In the Brothel of Modernism: Picasso and Joyce

by Robert Scholes
Part 1

Part 1

Hey what! You here, dear fellow! You, in a house of ill fame? You, the drinker of quintessences! You, the ambrosia eater? Really, this takes me by surprise.
(Charles Baudelaire, "Loss of Halo," Petits Poèmes en prose)

But it is precisely modernity that is always quoting primeval history. This happens through the ambiguity attending the social relationships and products of this epoch. Ambiguity is the pictorial image of dialectics, the law of dialectics seen at a standstill. This standstill is utopia and the dialectical image therefore a dream image. Such an image is presented by the pure commodity: as fetish. Such an image are the arcades, which are both house and stars. Such an image is the prostitute, who is saleswoman and wares in one.
(Walter Benjamin, Reflections, 157)

This essay has existed in a number of forms: as a series of slides with an accompanying oral patter, as a written text with no visual illustrations, and as a lecture with slides, as a chapter in a book, and, now, as a hypertext with images. In the course of its existence as a lecture, the view of modernism offered here has met with some serious criticism. The present version has been modified to respond to that criticism, and it also includes some material dropped from earlier versions because it seemed likely that only those with a special interest in Joyce might find it interesting. The criticism to which I shall be responding was made by Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, both publicly in a lecture following my own, and privately, in a letter to me after the public presentation of this material. I have taken her objections with the utmost seriousness, not simply because we are old friends (which we are), nor because I have enormous respect for her learning and her critical intelligence (which I do), but especially because her objections focus on the role of women in modernism, which has been a major concern of mine for some years, in the courses I have taught and in my thinking about cultural history. It was precisely thinking of modernism in terms of gender that led me to this subject, that led me to see that Joyce and Picasso were connected, at some important level, by their interest in the brothel as an aesthetic space.

Let me begin, then, by quoting, from Professor Spivak's letter to me of 31 January 1991, what I take to be the heart of her objections to my talk: "there was a qualitative absence of assuming woman as agent of Modernism in your paper laced with masculist humor and what, in that qualitative absence, seemed like a voyeurism painful to many of us. I spoke because many women lamented this after your talk." A serious objection, powerfully stated. My response is that modernism, especially around its Parisian center of activity, was indeed a masculist activity that positioned women voyeuristically and turned would-be agents into patients to an astonishing extent. The careers of Djuna Barnes and Jean Rhys, for instance, show how difficult it was--and what a price had to be paid--for a woman to function as a modernist writer in Paris. My argument, then, is that modernism was never a level playing field but was a gendered movement, driven by the anxieties and ambivalences of male artists and writers--anxieties and ambivalences that worked to bring the figure of the prostitute to the center of the modernist stage.

Any such argument will be heavily dependent upon definitions. I shall begin, then, by trying to define and locate modernism as I understand it, and to explain why Joyce and Picasso are so central to it. In terms of the history of art and literature, modernism follows impressionism (or post-impressionism). All of these new movements in art and literature emerge from a crisis of confidence in aesthetic realism--a crisis shaped by the development of new means of representation, more mechanical or more scientific than the arts had been, and by a growing fragmentation in social life itself. This crisis was marked in painting by the rise of photography and a turning away from the linear perspectivism first generated by the camera obscura in the Renaissance--and marked in literature by the rise of social science and a questioning of the power of a single omniscient viewpoint to capture social realities for art. In both visual and verbal art this move away from realism emphasizes the unique perspectives of individual artists, so that it may be said to complete a Romantic swerve away from an aesthetic of imitation toward one based on the creator's own struggle for expression. In the writing of English fiction, impressionism emerges from the work of Walter Pater and Henry James to flourish in the hands of Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, and the early James Joyce, among others. It is characterized, to an important extent, by an emphasis on the interior monologue as a form, in which various impressions (directly from the senses and from memory and imagination as well) are presented as a stream of prose textuality. Virginia Woolf (who seems to me a writer at least as interesting as Joyce) remains an impressionist or post-impressionist throughout her career. In this she is like the painters to whom she was close--her sister Vanessa and Duncan Grant, for instance. She never quite becomes a modernist, in my view, though I see this as a purely descriptive matter rather than an evaluative one. It is only if one accepts the modernist position on art and literature that becoming a modernist assumes a crucial evaluative role. And I do not accept that position.

The modernist position on art is one most of us have internalized to such a degree that we take it to be natural. To free ourselves from it we need to situate it and examine its workings with a more critical eye. I now see modernism as a late--perhaps the last?--phase of the Romantic movement in art and letters. From Romanticism, modernism gets its emphasis on originality, on the need to make things "new"--to be perpetually innovative at the level of both form and content. It is their perpetual restlessness and formal innovation, among other things, that have put Joyce and Picasso at the center of modernist art and literature. And from Romanticism modernism also gets its sense of the artist as a kind of secular priest or prophet, whose role it is to purify the language of the tribe or free vision from the shackles of older perspectives, and whose struggle to accomplish this is held to be interesting in itself. And finally, it is from Romanticism that modernism gets its special form of classicism, an emphasis on myths and archetypes that buttress the modernist claims to timely originality with equally powerful claims to the representation of eternal archetypes or recurring aspects of reality. In modernist literature such archetypal gestures produce what T. S. Eliot himself called "the mythic method" of writing.

By the standards of this classical modernism, it is Virginia Woolf's refusal to be sufficiently avant-gardist in form and subject matter that relegate her to what Hugh Kenner has called "provincial" status with respect to modernism, and, in the case of Gertrude Stein, who was as avant-gardist as one could wish, it is her refusal to be mythic and archetypal that keeps her on the margins of modernist writing. Let me hasten to say again that I am not making value judgments here. Woolf and Stein are two of the writers of this period to whom I find myself continually returning, both for the pleasure of reading them and because of their importance in the history of modern culture. In the case of Stein, it is fair to say that she moved directly toward post-modernism in her "portrait" style, without lingering in modernism. In the case of Woolf, she found room for further development of impression in ways that suited her chosen subject matter extremely well. Her work has lasted because she solved the problems of impressionism much more successfully than Dorothy Richardson, for example, who never found the best way to focus her obvious talent as an impressionist so as to give narrative as well as descriptive power to her enormous text. By way of contrast, we might think of Proust, also a late or post-impressionist, who solved the narrative problem brilliantly.

Other women writing fiction in English during the modern period found other viable solutions to the breakdown of realism, without feeling it necessary to attain the level of flamboyant experimentalism so characteristic of modernism and so obvious in Joyce. I think of May Sinclair, E. H. Young, E. M. Delafield, Rebecca West, Elizabeth Von Arnim, Rose Macaulay, Rosamund Lehman, Storm Jameson, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Winifred Holtby--a list that could be extended. Nor do I mean to exclude the cases of those international figures whose relationships to modernism are problematic in various ways, such as Djuna Barnes, Jean Rhys, Katherine Mansfield, Hilda Doolittle, and Kay Boyle. One could produce durable fiction during the heyday of modernism without being entirely, or even mainly, a modernist. That is part of my point. But another part of it is that the modernists were adept at claiming the central aesthetic ground. They made artistic life difficult for many writers who lacked patrons, who needed to be published and read regularly for financial reasons or simply did not share the modernist aesthetic. And one of the ways they made life difficult will be the burden of the bulk of this essay.

My claim here, is that modernism as a literary and artistic movement seems to have been structured in such a way as to exclude, marginalize, and devalue the work of women--or to extract a price from them that hampered their development. This can be traced in specific historical incidents, such as the attacks on her intellectual integrity that damaged the reputation of Edith Sitwell during her career as a modernist poet, or the rejections by publishers of Stevie Smith's poetry along with instructions to her to go and write a novel, or the seduction of Jean Rhys by Ford Madox Ford as a way of assisting her with her career, or the impregnation of Rebecca West by H. G. Wells, which hindered West's progress in getting established as a writer, or the misogynistic and anti-semitic attack of Wyndham Lewis on Gertrude Stein's prose, or Ezra Pound's expulsion of Amy Lowell from the imagists--and so on. Modernism's exclusion or marginalization of women can also be shown in the extraordinary role that prostitution played in the development as modernists of those two giants of the movement, Joyce and Picasso--and that is the burden of the following discussion.

We begin with a myth. The Roman poet Ovid tells us how Pasiphae, the wife of king Minos of Crete, desired sexual contact with a bull and hid herself inside a wooden cow to achieve this. This offspring of this unnatural love was a creature half man and half bull, called the Minotaur. Embarrassed by the existence of this creature who partly bore his name and made his wife's shame visible to all, Minos hired an architect named Daedalus to construct a labyrinth in which the Minotaur could be hidden away. In the midst of this maze the monster lived, and was given girls and boys from Athens to feast upon at regular intervals, until the hero Theseus killed him. Daedalus, desiring to leave the island of Crete, set his mind to unknown arts and designed wings for flight. He and his son Icarus flew off the island, but Icarus, ignoring his father's prudent flight plan, flew too high, so that the sun melted the wax holding his wings together, and he fall into the sea where he drowned. This familiar story has a strange connection with modern art, which I shall make plain in a moment, but first I must tell, very briefly the stories of two lives.

In late October of 1881 a child was born in Málaga, Spain, just across the sea from Africa, who was destined to become the richest and most famous of modern artists. His name was Pablo Ruiz Picasso, and it is said that he could draw before he could speak. His father was an artist, and legend has it that the young Picasso painted so well that his father gave the boy his own palette and brushes and vowed never to paint again, since his son had surpassed him. Picasso grew up in Barcelona and attended art school there, but moved to Paris early in the twentieth century. There he soon attracted attention as a painter, but he was never satisfied with any one mode of art and kept innovating relentlessly, developing the cubist mode of painting but then abandoning his followers, ever moving onward toward new methods, new media, and new ways of recycling found objects and old artifacts. Whenever modernism in the arts is mentioned, Picasso's name holds a central place.

A few months after Picasso was born, in February of 1882, a boy was born in Dublin, Ireland who was destined to share with Picasso a central position in modernism. Christened James Augustine Joyce, he was exceptionally gifted as a writer, as precocious with words as Picasso was with visual forms. He, too, was drawn to Paris, arriving there first in the same year as Picasso but not settling there until after the first World War. He did not become rich, but he did become a figure as dominant in modern letters as Picasso was in visual art, whose relelentless formal innovations kept the rest of the literary world panting helplessly behind him. It is a curious fact that these two men, born in Catholic countries far from the centers of culture and power in modern Europe, came to live in Paris, the city that Walter Benjamin called "The Capitol of the Nineteenth Century," and helped to make it the capitol of modernism as well.

These two are linked by other curious facts, so many that their tale becomes, as Alice said, curiouser and curiouser, the more we look into it. Such looking is just what I propose we do on this occasion. We can begin this enterprise by noting how they come together most strikingly of all through the mythic structure I have cited from Ovid. Picasso regularly thought of himself and painted himself in the figure of the Minotaur, as a brutal creature with a man's body with a bull's head, the devourer of youths and maidens, ruthless but fascinating in his Nietzschean exultation, in which creation and destruction were merged. Joyce, on the other hand, regularly thought of himself and represented himself in the figure of Daedalus, setting his mind to unknown arts, escaping from his island prison, and building labyrinths of textuality. As the Minotaur, raging against his imprisonment in the labyrinths of tradition, Picasso shares the same myth of self-definition as Joyce, as the indefatigable builder of new labyrinths in which to capture in a web of words the monstrosity of modern life.

I am not suggesting that these two encountered one another meaningfully in life, for they did not, Picasso once even refusing to paint Joyce's portrait when asked. But they belong together nonetheless, not only because they chose different aspects of the same myth in which to figure themselves, but because they shared a preoccupation with bestiality that was intimately connected with the formal innovations that gave each of them a dominant position in modern art. Moreover, at a crucial moment, each of them chose to embody his most striking formal innovations, aesthetic breakthroughs that changed the face of modern art and literature altogether, in scenes that share an astonishing number of formal and thematic features. These breakthroughs came, for each one of them, as he labored furiously to present a scene set in a house of prostitution, located in the city in which he had spent his youth. This fact, I want to argue, is a coincidence of such monstrous proportions that it requires our most serious consideration if we are to understand what modernism itself was all about. Any such consideration will reveal that modernism and the representation of prostitution are linked in ways that extend well beyond the two texts on which we shall be focussing our attention here.

The idea that there is a special relationship between prostitution and modernism is not a new one. T. J. Clark, Charles Bernheimer and others have drawn our attention to this powerfully in recent years. But for me the connection of Joyce and Picasso to this theme--and to one another--did not become clear until I taught a course at Brown University on the work of these two modern artists. And even then, I did not quite grasp the situation until I happened, while trapped in a motel in Indianapolis, to see on television a film by Louis Malle called Pretty Baby. Let me tell you about that film. The action takes place in New Orleans during the First World War--in a brothel, for the most part. As it begins we are with a girl (played by a very young Brooke Shields) who is watching something out of our range of vision. Watching her watching, we are aware of sounds: grunts, groans, heavy breathing. Knowing where we are, we quickly jump to the conclusion that the little girl is watching a scene of sexual intercourse. Not exactly, as it turns out. She is watching her mother give birth to her baby brother, whose arrival she is soon announcing to everyone in the house. Pretty Baby is the story of a child prostitute and a photographer, set, appropriately enough, in Storyville, New Orleans, from 1917 to 1920. For reasons that I hope to explain adequately, I want to read this film as an allegory or parable of modernism itself.

The story it presents to us is a familiar one in certain respects, in that it is about a male artist and his female model--a text with deep roots and long ramifications in the history of Western culture. What is special about this version is that the model is a child prostitute and the artist is a photographer--a photographer who finds the ideal motifs for his art in the prostitutes who pose for him in their off-duty moments, in natural sunlight, as if he were an impressionist painter. This situation links him to such precursors of modernism as Delacroix, Manet, Degas, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Delacroix, in his later years, posed nude models to be photographed by his friend Eugène Durieu and then sketched from the photographs, regretting that "this wonderful invention," as he called it had arrived so late in his life (Newhall, 82). Manet, of course, shocked Paris with his paintings of Victorine Meurent in the Dˇjeuner sur l'herbe and Olympia . Degas--in addition to painting horses, dancers, milliners, and laundresses--produced over a hundred of his stark brothel monotpyes. And Toulouse-Lautrec, who in 1893 and 1894 lived a good deal of the time in two high-class brothels (Bernheimer, 195), produced some paintings and drawings of prostitutes in their habitat that are extraordinary in their freedom from both condemnation and condescension. His work leads directly to the early Parisian paintings of Picasso--and to the photographs of the real E. J. Bellocq, who looked more like Toulouse-Lautrec than like Keith Carradine, who played him in Pretty Baby . What distinguished Bellocq from these painters, of course, in life and in Louis Malle's film, is that he was a photographer rather than a painter, but in this film he is specifically inscribed as an artist rather than a mechanical hack. He is a photographer of the old school, an anachronism even in 1917, working under a black hood with glass plates, developing his pictures with dangerous chemicals. In this film the brothel is a refuge, a sanctuary for photography as a form of art. E. J. Bellocq is presented as a licensed voyeur in the brothel, of which he neither approves nor disapproves but accepts as providing the best material for his art. After a time he comes to belong in the brothel, on much the same footing as the elegant Negro who plays an equally elegant jazz piano--and is called "Professor," of course. Neither of these two "goes upstairs" with the prostitutes. They are, themselves, prostitutes of a sort, making their livings off the comodification of their arts rather than with the sweat of their bodies. This situation, in which musician and photographer manage to exist both in and on prostitution, practicing their arts in an accomodation with commodity culture, offers us a fruitful image for the situation of the artist under the cultural and economic regime we know as modernism.

It is not a new image of course, nor is it merely an image. As early as 1843, the arch Bohemian Alexandre Privat had proposed (in a letter asking the help of Eugène Sue) to write two novels (which, being a true bohemian, he never wrote): one about "the lives of girls who started out working in various Paris manufactures, and who then became grisettes of the Latin Quarter before going on to lives as prostitutes," and the other about "young men who have had their arms broken by secondary education and have no occupation"; these young men as Jerrold Siegel has reminded us, "lived by selling their intelligence. . . . Like the grisettes, therefore, they were prostitutes, putting their minds up for sale just as the young women put up their bodies" (Seigel, 137-138). Charles Baudelaire was the first major literary figure to realize fully the cultural importance of prostitution and its resemblance to artistic production in modern, capitalistic Europe. As Susan Buck-Morss has pointed out (following Walter Benjamin), "Baudelaire makes modern, metropolitain prostitution 'one of the main objects of his poetry.' Not only is the whore the subject matter of his lyrical expression; she is the model for his own activity. The 'prostitution of the poet,' Baudelaire believed, was 'an unavoidable necessity.'" As Benjamin himself put it, "Baudelaire knew how things really stood for the literary man: As flâneur, he goes to the literary marketplace, supposedly to take a look at it, but already in reality to find a buyer" (B-M, 185).

Benjamin also observed that the prostitute held a special fascination for the modern artist because she was subject and object in one, both the seller of flesh and the fleshly commodity that was sold. This parallel between the situations of artist and prostitute was both fascinating and troubling for male writers and artists. For painters in particular, it was complicated by the relationship between artist and model, which recapulates in certain respects the situation of client and prostitute, and indeed, many models were also the sexual objects of their painters. We should pause, however, and consider how much more complicated this relationship was for female painters and sculptors in particular. Many of them were both models and artists, objects and subjects with a vengeance. The case of Camille Claudel, one of the sculptor Rodin's models and mistresses, yet a talented scuptor herself, is now, thanks to film, well known. Less well known is the case of Gwen John, one of the finest of English painters, who was also a mistress of Rodin, posing for his scupture called "The Muse," whose work is only beginning to be properly known and respected today. A "Muse," of course is a woman who inspires an artist, rather than an artist in her own right. This list could be extended specifically to include the women artists who became models, mistresses, muses, whatever for Picasso himself--but, for the moment, a mere mention of this aspect of the situation will have to suffice.

Now we are concerned with the other side of this relationship--specifically, the ambivalence of male artists who saw that they, too, sometimes played the role of prostitute in order to function as artists. Under the commodity culture which spawned modernism, even succesful artists could scarcely avoid thinking of themselves in this manner. The greatest of modernists were often as jealous of one another as any prostitute might be of another who was getting a higher rate. Thus we find James Joyce, in a 1920 letter to his friend Frank Budgen complaining in this vein: "If you see the October Dial in any reading room you will find a long film about me. I observe a furtive attempt to run a certain Mr Marcel Proust of here against the signatory of this letter. I have read some pages of his. I can't see any special talent but I am a bad critic" (Let. I, 148); and in 1927 he complained to his patron, Harriet Weaver about yet another rival or competitor: "My position is a farce. Picasso has not a higher name than I have, I suppose, and he can get 20,000 or30,000 francs for a few hours work. I am not worth a penny a line. . ." (Sel. Let. 327).

Joyce here was measuring himself against those he saw as his main competitors for the title of major modernist. The comparison with Picasso is the main burden of this essay. But before getting on with that, it will be useful to pause and consider this brief reference to Proust and The Dial . Joyce's relationship with Scofield Thayer, the editor of The Dial magazine, was a strange one. In 1919, persuaded by Mary and Padraic Colum, Thayer cabled Joyce the substantial sum of seven hundred dollars, but his magazine was never interested in the seamy side of modernism, which Joyce represented all too clearly for him. The Dial really did preach the gospel of Proust, who expressed his gratitude in appropriately fulsome terms: "Au trés cher Dial qui m'a mieux compris et plus chaleureusement soutenue qu'aucune journal, aucune revue. Tout ma reconnaissance pour tout de lumi¸re qu'illumine la pensˇe et réchauffe le coeur" (Joost, 192).

Proust's choice of words is illuminating. A souteneur may be one who sustains, but in French he is also, specifically, a pimp. The language of patronage and the language of prostitution often proved painfully smilar to those being patronized. It is clear, however, that Thayer had no intention of "sustaining" Joyce. It is true that he testified at the Ulysses trial on behalf of Joyce's book, but he admitted on the witness stand that he would not have published the novel's "Nausicaa" episode in The Dial. Given his feeling about Joyce, it is a wonder that he did print the poem of Joyce's that appeared in the July 1920 number. It is called "A Memory of the Players in a Mirror at Midnight." Written in Zurich in 1917, it was later included in Pomes Pennyeach.

They mouth love's language. Gnash
The thirteen teeth
Your lean jaws grin with. Lash
Your itch and quailing, nude greed of the flesh.
Love's breath in you is stale, worded or sung,
As sour as cat's breath,
Harsh of tongue.

This grey that stares
Lies not, stark skin and bone.
Leave greasy lips their kissing. None
Will choose her what you see to mouth upon.
Dire hunger holds his hour.
Pluck forth your heart, saltblood, a fruit of tears:
Pluck and devour!

This, it is fair to say, is the most avoided text in the entire Joycean oeuvre. Joyce's biographers and commentators have virtually nothing to say about it, beyond the fact that it exists. Like many of the other poems that ultimately appeared with it in Pomes Pennyeach, these words may have sprung partly from Joyce's reading of Elizabethan or Jacobean drama--or from Baudelaire himself. Certainly, this language has the putrescent flavor that drew T. S. Eliot to some of his raids upon these same sources. But who can doubt that Joyce's poem also has roots in his own broodings on age, lust and corruption. Without attempting a full scale reading of the poem on this occasion (I, too, shall avoid it), let me observe that it combines images of the brothel and the charnel house, motifs that haunt the work of Picasso as well as Joyce, both of whom frequented brothels and had bouts with venereal disease in their youth. The poem can even be read as a gloss upon Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon , to which we shall be turning our attention shortly. In any case, it is not typical of what Scofield Thayer liked to publish in The Dial , and yet it is the only work by Joyce that he actually did publish.

What Joyce referred to (in his letter to Frank Budgen) as "a long film about me," is in fact a critical essay by Evelyn Scott, which was the first extended discussion of Joyce's work to appear in America and still ranks as one of the best essays written about Joyce by anybody at any time. This should have pleased him, and perhaps it did, since Scott's biographer says that Joyce wrote her a thank-you note, though such a note does not appear in any volume of Joyce's letters (Callard, 39). But why did Joyce call this essay a "film"? Perhaps because it rolled along through his work and only stopped with the latest serialized publications of the unfinished Ulysses . As we know, film was frequently on Joyce's mind, and especially in 1917, when "A Memory of the Players in a Mirror at Midnight" (not a bad metaphor for film in itself) was composed. At that time, in addition to being very involved in the theatre, Joyce was working on a scheme with a man who called himself Jules Martin, for making a film (or pretending to make a film): "'We'll get wealthy women into it,' Martin said, 'women in fur pelts. We'll teach them how to walk and then charge them a fee for being in the film.' The studio was to have a Kino Schule as an adjunct" (Ellmann 423). Martin, who at one time proposed himself for the Joycean role of Richard Rowan in a performance of Exiles, was a bohemian confidence man (a metempsychotic version of Alexandre Privat, perhaps), whose real name was Juda de Vries, and who ultimately had to be helped out of jail and into a hospital by Joyce. Nevertheless, Joyce, who was a bit of a bohemian confidence man himself, went along with the film project for a while.

Joyce's cinematic inclinations (let us not forget the Volta theatre project) encourage me to find a place for him in Louis Malle's cinematic brothel. We shall return to that, but first it should be acknowledged that his jealousy over The Dial's preference for Proust was well founded, for Scott's article was preceded by a short selection from Proust's massive work in progress, with a fulsome introduction by Richard Aldington, in which Joyce was relegated, along with Dorothy Richardson and May Sinclair, to the ranks of Proust's inferior contemporaries. Perhaps by "film" Joyce meant to include both Scott's and Aldington's pieces, but my point is that in 1920 The Dial provided both the public location for his poem on the horrors of sexuality and the occasion for his jealousy of a rival who was described by Aldington as "more coherent than Mr Joyce, more urbane, less preoccupied with slops and viscera," but nonetheless capable of describing "a public convenience with a precision and verve which would have aroused the jealousy even of Flaubert" (345). Joyce, who, after all, was no mean describer of public conveniences himself, must have bitterly resented being called a purveyor of "slops and viscera," and then being positioned as a poor third behind Proust and Flaubert in the public convenience Derby.