Modernism and Eroticism: Derailment

Benjamin Halligan

The Pirelli Calendars have been described as 'sophisticated erotica.' In a sphere where anything on shiny paper can pass for sophisticated, and erotica is all too often an unpleasantly bulbous woman in Wellington boots, it is a real pleasure to find a product that lives up to its raffish charmů For the most part, man's attempts to portray the woman of his imagination end with the outmoded blandness of the pin-up, or the unsubtle crudity of a gynaecologist's homework.

David Niven, 1975[1]

The notion of the "object of sexual desire" as the focus for the projection of erotic fantasies on the part of the desirer was one intrinsically well-suited to Modernism, and one that ably illustrated Modernism's debt to Freudian thought. It gives rise to a kind of naïve self-proclaimed "honesty": that this. is what's on my mind, that the fantasy, no matter how gaudy or retrogressive, is a true expression of the (to use Shakespeare's term) unaccommodated man. And the modernists, who concerned themselves with the ills of accommodated man (that is, man in relation to the new invention of the city, of modern life), could not but help applaud. Along with Henry Miller they equated eroticism with veracity. The same case has been made in relation to the popularity of jazz in the 1930s among white intelligentsia - the music as a kind of "primitive"-authentic expression, one outside the rules of "good taste", and one that journeyed from the underground (the brothel) to an area of respectability (Carnegie Hall, for example). Here, it was argued, jazz and its milieu had become the locus for projection: colonial fantasies and a confirmation of racial stereotypes. It was a theory that suited those who could not tally the love of jazz on the part of the poet Philip Larkin with the racist sentiment that is (seemingly) honestly laid out in his published Letters[2]

The Freudian-Modernist re-reading allowed a re-imagining of (or, as the Freudian would have had it, a "tapping into") the context from which cultural artefacts sprung. Gustav Klimt's paintings provide a perfect, albeit belated, metaphor; his studies (or, perhaps, "evocations") of ornate Viennese women, almost imprisoned in their gold leaf clothes and weighed down by jewellery, were, as it turned out, creatures cut from a different cloth altogether. Klimt had first painted his women naked, and only then painted the clothes onto them. He had first imprinted the image of sexual freedom onto his canvas (and unaccommodated man expressing the unclothed woman), only to reject the sexual freedom with the rich trappings of society and its fashions. And the faces that are left barely betray the erotic glint typical of Pierre Bonnard's women. Here in Klimt, in x-rayable view beneath the surface of the paintings, was the "true" subject. And Klimt, like Freud, was a native of Vienna.

A new, truer subtext was available - the one that centred on sexual-oedipal tension. Any number of respectable English classics (the respectable English classic as the previous benchmark for respectability) could be decoded along such lines: tea and country walks as barely-suppressed sexual soundings-out, advances, rebuffs, dangers. In the perception of the Modernists, as the need for self-censorship on the part of writers (exemplified by, say, Jane Austen) vanished to be replaced by the desire for unaccommodated, "base" expressions (which reached a fashionable zenith in the 1960s), a countercurrent grew in strength: the desire for an 'artistic' realisation of such expressions. In a way, Fellini's Otto e Mezzo (Eight and a Half., 1963) represents the fullest reverberation of this situation; a film of base, masturbatory, biographical confessions - whole sequences of which function as a kind of spermatorrhoeascape - that provides an autocritique along the lines of how such an expression is, somehow, in itself insufficiently artistic, unable to "make the grade" with the sophisticated contemporary audience. David Niven, that self-deprecating model of male sophistication, acknowledges the need. for a kind of discretion in such an enterprise. He wouldn't argue with Brecht on the subject of pornography - that mystification is useful in hiding an essential blandness in bourgeois art (except, of course, that Niven appreciates it rather than condemns it - at least in the case of Pirelli's "sophisticated erotica").

Another "critical point" could be seen the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. Unlike Nan Goldin, Mapplethorpe never seemed interested in ritual in sexuality (that is, in sexuality as an intrinsic component of existence); unlike Andres Serrano, Mapplethorpe never seemed interested in stylised images of sexuality (that is, sexuality as a cipher for religious or philosophical mindsets). The Mapplethorpe erotic tableau - posed, or mid-narrative, but seemingly almost always with an awareness on the part of his subjects, in this respect akin to Victorian erotica - denoted such a degree of naïve honesty in his project (which, in itself, had a kind of naïve version too: the documentation of Mapplethorpe's locale in the queer underground) that the photographs came to suggest something else altogether. The subjects were so obvious (Berlin leatherboys, pronounced phalluses, Tom of Finland-like caricatured machismo - the whole gamut of clichéd homoerotic imagery) that the viewer is forced into considering what it is that Mapplethorpe is really. talking about. Likewise, the studies of flowers, so delicate, alive and "anatomically" luminous, suggest nothing other than sexuality, from eroticism to the fundamentals of the biological act of procreation. The subtext has overwhelmed and negated the subject matter.

It is such a vantage point that informs the short, dialogueless film Déraillement.. An unnamed woman (middle-aged, a functionally short fringe across the brow, a lined face, but with a full and sensual lips) boards a crowded underground train on the Paris Métro. She squeezes into a free seat but is obliged to push her legs between those of a sleeping man (balding, harsh features, but quizzical - the ghost of youth is still there). She gazes at him. The way his face is doubled, via a reflection in the train window, recalls the late Jean Marais in the films of Jean Cocteau, and the way Cocteau conjured homoerotic imagery (two men, cheek to cheek, regardless that one man was only an "image" - a reflection in a mirror). The woman is, through social convention and convenience, forced into a kind of everyday erotic tableau. It's the same kind of thing that would be realised, in Hollywood movies of the 1950s, in the classic scene where the male instructs the female in the correct way to hold a golf club, or (later) how to hold a snooker cue. Here, the erotic tension is dissipated across the oppressive mise-en-scène.; grimy, claustrophobic, a drab black and white that plays with under- and over- exposure. It evokes a sense of commuters heading home an hour or two beyond their ideal times, after just another day in the office. The shots are tight - little in the way of establishing information - forcing us into this consideration of two otherwise anonymous faces. Even the blur of the train as it speeds under the opening credits prevents the eye from finding images from which to glean information. Her shuffle through the train is all shoulders and backs and coats - the narrative concern is, blandly, the chore of seat-finding. The way this is then mirrored (the woman's legs searching for a place - and finding one between the man's, who then, in his sleep, envelopes her legs further between his) then allows for a transcendence of the aesthetic of the everyday. This is, after all, Paris - the city, as the cliché goes, of love. The woman fantasises about the man.

The sequence is now illuminated, predominantly bright white light which engulfs and cleans the images (which retain the tightness of the framing, the insistence on close-ups). A building (perhaps the Latin Quarter - although the windows suggest a town in Northern Italy), billowing white curtains (always the white, blank pages on which the dream is to be written - that moment of anticipation before the pen hits the page and the possibilities of fiction) and inside the woman on a bed, the man easing himself down to join her, seemingly after coupling. The wordlessness remains. The silence of the Métro, where the couple are unable to talk as they do not know each other, here becomes the silence of a couple who need not talk, as they know all there is to know about the other. The curtains move in the wind and between them, on the wooden floor, the viewer glimpses a broken flowerpot. The concentration on this detail cries out for interpretation - "the Broken Flowerpot of Bourgeois Convention" - and then derides the viewer for the obviousness with which meaning is attributed. But there's a deeper resonance in the sense of something breaking (a second interpretation; the shattering akin to the unseen orgasm? Or, metatextually, perhaps the force that knocked the flowerpot off the window ledge was not the curtain caught in the wind, but the vibrations of the passing train - passing by in the reality from which this fantasy springs). Despite the calmness of the surface of the film and the dreamlike not-quite-there quality, there is a palpable jolt hidden in its joints, as the sensual becomes physical, the imagined registers a trace in reality. This is, after all, the "derailment" of the title - the fantasy crashing into the actualité. since, back in the Métro, the man's eyes flicker open and he takes in the woman, then the row of four knees in front of him.

They have arrived at his stop. The man exits the train and looks back at the woman. He had detected something - the unseen presence of a fantasy; that, momentarily, he was the locus for as much. In his eyes is a frisson of longing, of what could have been, of the enormity of the spectrum of erotic possibilities. The train moves on, and the dream is left behind.

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1 Niven, David. Introduction .in The Complete Pirelli Calendar Book. (London & Sydney: Pan Books Ltd., 1975), unnumbered.

2 Anthony Thwaite, editor. Selected Letters of Philip Larkin., 1940-1985 (London: Faber and Faber, 1992).