When I first read the story, I cried. Because? Because in its own quiet way it reflected back to me a long-lived dread, from which I could not flinch. Those paintings too, seemed to collude and conspire against me and my kind. ‘That is all you are,’ came the whisper, to be seen in a particular way, a stranger to yourself; there for others. As for those statues, surely there was something deeply wrong in their graphic depiction. I could not look. Abashed, I lowered my lids and looked away.
What was it, in a different time and a different place, that struck such horror in me?
The story was ‘Eveline’ in James Joyce’s Dubliners. It portrays a woman at an important junction in her life when she has an opportunity to travel and make a new life with the man who loves her. Yet, so stultifying has her life been, that it has drained her of the ability to take a chance at life. ‘She wanted to live’, but her pathetic desire was not enough to shock her out of her passivity. We raise our hopes as she makes her way, incognito, to the dock, to join Frank. But even as he pulls her onward to board the ship, she clings to the iron railings. She wanted to live, but her manacled-mind kept the shackles firmly locked.
And to the paintings – of women, beautiful women, but whose beauty is paraded for others; it is not their own. John Berger speaks about the difference between nakedness and nudes. Nakedness is about our natural, unclothed self – we might almost say, our unself-conscious embodiment, such as when one takes off the daytime clothes to put on the nightwear. Or when drying oneself, having got out of the shower. I think a picture that portrays this idea well is Degas’ After the Bath, Woman Drying Herself
Here she is, just out of the bath, drying herself. It is an everyday scene. Her nakedness is hers. Contrasted to this, and I think Berger is right in this, is the female nude, such as in the painting by Manet. Here, the woman’s physical form is put on show for others to see. While Degas’ woman is a snapshot of the private, Manet’s is a depiction for the public, and for the male viewing public in particular. The audience is placed, intentionally, in the role of voyeur. These such pieces were painted to be looked at. The women are painted seated or lounging, laying back, completely exposed. Little or no modesty has been afforded them – that virtue which is at the heart of what it is to be a woman who knows herself beautiful; a woman who is not seeking validation from others – which would be as changing and impermanent as the passing crowd – but who knows herself beautiful at her very core. That beauty is modest and in a sense, private, to be revealed to her one and only, privately. Manet’s woman and other such painted women, however, are waiting… They are passive. Waiting to be a recipient. Stultified.
This statue of Shiva and Shakti comes from the Hindu tradition. There is nothing passive or stultifying about the depiction of the female! She is active; she is responsive; she is wonderfully embodied in the embrace of union. The two are one, lost in each other. These statues are representations of different aspects of the Hindu Supreme Spirit, manifested in so many forms of male and female, of power and gentleness, of protection and nurturing. The dynamic surge of life cannot be depicted in static form.
In the Hebrew tradition we are told that when God wanted to express himself, he did so by making humans, and making them male and female. Both carry the image and likeness of God – different aspects of God’s nature conveyed differently in each form. In the second Hebrew creation account, Eve is created as an expression of God in the world, of action, of beauty and of tenderness.
That is why the story of Eveline, in Dubliners is so tragic. By birth she is a daughter of Eve, yet she is not guardian of her own beauty or her own nature. The image she carries has been squashed and constrained by others. Because of this, her life, but also theirs, is so much to poorer.
James Joyce Dubliners, Penguin Modern Classics John Berger in a 4 part BBC documentary Ways of Seeing, 1972 Stone sculpture from the Citragupta Temple at Khajuraho, in The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, by Fritjof Capra