Joyce also, in the "Circe" chapter of Ulysses, managed a similar feat of modernist legerdemain. This chapter, as Michael Groden argues convincingly in "Ulysses" in Progress, was the point at which Joyce's art entered a new phase: "His work on 'Circe' was crucial; he seems to have begun it as an episode similar in scope and length to the previous three, but by the time he finished it he had left the middle stage behind for new developments" (Groden, 52). The writing of "Circe" led to elaborate revisions of the earlier chapters, along with a shift of emphasis from the interor monologue and stylistic parody to what Groden has called a "complex intermixture of realism and symbolism" (204). In September of 1920, when he was working on this chapter, Joyce wrote to Carlo Linati, saying, "I am working like a galley slave, an ass, a brute. I cannot even sleep. The episode of Circe has changed me too into an animal" (Let. I, 146). What is abundantly clear is that working on their two brothel scenes changed both Joyce's and Picasso's art in the most profound ways. The Demoiselles pointed the way to cubism, just as "Circe" led inexorably toward Finnegans Wake. Let us consider more specifically what happened in Joyce's writing of "Circe," and then return to the question of why the brothel should be so situated at the creative center of modernist art.
In The Odyssey Circe's island is a place of magic in which men are turned into animals by a powerful enchantress. The link between magical power, transformation, and animal degradation are shared by Joyce's chapter and Picasso's painting. "Circe" is set in a space clearly delineated as theatrical by its formal properties of stage direction and dialogue, but no more theatrical than The Demoiselles, with its stage curtains held open by the entering figure from the left (whether medical student or primordial female) giving the viewer access to what lies beyond the proscenium. Many of Joyce's stage directions, however, would defy the most resourceful theatrical impressario: "The beagle lifts his snout, showing the grey scorbutic face of Paddy Dignam. He has gnawed all. He exhales a putrid carcasefed breath. He grows to human size and shape. His dachshund coat becomes a brown mortuary habit. His green eye flashes bloodshot. Half of one ear, all the nose and both thumbs are ghouleaten" (385). Even supposing film rather than stage drama, the most technically adept special effects team would have trouble with that putrid breath (though experiments along olfactory lines are still being undertaken). My point is simply that the brothel and its environs offered both Joyce and Picasso a space already devoted to theatrical deceptions and the aesthetic organization of primal needs, which they could adapt to their own surrealistic ends.
But these two artists populate their stages with creatures that are not mere human actors and actresses but transgress the border between human and animal, normal and freakish. The following stage direction of Joyce's degrades the human form at least as much as Picasso's bodily distortions: "In an archway a standing woman, bent forward, her feet apart, pisses cowily. Outside a shuttered pub a bunch of loiterers listen to a tale which their brokensnouted gaffer rasps out with raucous humour. An armless pair of them flop wrestling, growling, in maimed sodden playfight" (367). The ideal integrity of the human form, privileged for so long in art and in Romantic aesthetics, has become an object of programmatic destruction in both these works, which are driven in part by an anger against aesthetic pretensions. They are also, however, driven by a peculiarly modernist anxiety to achieve formal innovations that stamp this work as different from everything that been done before.
Both artists knew that brothels had been presented naturalistically before their own work. To go beyond naturalism for them meant making their brothels philosophical. Thus the medical student Lynch, who had been the auditor of Stephen's lecture on aesthetics in A Portrait, responds to Stephen's latest aesthetic installment in "Circe" with this denunciation: "Pornosophical philotheology. Metaphysics in Mecklenburgh Street."--saying this as the two young men go toward the bawdy house, or, in Stephen's words "to la belle dame sans merci, Georgina Johnson, ad deam qui laetificat iuventum meam" ("to the goddess who gladdened my youth"--which is the response of an altar boy serving at mass to the priestly words spoken by Buck Mulligan at the opening of Ulysses --"Introibo ad altare Dei"--but with the gender changed so that the reference is not to God but to a goddess, ).
Picasso began with five women and two men. Joyce's central stage contains a similar number: the whores Zoe, Kitty, and Florry, along with the madam, Bella Cohen; Lynch the medical student; Stephen the homeless wanderer in place of the Picasso's young sailor; and Bloom, who is "unmanned" and auctioned off as a whore by Bella, now transformed into the masculine Bello:
"My boys will be no end charmed to see you so ladylike. . . when they come here the night before the wedding to fondle my new attraction in gilded heels. First I'll have a go at you myself. . . . Swell the bust. Smile. Droop shoulders. What offers? (he points) For that lot. Trained by owner to fetch and carry, basket in mouth. (he bares his arm and plunges it elbowdeep in Bloom's vulva) There's fine depth for you! What, boys? That give you a hardon? (he shoves his arm in a bidder's face) Here wet the deck and wipe it round!" (440)
These are stagings of the lower psychic depths, produced at times in their lives when both Joyce and Picasso were concerned with their own health and driven by a ferocious alienation from their fellows. Joyce seeing himself in a mirror at midnight thought "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." And he advised himself to "Lash/ Your itch and quailing, nude greed of the flesh." One of Picasso's friends (André Derain), reacting to the finished Demoiselles, said that the painter would probably soon be found hanged behind it. Driven by their own flesh and by the promptings of no ordinary ambition, it is no wonder that these two artists found their most powerful expressive forms in these pornosophical, philotheological bordellos. But the brothel of modernism was also a sanctuary, a relic of a time when the flesh at least counted for something--so that artists could seek to contain and control their own commodification by joining forces with members of that ancient guild, incorporating images of prostitution within their works in a last doomed attempt to to sustain what Walter Benjamin called the "aura" of art. The threat faced by all modern artists is the one that overtakes E. J. Bellocq in Pretty Baby.
After World War I, Storyville is cleaned up and closed down by the moralizing bourgeoisie. The jazz musician (modelled on Jelly Roll Morton) must find another place to play. We know he will end up as a recording in someone's record collection. The photographic artist marries his baby hooker and tries to continue his work, but her mother, earlier removed from the bordello by a wealthy cement contractor from St. Louis, comes back to rescue her daughter, so she, too, can grow up as a good bourgeoise. Did Victorine Meurent imagine herself as a "Bourgeoise of Nuremburg" when she exhibited a painting with that title? In Pretty Baby the artist is separated from his model, and the film closes with the cement contractor lining up his new family at the railroad station, so that he can snap their picture with a Kodak box camera. The Kodak slogan was, "You press the button, we do the rest." In the brothel two of the major modernists found, in the very squalor and degradation of the place, a powerful embodiment of the human psyche that lent itself to a corresponding disembodiment of form--in which that power was explosively released. The brothel was the last sanctuary of the "aura" of art, a refuge from the mechanical reproduction that threatened to end the Romantic reign of art itself. This is why Louis Malle's film, constructed from within the mechanical itself, can ultimately portray the brothel of modernism only in a mood dominated by nostalgia.
For the male artists who dominated modernism, however, the brothel constituted a theatrical space in which to reenact those moments when they were clients for fleshly commodities themselves and to envision their own positions as caterers to public whims and victims of market forces. In the figures of prostitutes these artitst could embody a primordial natural energy they admired--and a bestiality which, to varying degrees they were forced to acknowledge in themselves. They could also represent the situation of human beings forced to be commodities in their own flesh, alienated from themselves in the most intimate way. Thus, in the magical power of these figures and in the gazes of their terrible eyes, Joyce and Picasso could see both what they feared and what they were. They looked both at and through these eyes themselves, were both seers and seen.
What we, as the ultimate clients of these texts should also see, is how those gazes are meant for us, to remind us that we too, maintain our subjectivity only by turning others into objects. The Medusa eyes of Picasso's demoiselles and the Circean power of Bella Cohen are reminding us how in our world the most elemental drives take the structure of commodities and art itself is neither safe nor pure. We cannot touch it and pretend that we are undefiled. The mythical Medusa's eyes turned their objects to stone. Circe changed men into beasts. Stone or beast, these works are telling us. Take your choice. You must be one or the other. There is no escape.
In this modernist cultural situation, the brothel offered an ideal textual space. Here the drive for perpetual formal innovation could be combined readily with the need to represent the full degradation of modern life. Here, too, the mythic and archetypal connections that kept modernism from falling into the merely naturalistic were also readily available for those who could find them. Here the artist as Minotaur could meet his object as Medusa, and Daedalus/Icarus/Telemachus could meet Odysseus on Circe's island. This textual space, however, and it cannot be emphasized too much, was structured like that modern medium par excellence, the cinema--structured, that is, voyeuristically in terms of male subjectivity and female objectivity, so that wherever female subjectivity appeared, it could be appropriated for the artists themselves, who were inevitably male.
There is also a practical side to this. If, as I have been arguing, the brothel was a privileged place for male modernists, it was also a place that, for the most part, excluded women who were not themselves prostitutes. The list of women artists and writers who produced brothel texts scarcely exists at all. If we borrow a textual move from Virginia Woolf and try to imagine one of Joyce's sisters becoming a modernist writer, we can readily see how a certain crucial experience of prostitutes and brothels was simply impossible for her, while it was almost inevitable for her brother. The list of male artists and writers who situated works in brothels, however, from Baudelaire and Manet through Joyce and Picasso, is both long and distinguished.
We have a subject matter here, I am arguing, which clearly divides women writers from men, and it is also a subject matter uniquely associated with modernist formal innovation and the other features of modernist writing. I believe that modernism--as distinguished from modern writing and painting, or writing and painting in the modern period--has a distinctly masculist structure that is embodied most clearly and powerfully in its images of the brothel: a structure in which extremes of formal innovation are linked with this specific cultural site, with its powerful division of sexual roles. This is why Pretty Baby, which aligns modernism and photograph so beautifully, inserts its photographer into the brothel as a figure of male subjectivity, bringing together the voyeuristic structure of film--and of modernist textuality in general--so plainly and simply that we cannot miss it. When Brooke Shields leaves Storyville, she will become a bourgeois subject, go to an Ivy League college, and modernism will be over. We need shed no tears over this.
To send comments or questions to Robert Scholes click on the following address Robert_Scholes@brown.edu
For a list of essayistic responses to "In the Brothel of Modernism," click on The Brothel.
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