Body, Gender, Aesthetics

The body has always been a central object of study in the arts and sciences, but in the wake of recent scholarship on women and gender the body has come into focus as never before in history. Many studies demonstrate how the body has been used as a “natural” argument for definitions and evaluations of femininity and masculinity, as well as how these cultural constructions imply value hierarchies and power relationships. Art and literature often deal with tensions between the body as experience and the meanings into which it is inscribed.

Today, it seems more relevant than ever to investigate experience bound to the body, to analyse representations of the body in art and popular culture, and to give our contemporary body culture historical resonance and context. The body is probably more important than before as a site where human beings develop various aspects of their individuality. Our culture encourages a profound consciousness of our situation as bodies – gendered bodies. This is not positive or negative as such, but a fact that has different implications and calls for diverse responses.

One example is the wider range of body expressions and change. Hair style, make-up, movements and fashion are means of bodily performance with much more flexibility and exchangeability than previously. Parts of the body can be altered by surgery or medication, organs can be transplanted from one body to another, and experimental use of organic material challenges former ethical standards. Gender is even a state of being, or a sign, or an aspect of the self that can vary within one person.

Difference means liberation for some, imprisonment for others. Stable dressing codes such as school uniforms, for instance, are a nuisance for some, a form of safety for others. Muslim girls defend their dresses and veils, while others see their clothing as a mark of gender discrimination and subjection. In spite of the so-called freedom of choice in the West, why do we still dress very similarly, and why are we so hung up on following current fashion? Why does body alteration always mean adjustment to well-known ideals? And why are colour, gender and sexual orientation bodily criteria for hierarchy and exclusion?

There are no simple answers to these questions, but a basic and necessary attitude is to approach the body as not just a physical thing or a neutral object,

but as a complexity of meaning. The body with its behaviour, its appearance and its functions is a major generator of ideological production and confrontation. The task and responsibility of our research is to shed critical light on these meanings and their effects.

In this special issue of Edda, the goal is to elucidate and interrogate current aesthetic and theoretical scholarship on the gendered body. Five of the articles were originally given as papers at the conference The Gendered Body, Aesthetics and Experience, at Agder University College, Kristiansand, 3–6 June 2004. ­Sarah J. Paulson’s article is an extended and revised version of a paper that she presented at the 93rd annual meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies (SASS) held in Minneapolis, Minnesota on 1–3 May 2003. The book reviews, which match the topic, have been written especially for this volume.

I am proud to present the following content, which is fronted by two distinguished poets in Norwegian contemporary literature, Annabelle Despard and Torild Wardenær. The scholarly contributions which follow, take their point of departure with the oldest bodies that exist on earth, the bog bodies, and conclude with a discussion on desire between same-sex bodies in a new Norwegian novel.

In the past few decades, a surprising number of women writers and visual artists have mined ancient bog bodies for engendered material metaphors. The promise of a combined transience-permanence, offered in these remarkable remains, clearly excites artistic imagination. The bodies seem to suggest the potentiality for intimate subjective investments with material objects from the past, and have inspired contemporary visual artists to use the material traces of the bodies as moments of actuality. In her article, Karin Sanders discusses whether there is a distinct vocabulary, a particular set of metaphors, which allow us to rethink how gender ties into past-present constructions. To what degree is re-gendering of ancient remains ideologically charged? And how do we question the relationship between humanized and dehumanized bodies?

Asthenia as a medical term was first coined by the Scottish medico John Brown in his famous Elementa medisinae (1780). According to Brown’s “theory of excitability”, health is determined by the transaction between external and internal “stimuli” and “excitability”, which is seated in the medullary portion of the nerves and in the muscles, and causes “excitement”. “Brunonianism” was a controversial phenomenon. As is the case with the “chronic fatigue syndrome” (CFS) of our time, sceptics considered asthenia an imagined illness caused by certain medical theories and popular debate. In her article, Torill Steinfeld discusses how the “brunonianism” of the late 18th and early 19th century affected women. Her main case is the Danish salonière Kamma Rahbek (1775–1829). The thesis is that “brunonianism” as a new medical theory offered not only a theory of the body, especially the nerve system, but also provided new possibilities for describing and understanding the interaction between a woman and her surroundings.

Elisabeth Bronfen takes a look at how, starting with Mozart's Queen of the Night, the antagonism between the project of Enlightenment and that of Romanticism has come to be negotiated over bodies deemed transgressive, because of their belonging to the realm of the night. As a refiguration of the figure of Nyx in Greek mythology, allegories of the night – as these resurface in incorporations such as fictional, operatic and cinematic queens of the night – have come to function as a privileged site where issues of origin and the triumph over darkness on the one hand, and a desire for a return to the womb-tomb of a prehistoric source on the other, can be culturally exchanged and ideologically evaluated. She discusses figures such as Freud's Anna O. and Jane Campion’s heroine Frannie in the film In the Cut, and asks: What knowledge is gained on that other scene the night affords? How much of this knowledge is subversive, how much transferable into the diurnal everyday? In other words, Bronfen’s concern is to sustain the antagonism between the search for 'light' proposed by an enlightened philosopher like Freud and the desire for darkness that much operatic, literary and cinematic representation veers towards.

Tarjei Vesaas is known as a modernist writer. His poems often dwell upon motives already expressed in his novels, or they anticipate motives that will turn up later. The frozen winter and the often dramatically described thaw are among his favourites. The coldness does not correspond unambiguously with fair and death. One essential question is how the human body in Vesaas’s characteristic oscillation between presence and absence is related to the “metamorphoses” expressed through images of nature. His figures are mostly melancholy men drifting aimlessly; however, in The Ice Palace (1963. Trans. 1993) he focuses on the young female body in a peculiar way. First in a double – two eleven-year-old look-a-like girls, then one disappears in the frozen waterfall, which evokes the assumed main quest: What is it about the (missing) girl? The last chapter, “The Palace Falls”, declares that “No one is involved deeply enough to be present” when the waterfall collapses, not mentioning the dead body at all. Rakel Christina Granaas, in her article, discusses this fade out of the body in the novel and compares it with the earlier poem entitled “Inferno Under the Ice” (1949. Trans. 2001).

Hanne Ørstavik is one of the most successful young authors in Norway today. Given the overwhelming response to Ørstavik’s earlier work, the reception of Uke 43 (2002), however, is surprisingly negative. Much of the criticism has revolved around the portrait of the protagonist, Solveig, who is seen as too vague or more like a piece of a puzzle than a well-developed character. In ­Sarah J. Paulson’s approach, the novel draws our attention to how Solveig personifies literature and thus incarnates a bodily aesthetic. Ørstavik’s text has the ability to shake, hold, hug and squeeze the reader, she maintains. In other words, “good” literature interacts intimately and personally with the reader as if it were a human body. The reader is held tight, tortured and penetrated by the literary body in a physical way. This intimacy is an “opening” that allows for communication to take place. Instead of taming, killing or locking up Solveig’s

desire, Ørstavik inscribes it in the text in all its complexity, showing that the darkness surrounding Solveig’s desire is penetrable in spite of its unfathomable nature. Paradoxically, her emphasis on body and space allows for a representation through language of what Solveig describes as living, painful experience.

The publication of Tore Renberg’s 2003 novel Mannen som elsket Yngve elicited polarized criticism regarding the homosexual lust and love in this novel. It was banned from junior high literature courses, and simultaneously transposed to a film manuscript. The tough hero of the story, Jarle Klepp, narrates his teenage infatuation on a retrospective journey to the 1990s. Although he has a girlfriend, the true object of Jarle’s affection is another boy, Yngve. Readers and critics have not engaged the queer text, but predictably have united to disavow the gender questions in the novel in keeping with the national trend of heterosexual hegemony. Melissa Gjellstad questions the homophobia of the literary text and offers an alternative reading of the discourse of male teenage bodies in Renberg’s novel. Elements of the narrative investigation of these bodies as valid objects of desire transgress culturally conditioned guidelines for a heterosexual teenage boy, yet the progressive contribution is ultimately squelched by psychosis at the novel’s end. Homosexuality cannot be sidestepped by attributing Jarle’s “confused” sexuality to the instability of teenage youth. Gjellstad addresses this counterproductive stance on gendered teenage bodies by reading the accentuated tensions in the literary and cultural text

Three book reviews conclude the present volume. Knut Ove Eliassen has read Mark Sandberg’s book Living Pictures – Missing Persons; Mannequins, Museums and Modernity. Elise Seip Tønnessen reviews Wencke Mühleisen’s study on gender and modern television, and Monika Zagar discusses – and recommends – a brand new anthology on the New Woman and 20th-century literature, edited by Ebba Witt-Brattström.

Unni Langås