticism is pornographic in kitchen and tavern pottery but sublime and restrained in major sculpture. Hellenistic sculpture, on the other hand, likes large-scale wrestling and rapine—massacre, pugilism, and priapism. Hellenistic sex is in such free flow that the gender of shattered statues can be doubtful. Misidentifications have been common.

Dover speaks of the change in homosexual taste in Athens from the fifth century, which glorified athletic physiques, to the fourth, when softer, passive minions came into vogue. It is in the fourth century that the hermaphrodite first appears in classical art. The plush creature with female breasts manages to expose its male genitals, either by a slipping cloak or a tunic boldly raised in ritual exhibitionism. The Sleeping Hermaphrodite influenced later art, like eighteenth-century reclining female nudes. From one side, the drowsy figure displays ambiguously smooth buttocks and the half-swell of a breast; from the other, female breast and male genitals pop out clear as day. I found the Villa Borghese copy prudently pushed against the wall to discourage inspection! The decorative popularity of hermaphrodites is paradoxical, for everywhere in antiquity the birth of a real hermaphrodite was greeted with horror.  This condition, hypospadias, may be examined ad stuporem in the hundreds of photographs of Hugh Hampton Young’s pioneering text, Genital Abnormalities, Hermaphroditism, and Related Adrenal Diseases (1937). Since a hermaphrodite birth was a bad omen presaging war, disaster, or pestilence, the infant was usually destroyed or left to die by exposure. As late as Paracelsus, hermaphroditic children were thought “monstrous signs of secret sins in the parents.” 23 The annalist Diodorus Siculus, in the Roman era, records a case where an Arabian girl’s tumor burst open to reveal male genitals. She then changed her name, donned men’s clothes, and joined the [cavalry]. 24

The source of the Hermaphrodite legend is unknown. It may be a vestige of the sexual duality of early fertility deities of Asia Minor. Later stories improvised upon the name to claim he/she was the child of Hermes and Aphrodite. Ovid started a mythographic muddle with his version in the Metamorphoses, possibly based on a lost Alexandrian romance. The amorous nymph Salmacis traps the beautiful boy Hermaphroditus in her forest pool, entwining him with her arms and legs, until the gods grant her prayer to unite them into one being, like Plato’s primeval androgynes. The tale may have begun as a folk legend about a cursed pool sapping the virility of men who bathed in it.

Greek androgyny evolved from chthonian to Apollonian and back: vitalistic energy to godlike charisma to loss of manhood. I do not agree with the disparagement of the later androgyne by Jane Harrison and Marie Delcourt. Effeminate men have suffered a bad press the world over. I accept decadence as a complex historical mode. In late phases, maleness is always in retreat. Women have ironically enjoyed a greater symbolic, if not practical freedom. Thus it is that male and not female homosexuality has usually been harshly punished by law. A debater in Lucian declares, “Far better that a woman, in the madness of her lust, should usurp the nature of man, than that man’s noble nature should be so degraded as to play the woman.” 25 Similarly today, lesbian interludes are a staple of heterosexual pornography. Ever since man emerged from the dominance of nature, masculinity has been the most fragile and problematic of psychic states.

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