The art historian Bram Dijkstra has done a good deal to assist a contemporary reading of Lilith as the shadowy flipside of men’s idealization of the female. Historically, as Dijkstra has it, ‘[t]he search for woman as the lily, the paragon of virtue’ has ‘carried within itself the discovery of Lilith, of woman as snake, the inevitable dualistic opposite of the image of virginal purity.’
Dijkstra’s 1986 work Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture was one of the most memorable books of my adolescence – partly because I had to get it ordered from a local bookshop, and on receipt found to my surprise that it was a proper ‘art book’ with plates and numbered illustrations. ‘This is a book filled with the dangerous fantasies of the Beautiful People of a century ago’, Dijkstra wrote within, like a born showman. ‘Much of it deals with magnificent dreams of intellectual achievement doomed to wither before the tempting presence of woman…’ You can imagine the impact of that promise on a young fellow.
In a 1997 interview for the Beatrice website Dijkstra affirmed his intention in writing the book, namely to illustrate ‘how an increasingly anti-feminine concept of women became popular after the introduction of theories of evolution, and created what I called an iconography of misogyny.’ I didn’t read Dijksta’s follow-up Evil Sisters, but I gather he extended his critique into the twentieth century to propose that ‘pseudo-science’ and pop culture had trespassed deeper into outright propaganda against women: a message that could be summarized (very roughly) as ‘’Women are praying mantises, they’re black widow spiders… they steal the male’s vital essence…’’
Of course, as early as 1949 in The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir was arguing exasperatedly that women “are not angels, nor demons, nor sphinxes” and yet men routinely try to attach “mystery” to The Feminine so that – as de Beauvoir saw it – they are spared the bothersome duty of responding to women as fellow human beings.
As late as 1997 Bram Dijkstra clearly felt this was still a very large societal malaise and that we – Men – needed to purge ourselves of these tendencies for the good of our psychic-cultural health. But then I’m not alone in thinking that Dijkstra overstated his case. Call me simplistic but looking around today I do believe that, on the whole, men and women understand pretty well the ways that we objectify each other, and that it’s largely a facet of the entertainment business.
The author and lecturer Theodora Goss offers an interesting essay on Dijkstra’s subject matter via the Folkroots site. For one she makes this useful observation: “Although Dijkstra argues that the femme fatale was a misogynistic representation of the New Woman by fin-de-siècle artists and writers, he also indicates that at least some women may have found the image of the femme fatale empowering.”
Goss appears, candidly and generously, to include herself among said women. She suggests that there was a “fundamentally double nature of womanhood itself at the fin-de-siècle. Perhaps the femme fatale was so popular in literature and art because she embodied that doubleness: she was both desirable and dangerous, both what we longed for and what we were afraid we might submit to—or become…”
For sure all keen fans of the Gothic in popular culture, and a significant number of women among them, seem partial to the image-repertoire of black-clad red-lipped vampish ladies. As for my share in this? Well, The Possessions of Doctor Forrest does feature a female character named Dijana Vukovara who seems to have something of the night – shades of Hades – about her. But ‘seems’ is only the half of it. And we’re all grown-ups, aren’t we?
Of course books and movies are rife with these alluring female creatures. I’d just like to finish here by celebrating Lilith – Lilith Arthur, that is, as played by Jean Seberg in Robert Rossen’s 1964 movie. I mentioned in my previous Dracula post that Blakedene Hall, the upscale asylum in Doctor Forrest, is fashioned after Bram Stoker’s Carfax institution, but in my mind’s eye it also has shades of Poplar Lodge, the psychiatric retreat in Rossen’s movie, overseen by Dr Lavrier (James Patterson), to which young Vincent Bruce (Warren Beatty) comes in order to try out his capacity for care, in the hope he may be ‘of direct help’ to its inmates.
Dr Lavrier is a thoughtful instructor-clinician. ‘The mad ones’, he lectures, ‘spin out fantastic, asymmetrical and rather nightmarish designs…’ He’s describing the webs of schizophrenic spiders. Or is he? Vincent soon has his eye on the fairest of all the inmates, Lilith, who draws, spins, and plays the flute ‘quite magically.’ She speaks casually of having being taught by her ‘people’, as if they were gods. There is ‘rapture’ about her, everyone agrees. Is it just the power of physical beauty, wedded to the fragility of insanity? She certainly keeps a milquetoast patient called Steven (Peter Fonda) rapt in admiration. But Vincent appears wise to her wiles. And yet finally he is lured over the threshold into her magical little world, whereupon Lilith becomes a maddening tease and a worrying taunt, wont to speak of herself in the third person (‘She wants to leave the mark of her desire on every living creature in the world.’) This Lilith – we begin to see – is a nymphomaniac, with a notably unhealthy way of addressing pre-pubescent boys. But at base, though, she’s just insane, surely…? The viewer is put in two minds. Either way, though, Lilith is a troubled soul, if hardly no more so than Vincent, a realization sealed for the audience in the film’s imploring final shot.
(Footnote: by reputation the actual location for Lilith’s asylum was Chestnut Lodge in Rockville, Maryland, originally a hotel acquired and renovated by surgeon-psychiatrist Dr. Ernest L. Bullard. In 2009 it burned to the ground. Dr Ann-Louise Silver, who worked under Bullard, offers thoughts on that work here. A blogger who was on the staff for a while also has some interesting notes to share here.)
But another blogger with a strong Seberg interest claims that the main interior location for Poplar Lodge was Killingworth, an estate in Locust Valley, New York State. And that sounds fitting…