Friday, 27 May 2011

The Go-Between: L.P.Hartley

“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”

L.P.Hartley’s inspired opening sentence to his remarkable novel, “The Go-Between” is memorable and often quoted.

“The Go-between was first published in 1953, the following year it received the Heinemann Foundation Prize of the Royal Society of Literature. Its film version was also very successful and won the principal award at the Festival de Cannes in 1973. The novel is a memory story: a man in his sixties looks back on his boyhood, recalling the events that took place on a summer visit to an aristocratic family in Norfolk in the 1900's. Hartley uses double narrative, the young Leo's actions told by the older Leo, and it shows us how it has affected his life”. WIKI

The novel, “The Go-Between” is a compelling illustration of Freudian psychoanalysis. It explores the ideology of sexuality within the context of Victorian England and the imagined world of a twelve year old boy on the edge of puberty. But more than anything, “The Go-Between” is an exposition of Freud’s “repressed memory syndrome”.

“Repressed memory is a hypothetical concept used to describe a significant memory, usually of a traumatic nature, that has become unavailable for recall; also called motivated forgetting in which a subject blocks out painful or traumatic times in one's life. This is not the same as amnesia, which is a term for any instance in which memories are either not stored in the first place (such as with traumatic head injuries when short term memory does not transfer to long term memory) or forgotten.
The term is used to describe memories that have been dissociated from awareness as well as those that have been repressed without dissociation. Repressed memory syndrome, the clinical term used to describe repressed memories, is often compared to psychogenic amnesia, and some sources compare the two as equivalent.
According to proponents of the hypothesis, repressed memories may sometimes be recovered years or decades after the event, most often spontaneously, triggered by a particular smell, taste, or other identifier related to the lost memory, or via suggestion during psychotherapy”. WIKI

Freud used the term repression to describe the way emotionally painful events could be blocked out of conscious awareness so that their painful effects would not have to be experienced.

The trigger for releasing the adult Leo’s repressed memory is his diary, discovered after a lifetime of blank, barren emotions. The trauma that has caused his memories to be suppressed is the imaginings of a sensitive young boy on the verge of puberty who conveys messages between two secret lovers. In repressing his memory, Leo’s life has been one of neurosis, negation and sterility.

Leo’s conscious mind has actively pushed into his unconscious mind the major, traumatic event. For Freud, repression was a defence mechanism - the repressed memories are often devastating in nature, but, although hidden, they continue to exert an effect on behaviour.

Leo Colston, is a bachelor librarian in his sixties. He is a self-proclaimed “foreigner in the world of the emotions.” Colston’s discovery of the diary he kept in the summer of 1900, the year he turned thirteen, precipitates the release of the repressed memories of the people and events that led to his withdrawal from emotional relationships. The young Leo, imaginative, sensitive, and eager to please, his values and vision determined by the self-centeredness of a child, visits the estate of a schoolmate.

Yes, the catalyst for the story is the diary. The diary isn’t detailed in terms of narrative, but the words, phrases and illustrations within its pages lift Leo into the world of dark, stormy memories that he has repressed. He tells us that most of the writings within the diary are in code. A code that the adult Leo has to recall and translate.

“Try now, try now, it isn't too late”

“Excitement, like hysteria, bubbled up in me from a hundred unsealed springs. If it isn't too late, I thought confusedly, neither it is too early: I haven't much time left to spoil. It was the last flicker of instinct of self-preservation which had failed me so signally at Brandham Hall.”

The adult Leo has an epiphany, a sudden realisation that the key to his frozen life is in the pages of his diary. 

So repressed are his memories, that he cannot even remember the name of his childhood school friend. The diary tells him; “Marcus.”

The child Leo, invents a story, a romantic tale about the profound events of that summer in the year 1900.

Bruno Bettleheim in his book "The Uses of Enchantment" makes the point that fairy tales;

"... carry important messages to the conscious, the preconscious , and the unconscious mind, on whatever level each is functioning at the time. Our own narratives carry a similar message, both to ourselves and to whoever we are asking to share them with us.”

Already, the diary is helping Leo to remember his story.

"To my mind's eye, my buried memories of Brandham Hall are like effects of chiaroscuro, patches of light and dark: it is only with effort that I see them in terms of colour. There are things I know, though I don't know how I know them, and things that I remember. Certain things are established in my mind as facts, but no picture attaches to them; on the other hand there are pictures unverified by any fact which recur obsessively, like the landscape of a dream."

The adult Leo realises that something profound happened all those years ago, and something profound is about to happen in his present.

"..the past kept pricking at me and I knew that all the elements of those nineteen days in July were astir within me, like phlegm in an attack of bronchitis, waiting to come up. I had kept them buried all these years, but they were there, I knew, the more complete, the more unforgotten, for being carefully embalmed. Never, never had they seen the light of day; the slightest stirring had been stifled with a scattering of earth.”

Among other things, "The Go-Between" is about class distinction and its warping effect upon the life of one small boy. The story is set in the days before World War I, privileged days that seemed to stretch endlessly before the British upper class. The boy, Leo, comes to spend a summer holiday at the home of a rich friend. And he falls in hopeless schoolboy love with the friend's older sister, Marian.

Marian is engaged to marry well, to Lord Trimingham, but she is in love with a roughshod tenant farmer, Ted Burgess, and she enlists the boy to carry messages back and forth between them. The boy has only a shadowy notion at first about the significance of the messages, but during the summer he is sharply disillusioned about life, fidelity, and his own place in the great scheme of things.

In the family's matriarch, Mrs Maudsley, Hartley give us a woman who seems to support the British class system all by herself, simply through her belief in it. They show a father and a fiancé who are aware of Marian’s affair with the farmer, but do nothing about it. They are confident she will do the "right thing" in the end, and she does.

Everything that will become of this boy in his adult life is already there, by implication, at the end of his summer holiday.  Leo ends up being warped by the final tragedy that turns him into an emotionally hollow adult. 

So twelve-year-old Leo spends the summer of 1900 at the country estate of his much wealthier school friend, Marcus Maudsley, presided over by a patriarch who;

"sitting down looked much taller than standing up"

and a matriarch "who seemed to take up more space than necessary."

What begins as a delicious idyll of scorching skies, afternoon swims, tea and cricket, soon darkens toward storm. Leo suffers his first crush on Marcus's elder sister Marian, becoming an unwilling go-between in her complicated machinations with a war hero beau and a local farmer. Leo's defining characteristic is his naiveté, which everyone exploits for their own amusement, and the reader chuckles along manipulated by Hartley's irony, making us complicit in the tragedy to come.

The adult Leo informs the reader;

“My secret- the explanation of me- lay there. I take myself much too seriously, of course. What does it matter to anyone what I was like, then or now? But every man is important to himself at one time or another; my problem had been to reduce the importance, and spread it out as thinly as I could over half a century. Thanks to my interment policy I had come to terms with life, I had made a working -working was the word - arrangement with it, on the one condition that there should be no exhumation. Was it true, what I sometimes told myself, that my best energies had been given to the undertaker's art? If it was, what did it matter? Should have I acquitted myself better, with the knowledge I had now? I doubted it; knowledge may be power, but it is not resilience, or resourcefulness, or adaptability to life, still less is it instinctive sympathy with human nature; and those were qualities I possessed in 1900 in far greater measure that I possess them in 1952.”

The summer is hot, too hot for Leo in the warm winter clothes he has brought with him to Norfolk. Marian offers to buy him a new set of clothes more suited to the weather. They leave for Norwich to go shopping on the following day. Leo, the adolescent boy is delighted, but the adult reader already has the dark, uncomfortable stirrings of duplicity.

The violation of Leo’s twelve year old soul has begun.

Leo's romantic imagination favours heroes and villains. At Brandham, he invents his own fairy story. He is the hero, already in love with the beautiful princess and like many before him, his love will be his downfall. The reader already knows that Marian will betray him.

After they have finished their shopping in Norwich, “she dismissed me,” and Leo wanders around the cathedral for an hour. Leo is happy; excited. “Never had I felt in such harmony with my surroundings.”

Leo leaves early to the appointed meeting place. He catches sight of Marian.

“She seemed to be saying goodbye to someone, at least I had the impression of a raised hat.”

Leo does not say anymore than that. He doesn’t have the reader’s sophistication of suspecting a liaison; an assignation.

But if naïveté is his defining characteristic, Leo’s naïveté is his fatal flaw. In a cruel twist the flaw is made tangible by the Lincoln green suit gifted by the Maudsleys on his birthday;

"It is your true colour," chants Marcus, "Green, green, green."

The reader is older, wiser than the boy Leo. The boy’s powers of intelligence are inferior to ours, so we have a sense of looking down on the events with a notion of absurdity. Of course it is absurd that the boy Leo, should imagine himself in love with the beautiful Marian and Hartley draws the reader in to a mood of smug complicity. But the reader has to respond sympathetically to the boy Leo’s dilemma. Leo’s world is introverted and unworldly; Hartley presents the reader with a very grown up situation, in which the child has no defence against the power of adults.

This is something we can all relate to; when adults had conversations while we were present. Their words laden with innuendo. We can remember feeling disconcerted, that something is being said that we don’t quite understand. There is laughter that confuses and disorientates us; is the laughter at our expense? We remember the dark, hot discomfort. We recall being compromised at having to break a sacred vow. Adults shouldn’t do this to children; but they do. It must have happened to L.P.Hartley too, for him to know.

The man Leo, imagines the boy Leo confronting him with the life he has wasted.

“If my twelve-year-old self, of whom I had grown rather fond, thinking about him, were to reproach me: 'Why have you grown up such a dull dog, when I gave you such a good start? Why have you spent your time in dusty libraries, cataloguing other people's books instead of writing your own?”

The older Leo, has his answer ready.

“Well, it was you who let me down, and I will tell you how. You flew too near to the sun, and you were scorched. This cindery creature is what you made me.”

The hot weather continues, but Leo doesn’t mind it now that he is wearing cool summer clothes.

The heat, brings out notions of sex, as it does for all of us. And Leo is no different; but his ideas of sex are hazy and he simply imagines his own nakedness. He experiences his first feelings of erotica.

“My notions of decency were vague and ill-defined, as were all my ideas relating to sex; yet they were definite enough for me to long for the release…of casting off my clothes, and being like a tree or a flower, with nothing between me and nature.”

There is a bathing party planned and Leo is disappointed to learn that he will not be allowed to swim. He won’t have the pleasure of wearing the swimming suit that Marian has chosen for him. His mother has written to Mrs Maudsley, telling her that he is frail.

As the party approaches the place where they are to bathe they see a man diving into the river. As he swims towards them, Denys, Marcus’ elder brother, realises that it is Ted Burgess, the tenant of Blackthorn Farm. He has a right to be at the river. He is not a trespasser; it is his land. Ted Burgess is a man glowing and shining with health; he is in his prime.

While the rest of the party are bathing, Leo spies on Ted Burgess. Leo is the voyeur.

“ Believing himself to be unseen by the other bathers he gave himself up to being alone with his body. He wriggled his toes, breathed hard through his nose, twisted his brown moustache where some drops of water still clung, and looked himself critically all over. The scrutiny seemed to satisfy him, as well it might. I whose only acquaintance was with bodies and minds developing, was suddenly confronted by maturity in its most undeniable form; and I wondered, what it must feel like to be him, master of those limbs which have passed beyond the need of gym and playing field, and exist for their own strength and beauty? What can they do, I thought, to be conscious of themselves?
Now he had a plantain stalk in his left hand and was rubbing it gently along the hairs of his right forearm; they glinted in the sun and were paler than his arms, which were mahogany coloured to above the elbow. Then he stretched both arms high above his chest, which was so white it might have belonged to another person, except below his neck where the sun had burnt a copper breastplate; and he smiled to himself, an intimate, pleased smile, that would have looked childish or imbecile on most people, but on him had the effect of a feather on a tiger -- it pointed to a contrast, and all to his advantage.”

The passage is highly erotically charged and is intensely homoerotic, as Leo awakens to the sheer beauty of the male. But it frightens him too, as he recognises unadulterated masculine power.

After the group has finished bathing, Marian indulges herself in a dalliance; a little flirtation with Leo. He helps her to dry her hair. Marian is simply amusing herself. For Leo it is entirely different. He tells the reader;

“A labour of love it truly was, the first I had ever done.”

The stage is set, when Leo’s friend Marcus develops the measles and Leo is left to his own devices. The tragedy gathers pace when Leo stumbles on Ted Burgess’ farm house and is caught sliding down the farmer’s haystack.

Ted gives him a “business letter” to give to Marian, but only when she is alone. Leo is sworn to secrecy; there would be “trouble” if anyone should find out.

Leo doesn’t understand a lot about the world of adults, but he understands that a secret is sacred. The bond should never be broken.

And so Leo becomes “postman” for Ted and Marian. Lord Trimingham has already christened him “Mercury, messenger for the gods”, because Leo once took a message to Marian for him. Leo likes the allusion; he also likes Hugh Trimingham and he likes Ted. And we know that he loves Marian. He is torn.

"Why don't you marry Ted?" Leo asks Marian.
"Because I can't," she replies.
"Then why are you marrying Trimingham?"
"Because I must."

She understands, and she is tough enough to endure. The victim in this story is the boy, who is scarred sexually and emotionally by his summer experience. He is on the verge of puberty; adolescence. The experiences of those hot, stifling summer days have turned the adult into a sort of bloodless eunuch.

And the day comes when Leo discovers what Ted and Marian’s “business” is really about. Lord Trimingham enters the room, just as Marian is handing Leo a letter for Ted. He succeeds in thrusting it into his pocket without Trimingham seeing. But in her haste, Marian has forgotten to seal the letter. Eventually, on his way to Ted’s farm, Leo succumbs to temptation and reads the first few sentences. What harm can it do?

“Darling, darling, darling,
Same place, same time, this evening.
But take care not to -”

“The rest was hidden by the envelope.”

Leo isn’t just devastated, he is mortified. He is hot, then cold.

“Not Adam and Eve, after eating the apple, could have been more upset than I was”.

But most of all he is acutely embarrassed. He knows nothing of sex; the facts of life. He is at an age at which boys giggle and sneer at courting couples holding hands. They are “spooning”. Stolen kisses are a joke. He likens Ted and Marian and whatever they have been doing, because he doesn’t really know, to dirty postcards he has seen at the seaside. He sees them as ridiculous and he cannot believe that his Marian would sink so low. “Spooning” is what they called it in 1900’s England, even if Leo doesn’t know what it really involves. But it is degrading, dirty, something to giggle and nudge about.

I’ve just finished re-reading “The Go-Between”. I watched the 1970’s film adaptation yesterday. Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay and Joseph Losey directed it. The beautiful Julie Christie is Marian, Alan Bates is the handsome Ted, with Edward Fox as Trimingham. Dominic Guard is the boy Leo and he won a BAFTA for his performance. The film is well worth renting and the book is simply stunning to read.

There’s still a few chapters that I really do need to discuss, but I’m going to stop writing now, except to say that the boy Leo suffers a complete mental breakdown after the tragic dénouement.

The reader can see it coming. The strain is too much for his young emotions. He has experienced pure ecstatic love and putrid betrayal in the same time frame. It’s enough for an adult to comprehend, let alone a twelve year old boy.

“And I had a curious experience, almost an illusion, as though a part of me was stationed far away, behind me, perhaps in the belt of trees beyond the river; and from there I could see myself, a bent figure, no bigger than a beetle, weaving to and fro across the ribbon of road”.

Leo’s young mind is fracturing.

I don’t want to spoil it, give anymore away for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, nor read L.P.Hartley’s superbly crafted novel of complexities, which is “The Go-Between”.
I’ll go back to where I started, with Freud and his theory of repressed memory.

“Psychological repression, is the psychological attempt by an individual to repel its own desires and impulses towards pleasurable instincts. Such desires, impulses, wishes, fantasies or feelings can be represented in the mind as thoughts, images and memories. The repression is caused when an external force puts itself in contrast with the desire, threatening to cause suffering if the desire is satisfied, thereby posing a conflict for the individual; the repressive response to the threat is to exclude the desire from one's consciousness and hold or subdue it in the unconscious.” WIKI

Our repressed desires return to our conscious minds in “Freudian slips,” dreams, blunders, wishes and fantasies. The stories that we tell.

Is Freud right? Well, that really is another discussion. Whether he’s right or wrong, what Freud has done for us, is to give us the tools to have an unfolding dialogue.

Friday, 20 May 2011


I’ll tell you a well guarded secret! I am incredibly turned on by a well rounded, firm pair of male buttocks! Those tight, tight jeans, that enhance the male bottom. And to moving around to face him, my eyes wander and linger on the sun bleached denim; creased and delightfully stretched over heavy genitalia.

Do I have a fetish or am I just a letch?

Whatever it is, I know that I’m not alone in this. And it is on display. And yes, I am being defensive. I bet that there are men and women of all walks of life, who long to part those firm buttocks; bounce, jiggle and test the weight of that enticing genitalia in the palm of their hand. The fashion for men not leaving a lot to the imagination, started over two hundred years ago and the man responsible was Beau Brummell.

He was, perhaps, the first celebrity. Certainly a celebrity in the terms that we understand it today. He had a cult following. He was his own “In Crowd.” All of the Regency guys wanted to look like Beau, walk and talk like Beau, they craved Beau’s panache.

Even the fact that Beau had a slightly crooked nose -- well it was part of his style, giving him a masculine air. He was no pretty boy. Marlon Brando had the same defect after a sparring match with a stage hand. Brando was all male; so was Beau Brummell. And their appearance, their look, was for male and female consumption. He’s there for the homoeroticist, the exhibitionist and the voyeur. Whatever your orientation, there is something to look at. Or maybe you just fancy dressing up in those tight, body hugging trousers.

Beau Brummell was a trendsetter and he was definitely -- Cool.

“Beau Brummell, born as George Bryan Brummell  7 June 1778 – 30 March 1840, was the arbiter of men's fashion in Regency England and a friend of the Prince Regent, the future King George IV.

Brummell was born in London, the son of William Brummell, of Donnington Grove in Berkshire. He was fair complexioned, and had "a high nose, which was broken down by a kick from a horse soon after he went into the Tenth Dragoons...." His father died in 1794, leaving him an inheritance of more than 20,000 pounds. He was educated at Eton and at Oriel College, and later joined the Tenth Light Dragoons. It was during this time he came to the attention of George, Prince of Wales. Through the influence of the Prince, Brummell was promoted to captain by 1796. When his regiment was sent from London to Manchester he resigned his commission because of Manchester's poor reputation and atmosphere and the lack of culture and civility exercised by the general populace.” WIKI

He made the art of dressing into hard work, yet at the same time made it appear effortless. Quite frankly, I think Beau Brummell made men sexy. Male and female eyes fixed on him when he entered a room. He inspired the fashion for those skin tight trousers, delineating every curve, every movement, every muscle of the buttocks. Tight, genitalia enhancing crotches, making women, and men aware of what’s underneath. You couldn’t help but notice could you -- well could you? Coats were cut away at the front, framing that just discernable swelling around the crotch. Skin tight trousers delineating powerful thigh muscles. I’ve read somewhere that Beau advocated “definitely no underwear” to eliminate a visible panty line.

He established the mode of men wearing understated, but fitted, tailored clothes including dark suits and full-length trousers, adorned with an elaborately-knotted cravat.

Beau Brummell is credited with introducing and establishing as fashion the modern man's suit, worn with a tie. He claimed to take five hours to dress, and recommended that boots be polished with champagne. His style of dress is often referred to as dandyism

Brummell was lucky enough to be built in a manner that was then considered fashionable for a man’s body. All of these factors, his theatricality, never knowing if he was serious or in jest, personal hygiene, and physique helped make him the rock star of his age.

“Brummell took a house on Chesterfield Street in Mayfair, and, for a time, avoided extravagance and gaming: for example, he kept horses but no carriages. He was included in Prince George's circle, where he made an impression with his elegant, understated manner of dress and clever remarks. His fastidious attention to cleaning his teeth, shaving, and bathing daily became popular. When asked how much it would cost to keep a single man in clothes, he was alleged to have replied: ‘Why, with tolerable economy, I think it might be done with £800’.” Times Online

Although dandyism was already taking hold even without Brummell, he had a gift for theatrically performing its details better than everyone else. It would be interesting to know whether it was sincere behaviour on his part, or artifice. I suppose one could say that that is the ultimate question about the man. But in matters of personal hygiene, the Beau was both fastidious and fanatical.

His personal grooming was very modern. He kept himself clean, which most people did not do in his day.

"Every day, his toilette would take more than two hours and would involve brushing his teeth, shaving, a thorough wash and scrub; followed by brushing his body all over with a stiff brush and finally pursuing any errant remaining hairs with a pair of tweezers. He prided himself on never needing scent because he was so clean". WIKI

“This kind of care was not of its time, but it is a part of  culture today. He was a perfectionist in his choice of clothes. There's a story of someone who visited him, and met his valet coming out of the room with a huge load of cravats. “These are our failures”! said the valet. Brummell said of himself ‘I have no talents other than to dress; my genius is in the wearing of clothes’.” Times Online

Men of influence and wealth, gathered at his town house daily just to watch the ritual of Beau Brummell dressing.

A look into Beau’s psyche might shed some light on why he became so extreme at what he liked. What for instance shaped the Beau’s behaviour? It has been suggested that he suffered severe razor rash from constantly shaving too close. This leads me to believe he was not as comfortable as some may have believed and that a certain degree of obsession might have driven the Beau towards fastidiousness.

“Beau’s downfall began at a masquerade ball, in July of 1813, at which the Prince Regent greeted two of the patrons of the ball, but then "cut" Brummell by snubbing them, staring him in the face, but not speaking to him. This provoked Beau Brummell's famous remark, "Alvanley, who's your fat friend?". This finalized the long-developed rift between them, dated by Campbell to 1811, the year the Prince became Regent and began abandoning all his old Whig friends. Normally, the loss of royal favour to a favourite was doom, but Brummell ran as much on the approval and friendship of other rulers of the several fashion circles. He became the anomaly of a favourite flourishing without a patron, still in charge of fashion and courted by large segments of society.”

But his debts caught up with him as debts always do. In 1816 he fled to France to escape debtor’s prison and remained there for the rest of his life. While friends helped him to secure the position of British consul in Caen briefly during the 1830s, he gradually slipped into decline brought about by the syphilis that he’d contracted years before. He spent time in a French debtor’s prison until, impoverished and, by now insane, he died in an asylum in Caen in 1840.

“Without Brummell there would be no suit, for men or, indeed, women, or tailoring in the Savile Row, Wall Street or the Chanel sense. The tailored look that has developed out of his style, however, he created in an unorthodox way — it has even been said, in a very British way: he was a maverick who created rules. He became a symbol for a new mode of urbane masculinity, while it was precisely his masculinity that was possibly the most complex, troubled and compelling aspect of his personality.” Times Online

He helped establish Jermyn Street and Savile Row as arbiters of good taste in the males that they dressed.

“In the absence of colour and dazzle, tailoring would be noticed as never before. Although corsets and calf-muscle stocking-implants were not unknown, the new look was achieved mainly in the subtle remoulding of the body achieved by cutters, tailors and effects such as the sculpted W collar that remains on jackets to this day.

The real power of Brummell’s genius — or the genius of the style he made famous — is the ubiquity of its elements beyond the close confines of the Savile Row suit. They are resilient constants in every supposed revolution, from the New Look of the 1950s to the New Romantics of the 1980s to the New Men of the 1990s and the recurrent, patrician styles of American menswear, as created by Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Tom Ford. In New York or Hong Kong, at every gathering of world leaders, businessmen, lawyers and doctors, not to mention actors on red carpets, the basic forms of Brummell’s look are delineated.” Times Online

Beau Brummell, whose life has since inspired numerous books, plays and films, can be seen standing on Jermyn Street where a statue of him by Irena Sedlecka was erected in 2002. His legacy to fashion lives on. The classic man’s grey, three piece suit and tie.

Friday, 13 May 2011

The Art of Jean-Léon Gérôme


Jean-Léon Gérôme (11 May 1824 – 10 January 1904)
was a French painter and sculptor in the style now call Academicism. The range of his work included historical painting, Greek mythology, Orientalism, portraits and other subjects, bringing the Academic painting tradition to an artistic climax. WIKI.

His painting, “Slave Market”, is lyrical; it has a narrative, it tells a story. The viewer forms the story in his own mind. Transfixed, the viewer gazes at the lovely image of the naked woman. The viewer asks a series of questions. What is going on here? Who is the woman? Is she really going to be sold; bought by an unknown man? The same man might go on to another market and purchase a cow, a pig, a horse. The naked female is going to be someone’s property to do with as he wishes. She is for his consumption. He can flog her, have sex with her when he chooses. She will not have any legal right to refuse him.

The viewer is a voyeur; excited and watching.

A group of men in Arabian dress, surround her; one examines her teeth. I think that this is a visual metaphor which places her on a level with an animal. It is the traditional way to assess a horse’s age, by looking at his teeth. The woman is submissive; her nudity is emphasised by the fact that everyone else in the painting is clothed. She appears drugged; she seems to sway sleepily. She gazes seductively, languorously at the Arabian man. She is ready for sex, she is one step away from rubbing her genitalia against the prospective buyer’s thigh.

This is where the viewer begins to tell himself the story. What has happened to bring a woman of European appearance to a slave market? And what will happen next?
The painting is a BDSM fantasy. It is erotic in its use of visual metaphor and subject matter. Gérôme succeeds in creating a striking image that remains in the viewer’s memory.

Was Gérôme present at such an event as a slave market? We don’t know; but he was well travelled in the Orient. He travelled to Constantinople, in 1853.This would be the first of several travels to the East; in 1854 he made another journey to Turkey.

His paintings of the Orient are atmospheric, suggesting exotic scents and sounds. The Orient is mysterious; sensual.


In this painting, the nude woman up for sale seems slightly more with it. She holds an arm in front of her face to hide her shame. Any sex that is going to happen, after her new owner takes her to his harem, will not necessarily be consensual. It will be rape.

Here, Gérôme turns to even more fantastic settings and more erotic portrayals. This is a painting telling a story of ancient Rome. The bidders are noisy, yelling out their price and probably yelling out obscenities too. All the slaves on display are European in appearance. They are stripped naked, and they’re obviously much sought after and apprehensive about it. The girl crouching on the right looks directly at you, the viewer, as if she hopes you’ll buy her.


The Greek myth tells us that Phyrne was famously beautiful. On the occasion of a festival of Poseidon at Eleusis, she laid aside her garments, let down her hair, and stepped naked into the sea in the sight of the people.  When accused of profaning the Eleusinian Mysteries, she was defended by the orator Hypereides, one of her lovers. The speech for the prosecution was written by Anaximenes of Lampsacus according to Diodorus Periegetes. When it seemed as if the verdict would be unfavourable, Hypereides tore open her robe and displayed her breasts, which so moved her judges that they acquitted her. According to others, she herself removed her clothing. The judges' change of heart was not simply because they were overcome by the beauty of her naked body, but because such unusual physical beauty was often seen as a facet of divinity or a mark of divine favour during those times. WIKI

Phyrne is hiding her face at her sudden theatrical exposure; there is a certain dramatic pause about the gesture. Faux modesty? It is a moment of pure drama; it is meant to be. But it is her face that she hides, not her body. It’s as if she knows the power that her fabulous body has over men. The faces and postures of the judges, suggest a moment of numinous awe. As if they are in the presence of something holy.

It appears that Gérôme had a complex relationship with the Orient. Is he recording a truth here in these paintings; or is he suggesting a fantasy? Exposure and humiliation can be just as much a female fantasy, as it can be a male. Wanting to be displayed and humiliated is a fantasy of submissives, as it is a fantasy of a Dominant, who dreams of being in control. Rape, torture and pain, as well as humiliation are on his/her mind.

And we don’t know Gérôme’s own mind on this. Perhaps he was turned on by his paintings. "Orientalism" is more widely used to refer to the works of the many 19th century artists, who specialized in "Oriental" subjects, often drawing on their travels to North Africa and Western Asia. Artists as well as scholars were already described as "Orientalists" in the 19th century, especially in France.

There was also a fascination with the Orient across the English Channel, with the Romantic movement there. A few weeks ago, I was talking about Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, Kubla Khan. Gérôme’s paintings of slave girls echo the drama and mood of the poem, with its swaying, drowsy use of language.

“Weave a circle ’round him thrice,
And close your eyes in holy dread:
For he on honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise!”

“Perfectly painted, with an absolute precision of line and a masterly use of colour, Gérôme’s works, despite the academic nature of his subjects and compositions, established a more complex relationship with modern art than might seem to be the case at first sight. This issue has been the subject of recent attention on the part of art historians when reassessing Gérôme’s work and artistic personality. He combined the Romantic interest in reproducing subjects from the classical world, the Far East and even French history with a rationalist desire to offer a truthful account, with the latter intention even prevailing over the need to make the composition intelligible and leading him to infringe academic norms on occasions”. WIKI

Gérôme was one of the most famous painters of his day, although he was also the subject of criticism and controversy throughout his career. His popularity was largely the result of his careful promotion of his works, which became known beyond the frontiers of France and even reached the United States where he was one of the most admired and collected artists from the 1870s onwards.

The fact that Gérôme’s work was so well known in the United States undoubtedly contributed to its role as a source of inspiration for some major Hollywood films. It is this dual nature of his output, at once both scholarly and popular, that makes it so important and appreciated today, both on the part of art historians and the general public.

“Art historians commonly describe Gérôme's paintings as cinematic, and his works have in fact inspired many film adaptations. Widely circulated as prints and photographs, these pictures achieved a global celebrity status by the end of the 19th century. Thus, when early filmmakers referenced these images in their films, they knew that audiences would recognize them.

Gérôme continues to influence filmmakers to this day. In this lecture, Marc Gotlieb, director of the graduate program in the history of art at Williams College, introduces Jean-Léon Gérôme's paintings through the lens of modern cinema. This perspective—characterized by Hollywood and its approach to storytelling and suspense—brings to life pictures that once captivated the attention of audiences across Europe and the United States, even as those pictures were anathema to Modernist aesthetics.”
From Gérôme's Cinematic Imagination. The Getty Centre.

Today, in Europe and America, we don’t really think about the Orient. These days we call the region the Middle East. And when we think about the Middle East, we think about isis, beheadings in the desert; bombings and shootings in Paris. Lee Rigby, hacked to death in front of a horrified public.

Sad isn’t it? It shouldn’t be like that -- but it is. Yet Gérôme is showing us a strange fiction of the “Other” that gives the West a valuable territory of fantasy and desire, which I think is still valid in the 21st century.

“Today the West is bleakly incurious about the history of Islam, its cultural heritage, its art, peoples and learning. There's a blank wall of terror.”
Jonathan Jones Thursday 22nd May 2008. The Guardian newspaper.

Jonathan Jones’ is actually talking about a book that he’s reviewing but his comment seems pertinent here. Our fears have dulled our curiosity. The “Other” has found a different face and it frightens us.

Well -- given the world events of the last ten years, this was bound to happen. The West is fearful. Our curiosity is stunted and yet the Orient still has a history and a culture that shimmers with difference and beauty.

The Orient has a profound cultural heritage of Art, Literature, Philosophy and Intellect. Great civilisations come and go. Time passes...time passes.

The Orient had written language, while we were still scratching our heads trying to work out whether or not the wheel would work.

As for the concept of the Orient itself, we have the wonderful paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme to remind us of that mysterious, soul enriching culture and its history. 

Thanks to Jan Vander Laenen for introducing me to the paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Friday, 6 May 2011


Love is a universal emotion. So is hatred; jealousy; rage; despair. Each emotion is hard wired into the centre of our being. We are programmed. Emily Brontë tackles each emotion through her characters, Heathcliff and Catherine, in her Gothic novel “Wuthering Heights”.

I personally think that “Wuthering Heights” is the great Erotic novel of the 19th and “20th centuries. Written by Emily Brontë, it was first published in 1847 under the pseudonym Ellis Bell. It is Emily’s only novel.

The name of the novel comes from the Yorkshire manor on the moors on which the story centres (as an adjective; wuthering is a Yorkshire word referring to turbulent weather). The narrative tells the tale of the all-encompassing and passionate, yet thwarted, love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, and how this unresolved passion eventually destroys them and many around them.

It is now considered a classic of English literature, but “Wuthering Heights” met with mixed reviews by critics when it first appeared, mainly because of the narrative's stark depiction of mental and physical cruelty. Although Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre was generally considered the best of the Brontë sisters' works during most of the nineteenth century, many subsequent critics of “Wuthering Heights” argued that it was a superior achievement.

“Wuthering Heights” is a love story. A love that is distorted; crippled. It is also a work of Gothic fiction, which is demonstrated in the opening chapters.

Today, in the 21st century, we can read Emily Brontë’s passionate story, and read into the sub-text and the explicit text, a tale of bondage and sadomasochism. We talk about falling in love, you can fall in hate too. The dominant, warring personalities of Catherine and Heathcliff, dominate and push the plot forward to its catastrophic conclusion.

The story is narrated by Mr Lockwood, a gentleman visiting the Yorkshire moors where the novel is set, and Nelly Dean, housekeeper to the Earnshaw family, who had been witness of the interlocked destinies of the original owners of the Heights

Mr Lockwood, visits Wuthering Heights and because of bad weather has to stay overnight. He is shown to Catherine’s old room. He speaks of a dream, a nightmare…

“…I muttered, knocking my knuckles through the glass, and stretching an arm out to seize the importunate branch; instead of which, my fingers closed on the fingers of a little, ice-cold hand! The intense horror of nightmare came over me: I tried to draw back my arm, but the hand clung to it, and a most melancholy voice sobbed, 'Let me in—let me in!' 'Who are you?' I asked, struggling, meanwhile, to disengage myself. 'Catherine Linton,' it replied, shiveringly (why did I think of Linton? I had read Earnshaw twenty times for Linton) 'I'm come home: I'd lost my way on the moor!' As it spoke, I discerned, obscurely, a child's face looking through the window. Terror made me cruel; and, finding it useless to attempt shaking the creature off, I pulled its wrist on to the broken pane, and rubbed it to and fro till the blood ran down and soaked the bedclothes: still it wailed, 'Let me in!' and maintained its tenacious gripe, almost maddening me with fear. 'How can I!' I said at length. 'Let me go, if you want me to let you in!' The fingers relaxed, I snatched mine through the hole, hurriedly piled the books up in a pyramid against it, and stopped my ears to exclude the lamentable prayer. I seemed to keep them closed above a quarter of an hour; yet, the instant I listened again, there was the doleful cry moaning on! 'Begone!' I shouted. 'I'll never let you in, not if you beg for twenty years.' 'It is twenty years,' mourned the voice: 'twenty years. I've been a waif for twenty years!’”

In a series of flashbacks and time shifts, Emily Brontë draws a powerful picture of the enigmatic Heathcliff, who is brought to Wuthering Heights from the streets of Liverpool by Mr Earnshaw. Heathcliff is ragged, a street urchin, a gypsy boy. Heathcliff is treated as Earnshaw's own children, Catherine and Hindley. After Mr Earnshaw’s death, Heathcliff is bullied by Hindley. Heathcliff and Catherine love each other, but Catherine marries Edgar Linton, a wealthy neighbour from Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff 's destructive force is unleashed, and his first victim is Catherine, who dies giving birth to a girl, another Catherine. Heathcliff seduces Isabella Linton, Edgar's sister, for no other reason than spite and vengeance, and marries her. They flee to the south. Isabella dies, and Heathcliff takes custody of their son Linton. The boy, Linton and Catherine, the first Catherine’s daughter, Cathy, are married, but always sickly, Linton dies. Increasingly isolated and alienated from daily life, Heathcliff experiences visions, and he longs for the death that will reunite him with Catherine. 

The novel begins when all four, including Nelly Dean, the housekeeper, are children. Catherine and Hindley are true blooded siblings, and Heathcliff is adopted into their family. That is all that we are told; if the reader wonders why Mr Earnshaw brings home this child, Heathcliff, Emily Brontë reveals no more; although a few critics have suggested that Heathcliff may be Catherine's illegitimate half-brother.

The plot unravels, and with it, the characters, blooming into bitterness and pride simply by being dishonest with each other. The entire drama is the destruction of the human soul. Brontë brings in a whole new perspective on love. It isn't the epic ballad in tales, or the beautiful quiet bloom between spouses; this is twisted, rampant, tragic and interbred with other less desirable qualities until it is no longer recognisable. Emily Brontë deconstructs love, showing it for the destructive force that it can be when we operate through dishonesty; when our motives lack integrity.

Heathcliff and Catherine are savage; their love is caustic, distorted. As children they roam the Yorkshire Moors like wild creatures; but as an adult, Catherine realises that marriage to Heathcliff would be impossible. She has learnt the qualities of refinement, and accepts the proposal of Edgar Linton.

In a dialogue with Nelly Dean, Catherine states;

“It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he's handsome, Nelly, but because he's more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same…” 

In a chillingly profane declaration, Catherine asserts;

“Nelly, I am Heathcliff!”

Heathcliff and Catherine are like vampires, incessantly feeding on each other; exchanging blood for blood, wound for wound.

Their love is personified in the desolate and unpredictable Yorkshire Moors.

Catherine chooses culture and materialism, over Nature; her own nature, and the wild unpredictable Heathcliff. Catherine’s dishonesty to herself; to her soul, is the catalyst for the following tragic events.

But Heathcliff has overheard Catherine’s statement;

“It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff…”

Heathcliff exits from the lives of the inhabitants of Wuthering Heights for some time.

Heathcliff returns as a gentleman, having grown stronger and richer during his absence. Catherine is delighted to see him although Edgar is not happy. Edgar's sister, Isabella, now eighteen, falls in love with Heathcliff, seeing him as a romantic, Byronic hero. Heathcliff despises her, but encourages the infatuation, seeing it as a chance for revenge on Edgar. When he embraces Isabella one day at the Grange, there is an argument with Edgar, which causes Catherine to lock herself in her room and fall ill.

The relationship between Isabella and Heathcliff is one of Master and slave, beatings and sadomasochism. Heathcliff kills Isabella’s beloved little dog, simply because he can. And Isabella watches.

“The first thing she saw me do, on coming out of the Grange, was to hang up her little dog; and when she pleaded for it, the first words I uttered that I wish that I had the hanging of every being belonging to her, except one: possibly she took that exception for herself. But no brutality disgusted her: I suppose she had an inate admiration of it, if only her precious person were secure from injury! Now, was it not the depth of absurdity -- of genuine idiocy, for that pitiful, slavish, mean minded brach to dream that I could love her?”

And later, Heathcliff tells Nelly Dean of his marriage to Isabella;

“…I’ve sometimes relented, from pure lack of invention, in my experiments on what she could endure, and still creep shamefully cringing back…”

While Catherine is ill, Heathcliff elopes with Isabella, causing Edgar to disown his sister. The fugitives marry and return two months later to Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff hears that Catherine is ill and arranges with Ellen to visit her in secret. In the early hours of the day after their meeting, Catherine gives birth to her daughter, Cathy, and then dies.

I mentioned earlier, that the love of Catherine and Heathcliff is tainted with vampirism. The consumer of Gothic fiction will be able to relate the death of Catherine in terms of the vampire. Nelly Dean describes Catherine’s appearance;

“On the day of her death, ‘her appearance was altered, there seemed unearthly
beauty in the change’;”

And; “she has a ‘white cheek, and a bloodless lip’”.

Like a vampire, Heathcliff is a creature of darkness; he is of the night. He walks the moonlit, wild, stormy moors alone.

Catherine too, exhibits vampiric traits before her death. In folklore, rejection of a Christian doctrine is one of the few routes by which a person may spontaneously become a vampire. Catherine rejects Christian notions of the afterlife, both in the dream she relates to Nelly, in which she is thrust out of heaven, and in her declaration to Heathcliff that;

“‘they may bury me twelve feet deep but I won’t rest till you are with me I never will!’”

Catherine also displays vampiric traits in an incident that results from
her temporary removal at age fifteen to Thrushcross Grange: the sudden deaths of
both Linton parents. After young Heathcliff disappears, Catherine tells Nelly she is
‘starving’, and falls ill. The Lintons invite her to recuperate at their home, where both parents ‘took the fever, and died within a few days of each other’

When the two are separated, both are forced to refocus their vampiric desire to consume; while Catherine eventually turns her consumptive drive inward, Heathcliff turns his outward, creating a vortex that consumes and destroys all in its reach.

But Heathcliff’s vampirism takes a more literal sense, when he tells Nelly Dean that he has been in considerable proximity with Catherine's body; is Heathcliff the vampire, gloating greedily over Catherine‘s corpse? Or are we to take Nelly’s disapproval as a sign that Heathcliff has committed an act of necrophilia? The passage is chilling; appealing to the dark, unhealthy side of the imagination.

Heathcliff tells Nelly Dean, that while the earth is being prepared for Edgar Linton’s grave, he opens Catherine’s coffin.

“I’ll tell you what I did yesterday! I got the sexton, who was digging Linton’s grave, to remove the earth off her coffin lid, and I opened it. I thought, once I would have stayed there, when I saw her face again -- it is hers yet -- he had hard work to stir me; but he said it would change, if the air blew on it, and so I struck one side of the coffin loose, and covered it up…”

Catherine’s remains are uncorrupted after eighteen years in the ground. Another sign of the vampire. In Heathcliff's viewing of Catherine's corpse, and knowing Heathcliff as the reader now does, I think that a suspicion of necrophilia can be justified. His plans of being buried next to her, hint of a consummation after death. But we really don’t know, Emily Brontë plants the seeds of suggestion in her reader’s mind; it’s up to the reader whether or not to let them germinate.

Perhaps it is something let well alone. But, such is the power of Emily Brontë’s writing, and her acute delineation of character, you just can’t help thinking…

But what is going on here with this shy, delicate parson’s daughter? She lives an insulated existence, close to the Yorkshire Moors, in the Parsonage, with her brother and sisters. Where do these wild emotions that she commits to pen and ink, come from?

It is well documented that all of the Brontë’s were avid readers. Emily and the others, would probably been aware of the work of their contemporaries; Edgar Allen Poe and Ann Radcliffe. They would have known Coleridge’s Gothic poetry, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. And of course they would have read about Lord Byron and following that, the Byronic hero.

Here is part of what Charlotte says about her sister, Emily, and the characters in her novel.

“Where delineation of human character is concerned, the case is different. I am bound to avow that she had scarcely more practical knowledge of the peasantry amongst whom she lived, than a nun has of the country people who sometimes pass her convent gates. My sister's disposition was not naturally gregarious; circumstances favoured and fostered her tendency to seclusion; except to go to church or take a walk on the hills, she rarely crossed the threshold of home. Though her feeling for the people round was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought; nor, with very few exceptions, ever experienced. And yet she knew them: knew their ways, their language, their family histories; she could hear of them with interest, and talk of them with detail, minute, graphic, and accurate; but WITH them, she rarely exchanged a word. Hence it ensued that what her mind had gathered of the real concerning them, was too exclusively confined to those tragic and terrible traits of which, in listening to the secret annals of every rude vicinage, the memory is sometimes compelled to receive the impress. Her imagination, which was a spirit more sombre than sunny, more powerful than sportive, found in such traits material whence it wrought creations like Heathcliff, like Earnshaw, like Catherine. Having formed these beings, she did not know what she had done. If the auditor of her work, when read in manuscript, shuddered under the grinding influence of natures so relentless and implacable, of spirits so lost and fallen; if it was complained that the mere hearing of certain vivid and fearful scenes banished sleep by night, and disturbed mental peace by day, Ellis Bell would wonder what was meant, and suspect the complainant of affectation. Had she but lived, her mind would of itself have grown like a strong tree, loftier, straighter, wider-spreading, and its matured fruits would have attained a mellower ripeness and sunnier bloom; but on that mind time and experience alone could work: to the influence of other intellects it was not amenable.
Having avowed that over much of 'Wuthering Heights' there broods 'a horror of great darkness'; that, in its storm-heated and electrical atmosphere, we seem at times to breathe lightning: let me point to those spots where clouded day-light and the eclipsed sun still attest their existence. For a specimen of true benevolence and homely fidelity, look at the character of Nelly Dean; for an example of constancy and tenderness, remark that of Edgar Linton. (Some people will think these qualities do not shine so well incarnate in a man as they would do in a woman, but Ellis Bell could never be brought to comprehend this notion: nothing moved her more than any insinuation that the faithfulness and clemency, the long-suffering and loving-kindness which are esteemed virtues in the daughters of Eve, become foibles in the sons of Adam. She held that mercy and forgiveness are the divinest attributes of the Great Being who made both man and woman, and that what clothes the Godhead in glory, can disgrace no form of feeble humanity.) There is a dry saturnine humour in the delineation of old Joseph, and some glimpses of grace and gaiety animate the younger Catherine. Nor is even the first heroine of the name destitute of a certain strange beauty in her fierceness, or of honesty in the midst of perverted passion and passionate perversity.

Heathcliff, indeed, stands unredeemed; never once swerving in his arrow-straight course to perdition, from the time when 'the little black-haired swarthy thing, as dark as if it came from the Devil,' was first unrolled out of the bundle and set on its feet in the farmhouse kitchen, to the hour when Nelly Dean found the grim, stalwart corpse laid on its back in the panel-enclosed bed, with wide-gazing eyes that seemed 'to sneer at her attempt to close them, and parted lips and sharp white teeth that sneered too’”.

Currer Bell. Haworth Parsonage. 1848