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Suzanne Waldman. The Demon and the Damozel: Dynamics of Desire in the Works of Christina Rossetti and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Athens, OH; Ohio University Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-0821418161 Price: US $39.95

  • Constance Hassett

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  • Constance Hassett
    Fordham University

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Suzanne Waldman's basic assumption throughout The Demon and the Damozel: Dynamics of Desire in the Works of Christina Rossetti and Dante Gabriel Rossetti is that the alignment of two powerful discourses, "psychoanalytic theory and Victorian literature," yields valuable results (6). Aiming to rescue the Rossetti siblings from pathologizing readings that dismiss Christina as a victim of "severe Christian commitments" (5) and Dante Gabriel as an inveterate sensualist, Waldman proceeds with great subtlety to read the Rossettis' art in terms of Jacques Lacan's theory of cleavage between the imaginary and symbolic orders and Julia Kristeva's re-articulation of this split in terms of desire and symbolic law.

Beginning with Christina Rossetti, Waldman divides the poems into two broad categories: devotional lyrics that pursue transcendence in relation to a divine Other and gothic narratives that feature temptations and guilty attachments to demonic others. A willingness to view Rossetti as a latter-day mystic, provides the impetus for a Lacanian description of the devotional poetry's "tendency toward sublimation" (10). The poem "Confluents," with its shuttling between referents that are either "suggestively erotic" or "determinedly spiritual," is said to mime precisely the "semiotic actions" Kristeva finds in the biblical Song of Solomon (18). For poems about spiritual anxiety, including such pieces as the beautiful "Weary in Well-Doing," Waldman invokes both Kristeva's warning that religious desire can undergo "slippage" into merely narcissistic yearning and Lacan's wry prediction that spiritual disappointment is inevitable given that "the Other does not respond" (20). In her somewhat unconventional comparison of Christina Rossetti's sonnet sequences, Waldman views Monna Innominata as a narrative of failed sublimation that concludes with the lady "mourning for earthly joys" (27). In contrast, Later Life rigorously analyzes "the empty nature of her desire," but comes to regard it as dispensable and succeeds in sublimating it "into a religious quest" (33).

Although Rossetti's consistent theme is attempted self-transcendence, some of her best-known work considers guilty submission to what Waldman, in an arresting Lacanian phrase, calls the "ferocious figure" (39). Generated by the super-ego, this false authority figure appears variously as the beast of "My Dream," the cruel seducer of "Love from the North," and the commanding tempters of "Goblin Market." Reading these narratives against the background of the devotional lyrics, Waldman observes how their "glamorization of desire contests with condemnation of it" and how, as an ensemble, they reveal Rossetti's program for "becoming a writer who is master of her demonology" (43).

On turning to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Waldman first examines the revisionary tendency of the paintings based on Dante Alighieri's La Divina Commedia and La Vita Nuova. Her choice of this coherent body of pictorial work, allows discussion to focus on the appeal of Dantean erotics for a painter bent on exploring the imaginary Order, that is to say, the psychic Order where "libidinal investments are dominant" (71). Close analysis of the watercolor triptych, Paolo and Francesca da Rimini (1855) emphasizes that the right-hand panel's depiction of the lovers embracing in hell conveys none of the "misery" recorded in Dante's poem (75). On the contrary, Rossetti's pair is still caught up in what Lacan calls the "specular mirage" (75), his label for the effect of the passionate glances that, in Francesca's account, propelled the couple into their affair (Inferno 5.130-38). In this reading, the painting's central figure, the onlooking Virgil, represents "the regulating gaze of the symbolic Other" whom Paolo and Francesca adulterously defied and are, Rossetti shows, defying still (76). The chapter's chief interest, however, is Rossetti's evolving interpretation of Dante's love of Beatrice.

The dynamics of the represented gaze is a significant feature of any picture, and the exchanged glances in Rossetti's Dantean illustrations prove to be especially meaningful. When analyzing the "scopic reference points" (76) in the early watercolor Beatrice Meeting Dante at a Marriage Feast, Denies Him Her Salutation (1851), Waldman finds that Rossetti's expressively-aimed glances alter the Vita Nuova's narrative in a way that suggests "mutual imaginary attraction" (77) between the two Florentines. Similar revision occurs in the important oil diptych, The Salutation of Beatrice (1859); here the first panel shows Dante actively meeting Beatrice's gaze and thus implicating the couple (much like Paolo and Francesca) in the "specular moment" of desire (80). The second panel, to be sure, depicts the "eternal version" (80) of their shared gaze, but Waldman persuasively contends that Rossetti's heavenly scene radically alters the source text: in the painting, the noble Dante's idealization of Beatrice becomes "a private narcissistic response" (81). The Salutation diptych is a major picture that marks a turning-point in Rossetti's aesthetic practice; hereafter the ambitious oils such as Dante's Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice (1871) rely on an increasingly fetishistic style of representation. And while this characterization of the later paintings' flowers and rippling draperies is not strictly new, Waldman provides an energetically precise account (via Freud, Griselda Pollock, Laura Mulvey, and Slavoj Žižek) of how and to what effect Rossetti's fetishistic imagery introduces "a measure of pictorial restraint" (88). The chapter is a must-read for art historians and Victorianists alike.

The House of Life is awarded a solo chapter in which Waldman develops a new, twofold reading of how Rossetti's amatory sequence echoes the "the redemptive narrative" of La Vita Nuova even as it proposes a revised process for "the symbolic transformation of desire"(95). In a strategic interpretive move, Waldman considers the sonnets in their order of composition (effectively side-stepping The House of Life's numbered arrangement and complicated publication history) and aligns them with events in Rossetti's biography (too hastily summarized as a "puerile attachment" to Elizabeth Siddal succeeded by a "passion" for Jane Burden Morris (96)). But thanks to Waldman's nimble psychoanalytic commentary, the chronologically re-ordered House of Life emerges as a brilliant quest for transcendence attained through the subject's "libidinal drives … rather than in exchange for them" (72). The sequence, moreover, occasions some of Waldman's most engagingly ambitious claims about Rossetti's anticipation of modern psychoanalytic theory. "Broken Music," with its image of the newborn soul, looks forward to Kristeva's Desire in Language and its account of the semiotic order as an "'instinctual and maternal' precursor to signification" (99). "Willowwood," with its illusion of the beloved's "lips rising" to kiss the speaker's watery reflection, anticipates Lacan's "optical schema for the theory of narcissism" (107) included (with illustration) in The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book 2. The House of Life also allows Waldman to develop an exquisitely fine distinction between the amorous sonnet's two modes of conduct. On the one hand, a fetishistic sonnet such as "Body's Beauty" projects phallic values onto worshiped imaginary women with the result that the poem, in Žižek's phrase, "stages the subject's castration" (111). On the other hand, a more typical sonnet such as "Heart's Hope" allows a beloved, here identified with Lacan's obect petit a, to prompt language that "derives meaning from the subject's relation to her" (109). This latter symbolic aesthetic, sustained amid the loneliness of the beloved's absence, constitutes a mature achievement that counts, in Waldman's scheme, as redemptive.

The final chapter reprises the analysis of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's dual career by focusing on the famous early narratives and the many paintings of beautiful women, beginning with the "wrenchingly intimate" (120) portrayal of Elizabeth Siddal as Beata Beatrix (1856). Invoking Lacan's theory of the artist's "hysterical desire…to…sustain the desire of the father" (122), Waldman proposes that the gleaming light in this scene of Beatrice's "holy transformation" (120) evinces the gazing presence of "the supreme desirer" (120). This interpretation prefaces a career-long overview of Rossetti's shifting aesthetic motivation: the "Art Catholic" pictures of the virgin, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin and Ecce Ancilla Domini!, seek proximity to the divine power (121). The later Venetian-influenced portraits such as Fazio's Mistress (1863-73) solicit the approving gaze of male collectors and the fame that constitutes a "secular form of symbolic transcendence" (121). Extending this analysis of hysterical desire to Rossetti's literary texts, Waldman hypothesizes a solicited Other "beyond the scenes of the poem's action" (122), that is, the deity in "The Blessed Damozel" and the men who are the thoughtful young scholar's implied community in "Jenny." Despite the shift in these portraits and poems from holy to secular subjects, Waldman proposes a deep continuity: as "the divine Other retreats" from Rossetti's work, he is replaced "with an array of secular Others" who wield cultural power over the artist (142). Not content to leave Rossetti in commercial thrall to his purchasers, Waldman turns to an early pen and ink drawing of Mary Magdalene at the Door of Simon the Pharisee, and reads it as Rossetti's self-aware allegory of the popular artist who, nonetheless, glimpses redemption.

A possible objection to Suzanne Waldman's fine book is that she undertakes her project too eagerly. Wanting to believe that the Rossettis' art presents readers and viewers with "protopsychoanalytic" insights (84) later developed in the specialized discourse of Lacan and Kristeva, Waldman commits herself to a double burden of aesthetic and theoretical exposition. If some readers feel that her project tips too far in the direction of theory, the reservation amounts to a perverse compliment. Waldman is a gifted and generous expositor who aims to augment the range of tools available for literary criticism. In this she succeeds admirably.

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