Friday, 18 September 2009

Slavoj Žižek on Jane Morris

It isn’t often that the leading cultural theorists of our time turn their attention to Jane and William Morris, but Slavoj Žižek does briefly do so in his 1994 volume, The Metastases of Enjoyment. A chapter on ‘David Lynch, or, the Feminine Depression’ offers us a defamiliarising opening sketch of ‘Lynch as a Pre-Raphaelite’ which transforms the ways in which we see both the contemporary film-maker and the nineteenth-century painters themselves. ‘How was it,’ Žižek provocatively asks, ‘that the Pre-Raphaelites became “readable” only retroactively, through the postmodernist paradigm?’ (113).

He then moves on to a discussion of Lynch’s classic film Blue Velvet. This in his view centres around Dorothy’s depression, which is to be understood, however, not as the effect of Frank’s sexual terrorising of her, but rather as a primary datum which Frank is ‘therapeutically’ trying to jolt out of itself, into some renewed relation to the world. This is a disturbing revaluation of Lynch’s film, from which Žižek at once generalises out historically:

‘The tradition of a deadened, lethargic woman aroused from her numbness by a man’s call was well under way in the nineteenth century: suffice it to recall Kundry from Wagner’s Parsifal who, at the beginning of Act II and Act III, is awakened from a catatonic sleep (first through Klingsor’s rude summons, then through Gurnemanz’s kind care) – or, from “real” life – the unique figure of Jane Morris, wife of William Morris and mistress of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The famous photo of Jane in 1865 presents a depressive woman, deeply absorbed in her thoughts, who seems to await a man’s stimulation to pull her out of lethargy: this photo offers, perhaps, the closest approximation to what Wagner had in mind when he created the figure of Kundry’ (121-2).

With his scare quotes around the adjective in ‘”real” life’ Žižek neatly hedges his bets here, of course; is this just a clever literary recontextualising of the famous Rossetti/Parsons image, or does the Wagnerian paradigm sketched here genuinely map out the contours of the Morris marriage itself?

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