Conley, Tom

BAROQUE BODIES: PSYCHOANALYSIS AND THE CULTURE OF FRENCH ABSOLUTISM. By Mitchell Greenberg. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001. xii, 278 p.

In the middle of Le Pli, a study of the force and impact of Baroque philosophy on modern times, Gilles Deleuze is led to wonder what a body may be. Is it a product of biogenesis, the result of an organic surface, something akin to a paper-like sheet of protoplasm, that turns on itself and eventually develops inner, median, and outer layers? In other words, is it the result of an action exerted on matter that eventually develops into the plants and animals that comprise our world? Is it an abstraction that causes the philosopher to affirm dubiously, “I must have a body, it’s a moral necessity, a ‘requirement.’ And first of all, I must have a body because there’s something obscure inside of me. . . .”? (Le Pli 113). Does the body become the very object of thinking? Or, beyond Le Pli and in other of Deleuze’s writings, can it be said that the body is a site of force and of virtue or virtuality, in the words of Spinoza, whose very countenance prompts us to ask, “No one knows a body can do” [nous ne savons m me pas ce que peut un corps]? Is it a form where zones of intensity-buccal, anal, and genital for adepts of Freud-define its geography? Does it ever become an entity “without organs,” a surface where no single site would have erotic privilege over another?

Deleuze’s copious and sensuous writings on the body serve as an epigraph to Mitchell Greenberg’s rich study of its baroque and classical counterpart in seventeenth-century France. They include an illustrated study of Francis Bacon, with one of its chapters, on his portraits, titled “The Body, Flesh and the Mind, Becoming-Animal.” The chapter begins with the axiom that “[t]he body is the Figure or, rather, the raw material of the Figure. . . . The Body is a Figure, not a structure. Inversely, the Figure, being embodied, is not a face and lacks a face” simply because the portraitist is composing a head of an erotic form that a face would tend to mollify or even conceal.1 No less powerful are the reflections in Mille plateaux, in a chapter that responds to the question of its title, “How Can a Body without Organs be Made?,” where Deleuze and co-author Félix Guattari posit that in its ideal state the body would be lacking “a scene, a place, or even a stage on which something would take place. . . . [The body] is neither a space nor within a space, it is matter that occupies space” in direct relation to the intensities it produces. “It is intense and unformed, non-stratified matter” (189). And in cinema, a medium that he takes to be Baroque par excellence, Deleuze argues that thinking-insofar as film inspires and animates cogitation-plunges into the body “to attain the unthought, in other words, life itself.”2 As in his other studies, Deleuze thinks the body in ways that are cause for adventure and pleasure. Returning to Spinoza’s dictum in reflecting on how the body is not an obstacle to reflection, in L ‘Imagetemps he speculates that “to think [penser] is to learn what a non-thinking body can do, its capacity, its attitudes, or postures. It is by the body (and no longer through the intermediary of the body) that cinema knots its nuptials with the mind, with thought” (246).

The body is omnipresent in Deleuze’s work in the areas he calls Baroque. For Greenberg, on the other hand, the body is not instrumental for the possibility of becoming or for multifarious reflections on the relations of form to sensation. Rather, the body is what disappears from the classical world. In the France described in Baroque Bodies: Psychoanalysis and the Culture of French Absolutism the body is a site of anxiety, fear, and even nightmare. Far from being sensuous or of untold virtue, as it might be in Spinoza’s Ethics, here it is forever exorcised and chastised. Like the language of the mannerist poet Philippe Desportes that Malherbe scorned for its suave and fluid character, the body eventually becomes suppressed under the orthogonal rule of grammar and divine right.

Greenberg sums up the history of the repression of the body in classical France in a concluding chapter that turns on Racine’s tour de force, the “récit de Théramène,” in which Hippolyte’s confidant reports the young warrior’s death to his listeners at the end of Phèdre. A monstrous bull, its skin of jaundiced scales dripping with the foam and froth of salty waters, is vomited from the sea and tears its victim to shreds. Hippolyte’s dead body amounts to nothing more than “a wound” (uneplaie). Here, “in its bloodied disruption,” the baroque body “acts as a pivot careening the Racinian text out of the political equipoise to which oedipal Absolutism tends and plunges it back into a scenario of fanatasmatic [sic] chaos” (p. 255). The parabola of Greenberg’s history of the classical body becomes clear.

At the beginning of the classical age, roughly synchronous with the impact of a politics of centralization envisaged by Henri IV that Cardinal Richelieu engineered and put in place under the reign of Louis XIII, the body was taken to be excessive, ugly, and repulsive. When theater became an official art in the reign of Louis XIV, the body could be said to have disappeared from theatrical representation. In its perfection, at the apogee of the age, it was nothing more than a voice. In Phèdre voice becomes the place where nocturnal phantasies commingling sexuality, death, and violence are embodied in verbal images. In Théramène’s tale or in the eponymous heroine’s vision in Andromaque “the textual voice paints visionary tableaux into which the protagonists gaze at their own projection as a vision, but an unfocusable vision.” As if they were observing images of themselves in a film, the protagonists speak in ways that the “voice and the vision become indistinguishable, the one relaying the other, instantaneously transcoding voice into vision, and vision into voice” (p. 256).

These moments of classical theater are those which every student of French literature has learned by heart and recalls having recited in the oneiric and often sleepy space of classrooms of times past. The author of Baroque Bodies ends his study with these tragic epiphanies from Phèdre and Andromaque in order to show that they belong to the laws of classical decorum that rule classical culture but, also, that they attest to “the dangerous intrusion of the passions into the universe of the law” (p. 261). Their exchanges are all part and parcel of the dynamics of three facts of life-the primal scene, seduction, and castration-that determine seventeenth-century France and govern our own world as well. Thus Greenberg organizes his book to make it resemble a tragedy, following the same Aristotelian unities that Racine, more than any playwright of his age, mastered.

Greenberg’s unities of time and place are set within the frame of France in the seventeenth century. Each of its chapters comprises one of the five acts of a carefully scripted drama that goes from daylight to the onset of darkness. Its dawn and overture (in the introduction) are taken up with the analogy between the king of the nation and the father of the nuclear family that is beginning to supersede the extended family of earlier centuries. The first symptoms of neurosis and obsession about the body, no doubt a result of the politics of the middle-class family, are shown in Molière’s L’Avare (chapter 1). Harpagon’s obsession with money is tantamount to anal fetishism; it betrays a need to repress a grotesque condition-that might, in Deleuze’s idiolect, be close to the concept of the “body without organs”-in which flow and stoppage or release and simultaneous capture of fluid and energy would be co-extensive in social and somatic realms. Act two (chapter 2) is given to mothers and daughters in Molière’s L’Ecole des filles and the Académie des dames, two texts that can be appreciated for the ways they flirt with sexual deviance, especially where they call into question the authority of reproductive sexuality and the “compulsory” character of adult heterosexual relations. The fantasies elicited in these texts aie “daydreams” or “pornographic fantasies” (p. 110) that erode distinctions between male and female or puhlic and private. By doing so they “produce an image of the baroque body” riddled with anxiety.

Act three (chapter 3) is a turning point featuring a key figure in Greenberg’s drama, the Abbé de Choisy, the man of state obsessed by androgyny, who destined himself to become a priest. Driven by the pleasures of travesty, he acted out his desires to transgress the codes of the court where he was enraptured but also unsettled by the sight he saw of himself on parade. The fourth act (chapter 4) is given to Marie de l’Incarnation, the female mystic who spends her life in reducing herself “to a nonbody, a body cleansed of all its earthly imperfections” (p. 206). Greenberg reads the life and writings in terms of a grounding ambivalence, as a way of refusing the patriarchal order of her milieu and a successful retreat into “a world of empowered femininity” (p. 207). The last act (chapter 5) entails the return of the seduced, castrated, and dismembered body seen through Racine’s jeweled Alexandrines both in the early and later tragedies.

Greenberg concludes that the image of the celestial and terrestrial bodies of the monarch was cause for a primitive fantasy that held the king to be at once a charismatic leader and a being impervious to castration or separation, in other words, a figure insulated from the very elements at the origins of human subjectivity. Louis XIV saw his own body betrayed by the culture he had instituted. Shifting effortlessly between psychoanalytical and historical registers, Greenberg wonders if the king had driven his courtiers to fantasize his demise so perversely that their nocturnal wishes would be realized in the cruelty and “republican fires of revolution” (p. 272) within a century of his own death.

Baroque Bodies is at once a literary and cultural history and a patient and exacting application of Freudian psychoanalysis to the classical canon. Readers who work with the most familiar texts of the latter will find especially compelling work in the first and last chapters. Molière’s Harpagon is a case-study of repression and regressive eroticism, while Racine’s heroines are evidence of disembodied voices that speak with frightening lucidity of primal scenes that the playwright almost miraculously casts into Alexandrine perfection. Between Molière and Racine is found a different and attractively unsettling world populated by pornographers, transvestites, and perversely genial mystics and nomads. Vst from the first act to the last the reader is reminded-and Greenberg takes pleasure lime and again in remindings of the truth of the psychoanalytical scene-that the body is a site of fear and perverse attraction. The body seems to be the origin and object of repression, and thus in itself it is taken, because of the awe and fear it inspires, to be the apparatus of the centralized state. For Greenberg the classical age under the jurisdiction of the divinely ordained king is one in which, unfortunately and contrary to Deleuxe’s Spinoza, “everyone knows what a body can do.” Or rather: what a body cannot do. As a consequence of their knowledge of its unruly behavior and of its force and its frailty, everyone is shamed, horrified, and held in a suite of mortified and moribund suspension. Such seems to be the heritage of the classical body when studied through a neoFreudian lens. It is the antipodes of the Baroque counterpart that Deleuze and his adepts invent for the contemporary ends of a politics of philosophy and aesthetics.

1 Logique de la sensation 19; English translation (slightly modified) from Francis Baron: The Logic of Sensation (Minneapolis: University of ‘Minnesota Press, 2003), translated by Daniel W. Smith.

2 Cinéma 2: L’ Image-temps 246. English translation (slightly modified) from Cinema 2: The, TimeImage (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta.

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinéma 2; L’Image-temps. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1985.

_____. LePli: Leibniz et le Baroque. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1988.

_____. Logique de la sensation. Paris: Editions de la Différence, 1981.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. Capitalisme et schizophrénie: Mille plateaux. Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1980.


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