The nude strikes back

John Bayley

  • Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form by Marina Warner
    Weidenfeld, 417 pp, £16.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 297 78408 0

The psychologist John Layard – ‘Loony Layard’, as he is affectionately termed in one of Auden’s early poems – is said to have told a submarine officer that he had grown a beard as a masculine protest against the mechanical womb he inhabited. And in Portrait of the Artist a young man informs his friend that he admires, the Venus de Milo because her broad hips show she would be good at bearing his children. To maintain the Silent Service’s reputation for courtesy the officer no doubt merely reminded his mentor of the limited facilities for shaving in submarines: but James Joyce’s young man resents his friend’s analysis and calls him a sulphur-yellow liar.

We do resent, it seems, having our erotic or quasi-erotic motives explained to us; perhaps not so much because we all feel the explanation to be false, though that comes into it, but because explanation itself is apt to be deflationary in this context, rather than stimulating. In undertaking to explain why we respond as we do to the female form in art, Marina Warner puts herself in a slightly absurd position, from which, however, both her scholarship and her sense of humour enable her to emerge triumphantly. She can at times sound a bit glib and didactic, quoting from Adrian Stokes and Hélène Cixous, and endorsing the concept of What it Means to be a Whole Person: ‘Surrounded as we are by the contemporary record of damage to the bodies that are the vessels of human life, Stokes’s credo that the integrity of the body assumes the integrity of the spirit stands as an urgent prayer for life against death, for wholeness against disintegration.’

Well yes, but integration is not exactly the friend of sex, or of the sexually symbolic in art: our old friend equivocation is a more helpful companion here, and the paradox of the sexes’ divided response to the female form in allegory is faced by Marina Warner but not fully overcome: she has to seek refuge now and again in a tone less suited to the expert iconographer than to the enlightened schoolmistress. ‘The many women who are wounded by the continual public use of women’s bodies today diagnose correctly that women are thereby reduced to objects of desire.’ But: ‘To condemn altogether the applied erotic power of the female body entails denying an aspect of the human condition; the task we have to take up, as women who inhabit these centres of energy and as men who respond to their charge, is how to tap it and make it fructify.’ So that’s the task, as you glance at page three of the Sun: fructification rather than reification. Marina Warner’s style is not at its best in such contexts, as if she felt she had to make the proper noises but lacked conviction. Her use of that fatal convenience-word ‘reify’ (ask the kulaks who reifies more than the Marxists do) may leave her temporarily stranded in the land of jargon and dogma, but at the next moment she is back in the true world of art, and expounding with wonderful vigour and insight the symbolism of the slipped chiton, the sieve of Tuccia, or the patrilineal goddess Athena, whose breast wears the aegis of the Gorgon’s head, that dread representation, for Freud, of the maternal genitals.

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