In her first book, Suzanne M. Waldman seeks to read the work of both Christina Rossetti and her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti by focusing on what she understands to be its defining affective feature: "the Victorian sense of an insoluble division in the self" (4). In order to illuminate what she sees as a split between culturally forbidden desires and those that are socially sanctioned and regulated, she employs the insights of Freudian theory, particularly in its twentieth-century French elaborations. "In this book," she writes, "I argue that the psychoanalytical account of a subject divided against itself that was formalized by Freud and further developed by Lacan and Kristeva is more capable than most other interpretive models of characterizing the Victorian formations of the Rossettis" (3). Following the penchant of the Pre-Raphaelite critical tradition, Waldman regards the artistic personae of both siblings as identical with their historical persons. Since both artists have their genesis in the same historical milieu as Freud's theories and their subsequent revisions and extrapolations, she contends that their respective oeuvres can be evocatively illuminated by these theories to shed new light on Victorian conceptions of hetero-normative gender, artistic creativity, and canonical authority.
Waldman divides her analyses roughly in two between Christina Rossetti and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She devotes the first two chapters to Christina Rossetti and the remaining three to her brother and fellow artist Dante Gabriel. Waldman's first chapter on Christina Rossetti's poetry of love and devotion takes a stand against critics, such as Isobel Armstrong and Shirley Foster, among others, who argue that Rossetti engages in an écriture féminine of the kinds envisioned by the French feminist critics Cixous and Irigaray. On the contrary, Waldman asserts, Rossetti did not rebel against the limitations of masculine ideologies of domestic harmony or religious transcendence but instead appropriated them to dramatize her interior religious struggles and to pursue "sublime projects of the self" (14, 36-37, 171-172 n. 26). According to Waldman, the "female" subject, by which she usually means Rossetti herself, is barred from courtly hetero-normative discourse because she cannot idealize her love of a masculine object. Oppressed by Victorian gender norms, which promoted masculine dominance both socially and artistically, Rossetti cannot undertake a courtly enterprise that would address an actual man because it would be too dangerous. But Waldman leaves this provocative argument all too soon. Since the great Elizabeth Barrett Browning addresses an actual man with bravura in her Sonnets from the Portuguese, what specific historical conditions explain Rossetti's inhibitions? Given the Victorian love affair with the sonnet sequence, one can only hope that Waldman will tackle both Augusta Webster and Michael Field as Rossetti's fellow revisionists of the masculinist and narcissistic fin amor in future authorial ventures.
Taking its cue from Kristeva, Waldman's argument hints that, like the troubadours seduced from their beloveds by the Virgin Mary, Rossetti denies her love for an actual man, un petit objet a, and sets her cap for Christ, an arguably feminine, Imaginary instantiation of le grand Autre. Or in other terms, she scorns human love for divine completion. Although Waldman clearly identifies Rossetti as caught in this ménage a trois, she does not examine as closely as one might wish how the poet's double position--as both author and object in Monna Innominata (1881)--alters the dynamics of courtly practice. Rossetti does not write from the perspective of a fictive masculine suitor/poet but from the persona of his idealized object of desire. In Tales of Love, Kristeva demonstrates that when the troubadour or trouvere sings, he experiences either joyful ecstasy or a melancholic en-stasis, or more frequently, oscillation between the two, between the mystical totality of meanings and the abyss of non-meaning (Trans. Leon S. Roudiez [New York: Columbia UP, 1987] 287-289); the actual lady is merely a pre-text, a place-holder in this still phallocentric economy. Christina Rossetti clearly evidences a pained and wry awareness of the masculine singer's narcissism and his consumption of his own words at the expense of the ostensible addressee of his poem. Rossetti tartly, if not completely unsympathetically, skewers her brother's aesthetic practice in the generically apt "An Artist's Studio." For Christina Rossetti, the formal structures of devotional poetry and her Anglican faith work to contain the potential excesses of aesthetic devotion. By establishing the socio-Symbolic means by which she consolidates her poetic self and interprets her spirituality, they transform individual passion into communal understanding. Although Waldman's readings of Rossetti's Monna Innominata and the heavily revised Maude Clare (1859) arrive at this conclusion, she makes only the most cursory of nods toward the mystics Hildegard de Bingen, Margery Kempe, and Julian of Norwich, whom she evokes as the poet's precursors. Along with a closer examination of Kristeva's analysis of courtliness, a detailed reading of exactly how these mystics influenced the staunchly Protestant Rossetti would have been most welcome.
Chapter Two, "The Superegoic Demon in Christina Rossetti's Gothic and Fantasy Writings" provides interesting insights into the darker side of religious devotion. Waldman argues that the super-ego or the Symbolic in Lacanian terms emerges in Rossetti's gothic and fantasy writings not as an Imaginary resplendent One but rather as a series of punitive grotesques. Although Waldman provides adequate theoretical scaffolding by which to understand Freud's insights into self-punishing excesses of the would-be righteous, she skips too quickly over Kristeva's comment, which follows a long-established literary tradition, that courtliness re-emerges in the early-nineteenth century with the advent of Romanticism in "baleful" form (Tales 296). Waldman misrecognizes the source of the genre's turn for the worse in the early-nineteenth century. When Kristeva argues that courtliness returns in the nineteenth century as a baleful genre of desire, she means that the poet no longer sings from a position of subjective safety, shored up by a "narcissan" subject model, which is Kristeva's term for an imaginary ideal ego derived ideally from an identification with the "father of personal pre-history" and unmarred by the pathologies associated with secondary narcissism (Tales 45-46, 110-111). This new derelict Romantic subject throws itself into the abyss, hellbent on destroying itself in the Real. According to Kristeva, the demonic emerges from both within and without the socio-symbolic when cultural discourses of ideality are suppressed or negated, either through psychological disintegration or social decay, such as the nineteenth century experienced. As a result, the sublime ecstasy of Imaginary fulfillment is replaced by the abject fear of immersion in "the Thing," which is not, as Waldman posits, a site of transcendence, but a return to the pre-subjective "time-space" prior to the emergence of primary narcissism. The Real rears its ugly, usually female, snake-infested head (but already we are back in the land of the socio-Symbolic, and at this point in Waldman's text, the Gothic). The Symbolic here converges with the Real, according to Lacan's Borromean knot, and reveals itself for what it is when drained of all imaginary content, when a culture(s) finds itself disenchanted of its dominant fictions: a void. Precisely at that point, the Symbolic, shorn of its more or less dazzling Imaginary garments, is experienced as pure tyranny. Hence the subject, robbed of its Imaginary ideals, is persecuted doubly.
Waldman's misunderstanding of the Thing matters because she is right to insist that, even in her demonic poems, Rossetti does not lapse into Romantic decadence but continues to pursue Christian, specifically High Anglican, transcendence. Rossetti's radical conservatism should not be confused with the dark-Romantic wooing of the abyss. Waldman, in spite of her confused rendering of narcissism in all varieties, argues rightly that the demons and tempters that Rossetti conjures in her allegorical poems and dream visions are super-egoic agents, torturing Rossetti's poetic personae. What she does not see clearly is that Rossetti's allegorical agents also possess a hidden feminine face. These poems and visions work to produce visceral and intellectual effects akin to the Kantian sublime. In his famous Critique of Judgment (1790), Kant describes the terror experienced in face of unadulterated power. Lacan recontextualizes this experience with the subject's debasement before the Symbolic when he perceives it as empty punishing Law, a concept which the psychoanalyst equates with Kant's Categorical Imperative. But what Waldman does not adequately illuminate is how the Real, also present here, seduces with its promises of oceanic, suicidal jouissance. The sublime moment, however, comes afterwards, when reason, or what passes for it, re-establishes itself. But the Real never strays very far from the super-ego
In spite of her desire to show how Lacanian theory offers new insights into understanding Rossetti's "Goblin Market," Waldman's perfectly adequate reading adds little to the critical tradition which construes the poem as an allegory of religious temptation and its overcoming. Recent articles, such as Herbert F. Tucker's "Goblin Marketing: Sweet to Tongue and Sound to Eye" (Representations [Spring 2003]: 117-233), have provided historical grounding not only for the canonical critical tradition in which this poem has been received but also for Rossetti's public aim in pursuing her art. Tucker argues that the poet makes a case for a poetics grounded in a Christian faith that could re-educate a vulgar taste for the worldly and wordy wares hawked in the Victorian marketplace into a wholesome appetite for more spiritual fare. Here, the reader learns how Rossetti imagined devotional poetry as a practice by which to subvert and resist Victorian consumerism. Waldman also fails to note the observations of Jerome McGann, arguably the Rossettis' most astute critic, that the poetess's dream poems are formal instantiations (and I would also argue invocations) of "Soul Sleep," or "psychopannychism," wherein entranced sleepers see, however imperfectly, a millennial or apocalyptic landscape beyond the existing socio-Symbolic ("The Religious Poetry of Christina Rossetti," Critical Inquiry 10 : 127-1440). This type of historical situatedness would have anchored Waldman's argument within the order of late-Victorian, Protestant discourse and thus better explained Rossetti's temptations, renunciations, and re-affirmations. Too often in this book, Rossetti's poetry emerges as the work of a twentieth-century psychoanalyst.
The two chapters discussed above mirror inversely the next two chapters, on Dante Gabriel Rossetti's illustrations of Dante and on his House of Life (1870-1881). Elaborating on Rossetti's treatment of courtly love, Waldman argues that his artistic practice, as Kristeva suggests in Tales of Love, oscillates between an affective sense of psychic unity in relationship to an ideal beloved and its fragmentation in relation to the same ideal. Unlike his sister, who relies on the socio-Symbolic supports of High Anglicanism, Rossetti dispenses in his early work with belief in revealed religion and relies instead on a sacramental eroticism. This eroticism, writes Waldman, provides a foundation for an Imaginary love that eventually gives way to "wholesale fetishism" in his mid-to-late work. Chapter Four continues this discussion of both the nature and function of Rossetti's fetishism with respect to the sonnet sequence The House of Life. Dividing this sequence into three stages, she views each as successively harmonizing more completely with late-Victorian standards of social, economic, and artistic success. Waldman concludes that in contrast to Rossetti's early work, as it progresses chronologically, this sonnet sequence mutates unhappily into the record of a more or less successful, run-of-the-mill love-affair that does not reach the transcendent heights of the Divine Comedy. Notwithstanding the ahistorical reach of such an assertion, Waldman's argument, at its weakest here, would have been clarified had she offered detailed analyses of the various theories of fetishism and narcissism, both primary and secondary, which she employs. These theoretical confusions, often the result of her desire to be comprehensive rather than definitive, detract from the sub-thesis undertaken in these two contrasting chapters: that D. G. Rossetti was more playful and open to love of an actual "other" before economic need and ill health got in the way.
Chapter Five, "Hysterical Desire in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's Narrative Poems and Portraiture," is Waldman's best-researched and most-focused chapter. Her discussion of the gaze as formulated by Lacan and Kristeva is competent. Waldman confines herself in this chapter for the most part to explicating Rossetti's "repetition compulsion" in painting that "self-same" face over and over again. She sees Rossetti's practice as a desire to be "lit up" by the desire of the Other, who wears an hallucinatory feminine face and whose gaze seems to stare out from his mid-to-late "Venetian" portraits. Acknowledging that D. G. Rossetti saw himself as a "prostitute," she argues, as she does indirectly in the prior two chapters, that he desired not only erotic redemption but also social inclusion--and money. But she puzzlingly adds the artist's "glance" to his picture's gaze without explanation of the term or its application. This conjoined gaze, Waldman argues, then returns in a circular fashion to offer the artist as well as the spectator a putative, if impossible, female redemption. The hasty conclusion leaves the reader wanting to know precisely what sort of redemption this might be, mainly because Rossetti himself was not deluded.
He knew very well that behind the gaze of his painted ladies, as well as behind the Other, which he would have understood as amorous transcendence, loomed a gaping hole. Rossetti possessed a self-conscious awareness of his own narcissism, the impossibility of the love he coveted, and late-Victorian market practices. As Jerome McGann has demonstrated persuasively in Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Game that Must Be Lost (New Haven: Yale UP, 2002), what Rossetti repeated over and over, which may indeed be seen as hysterical within psychoanalytic frameworks, was the demystification not only of the Romantic ideology of the soul's perfect twin but also of the possibility of the soul itself. Waldman leaves the reader in the uncomfortable position of one of Rossetti's detested patrons, leaving him to find redemption where the artist himself could not.
In conclusion, Waldman "reclaims" Christina Rossetti as a brazen usurper of masculine discourses, which the poetess puts to use in her own project of redemption. Likewise Waldman reveals D. G. Rossetti to be a hysteric, plying his trade at the mercy of the Other who demands that he remain unfulfilled. In short, Waldman reads Christina Rossetti as a masculine subject and her brother as a feminine one. She wants the reader to find these insights important because the two artists transgress "our" general views of gender, power, and castration. But nowhere does Waldman show that Lacan or any of his revisionists offers a paradigm for understanding that does not circle back on itself tautologically to speak again and again about psychoanalysis. Often the text, which is marred by poor copy-editing, presents theorists and poets as if they compete with one another to see who illustrates Lacan best.
Waldman's interesting project lacks refinement and clarity. Her desire to read the work of Christina Rossetti and later Dante Gabriel Rossetti as split subjects according to a Lacanian model requires an acknowledgment of Lacan's premise that the split in human consciousness occurs twice, once during the initiation of primary narcissism (écrits. Trans. Alan Sheridan [Norton 1982]141), and once later, when the mirror stage gives way to the oedipal conflict and inaugurates the pre-subject into the Symbolic and engenders desire. Her constant use of the term "Imaginary desire," and the more problematic "authentic Imaginary desire," makes no sense in a Lacanian paradigm. Only by virtue of his insertion into the Symbolic can the subject recognize or mis-recognize an object of desire. The Imaginary exists within the Symbolic as the realm of identifications and fictions of being, which condition the genesis of the subject prior to the advent of the oedipal stage but do not necessarily, or even usually, resist dominant ideologies. At most, the Imaginary offers inversions of them. Because Waldman links Freud and Lacan too closely and misses the second division that the latter philosopher descries in the unconscious, she fails to see that the subject is not merely split in two, between conscious, socially sanctioned desire and unconscious, transgressive desire, but between the socio-Symbolic, the order of culture, and the Real. This fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of desire and its origins, as posited by the mostly French twentieth-century models Waldman uses, resonates deeply throughout the entire book. It undercuts her ambitious readings when she misuses key terms such as abjection, the Thing, primary and secondary narcissism, fetishism, and sublimation: terms, it must be said, that are frequently used with imprecision by literary critics and art historians alike.
I missed scholarship such as Caroline Hassett's study, Christina Rossetti: The Patience of Style (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005), which would have linked Rossetti's femininity and spirituality to an actual poetics of artistic creation. In the discussion of D. G. Rossetti's pictures, anything by Elizabeth Prettejohn would have been welcome in terms of discussing gender, technique, and art history. Waldman could also have used J. B. Bullen's Fear and Desire: The Pre-Raphaelite Body in Victorian Poetry, Painting, and Criticism (Oxford University Press, 1998) to illuminate her arguments with discussions about actual Victorian bodies, their morphological representations in art and literature, and contemporaneous reader/spectator perceptions. Neither a culturally formalist reading that adds to the sum of Rossetti scholarship to date nor an expert addition to the history of psychoanalytic theory, Waldman's book fails "to color in" the circles of Lacan's Venn diagram and leaves us with empty conceptual space regarding these gifted and troubled siblings. Nevertheless, the verve, ambition, and drive this author displays in her willingness to take risks leaves the reader wishing to hear from Waldman at greater and more detailed length.
Suzanne B. Waldman The Demon and the Damozel: Dynamics of Desire in the Works of Christina Rossetti and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Ohio University Press, 2009. 211 pp.
Last modified 5 July 2014