Contents Index

Resurrection of the Fetish in Gradiva, Frankenstein, and Wuthering Heights

Judith Pike

In Romantic Women Writers: Voices and Countervoices, ed. Paula R. Feldman and Theresa M. Kelley (Hanover: Univ. Press of New England, 1995), pp. 150-58


In his reading of the photograph as a fetish, Christian Metz says that the photo allows for the "possibility of a lingering look," which is not possible in film because of its continuous movement.1 While the use of a close-up shot by some cinematographers or video's capacity to still a single frame allows for that extended gaze, what is perhaps more essential to the fetish is less the "lingering look" than the inanimate quality of the fetish.2 Motion pictures may have revivified the image in a way not possible for photography or for any of the visual arts, but this very animation at the same time dispossessed the spectator of a certain voyeuristic pleasure. The fetish, as Parveen Adams notes, "has the qualities of suspense, the frozen, arrested quality of a photograph, the something fixed to which the subject constantly returns 'to exorcise the dangerous consequences of movement.'"3 However, when that movement cannot be exorcised and the inanimate quality of the fetish is threatened and it acquires a most unexpected mobility, there is often a radical transformation in which the fetish is no longer viewed as an object of pleasure but rather is perceived as something unsettling or even abject.

Unlike the myth of Galatea and Pygmalion, in which animation rendered the object more alluring, other literary works have shown us that animation profoundly threatens the viability of the fetish. Freud's reading of Gradiva provides the theoretical framework to analyze the dread provoked by the revivification of the fetish, but Romantic literature had {151} already introduced us to the problematic of the fetish through the writings of Mary Shelley and Brontë. And in Frankenstein we witness one of literature's most dramatic portrayals of the threat of revivification when Victor Frankenstein's prized object attains "the dangerous consequences of movement."4 Thereafter, the majority of the novel describes Frankenstein's relentless pursuit of his creature to arrest that very movement. Wuthering Heights offers us another example of the revivification of the fetish in the scene of Lockwood's nightmare of the ghost/corpse at the window. Brontë's novel ultimately exposes the fetish of the female corpse, which has an entire literary and cultural heritage as a perverse fantasy that represses the dread of the unsublimated dead/female body. Both Shelley and Brontë offer us a powerful cultural critique of Western civilization's fetishization of the dead body, in particular the dead female body. Yet it is not the corpse alone that the fetish seeks to repudiate, but as we shall see in Freud's analysis of Gradiva it is often the fully animated female body that generates the fantasy of the body arrested in suspended animation.

While the inanimate quality of the fetish is essential, Adams also notes that there can he "live" fetishes, in which the body is frozen in suspense. She takes the example of Masoch's Venus in Furs, in which the female protagonist is transformed into a live fetish by assuming the various poses of a statue, a photo, or a painting, which "capture the gesture midway and this is the moment of suspense" (252). Freud's study "Delusions and Dreams in Jensen's Gradiva" (1907) offers us another provocative example of the essential relation between the fetish and arrested movement. In Jensen's novel (1903), an ancient Roman bas-relief, which captures the suspended gesture of a young woman walking, overpowers the imagination of a young archeologist, Norbert Hanold. The young archaeologist becomes so fixated with the image of the girl's feet that he has a plaster replica made, but the central conflict in Jensen's novel arises with the archaeologist's search for a live "Gradiva." Once he discovers an animate "Gradiva," the woman provokes profound ambivalence rather than pleasure and threatens the viability of this fetish. Freud relates how, although there was a great urge to touch his live "Gradiva" to ensure that she was not a mere delusion, "an equally strong reluctance held him back even from the very idea."5 Though Freud suggests that Hanold's reluctance was grounded in the fear that he suffered from delusions, a more critical reading of this scene reveals that a greater anxiety arose from the possible discovery that this woman was indeed far too real. Freud's failure to read this scene more critically might in part be due to the fact that, at this point in his career, he had not as yet worked {152} out a thorough study of the fetish and was more concerned with an analysis of dreams and delusions. Before the publication of "Delusions and Dreams," Freud had developed only a preliminary notion of the fetish in "Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality" (1905), in which he simply discusses the issue of overvaluation and substitution of the fetish for the original or "normal" sexual object. This very early concept of the fetish, which makes no mention of the role of ambivalence, is completely consistent with his reading of fetishism in "Delusions and Dreams." However, ten years later, in "Repression" (1915), Freud introduces the idea of a splitting of the "instinctual representative," which in "Fetishism" (1927) is more fully developed and is shown to relate to the element of ambivalence operational in the fetish.

In "Delusions and Dreams" we see ambivalence operating most dramatically when the young archaeologist uses the pretext of a pestering housefly to plant "a vigorous slap" (9:27) upon Zoe, his new found "Gradiva," to test her physical reality. Twenty years later the significance of this slap comes to light when, in "Fetishism," Freud explains that the fetishist's relation to his prized object not only stimulates pleasure, erotic or otherwise, but it can also generate a certain amount of displeasure. For while the fetish functions as a means of disavowing lack (for Freud, maternal castration), the fetish also simultaneously becomes a marker of that lack, a kind of psychic tombstone. Thus, one's pleasure is always tinged with potential disgust or ambivalence; the experience of one's "special" object is always threatened by the recognition that it also functions as a signifier of a lack. Freud describes how this oscillation between disavowal and affirmation of lack is played out in the fetishist's radical shifting from adoration to abuse of that object: "the divided attitude shows itself in what the fetishist does with his fetish, whether in reality or in his imagination. To point out that he reveres his fetish is not the whole story; in many cases he treats it in a way which is obviously equivalent to a representation of castration" (21:157). Without the knowledge of his later work, Freud misses a crucial element when he interprets Hanold's slap as an affectionate gesture, arguing that in childhood he would do a little "bumping and thumping" (9:31) with his little playmate Zoe. Yet in the end he acts very much in the way Freud later describes the fetishist's abuse of his revered object.6

While animation threatens the viability of the fetish, there is also a moment in the text when there is the possibility of its restitution. Hanold asks Zoe to lie down and assume the frozen pose of a relief; looking "as peaceful and beautiful as marble," Zoe has become Gradiva (9:62). Immobile, asleep, without the possibility of an exchange of the gaze and {153} without subjectivity, Zoe can restore the power of the fetish. Yet in the end, Hanold gives up the fetish for romantic love, which for Freud marks Hanold's cure, for he has rediscovered "normal" erotic urges. While the return to life of the fetish as a tableau vivant was threatening, Freud suggests that the "triumph of love" (9:40) has the power to dismantle that threat or at least sublimate it through the discourse of romantic love.7 However, without the philter of romantic love, the resurrection of the fetish becomes a menacing object that must be destroyed.

The Resurrected: Nights of the Living Dead

Were we to take this fetishistic intrigue with the frozen poses of the body one step further, we might begin to see why the figure of the human corpse has become such an alluring fetish throughout the history of both literature and the visual arts. Although most fetishes are but part objects -- Gradiva's foot, the saint's finger, the Host, or swatch of blue velvet -- the fetish of the exquisite corpse presents itself as a complete and more integral body, which more effectively allows for the repudiation of castration/lack.8 Thus, this fetish can conceal its metonymical status more convincingly than can any part object. Yet while the fetish of human corpse has an uncanny allure, it also has the potential to be a most powerful threat; whereas the exquisite corpse resting serenely on its deathbed evokes pleasure in the spectator, the reanimated corpse awakens a powerful dread that brandishes itself in our psyches.

Mary Shelley captures this dread when she resurrects her Monster and transforms the exquisite corpse of the eighteenth century into a menacing sublime corpse that resists fetishization.9 By setting her novel in the eighteenth century, Shelley not only distances herself from earlier Gothic novels set in medieval landscapes, but she also calls into question the aesthetic category of the sublime that was at the heart of both eighteenth-century aesthetics and Romanticism. While both Burke and Kant investigate the aesthetic potential of the terrifying and destructive faculty of the sublime, Shelley explores more fully its transgressive potential.

Burke argues that the sublime "is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror" but that there remains a certain aesthetic distance from that terror.10 "When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight [emphasis added]11, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful" (36). Although Burke repeatedly stresses that terror and danger are essential components of the {154} sublime experience, terror ultimately must be held in abeyance. For Kant, the danger evoked by the sublime moment is to a far more radical degree sublimated by the "supersensible faculty" of reason, which elevates our imagination to a higher faculty in a transcendent moment and again ensures an aesthetic distance. What is so original about Shelley's text is that it presents us with two very different representations of the sublime. In her descriptions of Frankenstein's treks through Chamonix and the French Alps, we find a portrayal of the sublime experience consistent with Kant's transcendental notion of the sublime. Frankenstein describes how the "sublime and magnificent scenes" elevated him "from the littleness of feeling" to some higher faculty (92) and how "the sight of the awful and majestic in nature had indeed always the effect of solemnizing my mind" (93). For Frankenstein these sublime moments, though "awful" or terrible at first, have a recuperative potential that allows for aesthetic distance and even tranquility.

In contrast to this more conventional portrait of the sublime, Shelley offers us the experience of the sublime body, which is far more transgressive and does not allow Frankenstein "the effect of solemnizing" his mind. Moreover, Shelley's invention of this sublime body inaugurates a profound break from another eighteenth-century aesthetic, that of the romantic cult of mourning and the fetishization of the dead body. Frankenstein presents us with a critical reading of the romanticization of the dead body as a perverse male fantasy that produces sublime corpses rather than exquisite ones.

Laboring in the "unhallowed damps of the grave" (53), Frankenstein was on his way to creating an exquisite corpse that befits what Philippe Ariès calls "the Age of the Beautiful Death" (409-74). Frankenstein even describes how he had chosen the finest body parts, though oversized, to create a stunning new species of men. Before its animation, this creation was not only nonthreatening but was looked upon as a specimen of beauty, an exquisite corpse(s):12 "His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful" (56). Yet while hovering over this creature, ready to "infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing," the doctor was filled with dread (56). Inanimate, it was beautiful; endowed with life, it became monstrous and inspired a sublime terror devoid of the aesthetic distance envisioned by the Enlightenment. This sublime corpse evoked a sublimity that would offer none of the recuperative powers found in the sublimity of the Alpine vistas; for the rest of the novel Frankenstein struggles, fruitlessly, "to exorcise the dangerous consequences of movement" that had transfigured his exquisite specimen into a sublime corpse. Yet the more Frankenstein attempts to exorcise this {155} movement, the more excessive and even compulsive it becomes; the Monster's superhuman ability to traverse space accentuates this compulsive movement.

The creature is horrifying not only in the animation of his limbs, hut also in the movement of his "dull yellow eye": "It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burned out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open" (56). Although both Metz and Adams focus on the agency of movement and its relation to the constitution of the fetish, movement is not the only threat to the fetishist's pleasure; there is also the threat of the visual. In Freud's account of fetishism, the visual plays the most crucial role. The moment the child catches view of the dread scene, his vision is arrested; the fetish then steps in to erase that moment by trying to freeze the moment before the dreaded sight. Sight, then, is the agency that causes such dread, yet it is also through sights, through another look, that the fetish can be constituted.

In Shelley's text, the visual dimension is further complicated by the opacity of the creature's gaze. Bearing no reflection, this "dull yellow eye" returns a blank, "castrating" gaze that resists identification. Later Frankenstein is awakened from a nightmare "by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters" (57); the yellow eye has been transformed into a phantasmagoric gaze of the moon, redoubled by the creature's actual gaze above his bed. By the end of this passage, Frankenstein has mentally transformed his creature into a "demoniacal corpse" even though it has done nothing more than look upon its creator, perhaps with the wonder of a child and no more. And in the next passage the creature is no longer referred to as either a "demoniacal corpse" or as "the wretch," but as a Thing: "it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived" (57). One cannot help but notice that this final twist comes in the aftermath of Frankenstein's dream of his dead mother: just as he kisses his beloved Elizabeth, she turns into his mother's putrefied corpse. Once again Shelley presents us with a critical response to the idealization and fetishization of the exquisite corpse: for Frankenstein's nightmarish vision of the maternal Thing ultimately becomes transfigured into that nameless wretch from which he flees.

As Freud has noted, that which has been repressed becomes repeated. The attempt to exclude or repress the maternal is exemplified by the creation of a being through the male birth of science. Unlike his later work, which was based on a purely masculine model of science, Franken- {156} stein began his studies by reading the works of the alchemists Cornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus. Evelyn Fox Keller writes that Paracelsus's science includes both the maternal and the feminine: "Indeed, the hermaphrodite and the marital couple provide the basic images of the writings and iconography that the alchemists left behind. In depicting hermaphroditic union, sexual union, or simply the collaborative effort of man and woman, their graphic images represent the conjunction, or marriage, of male and female principles that was central to hermetic philosophy."13 When Frankenstein entered the university, he studied mainstream scientific academia and "attended the lectures and cultivated the acquaintance of the men of science of the university" (49). It is in this setting that he abandons his alchemical studies along with the feminine and the maternal; the latter, of course, survive to haunt Frankenstein's dreams.

The fact that the repressed returns is perhaps less interesting than the form that this return takes. For Lacan, the return of the repressed figures as the automaton. Whereas Lacan refers to the automaton as the insistence of the sign, we might also read Shelley's Monster as a kind of automaton that embodies this insistence in his compulsive pursuit of Frankenstein. The association between the Monster and an automaton may be a convenient one, but it may also be one that Shelley herself had thought of while conceiving of her creature. By the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, when Shelley was writing, the very same experiments in science and technology that launched the industrial revolution were producing a proliferation of toy automata. Only two years prior to writing her novel, Shelley saw the highly notarized exhibit of Swiss horologist Jacquet-Droz's automata, a mechanized human figure called "The Scribe," at an exhibit in Neuchâtel.14 But while Shelley's own "automaton" has certain sociohistorical roots, I find that the figure of the automaton plays an even stronger role in terms of the automation of the psyche, as demonstrated by the return of the repressed. For in Frankenstein what is repressed by the young scientist reappears as the compulsive drive and libido of his creature.

In his discussion of the automaton, Lacan goes one step further and asserts that beyond this automaton there is another more terrifying encounter -- with the real: "The real is beyond the automaton, the return, the coming-back, the insistence of the signs, by which we see ourselves governed by the pleasure principle. The real is that which always lies behind the automaton, and it is quite obvious, throughout Freud's research, that it is this that is the object of his concern."15 Lacan points out, however, that this encounter with the real is always a missed encoun- {157} ter and one that is inassimilable in our waking life (55). Dreams offer a mere glimpse of this encounter: "Is not the dream essentially, one might say, an act of homage to the missed reality -- the reality that can no longer produce itself except by repeating itself endlessly, in some never attained awakening?" (58). Although Frankenstein calls his creature a Thing, his dream reveals that there is a far more traumatic Thing -- the encounter with the real of the maternal body, which is experienced in his dream as a traumatic vision of incest and necrophilia. If, as Lacan argues, we experience the real as a missed encounter, then dreams, like literature, allow for the possibility of that encounter to take place in our waking life.

While the scientist's fetishistic hunt through charnel houses for the perfect body parts promises an exquisite corpse, this quest is quickly exposed as a monstrous male fantasy. At the time Shelley was writing, the prevailing representation of death was epitomized by beatific death scenes, which, as Ann Douglas notes, domesticated the dead by sentimentalizing and immortalizing them.16 An entire industry and ideology of death had emerged with the cult of mourning: there was a mass proliferation of mourning portraits and consolation literature, and the rural cemetery movement was on the rise.17 The grotesque dead body and the charnel houses of former times, which portrayed death too vividly, were replaced by romantic and sentimentalized images of the spiritualized "dearly departed" and by rural cemeteries that mistook themselves for pantheistic landscapes.18 We see one instance of this sentimental portrait of death in a scene where Clerval tries to console Frankenstein after William's death. "'Dear lovely child, he now sleeps with his angel mother!'" (71). He is not a corpse but a "gentle form" that will be put to rest in Nature's bosom. Shelley debunks this conventionalized portrayal of death and the cult of mourning by presenting the reader with the terror of the unsublimated dead body. Although both the dream of the putrefied maternal body and the description of the Monster's "shriveled complexion and straight black lips" (56) offer compelling portraits of the unsublimated dead body, perhaps the most dramatic example of Shelley's dismantling of the fantasy/fetish of the exquisite corpse is the creation of the Monster's female counterpart: the monster's own fantasy of a compatible female "exquisite" corpse turns into a brutal atrocity when Frankenstein, in a wild fury, dismembers the half-finished body and leaves its remains scattered on the floor. Some thirty years after Shelley wrote Frankenstein, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights challenged Western culture's fetishization of the dead body. Brontë's novel, however, begins not with the promise of an exquisite corpse but with the traumatic encounter with the real dead body represented by Lockwood's dream of the corpse at the {158} window. The rest of the story, I would argue, is an attempt to repress this event by embedding in the text a new narrative, which exorcises the horrific body of the specter through a tale of romantic love. Once again, we discover that it is through the guise of romantic love that the indecent female dead body can be transformed into the fantasy of the exquisite corpse.

However, although Brontë incorporates this rhetoric of romantic love into her novel, she also presents a critical reading of romantic love. Her critique is most powerfully exemplified by Lockwood, a rather inept and squeamish romantic whose fantasy of the exquisite corpse is revealed as precisely that, a fantasy. Brontë demonstrates that this fantasy is not just the product of the naive romantic but that it is deeply embedded in the cultural imagination; even her other, less naive characters, such as Heathcliff and Nelly, recreate this fantasy as a means to repress the dread of the female corpse.

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1. Christian Metz, "Photography and Fetish," October 34 (1985): 81.

2. The focus on the inanimate quality of the fetish is not, of course, limited to modern or contemporary thought but rather refers to its original Western African cultural context, where the privileging of inanimate objects, invested with a supernatural "charm," gave rise to the cult of fetishism. Charles de Brosses, an eighteenth-century anthropologist, was one of the early Westerners whose research on the fetish brought the term into currency for the West. See Charles de Brosses's Le culte des dieux fétishes (1760; reprint Famborough, England: Gregg International, 1972).

3. Parveen Adams, "Of Female Bondage," in Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis, ed. Teresa Brennan (London: Routledge, 1988), 252.

4. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (New York: Signet, 1963), 92. All subsequent parenthetical references are to page numbers in this edition.

5. Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans. and ed. James Strachey et al., 24 vols. (London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74), 9:23. All subsequent references are to this edition and will be given parenthetically in the text.

6. Hanold's vehement response also relates to his repugnance to houseflies, described earlier in the text, when he came to equate these insects with all the honeymooning couples infesting Italian cities.

7. I would also suggest that if we read Freud's analysis of Jensen's text nachträglich, through his later texts "Fetishism" and Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), we would discover that it is not so much, as Freud argues, that the patient is cured but rather that the fetish is "cured" of its pathological status and legitimized by romantic love. Hanold could still relish his plaster replica of Gradiva, only now it would be interpreted as a tribute to romantic love rather than as a signifier of a particular pathology.

8. I use the term exquisite corpse to describe the idealization of the dead body as it appears in both literature and art, especially during the eighteenth century and nineteenth century as part of the cult of mourning. For a historical overview of the cult of mourning, see Philippe Ariès's The Hour of Our Death, trans. Helen Weaver (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981), 508-13, and Ann Douglas's The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Avon, 1977), 240-72.

9. Here, I am using sublime in a dual sense to portray two very different aspects of this figure of the dead body. In its first sense, sublime is used more conventionally to denote the aesthetic category as outlined by Burke and Kant. Second, I am referring to the Lacanian concept of the sublime body, which is a secondary or "surplus" body existing beyond the natural one; it is an imaginary and indestructible body, perpetually capable of resurrection. See Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989),131-49.

10. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, ed. Adams Phillips (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 36.

11. Burke draws a distinction between "delight," which is the painful pleasure aroused by the sublime experience, and "positive pleasure," which the beautiful inspires. "I say, delight because as I have often remarked, it is very evidently different in its cause, and its own nature, from actual and positive pleasure" (ibid., 122).

12. Although the monster is not an intact corpse but rather a fragmented body composed of many corpses, it functions on an imaginary level as an exquisite corpse.

13 Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985), 48.

14. See Phil Berger, The State-of-the-Art Robot Catalog (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1984), 20. For a concise study of the early history of automata, see John Cohen's Human Robots in Myth and Science (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1967). See also Jean-Claude Beaune's "The Classical Age of Automata: An Impressionistic Survey from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Century" in Fragments for a History of the Human Body ed. Michel Feher (New York: Urzone, 1989), 430-80.

15. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 53-54.

16. See Douglas, Feminization, chap. 6.

17. Although the cult of mourning was instrumental in the expansion and development of the popularity of garden cemeteries, the rural cemetery movement was actually prompted by the deterioration and overcrowding of urban cemeteries, which led to severe sanitation problems that were affecting public hygiene.

18. For a thorough discussion and historical account of the rise of the rural cemetery movement, see Richard A. Etlin's The Architecture of Death: The Transformation of the Cemetery in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1984). For a general survey on the ideological shift in cultural representations of death from the early eighteenth century to Romanticism, see Philippe Ariès, Western Attitudes Towards Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present, trans. Patricia M. Ranum (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974).