#108 = Volume 36, Part 2 = July 2009
Allison de Fren
The Anatomical Gaze in Tomorrow’s Eve
In the early sf novel L’Eve future [Tomorrow’s Eve] by Philippe Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam (1838-1889), the female body is dissected repeatedly. The novel—which appeared in serialized form in La Vie Moderne between 1885-1886 before the definitive text was published in 1886—follows the creation of a female android by a fictionalized Thomas Alva Edison for a British patron and friend named Lord Celian Ewald, a poetic type who is on the verge of suicide due to a failed love. The object of Lord Ewald’s torment is a young singer named Alicia Clary, whose unearthly beauty he compares to that of the Venus de Milo, but whose banal personality destroys whatever romantic sentiments her image inspires.
Edison, whose goal is to create a factory for the manufacture of ideal women, sees his friend’s plight as an opportunity to bring to fruition the robotic prototype he has been secretly developing in his underground laboratory. He proposes to transfer onto his mechanical template Alicia’s image and voice, while disposing of the interior self that his patron finds so distasteful. Although Lord Ewald is skeptical of—if not somewhat offended by—the idea that a mechanical doll could possibly live up to his nobility of feeling, Edison sets out to convince him through a series of lengthy conversations that form the bulk of the novel, many of which deconstruct female beauty in order to substantiate its replicability. Such deconstruction is literalized as dissection in a scene in which Edison opens the female android for his patron, providing not only a thorough examination of her innards but also a medico-technological inventory of her components and their functions. This initial dissection is then repeated in textual form: various parts of the android’s body are given their own chapters—Flesh, Rosy Mouth, Pearly Teeth, Physical Eyes, Hair, Epidermis—and explained at length by Edison.
The dissection of the android not only serves as the narrative nucleus of Villiers’s novel, it is also the matrix within which a variety of discourses about the novel intersect. Considering the novel as a work of proto-science fiction, this scene is of note for its use of an actual inventor/scientist and of scientific exposition that references recent inventions—such as the phonograph and photosculpture (the former is how the android will speak, the latter the process used to transpose the image of Alicia onto her frame)—for narratological ends.1 The detailed explanation of the android’s inner workings both enhances verisimilitude and establishes Edison’s scientific authority in an undertaking that is—by the standards of readers both then and now—speculative. From this demonstration, we are to surmise (as Lord Ewald starts to suspect) “not only that the engineer was going to resolve all the problems raised by this monstrous set of affirmations, but that he had already resolved them, and was simply concerned to set forth the proof of established facts” (129). Edison’s technological-anatomical demonstration is, in this sense, reminiscent of the “mise-en-abyme mini-lessons of scientific fact” embedded within the fiction of Jules Verne (Evans 84). As Arthur B. Evans argues,
Here, many of the same narrative elements used to facilitate such didacticism are present: e.g., the dialogue format, the incredulous interlocutor serving as intermediary for reader identification, the systematic and logical presentation, itself constructed around linear cause-effect “scientific” principles, the de rigueur valorization of the travail and patience required to bring the project to fruition, and so on. (98)
Despite Edison’s allusions to real technologies and the granularity with which he explains the android’s functions, however, his anatomical explications are pseudo-scientific patter, an “‘enabling device’ to allow for developments in the narrative that might not otherwise have been possible” (Evans 94)—namely, the Pygmalionesque fantasy of an artificial woman brought to life. This fantasy has animated a number of science fiction novels and stories, from such classics as Lester Del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy” (1938) and C.L. Moore’s “No Woman Born” (1944) to Richard Calder’s recent Dead Trilogy (1992-1996).2
The Medico-Erotic Gaze. While Evans views the “non-mimetic referents” of Edison’s anatomical demonstration as a bridge between the scientific didacticism of Verne and the “hybrid semiotic recipe” of twentieth-century sf, both film and feminist theorists have drawn attention to how this scene also links scientific inquiry to cinematic viewing. Not only does the android foreshadow the cinematic creations of the next century of sf film, but the appearance of Thomas Edison—who would be dubbed (rightly or wrongly) the father of cinema, and who demonstrates in the novel cinematic projection nearly a decade before it premiered in reality—anticipates both the advent of cinema and its ability to perform visually the kind of deconstructions that Tomorrow’s Eve attempts textually.
Annette Michelson draws an explicit correspondence between the dissection of the android in Villiers’s novel and the gendered dynamics of representation in cinema. There is, she suggests, a kind of fetishistic anatomy that is not only enacted repeatedly in cinema by “cutting up” the female through close-ups, medium- and long-shots, but that also is formative in cinema and evident in even the earliest cinematic experiments, particularly within the “cinema of attractions.”3 The female body is subject to “mutilations, reconstitutions, levitations, and transformations” (Michelson 19) both within the work of the real Edison and especially in the trick films of Georges Méliès, the pioneer of the fantasy film, wherein women repetitively—and, it seems, obsessively—vanish, reappear, are dismembered, and then reassembled. The film Illusions funambulesques [Extraordinary Illusions, 1903], in which Méliès produces a living woman from mannequin parts, is prototypical in this regard. As in most of his films, Méliès plays a magician and appears as if on a theater stage, addressing the camera directly. Surrounded by statues on pedestals (a foreshadowing of the Pygmalionesque fantasy that will follow), he places a “Magic Box” upon a table, from which he pulls a mannequin’s legs, torso, and head, proceeding to assemble them into a make-believe girlfriend. After kissing and briefly conversing with her, he throws the mannequin into the air, and she is instantly transformed into a living woman, a dancer who flits around the stage (see figures 1a and 1b). The magician changes her dancing costume to pedestrian clothes, and the two promenade together in a kind of happily-ever-after jig. Their happiness is short-lived, however, for not long after she has been brought to life, the woman unexpectedly transforms into a male cook with a grotesque, clownish mask, stirring a pot with a spoon. The magician attempts to turn him back into a she, but each time he does so, she switches back into the cook, a cycle that continues until the magician, in frustration, grabs the cook and disassembles him into separate dummy parts.
Figures 1a and 1b. Méliès transforming a mannequin into a living woman in Extraordinary Illusions (1903).
Méliès enacted similar Pygmalionesque fantasies in many other films, most significantly, Pygmalion et Galathée [Pygmalion and Galatea, 1898], which featured his wife, Jehanne d’Alcy, as a statue who comes to life and then literally falls to pieces as her sculptor attempts to embrace her. Lucy Fischer has described these films, in which the female body is the object of manipulation and disassembly, as engaging in a form of “magical misogyny,” and Linda Williams traces such “perverse” proclivities not only to Méliès’s pre-filmic work as a magician but also to his fascination and experimentation with the automata that he inherited when he purchased the Théâtre Robert-Houdin in Paris. Williams suggests that there is a parallel between Méliès’s attempts to control the appearance and movement of the mechanical humans in the basement of his theater and his later manipulation and control of the female body in his films:
From the first trick of assembling a simulation of the whole body out of mechanical parts to the further trick of making the imaginary bodies projected on a screen appear and disappear, Méliès perfects his mastery over the threatening presence of the actual body, investing his pleasure in an infinitely repeatable trucage. (525)
Giuliana Bruno offers further corroborative evidence for the connections that Michelson draws between the dissection of the android and the invention of cinema by recounting the anatomical attractions of the first movie theater to open in Naples, Italy. The proprietor, Menotti Cattaneo, began his film exhibitions with a spectacle called “the anatomy lesson,” which he had developed in his career as a showman. Dressed as a surgeon, Cattaneo “dissected” a human body that he had constructed out of wax, removing various organs to the wonder and horror of his audience. He followed this spectacle with a film exhibition, the latter seamlessly following the former, according to Bruno, since
their common terrain is a discourse of investigation and the fragmentation of the body. The spectacle of the anatomy lesson exhibits an analytic drive, an obsession with the body, upon which acts of dismemberment are performed. Such “analytic” desire is present in the very language of film. It is inscribed in the semiotic construction of film, its découpage (as the very word connotes, a “dissection” of narration in shots and sequences), its techniques of framing, and its process of editing, literally called “cutting,” a process of (de)construction of bodies in space. (241)
The anatomy lesson, particularly when performed on the female body, is for these critics the primal scene of cinema, whose appeal to a medico-erotic gaze will be repetitively staged and and re-enacted, serving not only as a form of cinematic pleasure but also as the fantasmatic ground of cinema itself.
“Primal scene” is the operative phrase, since in their interpretations of the dismemberment of the female body in early cinema, Williams and Bruno in particular invoke psychoanalytical theory, taking many of their theoretical cues from Laura Mulvey’s influential 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” For Mulvey, the role of the female body in cinema is to remain static and passive, emanating a quality of “to-be-looked-at-ness” that serves the visual delectation of the active male gaze. The insistent interrogations of this gaze are rooted in early sexuality—in particular, the fear of castration inspired by the realization of female lack. In Mulvey’s terms, the assembly and disassembly, appearance and disappearance of the female body functions in cinema as a contradictory gesture, an attempt at revealing the “truth” of the woman’s body at the same time as it tries to hide that very truth. The “truth” in this case is that which Freud, in collaboration with his close friend and associate Sándor Ferenczi, dubbed the “Medusa’s Head,” a figure that emblematizes the female’s lack of a phallus: “The terror of Medusa is a terror of castration that … occurs when a boy, who has hitherto been unwilling to believe the threat of castration, catches sight of the female genitals, probably those of an adult, surrounded by hair, and essentially those of his mother” (Freud 202).
In the original myth, Medusa is vanquished through a kind of dissection, for she is decapitated by Perseus with the help of a mirrored shield and harpe (the same instrument used by Zeus to castrate his father Kronos, supporting Freud’s formulation: decapitation = castration). She is ultimately offered as a votive gift to the goddess Athena, who wears the head on her aegis or shield as a means of terrifying her foes. Once decapitated and mounted on the shield, the Medusa’s head becomes the prototype for the apotropaic image, a means of protection from the terror that it once embodied. For Freud, the invocation of the Medusa’s head within literature and art is understood as a way of raising the specter of castration while simultaneously disavowing it, as well as defusing its threat, an interpretation that he suggests is supported by the site of its mythological display: the aegis of the virgin goddess, Athena. The amputative site of terror is, then, transformed via mediation, the filling in of an absence with a symbolic presence, which serves as a protective barrier between the conscious mind and the suppressed truth. Within Villiers’s novel, this symbolic presence is the android who, following her dissection, becomes a mediating agent between Lord Ewald and Alicia. As Anne Greenfeld points out, there is a distinct analogy made in the novel between the Gorgon and Alicia, whose deadly beauty paralyzes and whose stunted personality invokes, in Lord Ewald’s words, “the most hideous of the Eumenides” (Villiers 40-41): “What Ewald desires can be seen as a kind of inversion of the Medusa-Perseus relationship: that of Pygmalion and Galatea. In such a relationship the woman would be transfixed in stone, entirely powerless until a man’s gaze would ‘create’ her, animate her” (Greenfield 69). And, as Michelle Bloom observes, the Pygmalionesque desire that leads to the creation of the android in the novel is, Villiers seems to suggest, best fulfilled by the “‘illusions of movement’ made possible by the advent of cinema” (291).
Deconstructing the Act of Dissection. In this essay, I seek to expand on and complicate the discussion of Tomorrow’s Eve as a bridge between the Pygma-lionesque concerns of nineteenth-century French literature and the animated and deconstructed bodies (both real and artificial) of cinema by exploring the novel’s central thematic of dissection. Over the course of this essay, I will conduct a close reading not only of Edison’s anatomical demonstration of the android, but also of two other dissections—the verbal anatomization of a living woman (Alicia) and the cinematic deconstruction of a dead one (Evelyn Habal)—to show how the act of dissection is used repeatedly in the novel to encourage a mode of awareness or perception that will become more formally associated with later science fiction. In order to make this conceptual leap forward, however, I will work backwards, tracing this mode of awareness to the anatomy theater of the Renaissance, which combined medical investigation with visual spectacle, and which the novel references explicitly in the lead-in scene to the android’s dissection, in which Edison compares himself to Andreas Vesalius (1514-64), the most famous anatomist of his time:
The young man looked at the electrician: already bent over his glittering surgeon’s case, Edison was choosing from among his crystal scalpels.… The table tilted up; the Android now stood with her back to it, her head resting against the cushion. The electrician stooped and loosened two steel clamps riveted to the floor, slid them beneath the feet of Hadaly, and then moved the table back to its horizontal position, with the Android now lying on it like a corpse on the dissecting table in an amphitheater.
“Think of the picture of Andreas Vesalius,” said Edison with a smile. “Though we’re alone down here, we’re imitating the general idea of it at this moment.” (124-25)
To begin to unpack the “general idea” of anatomy to which this scene refers, we must review the extraordinary shift that occurred during the Renaissance. For over a century prior, anatomical practice had been influenced by the work of Galen of Pergamum (ca. 129-200), who produced over two hundred medical volumes that extrapolated studies of dissected animals to describe human anatomy. From the time of Galen, on the rare occasion when a body was dissected, the process was conducted by barber-surgeons while an anatomy professor stood at a distance from the proceedings reading from Galen’s works. Indeed, the physical findings were of less significance than the transmission of ancient knowledge, much of it incorrect since it was based on animal physiology. Vesalius was one of the first anatomists to perform dissections with his own hand, rather than to relegating them to assistants. Based on his physical investigations, he published an exhaustive anatomical treatise entitled De Humani Corporis Fabrica [On the Fabric of the Human Body, 1543], whose illustrative woodcuts replaced Galen’s text as the most authoritative reference on the human body. Under the influence of Vesalian anatomy, the visual began to vie with the textual for authority, eventually giving rise to the concept of autopsy or auto-opsis—“seeing for oneself”—as the basis of anatomical truth. Thus, when Edison states that he is reproducing the “picture” of Andreas Vesalius in his dissection of the android, he is both conjuring an image of the anatomy theater and underscoring the act of seeing as foundational to that image.
Despite his invitation to gaze into the android’s interior, however, the mechanics of narration within the dissection scene that follows work against our comprehension of what it is that we (and Lord Ewald) are viewing. As Evans notes, while Edison’s complex descriptions of the android’s inner workings gesture towards science, they invariably veer towards the metaphoric (“This is … the place in the spinal column from which springs the marvelous tree of the nervous system”), the mythical (“This particular electric spark—it’s on loan from Prometheus…”), the hyperbolic (“Here are the two golden phonographs, placed at an angle toward the center of the breast; they are the two lungs.... They exchange between one another tapes of those harmonious—or should I say, celestial—conversations.… The words are those invented by the greatest poets, the most subtle metaphysicians, the most profound novelists of this century”), as well as the vague and obscure (Evans 97-99; emphases in original). Such passages make clear that the novel’s central concern is “metaphysics rather than physics” or rather the conjuring of the metaphysical from the physical, and it is in this sense and for this reason that the novel references the anatomy theater. As I will demonstrate, Vesalian anatomy, while setting the stage for medical science, was grounded in older traditions of ritual and symbolism, and to the extent that it fostered empirical analysis, it also inspired metaphysical awe. Such awe was cultivated via an anamorphic or doubled vision, which encouraged a sublime reading of grotesque phenomena—that is, a reading in which dissection is simultaneously a revelation of the interior wonders and horrors of the body and larger, universal truths that defy both vision and intelligibility.
Tomorrow’s Eve anticipates how the anatomical gaze will inform the cinematic gaze, encouraging a way of seeing that, while focused on the specificities of material reality, gives way to experiences that defy rational explanation. In the novel, the pre-Cartesian, metaphysical origins of the anatomy theater are invoked in relation to a contemporary inventor and a machine body in order to inspire a “sense of wonder” through technological innovation and, in so doing, to subvert and critique the rational agenda of which it is the manifestation. This use of science self-reflexively to inscribe its own limitations will become a hallmark of twentieth-century science fiction.
The Woman in Pieces. The first dissection in Tomorrow’s Eve occurs shortly after the novel opens, when Lord Ewald pays Edison a visit at his compound in Menlo Park to bid the great inventor farewell before killing himself. In explaining the despair to which he has been reduced by his mistress, he enumerates the ways in which her body resembles a statue that has come to life:
Miss Alicia is about twenty years old, and slim as a silver aspen. Her gestures are gently and deliciously harmonious, her body is molded in lines to delight and surprise the greatest sculptors. Her figure is full, but with the pale glow of lilies; she has indeed the splendor of a Venus Victorious, but humanized.… Her nose exquisitely straight, with translucent wings, continues perfectly the line of her forehead. Her hands are more pagan than aristocratic; her feet have the same elegance as those of Greek statues.… (29)
Less a lover’s effictio than an introduction to “the problem,” this verbal dissection hearkens back to a form of poetry popularized within the anatomical imaginary of the Renaissance: the blason du corps or blasons anatomiques, in which discrete fragments or features of a beautiful woman were amputated from the whole and described in intimate detail. The anatomical blazons, which offered the textual equivalent of the kind of physical interrogations performed within the anatomy theater (indeed, “the authors of the blazon poems were called by themselves and by their contemporaries ‘anatomistes’” [Vickers, “Members Only” 7]), were attributed to Clément Marot and considered a banalization of the psalms, which he translated during his exile from Fontainebleau. In place of the body of Christ, Marot substituted parts of the female body, the first being “Le Blason du Tetin” (“The Blazon of the Breast”) in 1535, which he presented to an esteemed group of court poets as a form of literary challenge. Their responses, each dedicated to a separate part of the female body, were organized and eventually published as a single volume, Blasons Anatomiques, in 1543, the same year that Vesalius’s De Humani Corporis Fabrica appeared; the book enjoyed wide appeal in the French and English courts of the mid-sixteenth century.
Although literary, the blazons drew from the visual culture not only of the anatomy theater, but also of courtly pageantry featuring displays of heraldic paraphernalia, “which fed into a nostalgic fascination in the waning chivalric tradition of knights and armor that ‘tended to proliferate as the practical function of knighthood disappeared’” (Vickers, “This Heraldry” 210, citing Ferguson 17). As Nancy Vickers points out, “blazon” is a word that combines the French blason or shield (and, in particular, the heraldic or ornamental display on a shield) with the older English verb “to blaze”—that is, “to proclaim as with a trumpet, to divulge, to make known.” The two meanings are combined in the poetic blazon, in which parts of women’s bodies are displayed by men in a gesture of rhetorical challenge to other men:
Combatants offer up blazons—poems or/as shields—for aesthetic judgments…. [T]he heraldic metaphor “woman’s face is a shield” emblematizes the conflict that motivates it. Here celebratory conceit inscribes woman’s body between rivals: she deflects blows, prevents direct hits, and constitutes the field upon which the battle may be fought. (“This Heraldry” 219)
The rhetorical displays of the blasoneur, although criticized by some as idolatrous or scandalous, fed into the Renaissance tradition of ut pictura poesis, in which the poet, who was able to construct verbal monuments of greater duration than the bronze from which many a shield was cast, was considered the equivalent if not the superior of the warrior, and equally deserving of glory.4 Moreover, the overarching goal of such piecemeal appraisal was Love in the abstract, which was considered the highest object of both the courtier and the poet, a reflection of the Love of God. The evocation of a divine unity and the spirit of courtly competition in which the anatomistes engaged inflected the anatomy theater as well, and as Jonathan Sawday notes, both operated within a similar erotic economy:
Both sought to gaze upon the body which they dismantled, piece by piece. Both too progressively constructed a new body made of the parts which they had examined. Just as Vesalius was to dismiss his scientific rivals in anatomical demonstrations, so the poetic texts struggled in competition with one another, brandishing the dissected female form as a token of mastery. (219)5
Within Villiers’s novel, the competitive association between the poetic mastery of the blasoneur and the intellectual and manual prowess of the anatomist is made explicit in the narrative progression from Lord Ewald’s anatomical presentation of Alicia, the woman who resembles a statue, to that of the mechanical statue that Edison will create in her image. Lord Ewald’s blazon of Alicia, although a testament to her beauty, is intended (as were the blasons du corps) to reveal less about her than about him, for it demonstrates his rhetorical gifts and lyricism (and we are immediately struck by how out-of-place his courtly prose seems in proximity to the scientist Edison). His blazon is, however, mere prologue to an in-depth moral appraisal of his mistress, conducted over the course of three chapters—entitled “Analysis,” “Hypothesis,” and, significantly, “Dissection”—in which he suggests that there is a lack of proportionality between her celestial body and earthbound soul, and that the prosaic leanings of the latter cancel out the divine resonances of the former:
between the body and the soul of Miss Alicia, it wasn’t just a disproportion which distressed and upset my understanding; it was an absolute disparity.... The traits of her divine beauty seemed to be foreign to her self; her words seemed constrained and out of place in her mouth. Her intimate being was in flat contradiction with the form it inhabited. (31)
According to Lord Ewald, Alicia’s soul is weighed down by a bourgeois concern for the rational, literal, and commonsensical; she is, we might say, a material girl. Although her body recalls a Venus statue of classical and transcendent proportions, “in everyday life, Miss Alicia is the Goddess Reason ... she believes in heaven, but a heaven of rational dimensions” (40-41).
The set of distinctions that Ewald draws between Alicia’s “sacred body” and her “profane soul,” as well as between the Venus and the Goddess of Reason (whom, we are reminded, was Athena), provides a clue to the agenda of Villiers (for whom Lord Ewald is a stand-in).6 As translator Robert Martin Adams suggests, Villiers was, like his contemporaries Baudelaire and Mallarmé, a man very much at odds with the positivist values of the time into which he was born. He loathed materialism and the very idea of progress, scientific or otherwise. He peddled a form of romantic irony, and there is, indeed, an irony in the scientist Edison’s proposed solution to the woman who is so afflicted by positivist rationalism that she acts, according to Lord Ewald, like a mechanical doll or puppet—namely, to create a mechanical doll in her image. The android, to whatever extent she is a fulfillment of a Cartesian world-view in which the body is rendered as a machine, is also in a dialectical sense (and Villiers loved Hegel) an antidote to it, for she will, according to Edison, restore to Alicia’s body its metaphysicality. Indeed, the semantic arc of Edison’s anatomical presentation of the mechanical woman, in which the concrete gives way to the abstract, serves as a counter to Lord Ewald’s presentation of Alicia, in which the metaphoric aspirations of her poetic blazoning are cancelled out by her literal-mindedness. Their differences are reflected as well in their very names: Alicia, whose surname, “Clary”— likely inspired by “Clara,” the practical woman in E.T.A. Hoffman’s story “Der Sandmann” [“The Sandman,” 1816], whom the protagonist compares to an automaton and whom he rejects for the mechanical doll Olympia—etymologically points to a consciousness within which all is submitted to the light of reason. On the other hand, the android is named Hadaly, a word that, Edison tells Lord Ewald, means Ideal in Persian, and which will be etched and mounted on a plaque in the coffin in which the android, upon her completion, will be presented to her new master. Below this plaque will be placed the Ewald family’s ancient coat of arms (that is, his blazon), a symbol that will, according to Edison, sanctify Lord Ewald’s captivity of her. Thus, to whatever extent Edison’s anatomical presentation serves as a riposte to Lord Ewald’s poetic blazoning, Lord Ewald will, the scientist insists, claim the final prize.
From Medusa to Anatomia. The visual coding of heraldry—of knights and shields—not only inflects the presentations of the female body in the novel but is also relevant to our understanding of the apotropaic matrix within which Lord Ewald’s dilemma and Edison’s solution are posited, of which dissection is the instrument. If “the scorpion cures the scorpion,” as Paracelsus once claimed, then the mise-en-abyme of the opened android body in the dissection scene is the symbolic site at which the medusant powers of Alicia are both mirrored and transformed.7 Here, all the contradictions—between animacy and inanimacy, transcendence and rationality, beauty and horror—that mortify Lord Ewald in Alicia will be transfigured in such a way that those same contradictions in the android will revive his will to live. The question is: what is it that Edison is showing us in this scene, and how does it help solve Ewald’s problem? The Medusa figure may provide a clue.
As Freud acknowledges at the end of his essay “Medusa’s Head,” his reading of the Gorgon is highly interpretive and “in order seriously to substantiate this interpretation it would be necessary to investigate the origin of this isolated symbol of horror in Greek mythology as well as parallels to it in other mythologies” (203). This invitation was, in fact, taken up by Stephen Wilk in a book-length study of the Gorgon, which suggests that in order to solve the mystery of this pan-cultural symbol, one needs to pose a question with a surprisingly simple answer:
What item, common to the experience of a broad range of humankind, could produce a humanlike face with huge, staring eyes, broad nose, wide, gritted-toothed grin, protruding tongue, facial lines, and stylized hair? We are not familiar with the answer because it is kept from us, deliberately. At one time in our history it was a much more common sight, just as deliberately placed in view. Much of the time, it was simply considered inevitable. But it was distasteful at best, horrifying at worst, and so over time it has been carefully removed from immediate view, a process that has now gone on for so long that the object is no longer familiar. (186)
According to Wilk, the Gorgon is not, as Freud suggests, a symbol of the opening from which we all enter the world, but the abyss to which we are all heading: Death. Specifically, Medusa’s head is an aestheticized portrayal of the human face one to two weeks after death when gases from putrefaction cause the body to bloat, pushing out the eyes and tongue. “The Gorgoneion is terrible because it shows us the transformation of a human being into Death, and does so by a process that destroys all dignity” (190). It is in death and decay that the subject becomes an object and, in particular, one of horror. While it is a sight that is rarely encountered today due to embalming and the medicalization of death and dying, the horrifying specificities of putrefaction were once all too familiar, particularly in instances in which the burial of the body was delayed, such as war and public execution.
When we consider the fact that the body within the anatomy theater of the Renaissance was, in most cases, the criminal body recently removed from the gallows and saved from the ignoble fate of public decomposition in order to serve the greater good through its participation in the acquisition of anatomical knowledge, then a consideration of the symbolism of dissection in general and, in particular, its relation to the image of the Medusa’s head seems warranted. Indeed, it is within the mise-en-scène of the anatomical demonstration that the reflective glances of which the Medusa is emblematic are transformed into those of the goddess Anatomia, who holds a mirror in one hand and a skull in the other, a personification of the moral imperatives inscribed within the theater’s ritualized atmosphere: “‘Nosce te ipsum’ (know thyself) and ‘Pulvis et umbra sum[u]s’ (we are dust and shadows)” (Sawday 72). The anatomy theater invites a self-reflexivity whose revelatory insights are linked to death, a view that is reinforced throughout Villiers’s novel and that can be elaborated by examining the “primal scene,” epitomized by the title page of Vesalius’s anatomical masterpiece, where Vesalius himself stands above a dissected female corpse revealing her innards—a scene that would, over three hundred years later, inspire Edison’s technological demonstration of the android in Villiers’s novel (see figure 2).
On the title page of the Fabrica, Vesalius appears front and center (a novelty at the time; Vesalius was the first anatomist to show himself at work within a printed book), and it is as though he is personally welcoming us at the gates of the anatomical wonders to which we are about to receive admittance. To his left is the female cadaver, surrounded by circular benches populated by a seemingly unruly crowd of humans and animals, the living and the dead, some of whom watch Vesalius while others are clearly distracted. Only Vesalius meets our gaze (with a significant look not all that dissimilar from that of Méliès before performing a magic trick), while he pulls open the abdomen of the dead woman, as if gesturing us inside both the female womb and the mysteries of the anatomical body to which it gives birth (and that the Fabrica will help to disclose). While Vesalius opens the womb with his right hand, with his left he points up to a skeletal figure directly above, a gesture that bifurcates both our focus and the page:
if the womb marks our point of entrance into the world, then Vesalius’s own left hand, with its finger raised in a gesture of signification, as well as rhetoric, guides our attention back to the skeleton, our point of departure: “Nascentes Morimur”— we are born to die. A drama of life and death is, then, being played out within the circular confines of the temple of anatomy. (Sawday 71)
The symbolic circuit created between womb and skeleton on the title page is not just that between life and death, according to Sawday, but between death as representative of the Fall and eternal life as represented by the body of Christ. Indeed, the sacrificial pose of the body at the center of the title page of the Fabrica, as well as those within other anatomical treatises of the time (which were as often male as female) is a clear evocation of the body of Christ after crucifixion. Such allegorical richness offers, perhaps, our first clue to the texture of the performance within the anatomy theater and the argument, made convincingly by Sawday, that anatomy was not its sole aim but one aspect incorporated into a larger sphere of multivalent significance:
The anatomical Renaissance, the reordering of our knowledge of the human body which took place in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was not merely a moment of high intellectual excitement. Instead, the discovery of the body was grounded in older, traditional, patterns of symbol and ritual.... The confrontation which had taken place outside the anatomy theatre, on the gallows, was transformed once the body had been taken inside the theatre. Instead of being a mere object of investigation, the criminal corpse was invested with a transcendent significance. (75)
To help us understand the constellation of signification circulating around the dissected corpse within the anatomical imaginary of the Renaissance, Sawday brings our attention to the arrangement of the scene on the title page of the Fabrica. Here, the womb forms the mid-point, and it and the skeleton above it form the central vertical axis around which all other elements in the picture rotate, including the semi-circular columns of the theater dome. The heliocentric construction of the scene conforms to the architectural principles of Vitruvius, whose belief that the human body should form the foundation of proportional design served as the basis of many of the basilica churches built during the Renaissance. According to Sawday, such symbolism suggests that there is an overarching universal harmony, where the human body represents not itself but a greater organizing principle in which its dissection is “no less than a demonstration of the structural coherence of the universe itself, whose central component—the principle of life concealed within the womb—Vesalius is about to open up to our gaze” (76).
The dissection within the anatomy theater is, then, not just a way of gaining knowledge of the body in an analytical or empirical sense, but also a way of enacting a transfiguration of its base nature into a realm of divine abstraction of both spiritual and ontological significance. The title page alerts us to this agenda through a kind of visual paradox: while it invokes a Vitruvian sense of cosmic order through its circular arrangement (the figure at its center, an anatomical elaboration of da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”), it also undermines its own formal coherence with discordant imagery, whether the vacillating gesture between life and death or the teeming figures surrounding this central drama, who both compete for our attention and portray for us the limitations of human perception in grasping its full revelatory potential:
Each of these: the naked figure, the spectral figure, the young man reading, the figure with the slashed arm, the monkey, the squabbling assistants, the figure with the dog, can be envisaged as contributing to the rich allusive web of meaning enfolded within the title-page.… The young man reading is suggestive of youth endeavoring to understand the world according to formulaic precepts contained in written texts, unable to realize that the most significant feature of the world is contained within the conjunction of womb and skeleton. The older man, who has closed his book (as though realizing the futility of written observation), answers the figure of youth by gesturing towards the dissective arm beside him. Again, the figures in the foreground, undoubtedly offering a commentary on older anatomical practices, also echo the central message of the image. Thus, the ape who distracts two of the spectators on the left of the image symbolizes the distracting power of human ingenuity, deflecting the understanding from contemplation of the central truth now understood by Vesalius and those who follow his left hand. (Sawday 71-72)
If meaning can be derived from this confusing scene (as Sawday attempts above), its significance is based, in large part, on the extent to which it is overwrought with meaning, exhibiting all the formal excess and semiotic ambivalence of the “Renaissance Grotesque.” As Geoffrey Harpham notes, the grotesque or grottesche was a term that came into popular usage during the Renaissance in reference to a form of ornamental design (or “art of the fringe”) in which human and animal figures commingled promiscuously with each other and non-figural decorative elements in a manner that drew attention away from that which it embellished while suggesting valences beyond what representation can adequately convey (Harpham 7):
When we use the word “grotesque” we record, among other things, the sense that though our attention has been arrested, our understanding is unsatisfied. Grotesqueries both require and defeat definition: they are neither so regular and rhythmical that they settle easily into our categories, nor so unprecedented that we do not recognize them at all. They stand at a margin of consciousness between the known and the unknown, the perceived and the unperceived, calling into question the adequacy of our ways of organizing the world, of dividing the continuum of experience into knowable particles. (3)8
Often hybrid in nature, the grotesque tends to subvert the boundary between high and low (the divine and the fallen), to render time into space (and vice versa), to compress narrative into image, and to produce a tension between the center and the periphery. The title page achieves such effects by invoking a universal harmony within a circular frame that is both thwarted and realized by its own eruptive visual content, and by combining human and bestial, pagan and Christian, figural and decorative elements in a way that distracts from a “central truth” that is, itself, irreducibly suspended within a vacillating gesture between space (womb) and time (skeleton). Presented as both ornamental entrance to the Fabrica and macrocosmic encapsulation of the anatomical demonstration, which includes its observers, the title page alerts its viewers to the fact that autopsy—or “auto-opsis”—is not just an act of seeing for oneself, but also seeing oneself (as both subject and object) and seeing oneself seeing. Such self-reflexivity is, according to Harpham, part of the raison d’être of grotesque images:
although they are frustrating they are far from pointless, for with their help we can arrive at a better understanding of the methods of representation, of the relation between play and creation, and of the force of habit and convention in understanding. Looking at ourselves looking at the grotesque, we can observe our own projections, catching ourselves, as it were, in the act of perception. (43)
The grotesque arises in the uncomfortable zone between mimesis and fantasia; its familiar imagery invites interpretation only to frustrate comprehension through visual excess, straining the relationship between seeing and knowing, and engaging the mind in a hermeneutic paradox that urges it beyond the sensible towards the Intelligible. Within the historical context of the Fabrica, such imagery served a Christian Neo-Platonic conception of the universe, in which the material or aesthetic realm could lead, via a hierarchy of correspondences, to the invisible realm of Ideas. Such a conception—played out on the title page of the Fabrica through visual paradox, the center of which is the focal tension between womb and skeleton—is elaborated throughout the folio pages that follow in the form of “living anatomy,” a convention that was common until well into the eighteenth century, in which the anatomized corpse was figured as alive and often engaged in a scene of allegorical significance. Throughout the Fabrica, dissected bodies re-enact familiar Christian narratives—the creation story, the crucifixion, the martyrdom of various saints; they appear against scenic backdrops—strolling through pastoral landscapes, near tombs or crumbling ruins, imagery that itself vacillates between the monumental and the transient; or they assist in their own dissection, in some cases with knife in hand (see figure 3). Such imagery is both descriptive (of the bodily interior) and narrative, thus rendering the dissected body both dead and alive, both object and subject. This vacillation produces, as Janis Caldwell suggests, a self-reflexivity that not only collapses the distinction between viewer and viewed—encouraging the recognition of ourselves in a body that, while dead and dissected, still roams the countryside—but between cadaver and anatomist.9 It is the self-reflexive circuit, in this sense, that the figure of Anatomia personifies, as mediating agent between the skull and the mirror, for within the anatomical demonstration we are all, anatomist included, the future dead examining ourselves in a spectacle that both reveals and hides the truth from us. The animated corpse is, then, like the Medusa’s head, both a shield and a mirror. It is, as Kenneth Gross says of the statue that steps down from its pedestal to enter the human realm, “a wedge between myself and my death, as well as a reflection of my astonishment at death” (19).
Embodied in the living-dead android Hadaly are the symbolism and contradictions of the living corpse, a fact made explicit by Edison when he suggests that he is recreating “the general idea” of a Vesalian dissection in his anatomical demonstration of her. The meaning of Hadaly exists outside of what we are seeing, while what we are seeing is being offered as proof of her meaning; as in the dissection scene, the gross materiality of her mechanical body will serve as the site where an act of transfiguration of macrocosmic proportions will be wrought in a manner similar to that depicted on the title page of Vesalius’s Fabrica. As Edison proclaims to Lord Ewald (and, it seems, to the heavens):
In place of this soul which repels you in the living woman, I shall infuse another sort of soul ... capable of impressions a thousand times more lovely, more lofty, more noble—that is, they will be robed in that character of eternity without which our mortal life can be no more than a shabby comedy.... I will compel the Ideal itself to become apparent, for the first time, to your senses, PALPABLE, AUDIBLE, AND FULLY MATERIAL.... (64)
Within Edison’s promise to lift the veil of appearances in order to compel the Ideal to reveal itself, we can detect the Platonic urge for the Intelligible beyond the rational or the sensible. That this eternal realm will be embodied by a modern Ideal (Hadaly) forged from the latest technologies may appear contradictory, but it conforms to the aesthetic program of both Vesalius, whose work Villiers evokes in Hadaly’s construction, and Baudelaire, his mentor; indeed, it underscores the semiotic relationship between the two as represented by the vanitas, a form of “still life” painting whose “motion-stasis-paradox” is, I would argue, a touchstone for understanding the paradoxes inherent in the living statue Hadaly.
Anamorphosis. The vanitas was an art form, popular in post-Reformation Northern Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in which the grotesque iconography of the anatomical scene was recreated, albeit in a more private and secularized fashion. Within the vanitas, the kind of contemplative visual study encouraged by the “still life” was subverted by the appearance of symbolic objects, such as human skulls, rotten fruit, or hourglasses, which served as memento mori, “a reminder of the illusory, flimsy, and ultimately unreal character of the things of this fading world in the face of death’s eternity” (Krieger 210). By introducing time into the spatial array depicted in the painting, the descriptive image was rendered metaphorical or allegorical, underscoring the illusionism inherent not only in the material objects being displayed, but in the painting itself. Such self-consciousness, the image’s full disclosure of its own illusionary qualities, is a testament to and a justification for the work of art:
It suggests that all worldly existence is to be seen as delusion, leading us astray, except for the conscious self-referentiality of the work of art: the work’s confession that its illusion reveals itself to us as a self-conscious version of delusion that can serve as our metaphysical beacon through these shadows and snares. In reminding us of its own status as illusion, as soothsayer of our universe, the work of art may be the only thing we can trust, even as it self-consciously retreats before itself. (Krieger 212)10
The artistic work as allegorical beacon of the Real was a view that was both espoused and practiced by Baudelaire, to whom Villiers’s oeuvre owes its greatest debt. For Baudelaire, Art is ideally marked by duality, which “is a fatal consequence of the duality of man,” encompassing both the immutable/eternal and the ephemeral/transient: “Consider, if you will, the eternally subsisting portion as the soul of art, and the variable element as its body” (“The Painter” 3). In an attempt to shed light on the duplicities to which Baudelaire aspired, Maria C. Scott draws a helpful analogy to the technique of visual anamorphosis. Anamorphic images are distorted or monstrous-looking images that, when viewed from a certain vantage point (often from an angle or through a curved mirror) appear in regular proportion:
At the moment that this angled image is perceived, the initial (frontal) image or impression fades in clarity, such that a simultaneous and clear perception of both images is impossible. The preservation of a tension between two viewpoints is essential to an anamorphic work; neither perspective ever entirely does away with the other. (Scott 10)
By creating a tension between two perspectives, the anamorphic work underscores the illusionary qualities of all works of art, achieving an allegorical self-referentiality. Indeed, one of the most famous anamorphic works, The Ambassadors (1533) by Hans Holbein the Younger, draws on the iconology of the Northern European vanitas: in the painting, two well-dressed men, an ambassador and a bishop, lean against two shelves, the upper shelf containing objects seemingly related to the heavens, while the lower shelf has objects of earthly interest (see figure 4a). Between them, at the bottom center of the painting, is an anamorphic image that is difficult to see unless one stands to the far right of the painting, at which point it reveals itself as a human skull (see figure 4b).
Figures 4a and 4b. The Amabassadors. Hans Holbein the Younger, 1853.
As Scott points out, Baudelaire attempted a similar kind of double-edged text, “hovering between what is said and what is left blank, between the visible and the spectral” (67). Such obliquities are evident in Baudelaire’s poem “Le Masque” [“The Mask”] in his Les Fleurs du Mal [The Flowers of Evil, 1857], which was inspired by an anamorphic statuette by Ernest Christophe, referenced in the poem’s subtitle: “Statue allégorique dans le goût de la Renaissance” [“An Allegorical Statue in Renaissance Style”]. From the front, the statuette appears to represent a grinning woman, but when viewed from the side, the woman’s smiling face is revealed as a mask that hides her true countenance, distorted in agony. The poem begins with a description of the statue from the front that recalls, in its evocation of classical beauty, Ewald’s depiction of Alicia as the Venus de Milo:
Let us observe the prize, of Tuscan charm;
In how the muscles of the body flow
Those holy sisters, Grace and Strength, abound.
This woman, this extraordinary piece,
Divinely robust, admirably slim,
Was made to be enthroned on sumptuous beds
As entertainment for a pope or prince. (41, 43)
Baudelaire then replicates the experience of surprise that one would have if moving around the statue:
Let us approach and look from every side!
O blasphemy of art! fatal surprise!
This woman fashioned to embody bliss,
Is at the top a monster with two heads! (43)
In so doing, the poem describes “the movement from comfortable delusion to confusion to recognition of the artist’s ruse,” effecting a self-reflexivity that, as Scott suggests of the prose poems, lends it “a mysterious, durable, eternal element” (102).11
It is anamorphosis, a double gesture in which the artwork lays bare its illusionism in the process of its reception, to which Villiers points in his novel and to which the fictional Edison seems to aspire in his dissection and construction of the android Hadaly. Hadaly is artifice as revelation as opposed to art(ifice) for its own sake, a condition with which modern women are, according to Edison, afflicted. Her allure will reside in the truth of her deception as opposed to the lie of the deception that real women perpetrate on men. The latter deception is emphasized throughout the novel, but is made explicit when Edison performs a cinematic dissection of beauty, while conjuring the equivalent of the anamorphic statue in Baudelaire’s poem, as justification for the creation of Hadaly.
In this scene, Edison recounts for Lord Ewald a tale about his friend, Edward Anderson, who was ensnared, bankrupted morally and financially, and brought to eventual suicide by the “seductive arts” of a dancer named Evelyn Habal (104). Edison states that after his friend’s demise, he made it a point to investigate the dancer in scientific fashion to determine the exact nature of what seduced and demoralized his friend. What he discovers is that the dancer was rendered all the more intoxicating by the fact that her charms were spun around a complete absence of charm, a kind of abyss which both drew his friend and repelled him. In order to demonstrate for Lord Ewald the great disparity between the illusion cast by the woman who destroyed his friend and her reality, Edison both resurrects and deconstructs her aura by displaying a moving image of Evelyn Habal dancing. This scene is prophetic in its anticipation not only of cinematic projection, which would not premiere in reality for another decade, but of cinematic content—in particular, the controversial Serpentine Dance, which the real Edison “borrowed” from the French performer Loie Fuller (the dancing muse of the Symbolists) and shot in the Black Maria:
A long strip of transparent plastic encrusted with bits of tinted glass moved laterally along two steel tracks before the luminous cone of the astral lamp. Drawn by a clockwork mechanism at one of its ends, this strip began to glide swiftly between the lens and the disk of a powerful reflector. Suddenly on the wide white screen within its frame of ebony flashed the life-size figure of a very pretty and quite youthful blonde girl. (Villiers 117)
Shortly thereafter, in a move that collapses the functionality of the magic lantern and the film projector, evoking a cinematic Phantasmagoria, Edison adjusts his device so that “a second heliochromic band replaced the first and began running as quick as light before the reflector,” on which appears “a little bloodless creature, vaguely female of gender, with dwarfish limbs, hollow cheeks, toothless jaws with practically no lips, and almost bald skull, with dim and squinting eyes, flabby lids, and wrinkled features, all dark and skinny” (118). Edison informs Lord Ewald that this is the same Evelyn Habal as in the first image, magically stripped of her make-up and accoutrements.
This doubled vision of beauty and decrepitude not only recalls the anamorphic statue in Baudelaire’s “The Mask,” but it also references directly “Danse Macabre,” a second poem in The Flowers of Evil inspired by a Christophe statuette. The poem describes a female skeleton who dances in a ballroom encircled by couples perfumed with musk but who smell of death and who, like those circling the skeleton on the title page of the Fabrica, remain oblivious to the truth in their midst. The Danse Macabre, a common allegorical trope in the late Medieval period, often depicted as a death figure leading a group of dancing skeletons to the grave, was both admired and emulated by Baudelaire (see Anzalone 784). While both the poem and Villiers’s chapter play on its visual themes, they also hearken back to a particular elaboration of the vanitas image in which a beautiful woman sits at a looking glass, her mirrored reflection appearing as a skull or skeleton (see figure 5). Such images lend themselves to a dual interpretation, forming at once a critique of female vanity and a memento mori in which the female figure represents the personification of Beauty as that to which the world of appearances aspires, made poignant by the face of death smiling back, which reminds the viewer of the ephemeral nature not just of beauty, but of the entire world of things.
In Villiers’s novel both readings are brought into play: if Evelyn Habal represents the woman/death dyad as vanity (indeed, the name “Habal” derives from the Hebrew word for “vanity”),12 then Hadaly (“the ideal whose name, spelled backwards, roughly renders the Hebrew noun yaldah, signifying ‘a girl or maiden,’ especially one of marriageable age” [Leasure 140]). serves as her antidote, the vanitas or that which Baudelaire described admiringly in Danse Macabre as a “charm of nothingness so madly decked” (197). The comparison between the two is underscored in the next chapter, in which Edison leads Ewald to a drawer in which he has kept Evelyn Habal’s things since her death. He is accompanied by Hadaly, who illuminates the collection with a torch, “like a statue at the side of a tomb” (119), bringing to mind a statue of liberty whose call to freedom is in the form of a memento mori. Edison’s presentation of the dancer’s beautifying accoutrements is the contreblason to Ewald’s initial blazoning of the singer, Alicia, a parodic echoing of those same attributes upon which praise was bestowed, now rendered horrifying through their deconstruction:
“Here we have ... the tresses of Salome, the glittering fluid of the stars, the brilliance of sunlight on autumn foliage, the magic of forest noontides, a vision of Eve the blond, our youthful ancestry, forever radiant! Ah! To revel in these tresses! What a delight, eh?”
And he shook in the air a horrible mare’s nest of matted hair and faded ribbons, streaked here and there where the coloring had worn away, mottled and tangled, a dirty rainbow of wig work, corroded and yellowed by the action of various acids.
“Here now is the lily complexion, the rosy modesty of the virgin, here is the seductive power of passionate lips, moist and warm with desire, all eager with love!”
And he set forth a make-up box filled with half-empty jars of rouge, pots of greasepaint, creams and pastes of every sort, patches, mascara, and so forth....
“Here now are the lovely breasts of our siren, from the salt sea waves of morning! From the foam of ocean and the rays of the sun, here are the ethereal contours of the heavenly court of Venus!”
And he waved aloft some scraps of gray wadding, bulging, grubby, and giving off a particularly rancid odor.
“Here are the thighs of the wood nymph, the delirious bacchante, the modern girl of perfect beauty, more lovely than the statues of Athens, and who dances with such divine madness!”
And he brandished aloft various old girdles, falsies, and apparatus of steel and whalebone, busks of orthopedic function, and the remains of two or three ancient corsets so complicated, what with their laces and buttons, that they looked like old dismantled mandolins, with their strings whipping at random about them. (120)
However frightening these objects are in isolation, they were once able in their totality to cast a spell of seduction that, like a siren’s call, lured Edward Anderson to his eventual doom. Echoing Baudelaire’s views on the tricks of artifice with which modern women conjure an image that verges on the supernatural, Edison assures Ewald that even if Anderson had been aware of the dancer’s trickery, his fate was sealed. “What is this craft called ‘make-up’? Women have fairy fingers, it’s clear! And once the original impression is produced, I tell you the illusion clings forever ... even on the most hideous of all women” (118). Indeed, Edison conjectures that such “modern Furies” as Evelyn Habal benefit from an unfortunate equation in which “their morbid and fatal influence on their victim is in direct ratio to the quantity of moral and physical artifice with which they reinforce—or, rather, overwhelm—the very few natural seductive powers they seem to possess” (115; emphasis in original). Thus, the dancer’s deleterious effect on Edison’s friend, which was complete and all-consuming, must have been caused by a total negativity: “Only the absolute void could have imposed on him this particular manner of vertigo” (110; emphasis in original).13
After discovering the secret of Evelyn Habal’s allure, Edison concludes that if the vertiginous effect that the dancer had on his friend Edward Anderson can be reduced to the contents of a drawer, why not mobilize the same production to a more positive end?
“In a word, I have come, I, the ‘Sorcerer of Menlo Park,’ as they call me here, to offer the human beings of these new and up-to-date times, to my scientific contemporaries as a matter of fact, something better than a false, mediocre, and ever-changing Reality; what I bring is a positive, enchanting, ever-faithful Illusion. If it’s just one chimera for another, one sin against another sin, one phantasm against all the rest, why not, then?” (164; emphasis in original)
Edison then sets to work building the android Hadaly, in which he will recreate the formula of artificially-induced desire that he has distilled from his studies of Evelyn Habal, but amplified by “saturating it with a profound awe hitherto unknown” (123; emphasis in original). He will thus coax from the most degraded form of artifice a vision of impossible sublimity. And despite the advanced techologies used in the process, Hadaly’s creation, as implied by her initial dissection, has less in common with scientific invention than with mythological transubstantiation.
As Marina Warner tells us at the start of her essay “Aegis of Athena,” “the transfiguration of a Homeric hero is achieved through armour” (104)—and, indeed, our first glimpse of the android Hadaly in the novel is “a coat of armor, shaped as for a woman out of silver plates,” onto which the image of Alicia will be forged. The transformation of this metallic figure into the image of a woman will be replicated in Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1927), in which Rotwang, the mad scientist, builds an android whose initial appearance resembles a coat of armor (with a distinctly art deco flair), into which he invests the life force of the virginal Maria, an act that also magically transposes her image onto the android’s outer shell. While both new and imaginary technologies figure heavily in the creation scenes of both Hadaly and the false Maria, in each case the metal body onto which the female image is cast is figured as the base element in an occult process whose result is an alchemical transubstantiation (made explicit in Metropolis by a pentagram that hangs behind the android as she is being transformed), which will result not in a copy but in a radically altered being. Hadaly is described by Villiers not as an android but as an “Androsphinx” (193), a paradoxical enigma in the form of a living woman. Although a technological marvel, she will, from the moment Lord Ewald first encounters her, continually direct him beyond her own material presence to the metaphysical realm as the source from which she has been incarnated.
When Lord Ewald is reintroduced to the transfigured Hadaly later in the novel, he asks, “Who are you?” (194), and in her explanation, Hadaly recreates the parable of Plato’s cave, suggesting that she is an emissary from a more real, infinite reality, for which our own is “merely the metaphor” (195; emphasis in original). She suggests that this supernal realm can be glimpsed in flights of the imagination, such as in the forms and figures that take shape in the shadows of night, when we are between sleep and waking. “And the first natural instinct of the Soul is to recognize them, in and through that same holy terror which bears witness to them” (196; emphases in original). They are often quickly extinguished, however, when, in the morning light, our sense of reason dismisses them as mere illusions cast by “clothes tossed hastily over the back of a chair” (195). It is the reasonable mind that deadens the world by turning those objects, shapes, and colors that vibrate with metaphysical possibility into a world of inanimate things:
“I am an envoy to you from those limitless regions whose pale frontiers man can contemplate only in certain reveries and dreams. There all periods of time flow together, there space is no more; there the last illusions of instinct disappear.... Who am I? A creature of dream, who lives half-awake in your thoughts, and whose shadow you may dissipate any time with one of those fine reasonable arguments which will leave you, in my place, nothing but vacancy, sorrow, heartache—the fruits of that truth to which they pretend.” (198)
Hadaly is a portal to an infinite realm beyond time and space, but the rational mind, if it so chooses, can reduce her to an aesthetic object, a piece of metal inscribed with a programmatic series of interactions. She implores Ewald to defend her against his reason for, she suggests, it is only in his imagination that the spark of her existence is ignited: “Attribute a being to me, affirm that I am! Reinforce me with your self. And then suddenly I will come to life under your eyes, to precisely the extent that your creative Good Will has penetrated me” (199). Hadaly’s confession to Ewald of her own contingency is not just an entreaty but a justification of her artificiality; it is what makes her the phantom that edifies rather than the phantom that corrupts, as in the manner of women like Evelyn Habal, who attempt to pass off illusion as reality.
The Anamorphic-Anatomical Gaze in Cinema. It is as self-conscious illusion, accomplished via anamorphosis, that the dissection and transfiguration of Hadaly achieves its status as heir to the anatomical imaginary of the Renaissance. Like Vesalius, who both points towards and away from the dissected body on the title page of his masterwork, there is, Villiers suggests through Edison, a revelatory quality to the vacillating gesture between the beautiful woman and the “truth” beneath her appearance, whether it is the skeleton beneath the semblance of glamour or the mechanism within the android. Indeed, it is this gesture that sustains both the narrative and our interest in the android Hadaly; once she is completed and indistinguishable from a living woman, the story is brought to a swift close.14 Moreover, it is in the invocation of the anamorphic-anatomical gaze that Tomorrow’s Eve anticipates the cinema and, in particular, the films of Georges Méliès. Indeed, the kind of vacillation that Hadaly represents is writ large in the first trick film that Georges Méliès ever shot, entitled Escamotage d’une Dame au Théâtre Robert Houdin [The Vanishing Lady, 1896], a cinematic interpretation of the vanitas. In the film, a magician (Méliès) covers a seated woman with a fabric; when he removes it, she has disappeared, and in her place sits a skeleton.
Lucy Fischer, in her essay “The Lady Vanishes,” has written at length about early trick films, both those of Méliès and other filmmakers including Edison, showing how they incorporate the visual rhetoric of stage magic. As she points out, there are many examples in which the female body is juxtaposed with or transformed into symbols of death, including Edison’s film The Mystic Swing (1900). She considers such films, along with the magical tradition they emulate, as a site at which complex and contradictory attitudes towards women, and in many cases a distinct fear of the Other, are enacted by the male magician:
Perhaps this fear of women explains why so many magic films involve tricks in which women are turned into men, thereby annihilating their disturbing sexual status. In A Delusion (Biograph/1902) a female model turns into a man each time the photographer looks into the camera lens. In The Artist’s Dilemma (Edison/ 1901) a woman turns into a clown. (34)
While Fischer’s discussion is both broad and nuanced, drawing on insights from anthropology and psychoanalysis, it overlooks the tropes of allegorical representation in which Méliès dabbles in his films, many of which deal with hieratic themes (from Satan to Faust) as well as their parodic undertones. As many have pointed out, Méliès revives in his films the mythological and ritual roots of modern magic, while borrowing techniques and themes from the stagecraft of his day, including theatrical repertory, opera, the circus, and, in particular, the féerie, a theatrical spectacle of acrobatics, music, and mime, which appealed to the newly liberated masses following the French Revolution and in which decapitations, dismembered bodies, and other magical transformations were often the highlight (see Kovács). Despite his recreation of such scenes and the proscenium arch beneath which they unfold, however, Méliès’s work is, above all, a celebration of the new technological abilities of cinema to produce, in unprecedented fashion, an allegorical spectacle that, like the anatomical scene, points simultaneously at and beyond its own outrageous visuality.
In attempting to understand Méliès’s oeuvre, it is helpful to consider the distinction that Walter Benjamin draws between the magician and the surgeon, as well as the homologies that he then makes between the magician and painter and the surgeon and cameraman. Although Benjamin is referring to the magician, who heals through a laying on of hands, his insights still hold for the prestidigitator or the stage magician who is able to conjure magical illusions with the wave of a wand. According to Benjamin, unlike the magician, who faces his patient (or audience) directly and whose art requires a certain distance, the cameraman, like the surgeon, is invisible yet directly penetrates his patient’s (the spectator’s) body:
Magician and surgeon compare to painter and cameraman. The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web. There is a tremendous difference between the pictures they obtain. That of the painter is a total one, that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law. (233-34)
While the films of Méliès recreate the environment of the theatrical stage, with the magician performing at a substantial remove from his audience, whom he faces directly, the magic of a Méliès film lies not only in what is conjured before our eyes by the magician (played by Méliès), but also by the stop-motion substitutions and editorial splicing of the filmmaker (who is also Méliès).15 And there is enacted within many of his films a sustained tension between the two. While the magician attempts to conjure for our visual delectation (and his own) an image of monumental beauty (whether in the form of a beautiful woman or statue), the cameraman keeps replacing the image with its opposite: a man, a cook, or that ultimate reminder of the transience of all worldly things, a skeleton. The result is an ongoing vacillation whose equivalent is the anamorphic statue, and which achieves a self-referentiality that destabilizes the illusionism inherent not only in the magic act, but in the act of representation itself. Indeed, as the examples given by Fischer make clear, it is not just the magician who is being undermined in such films, but the painter, the photographer, and the sculptor. Even Pygmalion, that rare soul whose encounter with a living statue ends happily, is in Méliès’s reinterpretation confronted with a Galatea who refuses to be contained. Méliès is, like the fictional Edison who resurrects the illusion of Evelyn Habal in order to denature it, conjuring for us an image whose illusionary status he himself will repetitively emphasize by its transience. More particularly, however, he is (also like Edison) showcasing for us the powers of cinema to explode the visual world with what Walter Benjamin hailed as “the dynamite of the tenth of a second” (236).
The transience of the visual object in Méliès’s films, its repetitive substitution by people and things from an unseen field of action, and the parodic manner in which it is dissimulated, effect not only a satirical destabilization of beauty (which proves to be two- and even three-faced), but of the entire world of appearances. As Darragh O’Donoghue suggests, “Méliès’s cinema is not simply an indulgence of joyous escapism and brain-bypassing spectacle—the ‘liberating’ quality of his work destabilizes familiar conceptions of gender, class and the body” (par. 9). Moreover, he resuscitates (as Baudelaire once claimed about French caricature; and it is of note that Méliès was a caricaturist for a political journal before becoming a filmmaker) the visual language of the carnivalesque-grotesque of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, including the techniques of anatomical enumeration. Indeed, the blasons anatomiques, to which Méliès’s and Villiers’s work hearkens, grew out of “the popular dual-faced praise of the [Renaissance] marketplace,” according to Mikhail Bakhtin, who reminds us that even Clément Marot’s blazoning of “The Beautiful Breast” was to be read in conjunction with its contreblason “The Ugly Breast,” a combination intended to produce ambivalent laughter over a female body part that was never meant to be isolated from the whole, let alone addressed as if it were a person (Bakhtin 427-30).
By invoking the carnivalesque-grotesque within the context of film, Méliès is able to achieve what Villiers is only able to hint at in his novel: the use of new technologies to rupture mimesis and habitual perception. It is Villiers, however, who links such rupture, and the cognitive estrangement it produces, specifically with the technological and scientific, and it is in this sense that Villiers, perhaps even more than Méliès, has something to teach us about the cultural role that the technological—particularly when it takes the form of a female android—plays within fictional narratives. Villiers links the android with a “sense of wonder” that, as Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. suggests, will become a hallmark of science fiction, but which is grounded (as Villiers also indicates) in the inter-related aesthetic categories of the sublime and the grotesque. While the sublime tends to be associated with “objects too great to be encompassed” (Csicsery-Ronay 71) that “surpass reason towards the abstract” (79), the grotesque is associated with objects whose irregularity, hybridity, or odd combination of disparate elements defy categorization, surpassing “reason towards the concrete” (79). In each case, however, “the resisting object forces the observing consciousness to recoil and reorganize its concepts and its horizons of possibility,” showing the sublime and the grotesque to be “in such close kinship that they are shadows of each other” (79).
Villiers underscores just how closely the two experiences are related through an invocation of the anatomy theater of the Renaissance, in which the visual attraction and repulsion of the grotesque—produced via the rupture of the familiar contours of the human body to reveal an unfamiliar and excessive inner landscape—was translated by the ritualized environment surrounding the anatomical performance into a larger symbolic context, so that it was experienced as sublime. And by replacing the human body in the dissection scene with that of the android, Villiers anticipates the merging of the grotesque and sublime within the techno-scientific imaginary of the postmodern. Indeed, Hadaly presages a long line of literary and cinematic female androids, whose Ideal hyper-realism will be punctured and punctuated by a grotesquerie of exteriorized technological components, implicated in the kind of global, networked systems of power and control that Fredric Jameson has famously associated with the postmodern sublime (Jameson 37-38).16
One can, for example, find echoes of Hadaly in the female android star of the television series The Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008- ). In this latest installment of the Terminator franchise, the future savior of humanity, John Connor, is a teenager living in Southern California with his mother Sarah and the android, named Cameron (after James Cameron, the creator of the first Terminator films), who is being passed off as his sister but who has been sent by his future self to protect him through an adolescence troubled by, among other things, the specter of the coming robotic apocalypse. Like Tomorrow’s Eve, the story is set in the present, but one that is continually visited by both the past and the future: not only do a range of characters arrive from other time-frames, but John and Sarah have jumped into the present moment from the past (i.e., 1999) in order to intervene at a critical juncture in the development of the networked system of artificial intelligence that will give rise to the robotic ruling class.
The figure of Cameron offers a surprising answer to a trend on which Csicsery-Ronay comments. As Csicsery-Ronay remarks, the grotesque has lost much of its visceral impact due not only to biotechnologies that have made hybridization—from genetic engineering to prosthetics—a fact of everyday life, but also to an increasingly postmodern sensibility in which both the forms of and boundaries between objects and people have been called into question. As an example, he notes how radically attitudes towards cyborgs shifted from the first Terminator film in 1984 to its sequel in 1991: whereas in the original film, “The Terminator is a version of a monster from the Id, a heartless biker killer, while Sarah is presented as an exaggeratedly feminine woman,” in the sequel the very same T-800 model sent to kill Sarah in the first film has been reprogrammed to protect her and John, while Sarah “has been transformed into a hard-bodied guerilla” (76), a transformation that gave audiences little pause.
Cameron, a figure who embodies both the femininity of the old Sarah and the ruthless killing machinery of the original Terminator, is able to revive the kind of anamorphic vision with which the grotesque was originally associated through a vacillation between the two. This vacillation is achieved in moments of physical rupture—whether through violence or dissection, the latter usually conducted in order to fix something that has gone awry, and often with John acting as surgeon—during which Cameron’s beautiful appearance is penetrated through the exteriorization of her technological components. Such moments, which are emphasized in the promotional materials for the series (see figures 6a and 6b), not only recall the dissection of Hadaly in Villiers’s novel but also its aesthetic origins in the blasons anatomiques and the memento mori, for it is in these moments that we are reminded of the future death of humanity, of which Cameron is both harbinger and intermediary, which continues to drive the series (and the franchise) both forwards and backwards.
While androids such as Cameron and Hadaly raise legitimate questions about the status of the female body within contemporary media representations (particularly when presented, as Hadaly is in Villiers’s novel, as a corrective to the flaws of living women), they are also fantastical creatures whose technological artificiality is a key aspect of their meaning. Heir to the Renaissance grotesque, a paradoxical image or object limning the margin between sense and senselessness, such beings are mascots—that is, both ornamental extra and embodiment—of science fiction as a paraspace, “a zone of heightened rhetoricity and linguistic defamiliarization” (Bukatman 15) in which the shock and awe of technological penetration and possibility is experienced as integral to everyday human life.
I am indebted to Rob Latham for his editorial guidance throughout the process of writing this essay. I would also like to thank the two anonymous SFS reviewers, who gave me excellent advice for revision, and my colleagues in the faculty writing group at Connecticut College (James Downs, David Greven, Simon Hay, Eileen Kane, Cybèle Locke, and Jessica Mulligan), who offered valuable feedback on an earlier draft of the essay.
1. For a discussion of the novel’s treatment of the (then) new art of photosculpture, see Lathers (46-55).
2. Calder’s trilogy encompasses the novels Dead Girls (1992), Dead Boys (1994), and Dead Things (1996); for analyses of this series in terms of its conflation of cybernetic transformation, gender performance, and sexual desire, see Foster, Latham, and Melzer (183-218). For a discussion of the influence of Villiers’s Pygmalion fantasy on twentieth-century avant-garde and popular works of sf, from Tommaso Landolfi’s “Gogol’s Wife” (1954) to Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (1972), see Pulham.
3. The “cinema of attractions” is a phrase coined by Gunning to refer to cinema before 1906, in which narrative is secondary to visual interest. One of the key elements of this early form of cinema is the direct address of the camera by the actors. Like a sideshow spectacle, “the cinema of attractions directly solicits spectator attention, inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle—a unique event, whether fictional or documentary, that is of interest in itself” (Gunning, “Cinema of Attractions” 40).
4. In 1539, Parisian poet-bookseller Gilles Corrozet published Les Blasons Domestiques, which praised the “parts of a respectable house as correctives to the ‘anatomical blazons’” that he considered offensive (Vickers, “Members Only” 2-5).
5. Unlike Sawday, who is interested in drawing correspondences between the blazon and anatomical dissection, Vickers suggests that while the practice of anatomy situated the fragmented body “in relation to an image of a vital whole,” few attempts were made to recover bodily integrity in the presentation of the blasons anatomiques (“Members Only” 9).
6. Translator Robert Martin Adams draws parallels between Miss Alicia in the novel and Miss Anny Eyre Powell, a wealthy London woman whom Villiers attempted to court with disastrous results: “Villiers escorted his young lady to Covent Garden, and in the privacy of a box declared his passion. But he recited so much poetry, gave such a long reading from his next novel, and grew so frantically agitated that the young lady was frightened, thought him a lunatic, and made her escape from his society as abruptly as she could.... [O]f the whole episode what remained most strongly in Villiers’ mind was the spiritless, blockish female who had been utterly incapable of responding to his romantic declarations, had not even glimpsed the world of his ideal values” (Adams xii).
7. The mise-en-abyme was originally understood as the placement of a smaller version of a heraldic escutcheon within the same escutcheon.
8. According to Harpham, the “Grotto-esque” was inspired by the fantastical, bestial, and anatomically hybrid forms that populated the frescoes discovered in the buried rooms and labyrinthine passageways of Nero’s Domus Aurea, or Golden Palace, which were excavated in 1480 and had a great influence on ornamental design (73-104).
9. Caldwell, a medical doctor turned literary scholar, is unique in her reading of the animated corpse of the high Renaissance. Whereas most find themes of sadism, masochism, and misogyny in anatomical imagery that combines the aesthetic and scientific contemplation of dissected bodies in situ, Caldwell points to an implied self-referentiality that contributes to an ethics of medicine, which she finds lacking in the age of clinical detachment (325-57).
10. Krieger is here summarizing Rosalie Colie’s argument in her 1966 book Paradoxia Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox.
11. This phrase is borrowed from Baudelaire’s description of French caricature (“un élément mysterérieux, durable, éternal”) in “On the Essence of Laughter” (147).
12. See Ecclesiastes 1:2: “habal habalim, vêk’hôl habal” (“vanity of vanities; all is vanity”). The name Evelyn Habal thus suggests a vain or self-conscious (and thus post-lapsarian) Eve akin to the rational Venus, Alicia Clary. For a discussion of the three dissected women of Villiers’s novel—Alicia Clary, Evelyn Habal, and Hadaly—as instantiations of the Eve of Milton’s Paradise Lost, see Leasure (129-44).
13. The thematic of a spiraling nullity around which desire is constructed was explored to great effect by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1958 film Vertigo, in which a simple and ordinary woman, Judy Barton, is able to trick the main protagonist, Scottie, into believing that she is Madeleine, the wife of an old friend of his, whom he has been hired to follow. As Madeleine, she will appear to be possessed by the spirit of a dead woman, in front of whose portrait in a museum she sits in a trance for hours at a time, and Scottie will find her so beautiful and mysterious that he will become obsessed with her. After Madeleine’s apparent death, Scottie accidentally runs into Judy Barton and, although initially put off by her banality, is so taken by her visual similarity to Madeleine that he attempts to recreate the aura of the dead woman by asking Judy to wear her hair and clothes in a similar style. The conception of desire expressed in the film—that it can be catalyzed by an assemblage of technologies of artifice producing the effect of a woman, and that the greater the absence for which such artifice compensates, the greater the desire it inspires—is articulated by Edison in Villiers’s novel.
14. Rather than living happily ever after, Hadaly is destroyed in a fire on the ship on which she and Ewald are returning home. Lord Ewald makes it clear in a telegram to Edison that he will follow her into the abyss, encouraging an association between their courtship and the Danse Macabre (218-19).
15. According to Gunning, while many believed that most of the tricks in Méliès’s films were produced by stop-motion substitutions performed in camera, closer examination of the prints has revealed that, in most cases, such substitutions were perfected by splicing the film (“‘Primitive’ Cinema” 3-12).
16. For a discussion of the anime film Ghost in the Shell (Kôkaku kidôtai, 1995) in terms of the figure of the networked female cyborg, see Silvio.
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