Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic by Elisabeth Bronfen

Bronfen, E. (1992) Over her dead body: Death, femininity, and the aesthetic. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

I found this book to be extremely dense and was surprised to find it on the ‘essential reading’ list for Gesture and Meaning. Phrases like “the ego’s relinquishing of its narcissistic libidinal cathexis” and “non-semiotic materiality and facticity” leave me struggling and I am not sure I fully understood much of what I read.

There are some clues:  “In the previous chapters, I have discussed the way culture employs sacrifice to externalise disruptive forces by turning a ‘victim-body’ into the trope for Otherness.” (227).  I think the book is mainly an exploration of how death and femininity are both major concerns for society and are so often interwined that we have become culturally blind to it. The dead female form is so frequently portrayed that we barely notice it and there has been a tradition of linking death and women aesthetically. Bronfen comments that some accusations of misogyny on this basis are in error:  “..any theoretical insistence on a direct, unambiguous and stable analogy between cultural images and experienced reality defuses both the real violence of political domination and the power of representations.” (59)

Here are some highlights and hopefully a gist of the text…

We experience death by proxy. In the aesthetic enactment, we have a situation impossible in life, namely that we die with another and return to the living.  Even as we are forced to acknowledge the ubiquitous presence of death in life, our belief in our own mortality is confirmed.  There is death, but it is not my own. (page x)

… because the feminine body is culturally constructed as the superlative site of alterity, culture uses art to dream the deaths of beautiful women. (xi)

Because they are so familiar, so evident, we are culturally blind to the ubiquity of representations of feminine death. (3)

Beauty fascinates not only because it is unnatural, but also because it is precarious. (5)

Poe… concludes that ‘obviously’ death is the universally acknowledged superlative of all melancholy topics, and that his melancholy topic is most poetical when it ‘most closely allies itself with Beauty’. (61)

…melancholia is, according to Freud, failed mourning, an inability to accept the death of a desired object. (64)

The lack of boundaries between concepts such as womb, tomb, home is traditionally linked to the analogy between earth and mother, and with it, that of death and birth, or death-conception and birth-resurrection. (65)

…de Beauvoir argues that if in the construction of myths of gender man is the subject, the absolute and Woman the Other, posed by the One to define itself, then Woman ‘seems to be the inessential who never goes back to being the essential, to be the absolute Other, without reciprocity’. Because the concept of alterity is based on ambiguity, Woman incarnates no stable concept. (66)

Woman is culturally constructed as Other to man and as the uncanny site where two opposing values collapse into one, including the ambivalent fact that she serves to articulate that which is exterior to a culture as well as that interiority which is repressed, rejected or foreclosed.  (70)

Modern attitudes toward death are intrinsically connected with notions of individuality and consciousness of self.  Witnessing death affirms a sense of personal individuality in the survivors while society resorts to rituals that imply the refusal to accept mortality. Striking about this late eighteenth-century encoding of death is that is reverses the conventional understanding of death as a state of indifferentiation from which the deceased person’s individuality can be rescued only by virtue of a commemorative effort of her or his survivors. (77)

In D.G Rossetti’s poem ‘The Portrait’ (1870), the painted double of a beautiful dead woman is used as a displaced representation of the viewer’s own mortality, so that a blurring of portrait and self-portrait emerges as yet another semantic instability inherent in the uncanny image. (117)

Mulvey: The image affords pleasure to the scopophilic urge because it allows another body to be used as an object of sexual stimulation through sight and affords pleasure to the narcissistic urge in that the constitution of the ego comes from identification with a seen image. (123)

The artist’s marks and signature bar any relation of verisimilitude, any indication of referential value, as this could be more readily transmitted in photography. In the pose of one between life and death, between mutability and vanishing, disappearance and reappearance, the many traces if effacement she literally embodied are confirmed by the superimposition of one artistic medium on to another, as Siddall’s photographic image disappears into and is resurrected in the paint of Rossetti. (177)

In all societies… the issue of death throws into relief the most important cultural values by which people live their lives and evaluate their experiences. Life becomes transparent against the background of death, and fundamental social and cultural issues are revealed. Richard Huntington and Peter Metcalf. (179)

As Other, Woman serves to define the self, and the lack or excess that is located in the Other functions as an exteriorisation of the self, in respect to both gender and death. Woman comes to represent the margins or extremes of the norm – the extremely good, pure and helpless, or the extremely dangerous, chaotic and seductive.  (de Beauvoir) (181)

Sander Gilman points out that stereotypes ate crude representations of difference, which structure the world and localise anxiety at the body of another, at the site of the alterity, as proof that what one fears or what one glorifies does not lie within. To produce stereotypes is concomitant with individualisation, allowing the developing self to distinguish itself from the world and to separate the good from bad within, as well as undertaking a division of the outside world by translating it into objects of love and hate. These objects function as reflections or distortions of the self. Signifying that which eludes the order of the self, because it is lacking or excessive, the stereotypes of the Other is used to control the ambivalent and to create boundaries.  Stereotypes are a way of dealing with the instabilities arising from the division between self and non-self by preserving an illusion of control and order. (182)

Both femininity and death inspire the fear of an ultimate loss of control, of a disruption of boundaries between self and Other, of a dissolution of an ordered and hierarchical world. (182)

Shoshana Felman suggests that femininity should not be conceived as the opposite of masculinity, the lack and negative reflection safely positioned outside. Femininity should be conceived as masculinity’s uncanny difference from itself. (189)

Woman and death are considered to be the two ‘unrepresentable’ things and yet they are ubiquitously present ‘allegorically’ in western representations as precisely such a limit and excess. (205)

Three types of femininity presided over the literary imagination of the nineteenth century: firstly, the diabolical outcast, the destructive, fatal demon woman, secondly, the domestic ‘angel of the house’, the saintly, self-sacrificing frail vessel, and thirdly a particular version of Mary Magdalene, as the penitent and redeemed sexually vain and dangerous woman, the fallen woman.  It is significant, however, that the feminine perfection, excess because it lies beyond the human, and its counterpart, the feminine monster, excess in that it falls short of the cultural code’s limit, can be seen as medium for the death drive. (218)

Allegory thereby declares itself to be beyond beauty. Allegories are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things. Walter Benjamin (225)

By virtue of an ‘allegorising gaze’ the Other, the woman’s body, can be translated into a sign whose signified is the spectator’s need for an eradication of difference and disturbance from a personal or collective sense of self. Both her living and her dead body is treated primarily as a text and this depersonalising  sight induces a blindness towards the body’s physical materiality. (227)

Allegory is grounded on a quintessential ambivalence in respect to the exchange of a body with a sign. For the point at which to distinguish whether this is an instance of a word gaining body or a body objectified in to a sign is not secure. By self-consciously admitting that it speaks ‘other’, allegory articulates discrepancy even as, in the act of gazing, it transforms the discrepant ambivalence of a concrete body so threatening to the self-image of the observer into the reassuring stability of a figure. What makes an allegory ultimately so pleasing is that by shifting the question of ambivalence from the literal to the rhetorical, it can be signified and effaced at the same time. (241)

In John Berger’s terms, Woman’s self-being is split in two, because, having been taught to survey herself continually, she is almost always ‘accompanied by her own image of herself’. In that Woman appears so that men can look at her, her power to control the way she is perceived rests on her manipulation of her appearance and her ability to identify with the masculine gaze. (282)

It should be remembered that in Freud’s discussion of the uncanny, eyes are the displaced trope for castration anxiety (347)

Storytellers are Death’s secretaries. It is Death who hands them the file. The file is full of sheets of uniformly black paper but they have eyes for reading them and from this file they construct a story for the living. John Berger (349)

Of course, a woman is the muse. If she were the maker instead of the muse and opened her mouth, she would blast the notion of poetic creativity apart. Kathy Acker (360)

What has emerged as a central aporia inherent to the conflation of the enigma of femininity and mortality is that this culminating point of victimisation can also be read as the emergence of feminine subjectivity, power and self-articulation. … Representation, as a form of presence of what is absent, involves, as Barthes suggests, not a synthesis but a translation: ‘everything comes back, but it comes back as Fiction i.e. at another turn of the spiral’. (381)

In order to define herself as an active creator rather than a passive inspirer, DeShazer argues, ‘the woman poet must invent her own metaphor for poetic inspiration: she must name a muse of her own.’ (395)

I argue against Barthes’s notion of the death of the author, even though some of the narratives I will present sow that in the act of writing a process of desubstantiation takes place.  For the impulse of writing always also presupposes the life of the author, a signature and a position in culture. It is, however, also true that writing, as the act of translating a cultural representation into a performance which exceeds the given text, does for women often mean a writing out of social death, a writing inhabited at its centre by the uncanny resonance of the rhetoric of ‘death’ as silence, effacement, self-denial. (404)

My claim throughout has been that this double figure of femininity as death is not only prevalent in a disguised or effaced way but can often also be found on the very surface of an image or a text, as the literal, the banal reading we immediately dismiss or disregard in our search for a more tropic interpretation. (434)

On composition

Owing to its excessive whiteness, as well as the stark contrast between body and background produced through the direction of the lighting, the corpse seems to be the centre of the painting. However, while the corpse is positioned as the thematic subject, the anatomist is the subject of the action, because he functions as the internal focalisor of the picture, who guides the spectator’s view of the depicted object. (5)

Max Raphael analyses how the colour black in portrait painting signifies the indeterminate, the unbounded, the immaterial, while white is determined, bounded constant. The contrast between the whiteness of the corpse and the blackness of the anatomist and his surroundings can be read as signifying the position of indeterminacy from which a surviving subject gazes at death. (10)

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One Response to Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic by Elisabeth Bronfen

  1. Rob Townsend says:

    I’m SO glad that you read and summarised this, as it saved me doing so! You’ve done a public service here, thanks 🙂


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