REASON ASLEEP
 
HENRY FUSELI, THE NIGHTMARE, 1781
(Detroit Institute of Arts)
 
 
   
 
    ‘Age of Reason,’ my ass.

    Those were the first words I jotted down in my notebook as I studied Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare, one of the crown jewels in the surprisingly impressive collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

    No historical or artistic era–no individual, for that matter–can be satisfactorily captured in a label. The Enlightenment; the Age of Reason. "What is Enlightenment?" Immanuel Kant asked in an essay of 1784 and, like any good Philosophy professor, promptly answered himself: "Enlightenment is man’s leaving his self-caused immaturity. Immaturity is the incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another... Have the courage to use your own intelligence! is therefore the motto of the enlightenment."1 This is the voice of an intellectual greeting the morning of modernity. It is the spirit of Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, Jefferson, Paine. We are reminded that the eighteenth century gave us the Encyclopédie, the Declarations of Independence and the Rights of Man, the symphonies of Mozart and the poetry of Pope. But all of this Enlightenment should not blind us to the deep shadows in the century’s sunlight. As Dickens told us 150 years ago, it was both the best of times and the worst of times (Dickens was also savvy enough to realize that this is true of all ages). The century that celebrated pastoral beauty in grand landscape gardens also produced the concept of the terrifying Sublime. The century in which George Washington left power voluntarily and warned his countrymen against "foreign entanglements" was also an era of rampant imperialism and legalized slavery. The age that idolized Voltaire and Rousseau also provoked the tedious philoso-porn of the Marquis de Sade.

    Classically-minded artists of the later eighteenth century prided themselves on their ability to draw lines. A strong, linear style even acquired moral and political implications, connoting Republican rectitude in contrast to the sensual, painterly colors of ancien régime Rococo. An artist must first of all draw lines, separating inside from outside, form from space. In art as in life, boundaries became the basis of order. A similar impulse leads writers on art to draw arbitrary lines among the cultural products of the 1700's. Works as different as Candide, Johnson’s Dictionary, Fragonard’s The Swing, and David’s Oath of the Horatii are placed on one side of the line: they are firmly of their century; they define the era. Other works from the same years–Piranesi’s Carceri, the poems of Christopher Smart and William Blake, The Castle of Otranto, Fuseli’s The Nightmare–are arbitrarily excised from their own time and labeled ‘proto-Romantic,’ as if they can only be understood in light of what came later, as if they belong to a different, less rational age and are–absurdly–not really products of the sensible century that produced them. This attitude slights the complexity of the eighteenth century in the same way that Goethe’s oft-quoted pronouncement that Classicism is health and Romanticism disease slights the complexity of both artistic tendencies. There is no need for art critics and historians to follow the hard party line of nineteenth-century artistic conservatives and separate all of art history into opposing schools of Classical sobriety and Romantic excess. If we could see the eighteenth century whole, we might conclude that Romanticism is not Classicism’s diabolical brother, but its dialectical child, that nineteenth-century Romanticism results from a synthesis, an interpenetration, of the dark and light sides of the previous century.

    On one level, Fuseli’s Nightmare is an allegory of this interpenetration. The two monsters are clearly denizens of the dark side, grotesque intruders from the irrational, pre-Enlightenment world of folk tales and demonology. The creature that crouches on the woman’s abdomen and strikes a pose strangely reminiscent of Rodin’s Thinker can be identified as an incubus, a demon who has sex with women in their sleep. The horse, in some ways an even weirder creature with its pointed ears and bulging white eyes, is the literal Night Mare that "rides upon sleep" through a late poem of Yeats. Their female victim, however, comes from the lighter side of the eighteenth-century mind. Looking at her, we are immediately reminded that before Fuseli painted The Nightmare he spent a decade in Rome, where he produced (among much else) a drawing that is a virtual manifesto of Neoclassical sensibility, The Artist Moved by the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins: an artist sits before the gigantic, fragmented hand and foot of an ancient colossus; with one hand the artist supports his bowed, overwhelmed head, while his other hand reaches out to touch (or caress) the marble surface of that great foot. (Like The Nightmare, this image approaches silliness, but doesn’t quite cross the line.) If The Artist Moved... is an image of the Neoclassical Sublime, the woman in The Nightmare is a Classicistic demonstration piece. Fuseli seems to be using her form to show the English public all that he learned during his Roman sojourn. Her clinging gown, as white as ancient marble, recalls the ‘wet’ drapery of Classical statues. Her left arm, hanging limply down, suggests the limp arms of dead heroes on Roman sarcophagi as well as the arm of the dead Christ in Raphael’s Entombment. The other arm and the position of the head are directly quoted from Michelangelo’s Dying Slave, where they represent sublime transport, the gentle release of the soul in death. (Kenneth Clark in The Nude traces this arm-bent-behind-the-head gesture to ancient Greek representations of a dying Niobid agonizingly reaching behind her back to extract Apollo’s fatal arrow.) The relative positions of the sleeper’s legs also seem to be borrowed from the Dying Slave–rotated, of course, from a standing to a reclining position–while her elegantly elongated proportions derive from Michelangelo’s Mannerist followers. Even the dramatic lighting of the woman’s form and her curtained, theatrical setting look backward to the Caravaggist Roman Baroque rather than forward to moody Romantic artifice. Indeed, the only thing vaguely Romantic about this work is the aesthetic collision it enacts between a classically-derived figure and two representatives of the fantastically unreal. The eventual fusion of these two tendencies would create Romanticism, but in Fuseli’s painting they still exist on different levels. The marriage has not been consummated. We are not Romantic yet.

    To see The Nightmare as a Romantic image is not only anachronistic; it is a stumbling block to understanding the painting’s truly disturbing power. If we want to know why the work is fascinating and unsettling rather than ludicrous and cartoonish, we must move beyond questions of Romanticism and Classicism, because these concepts reinforce a misleading hierarchy of reality. The woman, because classically derived and human, is seen as implicitly more ‘real’ than the creatures. But when speaking of a painting (especially this painting) ‘real’ is an essentially meaningless word. All three characters are figures of fantasy, all three are equally unreal, and only when the woman is so recognized do we begin to appreciate the profound perversity of the painting. We must see the woman as a constructed thing, and we must understand exactly what she has been constructed for.

    As we have seen, Fuseli builds her out of approved Classical/Renaissance parts, but he builds her for a use no puritanical classicist could possibly approve. While her upper body, derived from images strongly associated with death, hangs flaccidly over the edge of the bed, her lower body is surprisingly tense and active. Look at the small, triangular area of black between her back and the top of the bed. Her back is powerfully, even orgasmically, arched; instead of being weighed down by the incubus, her body lifts the creature into the air. Note also the position of her foot: dramatically lighted against a very dark passage, it is held straight out, continuing the line of her leg in a position of maximum tension, like a ballet dancer on point. Above the shoulders, this woman is completely passive, her head–the seat of reason–turned upside down; the rest of her body is powerfully active, and the position of the incubus, with his shadow cast between her thighs, tells us that the body’s excitement is intensely sexual. Fuseli has designed this woman to be violated in her sleep. The head that would refuse is rendered unconscious; the arms that would resist are bent back. She is built for rape. This is what really disturbs us about The Nightmare: not those hobgoblins from a scary children’s story, but this woman who has been carefully and elaborately designed to embody a rape fantasy. And that is far from the end of this painting’s perversity. Since the iconography of her upper body connotes death (remove the monsters and lessen the bodily tension, and you have a perfectly acceptable Neoclassical death scene), the rape fantasy is spiced with a touch of necrophilia. In Sexual Personae Camille Paglia comically laments that "necrophilia has gone out of fashion"2 in art. In life it is probably a more common desire–and act–than anyone would care to admit. Herodotus tells us that in ancient Egypt, upon the death of "any woman who happens to be beautiful or well-known, her body is not given to the embalmers immediately, but only after the lapse of three or four days. This is a precautionary measure to prevent the embalmers from violating the corpse..."3 Regardless of the accuracy of Herodotus’s statement, the fact that he even mentions such a thing tells us that the ancient world had a considerably broader understanding of human perversity than we. No one in contemporary America wants to think or speak of necrophilia, but surely we don’t imagine it doesn’t exist. In our age as in Fuseli’s, it is one of those unspeakable things, one of our nightmares, one of the monsters in our cultural closet. This suggestion of necrophilia further darkens the meaning of The Nightmare, transforming an already disturbing rape fantasy into one of eroticized murder.

    Interestingly, such a reading might lend credence to a popular legend of the painting. The story told by tour guides (usually a sure sign of apocrypha) is that Fuseli was frustrated in his desire to wed a young woman, and by giving the sleeper in The Nightmare this woman’s features he was able to possess her by proxy. This is a crude reading of art from life that ignores the stylization of the work and suggests that the incubus is nothing more than a hirsute stand-in for the artist. But if we decide to accept the story (it is, after all, as credible as many tales told by Vasari, and perhaps more accurate), the combination of Fuseli’s sexual frustration and the painting as a substitute consummation may help explain the extremity of the image. Since Fuseli can no longer possess this woman in reality, her body ceases to be a subject of love and becomes an object of vengeance. If he must rape her to have her, he will rape her in his imagination, and this will be reflected on the canvas; if he must kill her, he will portray her in an attitude of Classical death. Maybe this painting can only be fully appreciated as an expression of violent sexual revenge, a fantasy of rape and murder created by a man scorned. It is an extremely nasty work, and if one stands in front of it for a long time, the enlightened eighteenth century begins to appear very dark indeed.

    To call this Fuselian creation a ‘male’ fantasy, as some feminists will predictably do, is both to slander half of the human race and to suggest that pathological psychologies are unknown among lesbians. The desires that inform The Nightmare (appropriate title, indeed!) are neither widespread nor completely outlandish. They are products of the dark side of the human mind, and if we are to be good classical humanists and say that nothing human is alien to us, we cannot restrict the ‘human’ to what is moral, legal or socially approved. As Fuseli’s less talented contemporary the Marquis de Sade knew, human beings can be the true monsters of this world, and the only real demons reside in the sadistic human brain.

    And wherever we find sadism, we can often discover masochism lurking nearby. Perhaps the strangest aspect of this painting is the incubus’s weird, accusing stare. The woman’s eyes are closed, the horses eyes are as sightless as stone, like two glowing rocks set into the eyesockets (for a Night Mare, inner vision is more important), so the only functional eyes in the painting are aimed directly at us–and even more directly at the work’s first viewer, the artist. Maybe this is a bit of self-flagellation on Fuseli’s part. He indulges in a vicious fantasy and then creates a being to accuse him of it. Masochistic guilt might be the final perverse turn of this painting’s screw. When the incubus looks at us, however, the crime is different: voyeurism. The horse that provides the painting’s title is a cruel parody of its viewers: a pop-eyed, open-mouthed voyeur gaping at the woman’s inviting abandon. The incubus is a more controlled figure, and his strong gaze censures ours. We are trespassing on his territory and seeing what should not be seen. To be accused of voyeurism by a demon rapist may be the ultimate pot-and-kettle scenario, but at least voyeurism is a less serious offense than the others implied by the painting, and the demon’s gaze satisfies the viewer’s latent puritanism, the feeling that no pleasure –particularly a sexual one–should go unpunished. Taking this masochism into account, we can understand the painting, finally, as a quintessential eighteenth-century British production, analogous to Watt’s steam engine. The Nightmare is a machine professionally designed to efficiently punish the very transgressions it provokes.
 
 
NOTES

1. Kant, Philosophy of Kant, 132.

2. Paglia, Sexual Personae, 664.

3. Herodotus, Histories, 134.

 

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