"Gradiva," Andre Msson, 1939

From "Gradiva"

Posted on: Sun, 2014-05-18 01:40   By: glue

            Cavell's update of Plato's allegory from the Socratic dialogue to the film comedy of remarriage offers a convenient transition for our assignment-- an equivalent of the Republic, outlining an electrate relation among education, justice, and the city. The transitional figure is Sigmund Freud, whom Cavell includes in his review of the philosophical tradition contributing to moral perfectionism.  Cavell's insight into this continuity is based on Freud's appropriation of a novel--Gradiva, by Wilhelm Jensen--as an allegory of the analytic method of therapy.  Cavell recognizes in the theme and plot of the novel the features of the remarriage comedy.  Freud's study of the novel was his first discussion of a literary work.  The protagonist, a young archeologist (Norbert Hanold), "who had surrendered his interest in life," in Freud's paraphrase, referring to his aversion to sexuality and incapacity for love, "in exchange for an interest in the remains of classical antiquity and how he is brought back to real life by a roundabout path," a path devised by a girl from his childhood, whom he meets again while visiting the ruins of Pompeii.  The story is summarized in an abstract:  

A young archaeologist had discovered in a museum of antiquities in Rome a relief which attracted him.  He obtained a plaster cast of it.  The sculpture represented a fully grown girl stepping along, with her flowing dress a little pulled up so as to reveal her sandaled feet.  The interest taken by the hero of the story in this relief is the basic psychological fact in the narrative. As an outcome of studies, he was forced to the conclusion that Gradiva's gait was not discoverable in reality; and this filled him with regret and vexation.  Soon afterwards he had a terrifying dream, in which he found himself in ancient Pompeii on the day of the eruption of Vesuvius and witnessed the city's destruction.  Gradiva disappeared and the hero searched for her.  She appeared to come to life in someone else's body.  Hanold met her, Zeo Bertgang, and they went away together.  With the triumph of love, what was beautiful and precious in the delusion found recognition as well.  In his last simile, however, of the childhood friend who had been dug out of the ruins, Jensen presented the key to the symbolism of which the hero's delusion made use in disguising his repressed memory.

(Abstracts of the Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of  Sigmund Freud, International Universities Press, New York, 1973: 187).

                  Cavell reviews the terms of the analogy of the novel with psychoanalytic therapy, observing that Norbert is the patient, showing that his delusion, "is the state of every human being before discovering the truth or reality of his own experience, namely that it is a life-and-death struggle with unconsciousness, that its unawareness of what it is expressing at every moment, despite itself, is a kind of delusion.  But a delusion is 'essentially' how Plato in the Republic pictures everyday (or 'ordinary') experience in the Allegory of the Cave" (Cavell, 292).  The role of a work of art as mediator or go-between is relevant.  The bas-relief sculpture referenced in the fiction is actual, named "Gradiva" ("she who walks") after the Roman god of war striding into battle.  This relay was central also in Proust, the character Swann finally falling in love with the courtesan Odette when he recognizes in her face the features of a painting he admired, Botticelli's Zipporah, Jethro's daughter. All the registers of the popcycle are in play in the narrative:  Family (the repressed childhood experience with Zoe); Mythology (Gradiva story); History (Pompeii); Career: Archaeology.

                  Because of Freud's attention to Jensen's novel, the Gradiva figure became iconic for Surrealist artists, including Salvador Dali, Andre Breton, Andre Masson, and Michel Leiris, among others.  That Cavell's connection falls on the side of literacy, identifying psychoanalysis as transistioning to a new occupation of the educational conversation, may be seen in what Andre Masson does with the Gradiva icon. The surrealists picked up on the central (fetishistic) detail that fascinated the protagonist in the sculpture, "with her strange walk, one foot held almost perpendicular to the ground." Masson, however, makes explicit the dimension of desire addressed in electrate metaphysics. "The artist transforms this scene [at Pompeii] into an evocation of unbridled libidinal force.  The Pygmalion-like motif of stone becoming flesh is here metaphorically extended so that Gradiva's torso becomes a raw steak, while her vagina turns into a gaping shell.  A swarm of bees suggests an ambiguous honey sweetness seeping from this half-rotten body" (Jennifer Mundy, Ed., Surrealism: Desire Unbound, Princeton, 2001: 64).