Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The falsified self, continued

There are worse jobs: shielded by tree bark from harassment, she is free to be beautiful, intellectual and adorable forever. 
But is she happy?
Mortal anguish made exquisite through artistic metamorphosis:  
detail of Bernini's Apollo and Daphne, Marble, 1622 - 25, Galleria Borghese, Rome.
The transformation of Daphne from chaste nymph into laurel tree is portrayed by both Ovid in poetic form and Bernini in sculpture as a sexual experience, even though it is ostensibly sex that she is running away from. Ovid emphasizes the languor of her surrender to a consummation she has prayed for, the death of carnal existence in exchange for spiritual and cerebral life. Revulsed by the lust her beauty stimulates in other people, perpetually in flight from sexual contact - and Ovid in Metamorphoses constantly reminds us how fast she is, one of those athletic women who outrun men in classical mythology - she is an ethereal, wistful being even before she is changed from human to plant form, a dutiful daughter who doesn't want to grow up and bear children of her own, who slips away from flesh-pains as gently as Sleeping Beauty, acquiescent to her new vocation as a symbol of other people's triumphs, conferring prestige without feelings or sensations of her own. There are worse jobs: protected by bark from sexual harassment, she is allowed to be decorative and intellectual forever. 

The significant point about Ovid's Daphne is that she wants to be changed, though she has no say in how or to what. Bernini's Daphne, pursued by Apollo, is traumatized, less of a conflicted personality than a victim of attempted assault, caught in the moment of violent transition....
This second birth is not the release she wished for; punished for escapist fantasies, she is being re-begot of death. In the horrified expression of her face Bernini interprets her pain as coitus in a masterpiece of tension and illusory movement, uniting eroticism and pathos, speed and emotion, a work of more psychological sensitivity and stylistic restraint than some of his later sculptures. 

Understandably, he is as interested in her young, slim body and limbs and the coils of her hair as in her feelings; the divine perfection of human physical beauty is central to the Daphne myth. The candour and immediacy of Bernini's interpretation is innovatory. In earlier representations, exploration of female passions and individuality are suppressed. In Pollaiuolo's decorative painting, Daphne, fully dressed in 1470s fashion, two branches sticking out of her shoulders like wings hired from a theatrical costumier, looks mildly surprised ("oh, do look - I'm a tree!") while Apollo, racing to catch up, hugs her in congratulation. While Bernini's Daphne is dying dying, prettily, in front of us, she is screaming to her leaf-sprouting fingertips. When we look at her, we are as shocked as Apollo, and, like him, we still desire her as much as we pity her.

I'm a tree!

Apollo and Daphne by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, 1470 -80, 
tempera on wood, National Gallery, London. Image source: Web Gallery of Art.   
In this decorative panel, Daphne is passive, very much Apollo's elusive fantasy figure, strangely detached from her fate. Other works by the same artist show he had genuine technical ability in anatomy and expressions of masculine physical effort; Daphne's feminine crisis evidently did not excite his sympathy, only his sense of humour. She appears as a leafy trophy not displeased to be grabbed by a male high achiever.

"Some day my happy arms will hold you,
And some day I'll know that moment divine,
When all the things you are, are mine!
Oscar Hammerstein II


by Heinrich Keller, 1802