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Neopaganism Henry Fuseli, theatre, and the cultural politics of antiquity, 1765–1825

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Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
The undersigned, appointed by the
Department of History of Art and Architecture
have examined a dissertation entitled
Neopaganism: Heniy Fuseli, Theatre, and the Cultural Politics of
Antiquity, 1765-1825
presented by Andrei Octavian Pop
candidate for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy and hereby
certify that it is worthy of acceptance.
Typed name: Prof. Ewa Lajer-Burcharth
Typed name: Prof. Henr;
Typed name: Prof. Benjamin Buchloh
Typed name: Prof.
Date: 04/14/2010
Henry Fuseli, Theatre, and the Cultural
Politics of Antiquity, 1765-1825
A dissertation presented
Andrei Octavian Pop
The Department of History of Art and Architecture
in partial fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
in the subject of
History of Art and Architecture
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts
April 2010
UMI Number: 3415265
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Supervisor: Prof. Ewa Lajer-Burcharth
Author: Andrei Octavian Pop
Neopaganism: Henry Fuseli, Theatre, and the Cultural Politics of Antiquity, 1765-1825
The rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 1738 challenged European
assumptions about ancient life; just as influential, if subtler in its effect, was the modern
translation of Greek tragedy. What has largely puzzled art historians about the opposition
to a Roman-centered, civic neoclassicism—its violence, sexuality, occultism, in a word
its irrationality—can be seen as attempts to make sense of Attic tragedy. Eighteenth
century Dionysian theory saw tragedy as inseparable from the ritual life of the polis.
Under the pressure of travelers' accounts, this theory became an anti-colonial cultural
anthropology opposed to myths of European superiority and privileged descent from the
Greeks. I call this theory neopagan to stress both its pluralism and its reliance on Greek
antiquity. In recognizing tragedy as an alien cultural form, modern Europe recognized its
own historically contingent status as one culture among many; naturally, this discovery of
pluralism was resisted politically and aesthetically. Tragedy was seldom performed, and
never without bowdlerization. In painting, it lived a shadow existence alongside more
civic-minded subject matter, emerging most explicitly in a corpus of wash drawings
executed by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825), and an international circle of artists active in
Rome in the 1770s. I examine Fuseli's oeuvre within the context of a pluralist classicism,
paying especial attention to experiments with moral and formal conventions in the
semiprivate medium of drawing. The three main chapters of the dissertation deal
respectively with the revival of tragedy as an ancient culture, with the subjective
experience of other minds in a radical cultural pluralism, and with a theory of human
nature as essentially adaptable that underscores the politics and subjective experience.
Introduction: What is Neopaganism?
1. Chapter 1: Tragedy, the Cultural Relativism of Henry Fuseli
- Virtue and Shadows
- Theatre and the Obscene
- Drama as Ritual: Fuseli in Rome
- Principium Individuationis: Tragedy as Cultural Relativism
- Relativism and History Painting: The Oath on the Rtitli
1.1 Excursus on Tragedy. Grave Monuments, Writing, and the Antique Present
1.2 Illustrations to Chapters 1 and 1.1
2. Chapter 2: Comedy, Dream, and the Sympathetic Spectator
- Dreaming in Private: Fuseli's Nightmare
- Dreaming in Public: Lady Hamilton's Attitudes
- The Theory of Sympathy
- Sympathetic Spectators
- The Plurality of the Gods
2.1 Excursus on Comedy. Winckelmann's Joke and Activist Neoclassicism
2.2 Illustrations to Chapters 2 and 2.1
Chapter 3: The Satyr Play, or Naturalizing Human Nature
Liberalism and Human Nature
Natural Man, Natural Woman: Rousseau to Wollstonecraft
Erasmus Darwin and the Naturalization of Sex
Gillray, Sade, and the 'New Morality'
Fuseli's Erotica and the Sexual Anthropology of Pierre d'Hancarville
Richard Payne Knight and the Liberal Theory of Sex
Satyric Painting and Pagan Politics: Fuseli's Polyphemus
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play. The Nineteenth Century and Ordinary Antiquity
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion
Conclusion: The Ends of Neopaganism
Selected Bibliography
What is Neopaganism?
I do not concern myself with Klopstock;
if he were a pagan, I would.
Fuseli, letter to Lavater, March 1768
The palace of parliament in Bucharest, Romania, begun in 1980 and finished nearly two
decades after its commissioner, Nicolae Ceau§escu, lost his head to the 1989 revolution,
is still popularly referred to as the People's House (Casa Poporului). After the Pentagon,
it is the largest building in the world in surface area. Qualitatively it is harder to state its
significance: its piled facades seem to mix up Saint Peter's, Las Vegas and Pyongyang.
And yet a closer look is revealing. On the vast base of the building, Corinthian columns
are lined up like rows of soldiers, fading away into the smog of Bucharest in a sublime
haze that might have pleased the young Edmund Burke. The columns are striking within
the bland deculturation of Anca Petrescu's building, and more broadly speaking the
deculturation and nationalist coma which Ceau§escu imposed on his subjects. These
columns, it seems, play the role of imposing political order on the political wilderness.
Here is a case of classicism as the art of power, or if we prefer, the political power of art.1
But other classicisms are possible even in Casa Poporului. One of the new
institutions nestled in the western fa?ade is Muzeul National de Arta Contemporana
(National Museum of Contemporary Art, MNAC), opened in 2004. The upper floors of
the museum are accessible through a glass elevator that runs parallel to a pilaster and, at
its highest station, comes to rest beside the stone leaves of the Corinthian capital. From
this vantage point, one can survey the parking lot, and whatever visitors are making their
way to the entrance of the museum. As Michel de Certeau wrote of another tall building,
the perspective is Icarian.2 But if one's gaze should settle on the Corinthian capital, a
sense of humorous incongruity will break the mood. For a glass elevator and a Corinthian
capital are prima facie incompatible things. This is true even when the capital is only two
decades old. The elevator is picturesque, but it is also a sober product of modernity, built
for vertical transport to high places. The column seems to reach up to Olympus. It does
not, of course—we end up just as high in the air with the glass elevator. So it is not space
or function but the cultural orientation of the two objects that is incompatible. The neoStalinist palace cites a temple architecture that is itself a sophisticated late elaboration on
Attic houses of worship, symbolizing the uninhabited abode of gods who remain aloof
from human beings that worship them. The elevator by contrast only cites progress.
That the incompatibility is a matter of citation is brought under one's nose by the
Museum of Contemporary Art. For both the modernist and Hellenistic object can be now
regarded as 'classical', backward-looking, canonical styles. On the other hand, both are
recent attempts to coordinate politics and cultural tradition in a way that shall convince
visitors in the present. The conventional opposition of moderns and ancients breaks down
in the face of political classicism. In being powerful modernity is classical, and
classicism which still matters is in that sense modern. The opposition between MNAC
and People's House cannot be understood as new versus old, singular modernism versus
singular classicism, but rather as a clash of competing classicisms. To classicism as a
modernist art of power, not modernity itself but other modern classicisms stand opposed.
Henri Zerner, "Classicism as Power," Art Journal, Vol.47, No.l (Spring 1988), 35-36, states most clearly
and concisely (one might say, classically) a trans-historical category of classicism as "the art of authority,
authoritative art," by reminding us of the two main connotations of 'classical', 'class' and 'the classroom.'
"An Icarus flying above these waters, he [the viewer atop the World Trade Center] can ignore the devices
of Daedalus in mobile and endless labyrinths far below." Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life,
translated Steven Rendall (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 92.
The Problem of Paganism
A new classicism was afoot in late eighteenth-century Europe. The tranquil rationalism
that the neoclassical West long associated with its Greco-Roman heritage was severely
shaken first of all by the archaeological discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum. While
neoclassical artists sought in the past an ideal of everything the present was not—in short,
moral and social perfection—the cities buried by Mount Vesuvius revealed an antique
everyday life overflowing with the absurd and the vulgar.3 These tendencies, the ideal
and the alien, interacted to produce a revolution in European self-perception. Instead of
belonging to a continuous tradition, Europeans began to see that they inhabited a variety
of cultures discontinuous in space and time: Ancient Greece and Rome were, seemingly
all of a sudden, as distant from Paris and London as Tibet or the Andes.4 I call this
decentered European subjectivity, based on a new appreciation of the pre-Christian
classical tradition, and issuing in a neoclassical art of exotic alienation, neopaganism.
I should first like to discuss this terminology, which I do not introduce out of an
affection for new jargon, but to delimit a historical phenomenon from the apparently
neutral terms with their historical theses, which are usually applied to this period. The
first term, neoclassicism, ought indeed to be used neutrally to indicate modern art with
antique subject matter, and I strive to so use it; sometimes, the usage also assumes a
commitment to aesthetic purism (anti-Gothic, anti-non-European) and aesthetic anti-
See Egon Corti, The Destruction and Resurrection of Pompeii and Herculaneum (London: Routledge and
KeganPaul, 1951).
The equation of temporal with geographic distance is discussed in Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other:
How Anthropology Makes its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983). The stylistic pluralism
of neoclassicism was first treated in detail by Robert Rosenblum in Transformations in Late Eighteenth
modernism or which I will show to be unjustified. The second, more obviously evaluative
term or set of terms, civic humanism and republicanism, needs to be qualified in the same
manner. If neoclassical art of the eighteenth and nineteenth century was sympathetic to
ideals of Athenian democracy and Athenian (or Roman) civil spirit, it cannot be
presumed to take up these things unspoilt across the vacuum of centuries.5 Rather, as I
will argue, it self-consciously proposed the political traditions of antiquity as concrete
alternatives to modern European monarchic politics and to the abstract republicanism, as
China and the Middle East were in the literature of the philosophes. All of this remains to
be shown, so the advantage of the term neopaganism is that it functions as a blank slate.
It should however suggest what is central to its etymology, a plurality of gods and value
orientations. This plurality, and its pertinence to a modernity threatened by homogenizing
forces, is well put by William Wordsworth in a sonnet of 1807:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in nature that is ours;
For this, for every thing, we are out of tune;
It moves us not—Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn
Have sight of Proteus coming from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn."6
In other words, we suffer the boredom of a disenchanted world, of labor and exhaustion
and meaningless accumulation and consumption; we are cut off from nature and from
Century Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), and in Rosenblum's doctoral dissertation, The
International Style of1800 (New York University, 1956; published New York: Garland Publishers, 1976),
My usage thus differs from Peter Gay's modern paganism, by which he means a revival of ancient
skepticism. See The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, vol.1 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1966).
William Wordsworth, Poems (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1807), I: 122.
ourselves; and yet... Wordsworth's response is not that of the sanctimonious reformer
administrating a cultural palliative or ersatz religion to soothe social ills. Three things
must be stressed in Wordsworth's formulation of neopaganism. One is that he aims it at a
subjective devastation of human life that art can do nothing to repair. The poem is not
escapist, precisely because it tries to state what culture might do about that devastation.
What culture might do, in comparing the present with the past, the here of a collapsing
tradition with the there of ethnography and antiquarianism, is to discover whether these
conditions are historical and thus contingent, ephemeral, unnecessary. There is thus an
element of relativism in neopaganism that puts a cultural emphasis on political and moral
difficulties, asking, "are they peculiar to our tradition?", and if so, can they be worked
through by discarding or revising that tradition?
This relativism is an analytical turning point in Western self-consciousness, which
feeds into a critique of colonialism and parochial domination within mixed communities
that is still necessary today. But relativism only goes so far. And so the second point of
Wordsworth's poem is its pluralism: as a "Pagan suckled in a creed outworn" the poet
would not have access to one principle that should overcome alienation, but to the play of
alternating appearances: Triton and Proteus, whom we should recall are minor deities, the
latter, according to tradition, of Egyptian derivation. There is even an internal pluralism
to the choice of names, because Proteus is a shape-changer and so a glimpse of him will
never produce one stable superhuman identity. That the nature poet understood antiquity
thus as a resource for metaphysical variety is, I will show, typical of the neopagan insight
that antiquity is not only radically different from European modernity, but itself split into
a variety of cultures, which were somehow held in a pluralist suspension that is in itself
desirable, and could serve as a model for modern liberal democracy. In other words, one
answer to the question of problematic traditions is to allow a multiplicity of traditions.
The third and final point about the poem can be stated briefly. Just because the
poet has no hope to simply escape alienation through neopaganism, he speaks not of an
inner state of peace with the world but of sensory stimuli: of "glimpses" of Proteus and
Triton. The pluralism of value orientations thus gives rise to an aesthetic of sensory
equivalence in difference, and thus to the spectator of modern art who must be content
with what is presented and who does not treat pictures as ciphers of transcendence.
(Which is not to say that there is no transcendence, but only, as Wittgenstein would
stress, that transcendence is not to be found in the world.) A formalism of images is thus
connected with a pluralism of cultures which in turn informs the dominant Baudelairean
tradition of aesthetic modernism. I shall have more to say about this in Chapter 1.
This dissertation studies neopaganism in its aesthetic singularity but also in its
broad political consequences. Working within various national traditions, but often
filtered through a cosmopolitan experience of study in Rome, neopagan painters exposed
the ideal body of classicism to purposeful deformation: this is classical painting under the
sign of ritual, that is to say, of the culturally contingent. To get a firm grasp on the wider
transformation, I focus on the Swiss painter Johann Heinrich Fussli, known as Henry
Fuseli after his 1764 relocation to London. As painter-emigrant, Fuseli is central to a
practical understanding of neopaganism: his clerical education, his mixed allegiance to
medieval German poetry and the new novel of Sterne and Richardson, his devotion to
Swiss republicanism and English theatre, and his eight-year stay in Rome make him a
perfect candidate for studying how the past was filtered through both a nationalist and a
cosmopolitan sensibility in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Viewed as
performance, Fuseli's engagement with antiquity gains another, peculiarly modern twist:
insofar as Fuseli aspired to a theatrical mode of painting, meant to enact and not imitate
antiquity as Winckelmann had wished, he tackled in his painting the difficulty posed by
the attempted re-performance of ancient Greek tragedy on the Georgian stage. This
difficulty, which was never fully resolved, encapsulates for my project the challenge of
aesthetically and politically coming to terms with foreign cultures.
In order to maintain equilibrium between specificity of the historical argument
and breadth of scope, this text combines a quite traditional attention to art method—
Fuseli's assured, monumental wash drawings and strange, nearly monochromatic oil
paintings—with an approach to intellectual history that takes into account eighteenth
century politics, theatre criticism, and the claims of the human sciences, particularly
philosophical anthropology. This variety is implicit in the formulation of a liberal theory
of human nature, of which modernist painting, the political radicalism of Fuseli's circle
(William Godwin, Joseph Priestley, Mary Wollstonecraft), and the theory of evolution (as
prefigured by Dr. Erasmus Darwin), are manifestations. I do not appeal to a Zeitgeist or
totalities of discourse or ideology, but observe rather that we still inhabit a liberal culture
of cultural plurality and conflict, which is problematic to the extent that it cannot defend
itself theoretically against totalitarian deformations which begin with similar assumptions
about human variety but draw tribalist conclusions about the need to dominate other
traditions.7 Since both fascism and liberalism have aesthetic affinities to antiquity, and
Of course one can argue against fascism from left or conservative positions; but from a liberal viewpoint,
one can only hope to convince a fascist, and not to refute him. This point is stressed by Richard Rorty, in
e.g., "Putnam and the Relativist Menace," The Journal of Philosophy, Vol.90, No.9 (Sept. 1993), 443-461.
since both have evolved from eighteenth-century nationalism, economic reform, and
mass politics, it should be possible to reconstruct classicism with the political facts of
modernity firmly in view. A first step in this direction is the study of neopaganism.
Making Paganism Legible: Approach to a Solution through the Work of Fuseli
In studying neopaganism, I must tackle an old headache of eighteenth-century studies:
the fabled transition from neoclassical to romantic. Scholars have done much to replace
this teleology with more resonant political and psychological criteria, but the old question
remains: what changes at the end of the eighteenth century?8 At the same time, historians
of philosophy have attracted attention to a peculiar phenomenon of the period: the efforts
to produce a new mythology, centered on a refurbished cult of Dionysus, which should
heal modernity's break with traditional modes of life.9 Since the German Romantics who
proposed the new mythology wrote in the 1790s, the phenomenon is often understood as
an effect of the French Revolution and its Europe-wide reverberations; but the aesthetic
which makes the new mythology possible precedes the revolution, as does revolutionary
ideology itself. I thus take a different route, tracing the dissatisfaction to an encounter
with an antiquity that could not be assimilated to modern European ethnocentrism. Not
only does this lead to a blurring of the classical/romantic divide, but it draws attention to
those aspects of classicism that were self-contradictory and could be given revolutionary
The origin of romanticism and its break with the enlightenment were vexed questions for the history of
ideas tradition of Arthur Lovejoy and George Boas; cf. Isaiah Berlin, The Roots of Romanticism (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1999). A historian's take on the question is Roland Mortier, "Unite ou scission
du siecle des lumieres?" Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, vol.26 (1963), 1207-21. The
question reappears, in entirely different terms, in Michel Foucault's account of the transformation from
'classical' science centered on the world to the modern 'historicist' sciences of biology, political economy,
and linguistics. See Michel Foucault, The Order of Things [1966] (New York: Pantheon Books, 1971).
The key text on this development is Manfred Frank, Der kommende Gott (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1982).
connotations. The lure of the archaic played across the political spectrum, and continues
to do so over the centuries: one need only think of the Utopian speculations of Ernst
Bloch on one hand and the Hellenistic mysticism of right thinkers like Martin Heidegger
and Gottfried Benn on the other; what they have in common is the appeal to antiquity for
a critique of European modernity.10 Now, if we turn our attention to politicized classicism
around 1800, we will find the German romantics around Hegel and Holderlin proposing a
new mythology as an escape, through organic community, from arid rationalism and the
cult of the state; in London, at the same time, we will find Erasmus Darwin and others
cultivating classicism as a liberal, pro-French endeavor. The political indeterminacy of
neopaganism seems inescapable. Should we as a result abandon discussion of its politics
altogether? A dangerous proposal. Or should we just survey them in their variety? A
reasonable, but not altogether helpful proposition. The interest of neopaganism, besides
its intrinsic appeal as material culture lies in its self-awareness as a cultural mode, which
leads to a politics of pluralism. That it can also lead to a politics of aggressive tribalism
makes it all the more important to understand its initial form before the development
toward incompatible positions. I have thought it wisest to begin earlier, around 1760, and
approach the matter monographically, treating one artist central to neopaganism, whose
politics over the next half century moved from a Rousseauian revolutionary primitivism
On Bloch's appeal to "der heimkehrende Gott" (the homecoming God), see the 1911 letter to Lukacs
cited in Manfred Frank, "Brauchen wir eine 'Neue Mythologie'?" in Kaltes Herz, Unendliche Fahrt, Neue
Mythologie: Motiv-Untersuchungen zur Pathogenese der Moderne (Frankfurt a.M: Suhrkamp, 1989), 93118, quote on p. 108. For Gottfrried Benn, see "Dorische Welt. Eine Untersuchung uber die Beziehung von
Kunst und Macht," Europaische Revue Vol.X, No.6 (1934), 364-376, reprinted in Benn, Gesammelte
Werke, ed. Dieter Wellershoff, vol.3, Essays und Aufsatze (Munchen: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag,
1975) 824-856; and Heidegger, Martin. Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes [1935] (Stuttgart: Reclam Verlag,
1960). I do not wish to controversially identify the 'Artwork' essay as fascist. I go by the description of
Heidegger's thought as "private National Socialism," made in response to the Rectorate Speech in 1933 by
Otto Wacker; Heidegger accepted the description. See Martin Heidegger, "The Rectorate 1933/34: Facts
and Thoughts," translated Karsten Harries, The Review of Metaphysics, Vol.38, No. 3 (March 1985), 490.
to the conservative radicalism adopted by many of Rousseau's disciples after the French
revolution. In reconstructing this career, I cautiously broaden the purview to include the
friends, acquaintances, and fellow workers of this artist—not an approach with pretension
to completeness, but which seeks to balance breadth of phenomena and the historical
impulse driving neopaganism into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For the choice
of protagonist, I could not do better than the painter of whom Blake wrote these lines:
The only M a n that eer I k n e w
W h o did not make m e almost s p e w
W a s Fuseli he w a s both Turk & Jew
A n d so dear Christian Friends h o w do y o u do 11
The lines have provoked a variety of interpretations from historians, but to my mind none
have sufficiently stressed that what Blake opposed in Fuseli to the conventional moralists
he despised was two apparently opposed great religions, Islam and Judaism.12 Blake is
not just saying that Fuseli shocked or challenged the mores of the contemptible 'dear
Christian Friends,' but that he challenged them in cultural terms, through a mask of
foreignness. I will argue that this cultural shock is most clearly legible in Fuseli's
classical output, which in turn throws much light on his two famous productions, the
Rtittli Oath (1781) and The Nightmare (1782), and on romantic classicism generally.
Born in 1741, the son of painter, art historian, and Zurich city clerk Caspar FUpii,
ordained in 1761 as a Protestant minister, exiled to Germany in 1763 after the publication
of a pamphlet denouncing a corrupt Zurich politician, settled in London in 1764, where in
1765 he published the first translation of Winckelmann's Gedanken and two years later
an anonymous defense of Rousseau, Fuseli was an exceptional personality and a yet
William Blake, Collected Poems, ed. Alicia Ostriker (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1978), 624.
typical North European cosmopolitan of the eighteenth century.13 He was also a typical
painterly immigrant: in 1770 he embarked for Italy, where he stayed until 1778, when he
returned briefly to Zurich, before settling in London for the rest of his life, which ended
in 1825. A discussion of Fuseli's imagined ethnic origins brings with it questions of
biography and intentionality. To what extent is Fuseli a self-aware pluralist? I should say,
with those scholars who insist on his double national identity (English-Swiss), that he
experienced the shock of moving between cultures on his own skin.14 He was a lifelong
foreigner in London: as a Swiss friend acidly put it, "he speaks an execrable English with
the Zurcher k and ch."15 Even his name was in flux: after his death, his biographer John
Knowles though it must have been Fiiessli, and German-speaking posterity has settled on
Ftipii, though there are letters to Lavater signed Fiiepii, some Fiipeli, and even Fuepiy.16
In England, he became Fuseli (which prompts many Englishmen to call him "Few-zuhlee"), Fusseli to his collector Baroness Norths, even "Fusole" or "Fussle" or "Tussle" in
particularly bad editor's jobs in the periodical press.17 Stranger still than this shifting
nomenclature is that there was another Johann Heinrich Ftipii, the son of another painter
(Rudolf; Fuseli's father is Johann Caspar), born four years after Fuseli, himself a disciple
Martin Myrone, Henry Fuseli (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 6-10, sees in the poem the
cultivation of foreignness and a profane "genius" persona. See also Myrone, Bodybuilding: Reforming
Masculinities in British Art 1750-1810 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005), 10-11.
See the fine recent study of the phenomenon: Margaret Jacob, Strangers Nowhere in the World: The Rise
of Cosmopolitanism in Early Modern Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).
His troubles in finding a post office upon first moving to London have even prompted a somewhat
maudlin deconstructive reading in terms of fragmentation and exile: Kevin Malcolm Richards, Negotiations
towards a self 1770-1830 (Doctoral Dissertation, Bryn Mawr College, 1995).
Caspar Schweizer quoted Barbara Schnyder-Seidel, J.H. FufSli und seine schdnen Ziircherinnen (Zurich:
Werner Classen Verlag, 1986), 21.
There are, to be fair, several letters signed 'Fupii.' For convenience I will stick with the English 'Fuseli.'
On "Fusole," see Myrone, 187. On "Henry Tussle," see Marcia Allentuck, "Henry Fuseli and J.G.
Herder's Ideen zur Philosophic der Geschichte des Menschheit in Britain: An Unremarked Connection,"
of Bodmer, Winckelmann, and Rousseau, and eventually a political reformer and
professor of history in Zurich.18 Relativism is already implicit in Fuseli's biography.
The accidental and arbitrary nature of much of Fuseli's own life is at the center of
his effort to glean from art the political and moral direction which he knew he could not
ask of it. For this reason, his Lectures on Painting are famously contradictory. Fuseli's
eclecticism of method seems to butt heads with a zealous classicism that finds even
Michelangelo and the Elgin Marbles not classical enough.19 We cannot 'resolve' the
inconsistency of these lectures (given over a quarter century, 1801-1825), but one way to
view the stakes of this struggle is as an attempt to overcome relativism. As such, an
examination of their principle (which is, to be fair, not easy to extract) will give us a
sense of the adequacy of a study of Fuseli as an approach to the eighteenth-century
problem of pluralism. Fuseli strives in these lectures to locate firm ground beyond radical
cultural difference in a bedrock of nature. "By nature I understand the general and
permanent principles of visible objects, not disfigured by accident, or distempered by
Journal of the History of Ideas,V ol.35, N o . l , (Jan. 1974), 113-120: 114.1 have seen a novel spelling,
"Henri Fuseli," in a recent dissertation on a French neoclassicist.
There are no surviving comments by Fuseli about his namesake, who had identity problems of his own:
he wrote letters from Rome under the pseudonym Conte di Sant'Alessandro, in one of which he elliptically
mentions meeting Fuseli and his friends Hess and Lavater. See Emil Ermatinger, ed. Zurich im Spatrokoko:
Briefe des Conte di Sant'Alessandro von Johann Heinrich Fiifili (Frauenfeld: Huber & Co, 1940) 143-144.
The lectures have puzzled Fuseli scholars for generations. Eudo Mason detected in them a "classical
husk" eroded by romantic sensibility; Marcia Allentuck, a tension between English and German aesthetics;
John Barrell, a civil humanist struggling with a subjectivist; Schiff calls them schizophrenic. An extreme
effort to make sense of them is Glen Richard Brown, Historical Discontinuity and Henry Fuseli's Writings
on Art (Dissertation, Stanford, 1991), which "applies uncritically" Foucault's early discontinuous method
to argue that the Lectures represent the transition from classical to modern 'epistemes.' Gisela Bungarten's
excellent new critical edition of the lectures should make progress on this topic finally possible; she has
tracked most of Fuseli's allusions, and shown just how much he owes to eighteenth-century art theory. See
Gisela Bungarten, ed. J.H. Fiisslis „Lectures on Painting": Das Modell der Antike unddie modeme
Nachahmung, 2 vols. (Berlin: Gebr. Mann Verlag, 2005).
disease, not modified by fashion or local habits."20 Yet, as he is forced to acknowledge in
the sentence that follows, "Nature is a collective idea." As such, to base a philosophy of
beauty on it, while evading the "romantic reveries of platonic philosophy," one has to
acknowledge pragmatically that beauty is a matter of local agreement: "As a local idea,
beauty is a despotic princess, and subject to the anarchies of despotism, enthroned to-day,
dethroned to-morrow."21 So a struggle for firm footing is doomed from the start. Fuseli
got by aesthetically with a dogged insistence on the perfection of Greco-Roman antiquity:
but even this toppled when his pupil Benjamin Robert Haydon confronted the old painter
with a novel Greek tradition in the form of the Elgin Marbles 22
Could the concept of nature serve to anchor what could not be assured through
cultural chauvinism? Possibly. Fuseli knew and read Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of
Charles Darwin, whose reflections on biological change and historical exposition of
Linnaeus's categories prepared the way for Lamarck and the modern evolution debate.23
It is tempting to treat Fuseli's historical narrative in the Lectures, alternating sparkling
progress with periods of dormancy, trivialization, and extinction, as evolutionist schema
to make sense of the diversity of aesthetic experience. But such a scheme is always in
danger of asserting a teleology, either that what comes last is best, or that what came first
is purest, a pair of prejudices that, while apparently contradictory, often go together (take
Nietzsche as a distinguished example). Fuseli was not above these prejudices, but in
Lecture 1 (1801), John Knowles, The Life and Writings of Henry Fuseli (London: Colburn and Bentley,
1831), 11:21; Bungartner, 1:24-25.
On first seeing the Marbles, Haydon has Fuseli exclaiming: "De Greeks were godes! De Greeks were
godes!" B. R. Haydon, Life of Benjamin Robert Haydon, Historical Painter, from his Autobiography and
Journals, ed. Tom Taylor, 3 vols. (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1853), I: 86.
Fuseli first came to know Darwin through his collaboration on the illustrations to The Botanic Garden
(1790), an epic treatment of Linnaeus's botany which also comments on Fuseli's Nightmare. See Ch.3.
practice, they cancelled each other out, especially when they could be attached to the
historical dichotomy of ancients and moderns, and the dull question of who was superior.
The sacred mysteries o f Divine B e i n g . . . the virtues it demanded from its followers, faith,
resignation, humility, sufferings, substituted a medium o f art as m u c h inferior to the
resources o f Paganism in a physical sense as incomparably superior in a spiritual one. 2 4
If culture is natural, then only a small step is needed to conclude that nature is cultural.
"Second nature" is how Nietzsche systematized John Stuart Mill's idea that the natural is
just convention whose conventional nature we have forgotten. Every first nature, in this
view, is not absolute but was once an upstart second nature.25 The term cuts both ways:
does nature have nothing to do with social life, or is culture the thin veneer over a nature
so abysmal that we don't even want to know it well? Part of the appeal of Fuseli, to our
belated eyes, is that he never made up his mind. This is less a matter of confusion than
the result of meditation on the phenomena of diversity. This can be seen in Fuseli's most
characteristic literary performance, his 'translation' and rewriting of his friend Johann
Caspar Lavater's Aphorisms on Man, published in 1788. The first two theses read:
K n o w , in the first place, that mankind agree in essence, as they do in their limbs and senses.
Mankind differ as much in essence as they do in form, limbs, and senses - and only so, and
not more. 2 6
The assertion of human nature as a function of the variability of human forms over
history is characteristic of neopaganism: it explains both the diversity and the effort to
Lecture II, "Art of the Moderns," Bungarten, I: 56.
In "On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life" [1873] in Untimely Meditations, translated R.J.
Hollingdale (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge, 1997), 76-78.
Aphorisms on Man, Translated from the Original Manuscript of the Rev. John Caspar Lavater, Citizen of
Zuric, 2 nd ed, vol.1 (London: Joseph Johnson, 1789)
bridge it. That Fuseli thought this doctrine an eminently practical one may be gathered
from the final aphorism of the book, which, it has recently been argued, is his invention:27
If y o u mean to k n o w yourself, interline such o f these aphorisms as affected y o u agreeably
in reading, and set a mark to such as left a sense o f uneasiness with you; and then s h e w
your c o p y to w h o m y o u please.
This comparative procedure of self-examination and its social propagation is, I shall
argue, what drives Fuseli's painting of antiquity to assert both what is different about the
ancients and how they resemble us, and how we moderns differ as much among ourselves
as we do from the ancients—a modest but significant ground for political cooperation.
The Plan of the Work
The thesis of the present work might be summed up as follows: neopaganism is the
discovery within European antiquity of radically different human cultures. The reader
will object to at least three terms in the above sentence: culture, different, and human.
They cannot be defined briefly, so, trusting that we have an informal sense of what they
mean, I indicate that these terms are given extended definition in the first, second, and
third chapters of this work, respectively. The first chapter, dealing with the young Fuseli
and the eighteenth-century renaissance of Greek tragedy, traces the development away
from the rigid emulation of classical virtue to a comparative view in which the crimes
and alien moral code of tragedy are seen to belong to a foreign culture, the totality of a
historical community, which must be understood on its own terms before any critical
reckoning of it, or ourselves in its light, may begin. The second chapter starts from this
moral distance and traces the subjective dimension of relativism: to the extent that the
See Sibylle Erie, "Leaving Their Mark: Lavater, Fuseli and Blake's Imprint on Aphorisms on Man,"
Comparative Critical Studies, Vol.3, No.3 (2006), 347-369. The text is from Aphorisms on Man, I: 224.
past is an alien culture, how do we penetrate to an understanding of it? Through a case
study of Fuseli's great London success, The Nightmare, and another public success of
international scope, Lady Hamilton's performances of antique heroes, I demonstrate that
to an eighteenth-century relativist, the foreign is comprehended as in a dream, through a
bodily sympathy that is visceral, but which takes place in our heads. This solipsistic
limitation of dreams is agonizing, but it serves as a skeptical brake on the dreamer's naive
identification with the dream of other cultures. Finally, the third chapter examines the
theory of human nature underwriting a pluralist notion of equally valid cultures, from
Fuseli's early book on Rousseau through his association with Mary Wollstonecraft and
Erasmus Darwin, to his late erotic drawings and Homeric paintings. In keeping with my
awareness of the subtle bifurcations of the subject, there are, following each chapter,
excursuses related to the master themes of tragedy, comedy, and satyr play, dealing
respectively with the neopagan approach to death and the passage of time (tragic), the
modern revival and even faking of antiquity (comic), and the naturalization of antique
culture (satyr play). I conclude with a brief consideration of the public and private in
Fuseli's troubled attempt to sketch out a new relation to antiquity and to other cultures.
The main three chapters just discussed contain the bulk of the historical argument
of Neopaganism. They mirror roughly Fuseli's early, middle, and late period as an artist
and theorist, and are indexed to the three genera of Greek drama which the eighteenth
century came to revive: tragedy, comedy, satyr play. This schema has the advantage of
keeping an eye on the larger development in the conquest of an alien antiquity, which is
not really a conquest but at times a procedure of keeping at bay. The ultimate perspective
that has obsessed me in the study of neopaganism and its cultural politics is its derailment
into twentieth century ideology: is Fuseli's neopaganism the neopaganism of the People's
House? Is a plurality of autonomous cultures an ultimate good, or merely the premise of
tribal domination, a bellum omnium contra omnesl The uneven progress of the concepts,
and their historical development itself, is sketched, not exhausted, in this study.
To gain a better sense for how the study proceeds and why it proceeds as it does, a
few words are in order about art history, Fuseli studies, and what is new in my approach.
Neoclassical art history has long been torn between empiricist and phenomenological
tendencies. To empiricism we owe the rediscovery of the field: Frederick Antal's classic
Classicism and Romanticism (1966, but first printed in the Burlington Magazine in five
installments between 1935 and 1941) made the classicism of Jacques-Louis David and
Fuseli as much a question of political commitments as of formal schemata, while Robert
Rosenblum's Transformations in Late Eighteenth Century Art (1967) convinced scholars
that neoclassicism was no more rational than any human endeavor. Thomas Crow further
fleshed out the publicity of neoclassicism, and the professional and familial bonds
obtaining in the neoclassical atelier (Emulation, 1995). This broaching of affect in the
studio was complemented by studies of subjectivity and sexuality by Alex Potts {Flesh
and the Ideal, 1994) and Ewa Lajer-Burcharth {Necklines, 1999). I have learned from this
work to combine biography, political history, formalist art history, and psychological
speculation in a monograph that opens up on a broader field of culture.28
Though he was highly regarded in his own time, and by some German art
historians of the nineteenth century, Fuseli studies are almost entirely a twentieth-century
phenomenon. From their roots in Swiss nationalism in the 30s, through a revisionist
For bibliographic detail on these texts, and those in the paragraph below, see the bibliography.
phase in English art history in the 50s that saw the revival of the 'eccentrics' around
Blake, to current social historical approaches (whose model remains Antal's posthumous
collection of Fuseli essays), Fuseli research has been driven by the publication of his
voluminous body of drawings and writings: from Eudo Mason's reconstruction of his
journalism (1951), through Gert Schiff s monumental monograph and Oeuvrekatalog
(1973), to the editions of letters by Walter Muschg and David Weinglass (1942 and 1984,
respectively), the print catalogue raisonne by Weinglass (1994), and the careful additions
and corrections appearing in substantial catalogues of recent exhibitions in Zurich and
London (Franziska Lentzsch, ed., 2005, and Martin Myrone, ed., 2006, respectively), the
Fuseli student has had a progressively wider perspective opened up for both close
biographical work and integration into eighteenth- and nineteenth-century culture.
Since I interpret Fuseli through the intersection of modern theatre and antiquity in
Georgian England, I have profited from the work of Edith Hall and Fiona Macintosh at
Oxford, who are carrying out a vast process of tracing the history of Greek theatre and its
performance from origins to the present. To get at the promise (and threat) of theatre, I
have drawn extensively on period theory, particularly Rousseau's Platonic demolition of
theatrical morality (Lettre a d'Alembert sur les spectacles, 1760), and related arguments
by Diderot and Hume. This work bore fruit in Nietzsche's Dionysian view of tragedy
(Die Geburt der Tragodie, 1871), a view prepared by eighteenth-century anthropology
and theatrical history. I have had recourse both to the lucidity of Nietzsche's late theory
and to the messy excitement of the pioneers. Finally, I have found in some essays by
Charles Taylor and Bernard Williams the most pertinent contemporary statements of
cultural relativism—statements which make visible both its virtues and shortcomings.
Having discussed some precursors, a few words may be said on my own method.
I have taken advantage of all the means at my disposal to bring out the significance of
neopaganism in its time as well as our own, and this may strike the reader as resulting in
a jumble of visual and textual arguments. In particular, I insist on treating paintings and
drawings as theoretical texts, able to discharge from their closed forms an argument on
the same order as a poem, an essay, or a philosophical treatise. Such a procedure cannot
be justified once and for all, but must be made convincing in concrete cases of analysis. I
do say this on its behalf: the traditional business of art history, formal analysis of surface
and iconographic decoding of narrative, are forms of phenomenology, meaning that they
impute intention to sensible objects. Since intentions as such belong to human beings, the
work of locating intentions in objects presupposes a theory of human nature.29 This does
not mean I possess a workable theory of human nature—but it means that working out
such theories, as neopaganism tries to do, is also a necessity for scholars studying the
subject historically.30 It also means my work is firmly within the tradition of art history.
Norman Bryson has called Michael Fried's narrative approach to eighteenth-century art in Absorption
and Theatricality phenomenological, and this seems to me right and in some ways a starting point for my
own work. Norman Bryson, Tradition and Desire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 46. See
also Michael Baxandall, Patterns of Intention (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985). The
key statement of the phenomenological study of intention is Edmund Husserl, "Die phanomenologische
Fundamentalbetrachtung," Ideen zu einer reinen Phanomenologie undphanomenologischen
[1913], vol.1 (Tubingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 1980), 48-108, esp. 57-78. This must be amended by an
account that does not propose a 'pure' intentionality apart from the cultural background o agents: I have
been helped by Elizabeth Anscombe's idea of intentionality as interpretation, and John Searle's speech-act
theory of intentionality. See G.E.M. Anscombe, Intention (Oxford: Blackwell, 1957), and John R. Searle,
Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
I have in mind Mary Wollstonecraft's variation on Aristotle: "I shall first consider women in the grand
light of human creatures, who, in common with men, are placed in this earth to unfold their faculties..." I
do not here cite the voluminous literature on philosophical anthropology, but one striking recent effort is
worth mentioning: Noam Chomsky, "Language and Nature," Mind, Vol.104, No.413 (Jan.1995), 1-61.
If I have roughly indicated the spirit and content of the study, it may be useful to
supplement this with a discussion of what the study doesn't do, or more precisely tries
resolutely not to do. This skeptical position is efficiently formulated by Jacques Derrida:
Is there a "metaphysics" outside the Indo-European organization o f the function "to be"?
This is not in the least an ethnocentric question. It does not amount to envisaging that
other languages might be deprived o f the surpassing mission o f philosophy and metaphysics but, on the contrary, avoids projecting outside the West very determined forms o f
"history" and "culture." 3 '
Behind Derrida's ironic use of quotes, there is an enlightened pluralist argument being
urged in this passage: do not impose Western patterns on other cultures, do not assume
that the lack of analogues to Western concepts is a lack in these cultures, do not assume
that non-Westerners partake in the Western abstraction "culture," that they live in the
Western abstraction "history," or that they are concerned with those Western puzzles
about life, death, and language that are collectively called "metaphysics." The claim has a
modest application that is clearly right and a broad application that I find dubious
logically and politically. The modest claim urges on the reader the skeptical attitude of
the ethnologist: do not hurry to narcissistic conclusions concerning other people, learn
their language and ways and do not prematurely compare them to our own. The broad
claim is that one shall never be able to compare: if they don't have metaphysics, we don't
have some comparable practice with its manifold meanings, and any attempt to think
Jacques Derrida, "The Supplement of Copula," in Margins of Philosophy, translated Alan Bass (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1982), 199. Derrida is criticizing Emile Beneviste's explanation of the verb
"to be" in Greek and other Indo-European languages by recourse to Ewe, a language lacking that verb.
Derrida's skepticism here turns on his rejection of a "unitary science of man." See "The Ends of Man,"
Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol.30, No.l (Sept. 1969), 31-57 (or, for another version,
Margins, 111-136). Derrida oddly hopes to displace 'man' with the anthropocentric act of writing. A more
consistent conclusion from the impossibility of translation across cultures is that of Quine: "Je prefererais
ne pas presenter les choses de telle fa?on qu'on put croire que certaines propositions philosophiques sont
afiirmees dans une culture et niees dans une autre. Ce qui se presente, en realite, c'est la difficulty d'etablir
une correlation quelconque entre ces deux cultures..." W. V. O Quine, "Le mythe de la signification," in
Laphilosophie analytique: Cahiers de Royaumont IV(Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1962), 158.
them together or to call one by the name of the other is "ethnocentric." But we cannot
even know that the concepts do not correspond if no comparison is possible. And so we
surely cannot escape ethnocentrism by insularity.32 To "avoid projecting" metaphysics
cannot mean to avoid asking other human beings basic questions of life and death and
meaning, questions posed variously and receiving numerous answers (or none at all), but
which are universal in the sense that we may always ask what other human beings make
of their life and ours, and vice versa. Even the possibility of saying "vice versa," of
recognizing insularity and ethnocentrism and unjust Utopian projections, implies a
fundamentally shared nature to be explored and debated. This is what I take neopaganism
to be doing, rightly, and I try to follow suit.
See Marc J. Swartz, "Negative Ethnocentrism," The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol.5, No. 1 (March
1961), 75-81. Swartz concludes that ethnocentrism "not only brings the members of a group to judge others
in terms of their own values, but also to see other groups as having these same values." (80) For a brilliant
argument that any notion of cultural difference requires the possibility to compare cultures, see Bernard
Williams, "The Truth in Relativism," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Vol.75 (1974-75), 215-228.
1 .Tragedy
Tragedy: the Cultural Relativism of Henry Fuseli
The more I think about it, the more I find that
everything that is played in the theatre is not brought
nearer to us but made more distant. When I see the
Comte d'Essex, the reign of Elizabeth is ten centuries
removed in my eyes, and, if an event that took place
at Paris yesterday were played, I should be made to
suppose it in the time of Moliere.
Rousseau, Letter to d'Alembert on the Theatre, 1758
A specter haunts art historical studies of the eighteenth century: the specter of theatre.
What is remarkable about the interest in theatre is that Michael Fried introduced it as a
target of critique in a piece of 1960s contemporary art criticism, claiming that modernism
evades theatre, before delving into the archive to show that this was already the case in
the 'age of Diderot'. More remarkably still, Fried admits as modernist the avant-garde
theatre, insisting that for his critique of theatre "the relevant texts are, of course, Brecht
and Artaud."1 Viewed against these models, the traditional concept of the theatrical,
defined broadly as a dependence on the audience for the success of a work of art, is
thought anathema to the very project of ambitious modern art. In the decades since this
argument was first introduced, half-following Fried, half-neglecting him, eighteenthcentury scholars have drawn subtler links between painting and specific forms of theatre:
commedia dell 'arte here, drame bourgeois there.2 In steering clear of the categorical
Michael Fried, "Art and Objecthood," [1967] in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews (Chicago:
University of Chicago, 1998) 163. Theatricality and Absorption: Painting and Beholder in the Age of
Diderot appeared in 1980. His first historicization of theatricality is a 1970 essay on Thomas Couture.
To mention only literature on the French eighteenth century, Dora Panofsky's seminal article precedes
Fried: "Gilles or Pierrot? Iconographic Notes on Watteau," Gazette des Beaux-Arts XXXIX, 1952, 318-40.
More recently, see Julie Anne Plax, Watteau and the Cultural Politics of Eighteenth-Century France (New
York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), and the chapter "Pastoral Make-Believe: Gender Play from the
Opera-Comique to the Salon," in Melissa Hyde's Making Up the Rococo: Frangois Boucher and His
1 .Tragedy
nature of Fried's claim, this valuable work has largely sidestepped questions about
theatrical painting's relation to modernism: all to the good, since modernism may not be
the best frame of reference for understanding Watteau. But for an artist whose work
cannot be separated from the claims to represent cultural modernity, like the Anglo-Swiss
painter Henry Fuseli, the divorce of modernity and theatre is a fall between two stools,
particularly if that artist was a self-professed theatre enthusiast, as is Fuseli's case.3 Must
such an artist be treated as a curiosity of the historical record, or of a failed paradigm? In
any case, they must not be assimilated to a concept of theatre which, whether treated
sympathetically or attacked (as by Fried), presupposes a break with modernity.
Since I am interested in Fuseli's work and its reverberations, it will be necessary
to reopen the case on modernism and theatre in general terms, as Fried has done. In this
chapter, theatre will be discussed a) as a spectacle inconsistent with political virtue, but
utterly translatable to painting b) as Georgian live performance, with its distancing and
framing mechanisms, as Fuseli would have known it at Covent Garden and Drury Lane
Critics (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2006), 145-177. Mark Ledbury, Sedaine, Greuze, and the
boundaries of genre (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2000) is a high-water mark, as is the treatment of period
theory, with results rather opposed to Fried's, in Richard Wrigley's Origins of French Art Criticism
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993). Also notable is Thomas Crow's rethinking of Jacques-Louis David's
Oath of the Horatii as Corneillean tragedy in Emulation: Making Artists for Revolutionary France (New
Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995). Crow had earlier proposed an intricate reading of
Watteau in terms of theatre (both popular and elite) in the second chapter of Painters and Public Life in
Eighteenth Century Paris (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985), and in "Codes of
Silence: Historical Interpretation and the Art of Watteau," Representations 12 (Autumn 1985), 2-14. A
wider scholarship in English and theatre studies is well aware of the opposition to theatre, usually on moral
grounds, running from late antiquity through the Elizabethan era and into the eighteenth century: see
especially Jonas A. Barish, The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).
This theatricality has long been felt by Fuseli scholars: "It is one of his attractions that he leaves so much
to the spectator." Nicolas Powell, The Drawings of Henry Fuseli (London: Faber and Faber, 1951); "In
1765, in a letter to Sulzer, Fuseli wrote that for a man with a soul, the London theatre was alone worth the
journey." Frederick Antal, Fuseli Studies (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1956), 17. Similar motifs can
be found in extant letters: "Zwei Dinge sind, bei denen ich euch beide [his friends Ge|3ner and Hep] an
meine Seite wunschete: das Theater und die Exhibition der Gemalde." Letter to Salomon Dalliker, Nov.
1765, in Heinrich Fiissli: Briefe, ed. Walter Muschg (Basel: Schwabe & Co., 1942), 110. There is in the
same letter a modernist statement to rival Fried: "Gib mir die Aufeinmalempfindung und behalte das
kriechende Vergniigen der Sukzession fur dich!" {Briefe, 109).
1 .Tragedy
from 1765 onward; c) as the revival of ancient Athenian tragedy d) in theoretical terms as
testing ground of inconsistent moral and cultural schemes (sketched in items b and c), in
short as a relativist discipline. This last category will carry our inquiry beyond theatre, to
painting and philosophical anthropology and finally politics, so that we may chart the
discovery of cultural difference that has animated both nationalist and universalist claims
over the past two centuries: in short, the invention of modern cultural pluralism.
Virtue and Shadows
Before we can discuss art and theatre as they collide in the work of Fuseli, we must
consider the dominant historical interpretation of neoclassicism as a humanist institution
bent on instilling virtue in its audience. Theatre and the transparent history painting of
Jacques-Louis David and his pupils are thought to work in the same way: by providing
clear moral models for emulation, they encourage the viewer to take up the example of
stoic virtue much as a Roman youth would have done on reading Plutarch or Seneca.4
This didactic model of theatre has rightfully prevailed in the literature on French
neoclassicism. And yet, the notion of theatre as school for morals was not immune to
criticism in its own time: we may consult the opinion of a great authority on theatre and
painting, Denis Diderot. In writing about the debut of Jean-Honore Fragonard in the
Salon of 1765, Diderot pretended to recount a dream.5 In the dream he was held prisoner
inside Plato's cave—identified as such, and evoked in a droll plagiarism of the text of the
Republic. Colored shadows are projected on a screen for the distraction of the prisoners:
Thomas Crow, Emulation. The groundwork for this interpretation was laid by Robert Herbert, David,
Voltaire, Brutus, and the French Revolution: an essay in art and politics (London: Allen Lane, 1972).
Diderot, "Salon de 1765," in Oeuvres de Diderot, vol.8 (Paris: Briere, 1821)', 324ff.
1 .Tragedy
and these shadows in fact represent Fragonard's debut painting Coresus and Callirhoe
(FIG. 1.1). Diderot gives a breathless account of this scene: the priest, falling in love with
his intended victim, sacrifices himself in her place, to the wonder and grief of the
spectators. Diderot's editor Grimm interrupts to protest that Diderot describes
Fragonard's canvas, and the pretense of the dream is allowed to fall apart. There is then
explicit praise for the picture's dreamlike consistency, with the reservation that Fragonard
has been content to paint "non plus que des simulacres."6 In short, Plato's criticism is
brought again to bear: art is a sweet but rather unwholesome diet of illusions, fascinating
cave-bound spectators with a drama of bloodshed which it does nothing to change.
What I'd like to pick out of this complicated literary game is Diderot's analogy
between painting and theatre. The illusion is described in great detail as consisting in
transparent painted miniatures that are animated and given voice by servants hidden
behind the screen. Unlike Plato's shadows, Diderot's is a multimedia combination of
painting and theatre. The subject of these illusions is also significant, as they are scenes
of such violence and passion that they keep the spectators compelled for the duration of
the performance, which never ends. Only Diderot the dreamer senses the deception, and
even he doesn't grasp it fully until Grimm reminds him that it is in fact a Salon painting.
The cutting implications of this parable extend beyond the hapless Fragonard. In
his presentation of the multitude and its follies, Diderot did not only anticipate theories of
the simulacrum fashionable in the late twentieth century. He formulated a sharp critique
of the arts of his time, particularly those that lay closest to his heart, theatre and painting:
basically, insofar as art achieves its aesthetic goals, it subjugates its spectators. This is
Ibid., 337.
1 .Tragedy
true despite its representation of virtue—Coresus sacrificing himself for love—since the
viewer is not allowed to question the social context in which violence takes place.
Could any history painter of the time withstand such criticism? Fragonard could
not, and this may be one reason why he gave up heroic subject matter. But the question is
of particular interest to the following generation of neoclassicists, with their republican
ambitions. Take the Marius at Minturnae painted in 1786 by David's star pupil JeanGermain Drouais (FIG. 1.2). Thomas Crow has seen Drouais's "masterful, extreme"
canvas as an avant-garde gesture, taking David's austere classicism to new extremes of
sharp lighting, bare interiors, and taut musculature.7 To this formal catalogue we might
add psychic extremity. For all the tense drama of David's Oath of the Horatii, the conflict
is a familial one with ties to bourgeois sentiment. Drouais gives us instead the spectacle
of a captured Roman general frightening away the soldier sent to execute him. The theme
boils down Davidian virtue to an authoritarian backbone of male aggression. The tense
standoff between the figures verges on the psychically unbearable, even as it matter-offactly deploys familiar narrative counters of virtuous courage and iron will.
The canvas, which was Drouais's envoi from Rome (a sort of diploma picture
demanded of Prix de Rome winners), caused a sensation in Paris. It assured the young
painter's reputation after his tragic death of smallpox two years later. Yet the toughness
of Marius did not impress everyone. Pierre-Paul Prud'hon, another young French painter
in Rome, found the execution insipid. '"What is this soldier doing then,' he asked in a
Crow, Painters and Public Life, 234.
1 .Tragedy
private letter, 'to be clumsily cowering behind his cloak...?' And where was any sign of
the character of Marius, 'a great man, but fierce, bloodthirsty, and cruel?'" 8
Besides being quite witty, Prud'hon's reservations to the Marius complement
those of Diderot. Prud'hon wishes Marius were represented as he was, bloodthirsty and
cruel. Now, in the cave, the prisoners' admiration was enforced through a simulation of
virtue and romantic love. But if cruelty were to become the subject of representation
without the carrot of uplifting sentiment, then Plato's screen could be made to serve as a
mirror reflecting the governors of the cave and their morality. One might then go beyond
the Platonic refusal of art's relevance, and finally join Diderot in the project of making art
tell the truth. This truth would not be a realism of external appearance, but one of mental
states. It is doubtful whether virtue would play a privileged role in this kind of theatre.
Such a realism of mental states can be glimpsed in the Marius of Johann Heinrich
Fiissli, who moved to London in spring 1764, eventually settling on the name Henry
Fuseli. Fuseli's Marius, a wash drawing of early 1760s, may have been known to Drouais
(FIG. 1,3).9 The livid torchlight of Fuseli's composition n brackets the tableau vivant as
theatrically as does Drouais's spotlight, but to opposite ends. Rather than picking out
physiognomies, the light in Fuseli shatters the faces of Marius and his would-be assassin
into faceted masks of fear and disdain. The protagonists have the look of hunted animals,
grimacing mechanically at each other. Fuseli's flickering wash picks out cast shadows—
notice the amplified form of the dagger, caught in midair—with the same indifference it
Quoted in Crow, Emulation, 68.
The image, now in New Zealand, was likely executed in Zurich. Another drawing of Marius by Fuseli
was diffused widely as an etching and formally resembles Drouais's canvas. See David H. Weinglass,
Prints and Engraved Illustrations by and after Henry Fuseli (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1994), 324. See also
Matthias Vogel, Johann Heinrich Fiissli - Darsteller der Leidenschaft (Zurich: ZIP, 2001),' 30-35.
1 .Tragedy
applies to the structure of the prison vault and actors. The effect is absurdly literal, and
thus suggestive of the artifice of theatre, and of the extremity of feelings it engenders.
Does a wicked, bloodthirsty Marius, such as Prud'hon recommends and Fuseli
executes, fail to function dramatically? The answer depends on our understanding of
dramatic logic. Certainly Fuseli's Marius does not lend itself to civic emulation. An
aesthetic of ugliness has something to do with this separation of representation from
beholder: the Davidian protagonist must be judged by his acts, hence his neutral, classical
good looks. In Fuseli, we are confronted with protagonists so repulsive that the
physiognomic common sense of the eighteenth century shies away from them as morally
suspect. Consequently, a thread of historical writing on Fuseli is the attempt to explain
his means of representing heroism through the physiognomic mode of reading facial
features proposed by Lavater, a childhood friend and lifelong correspondent of Fuseli's.10
These readings explain much, in particular Fuseli's imaginary portraits from literature
and history. If the Marius were amenable to physiognomic reading, it should in fact
reverse the terms of transmission, since the drawing precedes Lavater's first publication
on the subject by ten years.11 But there are theoretical difficulties with such a reading: in
interpreting character in the face, Lavater separated genetic attributes from ephemeral
emotion, whose study he called pathognomy.12 Yet Fuseli, in the Marius, makes a point
of not separating anatomy and affect from each other or even from accidents of lighting:
In a vast literature, see esp. Vogel, op.cit.; Sabine Hermann, Die natiirliche Ursprache in der Kunst um
1800 (Frankfurt: R.G. Fischer, 1994); Marcia Allentuck, "Fuseli and Lavater. Physiognomical Theory and
the Enlightenment," Studies in Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, 55 (1967), 88-112.
Johann Caspar Lavater, Physiognomische Fragmente, zur Beforderung der Menschenkenntnis
Menschenliebe; erster Versuch (Leipzig, Weidmanns Erben und Reich, 1775-78).
This criticism was made by Lavater's contemporary Lichtenberg, who favored the latter method. See
Gert Schiff and Werner Hofmann, Henry Fuseli 1741-1825, exh. cat. (London: Tate Gallery, 1975), 42. On
1 .Tragedy
a physiognomic reading here only tends to elide the difficulty of empathizing with these
figures, which is precisely the point.
Without wishing in any way to close the discussion of Lavater's significance to
Fuseli or vice versa, I must point out briefly to what extent such a connection falls short
of explaining the phenomenon that interests us. There is in the British Museum an early
wash drawing of Fuseli's representing the Suicide of Ajax (FIG. 1.4). The mad Ajax kneels
in the background, preparing to bury a sword in his breast; in the foreground, his wife and
child grieve. The wife's face is buried in her hands; the child's is strikingly abbreviated,
being seen from above; only the brilliant white of a spotlight on these foreground figures
gives any cue to their emotional significance. This 'dramaturgy through lighting' is even
more striking in the case of Ajax: his round eyes, shockingly delineated in monotonous
black, stare out of the page at us, his face is classical and indeed resembles the portrait of
Brutus which Fuseli would later execute for Lavater (FIG. 1.5). One could surely make
interpretive play with the fact that both heroes are suicides, and somewhat stolid ones at
that, but the virtue theory of physiognomy breaks down when one tries to compare the
rational self-sacrifice of the defeated Brutus with the self-destructive, capricious (or, for
Homer, god-induced) madness of Ajax. In thus appealing to visual-narrative categories of
virtue and physiognomy, we reach a stage of interpretive generality that explains
everything and nothing.13 It is far better to take a step back, and to notice that against the
neutral canvas of heroic physiognomy and musculature, across the blank staring eyes,
Fuseli has once again deployed ink wash in the manner of theatrical lightning, dividing
the frequent disagreement between Fuseli and Lavater, see Carol Louise Hall, Blake and Fuseli: A Study in
the Transmission of Ideas (New York: Garland, 1985), 47-48.
Cf. Schiff, 1:143. Physiognomic readings do not always fail: see George S. Levitine, "The Influence of
Lavater and Girodet's Expression des Sentiments de I 'Ame," Art Bulletin, Vol.36, No. 1 (Mar. 1954), 33-44.
1 .Tragedy
Ajax's face into light and dark segments. The impassivity across this change in stimulus,
the fact that his eyes do not register the change, tells us what we must know about the
madness—which is not after all a failure of virtue, though it is a failure of agency, and
perhaps, a final end to individuality on the part of the hero who is about to take his life.14
We are beginning to see how 'anti-virtuous' neoclassicism is intelligible as
dramatic narrative, but we must still ask what purpose it serves, what challenges it sets
out to face. One way to approach the problematic moral implications of Fuseli's work is
to treat it as he might have done, with an eye to the revolutionary theatre practice of
David Garrick.15 At mid-century, Garrick took the English stage by storm by abandoning
the declamatory style inherited from the tragedy of Racine for a directness of character
and mannerism that he applied above all to the performance of Shakespeare.16 Letting go
of the moral universality of French 'classical' tragedy for an observer's delight in the
imitation of specific human beings, Garrick pointed out to Fuseli a dramatic means of
representing characters whose validity could be confirmed by an audience. Fuseli says as
much in an unpublished poem of 1765 dedicated to Garrick's leading lady, Mrs. Yates:
Lass - ehe ich sinke - lass o Monimia
Mit Blicken ab - Sie treffen wie Schwerdter mich
Ein Wurm, gemacht vermischt zu tuhlen,
[Let - before I sink - let o Minimia
With upward looks - they touch me like swords
A worm, made to feel indiscriminately,
Lest the reader question the explanatory value of what is a very specific play of light and narrative in this
drawing, I should point out that the technique is common in Fuseli's early work: see e.g, SCHIFF 395, 427.
Fuseli's interest in Garrick is well-known. See, e.g., Stephen Leo Carr, "Verbal-visual relationships:
Zoffany's and Fuseli's illustrations of Macbeth," Art History, Vol.3, No.4 (Dec.1980), 388-409; Franziska
Lentzsch, "London's Theatres - Drury Lane and Somerset House; All the City's a Stage," in Fuseli: The
Wild Swiss (Zurich: Scheidegger & Spiess, 2005), 189-234. Shearer West, in a rich study of Garrick's
impact on visual art, writes: "For Fuseli, the power of this scene lay not so much in its effect of realism as
in its evocation of the sublime." The Image of the Actor: Verbal and Visual Representation in the Age of
Garrick andKemble (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991), 64.
George Winchester Stone Jr. and George M. Kahrl, David Garrick: A Critical Biography (Carbondale:
Southern Illinois University Press, 1979), and Winchester Stone's doctoral thesis, Garrick's Treatment of
Shakespeare's Plays and His Influence upon the Changed Attitude of Shakespearean Criticism during the
Eighteenth Century (Harvard University, 1940).
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Tragt nicht die Wollust zu reiner Trauer!
Do not make lust into pure grief. ]
Gert Schiff, the scholar who has done most to elucidate Fuseli's convoluted fantasy life,
explains the verse thus: "He sought in the mimesis of this great actress the expression of
feeling which Lebrun, in his Methode pour apprendre a dessiner les passions, tried to
organize by graphic schemata."18 If Fuseli found such a canon of expressive conventions
in the acting of the period, it should be possible to reconstruct the sentimental force of his
narratives through an examination of theatrical practice.
There is a watercolor, done in London in 1766, which might be seen as the first
attempt of this dramatic mode of painting (FIG. 1.6). Showing Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard
as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the work should be called by the caption Fuseli inscribed
on it in capital letters:
". The oppressive, rust-
toned atmosphere of the watercolor is impressive, as is the animation of the figures. We
cannot compare the work with any integral perception of Garrick onstage, though
historians have pointed to the divergence from other portraits of Garrick as Macbeth.19
Certain choices are striking: the sleepwalking, 'Hamletized' Macbeth facially resembles
the young Fuseli rather than the stout, middle-aged Garrick. His waistcoat billowing
before him simulates an aggressive erection while seeming to dissimulate a certain
absence in the same department, as if Macbeth the murderer, or the man, is only half
there. This dreamy equivocation is made up for by Mrs. Pritchard, who is advancing to
take the weapons with the poise of a mantis. At the center of the composition are her
Fuseli, "An den Probst Pistorius auf Riigen. London. May 1765," in Arnold Federmann, Johann Heinrich
Fiissli, Dichter undMaler, 1741-1825 (Zurich: Orell Fiissli, 1927), 95. Cf. Schiff, I: 60. My translation.
Gert Schiff, Johann Heinrich Fiissli: Text und Oeuvrekatalog, 2 vols. (Munchen: Prestel Verlag, 1973),
I: 60. All quotations from Schiff are my translations from his German.
Carr, "Verbal-visual relationships." Zoffany's Garrick, without knives, spreads his hands to the audience.
1 .Tragedy
outstretched hand and the knives, which gleam orange-brown in Fuseli's deft suggestion
of footlights, and seem to dance of their own accord: a viewer unfamiliar with the play
might think Macbeth on the verge of butchering his wife. The dialogue, its force implied
by Fuseli's orthography—the capitals, dashes, and exclamation point—underlines this
violence.20 The choice of the post-murder scene, with Macbeth's stumbling confession, is
of course not devoid of moral interest. Yet Fuseli neither absolves Garrick-Macbeth by
emphasizing his sentimental remorse, nor can he, like Shakespeare, imply the superior
morality of a Banquo in what is after all a static image of violence accomplished.
The image, then, is both successful as a piece of cold sensationalism, and deeply
problematic. It is problematic not only for the theory of theatre as moral education, but
for any attempt to render images into theatrical dialogue, as eighteenth century art
viewers liked to do. For instance, though Fuseli provides us with (Shakespeare's)
dialogue, it would be hard to invent mental dialogue for his figures in the manner
recommended by the French critic Pidansat de Mairobert (1775) for a violent subject:
The victim, over whom the dagger is raised, should betray on her face at once
surprise, tenderness, and fright... one expects to see in the figure of the Goddess a
motivated, reflective jealousy, mixed with a secret and appalling joy...21
Though fanciful, such a silent dialogue of looks and passions is very much what Diderot
'experienced' with Fragonard in his cave. Such a mode of reading, dependent as it is on
the willing imagination of the spectator, demands also a stable language of the self such
as Lebrun and later Lavater provided. It is this conventional grammar that Fuseli—in his
Fuseli was to read Lessing's Laocoon, and to consciously come to terms with its arguments about the
profound structural difference between temporal and visual arts, in the early 1790s. See Eudo C. Mason,
The Mind of Henry Fuseli (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951), 202-207, and my Chapter 2.
"La victime, sur laquelle le poignard est leve, doit marquer sur son visage, a la fois la surprise, la
tendresse et reffroi...on s'attend a voir sur la figure de la Deesse une jalousie motivee, reflechie, melee
d'une secrete et affreuse joie..." Quoted in Wrigley, 323.
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literal recourse to Shakespeare, and to Garrick's acting as imagined or recollected—does
not provide. To call the Macbeth, or the rest of his oeuvre, histrionic, is only to beg the
question: why do these characters function dramatically at all?22
The difficulty of reading Fuseli dramatically demands a 'local' interpretation. It is
tempting to think: we are dealing with an English phenomenon, Garrick's Shakespeare is
a form of nationalism, and it is to be expected that an ambitious painter, a foreigner in
particular, should make a bid for acceptability in these terms.23 There is something to
this. Fuseli calculated, and calculated well: his election to the Royal Academy in 1790;
election to a professorship of Painting in 1799, the prestigious Keepership in 1804, and
again Professor of Painting in 1810, testify to his success in passing for an 'English
painter.' A repertory steeped in Milton, Shakespeare, and Dry den is thus easily explained.
Unfortunately, to explain Fuseli in this way is to explain him away altogether.
The precise function of his incursions into English literature—and the large body of his
work from Germanic and Classical sources—could only be read tautologically, as a bid
for acceptability on known nationalist grounds. But Fuseli was successful precisely
because he was deemed peculiar and un-English.24 Nor can nationalism be invoked
without explaining just what nationhood meant in the late eighteenth century: why
Goethe believed they functioned through an illegitimate poetic (dichterisch) appeal to the imagination.
See Mason, "Appendix III: Goethe's Attitude Towards Fuseli," The Mind of Henry Fuseli, 360-366.
On Fuseli as "Shakespeares Maler," as Lavater called him, see Esther Gordon Dotson, "English
Shakespeare Illustration and Eugene Delacroix," in Essays in Honor of Walter Friedlaender (New York:
J.J. Augustin, 1965), 40-61. Fred Licht, Simona T. Pizzetti, David H. Weinglass, Fiisslipittore di
Shakespeare: pittura e teatro, 1775-1825 (Milano: Electa, 1997), Franziska Lentzsch, op.cit., Nathalie
Padilla, L 'esthetique du sublime dans les peintures shakespeariennesd'Henry
Fiissli (Paris: L'Harmattan,
2009), and David Bindman, "Una visione cosmopolita del Bardo: Fiissli e Shakespeare," in Dalla scena al
dipinto. La magia del teatro nella pittura dell'Ottocento: Da David a Delacroix, da Fiissli a Degas, Exh.
Cat. Museo di Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto (Milan: Skira, 2010), 80-85. On
xenophobia and integration, see the essays in Italian Culture in Northern Europe in the Eighteenth Century,
ed. Shearer West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
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Shakespeare could be claimed as a national poet, but also why Fuseli should enter the
Royal Academy with a diploma picture based on Norse myth.25 We have to understand
nationalism and cosmopolitanism together; on a subjective register, this opposition will
be transposed to one between the familiar and the foreign. To give an account of Fuseli
sensitive to these concerns is one goal of this dissertation. To show that the opposition
stems from a shift in consciousness which produces both communitarian and universalist
claims in Enlightenment Europe is the work of this chapter. In the process we will discuss
the cultural politics of eighteenth-century theatre: what was represented, and what was
not—because it was censored, trivialized, or bracketed by commentary. We will see how
theatre impinged on the practice of painting, and on the historical consciousness of the
double audience of both arts. That the audience of painting was also the audience of
theatre is implied in Fuseli's own spectatorial experience:
The passions of the Paris theatre are made to be seen; we feel these—and from
Clairon in her first role, Medea, to Yates as Hermione is a leap no smaller that
from Nature to Portraiture.26
Fuseli's thought is unfamiliar enough that we must follow it step by step: the English
theatre is superior to the French, as feeling is to sight, and a portrait is to nature. In all
these comparisons he appreciates both terms, but what fascinates him is the leap (kein
geringerer Sprung) from nature to portrait. That this medium of individuality should
provide a standard to theatre, above that of 'nature', is indicative of a deeper shift. For the
disparities of historical cultures came to be seen at this time on the model of discrete
Lamb famously called him the German nightmare on the breast of English arts. There is a convincing
argument in Myrone's Bodybuilding (Ch.7) that Fuseli at times cultivated an image of the foreign eccentric.
Thor battering the Midgard Serpent, 1790
716). See Christian Klemm in Lentzsch, ed., 152.
Letter to Dalliker, Nov. 1765, in Briefe, 111. The German reads: "Die Passionen des Paris-Theaters sind
gemacht, um gesehen zu werden; wir fuhlen diese—und von Clairon in ihrem ersten Charakter, Medea, zu
1 .Tragedy
individuals. This led eighteenth-century aesthetics out of Plato's cave into a multiplicity
of caves implying at least the open air between them.
Theatre and the Obscene
In the preceding pages, we have introduced the demoralization of theatre as a motif in the
drawings of Henry Fuseli. Garrick's dramatic practice provided context for Fuseli's, but
raised a historical problem of even greater magnitude, namely the inception of national
consciousness among Europeans, the English in particular. We would now like to see
how a drawing practice could do more than reflect a burgeoning nationalism—how it
could shape national identity, for instance, in imperialist or liberalizing directions. To
trace the profile of this complex intertwining of national identity and art, we should try to
consider works of Fuseli's which figure it from the outside, in that they appear to evade
it altogether. We can do this with drawings whose narrative is culturally authoritative
across the array of modern European nationalisms, namely those dealing with ancient
Greek tragedy.27 And we should begin with a work that precedes Fuseli's acquaintance
with Garrick and English theatre, against which we may later measure their impact: I take
as starting point the wash drawing of Orestes pursued by the Furies (FIG. 1.7), made
between 1762 and 1764, a particularly unstable and exciting period of Fuseli's life when,
having left his Zurich as a political dissident, the twenty-two year old visited Berlin and
Yates in Hermione ist kein geringerer Sprung als von der Natur zum Portrate." Hermione, the daughter of
Helen, is the protagonist of Jean-Baptiste Lully's Cadmus et Hermione, a tragedie lyrique of 1673.
1 posit dogmatically here that tragedy is culturally privileged throughout late eighteenth-century Europe,
but the evidence will surface gradually in the course of the chapter, and, to a degree, the whole dissertation.
1 .Tragedy
Barth, where he hobnobbed with the theologian Spalding and the poet Klopstock, and
traveled to London in late 1763 as would-be ambassador of the German literary revival.
The drawing may or may not reflect this uprooted existence, but it certainly bears
witness to a classical education—Fuseli's father had intended him for a career in the
clergy, which Fuseli gave up, rather quietly, in the period of his travels. The scene of
wild-eyed Orestes being restrained by his co-conspirators, Electra and Pylades, while the
Eumenides rage over the body of his murdered mother Klytaimnestra, elaborates on the
conclusion of Aeschylus' Libation Bearers?9 Fuseli's early style combines a shorthand
classicism of posture (Orestes' robustly foreshortened legs) with a certain homegrown
disregard for proportion. The oversized heads with their open mouths and round, staring
eyes really convey the paranoia of the scene, particularly Orestes with his perfectly round
irises ringed in white and reinforced by arching brows.30 These last, together with the
figure's aggressive striding motion out of the image seem to confront the viewer directly,
while playing on the solipsism of Orestes' madness, as if he sees an audience hidden to
every other protagonist: the furies, in fact. In contrast to this tumult, the drawing is
accompanied by a school-boyish caption from the Aeneid:
[aut] Agamemnonius sc[a]enis agitatus Orestes,
armatam facibus matrem et serpentibus atris31
cum fugit ultricesque sedent in limine Dirae.
[or Agamemnon's Orestes, hounded off the stage,
He, Lavater, and several progressive-minded friends protested the corruption of land bailiff (Landvogt)
Grebel in a pamphlet; his powerful family made life difficult for the signatories, so that "they considered it
prudent to withdraw for a time from the city [Zurich]." John Knowles, The Life and Writings of Henry
Fuseli, 3 vols. (London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1831), 1:21.
Aeschylus's Choephoroe, the second play in a trilogy beginning with Agamemnon and followed by the
Eumenides (the final satyr play, Proteus, is lost), won the prize at the Dionysia festival in 458 BCE.
Werner Hofmann is right to compare Fuseli's style to modern comic strips (in Schiff and Hofmann, 37).
Facial exaggeration in the early work could be even more precisely compared to Japanese anime drawing.
Aeneid IV:471-473. Fuseli left out the opening "aut" and the "a" in "scaenis."
1 .Tragedy
fleeing his mother armed with torches, black snakes,
while blocking the doorway coil her Furies of Revenge.]32
On one hand, the caption is a typical show of classical learning, destined to make Fuseli's
tutors proud. Walter J. Ong has shown the profound imaginative reliance of even the
most self-professed romantic subjectivists like Samuel Taylor Coleridge on the Latin
commonplace books (collections of quotations) that had occupied the center of their
traditional literary education.33 The willful obscurity and subjectivism of romantic art was
in part a response to this objectification of the classical past: a choice of the unknown that
fragmented and recombined familiar verses to uncanny effect.
This is partly what Fuseli is up to, juxtaposing an image of bombastic subjectivity
with Virgil's cool hexameters. But the words also do two other things: they are literal and
self-ironizing. Literal because if Fuseli wanted a narration of his tableau, he couldn't turn
to the Oresteia: as is typical of Old Tragedy, Aeschylus has the murder take place offstage. The quote is ironic because, at the scene of the crime, it already refers to theatre:
Orestes in Virgil's mind is already a character from Aeschylus, "hounded off the stage"
("scaenis agitatus Orestes...fugit"). Virgil is comparing Dido's death to Orestes' flight,
but he ends up comparing it to his flight off the stage. Is this a anachronism that the old
poet would have excised had he lived to edit the Aeneid thoroughly? Or a sophisticated
aside to his Roman audience, who after all knew the story of Orestes as Greek tragedy?
We have every reason to assume that Fuseli believed the latter. In fact, Fagles's English
translation that I have used, for all its fluidity, is less than imaginative in its rendition of
Virgil, Aeneid, translated by Robert Fagles (New York: Viking, 2006), 144.
Walter J. Ong, Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971). One could
supplement the argument with the treatment of poetical forebears in Walter Jackson Bate, The Burden of
the Past and the English Poet (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 1970).
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the last line: it has the furies "blocking the doorway."34 Now, "limine," as in English
"liminal," can certainly mean doorway, but more generally and accurately it is "border,"
"threshold," the edge between two things. In Virgil's stagey language it may be rendered
by saying: hounded off the stage, Orestes found the furies waiting in the wings.
This is the self-conscious, actorly Orestes—and Virgil—that Fuseli represents. It
makes less sense to seek out physiognomic essences here than to ask how exaggerated
physique communicates theatrically. The scrambling motion of Orestes' legs, the roving
arms, his searching gaze out of the picture plane: all these sharpen the shock of the flat
page, of the failure of continuity between action and audience. Add to this the spectacle
of the phantom of Klytaimnestra, equipped with torch and snaky hair, surrounded by
furies, all of whom are framed as if on a screen by the horizontal grey band of wash
behind Orestes' left foot. This grey band, however, is not so mysterious if we recall the
theatrical threshold in Virgil's text. The combination of emphatic motion and clearly
delineated stage space can best be explained as mental theatre. Fuseli is playing out
Aeschylus's text explicitly according to Virgil's scenography. The intimate medium of
wash drawing might be understood as analogous to a private performance.35
These images are private, and strange, not because of the overwhelming genius of
Fuseli but because there was no conventional interpretation of Greek tragedy available.
For the most part Greek tragedy was simply not played in the eighteenth century. In
Britain, despite the appearance of noteworthy English translations of Sophocles in 1759,
Aeschylus in 1777, and Euripides in 1782, the plays languished in learned volumes.
He is not alone. Robert Fitzgerald has: "And in the doorway squat the Avenging Ones." Virgil, Aeneid
(New York: Vintage, 1990), 113. Modern translators seem to follow Dryden: "The furies guard the door
and intercept his flight." Johann Heinrich Voss has "auf der Schwelle," which is better: "on the threshold."
1 .Tragedy
When played they were a scandal. In an era that saw Shakespeare's King Lear only in
Nahum Tate's rosy 1681 version36—without the Fool and with a happy ending—Greek
tragedy, when it was played at all, was hardly recognizable. Stage writers had no qualms
in "endeavouring] to render probable...glaring Circumstances," by cutting supernatural
characters for instance.37 In a prologue appended to Euripides' Ion by Drury Lane's
manager, Garrick himself, we catch a glimpse of the intractability of the subject matter
for modern audiences:
In short, these Oracles, and witching Rhimes
Were but the pious Frauds of ancient Times;
Wisely contriv 'd to keep Mankind in awe,
When Faith was Wonder, and Religion Law!38
The enlightenment zeal in exposing pious frauds raises related questions about modern
mores. Even stranger is the epilogue Garrick appended to a translation of the Hecuba:
Strip 'd of my tragic weeds, and rais 'dfrom death;
In freedom's land, again I draw my breath:
Tho' late a Trojan ghost, in Charon's ferry;
I'm now an English girl, alive, and merry!
Hey!—Presto!—I'm in Greece a maiden slain—
Now!—stranger still!—a maid, in Drury-lane!
No more by barb 'rous men, and laws confin 'd,
I claim my native rights—to speak my mind.
Tho 'poringpedants should applaud this piece,
Behold a champion,—foe profest of Greece!
I throw my gauntlet to the critic race:
[throws down her glove]
With one exception, Fuseli never attempted to render Greek tragedy on a large scale in oil painting. The
exception, Alkmaeon (Kunsthaus Zurich), shown in 1823, closely resembles the Orestes in subject matter.
Edgar Peters Bowron, ed. Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century (Philadelphia: Merrell, 2000), 506.
See Edith Hall, "Greek Tragedy and the British Stage, 1566-1997," Cahiers du Gita 12 (1999), 113-133.
Early eighteenth-century performances, at times spoken in Greek, were carried out in public schools and
universities, where philological interest could be married to gore. Interestingly, the first English translation
of a Greek tragedy was made by an adolescent noblewoman, Lady Lumley, around 1537. See David H.
Greene, "Lady Lumley and Greek Tragedy," The Classical Journal, Vol.36, No.9 (June 1941), 537-547.
William Whitehead, Creusa, Queen of Athens. A tragedy. As it is acted at the Theatre Royal in DruryLane by His Majesty's Servants (London: Dodsley etc., 1754), Houghton Library, *EC75 W5873 754c.
1 .Tragedy
Come forth, bold Grecians!—Meet me face to face!
Particularly noteworthy here is the appeal to national sentiment. The manifesto ends:
But hold—You hate the Greek as much as I;
Then, let us join our force, and boldly speak—
That English ev'ry thing surpasses Greek}9
All in good humor, no doubt. Pronounced by Miss Bride, the actress playing the tragic
Polyxena, this epilogue concluded the performance with a detachment which might strike
us today as startlingly postmodern. In all likelihood, the spectators were reassured by
Garrick's blimpish homilies, not only by the complacent suggestion that they had it better
than those savage Greeks, but also that those very Greeks, or at least the actors playing
them, were alive to English superiority. It is also worth noting that the immediacy of the
English everyday (the actress throwing down her glove) is brought forth to refute Greek
otherworldliness. This moment of negative totalization was necessary for the 'cultural
turn' to take place that would view ancient Greeks, barbarous custom and all, as a being
worthy of study on their own terms. Before one can compare autonomous cultural objects
openly, one has to be made aware of them, and that is only accomplished brutally.
This shift occurred unevenly across disciplines: architects' enthusiasm for the
Doric column precedes serious performance of Greek theatre by a half-centuiy.40 And
that is not hard to understand: a Doric base might shock by its simplicity, but it is easier
to assimilate than ritual murder. The stage, even at its most provincial, or perhaps rather
particularly there, asked difficult public questions about cultural difference. By reflecting
on incompatible national moralities, Garrick's commentaries, for all their shallow
John Delap, Hecuba: A Tragedy. (Dublin: W. Smith, 1762). I have consulted Garrick's manuscript of this
text in the Folger Shakespeare Library (W.b.467, fol.l3v) and find the printed text substantially unchanged.
Nikolaus Pevsner and S. Lang. "Apollo or Baboon," Architectural Review, December 1948, 271 -279.
1 .Tragedy
contempt for their subject matter, push the audience a half-step out of Plato's cave.
Identification with the spectacle is discouraged. This was no simple task, because it was
precisely those subjects which the Greeks themselves chose to represent indirectly, as
occurring offstage—murders, bloody sacrifice—that English theatre found most
compelling.41 This is obscenity in its doubled, modern signification: what ought to be
"kept off the scene" is brought back onstage by performance. In being thus confronted
with what they themselves would not do, eighteenth century spectators undertook a
meditation on what is possible morally that is perhaps the central aspect of relativism.
That this disruptive theatrical presence could be relativized through an aesthetic
mode of address was common theoretical knowledge in Garrick's era. David Hume, the
eminent philosopher and Enlightenment salonier who introduced Fuseli to Rousseau in
Paris in 1766,42 argued in his essay "On Tragedy" (1757) that only awareness of the
artifice of theatrical make-believe could render onstage suffering bearable. Otherwise, "a
pure uneasiness...attended with nothing that can soften it into pleasure or satisfaction"
would make the viewer turn away in disgust.43 Hume is particularly critical of painting:
Most painters appear in this light to have been very unhappy in their subjects. As
they wrought much for churches and convents, they have chiefly represented such
horrible subjects as crucifixions and martyrdoms, where nothing appears but
tortures, wounds, executions, and passive suffering...44
This perhaps explains the tongue-in-cheek flavor of Garrick's commentaries.
Fuseli met Rousseau in Paris in 1766: "ich sah ihn in Paris mit Hume, den er nach England begleitete."
Letter to Bodmer from Lyon of 1766, in Briefe, 125.
"On Tragedy," [1757] Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary (XXII), vol.3 of The Philosophical
of David Hume (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1854), 247.
Hume, 246. One should compare Fuseli's comments on the subject matter of Christian painting in the
Lectures, particularly at the beginning of Lecture 2; see the quote in my Introduction.
1 .Tragedy
Hume the rationalist is quite sharp about the consequences of such 'ghastly mythology':
"Too much jealousy extinguishes love; too much difficulty renders us indifferent; too
much sickness and infirmity disgusts a selfish and unkind parent."45
We must allow that Hume's criticisms are germane to Fuseli's art, as decorum
generally finds a target in aesthetic manifestations of excess. All the same, Fuseli might
have replied that his Orestes is not complacent about its function as a piece of painterly
(and theatrical) illusion. Fuseli drew paradoxical comfort from the overriding intellectual
mentor of his youth, Rousseau, who in the Letter to d'Alembert on Theatre46 provided the
eighteenth century with its most stringent critique of morality in art, and demolished
hopeful theories of theatre as a school of virtue. Purporting to write against d'Alembert's
recommendation in an Encyclopedie article that Geneva relax its ban on theatre,
Rousseau dealt an equal blow to optimism of Hume's variety, which saw theatre as
potentially domesticated through artificiality.
I will be told that in these plays crime is always punished and virtue always
rewarded. I answer that, even if this were so, most tragic actions are only pure
fables, events known to be inventions of the poet, and so do not make a strong
impression on the audience; as a result of showing them that we want to instruct
them, we no longer instruct them 47
Artificiality, which should make theatre respectable, vitiates any moral claim in theatre.
The severe pronouncement that art presents only representations of fictions, thus illusions
of illusions, should recall to us Diderot's variation on Plato's cave.48
Hume, 247.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Politics and the Arts, ed. Allan Bloom (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1968).
Bloom points out that Rousseau's French title, Lettre a M. d'Alembert sur les spectacles, takes in a wider
range of theatrical pastimes than either our "theatre" or "drama," which it implies, though it does not imply
the categorical distrust of mass media implicit in recent French theoretical use of "spectacle."
Rousseau, 28.
"Rousseau's sole preparation for writing the Letter to d'Alembert was to write a paraphrase of the tenth
book of Plato's Republic {De I'imitation theatrale). Cf. Allan Bloom, "Introduction," in Rousseau., xxi.
1 .Tragedy
What then does he [the vicious man] go to see at the theatre? Precisely what he
wants to find everywhere: lessons of virtue for the public, from which he excepts
himself, and people sacrificing everything to their duty while nothing is exacted
from him.49
As is often the case with Rousseau, he argues in spite of himself: a footnote late in the
text wonders what one will think of his personal taste from reading his theory. "On the
basis of this one they will not fail to say: "that man is crazy about dancing"; it bores me
to watch dancing; "he cannot bear the drama"; I love the drama passionately..."50 In other
words Rousseau would not have the book read as blanket condemnation of theatre, but
rather as a political treatise demonstrating that, on Encyclopediste terms, as a tool of
public enlightenment, theatre is worse than useless: it makes audiences passive when it
does not corrupt it outright. An interesting consequence of this negativity is that tragedy
is to be exempted from censure precisely because of its extravagance.
Happily, the tragedy such as it exists is so far from us, it presents beings so
enormous, so bloated, so chimerical, that the example of their vices is hardly more
contagious than that of their virtues is useful; and to the extent that it wants to
instruct us less, it does us also less harm.51
In the section devoted to "The Letter to d'Alembert" in his anonymous 1767 pamphlet,
Remarks on the Writings and Conduct of J.J. Rousseau, Fuseli elaborates on this theme:
I reason here on the principles of those who consider the stage as a school for
morals. There is, in tragedy chiefly, such a disparity between the spectator's and
hero's circumstances, that it requires the most painful abstraction to snatch one
useful lesson from all the flatulency of his passion. The truth is, the most striking
play may be written without any good tendency at all..."52
There is in Fuseli's argument (taken, characteristically, from a footnote longer than the
chapter itself) a palpable satisfaction: the liberation of morals from theatre declared by
Rousseau, 24.
Rousseau, 131
Rousseau, 34.
1 .Tragedy
Rousseau entails a symmetrical liberation of theatre from moral accountability. This
attitude lends itself to the representation of ancient theatre in all its brutality; in many
ways it also anticipates the nineteenth-century formalism advocated by Baudelaire:
Whether voluptuous or awe-inspiring, this figure will owe its entire charm to the
arabesque which it cuts in space...subject-matter plays no part. If it is otherwise
with you, I shall be forced to believe that you are either a butcher or a rake."53
Baudelaire is as usual only half-serious; but we should not forget, as overeager critics of
formalism have done, that his joke has a moral sting.54 To look for a guide to conduct in
art, says Baudelaire, is uncivilized. There is a radical aesthetic relativism in Baudelaire's
thought, for he specifies a mode of experience that painting alone could offer, making it
thus theoretically though not practically autonomous from politics, photography, or
theater. Such a separation depends on a form of radical perspectivism, an attention to how
a beholder behaves in relation to the art object. Baudelaire reaches his formalist
conclusion ('nymph = martyr') by observing that Delacroix's canvases attract him at a
distance from which he cannot make out the subject. David Carrier has succinctly put this
insight: "What separates form and content is physical distance from the painting."55
If such a separation of propitious form from objectionable content were possible
to a late eighteenth-century audience, Fuseli could find an audience for tragic painting.
One might even establish an audience for the performance of Greek tragedy. Such an
audience would distinguish between its own aversion to the events played and their
Remarks on the Writings and Conduct of J.J. Rousseau (London: Cadell, 1767), 74.
Charles Baudelaire, "The Life and Work of Eugene Delacroix," in The Painter of Modem Life and Other
Essays, translated by Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 1970) 52.
Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria (Oxford: Oxford, 1972) propagated the misunderstanding in attributing to
Baudelaire a dismissal of narrative content that is only true of Baudelaire's admirer Clement Greenberg.
David Carrier, High Art: Charles Baudelaire and the Origins of Modernist Painting (University Park:
Pennsylvania State University, 1996), 41.
1 .Tragedy
validity in an ethical context exterior to its own. Most importantly, such an audience
would have to decide that reflection on an alien moral code is a morally worthwhile
activity, independent of any virtues, including the relatively 'new' virtue of tolerance, it
might gain from this reflection. Such an audience confronts Greek tragedy, avant-garde
art of all types, and formulates aesthetic discourse in the present day. How did we arrive
at this relativism? As Francis Haskell has shown in his Rediscoveries in Art, partly
through an encounter with newly dug up or reevaluated monuments of past human
cultures. At the same time, such reevaluations could not take place in a vacuum: they
presuppose a practice of history that questions rather than confirms the validity of present
institutions. They also presuppose a relativist aesthetic.56 Rousseau, in tracing the origin
of the arts and sciences to inequality, made this possible. But his moral purism could not
have admitted to a truly pluralist aesthetic (or political practice: see the Contrat Social)
without a leavening of Hume's detachment. In the same volume of Essays Moral,
Political and Literary which saw the publication of "On Tragedy," Hume printed an
essay "On the Standard of Taste" which is a first clear statement of aesthetic relativism.
What is significant here is that Hume as a historian sees the plurality of incompatible
aesthetics as the result of an encounter with the past:
[T]hose who can enlarge their view to contemplate distant nations and remote
ages, are still more surprised at the great inconsistence and contrariety. We are apt
to call barbarous whatever departs widely from our own taste and apprehension;
but soon find the epithet of reproach retorted on us.57
The philosopher J.O. Urmson has proposed a general theory of dramatic spectatorship that fits our
account: in watching actors A and B act out actions x and y as characters I and II, we are fully aware that A
and B are actors on a stage simulating that I and II are doing x and y respectively. This sharp separation
between actors acting and characters interacting is typical of modern theatre, but not even of Garrick. J.O.
Urmson, "Dramatic Representation," The Philosophical Quarterly, Vol.22, No.89 (Oct. 1972), 333-343.
"Of the Standard of Taste," Essays (XXIII), 249. Hume goes on to say that there are some constants, like
Homer's reputation, and suggests that taste may be trained by practice, but no a priori principles emerge.
1 .Tragedy
This pluralism, without a second-order theory to make sense of the disparity of tastes,
would be intolerable. A theory which could make peace between competing tastes (and
morals) without abolishing them thus had to be invented, and in fact was in the late
eighteenth century: the modern theory of culture, or rather cultures. In the following
section, we will see how Hume and Rousseau's disciples made pagan antiquity the
subject of a cultural anthropology extending to all human life past and present, without
reducing it to one standard of taste, either in art or in morality. Fuseli's work in Rome
during the 1770s occupies a privileged role in the transformation of Greco-Roman
antiquity from a bastion of European identity to the paradigm of an exotic counterculture.
Drama as Ritual: Fuseli in Rome
In 1770, at the recommendation of Joshua Reynolds, Fuseli left London on a ship bound
for Nice; from there he continued to Rome, where he remained for eight years to soak up
antiquity and acquire the aesthetic (rather than the practical) education of a painter.58 An
early drawing of this period, coming roughly a decade after the Orestes drawing just
discussed, will help conclude the discussion of tragedy as obscenity, and in the process
allow us to see past theatrical shock to the relativist antiquity of the eighteenth century.
The drawing in question, which we can profitably compare with a parallel work
by Benjamin West (FIG. 1.8), represents Orestes andPylades forcing Aegisthos to See
Klytaimnestra's Body (FIG.1.9).59 Aegisthos, expecting to find Orestes' body, is shocked
Knowles, I: 46-7. Reynolds' recommendation is discussed in a 1772 letter of Fuseli's friend John
Cartwright. David Weinglass, ed. The Collected Letters of Henry Fuseli (London: Kraus, 1984), 14.
In the Libation Bearers Aegisthos is murdered first; the classical source is Sophocles' Electra. On the
scene and its reception, see "eighteenth-Century Electra," in Edith Hall and Fiona Macintosh, Greek
tragedy and the British Theatre (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) 177-178. The title of West's
painting apparently contained a reference to Francklin's edition of Sophocles.
1 .Tragedy
to discover that of his lover. West, in concert with the virtue school of classicism, follows
Francklin's version of Sophocles in presenting a dignified Orestes confronting Aegisthus
with the consequences of his crimes; Fuseli emphasizes just those aspects of Greek drama
that provoked outrage from Garrick's mouthpieces.60 Not only is attention drawn to an
act of violence brazenly by its very perpetrators, they act merely to torture their next
victim, with no concern for his moral improvement. It is not even a matter of duty: they
have avenged their father's death by executing his murderers; they are merely indulging
bloodlust. If the tragic act is ever made to seem inevitable, ordained, there is in moments
like the one captured by Fuseli a bloodthirsty gratuity, as if the only act of free will the
tragic humans are capable of is freely willed cruelty.61
Everything in the deft staging of the drawing points to this excess of the tragic.
The narrow space, walled by shadow to the left and curtained behind in an insistent
rhythm of claustration, is thematically reproduced in Elektra's gesture of holding the
sheet aloft to expose the dead body. Refusing to present the face as an object of pity, this
body greets the terrified Aegisthos with the atrocious single eye of the navel, uncannily
visible underneath the clothes. The twisting, angular features of Elektra peering over the
sheet, their mixture of suffering and rage, give an ambiguous tenor to the proceedings.
This Elektra, coarse, marginal, comically grotesque, condenses the whole marvelous
Cf. Thomas Francklin, The Tragedies of Sophocles, Translated from the Greek (London: R. Francklin,
1759), I: 192-193. Francklin's footnote to the discovery of the body is illuminating: "...There cannot
possibly be a spectacle more affecting than the scene before us; a tyrant, murtherer, and adulterer, is
represented as exulting on the death of the only person in the world whom he had to fear, and whose dead
body he expects to see before him; instead of this, on lifting up the veil, he is shock'd, not with the corps of
Orestes, but that of his own wife... the sudden change of fortune to all the persons concern'd, the surprise
and despair of ./Egisthus, the joy and triumph in the countenances of Orestes and Electra, must altogether
have exhibited a picture worthy of the pencil of a Raphael to execute; how it was acted on the Greek stage,
we cannot pretend to determine, most probably with taste and judgment. Let the English reader conceive
those inimitable actors, Quin, Garrick, and Cibber in the parts of /Egisthus, Orestes, and Electra, and from
thence form to himself some idea of the affect which such a catastrophe would have on a British audience."
1 .Tragedy
negativity of the image: here there is savagery exceeding the demands of the tragic, its
excess summed up in the gesture of the protagonist.62 She makes tragedy into travesty:
like a procuress in Dutch genre, she exposes the female flesh for male consumption.
The drawing, now in the Stockholm Nationalmuseum, belongs to the collection of
the sculptor Tobias Sergei, in whose hand it is captioned "Fuseli a Roma." Sergei, whom
Fuseli befriended in Venice while recovering from a severe illness in 1772, was to serve
as Fuseli's Virgil in Rome, a dissolute guide to the emigre life and a motor force in
Fuseli's shift to a more fluid, cursive drawing style.63 The calligraphic violence of the
Klytaimnestra, modeled through accumulation of repeated outlines, is pure Sergei. In
fact, we have a Sergei drawing (FIG. 1.10) that is compositionally a close counterpart of
Fuseli's.64 A female libertine bares herself for her diminutive husband, who fortunately
rides a well-endowed herm. One might call it a parody, were Fuseli's own drawing any
less hyperbolic. The two works function rather as tragic and comic accents on the same
theme of bodily exposure. Sergei's work is funny because male sexuality is harnessed
(and deflated) by a reference to an antique excess of phallic virtue (the herm).65
The intersection of sex and ritual in this drawing, and its original, if the Fuseli
drawing is that, implies a theory of tragedy as a representation of the death and rebirth of
There is another, more cursory drawing by Fuseli on the same theme in the Musee Magnin, Dijon.
One should compare this awkward "beastly" Elektra with the stately figure later represented by Flaxman.
Schiff and Hoffmann, 40. See also Nancy L. Pressly, The Fuseli Circle in Rome (New Haven: Yale
Center for British Art, 1979), v-xii, and Bernard von Waldkirch in Lentzsch, ed., 63.
The subject, Baronesse and Baron de Geer, were famous libertines who moved in Sergei's circle. See
Jergen Andersen, De ar i Rom [The Years in Rome] (Copenhagen: Christian Ejlers, 1989), 208-211.
This sarcasm about phallic prowess is missed in Ann Bermingham's critique on the phallocentrism of the
Society of Dilettanti. Cf. "The Aesthetics of Ignorance," Oxford Art Journal, Vol.16, No.2 (1993), 3-20.
1 .Tragedy
the polis.66 If that sounds like a mouthful, it is in part because this very complex view has
become quite familiar to Western intellectual history, and it is a bit startling to think
through what a complicated, unwieldy set of historical assumptions it subsumes. The only
way I can untangle these is to step back through the familiar contemporary and modern
variants of the view of "tragedy as ritual" until we arrive at eighteenth-century doctrines.
Let us take, for instance, a classic modern statement of the politics of tragedy:
"The tragedy in its great period is a liturgy that re-enacts the great decision for
Dike. Even if the audience is not an assembly of heroes, the spectators must at
least be disposed to regard tragic action as paradigmatic.. .The meaning of tragedy
as a state cult consists in representative suffering."67
Tragedy in this view is the culmination of religious and political traditions centering on
the death and rebirth of the god Dionysus. Made explicit in the so-called "Oldest SystemProgram of German Idealism," written in 1796 by Hegel and Schelling and Holderlin, the
political motivation of this theory was the presumed need for a "rational mythology" to
restore the religious and social cohesion that the Enlightenment had shattered.68
Theorized in a rarefied form by Hegel and his friends, the Dionysus cult figured
concretely in the Roman period of Sergei and Fuseli
(FIG. 1 . 1 1 , 1 . 1 2 ) . 6 9
That should not
surprise us, since an enthusiasm for Dionysus is central to eighteenth-century theories of
theatre. Historians of theatre knew the Erigone, an aition (origin poem) by the thirdcentury BCE Alexandrian Greek Eratosthenes, which traced the birth of tragedy to the
The theory, associated with Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy (1871) and Frazer's Golden Bough, was fully
elaborated at the beginning of the twentieth century by the Cambridge school of classicists: Gilbert Murray,
F.M. Cornford, and Jane Harrison. I show in this section that it has eighteenth-century precedents.
Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952), (§11:7), 73. For
a similar reading on very different assumptions, see C. Fred Alford, "Greek Tragedy and Civilization: The
Cultivation of Pity," Political Research Quarterly, Vol.46, No.2 (June 1993), 259-280."
Cf. Manfred Frank, Vorlesungen iiber die Neue Mythologie (Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1982), and his
later reflection on the subject, "Brauchen wir eine neue Mythologie?" Frank stresses that, unlike, say,
"Dionysus in '68," the romantic cult was a "mythology of reason."
1 .Tragedy
first cultivation of grapes. According to Eratosthenes, Bacchus taught a shepherd to plant
vines, and the shepherd in turn sacrificed the goat which broke into the vineyard and ate
the vines. The songs sung at the sacrifice were the first tragoedia, or goat song.70
Tragedy then was at first no more than a rustic song in honour of Bacchus,
attending the sacrifice of a goat, an animal hated by the God because its bite is
particularly hurtfull to the vine.71
This cultic interpretation gained historical authority through its inclusion and theoretical
elaboration in a famous treatise on Greek tragedy published by the French Jesuit Pierre
Brumoy in 1730. The text possesses a dry, almost Voltairean wit, which takes delight in
the progress of secularization. I quote from the popular English translation:
Chance and Bacchus produced the first ideas of tragedy in Greece...This slight
diversion became an annual custom, afterwards a public sacrifice, afterwards an
universal ceremony, and, at last, a profane theatrical entertainment. For, as in the
pagan antiquity, all things were made sacred, playful amusements were changed
into festivals, and the temples, in their turns, were metamorphosed into theatres.72
Chance and Bacchus: but the romantics did not leave Bacchus to chance. The 'Baron'
Pierre d'Hancarville, editor of Sir William Hamilton's collection of antiquities, gambler,
and classicist, traced all forms of religious ritual and art (Bacchus included) to the
proliferation and mutation of a primeval fertility cult. The worship and representation of
such beings pointed simultaneously to human cognition and to animal sexuality.
In a 1758 letter Fuseli is already praising wine's mind-altering powers. Weinglass, Letters, 3-4.
R. Merkelbach, "Origin and Religious Meaning of Greek Tragedy and Comedy, according to the Erigone
of Eratosthenes," translated by Martin West, History of Religions, Vol.3, No.2 (Winter 1964), 175-90. As
Merkelbach points out, Eratosthenes was well-known since the Renaissance: Columbus was familiar with
his work as a geographer, in particular with his estimates of the distance from Europe to India going west.
Robert Potter, The Tragedies of Aeschylus (Norwich: J. Crouse, 1777), ix-x.
The Greek Theatre of Father Brumoy, translated by Mrs. Charlotte Lennox (London: Millar, Vaillant,
Baldwin, Crowder, Johnston, Dodsley, etc. 1759), xxiv. This translation was overseen by Samuel Johnson.
1 .Tragedy
"Le Bacchus, represents sous la forme d'un Boeuf par les Egyptiens, les Arabes &
les Pheniciens, se composa dans la Grece, de la figure humaine & de celle de cet
animal, qui rappelle son origine."73 (FIG. 1.13)
D'Hancarville's magnum opus, Researches on the Origins, the Spirit, and the Progress of
Greek Arts (1786), an infuriatingly long-winded work, stands on the cusp between mystic
mythology in the hermetic tradition and crude but suggestive ethnological speculation.74
The work of d'Hancarville was picked up enthusiastically in England by Richard Payne
Knight in his Discourse on the Worship of Priapus and by the scholars, artists, and rich
gentlemen of the Society of Dilettanti, a circle whose circumference included Fuseli.75
D'Hancarville's blend of philology, mythic speculation, and art history amounted
to a proto-anthropology of the kind Hegel would attempt in his lectures on aesthetics. But
the theory of d'Hancarville also allowed for a rather scabrous practice: in the 1770s, he
printed several anonymous volumes of fake ancient Roman pornography, with titles like
Monumens du culte secret des dames romaines.
I reproduce an image of a woman and
satyr coupling on an altar (FIG. 1.14). D'Hancarville sees his libertine project, much like
Sade, as a liberation of the passions. What makes the 'Baron' more interesting than the
'Marquis' here is his eclectic philosophy of culture, combining aesthetics with
discoveries in comparative religion, notably the travel accounts that for the first time
Recherches sur t 'origine, t 'esprit et les progres des arts de la Grece; sur leur connections avec les arts
del'Inde, de la Perse, du reste de I'Asie, de I'Europe et de I'Egypte (London: Appleyard, 1785) 111:128. A
note on vol.3 reads: "The work was never finished, because the author took offense at the criticisms of the
first two volumes. The third volume is a supplement replying to the censures."
For the fanciful allegorical mythology that preceded d'Hancarville, see J. Deshayes, "De l'abbe Pluche
au citoyen Dupuis: a la recherche de la clef des fables," Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, ed.
Theodore Besterman, Vol.24 (Geneva: Musee Voltaire, 1963) 457-486.
The best short treatment remains Francis Haskell, "The Baron d'Hancarville: An Adventurer and Art
Historian in Eighteenth-Century Europe," Past and Present in Art and Taste (New Haven: Yale, 1987), 3045. Fuseli's patron and friend Charles Townley was a leading Dilettante. See Lionel Cust, History of the
Society of Dilettanti (London: Macmillan, 1898), 117-18.
[D'Hancarville], Monumens du culte secret des dames romaines ('Capreees': Sabellus, 1780), 24.
1 .Tragedy
provided Europeans with a somewhat complex view of Indian and Chinese religion.77 For
d'Hancarville, as for Fuseli and to some extant the Pere Brumoy, a return to the sexual,
ritual origins of European society embedded in Greek antiquity meant at the same time an
opening up to Non-European art, custom, and perhaps even political and moral schemes.
We shall discuss d'Hancarville, and romantic theories of sexuality, in greater detail in
Chapter Three. What is significant here is his synthetic gusto, the insistence of seeing an
entire culture—its ritual, its daily life, its art—as coherent and legible from the outside.
This is an enlightenment assumption that need not be questioned here; but its relevance to
a theory of culture is crucial. For the consistency of a culture's manifestations allow it to
stand out sharply in contrast to another.
How this cultural identity in difference could be thematized in neoclassicism or
neopaganism, as I prefer to call it, we shall see shortly. But first we must ask how closely
Fuseli attended to the practices of the d'Hancarville circle. There are drawings from his
Roman time that neatly rework images from d'Hancarville's edition of Greek vases into
scenes from Hamlet.78 Moreover, Fuseli's writings on myth and Greek custom show a
thorough familiarity with eighteenth-century Bacchic thinking, in particular his
unpublished essay on the Greek region of Boetia.79 One must also note that Fuseli's
erotica betrays a family resemblance to d'Hancarville's, when it is not direct quotation
(FIG. 1.15). Fuseli scholarship has always tended to explain his sex drawings, as well as
D'Hancarville's work has been incisively discussed in this sense by Partha Mitter in his pioneering study
of Western reception of Indian art. Much Maligned Monsters (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 73-104.
445 and 446 and the corresponding discussions.
"No district of Greece has furnished to <tragic> Poetry & <dramatic> Art more ampler or more
important materials than Boetia. In Cadmus the founder of Thebes, its capital, originate the Dionysiac or
Bacchic rites...He witnessed the conflagration that consumed Semele; the Bacchanalian fury that instigated
his daughter Agave to dismember her own son for opposing the rite of the new god...." Kunsthaus Zurich,
1 .Tragedy
his fantasy portraits of women with intimidating coiffures, as pathological.80 There may
be something to this, but the similarity of the work of Fuseli's Roman colleagues—Sergei
and Abilgaard, for instance, and the Scottish painter John Brown81—suggests a shared
cultural matrix rather than a private fixation. Drawings like FIG. 1.10, 1.11, 1.12, and 1.15
must be seen side by side, as they were by Fuseli and colleagues, if our reading is to go
beyond isolating peculiarities, to a view of this art as a practice. To the remarkably
continuous erotic-pastoral tradition that runs from the Renaissance through Fontainebleau
and Poussin, Roman paganism does not represent a break so much as a pungent
naturalization of the erotic: a representation of sex as sex without draining the act of its
authoritative status as ritual. Though we can see this "sex as ritual" tendency well in the
drawings just mentioned, we shall have to discuss at greater length the notions of sex and
human nature which make this naturalization of archaic Eros possible.82
This elucidation must wait. But bearing in mind, however provisionally, this interpersonal coherence of Roman neopaganism, it is revealing to examine its most ambitious
application, the return to Homeric subject matter. The drawing I have in mind is undated,
and though it may have been made two decades after Fuseli's Roman period, it closely
matches in style and subject his output around 1770; it may fairly be said to summarize
its concerns. It represents Achilles Sacrificing his Hair on the Funeral Pyre of Patroklos
Grafische Sammlung, Ftipii papers, Diverse Texte I, P.168.3. (Words given in sharp brackets are marginal
additions to the manuscript in Fuseli's own hand; crossed-out words are also Fuseli's).
The tendency begins with Sacheverell Sitwell and Ruthven Todd, who first publicized the images in
conservative '40s Britain. Schiff interprets them in terms of Fuseli's fear of powerful women. I: 113-15.
Andersen, 160. Cf. also Martin Myrone, ed. Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake, and the Romantic
Imagination (London: Tate, 2006), 166.
See Chapter 3, in particular the second half.
(FIG.1.16).83 Superficially, we are dealing here with the very paradigm of neopaganism,
or at least with a classic performance in the neopagan vein: the subject chosen bears
down hard on the irrationality in Achilles' mourning of his lover, culminating in the
addition of parts of his own body (his hair) to the funeral pyre, on which, in culmination,
twelve Trojan captives would be remorselessly sacrificed.84 To this pointed choice of
subject matter must be added the idiosyncrasy of treatment: Achilles is presented alone,
standing on tiptoe, atop the funeral 'pyramid' (Pope's term), his sword pulling at a lock
of hair. The eroticism of the tensed male body, turned around so that the buttocks occupy
the center of the composition, culminates in the friction of the blade on hair: a charged
context for a scene of unresolved longing. And yet we cannot turn the drawing into a
dessin a cle of Fuseli's own contingent sexual desires any more than we can call it a pure
piece of sensationalism: for if there is something personal in the narrative, say, the appeal
of Homeric homoeroticism as the neopagan circle may have understood it in their own
predominantly male emigre milieu in Rome, this desire does not in the narrative context
of the drawing confront any contemporary European-cultural resistance, as it might in a
scene of homosexual lovers as criminals or damned men, e.g. Farinata from the Inferno,
whom Fuseli also drew on occasion. On the contrary, the love for Patroklos and Achilles'
own desirability are bluntly displayed in a climate of Homeric love in which they are
taken for granted. Fuseli has taken pains to indicate the communal, ritual nature of the
action, which informs not only Achilles' ceremonious, dance-like step, but the row of
horsemen with their downcast heads who attend the scene. One wants to say that the
Schiff dates the work to 1800-1805, assuming it belongs among Fuseli's contributions to the illustrated
Pope translation published by du Roveray (see Ch.3). Though the large format is reminiscent of this body
of work, the subject is a highly unlikely one to be taken by any commercial publisher in 1805.
shock of an alien moral code is soothed here by a dose of ritual inevitability; that the
intemperate moral life of Achilles is grounded and given meaning by a metaphysics of
mourning which includes a prayer, mentioned by Homer but really unseen in the Fuseli,
and the culturally arbitrary but somehow transcendentally moving offer of the hair.
An interpretation of this sort might seem preferable to the strand of conservative
cultural critique that finds in antiquity the meaning with which to inject modernity.85 It
fails to satisfy me, however, on behalf of Fuseli, who in no sense looks to antiquity as a
deus ex machina with Utopian implications for modernity. At the very level of style, we
cannot help noting what Fuseli has added of his own to the scene: the jittery pen rhythm,
which follows and crosses and skips around outlines until they seem like deposits on a
photographic plate, and which renders Achilles and his musculature utterly singular,
though impersonal in the absence of facial physiognomy. The same summary style makes
of the dead Patroklos a faceless mannequin, and of the congregation watching the funeral
an indistinguishable mass of helmets.86 And so whatever biographical commitment to the
narrative the artist may be taken to betray is not pried out of the image by interpretation,
but interposed conspicuously by the artist in being multiplied by his performer, and the
oddly passive cast of actors playing his audience: a great number of men, some generic
Greeks, one a real Swiss, are implicated in Achilles' ceremony of desire.
Having identified three problematic poles in the Achilles—the archaic-erotic, the
ritual-communitarian, and the modern-individualist, it would be premature to conflate the
Cf. //.XXIII: "But great Achilles stands apart in pray'r, And from his head divides the yellow hair;" (1723). The Iliad of Homer translated by Alexander Pope, Esq., vol.6 (London: Charles Rivington, 1760), 76.
This is a German tradition: from Holderlin and Nietzsche through Klages, Heidegger, and Benn. It has
long been familiar, especially in literature: see Eliza Marian Butler, The Tyranny of Greece over Germany
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935), but it has not been studied carefully as cultural politics.
first two and to claim that Fuseli is setting the romantic egocentrism of the Genius against
the classical tradition which he would serve. For the tension between individual and
tradition has been placed by Fuseli—or found by him in Homer—at the center of the
funeral pyre narrative. This explains the transgressive nature of Achilles' grief in the text:
his Greek compatriots are dismayed at his bloody sacrifices, and the gods must intervene
to prevent Hector's body from being dismembered by dogs as Achilles wishes. Indeed, in
the passage immediately following the cutting of the hair, Agamemnon urges Achilles to
allow him to disband the troops, so that they do not have to witness the dismal spectacle
of the pyre; Achilles reluctantly concedes.87 It is ambiguous in Fuseli's drawing whether
the helmeted heads represent the Greek rank and file or the generals who stay behind to
witness the conclusion of the ritual. Or rather, if we take Fuseli's reading seriously, the
heads must represent both, since the soldiers have not yet left: the Greek men and their
leaders form a mass, distinguished only in their passivity from Achilles in his activity.
This confrontation, which taken on the air of a tragic actor and his choir, or
indeed of a tragic actor and his audience, seems indecorously to bring individuality into
ritual. But was it not there all along? For the ritual is Achilles' ritual, as is the passion for
Patroklos. And if Homer's Greeks struggle to tolerate it, and cannot give their full assent
to the ritual, what hope for reconciliation is there with us, Fuseli's modern audience, who
are farther away from the practices of love, death, and revenge of which Achilles' funeral
is for Homer only an excessive instance? The view of ritual as social cohesion breaks on
the intransigence of the individual. Fuseli was acutely aware of the difficult centrality of
In Bodybuilding and Fuseli, 30-31, Myrone takes this exaggeration coupled to lack of specificity to
"comically deflate" Fuseli's male bodies. I hope I am providing a historically more resonant explanation.
the individual to an aesthetic tradition regarded in turn as an individual: as he wrote in a
manuscript note on the concept of style, "Style elevates the Individual to the h[e]ight o
the Genus.. .Manner on the contrary, may be said to individualize the Individual."88 In the
opposition between (decadent) Manner and (desirable) Style, one collapses individuality
on itself, while the other raises it to the paradigmatic validity of the genus. The perverse
or loving gesture of Achilles, then, dancing on the funeral pyre with sword and hair in
hand, is rendered by its ritual setting as distinct from our own code of conduct, and as
natural in his, as the cruel torture to which Orestes and Electra subject Aegisthos in the
Sophocles drawing. By 'natural' I do not of course mean eternal or inevitable, but
merely, in the spirit of cultural specificity, taken for granted as ritual: and this is made
especially clear in the Achilles drawing by the stoical drawn audience who witnesses and
in the process affirms Achilles' individual dance of desire. It is the individual with its
generalized peculiarity that makes moral difference, and hence culture, ritual, and their
plurality, possible in the first place.
Principium Individuationis: Tragedy as Cultural Relativism
We could sum up the above discussion of eighteenth-century Dionysian theory with
Father Brumoy's dictum that "temples metamorphosed into theatres."89 This trajectory of
making ritual secular is inverted by the romantics to mean something more like "theatres
Thus Pope: "Enough Atrides! give the troops relief: / Permit the mourning legions to retire / And let the
chiefs alone attend the pyre; / The pious care be ours, the dead to burn— / He said: the people to their ships
return: / While those deputed to interr the slain, / Heap with a rising pyramid the plain." (XXIII: 195-201)
Kunsthaus Zurich, Grafische Sammlung, note, KZ G.S. Zeichnungen I, P 168.3 (reverse of SCHIFF 1610).
To this meditation Fuseli adds a thought reminiscent of Lavater's Aphorisms on Man: "An axiom as true in
Morals as in Art; for as all human actions arise from one spring <source> they must resemble each other in
their deviationsexcursions / deviations
of their course." Especially interesting here, to my mind, is
the insistence on an affinity in difference, expressed in a paroxysm of writerly self-correction.
had been temples" with all the ritual social cohesion that implied. But if we ask how
ritual fits with the individualism that romanticism and the eighteenth century sought to
reconcile with archaic social harmony, then the secularizing optimism of a Brumoy and
his English followers will not do. For the obscenity of tragedy and the moral peculiarity
of the tragic hero do not so much suggest a rationalization of life away from religious
violence, but a transfer of the peculiar destinies of tragedy from a religious to a cultural
mode of explanation. To pursue such a mode of explanation we must track the attempt to
think through archaism and aesthetic modernity which does not assume that to secularize
and to individualize culture is simply to improve it. Such thinking begins with Pierre
d'Hancarville and goes through many permutations before achieving clarity with
Friedrich Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music in 1871. But we want
that clarity of the statement of ritual and individualism before we can trace its historical
vicissitudes, and so to Nietzsche we turn.
The task Nietzsche set for himself in this work was the reconstruction of tragic
subjectivity. Taking as a starting point Schlegel's argument that the chorus in Greek
tragedy was an ideal audience, Nietzsche questioned bourgeois confidence that the chorus
stands for 'them,' only to turn the proposition around: the chorus, according to Nietzsche,
allowed audience members to discard their individuality in the primordial experience of
existential pain, a state he called Dionysian.90 To this form of collective experience
Nietzsche opposed the Apollonian, which contrary to the usual simplifications did not
mean for him only the rational and orderly but also the world of dreams, of phantasms, of
Potter: "for as every thing in Pagan antiquity was sacred...temples were converted into theatres." ix.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and the Case of Wagner, translated by Walter Kaufmann (New
York: Random House, 1967), 56 (section 7).
deceptive appearances. Nietzsche regards this realm of illusions ("the veil of Maia," in
Schopenhauer's eastern-mystic terminology) as reinforcing our sense of self, of being
real in our inner permanence as opposed to the lies and shifting appearances outside.91
This recourse to aesthetic illusion, for Nietzsche, is individuality. More than that, such
experience makes our individuality: it is the principium individuationis.
I see Apollo as the transfiguring genius of the principium individuationis through
which alone the redemption in illusion is truly to be obtained; while by the mystical triumphant cry of Dionysus the spell of individuation is broken, and the way
lies open to the Mothers of Being, to the innermost heart of things.92
Nietzsche is agitating on behalf of Wagner and the Dionysian in general, but he insists
repeatedly that the individuating and the de-individuating can only operate in tandem.
This is because the tragic shared experience is after all the shared experience of a polis or
people, with a specific lived and moral content. The Dionysian cannot break down all
bounds of individuality to create a sort of maudlin romantic world spirit, but only works
on binding together individuals in a cultural supra-individual. This supra-individual is
faced with the same problems of an outside of other cultures: other supra-individuals.
This emphasis is important to understanding ritual in modernity, whereas ritual theory
tends to make the individual melt passively into a mass ruled by tradition or convention.93
We see how a ritualistic view of tragedy can accentuate at once community and
the individual in a drawing of Fuseli's early Roman period (FIG. 1.17). Fuseli, who often
identified his classical subjects with a Greek caption, left this one textless. On first
Nietzsche, 35 (§1).
Nietzsche, 99-100 (§16). The scholastic term is borrowed from Schopenhauer, for whom individuality is
illusion, as opposed to the one, all-pervading will, which is real. For a modern discussion of the problem of
individuation, which was first treated in detail by Aristotle, see J. Lukasiewicz et al, "The Principle of
Individuation," Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, Vol.27 (1953), 69-120.
Victor Turner's theory of ritual does offer a theory of individuation through liminal experience.
cataloguing the piece, Agnes Mongan of Harvard's Fogg Art Museum identified it as
Agamemnon pursuing Hector near the Tomb ofllos,94 This choice of names makes
implicit sense. Though one figure chases the other, there is a reciprocity, almost a sense
of parallel effort, in the flaring muscles, floppy headgear, and looming shadows of the
antagonists. A feeling of dynamic equilibrium pervades the combat, as if we are watching
very athletic children on a seesaw, or prehistoric behemoths locked in single combat.95
Despite this balance, the title of the print was amended to Agamemnon pursuing a
Trojan near the Tomb ofllos?6 Why the demotion from Hector to a generic Trojan? The
text in question is Iliad Book 11, where two passages allude to the Tomb ofllos. At line
166, Hector is whisked away from the heat of battle by Zeus; Agamemnon, in his fury,
chases some unfortunate Trojans past the tomb ofllos, the son of Troy's founder. At line
372 in the same book, Paris, who started the whole war, aims an arrow at a Greek hero,
and steadies his aim by leaning on the tomb. In both passages the patriarch's monument
is presented during moments of Trojan weakness, a psychological subtle touch that also
reflects Homer's attention to his audience's pretensions to quasi-mythic ancestry.
To the morbid Fuseli, whose painter father had forbidden him a career in painting,
Homer must have seemed to be doing something more grand and sinister: humiliating the
abject Trojans with a sign of their own former glory. And so we have the tomb ofllos, a
masterpiece of architectural fancy, so different from the pyramids and cubes just coming
into neoclassical fashion. Fuseli consciously departs from what he knew Homer must
This early title, still legible in the drawing's matte, has been corrected as described below. The drawing
was acquired in 1943 as part of the Greville L. Winthrop Bequest. Before being appointed Drawings
Curator at the Fogg in 1947 (when Harvard lifted its ban on women curators), Mongan was "Keeper of
Drawings", a title remarkably similar to Fuseli's, who was elected Keeper by the Royal Academy in 1801.
The spread-legged running gait, with joints at right angles, recalls plate 62 in Hancarville's Antiquites, I.
For the illustration, see Pascal Griener, Le Aniichita etrusche.. .(Rome: Edizioni dell'Elefante, 1992), 21.
have intended as a simple column—as the painter would write concerning the passage in
his manuscript corrections to John Cowper's translation of the Iliad: "on the tomb there
was probably a pillar from behind which Paris shot down."97 Yet he drew something else
altogether. The simultaneously thoughtful and stooped figure of Ilos on his podium seems
to contemplate a dark future for his people. Fuseli makes great play with the ambiguity of
flesh and inanimate matter possible in ink wash: compare the emphatic eyes and mouth of
Ilos with the summarily sketched features of the fighters.98 This observer, interpolated
into the circuit of battle, carries the same pathos as the prophet Tiresias in the Oedipus
cycle: a witness whose heroic memory sharpens the fall into the tragic present. William
Blake, who worked for Fuseli as an engraver, borrowed the motif of the slouching,
inwardly turned figure of the old man for his Urizen
(FIG. 1 . 1 8 ) ,
the symbol (for Blake, an
evil one) of self-enclosed individuality.99 But Blake's own theory of genius and
individualism suggest that the critic of a community from within must be an individual.
Only alienated individual subjectivity can compare cultural totalities critically, can tally
the shortcomings of the present against a past that is more than an idealized precursor.
It is in this context that neopaganism is a political art. Generations of elite
Europeans had digested Greek and Latin classics as the groundwork of a liberal
Gert Schiff, Johann Heinrich Fiissli 1745-1825
no. 323, p.430.
Note to book 11 line 371, "Remarks on Cowper's Iliad," c.1791, Beinecke Library, Yale: Obsorn c210.
Modern archeology confirms Fuseli's judgment: Elizabeth P. McGowan, "Tomb Marker and Turning Post:
Funerary Columns in the Archaic Period," American Journal of Archaeology, Vol.99, No.4 (1995), 615-32.
Gert Schiff sees in the tomb Fuseli's "mangelnde Antikenkenntnis" (lack of antiquarian knowledge), and
rather impishly dates the drawing 1768-70, before Fuseli's trip to Rome. This misses the point: Fuseli did
not "believe" such things existed before seeing real tombs. His is a self-conscious fantasy, and the drawing
should be dated 1770-1778, which accords formally with the fluid drawing style akin to that of Sergei.
Urizen is "a self-contemplating shadow." William Blake, The Book of Urizen, 3.21. Cf. John h. Jones,
"'Self-Annihilation' and Dialogue in Blake's Creative Process: Urizen, Milton, Jerusalem," Modern
Language Studies, Vol.24, No.2 (Spring 1994), 3-10. Blake probably took the slouched posture from
Fuseli's Solitude, 1794-6, a painting now in the Kunsthaus Ziirich which Fuseli later had engraved.
education. They convinced themselves, as certain poststructuralists remain convinced,
that a 'Western tradition' ran from their own time to a Greek source. This belief was
struck a decisive blow by the most eloquent of romantic subjectivists, Johann Gottfried
Herder. In his seven-volume Ideas for a Philosophy of the History of Mankind (1784),
Herder applied his erudition to a non-hierarchical, discontinuous narrative of every
human culture spanned by his geographical learning, from ancient Greeks to modern
Tibetans. He took pains to emphasize that his venture was no narrative of progress:
Ye men of all the quarters of the Globe, who have perished in the lapse of ages,
ye have not lived and enriched the Earth with your ashes, that at the end of time
your posterity should be made happy by European civilization: is not a proud
thought of this kind treason against the majesty of Nature?100
To a triumphant European culture sprouting from the manure of rediscovered antiquity,
Herder opposed the idea of cultures in the plural. This idea must be understood as
polemical. Herder did not introduce it into the Ideen because the word was thus being
used so in his circle, but rather because the imperialist assumption of European
superiority irked him enough to suggest the irreducibility of every other culture.101
Cultural relativism, to give this position a modern name, has had a mixed record:
regarded as foundational to contemporary pluralist and anti-colonial politics, it has also
Johann Gottfried v. Herder, Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man, translated by T. Churchill
(London: Hansard, 1800), 224. The original German text is even more passionate: "Ihr Menschen aller
Weltteile, die ihr seit Aonen dahingingt, ihr hattet also nicht gelebt und etwa nur mit eurer Asche die Erde
gedungt, damit am Ende der Zeit eure Nachkommen durch europaiche Kultur gliicklich wiirden: was fehlt
einem stolzen Gedanken dieser Art, dal3 er nicht Beleidigung der Naturmajestat heiBe?"
This use of the word "culture," did not become current until the 20th century, according to Raymond
Williams, who identifies three broad definitions: 1) an anthropological meaning of one coherent human
community; 2) an Eurocentric definition of culture as material progress; 3) culture as aesthetic activity.
Definition #2 is the oldest, deriving as it does from the metaphor of agriculture. It is historically myopic,
then, to complain as Vicky Spencer does ("In Defense of Herder on Cultural Diversity and Interaction,"
The Review of Politics, vol. 69, 2007, page 84), that the 1800 Outlines translates Herder's word Cultur into
English civilization, since in 1800 'culture', not 'civilization', implied refinement. Herder himself makes a
distinction between Kultur der Gelehrten (elite culture) und Volkskultur (popular culture). Ideen, XI:5.
been used to justify 'cultural practices' ranging from torture to antisemitism.102 The term
is meaningless in itself; relativism is what people make of it. Herder made of it a critique
of Eurocentrism and rationalism. Fuseli, an abolitionist, was more than familiar with
Herder's theory of culture; he collaborated in the translation of Herder's Ideen into
English as Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man, as Marcia Allentuck has
shown.103 In signed footnotes contributed to this edition of Herder's book, Fuseli heaps
scorn on the draftsman who accompanied Captain Cook on his third voyage (FIG. 1.19),
alleging that he "sacrificed the realities before his eyes to a faint reminiscence and stale
repetition of Cipriani-Beauties."104 One must read this typically florid Fuseli insult as a
critique of the tendency to fit the foreign into familiar conceptual molds. Nor did Fuseli
content himself with negative criticisms of others' ethnography: in a drawing related to
Thomas Bank's sculpture of the Indian deity Kamadeva (FIG. 1.20) he demonstrates how
the nudity and emphasis on sex in neopaganism could mesh with moral and metaphysical
symbolisms outside the Judeo-Christian tradition.105 It is not that Fuseli's 'Indian
Relativism is generally defined by its opponents, who see it in apocalyptic terms: e.g., Allan Bloom, The
Closing of the American Mind (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987). In contemporary political theory,
John Rawls and his communitarian or pluralist critics seem to share a relativism of value orientation. See
for instance John Rawls, "The Idea of Public Reason Revisited," The University of Chicago Lccw Review,
Vol.64, No.3 (Summer 1997), 765-807, esp. 765-6. Further right is Samuel Huntington, The Clash of
Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996). More ambiguous is
the conservative cultural relativism, akin to Edmund Burke's, that can be glimpsed in the historical work of
Leo Strauss (who once wrote that he wished to create prejudice in favor of Maimonides's view of reason).
If these writers have anything in common, it is cultural and not ethical relativism: all have moral agendas.
The translator, Churchill, thanks a certain painter, "F" for his critical reading of the German, and points
to footnotes signed "F": the tenor of which, circumstantial evidence aside, is pure Fuseli. Marcia Allentuck,
"Henry Fuseli and J.G. Herder's Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte des Menschheit in Britain: An
Unremarked Connection," Journal of the History ofIdeas, Vol.35, No. 1, (Jan. 1974), 113-120. Cowper's
Odyssey translation was also published with notes by Fuseli marked "F", as pointed out in Knowles, 73.
Outlines, 162. Allentuck, 117-118, compares this comment to Clement Greenberg on kitsch.
Thomas Banks' sculpture, less risque and executed in a faux-Mughal style, can be seen in Sir John
Soane's Museum, which it entered at Banks' death sale in 1805. C.F. Bell, in the Annals of Thomas Banks
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938), 92, suggests the work is related to the chimney pieces
commissioned from Banks in 1792 by Warren Hastings, the former British Governor-General of India.
Bacchus' with his erection, flowering bow, and sexually active partner is
ethnographically or art-historically or religious-historically correct by our standards, but
that it accomplishes a radical unmooring of classicism from the social morality of
eighteenth-century Europe. Sexuality here is no lingua universalia, not even a lingua
franca which allows us to guess moral and psychological constants across
misunderstandings of language and custom; it is rather only enough of a common
denominator to remind us that we don't agree on its applications.106 In the Kamadeva, an
ostensibly devotional scene portrays not only the god in a state of arousal, but an act of
masturbation or initiation of desire. If this in turn recalls other instances of the Roman
neopaganism aesthetically in the representation of nubile nude bodies, it in no sense
reduces them to the same practice au fond: Indian gods copulating is not narratively or
allegorically or even pornographically the same thing as satyrs and maenads, and about
the only thing the sexual acts have in common is their legibility as sexual acts. In this
sense eighteenth-century aesthetic relativism is morally pluralist, refusing the
prescriptivism typical of universal histories, or even the modest notion of 'practices that
mature humanity engages in' typical of Kant's cosmopolitanism. In this respect Fuseli is
more consistent than his mentor, rejecting for instance Herder's claim that African
physiognomy is incompatible with ideal beauty: "That African forms may coalesce with
Ideal Beauty is proved by every head of Medusa."107
This last example reveals a theoretical danger to every relativism: once one has
stated the theoretical validity of all life worlds, nothing prevents one from complacently
A search for constants of thought embodied in sexuality, as carried out by structural anthropology,
interestingly results in only a negative constant: widespread enforcement of the incest taboo.
1 .Tragedy
judging them from within the charmed circle of one's own community.108 In Nietzsche's
terms this is what happens when Dionysian solidarity is not opposed by an individuating
counterforce.109 The end result is an aggressive ethnocentrism. Such an ethnocentrism
confronts us in Garrick's epilogues to Greek theatre. Yet their humor and defensiveness
points also to theatre's tendency to undermine such self-justification. This is because
aesthetic experience has the power implicitly to alienate us from our presuppositions.110
Why is theatre privileged in the invention of cultural relativism? Because the
modern theatre audience is in a sense the original pluralist apparatus; like the ideal
tragedy of Nietzsche, it cultivates a community of individuals.111 Let us first see if we can
describe this process without an appeal to Greek deities. Each spectator, sitting in a
particular place in the theatre, assumes one finite perspective on the representation that,
be it compelling or utterly boring, can be presumed to resemble but not to be exactly
identical to any other perspective on the same performance.112 This is the case physically,
Outlines, 343. Cf. Allentuck, 118. Fuseli drew a Mongolian goddess after Pallas's Voyage (SCHFF 1169)
which hints at what he took to be successful ethnographic drawing, as well as the variety in female beauty
he would defend against Herder.
A difficulty unresolved in the work of Richard Rorty, as pointed out in Jiirgen Habermas, "Richard
Rorty's Pragmatic Turn," On the Pragmatics of Communication (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 343382. Relativism is beneath contempt if construed as complete ethical or cultural indifference that finds all
practices "equally close to God" because "all is play." But such relativism is a straw man. Interesting
relativisms, such as Montaigne's, makes pertinent cross-cultural comparisons possible in the first place.
Considering Nietzsche's German nationalism in this text, it is to his credit that he insists on the need for
both deities. His approving observation that Dionysian fervor eschews political commitment is in line with
his equation of individualism with nationalism (124): we will examine both claims here, and in Ch. 3.
Clifford Geertz's "Anti Anti-Relativism," American Anthropologist New Series, Vol. 86, No. 2. (Jun.,
1984), pp. 263-278, despite its flippancy, rightly insists that not anthropological theory but anthropological
practice, the aesthetic confrontation with other cultures ("customs, crania, living floors, lexicons") makes
relativism a problem in the common culture, which cannot be solved simply by adopting a higher standard.
One could supplement Habermas's classic account of a public sphere developing in the print media and
its sites of dissemination (coffee houses.) with an account of theatrical audiences as sites of public opinion.
Why did Habermas not do this himself? Is it perhaps because, like the Walter Benjamin of "The Author as
Producer," he associated newspaper reading but not traditional theatergoing with political struggle?
A Borges story allegorizes the dependence of theatre on individual perspective. In "Averroes' Search,"
the Spanish Arab philosopher struggles to translate "tragedy" and "comedy" for a culture with no theatre. A
and is rather plain commonsense, whatever psychological conclusions one cares to
draw.113 This parallel multiplicity of perspective has perturbed theatre theorists, leading
them repeatedly to wish for some "ideal audience" of one, or to compare the violence of
the real audience to that of the unconscious, or of the natural elements.114 The multiplicity
of audience response, even when that response is not violent, cannot be grasped by an
aesthetics that predicates success on one common experience. But the theatre does not
preclude individual experience: it relativizes it.
We can drive home this insight, as it applies to visual art, by noting that theatre
has in common with painting, besides narrative, a space built according to perspective
conventions, in which the narrative is presented to the public. Erwin Panofsky has
insisted on the metaphysical and, in a sense, political consequences of this perspective:
Perspective, in transforming the ousia (reality) into the phainomenon (appearance), seems to reduce the divine to a mere subject matter for human consciousness; but for that very reason, conversely, it expands human consciousness
into a vessel for the divine. It is thus no accident if this perspectival view of space
has already succeeded twice in the course of the evolution of art: the first time as
the sign of an ending, when antique theocracy crumbled; the second time as the
sign of a beginning, when modern "anthropocracy" first reared itself. 115
traveler from China regales him with tales of the opera, but he still cannot understand why a stoiy should
be told by more speakers when one does just fine. Averroes finally has an insight and makes his translation:
at this point, Borges ends the story with apologies: "I felt that Averroes trying to imagine what a play is
without ever having suspected what a theatre is, was no more absurd than I, trying to imagine Averroes..."
Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, translated by Andrew Hurley (New York: Viking, 1998), 235-241.
Early scenographic painting was meant to provide the king's box with ideal viewing conditions. Georges
R. Kernodle, From Art to Theatre: Form and Convention in the Renaissance (Chicago: Chicago University
Press, 1944), 178. Hubert Damisch points out that there was disagreement over the best position for the
princely box. The Origin of Perspective, translated by John Goodman (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994) 399.
Brecht cited Marx as his intended audience. Theatre theorist Herbert Blau has discussed the audience as
the unconscious of theatre in The Audience (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1990), 50-51, 82.
as Symbolic Form [1924], translated by Christopher S. Wood (New York: Zone, 1991), 72.
Panofsky's move has aroused suspicion because, for all the interest of the comparison, it
presupposes the inviolability of the single observing subject.116 But in the theatre that
subjectivity is anything but inviolable. One may disagree with one's neighbor and savour
the same approximate experience. This also applies to painting when we abandon the
simple fiction of the man peering through Alberti's window, or the fiction that the 'West'
can't do without this figure, in favor of a dispersed viewing of canvases by spectators in
the academy exhibition, or in a context particularly apt for Fuseli, the circle of friends
examining drawings. My intention in pointing this out is not to polish an ideal type of
theatre or theatricality to oppose to Fried's polemical usage. It is not that theatre is always
pluralist, but that the conditions of spectatorship in theatre, and particularly in Georgian
theatre with its sensationalist readings of Shakespeare and tragedy, allowed in their own
time for obvious parallels with tolerant interpretations of other cultures. In short, it is
viewing conditions that are theatrical in the eighteenth century, not works of art as in
Fried's interpretation. But Fried is right to assert that intelligent artists exploited an
awareness of these conditions. The conscious multiplicity of viewing position explains
why it is possible to enjoy Fuseli's art while utterly misunderstanding it, as the literature
on him demonstrates.117
I believe that the pluralist theory of theatre sketched above, and filled out by the
phenomena of translation and performance of ancient plays, and of the comic-critical
introductions and tailpieces of the kind I have examined, can account for the decentering
See Chris Wood's introduction to the English edition of Perspective, Karsten Harries, "Descartes,
Perspective, and the Angelic Eye," Yale French Studies, 49 (1973), 28-42, and Michael Ann Holly,
Panofsky and the Foundations of Art History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), 130-157.
With the exception of Death of Marat and the portraits, this is simply not true of David. One needs to
know and sympathize with the politics (at least in the private theatre of hermeneutics) to fully admire the
history paintings. The pleasure in reading good David criticism derives in part from this political education.
of antique culture in Fuseli, a decentering which allows him to draw attention to those
aspects of Greek tragedy (and of modern tragedy in Macbeth) that are most objectionable
to eighteenth-century European morals. Indeed it is possible to trace a continuity between
the 'Garrickian' work on Shakespeare and Fuseli's experience of Greek tragedy, which
may explain one of the most singular works of Fuseli's old age, the remarkable dredging
up of Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard performing the knife scene, which Fuseli painted in
1812 (FIG. 1.21). The physiognomies, Lady Macbeth's costume, and her aggressive thrust
which here becomes a stage whisper—summing up her metaphysical approach to crime,
which seems to be that a crime suppressed is none at all—indicate that Fuseli had the
1766 wash drawing in mind (FIG. 1.6), if not directly before him in executing this work
more than three decades after Garrick's death. But why is Garrick nude, with only the
faintest hint of tartan cloak? In 1766 his costume was less historicist. One could explain
the nudity, paring down of scenery, and dramatic amplification as cutting to the core of
things, as a focus on the dramaturgy.118 But this is insufficient, because the question of
costume or its removal is not a question of more or less accomplished drama, but of
differing dramatic conventions. Nudity in theatre is such a convention: as in painting, it
suggests to an eighteenth-century spectator Greekness, though of course Greek tragedy
was not performed in the nude. Fuseli has re-imagined Macbeth as Greek tragedy, and the
mask-like grimaces, like Garrick's nudity, leave the protagonists alone with each other
and their destinies, which in Macbeth are political destinies.119
Favorable comparisons of the historicist ('Garrickian') and classicizing ("Flaxmanian") tendencies in
Fuseli begin with Ruthven Todd, "The Reputation and Prejudices of Henry Fuseli," Tracks in the Snow:
Studies in English Science and Art (London: Grey Walls Press, 1946).
Homer was often compared to the Scots, thanks to MacPherson's Ossian. See Mary Margaret Rubel,
Savage and Barbarian: Historical Attitudes in the Criticism of Homer and Ossian in Britain, 1760-1800
The suggestion gains in plausibility once we notice that during his Roman period,
Fuseli drew the same scene with Macbeth nude and Lady Macbeth draped in a formfitting chiton (FIG. 1.22). Here the weakness of Macbeth is paramount as he shies from his
wife, who wields the daggers with an aggressive frivolity that may at any moment tear
herself or her husband to pieces. The customary citational practices of neoclassicism—
Macbeth is modeled on the Orestes Sarcophagus and Lady Macbeth on a maenad from
the Borghese Krater—establish the antique reference frame as a filter for Macbeth}20 The
wash technique approximates of theatrical lighting without being a reconstruction: there
is a sprinkling of red wash among the grey, which stains a curtain and Lady Macbeth's
midsection, as if the blood were already everywhere.
If the reader finds compelling these affinities between the Garrickian-individualist
and Greek tragic renderings of Macbeth undertaken by Fuseli, a difficulty will make itself
felt about now: for after all, how can I claim for Macbeth a relativist suspension of moral
judgment? Is not the play a political morality tale? Of course it is: and thus we come to an
important amendment about the scope of relativism, which does not indefinitely suspend
moral judgment and the corresponding question about political justice. But the morality
tale not only does not exhaust Macbeth', in fact it could not be effective if, moralizing
prematurely, we did not understand the Macbeths in their bloody aristocratic milieu, and
furthermore in their airless culture of two. I must repeat my first reading of Garrick and
Mrs. Pritchard, that Fuseli does not judge the Macbeths prematurely, and that the visual
result is a record of immorality that is not a tautology: not just not our morality but a
(Amsterdam and New York: North Holland Publishing Co., 1978). Though he resisted the bardic craze that
so captivated Runciman, Fuseli does compare Homer with Ossian in a Herder footnote (Outlines, 481).
On the iconographic identifications, see Schiff I: 452.
culture whose alien code is self-destructive, a point made not through a complacent
appeal to our knowing better, but through the effort to know them.
This political morality of relativism is brought to a head in a pair of drawings of
Lady Macbeth Sleepwalking from the same period (FIGS.23 and 24). The drawings cleave
close together except for the matter of Lady Macbeth's nightgown, which in one version
is a sort of toga leaving bare her heroic midsection. Here the bodily allegory of virtue (the
bare-chested maenad which carries this political symbolism as late into the nineteenth
century as Delacroix's Liberte)121 combined with Lady Macbeth's seething guilt, which
her sleepwalking and hand-washing betray without revealing. The doctor and courtier,
who in Shakespeare shudder at secrets they cannot guess, are witnesses and dramatically
in no position to judge Lady Macbeth's crime.122 They admire the resoluteness of their
ruler, while fearing the tragic failure which she has brought upon them all. Fuseli's
spectators are indeed on the inside of the culture that is destroying itself. And so, in a
sense, are we as Fuseli's spectators. To suspend judgment of the other is in this sense to
retain the possibility of passing judgment on oneself.
Though strongly sketched in Fuseli's wash drawings, a relativist theatre was
historically only immanent in Fuseli's experience: tolerance was not really expected of
the audience of Garrick's commentaries on Greek theatre. We cannot here follow the
1 am here following Thomas Crow's extension of the heroic paradigm to Gericault and Delacroix, most
recently stated in his "Classicism in Crisis," in Stephen Eisenman, ed. Nineteenth-Century Art: A Critical
History, 3rd ed (London: Thames & Hudson. 2007), 55-81. The Liberte is discussed on p.80-81. While one
might dispute the continuity of the paradigm Crow still finds, however crisis-ridden, in the early Delacroix,
I am pointing out rather an alternative contemporary with David throughout his career.
Macbeth, Act V, Scene 1. The entire scene is instructive, but I quote just the beginning of the Doctor's
closing speech: "Foul whisperings are abroad: unnatural deeds / Do breed unnatural troubles: infected
minds / To their deaf pillows will discharge their secrets. / More needs she the divine than the physician..."
formation of this modern audience through the trials of modernist drama.123 But its force
can already be felt in Rousseau's observations on theatrical distance, in the Letter to
D'Alembert, with which I have opened this chapter:
When I see the Comte d'Essex, the reign of Elizabeth is ten centuries removed in
my eyes, and, if an event that took place at Paris yesterday were played, I should
be made to suppose it in the time of Moliere.124
Such making distant is not to be underestimated. It is to be noted particularly when it
makes what "took place at Paris yesterday" seem to belong to the time of Moliere. For
Rousseau, such distancing is at least a wistful guarantee that the sins represented onstage
are as unpersuasive as the morals. He continues: "The theatre has rules, principles, and a
morality apart, just as it has a language and a style of dress that is its own."125 For us this
is a salutary reminder that stage behavior is not to be censured nor emulated—this far at
least we are formalists—that we must neither interrupt the performance indignantly, nor
directly follow its exhortations in private life; that whatever political, poetic, emotional
force is contained in aesthetic experience is accessible otherwise than through brute
actualization. Such a transformation is not to be celebrated; in the guise of cool relativists
we ought merely to note that the transformation has occurred. To put it in the form of a
slogan, one does not riot at an Andy Warhol show. Fuseli's role in this transformation, as
we have seen in his involvement with theatre, is at best a negative one: he discarded the
unanimity of a heroic ideal in history painting without proposing a substitute.126 Despite
Landmarks might be Goethe's Faust, Byron's Cain, Ibsen's Wild Duck, and Strindberg's Ghost Sonata.
This concern is expressed by Fusel's RA colleague James Northcote: period costume would make actors
"look like a company of Grandfathers." Letter to Prince Hoare of 0ct.20,1787, Beinecke Library, Yale.
Rousseau, 26.
Indeed, Fuseli tended to use the word "negative" with approval: "It is ludicrous to give a consequence to
the arts which they can never possess. Their moral usefulness is at best accidental and negative." Review of
Rev. Robert Bromley's art history in The Analytical Review, July 1793, 243.
this, he practiced history painting. Which ideal, or ideals, may be advanced in relativist
history painting is explored in the last part of this chapter.
Relativism and History Painting: The Oath on the Riitli
After leaving Rome in 1778, Fuseli spent six months in Zurich before returning to
London. In his hometown the painter obtained the first large-scale commission of his
career, the Oath on the Riitli (FIG. 1.25). The painting represents the 1303 oath of mutual
protection against Austria between representatives of three Swiss cantons; the meeting on
Riitli, a meadow overlooking the Urnersee, has come to represent Swiss independence.127
Conceived in 1779, the painting was finished in London in summer 1781 and sent to
Zurich in the fall, a displacement that, we will see, corresponds fortuitously with its
double consciousness. Lavater disliked it, Fuseli resented the low pay he received, and
some time elapsed until the work, displayed in the Zurich Rathaus (City Hall), acquired
the gravity of a local classic. Thanks to this classic status, the ambivalence of the work,
which is not vagueness but a double address, has largely escaped students of Fuseli.
Admittedly, given the obscurity of much of Fuseli's work, it is a relief to be
confronted with a painting that so clearly breathes the air of its "historical context."
Usually the context proposed has been a French one. Frederick Antal was the first Fuseli
scholar to propose an extended parallel between the painting and David's Oath of the
Horatii of 1784; with obvious disappointment he concluded that "in some ways Fuseli's
Oath of the Riitli is a precursor of David's Oath of the Horatii, and in some ways not."128
For the history of this tradition, see Georg Kreis, Mythos Riitli: Geschichte eines Erinnerungsortes
(Zurich, Orell FUssli, 2004). The August 1st celebrations on the Riitli were disrupted in 2005 by neo-nazis.
Frederick Antal, Fuseli Studies (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1956), 71-74. Cf. Schiff, 94-98.
What they have in common is a vague commitment to republican patriotism and the
appeal to a heroic past.129 But if David's lucidity of composition is taken as a standard,
we should have to dismiss the Rtitli as at once subjective and arbitrary:
How different is the gesture of oath taking...ecstatic and fervent in Fuseli,
subdued and wrapt, though of course declamatory, in David. To define it in terms
of anti-realism and realism: whereas each of Fuseli's symmetrical figures is fully
in view and takes the oath with upraised arms with consciously parallel movements, in David, where the grouping grows out of real poses, the warrior in the
foreground almost obscures the two behind him so that only parts of them are
visible and the outstretched arms of the three are deliberately out of alignment.130
For Antal, the Rtitli is both 'ecstatic' and artificial. Or, to put it another way, too natural
and not natural enough. These reservations grow out of a refusal to take the painting on
its own cultural terms. After all, Switzerland for Fuseli is more than merely an allegory
for democracy. As with Rousseau's defense of Geneva in the Letter to d'Alembert, the
painting struggles to represent the political specificity of a community which the author
had left and was thus forced to view from the outside.131 If Rousseau willingly idealized
his compatriots as a modern equivalent of Spartans, Fuseli opposed this on principle:
Perhaps you will tell me, that this is not the case of the Genevois; that their
corruption is certain, however it may be the second-hand corruption of a petty
state; that numbers of them are grown too rich for the pleasures of innocence and
simplicity; that they travel as clerks, merchants, artists, valets de chambre,
officers, etc. and consequently when they return, return with suitable cargoes of
vice and folly, pilfered from all climates...And to all this I know no other reply,
but that you are in the right, and Rousseau with regard to his countrymen, is in the
wrong. 132
Robert Rosenblum has generalized the comparison to all 'oath' iconography in neoclassicism: "Gavin
Hamilton's Brutus and its Aftermath," Burlington Magazine, Vol.103, No.694, (Jan. 1961), 8-16.
Antal, 72.
See Matthias Vogel, '"1st es meine Schuld, dass ich kein Brot in meinem Vaterland finde?' Gedanken
zur 'halbfreiwilligen Emigration FUsslis," Unsere Kunstdenkmaler, Vol.43, No.4 (1992), 502-513.
Fuseli, Remarks, 78-79.
Fuseli's refusal to idealize Geneva extends to his own hometown of Zurich: in the review
of a traveler's account of a visit with Lavater, he takes issue with "the singular assertion
of the non-existence of corruption among the citizens of Zuric."133 His reservation does
not concern Geneva or Zurich as microcosms but as the social totalities producing the
emigration and exile of Rousseau and himself. And so the relativism that results, as I
have insisted, is shot through with moral reckoning. Let us see how this relativist politics
of culture as identity and loss applies to the Oath on the Riitli.
Most conspicuously, the political act represented by Fuseli for the government of
Zurich literally excludes Zurich: the actual oath united the so-called Urkantone (original
cantons) of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden. These are German-speaking cantons adjacent
to Zurich, but hardly the same thing: if the painting insists on something, it is the
absurdity of imagining a single Swiss essence behind the willful unification. The
undulating bodies of the Eidgenossen (oath-takers), their reddish hair and prominent
noses are meant to convey only an arbitrary Swiss specificity: not-Roman!, the painting
seems to declare. This not-Romanity is however international (the three cantons) and
generically democratic. And there is the variation in appearance, posture, and gesture
between the three representatives: one raises a sword, the others raise bare hands, the
rightmost glowers through his mustache.134 These differences have been exaggerated
steadily through successive preparatory drawings, which begin with nude oath-takers and
gradually develop divergences in dress, posture, and gesture of oath-taking (FIG. 1.26).135
Review of Helen Maria Williams, A Tour in Switzerland, in The Analytical Review, Vol.27, No.6 (June
1798), 568.
Their left hands are equally varied in their idiosyncratic display of fingers: compare the Horatii hands.
On the study in the Art Institute of Chicago, see Frederick N. Bohrer, "Public Virtue and Private Terror:
A Two-Sided Oil Sketch by Henry Fuseli," Zeitschrift jur Kunstgeschichte, Vol.53, No.l (1990), 89-106.
The point of all this diversification is not, of course, to exclude Zurich—which
did after all join the Swiss federation—but to underline the irreducible difference of
confederated peoples. Given this symbolic individuation which Antal overlooks, we can
appreciate with him the formal de-individuation: each figure "is in view" and takes the
oath "with consciously parallel movements." This last phrase is well-chosen: consciously
parallel movements are not identical, but rather appreciative of their contingent solidarity.
Watching them, one is aware that one is not part of the closed circle; but that exclusion is
no more final than the unity which binds the Oath-takers. The painting is addressed to the
Zurcher, but also to the visitor from outside; its public placement in the Rathaus or City
Hall indicates this double address.136 In this generosity of orientation we find the ethics of
the picture; it consists precisely in the relativist thesis that the federal nation is an
individual in the same sense that its constituents are.137 The Riitli is a relativist tribute to
an action of free confederation of peoples, rather than of the birth of a national unity.
This, I hope, is the political significance which Fuseli's letters of the time insisted on,
rather unreasonably, to the consternation of his Zurich friends, who evidently expected
something more univocal. "I have spared nothing to make the work worthy of the place
where it will stand, of the men that it represents, the impression, that it must make, of you
and me," he writes to his friend Lavater in 1781 in defense of the unloved painting.138
The original has been moved to the Kunsthaus Zurich; a copy now hangs in the city hall.
In the review of Williams's travelogue cited, he demands that the observer pay more attention to "the
internal spirit of the societies she passed through." The Analytical Review, Vol.27, No.6 (June 1798), 561.
"Ich versichere dich also, nicht im allerbittersten aber unzweideutigsten Ernste, dap ich, und nicht ich
allein, die Schweizer fur mein bestes Werk und das Mark meiner Krafite halte, dap ich auf dasselbe einen
groPen Teil des Sommers verwendet und nichts gesparet, es des Ortes, wo es stehen soil, der Manner,
welche es vorstellet, des Eindruckes, den es zu machen hat, und deiner und meiner wiirdig auszufiihren; fur
Fehlerlosigkeit aber mupt du im Engelregister nachsuchen." Letter to Lavater, 18 Oct. 1781. Muschg, 199.
Though the geographic diversity of the figures in the Rtitli is real, it does not
exhausts neopagan cultural multiplicity. One of the insights of the Roman circle was that
geographic and temporal remoteness are analogous in how they stir up strong resistance
to a perceived alien moral code. And so it is worth questioning the painting along the
temporal axis as well, which in this case might involve us in the iconography of the
ecstatic movement of the oath-takers, of the cultural and political weight of their gestures,
as it were. It is worth recalling Fuseli's training as a minister, his long study of Catholic
art in Rome, and the firmly bi-denominational religious status of Switzerland since the
sixteenth century.139 To grasp Fuseli's poise between place and time, the universal and
the culturally concrete, one has to account in the painting for such submerged material as
the Reformation illustrated Bibles that Fuseli encountered in a childhood of surreptitious
drawing.140 One example that might shed light on the oath iconography, especially on the
"ecstatic" upraised arm on the federation of incompatibles, is the woodcut frontispiece of
the famous reformed Zurich Bible printed in 1536 (FIG.1.27).141 Its middle panels present
a pair of "fervent" men with long upraised arms: Saul on the road to Damascus, reaching
up to shield his eyes; and Saul being lowered in a basket from the walls of the city,
reaching up for the rope. An act of God and an act of man are juxtaposed; Saul and Paul
are likewise the same but different. The irreducible analogy may be one lesson of
Protestantism that Fuseli never unlearned: the incompatibility of the sacred and the
profane. The moral of relativism is merely that they must coexist.
1 do not cite religious harmony, since Protestant and Catholic identities remain quite distinct. See Carol
L. Schmid, Conflict and Consensus in Switzerland (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981); Peter
Voll, Religion, Integration, Individuality: Studien zur Religion in der Schweiz (Wiirzburg: Ergon, 2006).
The 1752 drawing Fall of the Rebel Angels or Fall of the Titans
102), is typical of this work.
These designs were attributed to Hans Holbein, a fact not lost on Fuseli, who as a teenager published a
history of Swiss art under his father's name. On Fuseli's experience of woodcuts, see Knowles, I: 396.
1.1 Excursus on Tragedy
Grave Monuments, Writing, and the Antique Present
In the first chapter, we traveled from the cave to the stage: in other words, from an
amoral classicism of individual peculiarity to a pluralist acknowledgement of cultural
difference. Since cultures are discontinuous not only in space but across time, neopagan
pluralism tended to be flexible in its time-consciousness. On one hand, we can recall
Rousseau's observation that events on the stage seem farther back in the past than they
actually occurred, so that subtle cultural differences can be amplified into a kind of
archaic grandeur of alien moral codes; this is a phenomenon that Rousseau distrusted,
though it attracted him; Fuseli embraced it as the narrative motor of a classicism no
longer concerned solely with the delineation of virtue. On the other hand, if archaic
culture could be transposed in the present of theatre or painting as a kind of undiscovered
country or dark continent, then time-consciousness fell by the wayside to present
disparate epochs as simultaneous, if divergent, plurality (the 'clashing' cultures discussed
so much today). This inconsistency can be explained in part with reference to the social
dimension of the antiquity or archaism that neopagan painting revived. If we regard tragic
actors as nameless representatives of ancient Greek culture, Rousseau's amplified time
difference holds. On the other hand, if we turn our attention to ancient authors as
individuals engaged in the formulation of cultural totalities, then the proper relativist
stance is to promote them to simultaneity in the theatre of pluralism, so that Homer and
Fuseli, or Euripides and Hume, are made to coexist in a sort of fantastic present that is
neither strictly modernity nor a historicist escape into a favorite idealized era of the past.
1.1 Excursus on Tragedy
The distinction is important, I believe, because students of neoclassicism have had
unduly narrow views of its time dimension. One reads in recent art history: "The advent
of the temporal in the classical inaugurates its annihilation."1 As a premise, the statement
is not self-evident; for my part, I think it a conclusion drawn prematurely on the basis of
the civic humanist neoclassicism of David and his school, in which the 'eternal' validity
of moral exempla motivates us to follow them. It is not so obvious in a classicism open to
images of decay, such as a drawing by Fuseli which art historians have christened Artist
in Despair before the Grandeur of Antique Ruins (FIG. 1.28). Even here, the modern title
betrays an assumption about the timelessness of classicism as the positive pole to which
the negative pole of the drawing's emotion is directed. It is not thought possible that the
scene should take place in the past, a past with a past of its own (the ruins); it is rather
assumed that this is genre scene of la vie moderne, a self-portrait of the artist mourning
the fragmentation of the classical past, a past which in his own work would be transmuted
into timeless, complete monuments.2 This view is untenable given what we have seen of
Fuseli's work, but it impoverishes our understanding of classicism in general, even
beyond neopaganism. In this excursus I limit my aim to asking how eighteenth-century
modernity places antiquity within its own time frame through a work of Fuseli's already
discussed, Agamemnon pursuing Hector past the Tomb ofllos (FIG. 1.17). To see the
relevance of this discussion, we must first make preliminary observations about that
Andre Dombrowski, "The Untimely Classicism of Hans von Marees," in Modem Art and the Idea of the
Mediterranean, ed. Vojtech Jirat-Wasiutynski (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2007), 104. That this is a
fine essay, and the sentence perfectly reasonable in its context, only speaks for the necessity to unpack it.
The title Artist in despair before the Grandeur of Antique Ruins was proposed by Schiff (I: 115,478); its
plausibility has been rightly questioned by Martin Myrone. The drawing, roughly with Schiff s title, is
strikingly used to introduce Walter Jackson Bate's Burden of the Past and the English Poet.
1.1 Excursus on Tragedy
genre which is most implicated in the discussion of time within classicism: the
neoclassical tomb.
If we begin from what the present would take to be the historical epicenter of this
form, which has changed the course both of architecture and of public art in general, a
visionary monument like Boullee's Newton Cenotaph (FIG. 1.29), we might feel
compelled to grant the timelessness thesis its force. The geometric simplicity of the
monolith, its scale, the curvature "without beginning or end," point to a timelessness that
accords well with the popular implications of celestial mechanics as a kind of eternal
game of billiards. Then again, as Emil Kaufmann pointed out, the project was to be
surrounded by rows of trees, "probably to alleviate the sternness of the whole."3 But trees
are also ephemeral. And it is in fact the subject of tomb sculpture that makes time
reference difficult to read: any insistence on transcendence and eternity makes human
perishing more conspicuous.4
This tension between permanence and human loss figures prominently in the
sentimental funeral monuments erected by Fuseli's friend Antonio Canova. Take the
celebrated Tomb of the Countess Maria Christina in the Augustinerkirche, Vienna
(FIG. 1.30). Here the "Egyptian" simplicity of the pyramid frames a procession of
mourners whose posture and drapery transgress the geometric discipline of the eternal
architecture. Many explanations, from secularism to the literature of sensibility, have
Both quotes are from Emil Kaufmann, "Three Revolutionary Architects, Boullee, Ledoux, and Lequeu,"
Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol.42, No.3 (1952), 431-564: 461. See also his
Architecture in the Age of Reason (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955). Kaufmann's work
provoked a conservative reading of this architecture as "the loss of center" in Hans Sedlmayr, Verlust der
Mitte (Salzburg: O. Mttller, 1947). Cf. Walter Seiter, "Hans Sedlmayrs Kritik der Moderne," in Von der
Romantikzur asthetischen Religion, ed. Michael Ley and Leander Kaiser (Miinchen: Fink, 2004), 187-207.
One might recall Pope's ironic couplet: "Nature and Nature's Laws lay hid in Night. / God said, Let
Newton be! and all was light." "Epitaph Intended for Sir Isaac Newton," in Alexander Pope, The Major
Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 242.
1.1 Excursus on Tragedy
been proposed for this introspective turn in funerary monuments. 5 1 do not propose yet
another explanation, because I do not think we are even alive to all the difficulties of the
genre: mainly, if the theatrical display mourning is significant, but why appeal to
geometry, archaism, or "Egypt" at all? Why not sentimentalism plain and simple, as in
those nineteenth-century monuments that consist simply of a weeping stone spectator?
I do not intend to ask an unhistorical question, so the answer that there was a
proto-Egyptian revival in the late eighteenth century is no answer, but only part of the
question. We can broaden its range by considering two more funerary fantasies: one of
several designs for faux-Egyptian tombs by the French Rome-based architect Louis-Jean
Desprez (FIG. 1.31), and a haunting, cursive drawing by Sergei (FIG. 1.32), both dating
around the end of Fuseli's stay in Italy, around 1780.6 Desprez, who may prefigure
Boullee's experiments with pyramids, gives vent to a conventional enough archaic
fantasy in the manner of Piranesi: there are stone monoliths, sphinxes, billowing smoke.
And yet, at the center, from a gaping cavity in the bier, a pair of dead feet sticks out. This
funerary monument both defies death and revolves around it. Sergei's drawing, which
shares with Desprez' the motif of the heavy catacomb arch over the tomb, is even more
dramatic. In the precarious center of the monument: an inscription in Swedish reads, "and
the final adornment is four boards."7 The object of this epitaph, a generalized human
shape in a white shroud, has a face suggesting a mummified cat. While these drawings,
and Sergei's in particular, do not of course aspire to the status of unbuilt architecture in
1 will only mention Rudolf Zeitler's interesting "Literarische Parallelen der neuen Graberkunst," in idem.,
Klassizismus und Utopia (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1954), 271-277, which discusses Thomas Gray,
Thomas Young, Lessing, Klopstock, and Ugo Foscolo as literary interpreters of the neoclassical monument.
In 1784 Desprez was hired as royal architect by King Gustav III of Sweden, likely at Sergei's behest. See
Nancy L. Pressly, The Fuseli Circle in Rome (New Haven: Yale Center for British Art, 1979), 110.
1.1 Excursus on Tragedy
the manner of Boullee's designs, they are part of the same funerary imagination.8 This
funerary imagination, in order to be really compelling—and it is—has to make space both
for the eternal (death) and the transitory (life). And so the archaic is neither only timeless
arcadia nor only decay; it is not exhausted in the symbolism of a pyramid or a mummy.9
We can now appreciate not only how neoclassical monuments could strike up a
conversation with the eighteenth-century fascination for the gothic and the ruin, but how
they could serve as a model for a relativist past consciousness that juxtaposes distant eras
without glossing over their distance from one another. And so we can learn much from
Fuseli's Agamemnon pursuing Hector, a tomb fantasy in which the authority of the dead
past rubs shoulders with the fragility of an old man's body, as if summing up difficulties
about time and its demands. The work is an essay in relations obtaining between distant
epochs: here, distant epochs within antiquity, the epoch of Troy's founding (the past) and
that of its fall (the present). Let me recall the interpretation proposed in Chapter 1: the
forceful figure of the founder, Ilos, looks down in disdain on his failing descendant
Hector; but the stooped, painful figure of the elder is itself a visual manifestation of the
death of the Trojan line. And this spectacle of decline and reproof is handled as
individuality, the singular bend body of the statue taking aesthetic precedence in Fuseli's
drawing over the faceless warriors who struggle in the background.
"och sista prydnad fyra brader." See Werner Hoffmann and Per Bjurstrom, Johan Tobias Sergei 17401814 (Munchen: Prestel, 1975), cat. no. 93.
Indeed, both in Sergei's case and in Desprez's, a theatrical or decorative commission cannot be excluded.
On architectural fantasy, the classic text remains Carl Linfert, "Die Grundlagen der Architekturzeichnung
(mit einem Versuch iiber franzosische Architekturzeichnung des 18. Jahrhunderts)," in Otto Pacht, ed.
Kunstwissenschafliche Forschungen, vol.1 (Berlin: Frankfurter Verlags-Anstalt, 1931), 133-246.
There are other visual metaphors for this tension: in Fuseli's 1763 drawing of Spalding visiting his wife's
grave (SCHIFF 289), a butterfly sits on the pyramidal top of the monument; it is as substantial as the stone.
1.1 Excursus on Tragedy
The grave monument in Agamemnon pursuing Hector thus merits our attention,
and what is most singular and puzzling about this monument is the inscription: IAOS
(ILOS, the name of Troy's founder) is written in capital letters on the base. It is possible
that Fuseli, who had met Rousseau in Hume's company and published a persuasive
defense of Rousseau in English (the 1767 Remarks, see Chs.l and 3), knew Rousseau's
opinions about writing and Homer, though these were only published posthumously,
some decades after the drawing.10 The balance of evidence suggests he hadn't read the
Essay on the Origins of Languages, but he might have known its position on Homer's
literacy, a major concern of eighteenth-century antiquarianism which was picked up by
the nineteenth-century discipline of philology. Here is Rousseau's view of the problem:
It has often occurred to me in skeptical moments not only that Homer knew how
to write, but that he wrote in the manner of his time. I am very sorry if this doubt
is formally contradicted by the story of Bellerophon in the Iliad. But since I share
with Fr. Harduin the misfortune of being a bit stubborn in my paradoxes, if I were
less ignorant I might well try to extend my doubting to this very story, arguing
that it had been uncritically interpolated by the compilers of Homer. What is
more, there are few traces of the art in the remainder of the Iliad. But I venture to
suggest that the whole Odyssey is just a tissue of inanities and stupidities that
would be dissolved by [ex] changing a letter or two. Instead, the poem is made
reasonable and fairly continuous, by presuming that these heroes did not know
how to write. Had the Iliad been written, it would have been sung much less.
Rhapsodies would have been less in demand, and less numerous. What other poet,
besides Tasso of Venice, has been sung so much? Again, Tasso is sung by none
other than the Gondoliers, who are not great readers.11
The Essai sur I'origine des langues, sketched in 1755 at the same time as the Discours sur I'inegalite,
was unfinished on Rousseau's death, and first published by Du Peyrou in Oeuvresposthumes de J.J.
Rousseau, vol.3, 211-327. The standard edition is A Belin, ed. (Euvres, vol.5 (Paris, 1817), 501-543.
On the Origin of Language, translated by John H. Moran and Alexander Gode (New York: Unger, 1966),
23-24. This is the bulk of Chapter 6, entitled "Whether it is likely that Homer knew how to write." I have
taken one liberty with the translation, from letters being "changed" to "exchanged" since Rousseau is
saying that the plot of the Odyssey would collapse if the heroes knew how to write and had sent letters; the
translators seem to think rather that he is discussing the changing of letters in the text of the poem. The key
sentence reads in French: "II m'est venu bien souvent dans l'esprit de douter, non-seulement qu'Homere
sut ecrire, mais meme qu'on ecrivit de son temps." Rousseau's "doubt" is even grammatically ambiguous.
1.1 Excursus on Tragedy
The text is too rich to fully untangle here, commenting as it does on everything from
Rousseau's own stubbornness to the poetic taste of the gondoliers. What is of compulsory
interest, however, is the line about Homer being a fashionable writer, an idea that haunts
Rousseau perhaps because it is a doubt he has had about himself. This ambiguity, the
desire to see Homer as a kind of antique Rousseau and then again not to, colors his stance
on the evidence called up to settle the matter: the episode of Bellerophon, who carries a
letter containing his doom (which he cannot read) is an example of writing within the
Iliad, but it is supposed to prove that Homer did not know writing, since he does not
identify it straightforwardly as such but as mysterious "deadly signs" {ARJFXA KOKOV).12 In
other words, the use of writing in Homer to deny that Homer knew writing depends on a
reading of Homer as culturally misunderstanding older material: knowing the plot about
the death-dealing letter but not possessing the institution of writing, and thus of glossing
the content or form of the letter as best he could, e.g., as "deadly symbols." Since the
Bellerophon episode, remarkable as it is, is only an exception, Rousseau is assured that
epic was sung and not written. He shifts almost imperceptibly from the literacy of author
to that of his characters. The Odyssey may well be more plausible if we assume "these
heroes did not know how to write," but why should that provide us with evidence about
Homer? He had not after all claimed to be their contemporary. Why should Homer not
have written an epic about illiterate heroes, and even imagined in the "deadly symbols"
of Bellerophon a particularly eloquent description of writing on the part of an illiterate?
See Iliad, line 6150-90. At another stage of the draft of the Essai, Rousseau apparently took the episode
to prove on the contrary that writing was practiced in Homer's time: "the story of Bellerophon in the Iliad
itself proves that the art of writing was in use in the author's time..." See Pierre Maurice Masson,
"Questions de chronologie rousseauiste," Annates [de le societe] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, IX (1913): 37.
1.1 Excursus on Tragedy
Such a vertiginous inventory of contradictions might be thought to follow from
Rousseau's investment in antiquity as a guide to action; he does not consider Homer as
narrating his antiquity just as Rousseau does not consider Sparta or Plato antique when
using them as moral exempla. I am rehearsing these difficulties concerning Homer's
modernity because they reproduce the troubled time consciousness of classicism as a
whole: the effort to acknowledge a radically alien past as such by confronting modern
subjects with it as immediately as possible. But in rephrasing this problem as the problem
of "whether Homer wrote" or "whether Homer was a fashionable writer," I hope to show
that the contradictions in this position are only apparent. To do this, I must press on with
an interpretation of what the eruption of writing in Homer could mean to the eighteenth
century. There is a by now obligatory reading of Rousseau, proposed by Jacques Derrida
in Of Grammatology, which sees in the vacillation over Bellerophon a master feature of
Rousseau's work, and of linguistics and Western metaphysics in general, the privileging
of speech over writing. Derrida takes stock of this particular symptom in a footnote:
Subsequently engaged in denying the significance, that is to say the authenticity,
of the Bellerophon episode, Rousseau pays no attention to its meaning: that the
only piece of writing in Homer was a letter of death. Bellerophon unwittingly
carried on himself the inscription of his own death sentence. Within an infinite
chain of representations, desire carries death via the detour of writing...13
The linkage of writing and death which Derrida insists on is certainly thought-provoking.
Rousseau or his texts may indeed exclude writing (and masturbation) as Derrida argues; I
am not interested in the large-scale argument about 'Western' metaphysics here, and 'the
true Rousseau' and his motivations are not at stake for me or for Derrida.14 However, it is
Jacques Derrida, Of grammatology [1967], translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, 2 nd ed. (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins, 1997), 349 (part II, ch.4, note 1).
"Allowing us the concession of a certain internal contradiction, what is hidden from us under this
"Rousseau himself?" p.344, note 30. Derrida has his reasons for insisting on Rousseau's "logocentricity"
1.1 Excursus on Tragedy
important to see that Derrida overstates his case in offering the Bellerophon discussion as
evidence for the privileging of speech in Rousseau: surely the confession of doubt about
Homer's illiteracy and modishness is not meant to convince the reader that Homer was a
primitive oral bard. Though unpublished, the essay on language is central to Rousseau's
body of thought, as Derrida insists, so we may ask how his partisans would have read it.
A reader of the 1760s conversant in Hume, as Fuseli was, might have read Rousseau to
mean that whether it is Homer or the culture of the Homeric heroes that had writing (and
one of the two must have had it, since Rousseau denies that the Bellerophon episode is
apocryphal), writing is not to be escaped in the universe of the Iliad. The tomb of Ilos is
then no anomaly, but a second proof of writing beside Bellerophon. Homer informs us
that Agamemnon fought in the vicinity of this monument through nothing else but its
name. Free to invent its visual form, Fuseli inscribed on the grave monument Homer's
text: ILOS. This monument is legible not only to Homer and his readers, but also to the
fleeing Hector, whose head turns wistfully, not just to track his enemy but to notice the
monument of his forefather; that is the pathos of the scene, which is concerned, like the
poem itself, with the fall of Troy.
It does not follow from this imputation of writing to Homer or his heroes that
Fuseli anticipated the Derridean criticism of Rousseau, nor that he was a Rortian ironist
avant la lettre: a relativist aware of different traditions but complacently satisfied with his
even when it requires hedging and smoothing over of this sort: for he takes Rousseau to be the founder, and
in some way paradigmatic, of linguistics down to Saussure. See "The Linguistic Circle of Geneva," [1968]
Margins of Philosophy, translated by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 137-153. A
perceptive discussion of Derrida's Rousseau interpretation is Newton Garver, "Derrida on Rousseau on
Writing," The Journal of Philosophy, Vol.74, No.l 1 (Nov. 1977), 663-673.
1.1 Excursus on Tragedy
own culture and nothing else.15 So the apparent contradiction of Rousseau's orality must
be understood as continuous with Fuseli's Rousseauism. The painter certainly had some
reservations about Rousseau's theories, and in the Remarks he phrased these sharply: we
have seen how after the discussion of amorality in theatre, he demolished the idealization
of Geneva implicit in Rousseau's treatise. What if the Genevois were not the virtuous
citizens Rousseau's fancy? "I know no other reply, but that you are in the right, and
Rousseau with regard to his countrymen, is in the wrong.—"16 The brusque, dialogic
mode of writing is typical of Fuseli. In praising at Rousseau's genealogical method,
which traces the origins of present goods (art and science) to original wrongs (inequality),
Fuseli warns that the method is so strong that it might be applied to everything: "for
instance, christianism lies under similar moral and political objections with the culture of
learning."17 Note that Fuseli is not suggesting giving up the method because it impeaches
Christianity, nor that the destructive approach ought to be wielded indiscriminately. In
the guise of detached commentator, he simply illuminates the consequences of a favored
theory. It is the work of a pupil confident enough to extend, and in extending to question,
the master's principles. In this case, the principles that needed connecting are those that
seem to threaten the coherence of the neoclassical time consciousness: a close view of
antiquity that would make us all the more aware of how far away it is from us. If Homer
wrote, if he is brought that close to the moderns, then his account of the Trojan War, and
Irony, understood as a passive self-distancing, is how Rorty reconciles ethnocentrism with the relativism
stemming from knowledge that one's participation in a particular community is a contingent fact, i.e. could
have turned out otherwise. See Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1989), chapters 3 and 4. Bernard Williams, in "Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline,"
Philosophy, Vol. 75, No. 294. (Oct. 2000), 477-496, points out that this account severs the (ethnocentric)
political actor from the (detached) intellectual observer. Fuseli certainly had his irony, and his sarcasm, but
they were the dashed hopes of an arrogant radical, at least in William Godwin's recollection. See Ch.3.
Mason, ed. Remarks, 87.
1.1 Excursus on Tragedy
its deviations from a modern code of conduct, are that much more striking. This 'antique
present' is a conceptual device for articulating cultural difference through a first move of
bringing the confronted cultures together, of literally making them legible to each other.
Just how does this antique present look when applied to Rousseau's doctrines
about archaic writing? In a wash study of Hector with his family, the young Astyanax is
represented crouching under his parents' table with his nose in a book (FIG. 1.33). There is
a sense of bucolic irony in this drawing, as if all truths about the Trojan War, Homer, and
writing in antiquity could be checked at the entrance to Hector's boudoir. But the warmth
of the scene is not complacent nostalgia: Hector shall die in battle and his body shall be
defiled, and with the fall of Troy, Andromache shall be raped and Asatyanax brutally
murdered.18 What is fascinating about this family scene, then, is that in it tragedy is
future-referenced in a way that more usual neoclassical representations of Andromache
mourning Hector are not. And if tragedy figures in this drawing as narrative in the future
tense, this does not exhaust the temporal significance of the drawing—does not, so to
speak, turn it into a funeral monument—precisely because, in the present tense of
drawing, Astyanax is reading. There is anachronism, since he reads a bound book such as
Fuseli could not have thought available to either classical Greeks or archaic Trojans. In a
sense, this is right for what Fuseli wants to emphasize in the Trojan domestic scene: the
horror of this quiet conviviality ending with the destruction of the individual members of
the family. But the modernity of Astyanax's book does more: it remind us that reading
Fuseli, Remarks, 7. In this account of Christianity Fuseli anticipates Nietzsche or at least Stuart-Glennie.
Astyanax is thrown off the walls of Troy to prevent his eventually seeking vengeance, in the Little Iliad,
Pausanias, Euripides, and Ovid; he is used by Neoptolemus to club Priam to death in the Iliou persis and on
extant red-figure vases; Renaissance and modern poets, by contrast, often save him by substituting another
baby (Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, Racine's Andromache, etc.). This difference between modern and
ancient sources is suggestive of the concern with adapting the story to Christian morality or taste.
1.1 Excursus on Tragedy
always takes place in the present.19 This present time-consciousness of reading is one of
drawing as well as Fuseli practices it: wash drawing with its ephemeral configurations of
light on bodies makes the scene as fantastically immediate as the young Astyanax with
his bound book. That such immediacy is not simply a forgetting of the passage of time
needs emphasizing. Nietzsche has put the matter well, though in very personal terms
which must be disentangled, in the last aphorism of Mixed Opinions and Maxims (1878):
I, too, have been in the underworld, like Odysseus, and shall be there often yet;
and not only rams have I sacrificed to be able to speak with a few of the dead, but
I have not spared my own blood. Four pairs it was that did not deny themselves to
my sacrifice: Epicurus and Montaigne, Goethe and Spinoza, Plato and Rousseau,
Pascal and Schopenhauer. With these I must come to terms when I have long
wandered alone; they may call me right and wrong; to them will I listen when in
the process they call each other right and wrong. Whatsoever I say, resolve, or
think up for myself and others—on these eight I fix my eyes and see their eyes
fixed on me.
May the living forgive me that occasionally they appear to me as shades, so pale
and somber, so restless and, alas, so lusting for life—while those men then seem
so alive to me as if now, after death, they could never again grow weary of life.
But eternal aliveness is what counts: what matters "eternal life" or any life!20
In insisting on the present time reference of reading and relativist imaginings of antiquity
I have not been arguing against Derrida's criticism of 'presence,' 'voice,' and so forth,
only showing its relative irrelevance to our problem. I think this is brought out well by
Nietzsche's passage: it would be unwise to interpret the aphorism as a 'literal' report of
seances the author imagines taking place (or worse yet, that he posits philosophically)
with the texts that interest him.21 The experience is rather of thinking as it manifests itself
in writing, of a thinking that is radically different from one's own, critical of it—hence
1 realize this sounds like the opposite of Derrida, for whom writing is always obsessively about the dead
past, the dead author and his world which the written word inevitably survives. But we must question these
positions: e.g., a text does not always survive its author. I should also point out that here I am concerned
with reading, so my account does not necessarily contradict Derrida's account of writing.
On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1989), 179.
1.1 Excursus on Tragedy
the metaphor of the eyes fixed in questioning—but a thinking which does not cease as
long as one engages the past in reading. One consequence, which we have discussed in
Chapter 1, is that the past is individualized as a succession of moral subjects (tragic men
and women) and collective subjects (cultures). Individuals and the cultures to which they
belong are conflated, in Nietzsche's case, characteristically, in the guise of great men
who have the gravity of Homer's dead heroes in Hades reporting on the Trojan War.
To see just how close Fuseli could come to this complicated metaphor of death,
life, reading, and moral argument devised by Nietzsche, we have only to examine the
most remarkable drawings he devoted to the theme of Odysseus's descent into Hades.22
In contrast to his usual treatment of the scene—a contemplative Odysseus, a commanding
Tiresias, a whirl of heroic ghosts billowing behind (FIG. 1.34)—this wide, shallow
drawing, executed wonderfully freely in only ink wash, shows Tiresias alone, squatting
over the sacrificed sheep's blood, mixture of "blood and mud," which he ingests so that
he may call forth the dead (FIG.1.35).23 The drawing is labeled: "Sketches for Ulisses in
Hell. Tiresias & Euriclea," the latter referring to Odysseus's nurse, who of course does
not figure in the rite. Perhaps Fuseli intended fantasy portraits of the authoritative elders
of the poem, the prophet and the matron who announces Odysseus's return. Be that as it
may, the resulting image of Tiresias is unusual in Fuseli's oeuvre, and in neoclassicism.
Seldom have the authority of age and of ritual, been combined so directly with the
humbleness of the flesh. I have traveled some way myself in my view of this picture: at
As Kaufmann remarks with some bafflement (editor's footnote, ibid.), with the exception of Pascal,
Plato, and Rousseau (whom Nietzsche criticizes), these are not the names of authors Nietzsche cites often.
The theme of Odysseus consulting with the spirits was treated by Fuseli repeatedly since the early 1770s,
and ended up as one of the illustrations to du Roveray's edition of Pope's Iliad (see SCHIFF 386, 798, 1253).
Cf. Schiff, I: 133.
1.1 Excursus on Tragedy
first, it seemed a paradigm of neopaganism, irrational and ritualistic, its representation of
the mythic body abject, spasmodic, animalistic, the drinking of blood supremely dark and
vitalistic at once. There is something to this first impression, at least in terms of narrative
and visual clues: the desperation with which Tiresias dives into the pool of blood, his left
hand grasping the rock as if holding on for dear life, his billowing sacramental robe, the
chtonic darkness behind him. But we must dispense with the 'isms' if we are to escape a
partial understanding of neopaganism as a revival of tribal customs one does not believe:
a hypocritical state religion in the romantic mould. What is more striking in this drawing
is how the passion of Tiresias—a passion that, in leaving no room for doubt, makes us
see the old man as inhabiting his culture and its world of spirits—is translated into the
wash drawing, how blood and knotted brow and subterranean darkness are presented as
gray masses to be manipulated by the draftsman. Tiresias dives into the blood as if diving
into a book: his hands as it were spreading open a large folio volume, his beard and the
mud curling around the edge like pages projecting from the spine. This is a fanciful
image, but no more so than the figure of Astyanax reading a modern octavo under the
tablecloth of a Trojan table; indeed, it is not a historical claim of the availability of bound
books which this imagery advances, but a metaphor of reading as immersion, if not quite
revival in Nietzsche's sense. The result is not an ahistorical pantheon, but an activity of
mediation which, however subjective and present-centered, addresses the past as a
partner in discussion—a spectral one, to be sure.
Resuming the discussion on a theoretical level subsuming the Tiresias drawing,
the Ilos drawing, and Nietzsche's aphorism, we must specify that this revival-in-reading
is not a metaphysical assumption of eternal life but the pragmatic assumption undertaken
1.1 Excursus on Tragedy
while reading that one's text has something to say, that it is alive to one's interest to this
extent at least, which Nietzsche renders with the not altogether happy term 'eternal
aliveness' or 'eternal liveliness' (ewige Lebendigkeit). It is an imperfect term, even in the
German original, because what Nietzsche wants to convey through the adjective turned
noun is, as he insists, not a special kind of eternity or superhuman life, but an unbounded
duration of sporadic occurrences: periodic revivals connected to acts of reading.24 If we
think of eternity in these terms, as a recurrence of aliveness of an intellectual position, the
difference between 'living' and 'dead' positions is minimized precisely where it does not
count: when making comparisons which should not be prejudiced by a thought's position
in time. In reading the 'revivifying' tendencies in neoclassical grave architecture, I have
focussed on the experience of coincidence of modernity and antiquity, or better yet of
modern and antique antiquities, actualized in acts of reading.
The coincidence of antiquities—Homer's and the Trojans,' but also Homer's and
Fuseli's—implies a minima moralia to be drawn from Rousseau's discussion of the Iliad:
"Homer wrote in the style of the time." This proposition loses the pathos of impiety it
retained for Rousseau, when one realizes that Homer's time is not some inaccessible
essence that can be had independent of Homer. It can only be had now, through reading
Homer. But there is no danger about reading Homer anachronistically: Oscar Wilde's
joke about the ancient Greeks having their Pre-Raphaelite brotherhoods is not a joke
about misunderstanding the Greeks, but rather about the fact of social life (that avant-
This thought, which comes naturally to me, has been stated often, in the German hermeneutic tradition,
for instance, but most explicitly by Collingwood. Nietzsche also suggests it in an early essay on Heraclitus,
"Uber das Pathos der Wahrheit," in Werke, ed Karl Schlechta, vol.3 (Munich: Hanser, 1969), 267-271.
There is an interesting study o f acts of reading and memory in contemporary art: Mechtild Widrich, "Can
Photography Make It So? Three Outbreaks of VALIE EXPORT'S Genital Panic," in Hilde van Gelder and
Helen Westgeest, eds. Photography between Poetry and Politics (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2008).
1.1 Excursus on Tragedy
gardes isolate themselves) which it would be wrong to forget in fantasizing about Greek
aesthetic purity.25 If all interpretation is culturally specific, this does not make knowledge
impossible, but only suggests that we should study the cultural context of interpretation.
The modernization of the antique is of practical interest, then, because although
Herder's cultural relativism makes us aware of the ethnocentricity of our judgments we
must continue to make judgments nevertheless. Modern relativists have foundered on this
rock: even a writer as lucid as Richard Rorty is torn between a pragmatic conviction that
we should choose "what works best" and the ethnocentric insistence that what is best is
whatever is normal in our community.26 But this certainty about what is normal for "us"
or "them" can be displaced aesthetically. By projecting present practices of writing into
the past, Fuseli allows the banal work of comparison to begin: what is modern about the
ancients, what is antique about ourselves? Such questions do not prejudice our normative
judgments on modernity or the past. And they certainly don't claim to make us virtuous.
A Rousseau who asked such question might have answered Derrida's question:
"If the song, the poem, and the epic are incompatible with writing, if writing threatens
them with death, how do we explain the coexistence of the two ages?"27 The threat of
writing, banality, would not destroy the concept-fantasies of song, epic, and tragedy for a
Rousseau who thinks "Homer wrote in the style of his time." As he in fact wrote:
"And I assure you, my dear Ernest, that the Greeks chattered about painters quite as much as people do
nowadays, and had their private views, and shilling exhibitions, and Arts and Crafts guilds, and PreRaphaelite movements, and movements towards realism, and lectured about art, and wrote essays on art,
and produced their art-historians, and their archaeologists, and all the rest of it." Oscar Wilde, "The Critic as
Artist, Part I," in Intentions (New York: Brentano, 1905), 118-119.
Richard Rorty, "A Pragmatist View of Rationality and Cultural Difference," Philosophy East and West,
Vol.42, No.4 (Oct.1992), 581-596. A problem with Rorty's ethnocentrism is that cross-cultural comparison
that tacitly favors one's own culture is no fair comparison. See Richard Rorty, "Pragmatism, Relativism,
and Irrationalism," Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association [PAAPA], Vol.
53, No.6 (Aug. 1980), 719-738. Alasdair Maclntyre, in "Relativism, Power, and Philosophy," PAAPA, Vol.
59, No. 1 (Sept. 1985), 5-22, proposes a qualified ethnocentrism open to refutation by 'alien traditions."
1.1 Excursus on Tragedy
These two poems [Iliad and Odyssey] are later than the siege of Troy, and it is
hardly obvious that the Greeks who made the siege knew how to write, or that the
poet who sang of it did not know...Somewhat later they were laboriously collected
in writing. That was when Greece began to abound in books and written poetry,
whereby all the charm of Homer could be experienced by comparison.28
"To experience by comparison" could be the motto of the cultural relativist, if she refuses
to make do with a narrow ethnocentrism. Comparison allows Rousseau to imagine a
heroic age that knew writing, which Homer recounted without comprehending; but also
an age without writing, rendered legible through the telling of the literary poet. Both
origin stories are plausible given Rousseau's cautious negations. But they are only
plausible together. Rousseau's relativism is not self-defeating, though it is contradictory.
It is conduct, not logic, which causes Rousseau to contradict himself. Rousseau's
observation in the Letter to d'Alembert that an Elizabethan play performed in the present
seems ten centuries old, that a scene represented onstage is not brought nearer but made
more distant cannot be taken to mean that distance is bad in itself. Distance for Rousseau
is at least a guarantee of lucidity. We make the past meaningful by measuring our
distance from it. Yet to measure things one must grant them a certain observational
parity. This parity of cultures is at the core of the relativism Fuseli learned from
Rousseau. Such a willingness to measure one's values against the past, without
dogmatically putting that past in its historical "place," requires that the past be put in
one's own place: and the practical elimination of historical distance while insisting on
cultural difference is what I have called the antique present. It is at the heart of the
neopagan funeral monument and also of what we might call a neopagan ethic.
Derrida, 269. The aesthetic coexistence of 'two ages' is precisely the point of radical neoclassicism.
Rousseau, 24.
1.2 Illustrations to Chapters 1 and 1.1
FIG. 1.2 Jean-Germain Drouais, Marius at Minturnae. 1786, oil on canvas, 271 x 365cm, Louvre, Paris.
1.2 Illustrations to Chapters 1 and 1.1
FIG.1.3 Henry Fuseli, Marius and the Cimbrian Soldier [1760-4], pen and watercolor, 306 x 486mm,
Aukland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, New Zealand ( S C H I F F 1731).
FIG. 1.4 Henry Fuseli, Ajax [1772], pen and wash, 470 x 362mm,
British Museum, London, 1885.3.14.283 (SCHIFF 390).
1.2 Illustrations to Chapters 1 and 1.1
FIG.1.5 Thomas Trotter after Henry Fuseli, Brutus, 1792, engraving, 164 x 135mm,
in John Caspar Lavater, Essays on Physiognomy, vol.2 (p.282) (SCHIFF 948).
FIG. 1.6 Henry Fuseli, Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth [ 1766], watercolor,
323 x 294mm, Kunsthaus Zurich, Grafische Sammlung (SCHIFF 341).
1.2 Illustrations to Chapters 1 and 1.1
\ |
FIG.1.7 Henry Fuseli, Orestes pursued by the Furies [1762-4], graphite, grey wash, 332 x 485mm,
Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden (John Knowles's collection) (SCHIFF 332).
FIG. 1.8 Valentine Green after Benjamin West, Aegisthus discovers the body of Clytemnestra.
[1780, lost oil painting], 1786, mezzotint, 532 x 645mm, British Museum.
1.2 Illustrations to Chapters 1 and 1.1
FIG. 1.9 Henry Fuseli, Orestes and Pylades force Aegisthos to see Klytaimnestra 's Body, exposed by
Elektra [1776-8], pen and sepia, wash, 156 x 203mm, Stockholm, Nationalmuseum (SCHIFF 393).
FIG. 1.10 Tobias Sergei, "Ochs vis att du ej gior som Aurora " [Baroness Aurora de Geer],
1790s, pen and wash, Nationalmuseum Stockholm, MNH-Z 6/1957.
1.2 Illustrations to Chapters 1 and 1.1
FIG. 1.11 Henry Fuseli, Bacchanal [1778], pen and wash, 225 x 195mm,
Museo Home, Florence (SCHIFF 544).
FIG. 1.12 Johan Tobias Sergei,franska musik smaken. skrik [The French Taste in Music. All the rage],
1780s, pen and black ink, 205 x 322mm, Nationalmuseum Stockholm, NMH 682/1875.
1.2 I l l u s t r a t i o n s to C h a p t e r s 1 a n d 1.1 Pop
! K r. 1.13 Pierre d'l lane; rville. Recherche* .sur I 'origine. / 'esprit et les progres des arts dc
Grece; sur leur connections nvcc les oris de I'lnde. de hi Perse, du reste de I'Asie, de
riutropc et de I'i'.gypte (London: Appleyard, 1785). vol.11, plate I
1.2 Illustrations to Chapters 1 and 1.1
N.' X I I I .
Un Satyrc qui baise une Femme
sur un Aulel antique.
G»y| <J-L t.l J'r. ;m L.
o L'hewem Satyr©! ^guuUr ateftuJ? ,
actrrit^» <juel charate rSpandu daiw
e s w d e ce couple f@*lun£ ! Tout
cV.-t jm?,
•bwtumcnt parlaut, une dnguhri^; mats e<:
quiro'rnjtap^If was, c'ti* Iff es^ge im et,s
assufi la femnoe tjui c^de owi tliMsir-i «fly
Fauue : ol e4 ©m& deteem.6
t'> «m
wwifBt fju'ow* awelb sScs Dkux 8s i-i'h
eel, I'Auleur a vraulu :J;»U3 dbiimT «J?us.;
gravvre , L V8VP. intake oJM
' Jt
data® (3 Ikli^Eon ift^ Afi/k'BO', OJI MIE
<p*il y a eu das |'gO|ik>j rCisi jLi, b. Y&nr,
A I'dclc de la g&l^ratiiia. Lea Dam«. .tit on,
i m h
FIG.1.14 [Pierre d'Hancarville] Monumens du culte secret des dames romaines ('Capri': Sabellus, 1780).
FIG. 1.15 Henry Fuseli, Couple on Altar before a Herm ofPriapus [1770-78], pen and wash, 261 x 376mm,
Museo Home, Florence (SCHIFF 538).
1.2 Illustrations to Chapters 1 and 1.1
FIG. 1.16 Henry Fuseli, Achilles Sacrifices his Hair on the Funeral Pyre ofPatroklos
[ 1800-5], pen,
pencil, chalk, wash and white heightening, 483 x 2 4 5 m m , Kunsthaus Zurich. ( S C H I F F 1359).
1.2 Illustrations to Chapters 1 and 1.1
FIG. 1.17 Henry Fuseli, Agamemnon Pursuing Hector near the Tomb of Ilos [ 1770-4], pen and wash, 423 x
548mm, Fogg Museum of Art, Harvard University (SCHIFF 323).
FIG. 1.18 William Blake, The First Book of Urizen Copy D Plate 1, 1794,
relief etching, 149 x 103mm, British Museum (detail).
1.2 Illustrations to Chapters 1 and 1.1
FIG. 1.19 Engraving after John Webber, An Offering Before Captain Cook in the Sandwich Islands, 1783.
FIG.1.20 Henry Fuseli, The Indian GodKamadeva
and His Lover [1800], pen and sepia, 194x299mm,
Offentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel (SCHIFF 1168).
1.2 Illustrations to Chapters 1 and 1.1
FIG. 1.21 Henry Fuseli, Garrick and Mrs. Pritchard as Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, 1812,
oil on canvas, 101 x 127cm, Tate Britain, London (SCHIFF 1495).
FIG. 1.22 Henry Fuseli, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth [1774], pen and grey ink with red and grey wash
over graphite, 275 x 395mm, British Museum, Roman Album, 1885.0314.201-296 (SCHIFF 456).
1.2 Illustrations to Chapters 1 and 1.1
FIG. 1.23 Henry Fuseli, Lady Macbeth Sleep-Walking [1772], pen and grey wash over graphite,
252 x 385mm, British Museum, Roman Album, 1885.0314.201-296 (SCHIFF 460).
FIG. 1.24 Henry Fuseli, Lady Macbeth Sleep-Walking [1772], pen and grey wash over graphite,
252 x 385mm, British Museum, Roman Album, 1885.0314.201-296 (SCHIFF 459).
1.2 Illustrations to Chapters 1 and 1.1
FIG. 1.25 Henry Fuseli, The Oath on the Riitli [1779-81], oil on canvas, 267 x 178 cm, Kunsthaus Zurich
(SCHIFF 3 5 9 ) .
FIG. 1.26 Henry Fuseli, Study for the Oath on the Riitli, 1779, pen and brown ink over pencil, grey and
brown wash, 414 x 344mm, Kunsthaus Zurich, Grafische Samrnlung (SCHIFF 412).
1.2 Illustrations to Chapters 1 and 1.1 Pop
FIG. 1.27 Woodcut frontispiece of the Ziircher Bible, printed by Christoffel Froschauer in 1536.
1.2 Illustrations to Chapters 1 and 1.1
FIG. 1.28 Henry Fuseli, 'The Artist in Despair over the Grandeur of Antique Fragments', [1778-80], red
chalk and brown wash, 420x360mm, Kunsthaus Zurich, Grafische Sammlung (SCHIFF 665).
1.2 Illustrations to Chapters 1 and 1.1
FIG. 1.29 Etienne-Louis Boullee, Elevation du Cenotaphe deNetwon, c.1783, ink, wash, monochrome, and
brown tints, 756x495mm, Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale (Ha. 57, No.7).
I M 11 j j L ' 4
y t
FIG. 1.30 Antonio Canova, Tomb of Archduchess Marie Christine, 1798-1805, Augustinerkirche, Vienna.
1.2 Illustrations to Chapters 1 and 1.1
FIG. 1.31 Louis-Jean Desprez, Imaginary Egyptian Sepulcher, [1779-83], pen and brown ink, grey-brown
wash, and watercolor, 145x200mm, Cooper-Hewitt Museum, Washington, DC, Inv. No. 1938.88.3953.
FIG. 1.32 Johan Tobias Sergei, 6. och sista prydnadfyra brader, ['and the final ornament is four
boards'], pen and wash, 170x205mm, Stockholm Nationalmuseum, Inv. No. NM H 39/1944.
1.2 Illustrations to Chapters 1 and 1.1 Pop
FIG.1.33 Henry Fuseli, Hector, Andromache, andAstyanax, [1800-10], brush and
grey ink, 320x215mm, Kunsthaus Zurich, Grafische Sammlung (SCHIFF 1356).
1.2 Illustrations to Chapters 1 and 1.1
FIG. 1.34 Henry Fuseli, Tiresias Appears to Odysseus at the Sacrifice, [1780-5], pen and black and grey ink,
watercolor, and chalk over pencil on paper, 915x628mm, Albertina, Vienna, Inv. No. 17299 (SCHIFF 798).
FIG. 1.35 Henry Fuseli, Sketches for Uiisses in Hell. Tiresias and Euriclea [Tiresias drinking sacrificial
blood, 1780-5], brush and ink, 251x470mm, Kunsthaus Zurich, Grafische Sammlung (SCHIFF 799).
2. Comedy
Comedy, Dream, and the Sympathetic Spectator
For the awake there is a single, common world,
But whosoever sleeps is alone in his own world.
In the preceding chapter, I argued that the neoclassicism of Fuseli, in aspiring to cleave
closer to archaic models than ever before, sponsored a cultural politics that envisioned
Greek antiquity as one discrete human culture among others, the very model of a human
culture viewed from the outside. In this second chapter, we narrow the scope of inquiry to
see how this relativism could find root in a subjective experience of self and the other, an
experience made possible by the variety of cultures indicated in Chapter 1, but also made
insular or claustrophobic by the ethnocentric perspective of the acculturated individual.
This personal experience is at once exhilarating and sinister, and theatrical metaphors are
intrinsic to its self-description. William James has formulated it rather desperately:
If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the
universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which
one may withdraw at will.1
James's next sentence, significantly, adds: "But it feels like a real fight..." This relativist
anxiety of being condemned to see life as a private theatrical which at times feels like a
real fight is examined in this chapter through the reception of Fuseli's most popular
painting, The Nightmare of 1781 (first shown in 1782), a work of gothic terror cum
classical dream theatre. I connect this puzzling work with Emma Hamilton and her
notorious art practice of Attitudes, one-woman impersonations of antique characters
William James, "Is Life Worth Living?" in The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular
[1897], reprinted in Pragmatism and Other Writings (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2000), 240.
2. Comedy
presented in an intimate salon setting to artists and antiquarians, Hamilton engaged in just
those private theatricals with a feeling of transpersonal validity that make up the
subjective experience of relativism. Consequently, Hamilton's work has drawn from
modern scholars a conflicting range of interpretations ranging from feminist performance
to abject self-exploitation; I will not single out particular readings for praise or criticism,
but will observe how a comparable range has been provoked by Fuseli's Nightmare, a
painting that thematizes and at once restlessly exposes the privacy of sex and dreaming.
In reading Fuseli with Hamilton, we register not only a dilution of tragic relativism—a
necessary or welcome empirical dilution—but also an approach to antiquity from the
inside, as informal aesthetic activity. The dancing, singing, and posing that made up this
singular art form, Hamilton's Attitudes, has to be imagined as a way of life, as natural as
our own modes of conviviality. In the process, our focus shifts from a theory of the past
as moral principle of the kind that academic ambition worked with, to efforts at a sort of
improvised antique present. The incongruity of this enterprise, and its poignancy, not any
historical revival, suggested the metaphor of comedy as significant for this chapter. I
hope to show how the conventions of comedy, and its subjective concomitant, the faculty
called sympathy during the eighteenth century, could build analogical bridges between
private experiences while still insisting on their public inaccessibility. Hamilton's
Attitudes and Fuseli's Nightmare turn out to be difficult to interpret for the same
reason—they demand individual, even private, reactions in public, or semipublic,
circumstances. To interpret them is to shed light on the problem that worried William
James a century later: how privacy qualifies and even compromises shared experience.
2. Comedy
Dreaming in Private: Fuseli's Nightmare
Fuseli's Nightmare (FIG.2.1), first shown at the Royal Academy in April 1782, is a fair
candidate for the first modernist painting: less for any particular visual quality, but for the
modern way it was received. There was a scandal, and success. Reproduced as a stipple
engraving (FIG.2.2) it made a large sum of money for the publisher, John Raphael Smith.2
The painting has been discussed as aesthetic venture capital, drawing impressionable
crowds with the lure of novelty.3 Fuseli might well have agreed. In his posthumously
published Aphorisms on Art, he circles around the subject warily but self-importantly:
"One of the most unexplored regions of art are dreams."4 The subject of the painting is
thus modern because unexplored. It is significant that Fuseli still thought this worth
saying nearly half a century after the first appearance of the painting. The first draft of the
Aphorisms dates to 1788; Fuseli was still polishing them before his death in April 1825.5
The conjunction 'dream and modernity' is often thought to lead naturally to
psychoanalytic treatment. But this does not work particularly well for The Nightmare,
since the painting is so self-consciously about dreaming. There is also a practical
"This picture was sold by him for twenty guineas; it was subsequently engraved by Burke, and published
by J. R. Smith; and so popular was the subject, that the publisher acknowledged to have gained upwards of
five hundred pounds by the sale of the prints, although vended at a small price." John Knowles, The Life
and Writings of Henry Fuseli, vol.1 (London: Colburn and Bentley, 1831; reprinted London: Kraus, 1982),
64. For more on the print, see David H. Weinglass, Prints and Engraved Illustrations By and After Henry
Fuseli: A Catalogue Raisonne (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1994), no.67, and Martin Myrone, Gothic
Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination (London: Tate Publishing, 2006) 49-51. The
standard work on the painting remains Nicolas Powell, Fuseli: The Nightmare (New York: Viking, 1973).
See Martin Myrone, "The Sublime as Spectacle: The Transformation of Ideal Art at Somerset House," in
Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House, 1780-1836, ed. David H. Solkin (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 77-91.
The full sentence: "One of the most unexplored regions of art are dreams, and what my be called the
personification of sentiment." Aphorism 231, in Knowles, III: 145. Commentators have made much of the
grammatical slip in putting "are" instead of "is" before the word "dreams." This is not typical of Fuseli's
fastidious English; it might betray a reservation about thinking of dreams as one homogenous 'region.'
Fuseli's Aphorisms were advertised in 1788, but a fire at publisher Joseph Johnson prevented publication.
See Mason, The Mind of Henry Fuseli, 352.
2. Comedy
difficulty: The Nightmare is unusual for Fuseli in having no explicit literary prototype. 6
Psychological readings consequently tend to be allegorical.7 Scholars also tend to agree
on the key element: the figure of the demon, sneering at the spectator in an attitude
Michael Fried might call "theatrical." The demon has been identified with Fuseli, a
flaccid penis, the institution of slavery, and an anthropoid ape threatening interspecies
sex.8 These hypotheses are commendably outrageous—they seek to do for us what the
painting did for the public at Somerset House in the wet summer of 1782.9 But we cannot
really stop there. Less than a decade after the initial sensation, Fuseli painted a loosely
brushed variation on the theme in nocturnal hues (FIG.2.3), which served as a model for
an engraving published in Erasmus Darwin's scientific poem The Botanic Garden (1791),
together with twenty-four lines by Darwin declaiming on the image (FIG.2.4).10 Darwin,
the grandfather of Charles Darwin, was a successful society doctor, early evolutionist,
and lyric poet; the Botanic Garden, on which he worked for nearly twenty years, is an
There are unidentified subjects in Fuseli's oeuvre, such as "Percival freeing Belisane," but these do refer
to literature, even if imaginary. Fuseli's Borges-like passion for commenting invented texts developed
early: see the bilingual anti-Voltaire "preface" printed March and April 1768 in the Universal Museum.
Unlike Freud, Fuseli does not believe that dreams are structured allegorically. A footnote in the Lectures
on Painting is revealing: "In that sublime design of Michael Agnolo [II Sogno], where a figure is roused by
a descending genius from his repose on a globe, on which he yet reclines, and with surprise discovers the
phantoms of the passions which he courted, unmasked in wild confusion flitting round him, M. Agnolo was
less ambitious to express the nature of a dream, or to bespeak out attention to its picturesque effects and
powerful contrasts, than to impress us with the lesson, that all is vanity and life a farce, unless engaged by
virtue and the pursuits of mind." Bungarten, I: 130 / Knowles, II: 197.
These interpretations are, respectively: Horst Janson, "Fuseli's Nightmare," 16 Studies (New York:
Abrams, 1974), 77-88 (originally Arts and Sciences Vol.2, N o . l , Spring 1963, 23-8); Marcia Allentuck,
"Henry Fuseli's 'Nightmare': Eroticism or Pornography?" in The Woman as Sex Object, ed. Thomas Hess
and Linda Nochlin (London: Allen Lane, 1973), 33-41; Angela Rosenthal, "Bad Dreams: Race and the
Nightmare of 1781," in Representation and Performance in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Peter Wagner and
Frederic Ogee, Landau Paris Studies on the Eighteenth Century, Vol. 1 (Trier: Wissenschaftliche Verlag
Trier, 2006), 97-126; Christopher Frayling, "Fuseli's The Nightmare: Somewhere between the Sublime and
the Ridiculous," in Gothic Nightmares, 9-21. It should be said that Allentuck's reading does not unduly
privilege the demon. This may be why, although the most fragmentary, it remains the most suggestive.
On the weather, see Karl Philipp Moritz, Travels, Chiefly on Foot, Through Several Parts of England in
1782, described in letters to a friend. (London: G.G. and J. Robinson, 1792), 89 [German ed. 1785].
2. Comedy
elaborate verse transposition of Linnaeus's system of plant biology, interspersed with
passages of gothic terror and dialogues on ethics and aesthetics.
I return to the text in Chapter 3. For now it suffices to remark that in 1791 The
Botanic Garden re-introduced the English public to The Nightmare in a conspicuous
fashion. Fuseli took the initiative in the collaboration, recommending himself in a letter
to the doctor-poet.11 In context, the print and its poetic counterpart constitute a lively if
incongruous interlude in Darwin's epic of plant reproduction. Darwin's verses on The
Nightmare in fact precede his plant book: the first four lines on the painting accompanied
the best-selling engraving of 1783. Although the 1781 painting was engraved again late
in Fuseli's life and shortly after his death, the 1790 painting was really Fuseli's second
try at the Nightmare subject, and he was sufficiently satisfied with the results to print this
second version in Darwin's book. How do the two pictures compare? In all respects the
second is leaner, darker, more confident. Yet Fuseli shows little regard for its supposed
fulcrum, the demon. Shifted from the center of the composition, he becomes a buzzing,
spectral presence, devoid of physiognomic specificity—no scholar has found racial or
biographical imperatives encoded in this version of the painting.
There are other drawbacks to a reading fixated on the demon. As Fuseli continued
to draw and paint the subject, the demon was trivialized or made comic in ways that do
This painting is in the Frankfurter Goethe-Museum; the work shown in 1782 entered the Detroit Institute
of Art in the 1950s. Janson (79) made all further study possibly by clearing up the sequence of paintings.
Fuseli's letter to Darwin is lost. However, Darwin's letter to publisher Joseph Johnson, probably dating
from 1784, already implies Fuseli's involvement: "If you accept of these proposals, you will please to
acquaint Mr. Fuseli, who is so kind as to promise me some ornament for the work..." The Collected Letters
of Henry Fuseli, ed. David H. Weinglass (London: Kraus, 1984), 23. The publication history of Darwin's
poem is complicated: lines from it were first published in 1784; in 1789, the Loves of the Plants, part 2 of
The Botanical Garden, appeared without Fuseli's illustrations, followed by second and third editions in
1790; in 1791 the first part of the poem, The Economy of Vegetation, was published together with The
Loves of the Plants, and with the engravings after Fuseli. This sets a terminus ante quern for the Frankfurt
2. Comedy
not mesh well with the demon identifications: riding the horse out the window at dawn,
or glancing uncertainly at his accomplice the horse
2.5, 2.6).To make matters even
more complicated, there is a broad interest in sleep and dreams in Fuseli's oeuvre. In
1780 he debuted at the Royal Academy with a Miltonic theme of Satan disturbing the
sleeping Adam and Eve (FIG 2.7); the next year he began The Nightmare. Over the next
thirty years Fuseli treated dreaming in allegories, portraits of his wife, and subjects from
Shakespeare (FIG 2.8). A late variant, substituting an owl for the demon and labeled "non
ti scordar di me", "do not forget me," is from 1820, when Fuseli was eighty years old.
There is not always a demon, but there is often a pronounced tension to the act of
sleeping, even in the portrait I am showing, which has no supernatural content.
These difficulties are not insuperable—they do not even rule out an identification
for the demon, though they make that project less urgent. For social interpretation of the
demon leaves much of this body of work and even much of the Detroit picture in the
dark: what needs explaining is the social phenomenon of dream painting. Before we can
describe the social phenomenon, we have to know where it is to be located. All depends
on the place and mental state of the spectator: where is he or she, and: is he or she awake?
The sleeping body and the dimly lit interior, furniture, and drapery are consistent with the
experience of an exterior, waking spectator; but the demon must stand for the experience
of the sleeper.12 Is Fuseli proposing a split view, the body and room being real and seen
by a waking spectator, while the demon and horse are seen "from sleeper's-eye-view"?
painting of 1790 or early 1791. Gert Schiff, Johann Heinrich Fiissli 1741-1824. Oeuvre und Text/catalog, 2
vols. (Zurich: Verlag Berichthaus; Munchen: Prestel, 1974), I: 334-336, and Weinglass, Prints, no. 68.
The narrative ambiguity is nicely brought out by Franziska Lentzsch in Fuseli: The Wild Swiss, Exh. Cat.
Kunsthaus Zurich (Zurich: Scheidegger & Spiess, 2006), 201. There have been attempts to read the whole
painting realistically as folklore concerning witches or incubi, but this inconsistent with Fuseli's dismissive
2. Comedy
This would only raise new difficulties, for how can Fuseli indicate the split to a viewer
who is awake by default? Another possibility: the spectator sees a real scene at the
moment of falling asleep, and dreams the demon and horse in addition to a real view of
the room. Or the spectator is asleep and dreaming horse, demon, and sleeping woman in
toto.13 How do we choose a narrative stance?
This narrative uncertainty is partly responsible for the comic effect of the work,
grinning demon aside. There is indeed something ridiculous about painting dreams—as
the Surrealists discovered—but the difficulty is genuinely in the subject, and in the way it
has been formulated in Western psychology. Rene Descartes, famously doubtful of his
own wakeful state, compared dreams to "painted images.. .in the likeness of true things,"
intended to fool us.14 This presupposes a mimetic theory of both painting and mental
imagery. Since Fuseli the oil painter is only feebly an illusionist, his dreams are unlikely
to induce the right sort of doubt. But perhaps we can be more generous to Fuseli and also
grasp how painting could signify dreaming in the late eighteenth century by setting aside
the mimetic model. For there is more to dreams than an experience had while asleep; we
remember dreams, and tell them to others. What if we were to limit the analysis of
dreaming, discursively, to the recounting of a dream?15 Dreaming as narration could thus
statements concerning superstition. See Frayling, op. cit., and John F. Moffitt, "Malleus maleficarum: A
Literary Context for Fuseli's Nightmare," Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 132:115 (1990), 241-248.
Norman Malcolm, in "Dreaming and Skepticism," The Philosophical Review, Vol.65, No.l (Jan. 1956),
33-35, notes that in half-sleep what one perceives may be a mixture of real sensa and dream elements.
Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, translated by Donald A.
Cress, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998), 61. A criticism of Descartes' analogy to painting is found in Margaret
Macdonald, "Sleeping and Waking," Mind, Vol.62, No.246 (April 1953), 212.
"People who on waking tell us certain incidents (that they have been in such-and-such places, etc.). Then
we teach them the expression "I dreamt," which precedes the narrative. Afterwards I sometimes ask them
"did you dream anything last night?" and am answered yes or no, sometimes with an account of a dream,
sometimes not.. .Now must I make some assumption about whether people are deceived by their memories
or not; whether they really had these images while they slept, or whether it merely seems so to them on
2. Comedy
be linked to Fuseli's view of history painting as the art which "informs."16 This is in turn
consistent with the familiar eighteenth-century practice of framing conversations and
even art criticism as dreams, which is familiar from Diderot's Reve d'Alembert and even
his account of Fragonard's salon debut discussed in Chapter l. 17 A narrative approach to
dreams would have certain advantages: we would not be concerned with isolating motifs
and identifying their real-world referents, a move that for the historian is very uncertain,
but with how waking subjects describe dreams to each other. Such an interpretation
would handle dream painting rhetorically, according to narrative tropes deployed as an
ensemble. The master trope governing dream narrative, according to Descartes, is the
coherence principle: when experience is disjointed and contradictory, one is dreaming.18
The trouble with applying the principle to Fuseli is the very general problem of
painting narrative. As Lessing showed in his influential proto-modernist treatise Laokoon
(1766), painting flattens temporality into one pregnant moment. One can even classify
narrative according to the relation of its objects in space and time:
Objects that exist near one another or whose parts do so are called bodies.
Therefore, bodies with their visible characteristics are the real objects of painting.
waking? And what meaning has this question? And what interest?" Ludwig Wittgenstein, Logical
Investigations, translated by G.E.M. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1953), 184.
"Imitative art, is either epic or sublime, dramatic or impassioned, historic or circumscribed by truth. The
first astonishes, the second moves, the third informs." Knowles, III: 74. The same definition is given in
Fuseli's 3rd Lecture on Painting, delivered March 1801. See Knowles II: 157/ Bungarten I: 97.
One interesting feature of this literature, which will prove relevant to Fuseli, is the confusion of dream
protagonists with the dreamer. In the Reve d'Alembert, for instance, Julie de Lespinasse replies at some
point to the question "Est-ce vouz qui parlez?" with "Non, c'est le reveur." See "Le reve d'Alembert,"
Oeuvres completes de Diderot, ed. Assezat Tourneux (Paris: Gamier Freres, 1875), II: 122-181.
"Dreams are never joined by the memory with all the other actions of life, as is the case with those
actions that occur when one is awake." "Sixth Meditation," in Descartes, 103. Compare Darwin on the
content of The Nightmare's nightmare: "—The shrieks of captur'd towns, and widow's tears, / Pale lovers
stretch'd upon their blood-stain'd biers, / The headlong precipice that thwarts her flight, / The trackless
desert, the cold starless night, / And stern-eye'd Murderer with his knife behind, / In dread succession
agonize her mind." The Botanic Garden, 2 vols. (New York: T. and J. Swords, 1798), II: 71. My italics.
2. Comedy
Objects that follow one another or whose parts do so are called actions in general.
Therefore, actions are the real object of poetry.19
The trouble with painting dreams, then, is that we have to judge the coherence, or lack
thereof, of a painting in the blink of an eye. Fuseli had heard of Lessing's book as early
as 1766, the year of its publication; by the 1790s he fully if cautiously digested Lessing's
claims, and in his Royal Academy lectures of the next century he insists with great
emphasis on the succession of poetry as opposed to the simultaneity of art.20 I suggest
Fuseli came to terms with Laokoon around the time he painted The Nightmare: their
problems are alike. Fuseli, like Lessing, was not interested only in limits but in how
artists get around them: his problem lay with the need to represent a complex action in
painting. In The Nightmare, the problem is to show the bad dream and the physical state
of the dreamer at once, in a work coherent and incoherent in the right places.
Dreaming in Public: Lady Hamilton's Attitudes
For a clue to how the discontinuity of dream experience might be reproduced in public
performance, I turn to a practice roughly contemporary with Fuseli's, the Attitudes of
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Laokoon, section xvi, my translation from Lessings Werke, ed. Gerhard
Stenzel (Stuttgart: Deutscher Bucherband, 1953), 621. For compactness I eliminate a paragraph break. The
German text reads: "Gegenstande, die nebeneinander oder deren Teile nebeneinander existieren, heipen
Korper. Folglich sind Korper mit ihren sichtbaren Eigenschaften die eigentlichen Gegenstande der Malerei.
Gegenstande, die aufeinander oder deren Teile aufeinander folgen, heipen uberhaupt Handlungen.
Folglich sind Handlungen der eigentliche Gegenstand der Poesie." Lessing is not dogmatic: he proceeds to
say bodies exist in time as well as space, and that actions can be indirectly represented through bodies.
In the letter to Lavater from Lyon, dated June 25 th , 1766, Fuseli writes: "Lessings Grenzen kenne ich
nicht und Thomas nicht, und wenn ich ihn kennte, so wurde ich doch nicht rezensieren." Muschg, 135.
Eudo Mason (203) thought this letter constituted a refusal on Fuseli's part to review Lessing, perhaps
owing to Lessing's critique of Bodmer and Klopstock. But it should be clear from Fuseli's adjective "ihn"
that he has no interest in reviewing Thomas, not the Grenzen. Nor am I convinced that Fuseli had "still
evidently not looked at the Laocoon" in 1788, when he wrote in the Analytical Review that "the excellence
of pictures or of language consists in...turning readers into spectators" (Mason, 204). In this text Fuseli is
trying to sketch a general imaginative function for the arts, which is why he neglects Lessing's limits.
2. Comedy
Emma Hamilton. Goethe's letter from Naples of March 1787, published in his Italian
Journey, raises the relevant issues about this phenomenon:
The knight Hamilton.. .has found after so much passion for art and study of nature
the peak of all nature and art in a pretty girl. He has her with him, an Englishgirl
of perhaps twenty. She is very pretty and well built. He has had a Greek gown
made for her, which suits her finely, and she looses her hair, takes a pair of
shawls, and makes such an alternation of stance, gesture, and countenance, that
one finally thinks one is dreaming. One sees what so many thousands of artists
would gladly have made, here fully formed in movement and surprising alternation. Standing, kneeling, sitting, reclining, serious, sad, coy, debauched,
repentant, alluring, threatening, fearful, etc., one follows after the other and out of
the other. For each expression she knows how to choose—to change—the folds of
the veil, and makes herself a hundred kinds of headgear out of the same rags. The
old knight holds the light and has abandoned his whole soul to this thing. He finds
in her all antiques, all beautiful profiles from Sicilian coins, even the Belvedere
Apollo itself.21
One significant aspect of Goethe's account, confirmed by a number of spectators, is the
dynamic nature of the performance, the fact that each role was embodied through motion.
This bears emphasizing, because visually the Attitudes are best known through Frederick
Rehberg's 1795 portfolio of line engravings, which navigate the aesthetic space between
Flaxmanian sparseness and the full-bodied heroines of Angelika Kauffmann. Rehberg is
largely responsible for the consensus that the Attitudes are tableaux vivants, a static mode
of female display for male delectation.22 One gets a more contradictory impression from
Rehberg'S preparatory study (FIG.2.9), which hints at the extremes of emotional
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italienische Reise, ed. Herbert von Einem (Miinchen: DTV, 1981), 208209. The letter is dated March 16th, 1787. The term I give as 'Alternation' is Abwechslung, which, unlike
the more literary Verwandlung (transformation, as in Kafka), implies abrupt change: one usage, zur
Abwechslung, is equivalent to the English phrase "for a change." Cf. J. W. von Goethe, Italian Journey,
translated by Robert R. Heitner (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 170-171.
A reductive analysis is advanced in the otherwise important essay by Ann Bermingham, "The Aesthetics
of Ignorance: The Accomplished Woman in the Culture of Connoisseurship," esp. 15-20. Bermingham
draws on Laura Mulvey's film analyses, which is interesting, since Mulvey in "Visual Pleasure and the
Narrative Cinema" deals with films in which the body of Marlene Dietrich is statically posed. For a
trenchant critique of Mulvey's theory, see Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror: The Female Voice in
Psychoanalysis and Cinema (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988), Ch. 1.
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projection discussed by Goethe.23 My observations will be limited to this and a few other
drawings of Hamilton, not because her reception in painting is insignificant, but because I
think the drawings best encapsulate the tension between a temporal medium like the
Attitudes and its survival as an image.24 In Rehberg's preparatory study we are struck by
Lessing's problem: the draftsman renders a succession of Attitudes by a multiplication of
bodies, the leftmost two of which stare at each other like jamb sculptures on a Gothic
church. To the right, a third incarnation of Emma Hamilton, shawl wrapped around her
head in a turban, gestures confidently, as if worlds away from (or merely watching) her
more dramatic apparitions. The effect is both comical and otherworldly. Time is not so
much suggested by the multiplicity of figures as frozen in a multiplicity of bodies.
The same effect is produced, rather more subtly, in a sheet of Attitude drawings
by the Venetian neoclassicist Pietro Antonio Novelli (FIG.2.10), who arranges a series of
Hamilton bodies in diminutive rows, like frames on a roll of film. One gets the sense of
the ephemeral progression here, but at the cost of losing a sense for identifiable postures:
the kneeling figures in the top row might be stages of one penitent attitude, but what of
the lounging figure which appears three times in the lower register? Is she first desperate
and beseeching and then dissolute, or are apparent differences only facets of one complex
gesture?25 In this carefully calibrated paraphrase of an experience of seeing Hamilton
perform, we miss the crispness of Goethe's retrospective enumeration. But the drawing,
Hamilton called this her "Majesty and Juno look" in a letter of 18th January, 1787. See Alfred Morrison,
ed. The Collection of Autograph Letters and Historical Documents (second series: 1882-1893) formed by
Alfred Morrison. Vol.4: The Hamilton & Nelson Papers (London: privately printed, 1893-1894), 163.
Ulrike Ittershagen's Lady Hamiltons Attitiiden (Mainz: von Zabern, 1999), 114-234, is a valiant reading
of the vast corpus of paintings after Emma Hamilton as Attitiidenbildnisse, or attitude-pictures. Most of this
work, with a few exceptions by Lawrence and Romney, suffers the same limitations as Rehberg's prints.
Novelli's sheet bears faint inky fingerprints, which may indicate he was working quickly from life.
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like Rehberg's, possesses a hallucinatory consistency of its own in its repetitiousness, as
if the only way time could enter drawing were by a replication of bodies.
Though the drawings of Lady Hamilton's Attitudes are consistent with each other,
and in some way confirm Goethe's narrative, they are hardly self-explanatory. Nor am I
proposing that we take either these drawings or Goethe's narrative, at face value. These
are subjective documents, almost necessarily so, since they retrospect from a very short
original performance.26 One might call them so many retellings of a story, or of a dream.
To repeat Goethe's sentence: "she makes such an alternation of stance, gesture, and
countenance, that one finally thinks one is dreaming."27 Why does Goethe appeal to the
trope of dreaming? Is this the coherence principle at work, the way Hamilton shifts from
Mary Magdalen to Bacchante, from cringing Niobe to raging Medea?28 Perhaps, but we
still need to decide whether Goethe really suggests an experience of dreaming, or is
merely offering conventional praise. I think we can exclude the latter on the basis of a
statement of Goethe's friend Herder, who disliked Hamilton with a passion. Writing a
year after Goethe, Herder complains of the Attitudes: "when everything was over, I was
quite dismayed about her, since she had so violently awakened me from my dream."29
Goethe and Herder both cite dreaming in describing Emma Hamilton, one admiringly,
"Each representation lasts about ten minutes." Melesina Chenevix St. George Trench, "Diary of Oct. 7th,
1800," The Remains of the Late Mrs. Richard Trench, Being Selections from Her Journals, Letters, and
Other Papers, ed. Richard Chenevix Trench (London: Parker, son & Bourn, 1862), 108. Each performance
contained ten to sixteen characters, so poses were held less than a minute, permitting only schematic
delineation by even a fast draftsman. The "going back to" or "going over" is of interest.
Compare George Romney's biographer: "Her peculiar force and variations of feeling, countenance, and
gesture, inspirited and ennobled the production of his art." William Hayley, The Life of George Romney
(London: T. Payne, 1809), 118. Hayley could not have known Goethe's text, first published in 1817.
Cf. Fuseli on Ariel stirring up a storm in The Tempest "The circumstances in this description are brought
together in a manner so unexpected; they crowd on each other with such force and rapidity, that our spirits
are in one continued hurry of surprise. This impetuosity gives way by degrees to a more regular climax: we
set out with surprise; we end in wonder." "On the Nature and Effect of Imagery in Poetical Composition,"
The Universal Museum and Complete Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure, Dec. 1768, 630. BL P.P.5440.
2. Comedy
one with alarm, and we might articulate their difference by saying that nightmares at their
most ferocious are dreams with the power to wake one up.
We are approaching an awareness of what Fuseli and Hamilton have in common.
Indeed, it is more than a rhetorical appeal to dreaming. At the beginning of the 1780s,
before her meteoric entry into society as an artist's model for George Romney, the young
woman then calling herself Emma Hart (she was born Emily Lyon) entered the public eye
in anonymous but conspicuous fashion. Thomas Pettigrew, biographer and hagiographer
of British naval hero Horatio Nelson, who was later Emma Hamilton's lover, writes:
Threatened to be ejected from her lodgings by her landlord, she was induced by
an empiric of great notoriety, a Dr. Graham, then delivering lectures in the
Adelphi, to exhibit herself under his auspices as a perfect model of health and
beauty. Her appearance at the meetings of the quack doubtless led to the
admiration of her form by artists, and thus their attention was directed toward her
as a model for their works. From the altar of the 'Goddess of Health' the
transition to the studio of the painter was easy.31
Since the mid-nineteenth century, when Pettigrew published his biography, historians
have disagreed over the likelihood of the involvement with James Graham.32 For our
purposes we need only note that the story circulated in Hamilton's lifetime, and that, in
Herders Reise nach Italien, ed. Albert Meier and Heide Holmer (Munchen, 1988), 361. My translation.
The opposite function has also been imputed to dreams: to "guard sleep" (Macdonald, 214). Darwin
writes: "In vain she wills to run, fly, swim, walk, creep; / The Will presides not in bower of SLEEP." (II: 72)
Ittershagen, op.cit., argues convincingly that Herder found the performance too jarring and discontinuous.
Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, Memoirs of the Life of Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, 2 vols. (London:
T. and W. Boone, 1848-1849), II: 596.
Roy Porter, the authority on Dr. Graham and eighteenth-century medicine, is skeptical of the connection.
Hamilton's biographers cautiously allow for it: see Sichel, 478, and John C. Jeaffreson, Lady Hamilton and
Lord Nelson, 2 vols. (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1888), I: 28-40. The latter adduces the reference to a
mysterious "G" in a letter to Emma of Jan. 1782 (Jeaffreson, 40). The connection was first suggested in a
scurrilous biography published the year of Hamilton's death, Memoirs of Emma Lady Hamilton (London:
Henry Colburn, 1815). On Graham's world, see Roy Porter, Health for Sale: Quackery in England 16601850 (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989), which rehabilitates quackery as, roughly, alternative medicine,
and Graham as an eugenicist with fresh ideas about sex and exercise. There is a new popular biography by
Lydia Syson, Doctor of Love: James Graham and His Celestial Bed (Richmond, UK: Alma Books, 2008).
2. Comedy
Pettigrew's formulation, it posits Graham's fairground attraction, halfway between
futuristic medicine and neoclassical farce, as her entry into the world of painting.33
How might Dr. Graham have employed the young Emma Hart? The standard
account is that as Hebe, the 'Goddess of Health,' she stood on a podium in antique
costume, feeding or pretending to feed snakes out of a goblet while Graham harangued
the public. Her physical and theatrical accomplishments were inseparable from the selling
of Graham's products: mud baths, aromatic lotions, and electrical treatment of illnesses
ranging from cancer to impotence.34 Hart's performance served as the visible medium
between the public cures of the quack and the private afflictions of his spectator-patients.
Among Graham's attractions at the end of 1780, when he hired Emily Lyon, was
an ornate Celestial Bed (FIG.2.11), which exposed reposing couples to static electricity in
hopes of enhancing fertility.35 Graham charged £50 for a night spent in the bed, a striking
sum considering that a middle income in London at that time might have been £200
Pettigrew, 596, continues: "Romney, the Royal Academician, equally fascinated by the powers of her
mind and the symmetry of her form, selected her as the subject of many of his most esteemed paintings." A
benefit of this story is that it detaches Emma's modeling work from the supposed guidance of Charles
Greville, a collector and opportunist who took her as his mistress in 1783 and shipped her to Naples in
1786. See Betsy Bolton, "Sensibility and Speculation," in Lewd & Notorious: Female Transgression in the
Eighteenth Century, ed. Katharine Kittredge (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003), 133-161.
Graham, A Sketch of Short Description of Dr. Graham's Medical Apparatus (Mr. Almon, Piccadilly, etc.,
1780), praises his electrical contrivances and three main pharmaceutical products, Electrical Ether, Nervous
/Etherial Balsam, and Imperial Pills. Little is said at this stage about the Celestial Bed: "To the right of the
orchestra, in the front of the house, is a spacious and delightful room, in which among other parts of the
apparatus here fitted up, is a completely insulated magnetico-electrical bed—the first and only one that now
is or ever was in the world." (47) British Library, T.821.(6.) Graham had not yet hit on the name, from
Hamlet (55-56: "So lust, though to a radiant angel link'd / Will sate itself in a celestial bed...").
A Lecture on the Generation, Increase and Improvement of the Human Species (London: M. Smith, 1780
or 1781) introduces the Celestial Bed in the context of Graham's doctrine of the healthfulness of sex: "This
curious, most eccentric, and most cordially concentric lecture is begun with enumerating the safest and
most efficacious ways and means of producing a Numerous, a Healthy, a Beautiful, and a Virtuous
offspring, and is closed with a glowing brilliant, and supremely delightful description of the structure, and
most irresistibly genial influences of the Celestial bed." British Library, 775.f.35.
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yearly.36 Did the Celestial Bed need advertisement? If so, one can assume that Graham
would have dispatched his Goddess of Health to pose in situ, as her later avatars were to
do in mud baths and other colorful panaceas. A performance in the Celestial Bed had to
convey fertilization: with our without oblique references to the generally beneficent
health effects of sex, preached actively by Graham in this period.37 There is at least one
tantalizing shred of evidence that Emma Hart performed in a manner continuous with her
later Attitudes. An advertisement of Graham's of 1782 or 1783 contains this barrage:
All the different Periods of Human Life, in Persons and
Personages, Male, Female, and Demi-Charactere ;
And in Praise of the Genial and Prolific Influences of the
B E D !
As Delivered by HEBE
The Rosy Goddess of Youth and of Health!38
The Temple of Health was a destination for the avant-garde, who relished being affronted
and bored by the proceedings.39 Fuseli might have enjoyed this bastard mixture of the
painterly and clinical, during this period of the inception of The Nightmare, and in a
period of close contact with Romney, who befriended Emma Hart at this time. A drawing
of Emma by Fuseli does survive which could plausibly be dated to this earliest period of
In March 1785, Greville writes to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, that he could "secure on her [Emma]
near £100 a year" (quoted in Sichel, 81). After the marriage, Emma's mother got an allowance of £200.
Roy Porter, "Sex and the singular man: the seminal ideas of James Graham," SVEC, vol. 228 (Oxford:
Voltaire Foundation, 1984), 1-24. The raised knee in the 1790 Nightmare has been linked to fertilization.
James Johnston Abraham, Lettsom: His Life, Times, Friends and Descendants (London: Heinemann,
1933), 168. Sichel (478) and others argue Emma played Hymen, not Hebe Vestina, a personage introduced
by Graham only after his move to Pall Mall in 1783. This is disproved by a notice in the Gazetteer and New
New Advertiser in 1780: "VESTINA, the ROSY GODDESS of HEALTH! Presides at the Evening Lecture,
at the Temple of Health, Adelphi, assisting at the display of the Celestial Meteors, and of that sacred vital
fire over which she watches, and whose application, in the cure of diseases, she daily has the honour of
directing." N. O. Scarpi, "Emma Lyon en dokter Graham," in CIBA-Symposium, Vol.11, No.l (1963), 46.
According to Walpole, the Temple of Health was "the most impudent puppet-show of imposition I ever
saw, and the mountebank himself the dullest of his profession..." Correspondence, vol. 33, 217.
2. Comedy
her public activity (FIG. 2.12).40 Indeed, one might argue that the unveiling gesture of the
mysterious three-quarter length female portrait pasted to the back of the Detroit canvas
(FIG. 2.13), the curious way this figure handles her hair and shawl, has much in common
with Hamilton's technique.41 But we need not imagine, in new historicist fashion, an
encounter between Hart, Fuseli, and Graham. What is more interesting is the structural
analogy between Hart and Fuseli's modes of operation around this time. Both perform
dreaming as something beyond physical sleep: through corporeal motion both artists
• •
suggest to the spectator a visionary experience.
If anything, Hart's procedure is more radical. The logic which confirms separately
painted dream imagery in the body of Fuseli's sleeping woman, produces the whole
effect in Hamilton. From some movements and arrangements of shawl and hair spectators
imagine a gallery of antique heroes. The multiplication of bodies by which Hamilton's
draftsmen try to chart her transformation points to its mechanism, in failing to simulate it.
This tendency becomes the explicit subject of drawing in a work by William Lock, a
friend and perhaps pupil of Fuseli's (FIG.2.14). Whether two women danced the tarantella
or one alone, this drawing replicates gestures, bodies and identities altogether—
producing for us a pair of dancing Emma Hamiltons.43 It has been suggested that one of
A fine portrait drawing by Fuseli, labeled "Lady Hamilton" in another hand (Schiff, I: 510, no. 857),
dates from her early career, "between 1782 and 1786," according to Geoffrey Grigson, "Painters of the
Abyss," The Architectural Review, vol. 108, (Oct. 1950), 67. It belongs near the beginning of the interval:
there is a drawing in Fuseli's Roman notebook which Schiff thinks must be Martha Hess, but represents the
same sitter as the "Hamilton" drawing (Schiff, I: 468, no.573; p.77v Kunsthaus ZUrich Inv.No. 1941/254).
The notebook contains among other things a London skyline clearly drawn after the return to England.
Horst Janson, in "Fuseli's Nightmare," 16 Studies (New York: Abrams, 1974), 77-88 (originally Arts and
Sciences Vol.2, N o . l , Spring 1963,23-8), argues that the woman is Anna Landolt, whom Fuseli had
courted in Zurich on his return from Italy, and of whom he had an erotic dream on his return to London,
which he recounted to Lavater in a letter of June 1779 (see Muschg, 191-192).
For Fuseli discussion of the "visionary" in ancient art theory, see Knowles, II: 143 / Bungarten, I: 88-9.
The tarantella is both a Neapolitan courtly dance and a peasant dance associated with the tarantula. See
Renato Penna, La Tarantella Napoletana (Naples: Rivista de Etnografia, 1963). Lady Malmesbury saw
2. Comedy
the two women is a servant who assisted Hamilton in the dance: but the suggestion is
feeble, not only because written accounts of her dancing omit this servant, but because by
far the more compelling dancing figure is the short one with a ribbon around her neck—
so if the drawing represents Lady Hamilton and her servant, then the rather more passive
woman must represent the famously tall Lady Hamilton, and the putative subject
collapses entirely. And so, whatever the facts about whether Hamilton danced alone or
with a partner, we must read the drawing as a doubling of the Attitude-maker, a
conclusion supported by the motto printed with the stipple engraving made after Lock's
drawing: "Grace is in all their steps, etc."44 The quote is approximately from John Milton.
In Book VIII of Paradise Lost (1665), the freshly created Eve is introduced with the
words: "Grace was in all her steps, Heaven in her Eye."45 The odd plural form can be
found in a 1774 Westminster Magazine article in praise of country ladies: "Grace is in all
their steps, Heaven in their eyes."46 In Lock's drawing, or rather in its public presentation
as an engraving, we are confronted with two Eves, self-creating, or rather self-loving. As
in the Rehberg and Novelli drawings, a visionary doubling of bodies is tied to bodily
performance. What is new in Lock's image, and particularly relevant to The Nightmare,
is that the bodies are placed in an erotic relationship, a visualization of self-eroticism.
To generalize, the visionary effect produced by a performance, though ephemeral,
survives in afterimages: the imaginative doubling of bodies is witnessed in drawings and
Hamilton dance the Tarantella in 1792; she makes no mention of a partner. Life and Letters of Sir Gilbert
Elliot, First Earl ofMinto,from 1751 to 1806, 3 vols. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1874), 1:406.
The print is reproduced with this caption in Walter Sichel, Emma Lady Hamilton: From New and
Original Sources and Documents (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1906), opposite page 109.
Book VIII, line 488. See John Milton, Paradise Lost and Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Northrop Frye
(New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1951), 191.
"Pictures of the Times," Westminster Magazine, May 1774, 236.
2. Comedy
written accounts of the performance. What implications does this have for oil painting?
We return to The Nightmare in a better position to see what is peculiar about Fuseli's
demon: he gestures for our attention, but remains curiously detached from his supposed
victim. For all his threatening volume and shadow, he is oddly detached from his victim,
his body as weightless as vapor—though he sits on her, she can arch her back and heave
her chest. He does not fit the dream experience of weight, oppression, suffocation: this in
spite of physiological explanations of the painting as illustrating sleep paralysis. Even in
such physiological accounts, the demon is an inference on the spectator's part regarding
the sleeper's dream, which the spectator cannot experience. This is true also of readings
of the demon as an aggressive male gaze deployed against a passive female object: the
demon's inaction delegates aggression to the spectator. The demon is in any case the
sleeper's private experience recounted by a viewer. This conjectural quality is brought
out in the sketchy physiognomy of the Frankfurt demon.
If this sounds obscure, it is perhaps only because it stands apart from the reading
of emotion popularized by Charles Le Brun's Expression of the passions, a text with a
bright career in history painting, and an even brighter one in recent art histoiy.47 In this
materialist model, facial muscles respond to the supposed movement of pineal fluid. But
materialist philosophy in the late eighteenth century could move on to less reductive
models of bodily feedback, with space carved out for aesthetic experience. Notable is
Herder's theory of sensation, which regards the senses as delegates of one another.48
The classic discussion is Norman Bryson, Word and Image: French Painting of the Ancien Regime
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), ch.2.
Johann Gottfried Herder, Plastik. Einige Wahrnehmungen iiber Form und Gestalt aus Pygmalions
bildendem Traume (Riga, 1778, written 1770), in Herders samtliche Werke, vol.8, ed. Bernhard L. Suphan
(Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1967). I do not want to suggest that Herder is original: he owes something to
2. Comedy
Vision is thus related to touch: "the eye steps into the fingertips."49 It is a two-way street,
with imagination imparting sensations like color and warmth to a piece of textured
marble. Interpolation is done by a living, breathing spectator with fantasies and desires
accessible by the artwork. Exemplary to this model is Herder's treatment of the Borghese
Hermaphrodite (FIG.2.23), an antique that artfully combines sleep, femininity, and penis:
Whoever stood before the famous Hermaphrodite and didn't feel in every bend
and curve of the body, in touching everything and remaining untouched [dispassionate - nicht beruhret], that Bacchic dream and hermaphroditism are the ruling
forces, that he hung on the tenterhook [Folter] of sweet thoughts and lust, pushing
through his body like a mild fire—whoever didn't feel this and did not discover in
himself the involuntary resonance of these struck chords; to him neither my words
nor any other can explain it.50
It is worth remarking that Herder's aesthetics does not presuppose the gender of the
spectator. Moreover, should the reader discover that she does not react to the artwork in
Herder's manner, the author makes no attempt to compel this response—incorrigibility of
individual taste is consistent with the incorrigibility of individual cultures that Herder
would propose in the Ideas. Herder's aesthetic theory of private experience is important
because it gives us a sense of the response to The Nightmare, the Attitudes, and the
Celestial Bed which otherwise prove puzzling to the historian. It is significant that the
experience can only be evoked, not paraphrased according to ekphrastic models that still
dominate eighteenth-century studies. But the puzzle is not quite resolved by Herder's
Burke's physiological aesthetics (A Philosophical Enquiry, 1757) and to Condillac's statue endowed with
touch, which makes possible knowledge of external objects, and desire (Traite des sensations, 1754).
"Das Auge tritt in die Spitzen der Finger: wir vergessen die kalte Oberflache, als obs Malerei ware: wir
sehen nicht, wir fuhlen die zarte Haut, das runde Knie, die sanfte Wange, die schone Brust, die weiche
Hiifte." Herder, VIII: 88. Herder's list of pleasant sensations—soft, round, smooth—is close to Burke's. On
the "eye in the fingertips," compare Milton: ".. .Why was the sight / To such a tender ball as th' eye
confined, / So obvious and so easy to be quenched, / And not, as feeling, through all parts diffused, / That
she might look at will through every pore?" {Samson Agonistes, 93-97, p.378 in Frye). What Milton asks
rhetorically, Herder makes a presupposition. But sculpture is not thus for Herder "unmediated experience."
Cf. Alex Potts, "Male Phantasy and Modern Sculpture," Oxford Art Journal, Vol.15, No.2, (1992), 40.
Herder, 60.
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treatment of aesthetic desire. For one thing, through the title of the work, Herder selfconsciously presents his experience as spectator within the context of "Pygmalion's
creative dream."51 So there is an ambiguity between the private work of the spectator
responding to the performance and the public work of the artist, who anticipates those
private effects of the work. This remains mysterious in Herder, but we must penetrate the
mystery if we are to see how private experience can be shared at all.
The Theory of Sympathy
In expounding the culture of bodily imagination in the eighteenth century, it is best to
begin with an example that demonstrates the phenomenon as clearly as possible, while
maintaining conceptual links to The Nightmare and Hamilton's Attitudes. I have in mind
a remarkable drawing of Laocoon (FIG.2.15) dating sometime around Fuseli's first set of
Royal Academy lecture in 1801, rather than to his stay in Rome during the 1770s, when
he first saw the work.52 Like memory, this is a highly selective document. In an angular
pen rhythm, Fuseli dispenses with children, snakes, and much of Laocoon's head. The
focus is on the statue's twisting midsection; its torsion is echoed in the robust body of a
The title of the book might be literally rendered as Perceptions on Form and Likeness from Pygmalion's
Instructive Dream. There is an English version by Jason Gaiger, called Sculpture: Some Observations on
Shape and Form from Pygmalion's Creative Dream (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
There is a watermark on the paper: S & D 1801" Schiff, I: 547. Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, in "Nudity a la
grecque in 1799," Art Bulletin, Vol.80, No.2 (June 1998), 328, seems to suggest that Fuseli saw the statue
again on his trip to Paris in 1802—certainly a possibility, though it is not mentioned in his letters or by
Knowles. On the other hand, the relevant passage in Fuseli's first Royal Academy lecture is suggestive:
".. .though poised by the artist, for us to apply the compass to the face of the Laocoon, is to measure the
wave fluctuating in the storm: this tempestuous front, this contracted nose, the immersion of these eyes, and
above all, that long-drawn mouth, are separate and united, seats of convulsion, features of nature struggling
within the jaws of death." (Knowles, II: 72 / Bungarten, I: 54). Fuseli precedes this account with a criticism
of the "frigid ecstasies" of German critics, who read into the statue's facial expression everything from a
groan of pity to the effect of snake venom; this is a criticism of Le Brunian 'passions.' Cf. Hermann, Die
naturliche Ursprache in der Kunst, 68-69. For a good recent survey of the Laocoon controversy, see
Richard Brilliant, My Laocoon (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 2000).
2. Comedy
modern woman. She steps forward, or perhaps backward, her right foot braced, her fists
clenched as if enacting the struggle with the serpents. Her gaze fixed on the statue group,
her proximity which does not quite penetrate into the space of the statue, suggest she is a
spectator: and not a spectator posing statically in a tableau vivant. This would only be a
way to look like the Laocoon. Nor is it a matter of discerning motivation: the practice
recounted by Edmund Burke of the antiquarian Spon of imitating facial expressions to
determine what the imitated person was thinking. 53 For even if this would work, the
thought process of Laocoon is not illuminated in the drawn figure of the woman moving
after him. What this drawn spectator pursues is feeling: emotion and sensation as they
meet in the visceral syntax of pumping blood and straining limbs. Empathy here is both
subjective and pragmatically embodied. It is only visual in a narrative capacity, as a story
about experience. As the Attitudes show, such experience can only be had by doing.
On the reverse of the sheet Fuseli presents a second configuration of Laocoon and
female spectator (FIG.2.16).54 The woman's circular motion here is no longer directly
mimetic. The turned neck, propped left hand, probing right hand, flaring skirt and faint
right foot balanced on its toes: all these transpose Laocoon's struggle into dance. Death
becomes a deceptively buoyant motion. The woman's bare breasts (in both drawings)
transform her body from that of an empirical spectator to an ideal re-enactor. 55 The verso
and recto of this experiment—for it is no preparatory study for a painting—can be seen as
free performances of the Lady Hamilton type. It is even plausible, though we have no
Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful
[1757], ed. Adam Phillips (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 120-121 (Part 4 sec. IV).
Schiff lists this drawing first in the catalogue, presumably because the Laocoon figure is more detailed.
The bare breasts are an obstacle also to Grigsby's suggestion that Fuseli recorded a French spectator of
Laocoon c. 1801.1 have as yet no convincing explanation, in part because the motif recurs in Fuseli.
2. Comedy
record of Lady Hamilton performing Laocoon, that Fuseli drew an imaginary Attitude
together with its referent.56
It is entirely consistent with Fuseli's emphases that the indeterminately sketched
sculpture-group, and not the concretely delineated figure of the modern woman, should
be regarded as the visionary projection. But with speculation about the relation between
Laocoon and the woman, our interpretive difficulties begin, and they strikingly mirror our
uncertainties concerning The Nightmare and Herder's account of empathy. Is the woman
dancing before the 'real' Laocoon, or is she remembering it? Is she dreaming or acting an
imaginary Laocoon in a far-away salon? All are equally plausible readings, since the two
drawings cannot decide between different truth statuses of mental and sensory imagery,
nor between temporal sequences that are presented on paper as simultaneous. We cannot
complete this reading then without specifying a theory for how the reading is to be done.
The eighteenth-century word for the family of phenomena that I have already
somewhat loosely called empathy, identification, and interiorization, is sympathy. The
term, understood psychologically rather than purely emotionally, was more common in
eighteenth-century English than it is today; we see it is employed frequently by Fuseli in
the Lectures and Aphorisms. For instance, he opposes "warm sympathy" to "cold
admiration" as results of good works of art (Knowles, II: 62); insists that the work of
turning admiration to sympathy "makes us partners of the feast" (Knowles III: 15); more
opaquely, perhaps, we learn that "sympathy and disgust are the lines that separate terror
from horror" (Knowles III: 89); and most decisively for the public force of the word, he
claims that sympathetic subjects "speak their meaning with equal evidences to the scholar
Of these drawing, one critic remarks: "What the ancient Greeks had articulated as the ideal of humanity
is reduced to a performing cipher." Christian Klemm, "The Principles of Fuseli's Art, or the Aesthetics of
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and the unlettered man" (Knowles III: 149). What exactly does he have in mind? Is there
one concept that does duty in all these contexts?
There is. Although sympathy had already been an issue for seventeenth-century
empiricism, and was of widespread interest in eighteenth-century Europe, from Lavater
to Marivaux, the best historical candidate for what Fuseli is describing is probably David
Hume's theory of sympathy.57 Fuseli had traveled with Hume to France in 1766; he
actually met Rousseau in Hume's company; and the theory became almost orthodox. I
will give a brief but I hope thorough exposition. In the second book of Hume's Treatise
of Human Nature (1741), dealing with "The Passions" a theory of sympathy is outlined
that was taken up by Burke and Herder, by Fuseli and the psychoanalytical tradition just
discussed.58 Hume introduces sympathy as an inescapably social passion:
No quality of human nature is more remarkable, both in itself and in its
consequences, than that propensity we have to sympathize with others, and to
receive by communication their inclinations and sentiments, however different
from, or even contrary to, our own...To this principle we ought to ascribe the
great uniformity we may observe in the humors and turn of thinking of those of
the same nation; and it is much more probably, that this resemblance arises from
sympathy, than from any influence of the soil and climate... 59
Remarkably, sympathy is defined as just that social bond responsible for the unity and
distinctness of cultures in a relativist perspective. But in the 'communication' of others'
sentiments, the mystery of subjectivity being publicly shared remains. Hume explains this
by the movement of ideas, and the conversion of idea to affect:
the Stroke of Genius," in Lentzsch, ed., 98. This observation could equally well apply to the Attitudes.
Vogel, 68, briefly discusses Hume's Treatise with reference to Fuseli's representation of the passions.
Sympathy also appears elsewhere in Hume's works, notably in the "Essay on Tragedy" discussed in
Ch.l. I stick mainly with the treatment in the Treatise of Human Nature, and An Inquiry Concerning the
Principles of Morals, which are consistent with his usage elsewhere and more explicit as definitions.
David Hume, "Of the Passions," The Treatise of Human Nature, in The Collected Philosophical Works of
David Hume (Boston: Little, Brown, & Co., 1854), II: 52.1 have italicized the phrase that defines the term.
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...[W]hen we sympathize with the passions and sentiments of others, these
movements appear at first in our mind as mere ideas, and are conceived to belong
to another person, as we conceive any other matter of fact. It is also evident, that
the ideas of the affections of others are converted into the very impressions they
represent, and that the passions arise in conformity to the images we form of
them... In sympathy there is an evident conversion of an idea into an impression.60
That ideas are communicated verbally, visually, in writing, is not controversial. That the
ideas of others should give rise to the emotions of others in us might certainly explain the
intersubjectivity of performance. But is this not too intellectualist an account of the
dancing Laocoon woman? For she acts bodily to feel what Laocoon feels, rather than
inquiring after his ideas. One might counter that the idea of Laocoon is his suffering. But
we need not restrict ideas in an overly intellectual manner. Hume proposes to apply his
theory to "a general survey of the universe, and observe the force of sympathy through
the whole animal creation, and the easy communication of sentiments from one thinking
being to another."61 The prerequisite for sympathy is just consciousness. This is already
implicit in bodily consciousness, if the whole animal kingdom is to be included. We catch
sentiment, according to Hume, "by a contagion or natural sympathy," and the metaphor
of contagion is used repeatedly to convey the involuntary nature of the phenomenon.62
If sympathy as a relativist aesthetic in Herder's sense blurs gender distinctions, it
also blurs distinctions between sentient and insensible, animal and vegetal, organic and
manufactured, between art and life. Fuseli's Antique Fragments (FIG. 1.26) and George
Romney's rather preposterous Sensibility (FIG.2.17), which shows Emma communing
with a shrub mimosa, derive their force from the same ambiguity. There is an element of
Hume, II: 55, 56. Hume then analyzes various emotions, virtues, and even beauty in terms of sympathy.
Hume, II: 105.
Hume, "Of Qualities," An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals in Works, IV: 316. At IV:323,
"we suffer by contagion and sympathy"; at IV: 493, he speaks of "the irresistible contagion of opinion."
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the bathetic in these works—it resides in the hand on heart in the Romney and hand
cradling the head in the Fuseli. These are conventional displays of emotion, threadbare by
any standard. But the source of emotion is new and interesting. Not the official, intended
source, the abstractions Nature or Antiquity, but the concrete material bearers of this
meaning: the potted plant and the Roman Imperial fragments, which comically reduce the
ideal body to a metonym of gesturing hand and monstrous foot.63 In both works it is the
second hand, the hand stretching to the inanimate repository of emotion, which makes it a
repository of emotion. This is within the purview of sympathy, as Hume understood it.
Be that as it may, it is far more provocative for a woman to reenact Laocoon, for
gender relations are far more controversial than the relations between humans and plants.
And thinking in neopagan terms, the cultural sediment around the Trojan hero marks him
as a paternal civic martyr.64 A discussion of gender relations in the London public, Mary
Wollstonecraft's feminism and its impact on Fuseli, are necessary to discern the painter's
concern with female spectatorship.651 return to the fertile topic of Wollstonecraft and
Fuseli in Chapter 3. Here I prefer to dwell on shock implicit in the sympathetic act, a
shock that may put one to sleep, or wake one up, by jolting that "eye in the fingertips."
The same shock is implicit in Goethe's claim that Lady Hamilton stood for "the Apollo
For a different reading of this drawing, see Jonah Siegel, Desire and Excess: The Nineteenth
Culture of Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 28-30.
Fuseli thought the force of the Laocoon could not be made to depend on acquaintance with the Greek
story. "I am much mistaken, if, so far from losing its power over us with its traditional sanction, it would
not rouse our sympathy more forcibly, and press the subject closer to our breast, were it considered only as
the representation of an incident common to humanity." My emphasis, Knowles, II: 142 / Bungarten 88.
This direct appeal, bypassing narrative, is identified by Fuseli with Greek phantasias and Roman visiones.
Fuseli's relation to feminism is a difficult topic: one must consider the unreliable accounts of Fuseli's
friendship with Mary Wollstonecraft (Knowles, I: 161-170), and his obiter dicta on assertive women in the
style of Rousseau. Fuseli ironizes Rousseau's misogyny much as he does the theses on the immorality of
art. This is especially true of Aphorism 226: "In an age of luxury women have taste, decide, and dictate; for
in an age of luxury woman aspires to the functions of man, and man slides into the offices of woman. The
epoch of eunuchs was ever the epoch of viragoes." (Knowles, III: 144)
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Belvedere itself." The place of sympathy in painting and salon performance should not
surprise us in the 1780s and '90s, an era that saw Sarah Siddons and Jane Powell take the
role of Hamlet on the London stage.66 The range of imaginative identifications across
gender is contained in Horace Walpole's joke that "Sir William Hamilton has actually
married his gallery of statues."67 But the identifications are presented here as a joke, and
a spiteful one at that. It is one thing for Fuseli to make a woman act the Laocoon in a
drawing, apparently another thing entirely for Lady Hamilton to actually act it out—the
result in the second case is interpreted as a farce, a joke, a violation of standards that are
still in force.68 If the theory of sympathy is not sensitive to this limitation, it is not very
useful, or worse, it is a wishful fig leaf covering up real-world inequalities.69 But I do not
think this is the case. Hume himself is very aware of the limits of sympathy:
Sympathy, we shall allow, is much fainter than our concern for ourselves, and
sympathy with persons remote from us much fainter than that with persons near
and contiguous; but for this very reason, it is necessary for us, in our calm
judgments and discourse concerning the characters of men, to neglect all the
differences, and render our sentiments more public and social. Besides, that we
ourselves often change our situation in this particular, we every day meet with
persons who are in a situation different from us, and who could never converse
with us, were we to remain constantly in that position and point of view which is
peculiar to ourselves.70
See the first chapter of Tony Howard, Women as Hamlet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
2007), esp. 35-45; there is also an unpublished conference paper by Amy Muse, "Serious Travesty: The
Hamlets of Sarah Siddons and Jane Powell," given at the Southeastern American Society for EighteenthCentury Studies, March 5-7, 1998. Jane Powell was a close friend of Emma Hamilton, as shown by a letter
reproduced in Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, Memoirs of the Life of Viee-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, 2
vols. (London: T. and W. Boone, 1848-1849), II: 593-594. The two women apparently met shortly after
Hamilton's arrival in London (c.1780); both worked in the house of the surgeon Dr. Budd, in Blackfriars.
Horace Walpole, Correspondence,
ed. W.S. Lewis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), XI: 349.
"Indeed, the sight of a transvestite onstage can compel pleasure and applause while the sight of the same
transvestite on the seat next to us on the bus can compel fear, rage, even violence." Butler, 527.
This charge is leveled against it in Alasdair Maclntyre, After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 1984).
Hume, IV: 293.
2. Comedy
Sympathy cannot overcome egoism, or the communal egoism that is ethnocentrism. In
the passage in question, Hume is worried that our egoism or self-love, which like most
eighteenth century thinkers he considers the paramount human motive, is much stronger
than our social instincts. This may be overcome in society, when we are forced by many
strangers to act more or less impartially. But the puzzle persists, for how can we even
perceive these others and their needs, if we are forever fixated on that "position and point
of view which is peculiar to ourselves?"71 If sympathy with strangers is fainter than that
with those close to us, then sympathy with ourselves, self-love, is strongest of all. So
sympathy falls prey to solipsism. It will be difficult to ever be sure that we are in fact
sympathizing with others, since we are always be tempted to sympathize more strongly
with ourselves, even to sympathize with our own reaction to others' predicament.
There is thus a narrow line between sympathy and self-pity, and according to
Hume's theory that line cannot be determined sharply. This has interesting implications
for our aesthetic question. On one hand, it simplifies matters if the reception of the
Laocoon drawing, the Attitudes, and The Nightmare depend not at all on the experience
of the performer (or the drawn or painted subject) but only entirely on the spectator's
own subjective reaction. But this simplicity is deceptive: it will be impossible to fix the
spectatorial reaction, or to determine its significance (or its validity in case of conflicting
responses), if there is no inter subjective experience of sympathy between subjects, or
between artworks and subjects, but only solipsistic emotion in the spectator's head. For
sympathy to work at all, in Hume's terminology, there must be a transfer of impressions
and emotions. It has seemed, from the Laocoon drawing and Lady Hamilton's example,
Cf. John McDowell, "Knowledge and the Internal," Philosophy and Phenomenological
Vol.55, No.4 (Dec. 1995), 877-893.
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that the transfer should take place through bodily performance. But there is no way to
check that it has taken place: there is at most a harmony between the private experiences
of those undergoing sympathy, a coincidence of reveries. This is precisely how dreaming,
and by implication Fuseli's performance in The Nightmare, was understood by his friend
and collaborator Erasmus Darwin. In a dialogue between "Bookseller" and "Poet" in The
Loves of the Plants, the text where The Nightmare appears as a print and is glossed, the
question of dreaming and solipsism is raised in aesthetic terms. It bears quoting at length:
B:...Sir Joshua Reynolds...has asserted, in a discourse delivered to the Royal
Academy, December 11, 1786, that "the higher styles of painting, like the higher
kinds of the Drama, do not aim at any thing like deception; or have any
expectation that the spectators should think the events there represented as really
passing before them." And he then accuses Mr. Fielding of bad judgment, when he
attempts to compliment Mr. Garrick in one of his novels, by introducing an
ignorant man, mistaking the representation of a scene in Hamlet for a reality; and
thinks, because he was an ignorant man, he was less liable to make such a mistake.
P: It is a metaphysical question, and requires more attention than Sir Joshua has
bestowed upon it.—You will allow that we are perfectly deceived in our dreams:
and that even in our waking reveries, we are often so much absorbed in the
contemplation of what passes in our imaginations, that, for a while, we do not
attend to the lapse of time, or to our own locality; and thus suffer a similar kind of
deception, as in our dreams. That is, we believe things present before our eyes,
which are not so. There are two circumstances which contribute to this complete
deception in our dreams: First, because in sleep, the organs of sense are closed or
inert, and hence the trains of ideas associated in our imaginations are never
interrupted or dissevered by the irritations of external objects, and cannot,
therefore, be contrasted with our sensations...Secondly, because, in sleep, there is
a total suspension of our voluntary power ...Hence, as the trains of our ideas are
passing in our imaginations in dreams, we cannot compare them with our previous
knowledge of things, as we do in our waking hours; for this is a voluntary exertion,
and thus we cannot perceive their incongruity...
B: Now to apply.
P: When, by the art of the Painter or Poet, a train of ideas is suggested to our
imaginations, which interests us so much by the pain or pleasure it affords, that we
cease to attend to the irritations of common external objects, and cease also to use
any voluntary efforts to compare these interesting trains of ideas with our previous
knowledge of things, a complete reverie is produced: during which time, however
short, if it be but for a moment, the objects themselves appear to exist before us.72
Darwin, The Loves of the Plants, "Interlude I," 42-43.
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Compelling theatre, or painting, then, is for Darwin a form of sleep-walking. One
gains a conviction in the experience itself that is essential to sympathy: "be it but for a
moment, the objects themselves appear to exist before us." But in exchange one must
sacrifice all powers of comparison and rational discussion. On one hand, it simplifies
matters if the reception of the Laocoon drawings, the Attitudes, and The Nightmare do
not depend on the inaccessible experience of the performer but only on the spectator's
own subjective response. But this simplicity comes at a price: it becomes impossible to
discuss spectatorial response, or to arbitrate when responses conflict, if there is no
intersubjective experience of sympathy between subjects, or between works of art and
subjects, but only isolated emotion in the viewer's head. For sympathy to work, in
Hume's words, there must be contagion. It has seemed from the Laocoon drawings and
Hamilton's example that contagion could be just a bodily performance. But is there an
empirical audience that responds sympathetically? I would like to examine the question
by looking at some concrete historical reactions to the Attitudes and The Nightmare, and
then by inquiring what kind of audience in general these entail. After illuminating the
audience, we shall return to The Nightmare for a final close reading of its recalcitrant
content, the visualization of dream experience.
Sympathetic Spectators
In the preceding sections, we introduced the experience of relativist spectatorship as a
problematic public meeting of private differences; we drew attention to the privacy of
dreaming and its consequences for the ambiguity of narrative in The Nightmare', we
pointed out a public approach to dreaming in Lady Hamilton's Attitudes, and introduced
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a theory of sympathy that is supposed to mediate between private experiences in a way
relevant to both of these phenomena. But sympathy seemed to divide its spectators into
private microcosms: in the very act of being an audience, they ceased to be one audience.
Perhaps this is no problem, if we could simply say they became many audiences: but if
their experiences are entirely inaccessible, this is just empty talk. To get past the apparent
impossibility of a sympathetic audience, it seems necessary to confront the theory with
the actual 'empirical' audiences faced by Lady Hamilton and Fuseli.
Let us take them in that order. As Hamilton's act evolved through the 1790s,
small girls were often volunteered to collaborate in the more dramatic Attitudes. One
such collaborator, later moderately famous herself as the Countess de Boigne, gives this
account of Hamilton's audience:
One day she placed me on my knees before an urn, my hands joined in the posture
of prayer. Leaning over me, she seemed lost in her own despair, and both of us
were disheveled. All at once, raising herself and moving away slightly, she
grabbed me by the hair so brusquely, that I turned with surprise and even a bit of
fear, which made me enter into the spirit of my role, as she brandished a dagger.
The passionate applause of the artists viewing the performance could be heard
between exclamations of 'Bravo la Medea!' Then, pulling me to her, and clasping
me to her breast with an air of disputing heaven's fury, she tore from the same
spectators the cry of 'Viva la Niobe! "' 73
Goethe himself concluded the description of the Attitudes rather breathlessly: "So much
is certain, it's singular fun!"74 We do not need an elaborate theory of reception to see why
shouting out the name of a mythic Greek infanticide is fun. Surely, there is pleasure in the
opportunity to show off classical education—a distinctly classed, hierarchical pleasure
Charles Nicoullaud, ed. Recits d'une tante. Memoires de la Comtesse de Boigne nee d'Osmond,
d'apres le manuscrit original, 4 vols. (Paris: Plon-Nourrit et Cie., 1907), I: 115. My translation.
Goethe, 208. Spa/3 in German means "fun", not "entertainment" as in English translation cited in note 21.
2. Comedy
typical of the British Grand Tour culture of the eighteenth century.75 But that could not
fully explain Goethe. Anyone who has played charades is familiar with the compulsive
quality of the guessing game. The participant is active but all the same a kind of sounding
board for sensory stimuli, to which the intellectual resembles reflex action. Is it not a
brute version of Hume's account of sympathy?
The Tightness, perhaps even necessity, of audience interjection in the functioning
of the Attitudes can be illustrated by recourse to perhaps the most immediate drawings
registering the performance (FIG.2.18), found in the travel sketchbook of William Artaud,
an English history painter of Huguenot origins, who visited Rome and Naples in 1796.76
Artaud's rendering of Hamilton in mid-action exhibits the doubling with which we are
already familiar: at right she stands, arms spread threateningly, the right perhaps holding
a knife. This may be the Medea pose; the figure at left kneeling desperately could be
Niobe. And yet this identification is anything but firm. The kneeling body may be
antecedent to the standing body, in which case it could be Medea steeling herself for her
crime, or even a previous Attitude, perhaps Mary Magdalen. Or, if the standing shape is
Medea, the kneeling figure might not represent Emma Hamilton at all: this could be
Madame de Boigne, or another young girl drafted to play the victim. Comparing this
image with a far more legible representation of this whole range of roles, an etching after
another sheet by Novelli (FIG. 2.19) that clearly has a Medea posture (with an ax!) in the
upper register and a protective Niobe posture in the lower register, we are reminded of
On the intersection of classical education and neoclassicism see Viccy Coltman, Fabricating the Antique:
Neoclassicism in Britain, 1760-1800 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). Bermingham is surely
right to appeal to Bourdieu's study of taste as cultural capital, but this is only one side of the Attitudes.
Sheet 7 of Artaud's Rome-Naples-Dresden notebook (11.3x18cm), British Museum, P&D 1973-12-8-85.
On Artaud, see Jennifer C. Watson, "William Artaud and 'The Triumph of Mercy'," The Burlington
2. Comedy
the need for a context that time sequence but also audience interpretation imparts to the
Attitudes. I am not suggesting that it is necessarily more difficult in a pencil sketch to
make the charade identifications than in the 'real life' of Lady Hamilton's performance:
only that our identifications are in a sense empty because unverifiable. We miss the
spectators and their conversation, Sir William Hamilton and Artaud and the other Grand
Tourists, to pronounce the names that after all were part of the performance.
The Attitudes are a parlor game; how could this kind of interplay be achieved in a
painting? I believe that it could. The cue to participation in the Nightmare is the glowing
horse's head, a night mare, as interpreters have pointed out with some embarrassment at
the obviousness of the pun.77 This sore thumb of the painting, which rather defuses the
ghoulish atmosphere, does have one crucial function: it forces us to enunciate the title of
the painting. The horse's head is a rebus, because the work is to be read as being about
nightmares. Speaking the name of the painting is solving the puzzle, and if it is too
rational a gesture to be credibly imputed to the uneasy sleeper, its sense of a brusque
dawning realization could be fairly taken to be what the experience of having a nightmare
is all about. Performing the nightmare here doesn't mean introspecting the experiences of
the sleeping woman; it rather means, however mechanically, participating in them.
Magazine, Vol.123, No.937 (April 1981), 226-228, and especially Kim Sloan, "William Artaud: History
Painter and 'Violent Democrat'," The Burlington Magazine, Vol.137, No. 1103 (Feb. 1995), 76-85.
"The Nightmare is personified in two genders: an Alp if male, Mare if female. The Celtic word-root
'march', or 'mare', is also the source of the English words such as 'marsh', 'mere' and 'moore' - all damp
places (also the Gaelic mara) - cognate to the Romance languages mer and mar, etc. Also the German
Mahre (English 'mare', as opposed to the masculine Pferd or Ross) is derived from the Old German mar,
'shining'. Besides which one notes the current German Mare, 'tale', from which derived Marchen, or 'fairy
tales'. Thus Fuseli is telling a nocturnal 'tale' based upon a 'shining mare' which may be plausibly
assumed to proceed 'from the idea of sexual assault'." John F. Moffit, "Review of Nicolas Powell, Fuseli:
The Nightmare," The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 118, No. 880. (Jul., 1976), 527. How Fuseli could have
conveyed all this wordplay to an English public, anticipating Ernest Jones in the bargain, is not discussed.
2. Comedy
Audiences are brought to this performance of this at the risk of making them
regard the painting as intentionally ridiculous, but they cannot in all fairness judge the
work as unintentionally ridiculous. Fuseli's biographer Knowles speaks of a preparatory
study of March 1781 without the horse, and such a drawing exists, even if there is some
dispute to its authenticity (FIG.2.20).78 Erasmus Darwin drew attention to the horse in
verses accompanying the 1783 print, which later ended up in his Loves of the Plants: "—
on his Night-Mare, thro the evening fog, / Flits the squab fiend o'er fen, and lake, and
bog." 79 The horse is a necessary and self-conscious condition for the public unveiling of
private experience in the work. The metaphor of unveiling (which is of course sexual) is
underlined by the curtains which part to admit the horse; both horse and curtains are
given new prominence in the second version of the painting.
Why go to such lengths just to interpolate visually the title of the work? Surely
spectators could consult the exhibition catalogue? Yet to do so would mean analyzing the
painting much as they regarded other dry goods for sale. Fuseli had greater ambitions, but
not higher ones. A spectator getting the joke of The Nightmare acts on a moment's
insight, but at this moment his insight doesn't count for anything. There is not so much
pleasure involved as dry satisfaction. In identifying the subject, one identifies with it. Not
necessarily with the woman, not with the demon, certainly not with the horse, but with
the whole experience of having a nightmare and with the transparency of that experience.
This transparency, the publicly examinable means of provocation in The Nightmare (and
This preparatory study has been identified with a chalk drawing in the British Museum (Inv. No. 1885-314-198), by Schiff (I: 508); Rosenthal's recent argument leans heavily on the drawing. But see Nicolas
Powell: "The drawing has right-handed shading throughout and I have never accepted it because I do not
believe that Fuseli executed any right-handed work after his illness in Venice in 1772." Powell, 97.
Darwin, II: 72. Janson, 79, holds Darwin responsible for the horse, "a somewhat distracting element."
2. Comedy
the Attitudes) is none other than the relay of subjectivity in the theory of sympathy:
having another's idea, and from this the sensations and emotions that attend this idea.
The reader may not be able to shake the feeling, which has bothered me as well,
that even if sympathy could manifest itself empirically in such a trivial manner, it would
hardly deserve the name, or the ambitious claim of intersubjectivity we have encountered
in Hume's treatise, or for that matter in Fuseli's Laocoon drawings. Could knowing other
minds ever correspond with a merely physical process? The question is very much alive
in recent philosophical debate. Consider the argument of Thomas Nagel, a neo-skeptic, in
an 1974 essay called "What Is It Like to be a Bat?" This is a question which Nagel
declines to answer in ways that should remind us of Hume and Fuseli:
It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one's arms, which
enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one's mouth; that
one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of
reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging
upside down by one's feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not
very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a hat behaves.
But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet
if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those
resources are inadequate to the task...The best evidence would come from the
experiences of bats, if we only knew what they were like.80
There is truth in this pessimism about the possibility of assimilating alien experience, but
also a misleading element. What is misleading is the idea that prose, such as Nagel writes
("I have webbed hands, I hang upside down in an attic") is entirely powerless to convey
experience. A reader parsing the above paragraph will gain some idea of what it would be
like for him or her to be a bat; the vividness of the experience depends on the reader's
imagination, and on the force of the writing or performance. The truth in the pessimism is
Thomas Nagel, "What Is It Like to be a Bat?" The Philosophical Review, Vol.83, No.4 (Oct. 1974), 435450, this quote 439. Nagel chooses bats because they are close enough to us biologically that it is natural to
2. Comedy
that we cannot ever rest with this sympathetic experience as adequate or identical to the
real thing, even if the performer were an extraordinary one: say, Proust or Joyce instead
of Nagel. We do not call an experience of reading the above passage a 'bat's experience,'
but it may well be our experience of being a bat. I submit that the asymmetry between the
trivial literary performance of 'bat-likeness' and the experience that might follow in a
sympathetic reader is just the same asymmetry as that between Fuseli and Hamilton's
vulgar, banal performances, and the effects they had on Goethe or Darwin. Sympathetic
spectatorship glosses private experience without doing away with its dependence on
individual subjects to whom that experience belonged. These subjects can in turn be
understood as disparate cultures, an analogy that Herder's reading of the Hermaphrodite,
expanded into the relativism of the Ideas, bears out.
It is now hopefully becoming clear that Fuseli and Lady Hamilton had coherent
audiences, and that how these audiences responded fits the model of sympathetic access
to private experience discussed previously. It remains to generalize these insights to get a
better sense for the historical audience of painting and theatre, and how this faced the
challenges of an aesthetic relativism we first glimpsed in the tailpieces of David Garrick.
Let us first reconsider the concept of viewing I introduced in the first chapter. There, a
spectator of neopagan tragic painting was defined in what could be called abstract and
negative terms. Abstract, in that the relation between viewers was construed as a parallel
egocentricity, through the metaphor of the seat in a theatre auditorium, which permits one
view of the main action that infinitesimally differs from the neighbor's view. Negative,
because what was uniquely demanded of a modern viewer, one with a view of art that
assume they have experience, while, at the same time, "anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed
space with an excited bat knows what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life." (438).
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included the culture that produced it, was essentially that she remain collected and refuse
to react to those violations of reigning moral codes on which much modern art depends.
This model of viewing, whatever its benefits, is a bit disembodied.81 The notion of
an emotionally-engaged spectator, ready to tear up the seats on behalf of nationalism or
conventional morality, cannot be dispensed with as a historical paradigm for public art.82
The English public, once it familiarized itself with the notion of painting as public art,
applied to it theatrical language: a critique of the 1774 Royal Academy exhibition is
called "Remarks on the principal Performances now exhibiting at the Royal Academy."83
Painting as performance seems to demand an equally embodied common experience. To
grasp this public, we need not an universally valid model of aesthetic experience, but a
model for experience that is somehow public but can be had by myself at this moment
The theory of sympathy and its generation through audience performance can
illuminate this historical audience of the English late eighteenth century. Without unduly
generalizing, we may note that this audience was understood by its critics as implicity a
comic one. Thus, Oliver Goldsmith, who did much to reinvent comedy and to advertise
this reinvention, defined comedy in 1773 as "that natural portrait of human folly and
frailty, of which all are judges, because all have sat for the picture."85 Goldsmith was
In chapter 1 it is of course linked to Baudelaire's modernist detachment, a very familiar idea. But it has
not been much applied to drama because the audience, in the great anecdotes of modernist theatre, is very
ill-behaved. My thesis applies rather to routine audience behavior and especially to spectator mood.
A lively account on this kind is James Kilroy, The "Playboy" Riots (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1971).
Public Advertiser, 30 April 1774. My emphasis. Cf. John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination:
English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997), Chapter 4.
Even Kantian universality can be accommodated if we say: every imaginable myself at every moment.
"Essay on the Theatre, or, a Comparison between Sentimental and Laughing Comedy," [1773] in The
Works of Oliver Goldsmith, 4 vols. (London: George Bell and Sons, 1892), I: 398.
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criticizing sentimental drama, advocating a return to low subjects, particularly the foibles
of "middle life."86 It is the audience who decides this emotional orientation of theatre:
It depends upon the audience whether they will actually drive those poor merry
creatures [the comic players] from the stage, or sit at a play as gloomy as at the
tabernacle. It is not easy to recover an art when once lost; and it will be but a just
punishment, that when, by our being too fastidious, we have banished humour
from the stage, we should ourselves be deprived of the art of laughing.87
Goldsmith's comic audience is a civic assembly that must choose whether it wishes to be
happy together or miserable alone, through the kind of aesthetic experiences it undergoes.
This participatory aesthetic, proposed by a major theatrical practitioner, is a significant
piece of evidence, but we must coordinate it with empirical eighteenth-century spectators:
particularly, we want to know whether spectators really responded sympathetically, in the
manner we found at work in Fuseli and Emma Hamilton. We can look for this comic
public in one of the most thorough accounts of a Georgian audience, that of Karl Philipp
Moritz, an art theorist and pastor from Berlin who visited London in the summer of 1782:
For a seat in the boxes you pay five shillings, in the pit three, in the first gallery
two, and in the second or upper gallery, one shilling. And it is the tenants in this
upper gallery who, for their shilling, make all that noise and uproar for which the
English play-houses are so famous. I was in the pit, which gradually rises, amphitheatre-wise, from the orchestra, and is furnished with benches, one above
another, from the top to the bottom. Often, and often whilst I sat there, did a rotten
orange, or pieces of the peel of an orange, fly past me, or past some of my
neighbours, and once one of them actually hit my hat, without my daring to look
round, for fear another might then hit me on my face... Besides this perpetual
pelting from the gallery, which renders an English play-house so uncomfortable,
there is no end to their calling out and knocking with their sticks till the curtain is
"A friend of mine, who was sitting unmoved at one of these sentimental pieces, was asked how he could
be so indifferent? 'Why, truly,' says he, 'as the hero is but a tradesman, it is indifferent to me whether he be
turned out of his counting-house on Fish-street Hill, since he will still have enough left to open shop in St.
Giles's.'" Goldsmith, 401. It is not the snobbery itself which is interesting, or funny, in this exchange, but
rather the manner in which snobbery is held up as a limit to sympathy.
Goldsmith, 401-402. The melodramatic second sentence is the last of the article. Robert D. Hume, in
"Goldsmith and Sheridan and the Supposed Revolution of'Laughing' against 'Sentimental' Comedy," in
Studies in Change and Revolution: Aspects of English Intellectual History, 1640-1800, ed. Paul J. Korshin
(Menston: Scolar Press, 1972), HI-216, warns against taking Goldsmith's bleak view too seriously, given
how his own work incorporates the sentimental; the warning is applicable to most avant-garde manifestoes.
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drawn up. I saw a miller's, or a baker's boy, thus like a huge booby, leaning over
the rails and knocking again and again on the outside, with all his might, so that
he was seen by every body, without being in the least ashamed or abashed. I
sometimes heard, too, the people in the lower or middle gallery quarrelling with
those of the upper one. Behind me, in the pit, sat a young fop, who, in order to
display his costly stone-buckles with the utmost brilliancy, continually put his
foot on my bench, and even sometimes upon my coat, which I could avoid only
by sparing him as much space from my portion of the seat as would make him a
Here the travel narrative with its stiffness devolves into the kind of social comedy Moritz
went to the Haymarket Theatre to see. The writer and his fellow spectators seem to selfconsciously act out their own comedy or comedies. So the "baker's boy" leans so as to be
seen, "without being in the least ashamed or abashed." Moreover, the audience interacts
with the professional actors:
Poor Edwin [the star of The Agreeable Surprize] was obliged, as school-master, to
sing himself almost hoarse, as he sometimes was called on to repeat his
declension and conjugation-songs two or three times, only because it pleased the
upper gallery, or the gods, as the English call them, to roar out encore! Add to all
this, he was farther forced to thank them with a low bow for the great honour
done him by their applause.89
A lead actress suffering opening-night jitters was urged to Speak louder! Speak louder!
by "some rude fellow from the upper gallery," and she was obliged to oblige.90 Theatrical
verisimilitude fell by the wayside, with songs repeated out of sequence and actors forced
to reorient their action to rough audience consensus. And yet the audience paid attention:
The persons near me, in the pit, were often extravagantly lavish of their applause.
They sometimes clapped a single solitary sentiment, that was almost as
unmeaning as it was short, if it happened to be pronounced only with some little
Moritz, Travels, 72-73. Moritz throughout is a sort of picaresque Goethe, in part because of his interest in
everyday life, in part because, being penniless, he traveled on foot.
Moritz, 77. Compare the author's own conduct when Fox is seen casting his vote in a public election: "I
know not why; but I seemed to catch some of the spirit of the place and time; and so I also bawled, Fox!
Fox! and he was obliged to come forward and speak." Moritz, 64.
Moritz, 78.
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emphasis, or to contain some little point, some popular doctrine, a singularly
pathetic stroke, or turn of wit.91
So in the end the play and the noise do not separate into self-contained entities or islands
of subjectivity, but subsist in equilibrium. Not perhaps the equilibrium we would expect:
the audience is more concerned with the bon mot than the aesthetic whole, which Moritz
strives, somewhat ruefully, to convey.. A plurality of autonomous moments of experience
is consistent with our reading of the audiences of the Attitudes and The Nightmare. What
of the subjectivity of this scattered sympathetic audience? Did Moritz's fop and baker's
boy ever feel like they were dreaming? Moritz does not say. He is only an observer; we
need a theorist of the comic audience, and for this I propose to look at an account of a
German comic audience half a century later, luckily one whose conduct matches our
English case closely. In Soren Kierkegaard's Repetition (1843), the narrator visits the
Konigstadter in Berlin, a theatre specializing in farce. He prefers farce over serious
theatre precisely for the subjectivity it opens up to the spectator:
What Baggesen says of Sara Nickels, that she comes rushing on stage with a
rustic scene in tow, is true of B.. .He can come walking onto the stage followed by
street urchins whom one does not see. 92
These imaginary vistas are opened through the imaginative playing along of the spectator.
Accordingly, they can take place from the moment of the actor's entrance, or even before.
The orchestra has finished, the curtain rises slowly, and then begins that second
orchestra, which does not obey the conductor's baton but follows an inner drive,
that second orchestra, the nature sound in the gallery, which already has a
presentiment that Beckmann is in the wings...Before me the vast space of the
theatre changed into the belly of the whale in which Jonah sat; the noise in the
gallery was like the motion of the monster's viscera.93
Moritz, 79.
Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling; Repetition, ed. and trans. Howard and Edna Hong (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1983 [Kjobenhavn, 1843]), 158-167. This quote, 163-164.
Kierkegaard, 165-166.
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It is striking that Kierkegaard, experiencing a rowdy audience not unlike that of Moritz,
comes to see the teeming theatre comes to resemble the belly of the whale. In his
receptiveness, the spectator is as alone as Jonah. We recall Moritz's dissatisfaction with
the audience: how it clapped for "solitary sentiments" as unmeaning in their isolation as
the noises of the public. But if Kierkeegard has given a valid account of the subjectivity
of this public, then the performed 'solitary sentiments' and the public's white noise are in
the same relation as the experience of being a bat and a description in terms of "flapping
one's arms and emitting high-pitched screams." One gets no bat experience from the
performance: but if experience is private, one cannot criticize a spectator's experience for
not being bat experience. Both are "incommensurables of the individual."94 And so we
are not alone with our experience: we are alone together, as islands of experience that
may touch by the indirection of sympathy. As eighteenth-century optimism concerning
political reform and its basis in an improvable human nature gave way in the nineteenth
century to systemic interpretations of social life (most famously, in Prud'hon and Marx),
the significance of the word "sympathy" shrunk to an essentially private emotion.95 But
as we have seen, the threat of this shrinkage of the domain of subjectivity is implicit in
the eighteenth-century usage, and in fact determines its value. How islands of experience
can together produce not just private experience but some species of public, political,
understanding, will be suggested in the last section of this chapter. To this end, I offer a
final close reading of The Nightmare and its cryptic private referent, the demon.
Kierkegaard, 163.
It is no accident that a post-Marxist critic of Hume like Alasdair Maclntyre thinks sympathy a mere
fabrication needed to shore up Hume's egoism. Maclntyre, After Virtue (London: Duckworth, 1981), 213.
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The Plurality of the Gods
In returning to The Nightmare we must consider its one crucial dimension we have so far
set aside, sex and its connection to the demon. Marcia Allentuck, in a bold if speculative
essay, claims that "in the rhetorical sense, the topos of the [1781] picture is not a
nightmare, but a female orgasm."96 The demon, she argues, is a flaccid post-coital penis.
The woman's physical excitement and the demon's positioning and passivity seem to
sanction such a reading, in which the demon is demoted, properly it seems to me within
the dramatic economy of the painting, to an instrument of the woman's "pain and
pleasure." The one problem with the demon-penis is that it suffers from some vagueness
concerning its 'motivation.' In attributing sexual subjectivity to the sleeper, we cannot
leave the demon-penis without a referent, floating freely between dream, autoeroticism,
and the limb of an embodied lover.97 One way to ground it would be to posit it as a
symbol of Fuseli's sexual subjectivity, or that of sleeping women in eighteenth-century
discourse.98 But this type of investigation does violence to the range of identifications
afforded by Fuseli's picture. We must keep the structure in focus, without defining the
content too narrowly. This can be done by indexing the demon-penis to the personage of
the sleeping woman: whether the image is meant to be an external stimulus or dream-
Allentuck, 39. For a critique of the 'anachronism' of this view, see Vogel, 379. This critique does seem
vitiated by Allentuck's qualification that the painting is "rhetorically" about orgasm. Angela Rosenthal
praises Allentuck for insisting that "Fuseli's painting raises the possibility of a female onlooker," (105) but
is surely unfair in saying the essay "nestles squarely within the politics of the sexual liberation movement
of the late 1960s and early 1970s" (103). The volume Woman as Sex Object, edited by Linda Nochlin, is no
nai've 'liberationist' tract. For a discussion of feminist anthologies of the period, see Jane Gallop, "Heroic
Images: Feminist Criticism 1972," American Literary History, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Autumn 1989), 612-636.
Not necessarily male. Fuseli drew women copulating with artificial penises, e.g., SCHIFF 548.
Rosenthal and Frayling (ops. cit.), and Powell's monograph for that matter, do this well.
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object, it is her penis that is being represented." And if the demon is the sleeper's
nightmare, then it is no external aggressor, but an expression of her desire, or to use the
anachronistic but precise term, her libido. This identification is confirmed by Fuseli's
choice of antique models to rework—a choice that becomes more transparent wen we
take Thomas Rowlandson's fine parody with a male sleeper (FIG.2.21) into account. It is
true that Rowlandson's fleshy male nude represents Whig statesman Charles James Fox,
suffering from the nightmare of gambling debt, but the joke is funny precisely because
the apparatus of demon and nightmare horse is linked sympathetically to the sensuous
sleeping body of the subject, a relation that is conserved from Fuseli's painting.100 Of
course, in conserving, Rowlandson amplifies, and thus uncovers Fuseli's own models for
sexual subjectivity, which are ancient. The Barberini Faun (FIG.2.22) has the pillowing
right-arm gesture of Fuseli's sleeper, and must have had, originally, a prominent penis.101
Fuseli has combined the sensuous, but unconscious upper body of the Faun with a lower
body in a contraposto of fitful sleep borrowed from the Borghese Hermaphrodite, which
Fuseli has turned on its back (FIG.2.23). There is evidence that Fuseli thought of the
works together, in his own context of erotic dreaming: in his Tenth Royal Academy
Lecture on Painting, delivered in the last year of his life, Fuseli speaks of "the lascivious
This accords well with Schiff s observation that the demon represents all that the woman wishes not to be
in her public waking life (I: 153). A physiological account of how a dream penis might belong either to
oneself and to another was provided by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who claimed that in sleep one often
mistakes one's own touch for that of a stranger. His whole discussion is quite suggestive of The Nightmare:
"The all times, with and without distinct consciousness, seeks for and assumes, some outward
cause for every impression from without, and.. .in sleep, by aid of the imaginative faculty, converts its
judgment respecting the cause into a personal image as being the cause..." (quoted in Powell, 113).
That caricaturists paid particular attention to Fuseli is clear from a letter in which Gillray speaks of "ye
use to be made of him." See Draper Hill, Mr. Gillray the Caricaturist (London: Phaidon, 1965), 90; Martin
Myrone, "Fuseli to Frankenstein," in Gothic Nightmares, 31, and Gothic Nightmares, cat. nos. 5-8.
Fuseli also used the sculpture explicitly as the model for Bottom in Titania's Awakening of 1785-90,
shown in Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery, now in the Kunstmuseum Winterthur. On the modern reception
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dream of the Hermaphrodite, the gross sonorous repose of the Faun."102 In the Lecture,
Fuseli classifies these works among those that "disclose the whole extent and limits of
dramatic composition."103 This is interesting not only because Fuseli sees 'acts' of sleep
as performances, but he goes so far as to infer a dream with erotic overtones but no
specific content (it is described as "lascivious") to the figure of the Hermaphrodite. This
is all consistent with the kind of sympathetic reception of this statue we found in Herder,
but what bears emphasizing, in Fuseli as in Herder, is the fundamental privacy or opacity
of the dream: we can infer things from it by observing the sleeper's body, but the specific
content of the dream remains of course inaccessible. I should like to argue that the figure
of the demon, its provocative quality matched by a maddening vagueness of reference, is
the visual embodiment of just such a claim of the essential privacy of dream content.
This account of the demon has the advantage of applying equally to both 1781
and 1790 versions of the painting. Indeed it would explain better than any of the concrete
identifications why the second version of demon is more vague in its physiognomy, as if
Fuseli wanted to fend off fallacies of misplaced concreteness. It fits with qur model of
sympathetic reception, where strong feeling is needed, which as concept (or image) is
transmitted to a spectator who is expected to generate the same feeling. And there is
corroborating evidence in Fuseli's dream oeuvre, particularly in other works of the early
1780s. In the Dream of Socrates (FIG.2.24), a drawing contemporary with work on the
first Nightmare, Fuseli appropriates Michelangelo's Creation of Adam from the Sistine
of the Barberini Faun, see Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of
Classical Sculpture 1500-1900 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 202-205.
Bungarten, 241 / Knowles, II: 385.
Ibid. The italics are Fuseli's own.
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ceiling to render god literally as a woman. 104 We cannot fail to notice that Socrates'
demon is an ideal woman, while the Nightmare woman's is a sexualized demon—there is
an asymmetry here that cannot be glossed over. But this asymmetry is not all there is to
the relation between the two works, and if we take into account the range of Fuseli's
sleepers from the Shakespearean Queen Katharine (who in a sense sees history marching
before her) and Titania and Bottom, to the Miltonic Adam and Eve, there is a consistent
model of dreaming that trespasses any rigid gender lines. 105 1 can substantiate this claim
by comparing the two most different but temporally closest works in this range, the first
Nightmare and the Dream of Socrates.
In this scene from Plato's Crito, a female demon comes to inform Socrates of his
impending death, which she announces through words quoted from the Iliad; these are
reproduced by Fuseli (in Greek) on a scroll at the lower right of the drawing. 106 The
drawing is enveloped in a nervous blur of pencil re-workings, especially in the passive
but extraordinarily tense body of Socrates. The contact between this supine, visually
indeterminate figure and the muscular, nude female body above him—a contact that
quotes the touch of divine and human hand in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam—carries
the force of an electric shock. Fuseli quoted the Creation of Adam in another drawing of
this period, one representing God branding Cain's forehead (FIG.2.25).107 The divine
touch is not without violence—the human subject has no more choice in receiving it than
Michelangelo was close to the center of Fuseli's concerns during this period, during which he was still
planning a monumental cycle devoted to Shakespeare based on the Sistine Ceiling. See Schiff, I: 454-5.
The Nightmare could not have shown a sleeping man: male undress (pajamas) was even for Fuseli
intractable in history painting, which would have become farce. That step is taken in caricatures like A
Covent Garden Nightmare (1784), starring a nude Fox; this is a legitimate audience response to Fuseli.
"fmarl (icv xptxaco ®inr|v epi[3o)Iov r/oio" ["On the third day to Pythia shall you go."] (Iliad
Here only the gesture and body of God (somewhat shockingly seen from the rear) are borrowed.
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she has the choice not to dream the nightmare monster, or, in Socrates' case, to dream the
goddess who comes to inform him of his fate and to steel him in his resolve. We recall
that in Plato's other prison dialogue, Phaedo, Socrates is ordered by the dream demon to
"make music," a challenge for the self-confessed poetically deaf man. He sets out to obey
the demon's injunction by embarking on the comic project of transposing Aesop's fables
into verse.108 This challenge of the demon to the mortal, more than the forecast of death,
is the subject of Fuseli's drawing. And it is conveyed through a female body that is at
once a physical extension of Socrates and his active, sexualized counterpart.
I have dwelt on the formal implications of Socrates' relation with his demon
because they cast light on the rather different function of the woman's demon in The
Nightmare. This requires a revision to our refurbished version of Allentuck's thesis,
which found in the demon a making visible of the woman's sexual motivation; we found
an intellectual, consciously emblematic component in the demon besides the visual
condensation of a purely somatic drive. This conjunction gives the interpretation better
empirical fit: if the demon is the woman's privacy and her libido, its inactivity (lost in
thought, sitting on her midsection) and her nervous activity are more intelligible than they
are through interpretations which cast the demon as aggressor. We still need a theoretical
framework that should make this model of an idealized demon meaningful; one that
could assimilate the woman's libido and Socrates' prophet, in mentalist terms both
motivation and the source of motivation in reasons. I think such a framework is available,
that the Dream of Socrates reveals it as taking the form of a peculiarly modernist reading
of Plato and his view of privacy and publicity.
Plato, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1988),
56 {Crito), 72-73 {Phaedo). The two dreams are routinely correlated. For a commentary on the Crito, see
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This theory, which has its roots in the Humean egoist psychology and the heroic,
archaizing twist is received at the hands of Nietzsche, is articulated by Max Weber in a
lecture of 1918 called "Science as a Vocation."109 As in our discussion of Nietzsche in
Chapter 1 and of later theorists who exhibit 'neopagan' or antiquarian-pluralist modes of
thinking, I must emphasize that the connection drawn is analytical, in the way that a fully
worked out discourse illuminates and allows us to make sense of its beginnings; it is not a
matter of what "contemporaries thought" as is the invocation of Herder and Hume, but
nor is it ahistorical, for the precise reason that earlier stage in the discourse, which we are
interested in understanding, is in fact necessary to the late, clear formulation.110 And so I
present Max Weber as a late but self-conscious neopaganist.
In "Science as a Vocation," Weber analyzes the specialized isolation of experts in
Western modernity: the scientist working for science's sake only, the artist only for art's
sake.111 The vocation thus demands the specialist's complete devotion; but, curiously, he
cannot justify it to the outsider without invoking values that are themselves specific to the
vocations, and thus hardly likely to be compelling to one with incompatible values:
We live as did the ancients when their world was not yet disenchanted of its gods
and demons, only we live in a different sense. As Hellenic man at times sacrificed
to Aphrodite and at other times to Apollo, and, above all, as everybody sacrificed
to the gods of his city, so do we still nowadays, only the bearing of man has been
disenchanted and denuded of its mystical but inwardly genuine plasticity. Fate,
and certainly not 'science,' holds sway over these gods and their struggles. One
Romano Guardini, Der Tod des Sokrates (Dusseldorf and Mttnchen: Helmut KUpper, 1952), 125-156.
Max Weber, Wissenschaft als Beruf(Munchen: Duncker und Humblot, 1919); "Science as a Vocation,"
in From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, ed. H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1946), 134-156.1 quote from the reprint in Daedalus, Vol.87, No.l (1958), 112-134.
The very adjectives "early" and "late," popular for instance in Marxist discourse, betray an unexamined
assumption that historical phenomena begin and end definitely. I thus rely on them here relatively, for I
believe, and indeed hope, that relativist, pluralist, and liberal discourse is not going to end anytime soon.
His remarks on art are close to Fuseli's. Weber: "we know of no great artist who has ever done anything
but serve his work and only his work." (115) Fuseli: "Art, like love, excludes all competition, and absorbs
the man." (Aphorism 3, Knowles III: 63). This is, as Greenberg might say, modernism with a vengeance.
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can only understand what the godhead is for the one order or for the other, or
better, what godhead is in the one or in the other order. With this understanding,
however, the matter has reached its limit as far as it can be discussed in a lectureroom and by a professor.112
The last sentence is important, because it connects Weber's peculiar neopagan pluralism
with the much-misunderstood doctrine of value-free science. Science should be valuefree because it can neither defend nor refute values; it can only show the consequences of
pursuing them. At best, it can lead to a clarity that strengthens one's resolve—or lead one
to abandon it. But abandon it for what? If one asks, '"Which of the warring gods should
we serve? Or should we serve perhaps an entirely different god, and who is he?' then one
can say that only a prophet or a savior can give the answers."113 Even the "religiously
'musical' man" must recognize that we live "in a godless and prophetless time."114
I hope it is clear from this brief exposition that Weber's neopaganism cannot be
dismissed as a colorful metaphor for the ideological struggles of modernity. What he is
really after, and where the vocabulary of gods and demons (Gotter, Damonen) makes a
decisive contribution, is in illuminating the subjective force of the incompatible values as
they are held by human individuals, and the hypnotic certainty attaching to each, which
makes serious dialogue and compromise between them so difficult.115 Indeed, in reviving
the Socratic vocabulary of a demon compelling committed action, Weber implies that the
West's understanding of pluralism has deteriorated. The Greeks could handle a pluralism
values by sacrificing first to this god, then to that one; we, one the other hand, have been
"disenchanted and denuded'' of "inwardly genuine plasticity." But just because we cannot
Weber, 126.
Weber, 131.
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articulate our inner compulsion to act on a private value in a meaningful public fashion, it
doesn't mean others' values go away.
Many old gods ascend from their graves; they are disenchanted and hence take the
form of impersonal forces. They strive to gain power over our lives and again
they resume their eternal struggle with one another.116
Two things about this passage are striking. One is the diagnosis of a lose subjectivity: it
gets channeled into a false objectivity, and incompatible interests ('the gods') take on the
mask of impersonal forces, over which, more than before, no one feels any power or
responsibility. The application to our artworks is striking: think of the scenario in The
Nightmare, which has been explained as allegorizing Fuseli's sexuality, the woman's
sexuality, aphasia, a racist anxiety about interracial sex, the Enlightenment fascination
with witchcraft.. .the list goes on. What is important about all of these interpretations is
not that they are wrong but that they are incompatible, and that they succeed in reducing
a singular event in the life of one sleeping subject in terms of impersonal forces. Against
this we should, with Allentuck, to say that the painting is about a sleeping (fictitious)
woman's (real) libido, and that this is publicly presented, but presented as a private
matter, one taking place within the theatre of her dream subjectivity.
This Nightmare interpretation points up the second striking point in Weber's
thesis, one that is in fact questionable. Weber insists that the gods disagree, that 'they
resume their eternal struggle with one another." But why should incompatible values
always be trying to overcome one another? The supposition of conflict, even more of
irreconcilable conflict, is a literary or temperamental elaboration of the imagery that
The time of the lecture, right after the end of WW I, with Germany in revolutionary turmoil, speaks to
this desperation. Weber makes explicit, critical references to pacifist and nationalist fellow professors.
Weber, 127.
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Weber cannot justify on his experience: surveying the field of values empirically, all he
can detect is plurality or polytheism.117 The claim of eternal struggle only makes sense if
one has smuggled into the whole field the actor's attitude of responding to the principle
of his inner demon, and despising others as inauthentic, or else not being aware of them
at all. Here Weber's social analysis and Hume's psychology link up: if sympathy builds
bridges between subjects' passions, then the gods might be reconciled, at least in practice.
But if we do not sympathize with others, we shall follow the demands of our demon
without acknowledging that others are likewise driven.
But the point of neopaganism is that one can become indirectly aware of opposed
value orientations. Dream subjectivity affords us experience of others' subjectivity: we
dream that we know their minds. There is no justifying this confidence, but also no other
access to other minds. The spectatorial immersion I have discussed and its theoretical
status as fragments of an intersubjective sympathy mean that it is possible, however
crudely, to know others' value orientations or at least know that they have them. And so
there is a common awareness of disparate values. Weber, to my mind, wrongly insists
that this commonality requires the spiritual force of a prophet who destroys older values.
This is disproved by his very metaphor: when Socrates, in prison, tells of the dream
demon who strengthened him in his resolve to live and die well, he does not convert his
speakers. His private conviction does not become their public cause. But he does teach
them a thing or two about acting on private convictions. Socrates invokes the demon—
Consider Weber's introduction of plurality: "'Scientific' pleading is meaningless in principle because
the various spheres of the world stand in irreconcilable conflict with each other. The elder Mill, whose
philosophy I will not praise otherwise, was on this point right when he said: If one proceeds from pure
experience, one arrives at polytheism." (126). The reference to empiricism ("pure experience") is important
because it shows that Weber's (and Mill's) 'polytheism' stem from a subjectivist view of the incorrigibility
of the passions such as Hume expounds. Where Weber differs from his empiricist predecessors, without
realizing it, is in positing "irreconcilable conflict' rather than just disparity between the value spheres.
2. Comedy
performs her, we might say—whenever his friends give him the reasonable but cowardly
advice to flee his execution. Socrates' political heroism—his martyrdom—hinges
ultimately on a personification of his private experience.
We could in fact spell out this difference by comparing the Detroit Nightmare,
however clumsily, with the Oath of the Horatii. What strikes one in David is the sheer
exteriority of the narrative. The strength of the picture is its unanimity. There is little
subjective differentiation of the male actors, and the distinction between men and women
turns on the men's resolve to die for the polity. If one asks in turn why the women grieve,
one finds that it is because of an equally public commitment: they are married to their
brothers' opponents. This powerful reduction of action and feeling to the political cannot
be carried out for Fuseli: if one tried to say that The Nightmare is about witchcraft or race
or whatever the demon is decoded into, one would miss the experience of the woman
suffering the nightmare. This lesson becomes clear if we take notice of the conservative
cartoonists who had a field day with Fuseli, composing Nightmares on the simple recipe
of a liberal politician and the foibles that terrorize him. Rowlandson for instance shows
Fox being terrorized by the demon of gambling. What is distinctive about Fuseli, in
contrast, is that his demon is not just the locus of evil but a site of anxiety, of thoughtful
privacy. This privacy does not make the painting politically topical, but I think it does
make it in some way politically paradigmatic. The private experience which neopaganism
presupposes can affect the world after all, insofar as we become indirectly aware of it.
Bearing the Dream of Socrates in mind, we might say that alongside a 'Davidian'
political modernity of citizens there is also a 'Socratic' political modernity of dissidents.
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
Winckelmann's Joke, Allegory, and Activist Neoclassicism
While we are still within the orbit of comedy, it is worth thinking more generally about
how comedy appeals to motives and intentions. It is a standard device of comedy, from
Aristophanes's Council of Women to Harold Pinter, that identity is mistaken and
revealed; masks and costumes are donned and removed. Error is at the heart of comedy,
and this means our sense of the comic is vulnerable to deformation in two important
ways. First, it is possible to persist in error, remaining unconscious or isolating one's
consciousness of error to the extent that one gets entangled in lies. A lie consistently
assumed, in the sense of 'living a lie,' is not limited to the special case of telling an
untruth, but is a state of adaptation to a reality one fails to grasp—another symptom of
comedy or comic characters since Shakespeare's Polonius at least. Secondly, it is
possible to sharpen awareness of untruth, to state it such that even one who is not aware
of the lie being a lie becomes suspicious of its validity. I call this phenomenon the joke}
The laughter it provokes may bring understanding—an awareness of the lie as such—but
the joke remains valuable, retains most valuable, even when it is not understood. The
confusion or embarrassed silence it elicits is an instrument of liberation from untruth: for,
in the context of the comic, a joke, even when misunderstood, makes felt the conviction
that something is not right. The joke as a weapon, in intimate relation to the lie, will serve
as the subject of this text. Questions of truth prove relevant to archaizing art because a
return to antiquity breeds revisionism that is hard to extricate from pluralist reclamation.
This notion of the joke is akin to that of Habermas: "the comic effect of a joke springs from relief that one
has not allowed oneself to be led into modal confusions." Jtirgen Habermas, "Some Distinctions in
Universal Pragmatics,: A Working Paper" Theory and Society, Vol.3, No.2 (Summer 1976), 167.
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
The practical application of these terms will become apparent momentarily. The
problem in reality to which I would like to address them is the moral problem of the use
of antiquity by neoclassicism and neopaganism. This problem comes to a head in forgery:
for the successful invention of antiquities could provide the moderns with exactly what
they wanted from the past, which the archaeological work at Pompeii Herculaneum might
never have done. Consequently, what is interesting about forgery is what is done once it
is recognized as such. I will deal with one famous case, which will allow us to extend the
problem to its solution or dissolution in the work of Fuseli.
The case is recounted most economically by Goethe in the 18th Nov. 1786 entry of
his Italian journal: I reproduce this entirely, filling in only factual details.
But now I must speak of a wonderful, problematic picture that would be fine to
see among those noble things [the collection which Tischbein had assembled for
Years ago there was a Frenchman [Chevalier Diel de Marsilly] here [in Rome]
who made a name for himself as amateur and collector. He comes to own an
antique fresco, nobody knows wherefrom; he has Mengs restore the picture and
regards it as a treasured piece in his collection. Winckelmann speaks of it
enthusiastically somewhere [in Geschichte der Kunst des Altherthums, 1st ed.,
Dresden, 1764, p.276]. It represents Ganymede, offering Jupiter a bowl of wine
and receiving a kiss in return. The Frenchman dies and his landlady [Mrs. Smith]
inherits the picture as an antique. Mengs dies and says on his deathbed that it's no
antique, he had painted it. And now there's a general free-for-all. One claims
Mengs executed it casually as a joke, the other side insists Mengs could never
have made anything like it, it's almost too beautiful for Raphael. I saw it
yesterday and must say that I also don't know anything finer than the figure of
Ganymede, head and back, the rest is much-restored. All in all the picture is
discredited, and no one will relieve the poor woman of her treasure.2
The painting of Jupiter and Ganymede, transferred to canvas, survives to this day in the
Galleria Nazionale in Rome (FIG.2.26). We can consider the image itself once we have
Goethe, Italienische Reise, 138-9, my translation (italics are Goethe's). Goethe wrote similar things in a
letter to Charlotte von Stein (Briefe an Charlotte von Stein, II: 310), adding that he had a theory of his own
about the picture's origin and that he would attempt to buy it. Thomas Pelzel, in "Winckelmann, Mengs,
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
ascertained the positions of the contemporary parties to the dispute. These parties may be
reduced to three basic ideal position in the scandal: that of the victim, possibly occupied
by Marsilly and clearly by Winckelmann; that of the perpetrator, Mengs presumably and
whoever aided him (Marsilly perhaps, and Mengs's friend and fellow painter Giovanni
Casanova, who gave Winckelmann faked drawings);3 finally that of the spectators, Mrs.
Smith and Goethe, who still cautiously hope to extract aesthetic or cash value from an
object they recognize as discredited.
This rapid summary of dramatis personae, for all its organizing value, is not the
last word on the matter. For one thing, the position of the principals, Mengs and
Winckelmann, is not unambiguous. Winckelmann himself was no naive dupe: he had
accumulated much ill-will among his fellow scholars by exposing their weakness for
forgeries, and publicly acknowledged his own mistake at the hands of Casanova.4 It is
odd then that he should never have doubted the Jupiter and Ganymede: in letters, he
expresses anger at Casanova and Mengs for having made him ridiculous.5 And in a text
printed just a year after the Geschichte, the Versuch einer Allegorie (1766), Winckelmann
introduces the Ganymede as "an old painting, which is regarded by many as old."6 This
defensive repetitiveness is puzzling. Since no doubts were raised about its authenticity
until the second edition of Mengs's autobiography in 1783 (three years after Mengs's
and Casanova: A Reappraisal of a Famous Eighteenth-Century Forgery," Art Bulletin, Vol.54, No.3
(Sept. 1972), 311, suggests that Goethe thought the painting to be by Raphael.
Two of these appeared in the Geschichte. Winckelmann is already aware of the fakes in a letter of June
19, 1765 to Heinrich Fiissli (not Fuseli). See Winckelmann, Briefe, III: 103, and Pelzel, 310.
In a letter published in the Gottingische Anzeigen, 14, Feb.l, 1766, 109-11, and in his supplement to the
Geschichte, Anmerkungen iiber die Geschichte der Kunst (Dresden, 1767).
In a Nov. 15, 1766 letter to Stosch, in Briefe, III: 219.
Winckelmann's Werke, II: 596: "Wir haben auf einem alten Gemalde, welches von vielen fur alt gehalten
wird, einen Jupiter..." I will return to the passage near the conclusion of this essay.
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
death, thirteen after Winckelmann's), we are forced to conclude that Winckelmann knew
or at least suspected the work to be a forgery. The art historian may have been a
collaborator in his own deception, and that of his readers: knowing the work's
provenance with Marsilly, who had 'owned' the sources for Casanova's faked drawings,
Winckelmann distanced himself from the painting but in no way exposed it as a forgery.
We shall explore his motives for this shortly.
As for Mengs, whom we cast in the role of the forger, the situation is equally
cloudy. In a careful reconstruction of the affair, Thomas Pelzel has argued that Mengs did
not paint the Ganymede after all, that his associate Casanova did, and that Mengs's
biographer attributed the work to Mengs to inflate his prestige. Since Pelzel's main piece
of evidence is a preparatory study for the Ganymede submitted by Casanova as his own
work to an exhibition in Dresden in 1769-70, the argument should not be taken as a
revisionist attribution but rather as a historian's attempt to substantiate Casanova's
eighteenth-century claim to have authored the painting.7 What we have, then, is the
curious situation of two neoclassical professors of painting (Casanova taught in Dresden,
Mengs in Madrid) striving to have attributed to them a forgery. This dispute is played out
in the sequence of second-hand reports—neither Casanova nor Mengs took explicit
responsibility for the painting. But the ambivalence of being taken to wish to be author of
a famous forgery still sheds some light on Winckelmann's own peculiar hesitation. The
feeling that Ganymede was too good to be a fake, and that the reality of the painting, and
Pelzel, 315. The anonymous reviewer in the Neue Bibliothek der Schdnen Wissenschaften, 13:1 (1772),
130, claims that Casanova acknowledges himself author of the painting as well as the study. Pelzel's
second argument, that the appearance of Mengs's confession only in 1783, and not in the first 1780 edition
of d'Azara's biography, shows it to be spurious is rather a poor one; there were good reasons to have
suppressed the story in 1780, namely the fear of damaging Mengs's reputation.
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
thus of the past, was immaterial to the desire to possess it, seems common to all the
actors in our little comedy.
Just how good is the painting? The question may be posed 'scientifically,' in
terms of its physical composition and conformity to antique conventions that could fool
an antiquarian; it may also be posed aesthetically. On both counts, a recent spectator like
Pelzel finds the imposture painfully obvious: there were few explicit images of Zeus
physically engaging Ganymede to be had among genuine antiques at the time, so
Winckelmann should have been suspicious; pictorially, the "glucosic hues of raspberry
and vanilla" pointed to a rococo sensibility.8 Pelzel is right to explain the painting's
success not through an appeal to its intrinsic aesthetic qualities, but by pointing out how
well it fits Winckelmann's ideas of androgynous Greek sexuality, and his desire for
experiences of the same nature. It is telling that in his account of the painting, we are told
that Ganymede is "one of the finest figures to come down from antiquity... the face
radiates such lust that his entire life seems nothing but a kiss."9
There is also a sober element to the desire for this "wonderfully problematic"
painting. As Goethe sensed and his disciple Heinrich Meyer explicitly argued, the work is
qualitatively above Mengs's general output—simpler, more confident, and radical in its
appropriation of what Winckelmann expected of the antique at its best.10 Whoever
produced it, with Winckelmann in mind, and inclusion in his monumental Geschichte as
Pelzel, 306. Inconographic novelty is often crucial to fakes: by providing something 'missing' in authentic
work, they satisfy a need while evading comparison. This is illustrated in the case of the Vermeer forger,
Van Meegeren, who produced 'missing' religious work like The Supper at Emmaus.
"Der Liebling des Jupiters ist ohne Zweifel eine der allerschonsten Figuren, die aus dem Alterthume iibrig
sind, und mit dem Gesichte desselben finde ich nichts zu vergleichen; es bltihet so viel Wollust auf
demselben, das dessen ganzes Leben nichts, als ein Kuss, zu seyn scheinet." J. J. Winckelmann, Geschichte
der Kunst des Althertums vol.3, in Wickelmann's Werke, ed. Heinrich Meyer and Johan Schultze (Dresden:
Waltherschen Hofbuchhandlung, 1812), vol.5,183.
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
goal, aimed the painting precisely at the antique virtues Winckelmann presented in the
Reflections of 1755. This work had been the basis of the friendship between
Winckelmann and Mengs, since it defines their joint project; furthermore, it precedes the
breach between the two initiated by Mengs's publication of his own Gedanken (1762),
which precede by two years Winckelmann's magnum opus, the Geschichte der Kunst des
Alterthums (1764).11 What is striking in Winckelmann's first statement of the neopagan
aesthetic in 1755 is its programmatic blurring of the line between invention and
appropriation. Winckelmann has two theoretical terms for what the modern artist may
attempt with regard to antiquity: copying and imitation. The first is bound to miscarry, as
it had in eighteenth-century classicism previous to Winckelmann, because modern
society and modern man did not afford the artist the constant exposure to bodily beauty
that made possible Greek art in the first place. The second strategy, imitation, was
conceived as a passionate theft of antique models; here the modern has the great
advantage over the ancients of having a previous store of ancients to pilfer. In imitating
the ancients, Winckelmann insists in a famous paradox, we shall become inimitable. The
rest of the document is concerned with the ancient aesthetic of "noble simplicity and
sedate grandeur," the adoption of which will make imitation of ancient models a modern
option. I am quoting the Reflections in its first English edition, published by Fuseli
himself in 1765, less than a year after his arrival in London.
I shall have more to say on
this edition, which makes Fuseli an interpreter as well as critic of Winckelmann.
It is also much better than any of Casanova's extant work.
See Pelzel, and Winckelmann's response there.
Winckelmann, "Expression," Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks, translated by
Henry Fusseli (sic) (London: A. Millar, 1765), 30.
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
So far we have presented the plain intentions of the Reflections as they appear in
the text. But there is a difficulty: the distinction between copying and imitation, of
course, is insubstantial or at least elusive.13 The last section of the text, which presents a
way to make marble sculptures from wax originals by tracing the contours of the model
in draining water, in effect recommends a form of mechanical reproduction. But in
attributing it to Michelangelo, Winckelmann implies that what is going on is the sublime
imitation. Corresponding to this strange shift between opposites is a class of privileged
artistic models that are neither ancient nor purely modern: Michelangelo, Correggio,
Raphael. Winckelmann considers these artists moderns with regard to their
unsympathetic social environment devoid of beauty, but ancients in achievement: for they
have succeeded in imitating the ancients.14 But since it is impossible to say how precisely
this procedure differs from immature copying, one must admit an element of
mystification, even self-deception in the work of becoming great at the expense of the
past: that is, of becoming inimitable through imitation.
Having established both the program of Winckelmannian aesthetic paganism, and
the means by which Winckelmann thinks it will be successful, we can see that there is
really no accident in his deception by the Ganymede; Winckelmann more than
collaborates in his own duping, he forges for himself a grand theory of self-deception.
We can furthermore see that the Mengs of the bedside confession, or if we prefer the
Casanova of the self-attributed preparatory study, is dedicated to the same duplicity: his
See Barbara Maria Stafford, "Beauty of the Invisible: Winckelmann and the Aesthetics of
Imperceptibility," Zeitschriftfur Kunstgeschichte, Vol.43, No. 1 (1980), 65-78.
This paragraph is indebted to Michael Fried, "Antiquity Now: Reading Winckelmann on Imitation,"
October, Vol.37 (Summer 1986), 87-97. Of course the 'semi-moderns,' for all their success, are not to be
themselves taken as models for the modern-moderns: this would invalidate Winckelmann's whole
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
claim is not to have produced a disposable fake for the purpose of mortifying an
incautious scholar, but of having achieved so highly that his modern work is
indistinguishable from the antique: a fake so great that it bogs up the differentiating
stream of history.15 This revolutionary character of neoclassicism is brought out by
Winckelmann in the last sentence of the Reflections: the artist "shall be fired with the
flame brought down from heaven by Prometheus.. ."16 Armed with the Reflections, the
modern steals the aesthetic secret of the ancients as Prometheus stole fire from Olympus.
That is a compelling program. Winckelmann's text in its pure form, "intended for
artists," without the encumbrance of footnotes or excessive learning, appeared in Dresden
in 1755 in a miniscule edition. A reprint the following year included an anonymous
critique (written by Winckelmann) and a lengthy reply by the author expanding on and
defending the claims of the Reflections. Fuseli's English edition, published in 1765, a
year after Winckelmann's epochal Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, contained the
basic texts—"A Letter Containing Objections against the Foregoing Reflections" (p.67)
and "An Answer to the Foregoing Letter" (p. 145)—but also "An Account of a Mummy
in the Royal Cabinet at Dresden" (p. 129), the didactic tract of "Instructions for the
Connoisseur" (p.251), and the aesthetic treatise "On Grace" (p.273)—in short, all of
Winckelmann's Fruhschriften dedicated to the revolutionary program outlined in the
Reflections. Fuseli's fine, eccentric translation, which two centuries later can arouse the
ire of Michael Fried for its liberties, does not hide the polemic thrust of the originals.
argument. That there is a willful element of self-deception in an author who should be simply a modern is
my concern, contra Fried who sees an impersonal, deconstructionist sliding of signifiers in the text.
This is to be contrasted with Casanova's public statement about the other faked drawings he gave to
Winckelmann, which he presents precisely as a moralistic lesson to the unscrupulous scholar. See Pelzel,
313-315. My argument here holds irrespective of who executed the painting: it is stated most forcefully,
after all, by Meyer, who is suspicious of all claims to the authorship of this painting.
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
"Artists want but hints: their task, according to an ancient Rhetor, is 'to perform, not to
peruse'," we read on the first page of the reply to the bogus objections.17 The English
Reflections are meant to stimulate a neoclassical revolution in Britain. But the summing
up of an achievement is also an act of departure. Fuseli half-heartedly began translating
the Geschichte, a task that fell into oblivion with Winckelmann's death and the burning
of the English manuscript in London while Fuseli studied in Rome. When Fuseli returned
to Winckelmann in his theory and practice at the turn of the nineteenth century, the sense
of a break initiated by his translation of the Reflections is completed in dramatic fashion.
In the introduction of the Lectures on Painting given to the Royal Academy in
March 1801 Fuseli offers a sober verdict on the Winckelmannian revolution in taste:
About the middle of the last century the German critics, established at Rome,
began to claim the exclusive privilege of teaching the art, and to form a complete
system of antique style. The verdicts of Mengs and Winkelmann (sic) became the
oracles of Antiquaries, Dilettanti, and artists from the Pyrenees to the utmost
North of Europe, have been detailed, and are not without their influence here.
Winkelmann was the parasite of the fragments that fell from the conversation or
the tablets of Mengs, a deep scholar, and better fitted to comment a classic than to
give lessons on art and style, he reasoned himself into frigid reveries and Platonic
dreams on beauty.
One ought perhaps to advert, for the reader not familiar with Fuseli's stentorian tone
throughout the Lectures, that he is not so much harder on Winckelmann than on other
critics and historians.19 If there is a touch of the confession in his acknowledgement of
Winckelmann's influence in England, it is all the more interesting to clarify Fuseli's
Winckelmann, 64.
Bungarten, I: 20. Knowles, II: 13-14. The grammar of the last sentence is difficult, and may contain some
Germanisms in the piling up of adjectival clauses with verbs in them. Some editions have a colon rather
than a coma before "he reasoned" but I do not see this as a marked improvement.
The attack on Winckelmann did however offend Heinrich Meyer, engaged at the time on the monumental
edition of Winckelmann's Werke, which included a line drawing of the Ganymede by Meyer, the first one
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
objections. The psychological study is incisive enough: the scholar reasoned himself into
ecstasies that are therefore not legitimate transcripts of experience. But where did
Winckelmann go wrong practically? According to Fuseli, Winckelmann depended on
"fragments that fell from the conversation or the tablets of Mengs." What fragments?
Surely not Mengs's texts, which Fuseli goes on to praise. The word 'tablet' conveys a
double debt: to Mengs's 'Mosaic' authority, embodied in his artworks. That these
productions were passed down as the work of God (antiquity) remains implicit.
I believe that Fuseli had the Ganymede affair in mind when he wrote his critique
of Mengs and Winckelmann. This suspicion is bolstered by Fuseli's own work around the
time of the Lectures. A crayon lithograph he produced in 1804—one of the first
important works in that medium in England—has for its subject the loves of Ganymede
(FIG.2.27). It is best to say 'loves' because the proposed titles, from "The Rape of
Ganymede" to "The Heavenly Ganymede," do not make any sense. There are two young
men embracing tentatively: the one at left, who appears to hover in the air and has a
vessel in his right hand, is smaller and may be nominated to be Ganymede; the young
man sitting at right, somewhat larger, cradles the other's chin assertively. Gert Schiff,
who has edited Fuseli's catalogue raisonnee, calls this sitting figure "Apollo-like."20 This
epithet has the virtue of underlining the oddity of Fuseli's iconography, which dispenses
with an obvious bearded Jove sitting on the celestial throne with lightning bolts for a
published, together with Meyer's defense of its authenticity as an antique. On Meyer's review of Fuseli in
the Jenaische Allgemeine Literaturzeitung of Feb. 1804, see Mason, 365-6.
Schiff, II: 581 (SCHIFF 1346). The description is taken up in Weinglass, 212 (no.172).
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
scepter. There is also a third figure, a woman's disembodied head just peering from under
the flying man's cup, which commentators have oddly identified as a "jealous Hebe."21
Faced with the unfamiliar dramaturgy of the lithograph, it is reasonable to fall
back on the self-understanding of the artist. Fuseli does provide his own caption in the
lower right-hand corner of the print, taken from the Iliad, Book XX, line 234: TON KAI
ANHPEIYANTO 0EOI (ton kai anereipsanto theoi), "so the gods carried him off," a text
recounting Ganymede's abduction by Zeus on account of his beauty to serve as divine
butler to the gods. This text indicates that we have to dispense with nonsense about an
"Apollo-like" god and acknowledge that the protagonists are in fact Ganymede and Zeus.
But if this is clear, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to say exactly which figure is
Zeus. Both seem young for the job and unsuitably attired. If anything, the figure hovering
at left in his billowing robe and grasping gesture more closely fits the profile of the
Jovian eagle that abducted Ganymede; likewise the posture of the sitting youth, with his
tensed left forearm and right leg pressing against the rock as if ready to spring, might be
auditioning for Ganymede. But measured against the conspicuous size difference
between the two, all this symbolism permits is the juxtaposition of two opposed identity
attributions. It seems only the jealous Hera, who stoops beneath the wine vessel as if it
were her hat, is clearly identifiable.
The visual analysis of the print in terms of composition and iconography is
complete, but chances are that it has left the reader feeling unsatisfied. That is because it
has not tidied but rather made conspicuous the loose ends. I would like to suggest that our
expectation of visual analysis that it should tie up loose ends is itself a legacy of the
Weinglass, 212. Schiff s comment on this trio is a masterpiece of evasion: "If Fuseli does not thus
represent Ganymede as the object of Zeus's love and Hera's jealousy, he departs from the literary tradition
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
Winckelmannian approach to interpretation, an approach of great power and psychic
validity which however relies on certain assumptions we do not wish to share with its
great founder. We have seen already how Winckelmann's analysis treated the pseudoGanymede: the painting was the greatest to survive antiquity, all matters of technique and
subject matter aside, because of its unity of conception. The act of Zeus bending to kiss
Ganymede is unmistakable despite the novelty of the motif: no other action or set of
characters could be represented, because an ancient kiss between a strong man on a
throne and a youth bearing wine could only be the kiss of Ganymede. This univocality of
the Winckelmannian view is summed up in the concentration of meaning in the figure of
Ganymede: "his entire life seems nothing but a kiss."
It is worthwhile at this point to try to gain a broader comparative perspective on
the account I have given of 'Ganymede affair,' in contrasting the skeptical position of
Fuseli, that of a relativizing neopaganism, with Winckelmann's more passionate position,
which may be called an activist neoclassicism. Given Fuseli's disapproval of the
Geschichte's "inflated rhapsodies on the most celebrated monuments of art,"22 and the
punch line of the disputed fresco, the Winckelmannian position comes across too easily
as the butt of the joke. We cannot give this position its due unless we take stock of its
seriousness, in both senses of the word: its desperation and the sobriety of its
commitment. These aspects are best brought out by recourse to the intellectually most
distinguished statement of an activist neoclassicism. This is found, in my opinion, in the
fourteenth thesis on the philosophy of history written by Walter Benjamin shortly before
of Homer, Pindar, Lucian, Nonnus, Virgil, Macrobius, and Ovid." Hera and Hebe are not the same goddess.
"Introduction," Lectures on Painting, Bungarten, I: 20.
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
his death in 1940. Over the text stands an epigram by Karl Kraus asserting that "Origin is
the goal." Benjamin's reflection follows:
History is the object of a construction whose site is not homogeneous, empty
time, but time filled by the time of the now [Jetztzeit]. Thus, to Robespierre
ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of
the continuum of history. The French Revolution understood itself as a Rome
reborn. It cited ancient Rome the way fashion cites period costume. Fashion is on
the scent of the actual, no matter where it stalks in the thickets of long ago; it is a
tiger's leap into the past. This leap, however, takes place in an arena where the
ruling class gives the commands. The same leap in the open air of history is the
dialectical one, which is how Marx understood the revolution.23
I cite the entire aphorism to underline both the sympathy and distance of Benjamin's
project in relation to Winckelmann. Benjamin wants to show just how far historical
research can further a Marxist revolution; to do this he cites Robespierre citing Rome.
Winckelmann wants an era of Hellenic beauty and pederastic sexuality to explode the
continuum of modern (German-Italian) history, and to do this he pursues antiquarian
studies. Winckelmann purposely takes as his subject not Greek thought or literature, but
art, which is more persuasive in touching a contemporary spectator; Benjamin, in
equating the political-historical reach into the past with the citation of fashion, asserts
historical thinking to be aesthetic. To be sure, fashion is subservient to capitalism, but its
feline ruthlessness makes it a model for the revolutionary: he should leap as boldly into
the past if that past is to have explosive effect on the present.
If we seem to be moving in a circle, perhaps we can break free by observing what
doesn 't fit: the picture of Robespierre as Rome reborn. For the symbolism of republican
Rome in the French Revolution is no exclusive property of the Jacobins, but is indeed
raised eloquently against them by just those political actors whom they execute,
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
conspicuously Bailly and Danton.24 Furthermore, the use made of Roman republican
virtue by Robespierre and the Jacobins, in speeches, festivals, and the cult of the Supreme
Being, could be read critically as an ideological camouflage for terror, or as the illusion
of antique democracy improper to bourgeois industrial society, as it has indeed since the
time of Marx.25 None of this would be denied by Benjamin. But, he would add, the task
of the radical historian—or of the activist neoclassicist—is to determine why Rome was
cited and how it worked in the present of the Terror. It is to penetrate to the truth of SaintJust's pronouncement that "The world has been empty since the Romans, and only their
memory fills it and still prophesies liberty."26
The formulation of world history as an immense waste through which an old
beacon of hope shimmers to the revolutionary is certainly Benjamin's starting point.27
This procedure understands the present as endowed with a "weak Messianic power" by
which we rescue the past from our own oppressors—and the past lends its powers to our
With corrections, I use the English version of Harry Zohn in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New
York: Schocken, 1969), 26. The original "Uber den Begriff der Geschichte" first appeared in Die Neue
Rundschau, 1950.
For stoicism in the French Revolution, especially in context of the guillotine, see Dorinda Outram, The
Body and the French Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). The 'antique' pathos of the
dissident figures of the Revolution is crucial to Georg Buchner's play Dantons 7W(1835).
In "The Holy Family," Marx writes: "Robespierre, Saint-Just, and their party fell because they confused
the ancient, realistic-democratic commonweal based on real slavery with the modern spiritualisticdemocratic representative state, which is based on emancipated slavery, bourgeois society.. .This is not the
place to vindicate the illusion of the Terrorists historically." Further on in The German Ideology, in the
critique of "St. Max," Robespierre and Saint-Just are defended against the charge of'clericalism, i.e. the
domination of the idea.' Marx's conflicting analyses of the French Revolution are gathered in Francois
Furet, Marx and the French Revolution, translated by Deborah Kan Furet (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1988). The above quote appears on p.138.
The first corollary to the theses ends as follows: "He [the historian] grasps the constellation which his
own era has formed with a definite earlier one. Thus he establishes a conception of the present as the 'time
of the now' [Jetzzeit] which is shot through with chips of Messianic time." Illuminations, 263.
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
struggle.28 The messianism should not be dismissed as peculiar to Benjamin's interest in
Jewish mysticism. For he is conscious of what messianic theology means to an activist
historical consciousness: it allows one to dissolve differences in intention between past
and present actors which is an ethical responsibility of the historian. In a first step, the
past's messianic wishes are fulfilled by us in the present: hence, their intentions are
actually ours. Should this be perceived as a sin by the practitioner, there is a way to
redeem it. For, in a second step, we find that our coming was foretold: thus, our
intentions are actually theirs, though 'we' are historical materialists and not virtuous
Roman republicans. The third step then redeems the first two: a historical materialist
confronts the past in a "moment of danger" and must snatch it up before it vanishes
forever. He does not have the luxury to split ethical hairs. The payoff for the whole
difficult operation is an arsenal of the past that may be 'actualized' in the manner of
fashion. The judgment of Marx that Robespierre confused his present with the Roman
past becomes for Benjamin the cynical task of applying the Roman past to present ends:
provided one has performed the Messianic operation of manufacturing consent between
the generations. Benjamin has no illusions about this, as is clear from the adjective
''weak' he attaches to 'messianic': we are not half-messiahs, nor the real article, but fakes.
But in the "moment of danger" eveiything is permitted.
The reader might object that the activist neoclassical conscience, as I have
reconstructed it, is worlds away from Benjamin's affectionate lingering thought as it
"The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret
agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every
generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the
past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. Historical materialists are aware of that." (254)
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
concerns itself with the 'salvation' of the outdated. This erotic reclamation of the past
might be thought to be one of the closest points of contact between Benjamin and
Winckelmann: it is the province of those who "look back with love and trust," as
Nietzsche put it in his anatomy of history and its writers.30 But it is precisely this patient,
respectful gaze that regards the past as a fellow being to be loved which Benjamin sternly
rejects in the Theses in a virile-virtuous idiom:
Historicism gives the "eternal" image of the past; historical materialism supplies a
unique experience with the past. The historical materialist leaves it to others to be
drained by the whore called "Once upon a time" ['Es war einmal'] in historicism's
bordello. He remains in control of his powers, man enough [Manns genug] to blast
open the continuum of history.31
One cannot allegorize away the misogynist violence of Thesis XVI without stumbling on
the violent appropriation of the past to present ends. The activist enjoys a 'unique
experience' of the past, so to speak, without having to pay; the past does not exhaust or
corrupt him in the manner of the historicist whore with her autonomous mantra that "it
was once" such-and-such. The critical awareness that it was once a certain way, which
may be treasured or distrusted but cannot be repossessed, is transformed into the will to
make the present over in the image of a past that has no choice but to go along with the
man who masters his powers. If we leave out the fantastic sexuality which Benjamin may
have intended with a tongue in cheek, we are not far from Winckelmann's 'promethean'
Obviously the vast literature on the Theses is much more sympathetic to Benjamin's project than my
analysis here: but I do not think that speaks against me. One sympathetic reading I can accept is Jiirgen
Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1990), 11-16.
Nietzsche, Vom Nutzen undNachtheil der Historie fur das Leben (Miinchen: dtv, 1996), 29 (§ 3).
Nietzsche is dismissive of antiquarian history; Benjamin elsewhere offer a sustained defense of the
antiquarian's dive into the past; in the Theses, he seems to favor the critical and monumental modes.
Illuminations, 262. The literary reference is strong here: in Buchner's play Dantons Tod, Robespierre
says of Danton: "Er will die Rosse der Revolution am Bordell halten machen, wie ein Kutscher seine
dressierten Gaule; sie werden Kraft genug haben, ihn zum Revolutionsplatz zu schleifen." Georg BUchner,
Werke und Briefe, ed. Werner R. Lehmann (Miinchen: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1980), 25.
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
appeal at the end of the 1755 Reflections. We are far, however, from Fuseli's opaque
reconstruction of a Ganymede affair.32
I hope to have brought out both what is compelling and what is questionable in
Benjamin's theses. But we must not criticize activist neoclassicism as an abstraction,
even as a formidable one; we are interested in its application by Winckelmann. As it
happens, Winckelmann comes close to articulating the 'messianic' aspect of his own
enterprise in treating a phenomenon that fascinated Benjamin: allegory. Benjamin's
elaborate theory of allegory, developed to account for the German baroque tragedy or
Trauerspiel, concerns us here only in outline: for him (baroque) allegory is the "polar
opposite" of the (romantic) symbol, "its equal in power," over against which it stands in
the manner of "the thing over the personal, the fragment over the total."33 Allegory is a
ruin, incomplete, depending on the reader to decode through the din of machinery the
arbitrary intentions of its author. As with Benjamin's later studies of mechanical
reproduction, there is an ambivalence in his work on allegory: though he understands the
transition to the self-sufficient romantic symbol as a sort of progress, he loves the
allegory for its moral clarity: in allowing the conversion of the husk of "historical
content.. .into a philosophical truth," allegory serves as weapon for a melancholy sort of
revolutionary.34 This historical melancholy, compared by Benjamin to the cruelly of the
sadist, who satisfies his victim by torturing it, makes the antique actual in allegory. Even
the most excruciating old symbols, like Christ's death, are mobilized: "The mystical
Is it a coincidence that Fuseli drew bordellos, and prostitutes, for much of his life?
Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, translated John Osborne (London: Verso, 2003),
187. A fine analysis of Benjamin's view of allegory is the introductory essay by George Steiner.
Ibid., 182. This should be read in conjunction with Benjamin's vision of criticism as a "mortification of
the works." The religious language points toward the messianic-political operation of the Theses.
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
instant [Nu] becomes the 'now' [Jetzt] of contemporary actuality; the symbolic becomes
distorted into the allegorical."
In Benjamin's eulogy to the revolutionary-moral force of the outdated,
Winckelmann's analysis of allegory has an interesting place. Benjamin quotes a sizeable
paragraph from Versuch einer Allegorie (1766), in which Winckelmann restates ideas
first formulated in the Reflections, on the proper scope of allegory in art:
Simplicity consists in designing a picture which expresses the intended meaning
in as few signs as possible, and this is the characteristic of allegories in the best
periods of antiquity. In later times there arose the practice of bringing many
concepts together, by means of just as many signs, in one single figure, like those
divinities known as panthei, which are invested with the attributes of all the
gods...The best and most perfect allegory of one or of several concepts is
comprised of one single figure, or should be thought of as such.36
Benjamin comments on the passage: "This is the voice of the will to symbolic totality
venerated by humanism in the human figure. But it is as something incomplete and
imperfect that objects stare out from the allegorical structure."37 So Winckelmann is
already on the path to the romantic symbol with its aesthetic fullness, though the mystic
incompleteness of the allegory stands in his way. This is fair enough as an effort to
historicize Winckelmann, but the objection which is immediately raised, that allegorical
objects are in practice imperfect, is precisely what Winckelmann himself notes in the
Ibid, 183. The concept of 'now' as the central category of history recurs, we have seen, in the Theses.
Ibid, 286 (Osborne's translation). Winckelmann, Versuch einer Allegorie, besonders fur die Kunst
(Dresden: Walther, 1766), 27. The German original follows, with the parts omitted by Benjamin in
brackets: "Die Einfalt bestehet in Entwerfung eines Bildes, welches, mit so wenig Zeichen als moglich ist,
die zu bedeutende Sache ausdriicke, und dieses ist die Eigenschaft der Allegorien in den besten Zeiten der
Alten. In spatern Zeiten fing man an viele Begriffe durch eben so viel Zeichen in einer einigen Figur zu
vereinigen, wie die Gottheiten sind, die man Panthei nennet, welche die Attributa aller Gotter beygeleget
haben. [Die Einfalt ist in Allegorien, wie Gold ohne Zusatz, und der Beweis der Giite derselben, weil sie
alsdenn viel mit wenigem erklaren; wo das Gegentheil geschiehet, ist es mehrentheils ein Zeichen
undeutlicher und unreifer Begriffe.] Die beste und vollkommenste Allegorie eines Begriffes oder mehrerer,
ist in einer einzigen Figur begriffen und vorzustellen: [denn alsdenn ist diese in alien moglichen Fallen
anzuwenden. Es ist aber dieses schwer, ja in den mehresten verlangeten Bildern unmoglich.]"
Winckelmann's Werke, vol.2 (Dresden: Walther, 1808), 484-5.
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
sentence omitted by Benjamin (see the full text in the footnote below). In the excised
sentence, Winckelmann cautions that such simplicity in allegory is not easy to achieve, it
is like "gold without dross, and proof of its own validity, because it explains much with
little." Its absence is supposed to indicate unclear or unripe ideas, but as a matter of fact
Winckelmann is forced to admit with regret that simplicity is often impossible in pictures.
He proceeds to give one very astute example:
The longing for the fatherland is a noble image in the figure of Ulysses, who
would like to see from afar the rising smoke in Ithaca; this hero can be found in
old works, but the notion itself cannot be represented in his figure alone.38
In other words, the allegorical figure is inadequate to the task of moral edification.
Winckelmann is not so naive as we would like to believe; he is not only aware of the
difficulties of pictorializing narrative that Lessing would introduce to criticize him in the
Laocoon, but of the imperfection or 'fragment-character' of the sensuous allegory that
Benjamin insists on. The difficulty acquires a tragic dimension, because, like Benjamin,
Winckelmann is convinced that the task of allegory is to be decoded into theoretical truth.
This requires educated viewers, or at least not "ganz ungelehrten Menschen."39 But we
moderns are by definition uneducated. Understanding allegory is the precondition for
reclaiming the past: but we cannot understand ancient allegory until we have reclaimed
the past. This precarious state requires a leap of faith into the truth of the past, which
Benjamin has solved, finally, near the end of his life, through the messianic operation.
Let us see how Winckelmann wished to handle the problem.
Werke, 11:485: "Die Sehnsucht nach dem Vaterlande ist ein edles Bild in der Figur des Ulysses, welcher
den in Ithaca aufsteigenden Rauch von feme zu sehen wiinschete; dieser Held ist aus alten Werken
kenntlich zu machen, aber dieser Begriff ist nicht in dessen Figur allein zu bilden."
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
It is in the Reflections that allegory first poses a problem for Winckelmann. The
section on "Allegory" begins with purely negative assertions: the modern artist, sick of
the recycled Christian subject matter of saints and martyrs (compare Hume's essay on
tragedy), wishes to poetize by inventing his own narratives, which he allegorically
transcribes into painting: but he "finds himself immediately on the brink of a precipice,
and starts back dismayed."40 The painter wishing to invent signs for abstract ideas shares
the fate of the savage whose tongue lacks words for "memory, space, duration, &c."41 In
short, we are facing Lessing's problem of visualizing abstractions. Winckelmann names
some artists who had succeeded in painting allegory, notably Rubens, and others who
failed, producing work "void of any meaning." He ends with the encomium which we
have already encountered:
Let the artist's pencil, like the pen of Aristotle, be impregnated with reason; that,
after having satiated the eye, he may nourish the mind: and this he may obtain by
Allegory; investing, not hiding his ideas. Then, whether he chuse some poetical
object himself, or follow the dictates of others, he shall be inspired by his art,
shall be fired with the flame brought down from heaven by Prometheus, shall
entertain the votary of art, and instruct the mere lover of it 4 2
The activist artist is to become an intellectual. But even should he accede to this level, of
perusing before performing, the problems of imperfect knowledge would continue to
impede his effort to reclaim ancient allegory. This is pointed out most incisively by
Winckelmann himself in the "Reply" to the Reflections, translated by Fuseli:
Neither am I quite of the author's opinion [writes 'anti-Winckelmann'] with
regard to allegory; the applying of which would too frequently do in painting,
Reflections, 57.
Ibid., 58.
Ibid., 64. This may be the place to advert that my view of Winckelmann is formed by chapter 9 of Walter
Pater's The Renaissance (London: Modern Liberary, 1873), where Winckelmann is presented as last (not
counting Pater himself) in a Renaissance tradition of conflating modernity with antiquity.
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
what was done in geometry by introducing algebra: the one would soon be as
difficult as the other, and painting would degenerate into Hieroglyphicks.43
Winckelmann objects against himself that encoded images would be unintelligible; to the
symbolism of visual representation of sense would be added the symbolism of the subject
matter, as algebraic symbolism is added to the geometric. This objection is restated with a
disarming admission of the difficulty of the task proposed:
How to represent abstract ideas I do not yet distinctly conceive. There may be the
same difficulties which attend the endeavours of representing to the senses a
mathe-matical point—perhaps nothing less than impossibility; and Theodoretus
has some reason in confining painting to the senses. For those Hieroglyphicks
which hint at abstract ideas, in such a manner as to express, for instance, youth by
the number XVI, impossibility by two feet standing on water: those, I say, are
monograms, not images: to indulge them in painting is fostering chimaeras, is
adding to Chinese pictures Chi-nese explications.44
This second objection is not only more thorough, but already contains, ten years before
the Versuch einer Allegorie, the polemic against the hieratic emblem, here called
'monogram.' Winckelmann in his critical mode saw clearly that this extreme case
compromises the entire endeavor of allegorical painting. It also threatens the decoding of
ancient images into emotional imperatives.
How did Winckelmann meet his own objections? He begins patiently by softening
the most radical claim of anti-Winckelmann, that painting should stick to the senses. "In
painting we commonly call fiction allegory," Winckelmann observes in the "Answer." If
all fiction is allegory, allegory cannot be too bad. "Colouring and design are to painting
what metre and truth, or the fable, are to poetry: a body without soul."45 One cannot treat
a painting as the pure formal accretion of paint; for that is only a body without the soul
"Objections against the foregoing Reflexions," 115.
Ibid., 116-117.
"Answer to the foregoing Letter," 189.
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
(or mind) provided by narrative, or the abstract idea. Once this is admitted, Winckelmann
proceeds more cautiously. Ancient allegory may be divided into two types, the sublime
and the more vulgar46 Not surprisingly, the more vulgar are the older allegories of the
Egyptians, while the Greeks perfected the sublime kind. The objections of antiWinckelmann apply only to the former:
The Egyptians were the first, who went in search of images of that kind. Such
were their hieroglyphicks...But the symbols of these inventors, partly preserved
by the Greeks, were often so mysteriously arbitrary, as to make it altogether
impossible to find out their meaning, even by the help of those authors that are
still extant; and such a discovery was looked upon as a nefarious profanation...
The relation of the sign to the thing signified, was in some measure founded on
the known or pretended qualities of the latter...the cat, being supposed to bring
forth a number of kittens equal to that of the days in a month, became the symbol
of Isis, or the moon.
The Greeks, on the contrary, endowed with more wit, and undoubtedly with more
sensibility, made use of no signs but such as had a true relation to the thing
signified, or were most agreeable to the senses: all their deities they invested with
human forms.47
This long passage goes as far as Winckelmann ever would in justifying allegory
aesthetically and cognitively. Bad allegory is the Egyptian cat which symbolizes the
moon through an arbitrary identity between the number of her kittens and the number of
days in a month; good allegory is based on a true or a pleasant relation between sign and
the thing signified. This strange equivocation of "true or pleasant" is resolved by the
invocation of the Greek body, which is true and pleasant. Benjamin was right to see the
key to Winckelmann's theory of allegory in a humanism of the body. But this bodily key
to allegory is implicit in Benjamin's own presentation of Robespierre embodying ancient
Romans: without it, one cannot dodge the theoretical doubt that one is mis-appropriating
Ibid., 201.
Ibid., 194, 195-196. This theory of signs, indebted to Warburton, points the way to d'Hancarville,
discussed in Ch. 3. On arbitrary signs in eighteenth-century thought, see Derrida, Of Grammatology.
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
symbols that the present just doesn't understand.48 We can see how this confidence in the
body as carrier of truth and beauty, and thus of truth by virtue of its beauty, misled
Winckelmann into trusting the Ganymede which he so enjoyed. It is the unity of
presentation in the Ganymede, which led Heinrich Meyer, the devoted partisan of the
classicizing Goethe and editor of the monumental eight-volume edition of Winckelmann's
Werke (1808-1820), to argue that the fresco could not be the work of the eclectic Mengs
but rather a genuine antique 49 Meyer doubts that Mengs should have painted with such
unity of conception: he dismisses the drawings by Casanova which also fooled
Winckelmann as incomparable with the Ganymede. Meyer's learning and perceptiveness,
and his devotion to Winckelmann's teaching lead one to believe that Winckelmann,
should he have lived to witness the controversy over the Ganymede, would have persisted
in affirming its authenticity.
And yet we know that in private letters unknown to Meyer Winckelmann
expressed doubts about Mengs's trustworthiness. We also recall that in the Versuch he
speaks at second hand of the Ganymede's authenticity ("regarded by many as old"). So
the seeds of doubt may be taken as having been planted. The refusal to carry through a
break with the work, a refusal honorably upheld by Winckelmann's follower Meyer, is a
product of bad faith. Meyer went so far as to include in the third volume of the Werke an
engraving after a line drawing of the Ganymede (FIG.2.28) which he executed from
In other words, while the Benjamin of the Trauerspiel book prefers allegoiy, while the Benjamin of the
theses needs the symbol to activate his Robespierrian appropriation of the past: the whole point of the
symbol is its lucidity over time, which activist neoclassicism grasps. Benjamin's vocabulary of the tiger,
stalking in the thickets of the past and leaping at the opportune moment, is a symbol indebted to Rilke and
to William Blake's romantic 'tyger' with its symmetry between sensuous form and meaning. See Northrop
Frye, Fearful Symmetry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947).
See the long footnote 762 to Winckelmann's account of the painting: Werke vol.5, 483-493, esp. 485.
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
memory.50 The drawing, which maintains a Flaxmanian decorum of line with only the
faintest traces of volume in the joints and musculature of the two figures, is
Winckelmannian self-deception raised to high art. In the privileged medium of linear
neoclassicism, no datum could betray Mengs's or any other modern hand: following
Meyer's transcription, all we have is the fabricated antique. Whoever really deserves
credit for injecting Ganymede into history—and we have seen that at least four
protagonists, Mengs, Casanova, Winckelmann, and Meyer, claim credit for this—there is
no denying that it is the simple allegory Winckelmann asked for. In Meyer's drawing,
that unity of purpose is matched by a clarity of execution that makes it a high point of
what I have called activist neoclassicism.
This paradoxical achievement cannot be rebutted but it may, once again, be
instructively contrasted with Fuseli's own Ganymede. This work, wherein the allegorical
machinery of attribution decisively breaks down, makes no bones about its modernity.
Less than five years after Alois Senefelder set up the first lithographic press in Offenbach
am Main, Fuseli produced in his Ganymede a piece of illegible antique allegory in the
medium "without syntax," that permits reproduction of a design without the need for an
original.51 The grainy monotone texture of the print, typical of the early lithograph, only
superficially resembles a charcoal drawing: it is with a minimum of'learning' that one
identifies it as a multiple, and its author as no ancient but the 'HF' who has signed the
image prominently in the upper left-hand corner. This signature, the appropriate but not
entirely helpful citation from the Iliad, and the configuration of gods and mortals add up
See Pelzel, passim. Meyer was not allowed to sketch from the painting, so a few inaccuracies ensued.
On Fuseli's place in early English lithography, see Felix H. Man, "Lithography in England (1801-1810),"
in Prints: Thirteen Illustrated Essays, ed. Carl Zigrosser. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962),
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
to an allegory deviating from the Winckelmannian mould: it is the trace not of a simple,
revolutionary union of past and present but of a conflict of interests between past and
present, men and gods, creative ingenuity and machine production.
The conflict of interests, once brought to the level of discourse, can be used to
explicitly critique the Winckelmannian model of past-appropriation. It can object that the
past artifact is neither a natural sign to be used in accordance with the modern subject's
libido, nor an arbitrary sign doomed to eternal mortification in an allegorical limbo; it is a
historical investigation of interests which may be understood in their sympathy or
divergence but not conjoined tendentiously to contemporary desire. That Winckelmann
felt something of the sort, in relation to the Ganymede painting, can be seen in the
Versuch einer Allegorie, where he returns to the work in a critical light:
We have in an old painting, which is regarded by many as old, a Jupiter who
wants to kiss Ganymede, and is described in the History of Art. This Jupiter has a
downright brown color, in the face and insofar as he is naked, which against the
blooming flesh of Ganymede who stands nearby, adds up to a hard and disgusting
object.. .This unpleasant flesh coloring must have a reason, which however is hard
to discover without allegory; but it seems not far from the rationale that, if we
think of Jupiter as the air, that is implied in his pictures, which, when it is
pregnant with thunder, wraps itself in dark mists, whose picture the color of
Jupiter seems to be.52
116-130. On lithography (and photography) as media "without syntax," see William M. Ivins, Jr. Prints
and Visual Communication (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953).
Werke, II: 596. The text is obscure, so I reproduce the original (with portions I cut in brackets): "Wir
haben auf einem alten Gemahlde, welches von vielen fur alt gehalten wird, einen Jupiter, der den
Ganymedes kussen will, und in der Geschichte der Kunst angezeiget worden. Dieser Jupiter hat eine vollig
braune Farbe, sowohl im Gesichte als soweit er nackend ist, welches gegen das bluhende Fleisch des
Ganymedes neben demselben, einen harten und widrigen Gegenstand verursachet, [und ohne obige
Nachricht, welche bisher von niemanden eigentlich verstanden ist, nicht zu reimen scheinet.] Diese wenig
liebliche Fleischfarbe mu|3 ihren Grund haben, welcher jedoch schwerlich ohne allegorische Deutung zu
finden ist; es scheinet aber nicht ganzlich vom Zwecke entfernet, wenn wir den Jupiter als die Luft
betrachten, die in dessen Bilde angedeutet wurde, welche, wenn sie von Blitzen schwanger ist, sich in
dunklen Diinsten verhiillet zeiget, deren Bild gedachte Farbe des Jupiters zu seyn scheinet." The 'report' to
which Winckelmann refers is Plutarch's description of a work of Apelles, cited below.
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
Leaving aside Winckelmann's racism and the questionable significance of his own
enjoyment of this aspect of the painting to its interpretation, we can see in this text the
motives to an appropriative activism laid bare, together with the resulting interpretive
work of allegorizing. Winckelmann is disturbed by the skin color, which he cannot accept
in his erotic present, and must therefore assume that the Greeks had something else in
mind with it than erotic satisfaction. This he finds, with some effort, through a
meteorological interpretation of Zeus as representing a thunderstorm. It is significant that
he begins this passage with a much more plausible reading of Plutarch, who described
Apelles's portrait of Alexander the Great as Zeus as Kemvco/uEvog, which Winckelmann
thinks meant "brown in the manner of an oiled wrestler."53 This interpretation, which is
not nearly as sententious as the one which follows, recalls Winckelmann's visionary
meditation in the Reflections on the beauty of Greek works reflecting the tanned bodies of
young Greek athletes. But for all its force, this social reading, which in the end confronts
Winckelmann with just too much dark flesh to be appetizing, has to give way to an
allegory: the allegory, being the product of the reader, fits the intractable historical
material into the activist's dream. It does not, however, entirely mask his bad conscience.
The practice of allegory as reduction of the past to the needs of the present was
criticized by Fuseli in his fourth Lecture on Painting. It was indeed the very example of
Ganymede from Versuch einer Allegorie which Fuseli chose to attack:
Is the Zeus of Homer, of whose almighty will the bard, at the very threshold of
his poem, proclaims himself only the herald, by the purblind acuteness of a
commentator, to be turned into asther; and Juno, just arriving from her celestial
toilet, changed into air, to procure from their mystic embraces the allegoric
offspring of vernal impregnation? When Minerva, by her weight, makes the
chariot of Diomede groan, and Mars wounded, roars with the voice of ten
Ibid: "braunlich wie an gesalbten Ringern," 595-6.
2.1 Excursus on Comedy
thousand, are they nothing but the symbol of military discipline, and the sound of
the battle's roar?... What becomes of the interest the poet and the artist mean to
excite in us, if, in the moment of reading or contemplating, we do not believe
what the one tells and the other shows? It is that magic which places on the same
basis of existence, and amalgamates the mythic or superhuman, and the human
parts of the Ilias, of Paradise Lost, and of the Sistine Chapel, that enraptures,
agitates, and whirls us along as readers or spectators.54
The survival of the gods as agents, and not just allegories, is understood by Fuseli to be
central to the conflict of interests through which art implicates its audience. This conflict
of interests, held together by an ironic resolve to conversation between a past and a
present that don't understand each other, is comic. The lie, when it is thematized as such,
becomes a joke, even if its subject continues to affirm it. It remains funny even if its
subject, by extraordinary efforts, manages to forget that it is a lie. I can illuminate this
state of affairs through an example. James Joyce's novel, Portrait of the Artist as a Young
Man, ends on a note of Winckelmannian exhortation:
Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience
and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.55
"To forge" in the smithy of one's soul means both to fashion something out of durable
material like iron, and to commit a forgery. And it is only by forgetting this second
meaning that can one forge the uncreated conscience of a race. I bring all of this up not to
criticize Winckelmann or Benjamin for advancing truth claims, which is a natural enough
attitude for working historians—but to show how in one specific work, the Ganymede,
Fuseli discussed an antique myth without advancing truth claims, as a kind of historical
joke conjoining the old, the new, and the inauthentic.
Bungarten, I: 132; Knowles, II: 199-200. This lecture was first read in 1805, according to Fuseli's
manuscript notes (Bungarten, II: 30). The text suggests yet another reading for Fuseli's print: a parody of
Winckelmannian allegory, with Jupiter, Juno, and Ganymede standing for illegible natural processes.
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man [1916] (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999), 217. The
very last sentence follows: "Old father, old artificer [s/c/], stand me now and ever in good stead."
2.2 Illustrations to Chapters 2 and 2.1 Pop
FIG.2.1 Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1781, oil on canvas, 180 x 250cm,
The Detroit Institute of Arts (SCHIFF 757).
FIG.2.2 Thomas Burke after Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1783, stipple engraving, 227
250mm, published by John Raphael Smith, British Museum, 1870,0514.1610.
2.2 Illustrations to Chapters 2 and 2.1 Pop
FIG.2.4 Thomas Holloway after Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare, metal engraving, 122
97mm, in Erasmus Darwin, The Loves of the Plants, (London: J. Johnson, 1789).
2.2 Illustrations to Chapters 2 and 2.1
FIG.2.5 Fuseli, The Incubus Leaving Two Sleeping Women, 1810, pencil, wash, and watercolor,
31.8 x 40.8cm, Kunsthaus Zurich (SCHIFF 1445).
FIG.2.6 William Raddon after a lost painting by Fuseli, The Nightmare, 1827, line engraving,
18.4 x 23cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, (WEINGLASS 67B).
2.2 Illustrations to Chapters 2 and 2.1 Pop
FIG.2.7 Henry Fuseli, Satan Starting at the Touch oflthuriel's Spear, 1779-81,
oil on canvas, 267x276.3cm, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart (SCHIFF Lost 18).
FIG.2.8 Henry Fuseli, Non ti scordar di me, [1820], pencil and gray wash,
97 x 113mm, Offentliche Kunstsammlung, Basel (SCHIFF 1632).
2.2 Illustrations to Chapters 2 and 2.1
FIG.2.9 Friedrich Rehberg, Three Attitudes of Lady Hamilton, [1791-1794], pencil, pen and brush on paper,
220x350mm, Harvard University, Houghton Library, Typ 725.94.736 F.
FIG.2.10 Pietro Antonio Novelli, Attitudes of Lady Hamilton, 1791, pen and brown ink on paper,
195x320mm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988.14.1.
2.2 Illustrations to Chapters 2 and 2.1
FIG.2.11 Anonymous, The Celestial Bed with the Rosy Goddess of Health
reposing thereon, hand-colored engraving, published by J. Graham.
2.2 Illustrations to Chapters 2 and 2.1
FIG. 2.12 Fuseli, Woman's Head in Profile [inscribed "Lady Hamilton" in a later hand],
[1780-90], chalk heightened in white, 390 x 278cm, Kunsthaus Zurich. (SCHIFF 857)
2.2 Illustrations to Chapters 2 and 2.1 Pop
FIG. 2.13 Fuseli, verso of The Nightmare, portrait of unknown woman (Anna Landolt?),
1781, 127 x 101cm, The Detroit Institute of Arts (SCHIFF 759).
2.2 Illustrations to Chapters 2 and 2.1
FIG.2.14 William Lock, Emma Hamilton Dancing the Tarantella, pencil, pen and wash on tan paper,
373x287mm, British Museum, Prints and Drawings 1906.7.19.4.
2.2 Illustrations to Chapters 2 and 2.1 Pop
FIG.2.15 Henry Fuseli, A Woman before the Laocoon II, [1801-1805], pen and brown ink
over pencil, 320x404mm, Kunsthaus Zurich, Grafische Sammlung (SCHIFF 1072A).
>4 * ^
• Vjf . v
FIG.2.16 Henry Fuseli, A Woman before the Laocoon I, [1801-1805], pen and brown ink
over pencil, 320 x 404mm, Kunsthaus Zurich, Grafische Sammlung (SCHIFF 1072).
2.2 Illustrations to Chapters 2 and 2.1 Pop
FIG.2.17 George Romney, Portrait of Emma Hamilton as Sensibility,
oil on canvas, 150x121.5cm, private collection.
2.2 Illustrations to Chapters 2 and 2.1 Pop
FIG. 2.18 William Artaud, Lady Hamilton's Attitudes, 1796, pencil in sketchbook,
113x180mm, British Museum, Prints and Drawings, 1973.12.8.85 (7r).
FIG .2.19 Francesco Novelli after Pietro Antonio Novelli, Lady Hamilton's Attitudes, after 1791,
etching, 204 x 325mm, The Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
2.2 Illustrations to Chapters 2 and 2.1
FIG.2.20 Henry Fuseli (?) The Nightmare, 1781, black chalk heightened with white, 482 x 692mm,
British Museum 1885,3.154.198 (SCHIFF 841).
FIG.2.21 Thomas Rowlandson, The Covent Garden Night Mare [Fox], 1784, hand-colored etching,
published by William Humphrey, British Museum 1851,0901.195.
2.2 Illustrations to Chapters 2 and 2.1
2.2 Illustrations to Chapters 2 and 2.1 Pop
FIG.2.24 Henry Fuseli, The Dream of Socrates, 1781, black chalk heightened with white,
478 x 321mm, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett (SCHIFF 802).
2.2 Illustrations to Chapters 2 and 2.1
FIG.2.25 Henry Fuseli, God Marking Cain, 1781, black chalk heightened with white, 630 x 531mm,
Kunsthaus Zurich, Grafische Sammlung (SCHIFF 791).
2.2 Illustrations to Chapters 2 and 2.1
FIG.2.26 Anton Rafael Mengs or Giovanni Casanova, Jupiter and Ganymede, forged antique fresco,
Rome, Galleria Nazionale in Palazzo Corsini, Inv. No. 1339.
2.2 Illustrations to Chapters 2 and 2.1
FIG.2.27 Henry Fuseli, Heavenly Ganymede ("so the gods carried him off... "), [1800-5], lithograph,
337 x 264mm, British Museum 1852,0214.21 (SCHIFF 1346).
2.2 Illustrations to Chapters 2 and 2.1
I ll^nrfief.ijM.
FIG.2.28 C.A. Schwerdgeburth after Heinrich Meyer, Jupiter and Ganymede, metal engraving,
in Meyer, ed., Winckelmann's Werke (Dresden, 1808-1825), plate volume, V, No.VII.
3. The Satyr Play
The Satyr Play, or Naturalizing Human Nature
Great Love, I know thee now:
Eldest of the gods art thou.
Heav'n and earth by thee were made.
Human nature is thy creature,
Ev'rywhere thou art obey'd.
John Dryden and Henry Purcell, King
In junior high school in Los Angeles, I was given to read a young adult novel called
Bunnicula) Bunnicula is a detective story: it recounts the puzzlement of a community of
house pets at the strange occurrences following the adoption of a Transylvanian rabbit.
Carrots, broccoli, a tomato are found mornings around the kitchen pale and limp, drained
of their juices. Bunnicula, it turns out, is a vegetarian vampire. Going against the
conventions of vampire literature, which is mainly concerned with the difficulties of
killing vampires, the problem is solved with the discovery of Bunnicula's vampirism.
Vegetables keep being sucked dry, but the animals rest content with the knowledge that
being a vampire is in Bunnicula's nature and is thus unlikely to be amenable to reform.
I do not wish to draw theoretical conclusions from this book. I only recall it
because it sums up strikingly an aspect of political liberalism to which Fuseli's painting
contributes: the toleration of human diversity through an account of human nature. True,
the legitimation of Bunnicula's perversity by finding it congenital is not likely to impress
us today as politically sensitive. Some might even find arguments about human nature
distasteful: they resemble arguments resting on the concept of race. But the discrediting
of racial modes of thinking in politics is itself a result of biological knowledge and of the
Deborah and James Howe, Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery (New York: Atheneum, 1979).
3. The Satyr Play
spread of secular as opposed to tribal conceptions of human life. One watershed in the
liberal political use of biological concepts of life is Mary Wollstonecraft's defense of the
rights of women as human creatures. Mary Wollstonecraft's life and theorizing intersects
with Fuseli's, yet transcends it in such a way that it will illuminate for us the wider
political implications of liberal neopaganism. In this chapter I trace a line of thought
about gender and sexual freedom in the late eighteenth century, showing how in the
Fuseli circle political equality and the diversity of human customs and behavior were
explained through the variability and constancy of sex. The biological vision of human
nature innervated classicism so as to make it a thoroughly mundane practice. I call this
classicism satyrical in honor of the satyr play, that most elusive and sensual of ancient
Greek theaters, still in the process of being 'rediscovered' in the eighteenth century.
To recognize this is not to discount the danger of political coercion latent in
arguments about human nature. I can point this out briefly with reference to painting
through a work of Fuseli's late period, Odysseus Escaping from the Cave of Polyphemus
(FIG.3.1). In this painting, which was reproduced in the 1805 edition of Pope's Homer,
the ostensible hero has been reduced visually to the undignified tail end of a human body.
It is the drooling, slouching, disconsolate giant who holds our attention, as he holds that
of Odysseus. The Cyclops too is a human body—the one alienating feature, his dead eye,
is sheltered by a pain-wracked hand—but a human body whose ideal nudity has been
transformed by an interest in the crudely physical side of life. The Cyclops's toes,
nipples, extremities of all kinds, glint and draw our eye in the ghostly illumination of
dawn overtaking the lip of the cave. We may say, with Ernst Beutler, writing in Frankfurt
3. The Satyr Play
in 1939, that Fuseli "is only concerned with the human tragedy of the broken titan."2 Yet
for such an affirmation to be meaningful, we must overcome the contradiction between
"human tragedy" and "broken titan" which contains the brutality of this anecdote since its
invention by Homer. We shall return to this painting at the end of the chapter, when the
conditions for its interpretation have been prepared.
Liberalism and Human Nature
First, a few words about human nature. As a family of concepts it reaches back to
antiquity, at least to Aristotle's identification of the nature of something with its purpose.3
Applied to politics, this pragmatic method of investigation lent metaphysical support for
customary divisions of power in the Greek world. Slavery and the subjection of women
were justified by the subjection of the body to the soul in the human individual.4 From
such an appeal to human nature, it followed that there is natural right or right order of
things, and a natural law, which it is good to obey. This duality of the tradition is put
concisely by Pope: "The State of Nature was the reign of God."5 In the Christian era, this
way of thinking redeemed political inequality; but it also led to demands for change in
the established order. In the wake of the English Civil War, John Locke could justify
"Ihm geht es nur um die menschliche Tragik des gebrochenen Titanen." Ernst Beutler, Johann Heinrich
Fiissli: Ansprache bei Erojfnung der Fiissli-Ausstellung des Frankfurter Goethemuseums am 27. August
1938 (Halle an der Saale: Mar Niemener Verlag, 1939), 22.
The Physics (199b) contains Aristotle's explicit discussion of teleology (goal-orientation).
On slavery, see the Politics 1255a and 1330a, and Nicomachean Ethics 1134b and 1161b. For a critique of
arguments from psychology to social life, see Stuart Hampshire, Justice is Conflict (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2000). Aristotelian politics was revived among others by Joachim Ritter, Naturrecht bei
Aristoteles (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1961); on the current scene, Aristotelian arguments vary from Alasdair
Macintyre's critique of modernity to Martha Nussbaum's defense of universal human rights.
Essay on Man, III: 148.
3. The Satyr Play
constitutional government on the basis of a state of nature of autonomous human beings.6
This is political liberalism as far as ends are concerned, but the means are authoritarian:
by positing an absolute natural right, one marks its violation (say, absolute monarchy) as
an alienation of human nature. This line of reasoning is used to advocate a return to
unalienated human nature.
In their emphatic form just discussed, theories of human nature often fall prey to
one curious circularity. A thinker's preferences concerning politics and private conduct
are attributed to biological necessity or historically to the prelapsarian state of man. Then,
principles of action or government are deduced which are in harmony with this posited
human nature. This kind of operation can of course gain in plausibility if scientific or
aesthetic principles not obviously derived from an author's politics are adduced to flesh
out the conception of human nature. For example, Montaigne, in the seventeenth century,
is optimistic about natural man because reports about Brazilian natives indicated to him a
high achievement in lyrical poetry and sense of justice among the Brazilians.7 Not that
the circularity is not easy to banish: the Brazilians may be admirable, but to attribute that
to the natural attributes promoted by their culture rather than to the culture itself is a
result of the preconception that in general nature is better than culture. So specificity is
always helpful in relieving arguments about human nature of their self-deluding quality.
They further gain in force if, instead of defining a rigid human ideal, the violation of
which is deemed unnatural and thus subject to censure, they allow for a variability in
human nature corresponding with the complexity of the facts it is called upon to explain.
On Locke'a theological politics, see Leo Strauss, "On Locke's Doctrine of Natural Right," Philosophical
Review, Vol.61, No.4 (Oct. 1952), 475-502. On natural law, see esp. Max Weber, Economy and Society, ed.
Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), vol.2, 865-880.
3. The Satyr Play
Such improvements might produce a theory of human nature free from natural law. The
political consequences drawn from such a theory would be negative, promoting tolerance
of the phenomena described by the theory, not punishing its violations.8
Does European history bear witness to processes of naturalization and growing
pluralism in the discourse on human nature? I think so. Even Rousseau's noble savage,
insofar as he is an inference from non-European people supposed to be still living in a
state close to that of nature, is an improvement on Locke's appeal to the life of Adam and
Eve. The gain is substantial. Speaking of "a state which exists no longer, perhaps never
existed, probably never will exist," Rousseau treads cautiously where eighteenth century
knowledge of human prehistory was most fragmentary. His state of nature is conceived
on the model of an unknown simple culture that casts light on the complexities of modern
culture; thus it is "necessary to have just ideas [of it], in order to judge well our present
state."9 The vagueness of Rousseau's anthropology is to its advantage—he is
imaginatively free because he lacks information about 'primitives', whom he tentatively
identifies with actually existing orangutans.10
In fact, Rousseau's speculation owes its plausibility to a negative theory of human
nature as we have sketched it. Published to general indifference in 1739, David Hume's
Treatise of Human Nature begins with empiricism and ends with a thorough skepticism.
The lessons learned are timeless: "I am sorry that Lycurgus and Plato did not know of them." Michel de
Montaigne, "On Cannibals," Essays, translated by J.M. Cohen, (London: Penguin, 1993), 153.
1 start here from the contrast of "negative" and "positive" liberty in Isaiah Berlin, Two Concepts of Liberty
(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), where negative liberty is non-interference with individual choice, and
positive liberty is self-mastery, a conscious seeking for the good life by individuals or communities. The
problem for Berlin is how to justify the necessary balance of the two: I hope to show that the liberalbiologistic concept of human nature is of significance for a possible solution.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754. Arthur. O. Lovejoy, "The Supposed Primitivism
of Rousseau's 'Discourse on Inequality,'" Modern Philology, Vol.21, No.2 (Nov.1923), 165-186, shows
the savage to be for Rousseau a "mixed condition between two extremes."
3. The Satyr Play
To Hume, all knowledge of nature is uncertain, and reasoning likewise, since we get our
ideas exclusively from nature through the senses.
All probable reasoning is nothing but a species of sensation. 'Tis not solely in
poetry and music, we must follow our taste and sentiment, but likewise in
philosophy. When I am convinced of any principle, 'tis only an idea, which strikes
more strongly upon me....Objects have no discoverable connexion together; nor
is it from any other principle but custom operating upon the imagination, that we
can draw any inference... 11
One expects a philosopher who has convinced himself of the radical arbitrariness of all
human thought to despair. Why bother to go on thinking, much less writing to influence
others? But Hume is steadfast. He has a conviction immune to skepticism:
Nature, by an absolute and uncontrollable necessity has determined us to judge as
well as to breathe and feel; nor can we any more forbear viewing certain objects
in a stronger and fuller light, upon account of their customary connexion with a
present impression, than we can hinder ourselves from thinking as long as we are
awake, or seeing the surrounding bodies, when we turn our eyes toward them in
broad sunshine.12
Human beings think and feel by nature and habit, and will continue to do so even when
reason has convinced them that they have no good reason to think and feel a certain way.
An account of culture, then, is just an account of how human nature issues in habitual or
conventional ways of thinking. A subterranean explanation of our convictions along these
lines is necessary if we are to overcome the skeptical critique of reason. Hume is not
interested in extending this narrative of human nature descriptively, but more recent
accounts of the mind which do not start with rationality—from behaviorism to
psychoanalysis—are consistent with Hume's insistence on the incorrigibility of thought
processes. And yet a modern reader may balk at Hume's seemingly indifferent alternation
Discourse on Inequality, Note 10. Rousseau calls on anthropology to study primitive man in situ.
David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Part iii, Section viii. My italics.
Hume, I: iv: ii. He also proposes a psychological solution: "Carelessness and inattention alone can afford
us any remedy." (I: iv: ii) A theory of human nature generalizes this therapeutic inconstancy.
3. The Satyr Play
of the terms nature and custom in accounting for our necessity to think.13 The confusion
is only apparent. When Hume speaks of nature 'by absolute necessity' compelling us to
act in accordance with custom, he is in fact defining the human as social by nature. The
consequences of this bold but unassuming definition will guide us through this chapter.
Natural Man, Natural Woman: Rousseau to Wollstonecraft
The proposition of man as a social being is, by historical accident, put to vastly different
uses in Western Europe before and after the decade spanning the French Revolution. The
period preceding revolution was dominated by Rousseau's ethical anthropology, which
sought to confront ossified modern culture with precultural virtues. After the revolution
there were fewer pure Rousseauians about. A social definition of man had to provide both
a detailed critique of institutions and a (negative) defense of individual claims against
revolutionary regimes that handled opponents summarily.14 Obviously the balance is a
delicate one, and conservative thought makes recourse to the supposed sanctity of human
nature to stifle political discussion.15 But it is the liberal tradition of human nature
arguments I emphasize for two reasons: these arguments are still germane, and are
neglected or misunderstood today. Moreover, these arguments are forcefully embodied in
the art I call neopagan.
Cf. I: iv: i: Reasoning is "a faculty, which nature has antecedently implanted in the mind" yet "all our
reasonings concerning causes and effects are derived from nothing but custom." See Fred W. Voget,
"Anthropology in the Age of Enlightenment: Progress and Utopian Functionalism," Southwestern Journal
of Anthropology, Vol.24, No.4 (Winter 1968), 321-345, and Christopher J. Berry, Social Theory of the
Scottish Enlightenment (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997).
This second face of liberalism might be called, without contradiction, its conservative function. It is
stated lucidly in Burke's Reflections on the French Revolution it is anticipated, in thoroughly sentimental
function, by Herder's Yet Another Philosophy of History of 1773.
1 cite only one very recent case, Pope Benedict XVI's pronouncements concerning bioengineering and
fertility treatments, e.g. Jttrgen Habermas and Joseph Ratzinger, Dialektik der Sakularisierung: Uber
Vernunft und Religion (Freiburg: Herder, 2005), 47.
3. The Satyr Play
Let us begin where Hume left off. That is, not very far from Rousseau. The two
were unlikely friends for the first half of the 1760s, a state of affairs that collapsed shortly
after Rousseau's arrival in England in 1766, in part due to the animosity of the press, in
part due to his own growing fear of persecution.16 In retrospect it is surprising the two
didn't quarrel sooner. In 1762 Rousseau prefaced Du contrat social with a republican
dedication to Geneva; Hume, who published the last volume of his History of England
that year, was a Tory more interested in literary prestige than republican virtue.17 But in
the person of the young Fuseli, whom Hume introduced to Rousseau in Paris around New
Year 1766, we find a common ground of Rousseauian critique and Humean skepticism.
This is particularly true of Fuseli's anonymous book on Rousseau, which we discussed in
Chapter 1. The Remarks on Rousseau (1767) insisted that Rousseau's most hyperbolic
constructions—the noble savage and the state of nature—are methodological hypotheses
by which to measure the political and experiential quality of modern life. Rousseau's
discourse on inequality is for Fuseli "the triumph of conjecture" predicated on the "mere
possibility" of a state of nature.18 The genealogy of luxury and tyranny, Fuseli insists, are
no plea for a return to nature: "he did not establish ignorance as a positive standard of
virtue, or affirm its incompatibility with vice; he said not that in our present state of
society the sciences and arts were to be proscribed."19 On the contrary, Rousseau admires
science and art in themselves, but cannot help finding "their origin in our vices, (a radical
A good account of this very public quarrel is Dena Goodman, "The Hume-Rousseau Affair: From Private
Querelle to Public Proces," Eighteenth-Century Studies (Winter 1991-92), 171-201.
An unflattering picture of Hume's political complacency is to be found in Alasdair Maclntyre, Whose
Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 294-295.
Remarks on Rousseau, 29, 23.1 quote out of context: the 'triumph of conjecture' is the second discourse;
the Dijon Academicians presuppose "the super-natural state of Adam and Eve," (21) "mindless of the once
existence, or mere possibility of a state of nature.".
Remarks, 4.
3. The Satyr Play
vice, if you will) and their application consecrated to our passions; from the boisterous
sway of these, and the twilight of reason, he demonstrated, that for one probability
thousand absurdities, thousand absurdities for one truth must swarm among us."20
If we are not too dazzled by Fuseli's baroque prose, some remarkable shifts in
perspective can be charted in the text. Rousseau himself prefers cultures that preserve a
simple liberty ("with mediocrity," adds Fuseli); we are given his list of the evils which
befall rich nations, culminating in barbarian invasion. But Fuseli is most struck by the
natural cognitive confusions, which are made conscious but cannot be removed by the
modern Humean skepticism. Thought serves the passions, absurdities encircle every
probability, a twilight of reason dominates, not its total absence. The mutability of human
nature, once self-aware, presents itself as a state of crisis.21 This panicked selfconsciousness is the sharpest item in Rousseau's critical repertoire: in accepting it, Fuseli
and Hume must defend modern society otherwise than by complacently identifying its
rationality with that of man the "rational animal." Hume, as we saw, took refuge in a
kind of fatalism: we cannot help thinking, however imperfectly, because nature makes us.
But there is hope for culture in Rousseau's practical teaching, and Fuseli, being younger
and more sincere in his Rousseauism, noticed it.
In discussing Rousseau's work as a whole, Fuseli observes that its moral
consistency makes "each subsequent [book] a comment on the former."22 First Rousseau
dealt in extremes, mirroring the urgency of nature. Then, reluctantly, he turned to his
imperfect contemporaries. "As you must either be social or nothing," Fuseli cajoles the
Remarks, 6-7. Fuseli points out the genealogical in Rousseau: "he drew the pedigree of the sciences and
arts, shewed them grafted on luxury and leisure, those on riches, and wealth on inequality..." (Remarks, 9).
Here I follow Robert Spaemann's fine Rousseau, Burger ohne Vaterland (Miinchen: Piper, 1980).
Remarks, 34.
3. The Satyr Play
reader, "as you are so much more obliged to be a gentleman than a man," Rousseau had
to humor and educate 'you' simultaneously through the didactic romance that is EmileP
Fuseli's stern young-man tone cannot mask the fact that he does think we 'must be social
or nothing', since, as he emphasizes in Rousseau's own anthropology, there is no
returning to the state of nature.24 The task of Rousseau, and every reformer, is
consequently to deploy "nature [to] teach humanity in play."25
There is a revealing attempt at such an act of aesthetic education at the very
beginning of the Remarks on Rousseau. Fuseli drew a frontispiece, unsigned like the
book itself, which recalls the rough, emblematic force of the Reformation broadsides that
impressed the young divinity student
(FIG.3.2). A S
a polemical frontispiece, the engraving
is less a work of art than a synopsis of the argument. At left, Rousseau, wrapped in his
distinctive 'Armenian' fur coat, smiles patiently and points to Voltaire, modishly dressed
"in a flowing peruke, with a pair of jackboots and spurs," as Fuseli put it in an
anonymous review of his own book.26 Voltaire sports a whip and rides a nude savage
with grass dribbling from his mouth. Like the rest of the image, this equestrian group
condenses incompatible predicates. It is both serious criticism and a joke at Voltaire's
expense. And it is a reply in kind. For with his 1766 Lettre au Docteur Pansophe,
Remarks, 34-35.
Consider this reservation about Rousseau's political theory: "Where laws are only the curb of a public,
the attempt of transfusing them into manners is folly.. .Of this I make no other application than, that little
can be learned now from the Political Writings of Rousseau." (Remarks, 82-83).
Remarks, 35.
Critical Review, May 1767, reprinted in Mason, Bemerkungen, 136. Cf. Weinglass, 10. There is also an
allegory of Justice and Liberty, "pendant by their necks upon a gibbet.. .upon the beam of which is seen all
that remains of the temple of Liberty." Rousseau's face and dress recall Allan Ramsay's 1766 oil portrait
now in the National Gallery of Scotland, painted for Hume. Recently, Douglas Fordham, in "Allan
Ramsay's Enlightenment: or, Hume and the Patronizing Portrait," Art Bulletin, Vol.88, No.3 (Sept.2006),
508-524, reads the portrait as advancing European imperialism and a subtle attack on Rousseau (E.g.:
"One wonders, for example, if the Rembrandtesque chiaroscuro and staging presumed too much familiarity
on Ramsay's part." 511). Fuseli's use of the portrait somewhat vitiates this claim.
3. The Satyr Play
Voltaire had set out to turn English opinion against Rousseau by exaggerating his views
extremely: supposedly Rousseau had urged Londoners to "brouter l'herbe dans HydePark, ou manger du gland dans la foret de Windsor."27 It is thus not Rousseau's but
Voltaire's savage that we are shown in the frontispiece, "a monster which he has bridled,
saddled, and brought to the ground."28 This creature belongs to Voltaire in two ways. In
its herbivorous absurdity, it has nothing to do with the hypothetical primitive Fuseli finds
in Rousseau; and the nonchalance with which it is ridden points to the exploitation of
man by the system of luxury (read: inequality) of which Voltaire is the champion.29 In
this second sense, though he is Voltaire's figment, the savage belongs to both parties in
the dispute. He has the blankness which Fuseli, with Hume and Rousseau, attributes to
the authentic primitive: "wrapped up in instinct,—taught his lore by appetite and fear—
harmless because content—content because void of comparative ideas.. ."30 Though more
versatile than Voltaire's, this formula is too abstract to blot out his vivid picture of the
acorn-eating Londoner, a parody of the state of nature. We may recall here the aphorism
which Fuseli appended to his translation of Lavater's Aphorisms on Man in 1789:
If you mean to know yourself, interline such aphorisms as affected you agreeably
in reading, and set a mark to such as left a sense of uneasiness with you; and then
shew your copy to whom you please.31
Fuseli's view of human nature, as it developed, is then both adaptable and social.
There is perhaps an anachronistic appeal for us in this performative or processual
Oeuvres completes de Voltaire: Melanges V (1766-68), vol.26, ed. Louis Moland (Paris: Gamier, 1877).
'Pansophe' is a play on Voltaire's own Pangloss. Fuseli calls Voltaire Pansophe (Remarks, 30f).
Fuseli, in Mason, 136. Interestingly, the herbivorous savage returns with Nietzsche a century later.
Fuseli admired but had no love for "that threadworn withered bastard of Fancy, that proud lesson of
humility" (Remarks, 30), whom he attacked in print for his views on Shakespeare (see Ch.2, Note 5).
Remarks, 25. Fuseli agrees with Arthur Lovejoy in finding the primitive for Rousseau's as "healthy,
placid, and good-natured, but absolutely stupid, non-social, and non-moral..." Lovejoy, op.cit., 182.
Aphorimss on Man, 224 (§633). See also my introduction and Sybille Erie's article cited there.
3. The Satyr Play
approach to self and species. But mutable human nature, as empiricism sought to define it
in dialogue with Rousseau's naturalism, proved no match in the eighteenth centuiy for
Voltaire's caricature of the savage eating acorns—a caricature meant to render political
speculation on human nature preposterous.
Given this imaginative construction of human nature, Fuseli's effort on behalf of
Rousseau, however brilliant, is unmistakably a defensive action. Voltaire had his day in
1767. The Remarks on Rousseau, whether the volumes really burned in Joseph
Johnson's warehouse fire in 1770 or simply failed to sell, were a failure; at any rate
Fuseli regarded them as a concluded chapter in his life.32 His Rousseauism went
underground. Or else the Humean skepticism, more hospitable to Fuseli's temper,
swallowed it. We catch a glimpse of this crabbed, critical consciousness of the painter in
the biography of Mary Wollstonecraft written by her later husband, the anarchist
theoretician William Godwin: "Smitten with Rousseau's conception of the perfectness of
the savage state, and the essential futility of all civilization, Mr. Fuseli looks at our little
attempts at improvement, with a spirit that borders perhaps too much upon contempt and
indifference."33 Writing in Fuseli's lifetime, Godwin is careful to praise his art; but his
intellectual force, Godwin felt, was destructive: "I believe Mary came something more of
a cynic out of the school of Mr. Fuseli, than she went into it."34
Fuseli and Mary Wollstonecraft met in 1789 over dinner at Joseph Johnson, a
mutual friend and the leading radical publisher in London.35 A heated affair ensued,
Weinglass is right to doubt Balmanno's assertion that the later book caused Fuseli "sincere pain and he
did all he could to suppress it."
Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (London: Joseph Johnson, 1798), 88.
Memoirs, 89.
Memoirs, 86. Both contributed to Johnson's Analytic Review. 'Radical,' of course doesn't mean what it
does today—the reference is to Bentham's philosophical radicals, what we would call classic liberals.
3. The Satyr Play
apparently more intellectual than physical; Fuseli had recently married, and contact
between Fuseli and Wollstonecraft fizzled out in 1793 after she petitioned Fuseli's wife
with the offer of a communal living arrangement and was refused. My intention in
introducing Wollstonecraft is not to substantiate, or overturn, Godwin's claims about her
intellectual debt to Fuseli, but to elaborate through her more systematic writings the
theory of human nature held in common by English liberals, which issues vaguely in
Fuseli's earlier work and more pointedly in the years of their association and following it.
Wollstonecraft had become a literary celebrity in late 1790 with her reply to Edmund
Burke's attack on the French revolution, A Vindication of the Rights of Men. In her
defense of the revolution, the object of dispute was not the contingent fact of the political
break, but the principle for which it was launched. A sequel of far greater import, A
Vindication of the Rights of Woman, followed within a year, and caused unrest even
among Wollstonecraft's left partisans who had been reassured by her response to
Burke.36 Since early feminism, unlike the empirical Rousseauism of Hume and Fuseli,
could not get by without defining its subject politically, it serves as an ideal test case to
see the liberal conception of human nature as it applies itself. It is reasonable then to
search the second Vindication for a positive conception of human nature still lacking in
the Remarks of Fuseli. Such a concept can indeed be found there, but its extraction
requires a somewhat eccentric reading of Wollstonecraft.
A Vindicaton of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral
Subjects, as it is really called, is a strange book. Modern feminists have found much that
It was published in early 1792 According to Godwin, it was written in five weeks. Fuseli's influence on
the book is not discussed, but he is introduced immediately following the pages on the Vindication.
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is remarkable in it, and much conventional, Georgian, bourgeois moralizing.37 I do not
deny this limitation. In setting out to refute those educators who insisted on limited rights
and subservient intellectual standards for women, Wollstonecraft admits the superficial
truth of their position, namely that modern woman is an idle, dissipated being, falling
below her human potential. This is actually Wollstonecraft's starting point for arguing the
perfectibility of women, a line of argument involving much sanctimony as well as the
optimism which is suspiciously branded 'liberal' by feminists today.38 And as Godwin
concedes, the text is "eminently deficient in method and arrangement."39 But these two
shortcomings can be ameliorated with a gain in force of the extended argument if we read
the text backwards, from the latter chapters to the first.40 By starting at Wollstonecraft's
political sociology and concept of nature, we can come to see the critique of a notion of
separate female nature as the consistent application of a doctrine of human rights as
creature rights 41
1 cannot here discuss the long feminist reception of Wollstonecraft from Virginia Woolf to Cora Kaplan.
A good starting point is Adriana Craciun, ed. Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman: A
Sourcebook (London: Routledge, 2002). My reading turns on the motif of women as "human creatures," a
term popularized by George Cheyne: "There are as many and as different Degrees of Sensibility or of
Feeling as there are Degrees of Intelligence and Perception in human Creatures..." The English Malady
(London: Strahan & Leake, 1733), 48-49. See Claudia Johnson, Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender, and
Sentimentality in the 1790s (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 23-24.
See Susan Ferguson, "The Radical Ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft," Canadian Journal of Political
Vol.32, No.3 (Sept. 1999), 427-450.1 would argue that her liberalism is what is 'radical.'
Memoirs, 83. Perceptively, Godwin adds: "it will be read as long as the English language endures."
Wollstonecraft herself states in the "Advertisement": "When I began to write this work, I divided it into
three parts, supposing that one volume would contain a full discussion of the arguments which seemed to
me to rise naturally from a few simple principles; but fresh illustrations occurring as I advanced, I now
present only the first part to the public." My analysis aims at just one principle, human nature.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral
Subjects, 3rd Ed. (London: Joseph Johnson, 1796). The third edition was the last overseen by the author.
The second vindication is of the Rights of Woman, singular, while the first addressed the Rights of Men.
This is in part an echo of Thomas Paine's famous pamphlet on the Rights of Man, but it also shows
Wollstonecraft's concern with a political ideal. "If the abstract rights of man will bear discussion and
explanation, those of woman, by a parity of reasoning, will not shrink from the same test..." "Dedication,"
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, viii.
3. The Satyr Play
As political scientist, Wollstonecraft begins from a functionalist view of society:
"I mean.. .to infer that the society is not properly organized which does not compel men
and women to discharge their respective duties, by making it the only way to acquire that
countenance from their fellow-creatures, which every human being wishes some way to
attain." (322-323) This unexceptionable eighteenth-century doctrine allows a statement of
her problem from the opponent's viewpoint: "It is vain to expect virtue from women till
they are, in some degree, independent of men; nay, it is vain to expect that strength of
natural affection, which would make them good wives and mothers." (321) Independence
for women should please men: it would achieve what they want from women but can get
only imperfectly in women's current state. But neither men nor women see social facts
clearly. "In the world few people act from principle; present feelings, and early habits,
are the grand springs: but how would the former be deadened, and the latter rendered iron
corroding fetters, if the world were shewn to young people just as it is; when no
knowledge of mankind or their own hearts, slowly obtained by experience, rendered them
forbearing?" (239) Reality is too horrible to contemplate directly; knowledge without
understanding reduces humans to bloody struggle in the state of nature. "Their fellow
creatures would not then be viewed as frail beings; like themselves, condemned to
struggle with human infirmities.. .but guarded against as beasts of prey."42 The gentler
view ought to prevail because "this appears to be the course of nature; and in morals, as
well as in works of taste, we should be observant of her sacred indications." (239)
This conception of nature as normative, and Wollstonecraft's tendency to gender
abstractions, are not literary affectations. "I disclaim that specious humility which, after
The Hobbesian view of nature informs Wollstonecraft's appeal to the bourgeois woman: "I pay particular
attention to those in the middle class, because they appear to be in the most natural state." (5)
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investigating nature, stops at the author, —The High and Lofty One, who inhabiteth
eternity, doubtless possesses many attributes of which we can form no conception; but
reason tells me that they cannot clash with those I adore—and I am compelled to listen to
her voice." (94) Her voice is the voice of reason, though the frisson of almost invoking a
female Deity is certainly intentional.43 Granted that Wollstonecraft is consistent in thus
overturning literary conventions, we want to know whether her notion of sexed reason is
an idealized feminine allegory of the traditional type (Fortuna, Vertii), or something new.
If this something new is an embodied immanent rationality, Wollstonecraft's use of
feminine pronouns in the context of feminist anthropology sets a standard of didactic
discipline: she is getting her readers used to thinking in terms of female reason.
But we must know how the embodied rationality is to be articulated which is
found particularly in women. Let us consider the forthright political declaration which
precedes the invocation of reason: "It is time to effect a revolution in female manners—
time to restore to them their lost dignity—and make them, as a part of the human species,
labour by reforming themselves to reform the world. It is time to separate unchangeable
morals from local manners." (92-93) One is struck by the motif, picked up inadvertently
by Marx, of the oppressed liberating humanity by liberating themselves This is possible
because the oppressed is "part of the human species," and this human species is such that
female manners can be revolutionized, being only an instance of "local manners," to be
distinguished from "unchangeable morals." The plasticity of human nature, taken from
Hume, acquires a revolutionary glow in Wollstonecraft. But the force driving this
revolution, and binding men and women as a species, also poses dangers. A sarcastic
Religion was a powerful impetus in Wollstonecraft's work. See Moira Ferguson, "The Discovery of
Mary Wollstonecraft's The Female Reader," Signs, Vol.3, No.4 (Summer 1978), 945-957.
3. The Satyr Play
passage follows: "—If men be demi-gods—why let us serve them! And if the dignity of
the female soul be as disputable as that of animals—if their reason does not afford
sufficient light to direct their conduct whilst unerring instinct is denied—they are surely
of all creatures the most miserable!" (93) Men are not gods, but if women do not break
through their oppression, they may well turn out to be only (unhappy) animals. The
theoretical reduction of women to animals in traditional thought is inconsistent, for it not
only denies them the guidance of reason, but even of instinct, which guides animals.
Woman is stuck in society, where one is expected to act rationally, but she cannot. This is
a perilous but compelling line of argument, consistent with the claim that women cannot
deliver what men expect of them. A modern reader is tempted to approach such passages
as broad rhetorical feints, strictly of ideological interest, but it is more interesting to
reconstruct what Wollstonecraft made of the natural law ideas. It would go something
like this: if women are animals, so are men, animals of the human species. The tenacity
with which she insists on the same conclusions following for women as for men
reinforces the innateness of female reason by practicing it.
This naturalism leads Wollstonecraft to object to Rousseau's separation of men
and women as objects of education. "I will venture to affirm, that a girl, whose spirits
have not been damped by inactivity, or innocence tainted by false shame, will always be
a romp, and the doll will never excite attention unless confinement allows her no
alternative. Girls and boys, in short, would play harmlessly together, if the distinction of
sex was not inculcated long before nature makes any difference." (87) Wollstonecraft
accepts perfectibility through education, but applies it to the whole species. The 'noble
savage' to be educated is an intellectual animal, prior to social differentiation of the
3. The Satyr Play
sexes. "I will go further, and affirm, as an indisputable fact, that most of the women, in
the circle of my observation, who have acted like rational creatures, or shewn any vigour
of intellect, have accidentally been allowed to run wild—as some of the elegant formers
of the fair sex would insinuate." (87-88) In 'running wild,' women like men would
develop their potential as rational animals.
We have reached an optimistic, liberal view of human nature construed as a whole
of male and female individuals. Yet we cannot neglect the dark side of this vision as
Wollstonecraft saw it. "I will allow that bodily strength seems to give man a natural
superiority over woman: and this is the only solid basis on which the superiority of the
sex can be built..." (77) In the state of nature, and in most social states, men ruled
women by force: ".. .brutal force has hitherto governed the world..." (73). Yet this is no
longer normative in the liberal discourse our author partakes in, and it is germane to ask
for something better: "As to the argument respecting the subjection in which the sex has
ever been held, it retorts on man."44 (73) Modern society, able to reflect on its distance
from the natural state, must give an account for its continued brutality. For although
nature made men and women physically unequal, they are mentally on a plane: ".. .the
knowledge of the two sexes should be the same in nature, if not in degree, and that
women, considered not only as moral, but rational creatures, ought to endeavour to
acquire human virtues (or perfections) by the same means as men, instead of being
educated like a fanciful kind of half heing—one of Rousseau's wild chimeras." (77)
Education should follow the inclination of nature: it cannot radically change nature. But
from this there arises a dreadful doubt: since, she says, recalling Plato, men and women's
3. The Satyr Play
intellect is equal "in nature, if not in degree," there is no guarantee that a political
morality sensitive to human nature will result in equality. "When morality shall be settled
on a more solid basis, then, without being gifted with a prophetic spirit, I will venture to
predict that woman will be either the friend or slave of man." (69) The suggestion is
chilling but follows from her premises.
We might relieve ourselves of this prospect by suggesting that Wollstonecraft
does not sincerely pose this apocalyptic choice. Consider her conclusion: "We shall not,
as at present, doubt whether she is a moral agent, or the link which unites man with
brutes." (69) We shall be certain about women, the concept shall not oscillate between
the moral and the physical as it does at present. Wollstonecraft is a believer in scientific
progress: knowledge shall confirm woman's equality or bondage finally because equality
or bondage will correspond with iron laws of nature. "Let there be then no coercion
established in society, and the common law of gravity prevailing, the sexes will fall into
their proper places."45 The theory of human nature predicted a future of freedom or
subjection. The bestiality of women may be refuted by female use of reason, but qua
animals women may still be dominated by stronger animals. There is thus both promise
and threat in the naturalization of gender relations.46
We have followed naturalizing theories of human nature from Hume's intellectual
agnosticism to Mary Wollstonecrafit's defense of women as human creatures. In
Cf. 69: "I shall only insist that men have increased that inferiority till women are almost sunk below the
standard of rational creatures." Rational creature is Wollstonecraft's minimal, ironic definition of the
human. "My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures..." (6)
From the "Dedication" to Talleyrand-Perigord, xii. All italics in quotes from Wollstonecraft are hers.
Cf. Mitzi Myers, "Reform or Ruin: 'A Revolution in Female Manners,'" Studies in
Culture 11 (1982), 199-216.
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Wollstonecraft's hands, the tension in a naturalized concept of the human issues in a split
prognosis: woman's liberation on one hand, natural subjugation on the other. However
erroneous we might find the assumption behind this argument, there can be no denying
its consistency in light of Wollstonecraft's social science. Her optimism on the other hand
is well-founded politically in that she presumes only enough about human nature to equip
ostensible subhumans with equal claims to basic rights. This is what modern liberalism
still has to gain from statement of a clear position on human nature. Her biologism is not
the vulgar kind that permits fascist coercion in modern times, on the model of Hobbes's
universal war; it presumes enlightened toleration of diverse human abilities. The almost
unbelievable caution about the content of such a social order betrays an anxiety still
founded in eighteenth-century fears: what if only exceptional women are equal to men?47
Wollstonecraft's theory of human creatures is finely reasoned but devoid of empirical
content. It is not an image of human nature such as Rousseau had sketched. Like Fuseli in
his attempt to shore up Rousseau's view of human nature against Voltaire's caricature,
Wollstonecraft has devised a powerful but profoundly defensive structure. Unfortunately
this is not the case for Wollstonecraft's nightmare scenario: the "common law of gravity"
ordering the sexes is certainly vivid as a restatement of the old natural law attitude 48
A liberal politics vacillating between natural right and natural law is consistent
with some works by Fuseli that reveal intellectual affinities with Wollstonecraft. This
work has incidentally puzzled scholars, who tend to suggest unconvincing vacillations
between ideal womanhood and the femme fatale. I have in mind the illustrations to
"Let it be remembered, that for a small number of distinguished women I do not ask a place," 69.
Cf. Richard Polwhele, The Unsex'dFemales (London: Cadell and Davies, 1798): "Survey with me, what
ne'er our fathers saw, / A female band despising NATURE'S law..." (II: 11-12).
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William Cowper's Poems published by Joseph Johnson in 1807, seven years after
Cowper's death and a decade after Wollstonecraft's.49 Cowper, a mad poet and Christian
fundamentalist, nephew of poet Judith Madin, is a complicated figure in late eighteenthcentury English letters. The bourgeois Rousseauian who could write that "God made the
country, and man made the town" (The Task, I: 749) owed the impetus for the same poem
to "a lady, fond of blank verse," the urbane Lady Austen, who "demanded a poem of that
kind from the author, and gave him the SOFA for a subject."50 Cowper begins his eulogy
to country joys with a natural history of the seat, from the "painted skins" of savages to
the stool of the Saxon king Alfred, culminating in "the accomplished Sofa," a fine
support for "The gouty limb."51 Fuseli seizes on this lightness of touch, which Cowper
often sacrificed to sermonizing, in the posthumous illustrations. Most interesting is the
painting for Retirement, an early poem anticipating the concerns of The Task (FlG.3.3a).
In this work, whose earth tones subtly evoke Cowperian nature poetry, we are presented
with a motif familiar in domestic genre painting of the late eighteenth century: a
nursemaid presents a mother with her infant, while an older boy with shovel over one
shoulder runs out of doors, gesturing for all to follow.52 The pastoral element is obvious.
Also fairly clear is the filiation of values in such a fantasy: the virtuous mother immersed
The reader may wonder why I trace Wollstonecraft's impact on Fuseli so indirectly. It is biographically
necessary: after Fuseli's wife refused Wollstonecraft's request for a menage in 1792, the two broke contact,
with the expectation of a few explosive letters. One finds Fuseli asking others about Mary's stay in France,
waxing sarcastic over her marriage to Gowdin. On Wollstonecraft's death in 1797, Fuseli wrote: "Poor
Mary!" (Knowles, I: 170). Cowper was a mutual friend through Johnson.
The Task (\785), "Advertisement." in William Cowper, Poems (Dublin: John Jones, 1790), vol.2, no
page number. On his connection to Lady Austen and his earlier companion, Mrs. Mary Unwin, Cowper
reflected in a 1781 letter: "That Solomon has wisely spoken,—/ 'A threefold cord is not soon broken."'
Unfortunately the arrangement fell apart in 1784.
Cowper, Poems, II: 5.
For 'family values' in painting, esp. the fascination with breast-feeding, see Carol Duncan's classic
"Happy Mothers and Other New Ideas in French Art," Art Bulletin, Vol.55, No.4 (Dec.1973), 570-583.
Retirement does not quite fit in, though it possesses some of the domestic glow typical of the genre.
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in family life is living in accordance with her true, limited, sentimental nature. This is the
repressive ideal of family life that Wollstonecraft had sought to displace, only to insist
that a liberated woman would make a more stable mother than the traditional 'chimera.'
If this claim rings strangely in Wollstonecraft's argument, perhaps it is because on
her view, free woman inclines naturally to domestic as well as intellectual pursuits. The
resulting woman sounds as implausible as Darcy's vision of the accomplished woman in
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice; the wishful construction of the reformist dissipates on
any sober attempt at representation.53 Is Retirement such an attempt? Fuseli is no sober
realist; and yet Cowper doesn't give him grounds for allegory. In response, Fuseli outfits
the free mother with a wedding veil and a butterfly, which she dangles nonchalantly far
over the head of her grasping child. Her face, submerged in shadow, glows either with
natural blush or with powder: Fuseli seems unable to decide or to make his decisions
intelligible in this melancholy painting. A glance at the rougher anatomies of the
preparatory drawing (FlG.3.3b) suggests that in the finished painting (itself a study for the
engraving) Fuseli has fused what began as a fairly straightforward confrontation between
social woman and the 'animal' fact of child-rearing. In the study, the mother's hairpin
and pointed shoe, and the nurse's modish bonnet and ribbon, are sharp symbols of artifice
overlaying a rude fleshiness in the bodies of the women but especially the infant, whose
plump rear and genitals occupy the center of this first composition.54 There is a similar
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice [1813] (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 28-9. Darcy "cannot
boast of knowing more than half a dozen" accomplished women; after a discussion of all the necessary
attributes, to which Darcy adds "extensive reading," Elizabeth wonders that he knows any.
"Infants are barely human and utterly unsocialized; like animals they are unable to walk upright, they
excrete without control, they do not speak." Sherry B. Ortner, "Is female to male as nature is to culture?" in
Woman, Culture, and Society, ed. Michelle Z. Rosaldo and Louse Lamphere (Stanford: Stanford University
Press, 1974), 67-87: 77-78. It is hard to tell if Ortner is enumerating obvious truths or cultural cliches about
infants; perhaps the two are hard to keep apart. Fuseli himself was childless.
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emphasis in the physicality of the servant, whose face and gesture is much more a
product of genre typology in the drawing than in the finished painting, where her features
have been idealized. What makes the painting complex and exasperating is the
predication of'natural' and 'social' attributes to both nurse and mother, blurring the
conventional dichotomy still present, however imperfectly, in the drawing. The romantic
allegory of the boy with the shovel, a marker of 'natural spontaneity,' has also been
explicitly added to the painting, displacing the opposition of nature and culture away
from nursing functions to an ideal childhood which seems relatively independent to both
mother and nurse. The net effect is to plunge the women of the painting into a kind of
natural-cultural twilight of biological function and pastoral artifice. But the drawing, in
its more schematic opposition, can also show us what the oversubtle painting is driving
at. The element of play and cruelty in the proffered butterfly, whose wings end in spikes
in the drawing, is neither quite arbitrary nor spontaneous. The butterfly is the fulcrum of
the painting: woman is caught here between a nature whose virtues are intelligible only in
society, and a society apt to reduce nature to a cruel game.
Fuseli's problem is twofold. First comes the difficulty of representing the new
conception of human conduct in such a way that it cannot be confused with traditional
morality. To do this decisively, new behavior is needed where the old morality simply
wouldn't dare to tread. Fuseli did not find this in Cowper, who stuck close to pastoral
commonplace. Second, comes the theoretical concern with what the new conception of
human nature is to be, if not just an aggregate of received values like affection and
restraint, given a primitivist polish ('simplicity'). In Retirement, Fuseli shakes the walls
of this constricted political morality more violently than Cowper, but having no
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alternative the Rosseauian triangle of mother, child, and nurse, the reform can only be
represented as a fantastic dislocation in the familiar order of things, in the symbolic shock
of the butterfly which may be a real creature or a piece of raffia. A new view of human
nature cannot just unfurl introspectively: new empirical content is needed, and with it
new arguments about what being human (and moral) means. If new content is admitted
into the theory, new subject matter also emerges for painting. The practical problem,
then, is the theoretical one. For the glimpse of a solution available to Fuseli, I turn to
another didactic poet and friend of the painter, Dr. Erasmus Darwin.
Erasmus Darwin and the Naturalization of Sex
The reader may wonder at this point: why all this hesitant mucking about with eighteenth
century theories of human nature? Have we not encountered one comprehensive theory
that best fits our purpose, Herder's Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man (Ideen
zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit, 1784), translated in 1800 with Fuseli's
aid? Had not Herder offered an evolutionary account of life on earth from the formation
of the solar system, through the animal kingdom, to man, viewed both somatically and as
a thinking being oriented to reason and revelation? Had Herder not given the peoples and
nations their due as irreducibly different in culture and yet uniformly human? All of this
is true, and yet Herder's system, for all its vast learning and good will, remains a wishful
construction, Ideen as he himself says, or an Outline as Churchill and Fuseli well put it.
For Herder's evidence, the empirical research both biological and social scientific which
animates his book, is both incomplete and not of such a consistent character to support
Herder's contentions or his optimism about human nature. Herder himself is well aware
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of this, and bitterly complains about the incompleteness of his sources.55 We cannot
ourselves aspire to complete them, or to reconstruct Herder's conclusions, for the project
was derailed by Hegel into a philosophy of history putting every people and cultural
manifestation in its right place in the inevitable development of the whole. This new
project, nineteenth-century historicism, is a return to the Enlightenment doctrine of
progress once it has learned to swallow and digest the diversity of human life which
suggested to Herder conceptual not historical progress toward a pluralist view of man. It
cannot be the historian's task to decide between the two conceptions; what I intend here
is to excavate the self-understanding of the pluralists. Having thus introduced the stakes
of the debate between progressivism and pluralism within liberal theory, it is time to turn
to one such 'missing link.' He is a natural scientist whose research issued in social theory
and aesthetic formulations of the new biological human nature; most importantly, his
work was illustrated by Fuseli.
We have already discussed Darwin in connection with The Nightmare. A political
radical and friend of Joseph Johnson, the publisher of Wollstonecraft, Cowper, and
Fuseli, Darwin was an accomplished physician and translator of Linnaeus, who in his
programmatic verse and the voluminous philosophical notes accompanying it sketched a
historical theory of biological evolution anticipating the work of his grandson, Charles.56
It is to be expected that human nature in his poetry should recapitulate familiar Rousseau-
Outlines, 161-2. See Ch.l Herder is perceptively assessed by his former teacher Kant: see Immanuel
Kant, Schriften zur Anthropologie, Geschichtsphilosophie, Politik und Padagogik Werke vol.6 (Frankfurt
a.M.: Insel, 1964), 781-806. See David Bindman, Ape to Apollo (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002),
163-173. Also worthwhile is the careful analysis of the lifelong exchange between Kant and Herder in John
H. Zammito, Kant, Herder, and the Birth of Anthropology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
Darwin was a scientific speculator; his theory stands in the tradition of Maupertuis and Lamarck. He did
invent the standard account of Creation in science books for children: "Nurs'd by warm sun-beams in
primeval caves / Organic Life began beneath the waves." The Temple of Nature, I: 233-234.
3. The Satyr Play
Wollstoncraftian themes and perhaps go further in the way of biological elaboration. This
expectation is correct. But in discussing Darwin, there are two great obstacles. One is the
length of his works; the second is its whimsy, caused in part by Darwin's determination
to write rhyming couplets. We do best to proceed selectively, reading verse together with
Fuseli's illustrations, which attend some Darwin's publications beginning in 1790.1 will
not need to distinguish strongly between Fuseli's and Darwin's conception of human
nature in what follows: it is not necessary, or really possible, since Fuseli's illustrations
stand to the text in the position of an authorized commentary. This resulting interpretation
will rather suggest what a careful contemporary reader might have made of Darwin.
Let us begin with Darwin's social theoretical text, The Temple of Nature (1803).57
I call the poem social-theoretical because of its working title, become subtitle, The Origin
of Society. This is no standard eighteenth-century genealogy of primitive man, but a story
of life from animalcules swimming in the primeval sea to the elaboration of human
society with its moral tension between good and evil.58 In all this, Darwin is at his best in
articulating organic processes:
Points glued to points a living line extends, /Touch'd by some goad approach the
bending ends; / Rings join to rings, and irritated tubes / Clasp with young lips the
nutrient globes or cubes; / And urged by appetencies new select, / Imbibe, retain,
digest, secrete, eject.59
Erasmus Darwin, The Temple of Nature; Or, The Origins of Society: A Poem, with Philosophical Notes
(London: Joseph Johnson, 1803). Darwin signed this work, and even acknowledges his earlier anonymous
productions together with his more scholarly work on the title page: "By Erasmus Darwin, M.D. F.R.S.
Author of The Botanic Garden, of Zoonomia, and of Phytologia."
1 read closely the first two cantos, notably called "Production of Life" and "Reproduction of Life".
Cantos III and IV ("Progress of the Mind" and "Of Good and Evil") are less interesting for us. I neglect
also the two Fuseli illustrations for these cantos, Eros and Dione and The Power of Fancy in Dreams.
1: 253-258 (p.23). These angular neologisms anticipate Gerard Manley Hopkins or William Empson.
3. The Satyr Play
Such processes, whatever their intrinsic interest, could hardly be illustrated by the
history painter.60 Fortunately Darwin provides an arsenal of traditional Spenserian fairies,
goddesses, and sages to allegorize and frame the essentially faceless chemical
transformations. These figures swirl around the architectural metaphor of the title, a vast
structure within which the spectacle of nature unfurls for initiates. Outside the Temple
resembles Xanadu: "O'er many a league the ponderous domes extend, / And deep in
earth the ribbed vaults descend" (I: 69-70, p.8). Inside this structure, the high priestess
enacts the Eleusinian mysteries:
Shrin'd in the midst majestic Nature stands, / Extends o'er earth and sea her
hundred hands; / Tower upon tower her beamy forehead crests, / And births
unnumber'd milk her hundred breasts... 61
The interest in the pagan worship at Eleusis and the many-breasted cult images ran high
in the wake of the archaeological and mythological work of the late eighteenth century.62
Darwin inflates this iconography into a gnostic climax: the hierophant or high priestess
pulls aside the curtains to reveal no mere statue, but Nature herself, her hundred breasts
obscenely suckled by "births unnumber'd." There is no effort to imagine concretely these
beings which Darwin has dangling from the bosom of nature. We are not meant to
imagine the scene, but to shudder at its numerical sublimity. That said, the lines are
illustrated by Fuseli as the frontispiece of the book.
Cf. Barbara Maria Stafford, Body Criticism: Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine
(Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991). The decision not to illustrate 'science' in Darwin is significant.
1: 129-132, p.12.
1 have in mind Richard Payne Knight and d'Hancarville, discussed later in this chapter. Darwin cites
Eleusis explicitly: "From this first altar fam'd Eleusis stole / Her secret symbols and her mystic scroll"
(137-8). Irwin Primer, "Erasmus Darwin's Temple of Nature: Progress, Evolution, and the Eleusinian
Mysteries," Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Jan.-Mar. 1964), 58-76, Elizabeth Sewell, The
Orphic Voice: Poetry and Natural History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), and Pierre Hadot,
The Veil of Isis: An Essay on the History of the Idea of Nature (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of the
Harvard University Press, 2006).
3. The Satyr Play
On first sight, Fuseli has turned in an uncommonly reserved performance
(FlG.3.4a). The goddess on her pedestal has been streamlined to classical symmetry; she
has a face, unlike the statues of Eleusinian Diana often reproduced at the time; there are
no "births unnumber'd" and her hundred breasts have been pared down to three.63 On
second look, we may wonder whether Fuseli has judiciously spared his forces,
concentrating Darwin's exuberant paganism into a parody of just that spare neoclassical
taste then forming in France largely through the influence of the elegant illustrated
editions of Pierre Didot.64 The art historical self-consciousness is strong in Fuseli's
engraving, which is organized like a tissue of classical allusions, from the Borghese Vase
(the priestess) to Raphael (the worshipper).65 These references are given as faithfully as
Fuseli is able with his eccentric draftsmanship; but the mood is not exactly one of
restoration. Fuseli does not refurbish the classical ideal as a set of visual conventions, but
the notion of human nature drawn from that ideal. If to the eighteenth century, and to
Darwin, Eleusian Diana signifies brute nature, fecund, motherly, standing in relation to
human life as a symbol of fertility, characteristically embodied as an antique status (as in
Hubert Robert's landscape of 1762, FIG 3.4b) Fuseli anthropomorphizes this being.66 The
shock, however subdued it appears in Moses Haughton's decorous stipple engraving, is
thematized explicitly in the parted veil and the index finger of the priestess, which
virtually touches the center breast of the goddess.67 David Weinglass, the modern editor
She resembles Fuseli's drawing of Night from Hesiod's Theogony, now in Auckland
On Didot, see Carol Margaret Osborne, Pierre Didot the Elder and French Book Illustration,
(New York: Garland, 1985). Didot was himself responding to Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery.
Schiff, I: 579
This is reminiscent of Hegel's criticism of the 'first' stage of art, which he finds in Mesopotamia, India,
etc., and which according to him conflates without reconciling sensuous facts and ideals. G.W.F. Hegel,
Asthetik, Pt.2, section 1, "Die Symbolische Kunstform" (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1971), 422f.
Cf. the effect when a prostitute reveals three breasts in the film Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990).
3. The Satyr Play
of Fuseli's print oeuvre, notes that the image "telescopes the whole process of revelation"
in Darwin's lines; what is telescopes is not just the half-hearted allegory of'natural
mysteries' revealed, but a whole account of human nature as biological which the book
strives to establish and apply to ethical and theological questions.68 Nature is represented
not through an allegory of plenty or a self-consciously artificial symbol, as in Hegel's
reading of Indian art, but through the image of a living thing that is both human and
equipped with an extra-human sexual and reproductive apparatus (the three breasts).
If the image of Eleusinian Diana is programmatic for Fuseli's and Darwin's
understanding of human nature, the reader might intercede here with the reasonable
objection that there is nothing novel in the treatment of woman as a purely biological
entity.69 Indeed, the concept only becomes interesting politically—or critically selfconscious—when applied consistently to human affairs, as Wollstonecraft did with the
rights of man. This might mean the biological treatment of man (that is, the male) and
even, especially, of God. There is a tantalizing hint of this in what might strike the reader
as the most undecided aspect of Darwin's book, his recourse both to the Eleusinian
mysteries and the biblical Garden of Eden, from which Darwin versifies the Fall and the
Creation of Eve.70 I take up the second theme since it is the most extended of Darwin's
theological fantasies, and Fuseli illustrates it. He illustrates it so strikingly that we must
consider his watercolor original (FLG.3.5a). The iconography is familiar: a sleeping Adam,
left arm stretched to indicate the origin of Eve in his rib. Eve floats just above him (or she
Weinglass, Prints, 214.
The classic discussion is Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Knopf, 1953), to which I
would add Sherry Ortner's discussion cited above.
One cannot explain the juxtaposition in biographical terms. Darwin was not really pagan; like Teilhard
de Chardin he thought both evolution and Christianity true and tried to reconcile them.
3. The Satyr Play
may be stepping out of Adam's hip), her head thrown back, her arms raised, long hair and
buttocks supported by a cloud. God the Father is not shown plainly in the manner of
Northern altarpieces: but one gathers He is the luminous cloud cradling the first woman.
Or is He in the cloud? As so often with Fuseli, the work is a serious travesty, here of a
Renaissance master of personal significance to the painter. I have in mind Correggio's
Jupiter and Io (1531), a representation of the lovemaking of Io and the king of the gods,
camouflaged by a grayish-turquoise cloud (FIG.3.6).71 Of this remarkable painting I will
only note to what extent it embodies a Neoplatonic aesthetic dualism. On one hand Io's
nude waist is encircled by the amorphous paw of Jupiter's cloud-body. On the other, the
ghostly traces of a classical face (forehead, nose, and dark brows) can be seen bending
reassuringly to kiss Io. Like many Renaissance representations of the loves of the gods—
Europa, Leda, etc.—Corregio's work plays with an animal sexuality bridled by the
elegance of a courtly lover. For Correggio, Jupiter is in the cloud.
In Fuseli's drawing, there remains at least a semiconscious hint of Correggian
anthropomorphism in the play of wash around Eve's face, in the way her open mouth and
nose are echoed and amplified in the dark fluctuations of the cloud above her. But in
Moses Haughton's stipple engraving (FLG.3.5b) this residue has been dissolved, even as
the opacity and bodily mass of the cloud have increased, so that Eve's cloud-cushion
comes to resemble rather a divine lap on which she sits.72 The sum total of pictorial
development to the finished print is that the creation of Eve is presented as a sexual act.
The divine partner, in contrast with traditional images of Christ as mystic bridegroom, is
Early on Fuseli placed Correggio among "the three great restorers of painting," with Raphael and Titian.
Correggio "united the graces of light and shade." Remarks on Rousseau, 7, footnote.
3. The Satyr Play
represented as pure matter—or, if one prefers, pure force.73 Creation is sex. Darwin's
caption confirms this and eases the image into the textual matrix of the poem: "So erst in
Paradise creation's Lord. I . . . I Form'd a new sex, the Mother of Mankind. I . . . I Buoyed
on light step the Beauty seem'd to swim, / And stretch'd alternate every pliant limb."74
From this citation, one might be tempted to think Fuseli is audacious where
Darwin is merely suggestive. That is not the case. For Darwin construes Eve as a sexual
being even prior to being tempted. Take the verses after "every pliant limb":
Pleased on Euphrates' velvet margin stood, / And view'd her playful image in the
flood; / Own'd the fine flame of love, as life began, / And smiled enchantment on
adoring Man. / Down her white neck and o'er her bosom roll'd, / Flow'd in sweet
negligence her locks of gold; / Round her fine form the dim transparence play'd, /
And show'd the beauties, that it seem'd to shade. / —Enamour'd Adam gaz'd
with fond surprise, / And drank delicious passion from her eyes; / Felt the new
thrill of young Desire, and press'd / The graceful Virgin to his glowing breast.— /
The conscious Fair betrays her soft alarms, / Sinks with warm blush into his
closing arms, / Yields to his fond caress with wanton play, / And sweet, reluctant,
amorous, delay.75
Passing over what is conventional and only frivolous in this account of Edenic sexuality,
we must notice its frankness about physical desire, which by Darwin's organization of the
poem is divorced from Temptation, and thus from the Augustinian equation with sin.76 A
similar step is taken in a drawing by Fuseli (FIG.3.7) ostensibly from Paradise Lost, but
which would fit as well Darwin's poem: Adam and Eve are locked in intimate embrace as
Satan first looks upon them. There is a pronounced sensuality already in Milton's account
of the first couple before Satan's intervention, but Fuseli has made that sensuality frankly
Haughton moved into Fuseli's residence in 1803, where the painter closely supervised his work. See
Weinglass, ed. Letters, 264, and Weinglass, Prints, xxxi. I do not suggest that Fuseli gave such close
instructions to his engraver, only that the effect in the final print is in accordance with Fuseli's wishes.
For Christ as the (gallant) Creator of Eve, see Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly
The ellipses belong to Darwin/Fuseli. In the caption they are indicated by indentation of the verses.
The Temple of Nature, I: 145-158 (p.55-56). Earlier Adam "dreamt delighted of untasted love" (138).
3. The Satyr Play
sexual.77 In this sense, Darwin's account of the first couple is as much a commentary on
Fuseli's Milton-interpretation, as an articulation in his own new, biological vocabulary,
of a sexual constant in human nature. Since Darwin's text is respectable signed literature,
not a treatise in natural science or a libertine tract, we must further assume that his
treatment of Genesis is sincere or wishes to be taken as such. Inserted into the tradition
we have discussed, which frames theories of human nature by attributing tendencies to
the first couple, Darwin's poem asserts the sexual nature of human bonds, thus of human
beings in general. In forming a new sex, God formed beings capable of sex. This is made
clear in the verses preceding the Creation of Eve, which are zoological in character:
"Unmarried Aphides prolific prove / For nine successions uninform'd of love; /New
sexes next with softer passions spring, / Breathe the fond vow, and woo with quivering
wing." 78 Aphids reproduce alternately by sex and asexual division. The abrupt shift to
Adam and Eve indicates that, mutatus mutandis, humans too ought to be defined, as they
were conceived, through their practice of sex.
This subtle change in accounting for human nature, like Wollstonecraft's, exhibits
two faces: either the emphasis on the biological function of sex liberates by sweeping
away old, authoritarian restrictions on behavior, or it asserts new schemata, which are
The Temptation occurs at I: 41-46 (p.6). For Augustine on sex, see De Civitate Dei, Book XIV.
The work, dated 1796-1799 by Schiff, may be a study for Picture XIII for Fuseli's Milton Gallery. To be
fair, Milton has the first couple "linked in happy nuptial league" (PL, IV: 339), but he expends his
sensuality rather in a description of Adam and Eve devouring 'nectarine fruits' (330-6). Cf. Stanley Fish,
Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (London: Macmillan, 1967), chapter 3.
1: 131-134 (p.55). Darwin prefers sexual reproduction to parthenogenesis: "So, years successive, from
perennial roots / The wire or bulb with lessen'd vigour shoots; / Till curled leaves, or barren flowers, betray
/ A waning lineage, verging to decay; / Or till, amended by connubial powers, / Rise seedling progenies
from sexual flower." (I: 171-176, p.57)
3. The Satyr Play
doubly restrictive because enforced by close empirical attention to that behavior.
Defining men and women on the basis of sex risks chaining them to the terms of that
definition. There is no hope of deciding this dilemma within the compass of biography,
even if we take account of Darwin's political activity. His anonymous 1797 Plan for the
Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools proposed a curriculum containing
more empirical and theoretical science than male students received at the time—with
botany, Darwin's specialty beside medicine, given pride of place.80 Eighteenth-century
botany, teetering on the edge of scientific respectability, was an ambiguous discipline that
welcomed female inquiry while perpetuating old equations between female intellect and
passive 'vegetative' soul.81 Botanical doctrine, then, might present an opportunity to
examine Darwinian naturalism in practice. The opportunity is copiously satisfied by
Darwin's 1789 poem The Loves of the Plants, which proclaims his purpose as follows:
Whereas P. Ovidius Naso, A great Necromancer in the famous Court of Augustus
Caesar, did, by art poetic, transmute Men, Women, and even Gods and Goddesses,
into Trees and Flowers; I have undertaken, by similar art, to restore some of them
to their original animality, after having remained prisoners so long in their
respective vegetable mansions.. . 82
In reversing Ovid's Metamorphoses, Darwin inverts the anthropological operation of the
court poet: where he had built a sophisticated bridge between distant Greek myth and the
This is Michel Foucault's master argument from The Order of Things to The History of Sexuality.
Foucault also insists on the inseparability of a rhetoric of liberation with the institutional policing of
subjects. I only differ in stressing that liberation is real, not just a rhetorical subterfuge of modernity.
He lags behind Wollstonecraft in his objection to young women acting, which may "annihilate that
retiring modesty, and blushing embarrassment, to which young ladies owe one of their most powerful
external charms." The best biography of Darwin is written by his grandson: see Desmond King-Hele, ed.
Charles Darwin's Life of Erasmus Darwin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
See Ann B. Shteir, Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora's Daughters and Botany in England,
1760 to 1860 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 23-27.
Proem, "The Loves of the Plants," in The Botanic Garden, Part II (New York: Swords, 1798), ix. Darwin
offers two other metaphors for the poem: a camera obscura, and pictures hung in a lady's dressing room.
See Asia Haut, "Reading Flora: Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden, Herny Fuseli's illustrations, and
various literary responses," Word & Image, Vol.20, No.4. (Oct.-Dec. 2004), 240-256.
3. The Satyr Play
native flora of the Roman Campagna, Darwin runs a long list of plants familiar and exotic
through anthropomorphic and scientific filters. As Carl Linnaeus had classified plants
according to the operation of their sexual parts (in Species Plantarum, 1753, and his
masterwork Systema Naturae, first published in
Darwin presents an imaginative
taxonomy of human beings engaged in the most unorthodox sexual configurations
corresponding to the sexual apparatus of the plants discussed.83 It is important to note that
Darwin works intentionally on a scientific premise—he entertained the hypothesis that
animals evolved from plants. Given Linnaeus's own tendency to write Latin and
Darwin's own ambition to outdo Ovid, the aesthetic of the poem is neoclassical, or more
precisely, neopagan.84
Canto I sets the pattern for these transformations. Typically Darwin begins with a
scene of sparkling prudery: "First the tall
lifts his curled brow / Erect to heaven,
and plights his nuptial vow; / The virtuous pair, in milder regions born / Dread the rude
blast of Autumn's icy morn;" (Canto I, line
part II: page
Already the reader
feels some mild vertigo in parsing the image of the virtuous husband, "erect to heaven."
In the same vein, "Thy love
two Virgins share," (line
p. 1 5 ) bends the
usage 'virgin' near breaking point. The reader is presented with one 'scientific' footnote
per plant name: we learn that Callitriche''s common name is Finehair or Stargrass, and
The poem is preceded by a prose "Preface" (iii-vii) to the Linnaean system, from I Monandria (one male)
through XX Gynandria (feminine males), to XXIV Cryptogamia (Clandestine Marriage).
See Additional Note XXXIX to Part I of The Botanic Garden, "The Economy of Vegetation": "I am
acquainted with a philosopher, who.. .thinks it not impossible, that the first insects were the anthers or
stigmas of flowers; which had, by some means, loosed themselves from their parent plant... and that many
other insects have gradually, in long process of time, been formed from these; some acquiring wings, others
fins, and others claws, from their ceaseless efforts to procure their food, or to secure themselves from
injury. He contents, that none of these changes are more incomprehensible than the transformation of
tadpoles into frogs, and caterpillars into butterflies." (Botanic Garden, I: 242). The "philosopher" in
question may well have been Fuseli, himself a competent entomologist.
3. The Satyr Play
"One male and two females inhabit each flower."85 Onward: "Sweet blooms
the myrtle shade, / And ten fond brothers woo the haughty maid." (1:57-58, p.13) The
number of lovers, which Darwin always italicizes, accords with the distribution of pistils
and stamens in each plant discussed. Males are "brothers", "swains", "beardless youths";
females are "nymphs," "brides," and above all "virgins." This loose verbiage could be
regarded as Darwin's attempt to soften and vary the unnerving constancy of plant sex.
But the author is not entirely arbitrary: he 'psychologizes' the plants according to the
botanical facts given in the footnotes, that is, the number of sexual members and their
function. "The freckled IRIS owns a fiercer flame, / And three unjealous husbands wed
the dame." (1:71-72, p. 15) Particularly striking is the issue of maturation, as seasonal
plants are given the pathos of aging when anthropomorphized. "Proud
three chosen swains, / The blushing captives of her virgin trains—...When Time's rude
hand a bark of wrinkles spread / Round her weak limbs, and silver'd o'er her head, /
Three other youths her riper years engage / The flatter'd victims of her wily age." (I: 119124, p. 18-19) The passage faces a botanical plate of the Gloriosa, which gives one a
sense of the intellectual challenge that confronts one in reading the poem: the reader is
given the literal plant images, and invited imaginatively to transform them in accordance
with Darwin's erotic poetry.
Having acquainted ourselves with Darwin's poetic practice in The Loves of the
Plants, we can hazard some general observations. There is nothing new in Darwin's
writing as such. The diction, particularly his fondness for Homeric epithets, "Virgin
1 agree with Primer (op.cit., 59) that we must look for Darwin's force "not in his effete Popean couplets
but rather in the larger design of his poems as books including verse, notes, and illustrations."
3. The Satyr Play
Lily," "jealous Cowslips," etc., reflects traditional thinking about women.86 But the frilly
curtains that billow around these female cliches are unsettling when applied to the male.
There are "three unjealous husbands," "ten fond brothers," and many other combinations
of many male sexual actors cooperating to please a dominant female. The effect is even
stranger when Darwin manages to encapsulate some aspect of plant behavior in the
epithet, e.g. rendering sterile males as "beardless youths."87 Sterility cannot of course be
regarded as behavior if seen as a matter of anatomy, or crudely of the 'nature' of the
plant; but it is typical of Darwin's procedure that somatic function is poetically upgraded
into voluntary action. A 'beardless youth' seems like a static description, but it refers to
sexual activity: as an allusion to the classical ephebe, it admits homosexuality into the
sexual economy of vegetation.'
There is a kind of expansion of the parameters of
acceptable sex, to accept something like ephebic homosexuality and the male harem, all
within a naturalistic account of plant anatomy.
We are almost in a position to connect Darwin's fantasy of floral humanity with
the self-conscious biological theory of human nature he advocated. To achieve this, we
must cast a quick eye over the rest of the book. Following the pastoral first canto, the ebb
of amorous couplings wanes in canto 2 (the first "Monsters" canto), as Darwin versifies
plants whose names, anatomies, or uses support some allusion to human history or myth.
"Although Darwin's poem gave a voice to female sexuality, his representations of women remain
conventional, and conventionally polarized." Shteir, 19. Darwin's value to feminism lies elsewhere.
"Four beardless youths the obdurate beauty move / With soft attentions of Platonic love." (67-68).
From its early formulation in the dialogues of Plato (Lysis, Symposium, Phaedrus) as earthly practice
preliminary to the philosophical love of ideas, the ephebe entered modern European literature through
Virgil, and was revived in the hedonistic eighteenth century. On the neoclassical ephebe, see Regis Michel,
"Bara: Du martyre a l'ephebe," Le mort de Bara (Avignon: Museum Calvet, 1989), 43-77, and Michel, Le
Beau ideal ou I'art du concept (Paris: Editions de la Reunion des musees nationaux, 1989); Abigail
Solomon-Godeau, Male Trouble: A Crisis in Representation (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1997) and,
for English art, Martin Myrone's Bodybuilding. The ephebe has been the focus of historical study of
3. The Satyr Play
Papyra, the papyrus reed, is discussed in the context of the invention of writing in Egypt,
with only a perfunctory "Three favour'd youths her soft attention share." (11:119, p.50)
Flax leads to a discussion of Arachne. The tone is meditative; it seems plant loves are as
likely to turn out badly as human ones. Canto 3, the second and grimmer "Monsters"
canto, deals mainly with poisonous or otherwise violently moving plants, which allow
Darwin to introduce lurid verses on Fuseli's Nightmare, Laocoon, Medea (in connection
with Impatiens, a plant that scatters its seeds when touched), alcoholism (in connection
with grapevine), and the horrors of the slave trade.89 These 'dark' passages are gripping,
and Darwin may have felt, rightly, that he was losing the thread of plant eros guiding the
work. Accordingly, canto 4 is a nocturne, dealing with sleepy plants (such as Cannabis)
in moonlit landscapes, and swelling to a sort of muted crescendo with the mythic figures
of Proteus and Adonis, who close the poem in subdued erotic pantheism.
Before examining these closing portions of the book, we should note one curious
feature of the whole. Critics today appreciate Darwin for his digressions, the disorienting
but tireless onslaught of verse, notes, illustration, and commentary. There is also a very
modern effect of segmentation: between the cantos are dialogues between the poet and
his bookseller (Johnson?) which provide running commentary, drawing attention to the
monstrous and violent in cantos 2 and 3, and the possibility of representing them. The
opening lines of each canto play the same role, with the narrator Goddess tuning her
ancient sexuality from Kenneth Dover to Michel Foucault; a pioneering work is Mohand Tazerout, La
philosophic amoureuse de I'antiquite (Rodez: Subervie, 1956).
The "Monsters" theme is broached by Darwin at the end of the dialogue following the first canto:
"P:.. .As in the gardens of a Sicilian nobleman.. .there are said to be six hundred statues of imaginary
monsters, which so disgust the spectators, that the State had once a serious design of destroying them; and
yet the very improbably monsters in Ovid's Metamorphoses have entertained the world for many centuries.
B: The monsters in your Botanic Garden, I hope, are of the latte kind? P: The candid reader must
determine." (44) In a second dialogue following Canto 2 , the bookseller finds Darwin's monsters as benign
3. The Satyr Play
instrument to harmonious (cantos 1,4) or to 'wilder' notes (cantos 2,3). The effect is to
bracket the middle of the book as dealing with the kind of 'serious' subject matter that
exercised history painters.90 The first and fourth cantos are erotic; the middle ones heroic.
This establishes a distinction of moral from sexual norms. These are not isolated as in
libertine literature, but the tendency to neglect the plant sex when discussing death and
damnation in the third canto does effect a subtle relief of moral imperatives. Sex is freed
from death, and even becomes its opposite, the principle of life and the immortality of
Let us see how this plays out in the conclusion. A plant that changes color twice
(from red to brown, then black) serves as pretext: "The sparkling noon-beams trembling
on the tide / The P R O T E U S - L O V E R
his playful bride"
(IV: 4 6 7 - 8 ;
p.123). This being,
only tenuously a plant, pursues his lover in many forms. First he is a dolphin; then, as a
leopard ".. .with white teeth he prints her hand..." (IV: 477, p.124). This image of the
animal's foreplay, likened through the metaphor ofprinting to Darwin's book, recurs in
Proteus' last form, the swan. "Bright shines his sinuous neck, with crimson beak / He
prints fond kisses on her glowing cheek" (485-6). This blend of gallant eroticism and
biological pragmatism informs the last stanzas:
A hundred virgins join a hundred swains, / And fond A D O N I S leads the sprightly
trains; ... / —As round his shrine the gaudy circles bow, /And seal with muttering
lips the faithless vow, / Licentious Hymen joins their mingled hands / And
loosely twines the meretricious bands.— / Thus where pleased V E N U S in the
as "prints of the London Cries, wrapped upon rollers, with a glass before them." (65) After a discussion of
the subject matter permissible in art, Darwin obliges with fiercer monsters.
In Interlude 1, Sir Joshua Reynolds is criticized for lacking the concept of poetic reverie; Interlude 2 has
a discussion of what should be represented (the terrible) and what not (the horrible), appropriated by Fuseli
in the Lectures and Aphorisms. One gets a sense of Darwin's theoretical ambition, belying his modest claim
to be "only a flower-painter." Taking this claim literally leads Haut to assert that "Darwin casts his abstract
reader as female," (245), as implausible an assertion for Darwin as for Wollstonecraft: their ideal reader is
understood in a universalizing vein as human, with two discrete gendered variants.
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southern main, / Sheds all her smiles on Otaheite's plain, / Wide o'er the isle her
silken net she draws / And the Loves laugh at all but Nature's laws."91 (489-90,
501-508; p.124-125)
What is Darwin getting at with the promiscuity and "faithless vows"? He ends the whole
stanza so triumphantly with the swell of "Nature's laws" that the point cannot be to chide
plants (or people) for sexual immodesty. And where or what is Otaheite? Fortunately,
Darwin appends a very informative footnote:
Adonis. 1.490. Many males and many females live together in the same flower. It
may seem a solecism in language, to call a flower, which contains many of both
sexes, an individual; and the more so to call a tree or shrub an individual, which
consists of so many flowers. Every tree, indeed, ought to be considered as a
family or swarm of its respective buds; but the buds themselves seem to be
individual plants; because each has leaves or lungs appropriated to it; and the bark
of the tree is only a congeries of the roots of all these individual buds. Thus
hollow oak-trees and willows are often seen with the whole wood decayed and
gone, and yet the few remaining branches flourish with vigour; but in respect to
the male and female parts of a flower, they do not destroy its individuality any
more than the number of paps of a sow, or the number of her cotyledons, each of
which includes one of her young.
The society called the Areoi, in the island of Otaheite, consists of about 100
males and 100 females, who form one promiscuous marriage.92
The flexibility of Darwin's theory is its strength. Darwin is saying that we cannot equate
individuals with whole bodies, or with the number of sex organs found in a body, for
sometimes different individuals inhabit the same body. Darwin does not use a botanical
analogy, as Georges Bataille would a century and a half later, to liquidate the individual
altogether 93 He is still interested in distinctions: a tree is a community, but a bud is a
person. What then are the Areoi? Darwin does not say, but the Adonis poem seems to
The quotes are in Darwin: here the Goddess stops singing, and the nymphs and gnomes go to sleep.
Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden, 11:124. Otaheite is now better known as Tahiti. Made famous by
Louis-Antoine de Bougainville's Voyage autour du monde (Paris, 1771), the island and its natives served as
a subject of Utopian speculation from Denis Diderot's Supplement au voyage de Bougainville (written
1772, published posthumously in 1796) to Paul Gauguin at the end of the nineteenth century.
Georges Bataille, "The Language of Flowers," in Visons of Excess: Selected Writings,
translated by Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 10-14.
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leave open the possibility that they are to be understood as one being, as one flower
contains both male and female members. Or they may be individuals joined in communal
marriage on the model of the oak tree. Darwin's theory must be this flexible in order to
recognize biological variance without reducing subjectivity to a somatic effect. The
liberal upshot of physical science is to question metaphysical conclusions drawn from
partial knowledge of the physical. When physiology is fully a science (and this may
never happen fully), the task remains to interpret animal and plant society: or, to use a
word eminently suited to both, culture. The Areoi are individual, we say dogmatically,
but for Darwin can be seen as a biological collective. What makes individuals out of
bodies, nations, and species is culture. This does not inflate "culture" to a master
category, but indicates that the dividing line between nature and culture is decided locally
in human communities that differ from one another throughout time and space. Herder's
theologically-inspired pluralism is naturalized: Darwinian biology embodies a concept of
freedom under culture.
I have dwelt on Darwin's thought in The Loves of the Plants at length because it is
a necessary preamble to understanding the function of Fuseli's illustrations. The book, as
science-literature, is typical of eighteenth-century speculation about the place of sex in
human life and life in general.94 Like The Temple of Nature, The Botanic Garden was
published by Joseph Johnson and illustrated by Fuseli: in fact, Fuseli suggested the
collaboration and suggested the publisher.95 There are four engravings after Fuseli, the
two most interesting of which are executed by William Blake; a third is the Nightmare
Cf. recent work by feminist biologists, esp. Joan Roughgarden, Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity,
and Sexuality in Nature and People (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
On Darwin's letter indicating Fuseli's initiative in these matters, see Ch.2, Note 9.
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discussed in Chapter 2; a fourth is the frontispiece, Flora Attired by the Elements.% Alas,
Fuseli's initiative did not carry over to the subjects selected for illustration by the
publisher. None of Darwin's fantasias of plant reproduction is drawn by Fuseli. Only the
Nightmare appears in The Loves of the Plants', the other Fuselis are in the first part of the
book, The Economy of Vegetation, an exposition of Darwin's views on geology,
meteorology, and natural history. Fuseli thus casts only indirect light on Darwin's main
theme, but he is, as I will show, fully aware of it.97
Actually, only The Fertilization of Egypt, engraved and partly composed by Blake
(FLG.3.8abc), is of direct interest.98 The relevant lines in the poem allegorize the yearly
flooding of the Nile: "High o'er his head the beams of
glow, / And, Dog of Nile,
barks below."99 {The Economy of Vegetation, Canto III: 133-4) The impressive
backside of the god stand out sharply from the landscape, which manages to stuff clouds,
Source of the Nile, Jupiter the Rain-Bringer, and diminutive pyramids all in the space
around and between Sirius's legs. The compression works well with the picturesque
inconsistency of Darwin's verse; it also draws our attention to the unifying element, the
praying animal god whose physique and spread-legged stance recall that emblem of
The best purely bibliographic discussion of these images is Weinglass, 123-127. The illustrated editions
of The Botanic Garden are in quarto; there are octavo editions of Flora and The Nightmare, dated 1791. A
good discussion of Flora is in Haut: "the feminine is at once the botanical subject and the botanical student:
she is simultaneously the text and its reader, the product and its consumer." (245)
Johnson may not have wished to burden the book with images of its most scandalous content. Sales were
strong, and no one much noticed Fuseli's illustrations. The 1798 American editors left them out.
The other drawing engraved by Blake, Zeus Battling Typhon, is notable for Zeus's physiognomy, which
rather resembles Bert Lahr's cowardly lion in Victor Fleming's film of The Wizard of Oz (1939). What may
be said of this image is better said of the Fertilization of Egypt, with which it is consistent.
Darwin explains: "The Abbe Le Pluche observes, that as Sirius, or the dog-star, rose at the time of the
commencement of the flood, its rising was watched by the astronomers, and notice given of the approach of
inundation, by hanging the figure of Anubis, which was that of a man with a dog's head, upon all their
temples. Histoire de Ciel." (Economy of Vegetation, 77, Note).
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humanism, Leonardo's Vitruvian Man (FIG.3.9).100 AS in the drawing of Achilles (FIG.
1.16), which is in some ways paradigmatic of neopaganism, in Sirius the Vitruvian man
has been turned so that his rear faces us; moreover, he has been animalized. And this was
done with great nonchalance: the dog's snout and fluffy ears sit atop the muscular neck
like a Norse hero's headgear. In Blake's remarkable drawing (FLG.3.8b), an intermediate
stage between Fuseli's summary sketch (FLG.3.8a) and the finished engraving (FIG.3.8C),
the head is hairless and worked out with such detail of bone structure that the dog head
cannot be mistaken for mere decoration. The issue here is visual cross-breeding of an
animal and a human canon of proportions to the point of indissolubility in the service of
expounding Egyptian religious views. Fuseli's thick torso, conforming to the type of a
Hellenistic boxer, is also streamlined by Blake to classical athleticism.101 The result is no
simple alienation of the classical ideal, but a challenging coming closer to the classical
tradition: to putative Egyptian belief on one hand, and to a biological view of life on the
other. The appeal of the combination is that biological views does not exclude as
'superstructure' the metaphysical, or if we prefer, cultural insights of a multifarious
humanity. Egyptian religion and art are on par with the cycles of organic life, human and
agricultural, in Fuseli's and Blake's engraving, and this parity is confirmed in Darwin's
verse and his footnote. Though light-hearted, Anubis is an act of aesthetic diplomacy with
serious consequences. The basic idea is that one need not choose between materialistbiological and a culturalist interpretations of human diversity, since 1) in a sense familiar
Blake produced his own variant on the Vitruvian Man, variously called Glad Day or Dance of Albion.
The first state dates to 1793, two years after the Darwin book, though Blake inscribed "1780" on the plate,
presumably the date of a first (lost) drawing. David Bindman and Deidre Toomey, The Complete Graphic
Works of William Blake (London: Thames & Hudson, 1978), 400.
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since Herder, the human animal is predisposed to a wide variety of social and imaginative
experiences, and 2) these experiences, even the most metaphysical and disembodied, do
not negate the animal but only work to expand his place in a cosmos of which the animal
and its concerns form only a very restricted domain. To sum up, in Darwin and Fuseli as
his illustrator we do not encounter race theory or an uncompromising biological view of
human nature and society, but rather a naturalist continuum from microscopic organisms
to social phenomena as complex as myth, religion, and mystic orientations toward nature
and the non-human. Sex is the one ontological constant occurring from Darwin's flowers
to the creation of Eve in the Garden. It mediates at every step between the physical and
the social, which is on this view just the variety of forms taken by the coexistence of
Gillray, Sade, and the 'New Morality'
How serious these consequences could become was seen by a reputedly comic thinker:
Tory cartoonist James Gillray, who on July 9th 1798 published a broadside on the New
to illustrate the poem on the same theme in the final issue of The
Anti-Jacobin, a propaganda sheet sponsored by the Conservative Parliament.102 The full
title is explicit: NEW MORALITY;
The promis 'd Installment of the High Priest of
the THEOPHILANTHROPES, with the Homage of Leviathan and his Suite. In a
panoramic presentation, the slimy bearers of a 'new morality' are seen invading England
As Weinglass points out, Fuseli was very pleased with Blake's performance and recommended it to his
later engraver, Moses Haughton, for emulation (in a letter to William Roscoe of Aug. 1798). Prints, 125.
On the revival and transformation of classical bodily ideals, see Martin Myrone, Bodybuilding.
Frederic George Stephens and Mary Dorothy George, Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires in the
Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, (London: British Museum, 1870), 9240. There
was also a reduced copy executed by George Cruikshank (see BMSatires 9240.A).
3. The Satyr Play
from the sea. Or are they are crossing the Channel to fraternize with their French
brethren? Led by the poets Coleridge and Southey, a crowd of English notables on the
left pays its respects to the French Director, Larevelliere-Lepaux, who officiates before a
trio of bedraggled female deities representing Justice, Philanthropy (squeezing the globe),
and Sensibility. Not far from the altar a basket of flowers in the shape of Phrygian
bonnets, inscribed Zoonomia, or Jacobin Plants, stands for Darwin. Most impressive,
kneeling on the shore and lapped by primordial slime, is the swollen green body of
Leviathan, who wears the face of the agricultural reformer Francis Russell, Duke of
Bedford, and is ridden by Whig leader Charles James Fox. With its reticulated ears and
webbed claws, this creature is a tour-de-force even for Gillray: at once sea monster,
Biblical Beast, and travesty of Darwin's theory of "Organic Life [that] began beneath the
waves." If we take the effects of physical horror into account, the implications of the
print are staggering. The artist begins from the tangible political mood of England at the
time, which is one of cautious reaction against French revolutionary Terror and
imperialism, and of a corresponding suspicion of English liberals who had supported the
revolution, and of liberalism in general. Gillray not only blames liberal public figures for
Jacobin morality, generously extended to include the post-Terror French Directoire.103
More boldly, Gillray finds in liberalism as a whole a regression in human nature; the new
morality, he says, is liable to return humans back to the physical condition of the
primeval swamp.
The poem is actually less sharp than the print. Markman Ellis, The Politics of Sensibility: Race, Gender,
and Commerce in the Sentimental Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 193, writes:
"Gillray selects and combines aspects of Canning's poem in the caricature, and, in so doing, considerably
broadens its political target to include almost all the Opposition leaders." Draper Hill is more concise:
"Arbitrarily, the artist has emphasized the partisan aspect of a work largely concerned with human behavior
in the abstract." (Mr. Gillray the Caricaturist, 71) These authorities seem to agree that Gillray pins the
blame for the 'Jacobin' morality on liberalism as such.
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This might seem a harsh indictment, plausible in the hyperbolic context of satire
but not in a reasoned discourse on the politics of Darwin and his circle. But I cannot
shake the conviction of Gillray's discernment here. He reads his opponent's doctrines at
such abysmal depth that they become monstrous.104 Especially, he has noticed the
peculiarly modern significance of blurring the human-animal distinction in Darwin and
Fuseli: the donkey-men Southey and Coleridge who do obeisance to Lepaux, brandishing
texts dropped from the "Cornucopia of Ignorance," activate a moralist tradition as old as
Aesop, but concretely the long-eared man-beasts are visual echoes of the dog-headed
Anubis from the engraving of the Fertilization of Egypt. The cranium and wing-like ears
are direct quotations, while the musculature and posture are a good fit as well. What
Gillray argues visually must be spelled out: the new morality, insofar as it naturalizes
ethics, reduces men to slaves, to beasts of burden good only to be exploited by those in
the know, that is, by a political elite possessing working knowledge of the new morality
as a tool of domination.105
The critical tableau is almost complete. One word more needs to be said about the
sinister elites 'who know how to exploit' the dumb romantic animals. They are French,
for the French have invented the new morality (Rousseau), and perfected the political arts
of domination (Robespierre). Lepaux the Director is an undistinguished stand-in for this
French 'menace,' his presence merely topical; he is not the theoretical champion of the
This is not the first time a Gillray crudity proves germane: Un petit Souper (1792) represents a Jacobin
family indulging in a cannibal feast that Linda Nochlin has compared to the "far-out" 60s cartoonists. This
is obvious libel on Gillray's part, but it does penetrate Montagnard theory if one only thinks of Sade's
admiration of cannibalism. Juliette, Pt.l, note 21 reads: "La meilleure de toutes les nourritures, sans doute,
pour obtenir de l'abondance et de l'epaisseur dans la matiere seminale. Rien n'est absurde comme notre
repugnance sur cet article ; un peu d'experience l'aurait bientot vaincue - une fois qu'on a tate de cette
chair, il devient impossible d'on aimer d'autres..."
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new doctrine. We must complete Gillray's thought by choosing an appropriate antagonist
for his satire. Doing so will allow us to judge—not impartially, but rigorously—whether
Darwin and Fuseli's doctrines are bearers of reformist, revolutionary, or, as the matter
may be, authoritarian political efficacy.
Who then is a fit target for Gillray's fury? The most uncompromising partisan of
ethical naturalism writing in the 1790s, in France or anywhere else, is the Marquis de
Sade. I have no intention of suggesting him as the literal subject of the print, much less of
'recommending' Darwin to the school of thought which identifies Sade's texts with an
overcoming or self-overcoming of the European Enlightenment. It is better to compare
the two crudely, as Gillray might have done, and just as critically.106 To do this we must
be sure that there is enough common ground for a comparison. Imaginatively, the answer
is yes: a libertine Loves of the Plants is not implausible, even if the French version which
actually saw print is the decorous work of the naturalist Deleuze.107
Entertaining this possibility, we must ask ourselves: how well does Darwin sit
with Sade? On first glance, quite well. Sade is a radical materialist and empiricist; he
begins from the contention of Locke that humans think only what the senses bring in.
This eliminates God and all objectivity beside the perceiving animal.108 This jars with
Cf. David Bindman, ed. The Shadow of the Guillotine: Britain and the French Revolution (London:
British Museum Publications, 1980), cat. no. 165 (p.173-174). As Bindman notes, Wollstonecraft's is one
among the texts heaping out of the "Cornucopia of Ignorance."
This "critical tradition" might begin with Bataille and Klossowski, and reaches an apogee in Max
Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, "Juliette oder Aufklarung und Moral," Dialektik der Aufklarung
(Amsterdam: Querido, 1947), 100-143, and Jacques Lacan, "Kant avec Sade," Ecrits (Paris: Seuil, 1966).
This approach persists, not very seriously, in the work of Slavoj Zizek, who pretends the title of Mozart's
Cost fan tutte is a sexual categorical imperative—never mind that "tutte" means "all women."
Les amours des Plants, poeme traduit de I 'anglais par J.P.F. Deleuze, et les Plantes, proeme par ReneRichard Castel, 2 vols. (Vienne: Schrambl, 1819). There is a brief comparison of Fuseli with Sade in
Myrone, Gothic Nightmares, 168, with reference to Fuseli's 'Debutante' (SCHIFF 1444).
"Toutes nos idees sont des representations des objets qui nous frappent; qu'est-ce qui peut nous
representer l'idee de Dieu qui est evidemment une idee sans objet..." D.A.F. Sade,"Fran9ais, Encore un
3. The Satyr Play
Darwin's pietist convictions, but these may be incompatible with his published work as a
physiologist and neurologist, which commit Darwin to naturalism as thorough as
Sade's.109 To be sure, Sade is the more thoroughgoing moralist: "Nous allons sans doute
humilier ici l'orgueil de l'homme, en le rabaissant au rang de toutes les autres productions
de la nature, mais le philosophe ne caresse point les petites vanites humaines..." 110
Natural philosophy reduces man to a creature among others; what's left is to read off
what nature prescribes. This reduction is announced in the programmatic text sandwiched
between the dialogues of La philosophie dans le boudoir in 1795. It is inscribed in its
very title with the political self-consciousness of the Directory: ""Fran9ais, encore un
effort si vous voulez etre republicains." Sade had narrowly escaped the Terror (he was
imprisoned and almost guillotined). At once stimulated by and wary of the post-Terror
liberalization, Sade struck out preemptively for a republicanism without bounds: free sex
and all crime, but murder in particular, ought to be permitted as natural functions of the
organism. Of the latter, Sade suggests that the revenge of the victim's friends and family
ought to suffice, and to absolve the state of any responsibility or right to punish killers.
This is not the place to evaluate Sade's rather innocent social theory.111 What is
important for us is the connection between sex, animal nature, and the liquidation of all
repressive convention. Sade wants to eliminate culture insofar as it establishes limits on
effort si vous voulez etre republicains" in (pt.l, La religion), La philosophie dans la boudoir [1795], in
CEuvres, ed. Michel Delon, (Paris : Gallimard, 1998), vol.3, 119. In the early "Pensee," Sade argues that the
Cartesian cogito is only "le resultat de l'operation de tous nos sens." Oeuvres completes du Marquis de
Sade, Vol.14 (Paris: Au cercle du livre precieux, 1967), 67-70.
Cf. Dror Wahrman, The Making of the Modern Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 293:
"the mind, for these biological psychologists [including Darwin], now collapsed into the brain—a
formulation that is of course meant to bring to mind (or brain) the analogous collapse of gender into sex at
the very same time."
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natural function. To be really consistent, he would have to liquidate all culture: not just
religious taboo, not just religion, but the manifold meanings in everyday life that invests
certain ideals with value, serving as the presuppositions which institutions are founded to
govern. Sade is optimistic about the prospects of merely annulling institutions, because
he thinks humans bestial—murderous and lubricious—by nature. Here an old-fashioned
moral theory of human nature affords him Edenic visions of a happy buggering humanity.
The conclusion of his first mature text, the Dialogue entre un pretre et un moribond,
testifies to this optimism. The priest has just received a lecture in naturalism from the
dying man, who has prepared an orgy with six women to fulfill his last wish, and invites
the priest to join.
Le moribond sonna, les femmes entrerent, et le predicant devint dans leur bras un
homme corrompu par la nature, pour n'avoir pas su expliquer ce que c'etait que la
nature corrompue.112
There is no corrupt nature, so all that remains is to be corrupted by nature. With the
incorrigibility of nature, we have arrived at the heart of matter. This doctrine underwrites
Sade's ethics, and resolves what might otherwise seem contradictory: Sade speaks of
absolute liberty for individuals as slavery to natural impulses. Thus he explains the
libertine noblewoman Saint-Ange in terms of "les lois divines du plaisir qui
l'enchainerent toute sa vie."113 Liberty is thus addiction, or, generally speaking, crime;
indeed, in a pointed extension of Rousseau, Sade speculates that whereas young republics
E.g.: Sade writes with approval of societies that have conventionalized murder. It doesn't occur to him
to inquire into the consequences for political liberty should a republic have such an assassin class.
Concluding note, Dialogue entre un pretre et un moribond [1782], in Oeuvres completes, XIV: 64.
"Aux Libertins," La Philosophie, CEuvres completes, III: 3. Note the gender of the readers. See pt.2 of
"Encore un effort...," "Des mceurs," which discusses woman as common property in the state of nature. Cf.
also Note 9: "Le premier mouvement de concupiscence qu'eprouve une jeune fille, est l'epoque que la
nature lui indique pour se prostituer, et sans aucune autre espece de consideration, elle doit ceder des que sa
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simply exist in accordance with nature, old nations can only follow nature's laws by
committing a multitude of crimes.114 Crime is a relative concept: relative to human
culture, and to the restraints it places on nature. "Est-il possible d'imaginer que la nature
nous donnat la possibility d'un crime qui l'outragerait ?"115 Since it is not, the work of
culture—all its work, with the exception perhaps of libertine philosophy—is opposed to
nature. This autonomy from cultural fact is hard to grasp from the texture of Sade's
writing, for he cites the mores of nations gleaned from Herodotus and Cook like any selfrespecting erudit. Naturally he finds in tribe after tribe and nation after nation 'natural'
practices being permitted or encouraged. Old or primitive nations were on balance more
natural than the modern ones. But a line is drawn before the positive content of cultures:
the metaphysical structures in which they pronounce the meaning of sex, violence, and
nature in general have to go. To them Sade offers the tonic of "le neant, l'indifference."
Religions are explicitly denuded of meaning, even those wise enough to prostitute their
priestesses. "Toutes les religions s'accordent a nous exalter la sagesse et la puissance
intimes de la divinite, mais des qu'elles nous exposent sa conduite, nous n'y trouvons
nature parle ; elle en outrage les lois si elle resiste." (136) The equation of subjective freedom with
objective necessity is the link with Kant noticed by many commentators.
"Une nation qui commence a se gouverner en republique, ne se soutiendra que par des vertus, parce que,
pour arriver au plus, il faut toujours debuter par le moins; mais une nation deja vieille et corrompue qui
courageusement secouera le joug de son gouvernement monarchique pour en adopter un republicain, ne se
maintiendra que par beaucoup de crimes..." Ibid., 147. The opposite idea of crime as catalyst probably
explains Sade's fascination with the iibertins scelerats'ofZes Cent Vingt Journeess de Sodome. The
aristocratic 'sangsue' has the same function in Sade as the capitalist does in Marx.
"Des mceurs," 140. Sade is inconsistent in his conventionalism: "Le meurtre est-il un crime ou ne l'estil pas ? S'il n'en est pas un, pourquoi faire des lois qui le punissent ? Et s'il en est un, par quelle barbare et
stupide inconsequence le punirez-vous par un crime semblable ?" (151) At one time crime is seen as
superstition, at others it is all pathos and nobility. This may have to do with Sade's religious philosophy,
oscillating between atheism and a gnostic paralysis in the face of an all-powerful evil deity.
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qu'imprudence, que faiblesse et que folie."116 These are familiar tones of Voltairean
ecraser. Culture for Sade is only the variable spectacle of exploitation.
II n'y a rien de plaisant comme la multiplicity des lois que l'homme fait tous les
jours pour se rendre heureux, tandis qu'il n'est pas une de ces lois qui ne lui enleve,
au contraire, une partie de son bonheur...vraiment, il faut bien que des fripons
s'engraissent, et que des sots soient subjugues ! Voila, d'un mot, tout le secret de la
civilisation des hommes.117
For Sade all culture is, at bottom, law. If Herder posited an equality of human cultures as
individuals, predicated on the human as a world-changing animal, and Darwin extended
this individualism to sexual practice, Sade asserts sex and violence as iron laws guiding
the slaves of nature, who are simultaneously the warrior-citizens of the republic.118
Culture is second nature, extraneous law, and ought to be done away with. What remains
is natural law. the sexual egoism of individual actors, and an egoistic state whose sole
interest is to conserve by any means the conditions of its existence.119
So far we have investigated the common ground of Darwin and Sade, and one
crucial difference in their view of culture, which Sade decisively cuts off from nature.
I would like to close the discussion by showing that Darwin's view is less traditional than
Sade's in its thinking about sex in relation to nature and culture. By traditional I mean
only that the supremacy of nature and its expression in individual egoists so striking in
Sade are commonplaces of eighteenth-century enlightened individualism. Herder and
"La Religion," Note 3, 116. Compare the early poem "La verite," lines 27-28: "Ne voit dans ce motif de
vos religions / Qu'un assemblage impur de contradictions," Oeuvres completes XIV, 81.
Juliette, Pt. 1, Note 19. On Sade's peculiar practice of footnoting his texts, see Pierre Klossowski, "Le
philosophe scelerat," Oeuvres completes, XVI, 504-505.
"Encore un effort..." concludes with allusions to the Crusades and enemies across the Rhine (153).
"Nous ne devons certainement pas douter un moment que tout ce qui s'appelle crimes moraux, c'est-adire toutes les actions de l'espece de celles que nous venons de citer, ne soit parfaitement indifferent dans
un gouvernement, dont le seul devoir consiste a conserver, par tel moyen que ce puisse etre, la forme
essentielle a son maintien ; voila l'unique morale d'un gouvernement republicain." "Les moeurs," 129. As
is evident from these lines, Sade is an advocate of 'negative liberty' in Berlin's sense.
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Darwin constitute a marked advance in sophistication of a liberal political imagination, of
anti-dogmatism, because they leave society a room to breathe shaped but not determined
by nature. Culture is part of nature, but is neither its cause (as in postmodernism) nor its
effect (as in most substantial philosophy before). It is that part of nature that determines
how individuals act in common. It is somatic only insofar as bodies and sex form a
substrate of human life both natural and an artifact of learning. The difference between
Darwin and Sade can be seen succinctly in an example appealed to by both: the
promiscuous Tahitian natives. Here is Sade's version.
Les Otai'tiens satisfont publiquement leurs desirs ; ils rougiraient de se cacher pour
cela. Les Europeens leur firent voir leurs ceremonies religieuses, consistantes dans
la celebration de cette ridicule jonglerie qu'ils nomment messe. A leur tour ils
demanderent la permission de faire voir les leurs. C'etait le viol d'une petite fille de
dix ans, par un grand gar?on de vingt-cinq. Quelle difference.120
Sade praises the Otaheiteans for satisfying their desires publicly. This makes their
'natural mass' vastly superior to the European ceremony. Sade can make the contrast
effective because he has subtracted from his object of curiosity anything that makes it the
property of that specific people: their doings are celebrated as a pagan mass, a judgment
which only inverts the thought process of the missionaries he despises.121 Is Darwin's
motif of a marriage of one hundred any less ethnocentric? I think it is insofar as it is
complicated by the metaphor of Adonis and by the scientific discussion of plant
collectives. These two directions open up the ethnocentric identification of the group
Juliette, in CEuvres completes, III: 340-1., in the list immediately following the Britons (see note 101).
Though he clearly read Bougainville, Sade may or may not have read Diderot's Supplement, which
appeared in 1796 in a posthumous collection called Opuscules philosophiques et litteraires; chapters 3 and
4 of this dialogue unfold 'Tahitian' promiscuity as natural law. Diderot's attack on Christian sexual mores
and defense of free love are in agreement with Sade; the emphasis on procreation as the ultimate goal of
sexuality is radically opposed. On Sade's aversion to procreation and motherhood, see Camille Paglia,
Sexual Personae (New York: Vintage, 1991), chapter 8.
3. The Satyr Play
marriage with its "faithless vows" to the dignity of the erotic cult on one hand and of the
social functionalism of the individuals flowers that form oak trees on the other. I do not
claim we should prefer Darwin because he is "softer" on culture, or because he reconciles
culture to nature. It is as specious to 'reconcile' differentiated aspects of individual and
communal life as it is to liquidate one in favor of the other. What is needed is to articulate
nature and culture without subjecting one to the other; Darwin can do this not because of
some miraculous dispensation of tolerance on his part, but because the two models of
pluralism he employs, the Ovidian plurality of gods, and the Linnaean typology of
species, draw up a biological ethic of sexuality reaching from the heavens to prehistoric
slime. Where Sade's theory of human nature posits sexual atoms in violent collision,
Darwin's defines sexuality as community. As such, it is indispensable but variable within
human history and natural history seen broadly. It can be appealed to for standards of
coexistence, but not of elimination.
This is the kernel of Darwin's liberalism, and it resists Gillray's indictment. One
might call it pluralism by virtue of biological determinism, and although that sounds
monstrous, it is not. Darwin's practical politics in The Botanic Garden and elsewhere are
Burkean, anti-colonialist, pluralist. They do not 'follow' from his principles any more
than anyone's individual choices do, but they are more open to these principles than
Sade's consistent reductionism is to Sade's own bewildering public activity during the
1790s.122 The ultimate test in an aesthetic history is not a comparison with the political
lives of theories, but with their aesthetic consequences. We have seen Sade's, more or
Sade introduces his 'list' in universalizing manner: "jetons un coup-d'ceil rapide sur l'univers, et voyons
combien tout ce que nous appelons crime s'erige en vertu d'un bout de l'univers a l'autre..." CEuvres
completes, III: 339. Throwing a 'quick look at the universe' has obvious homogenizing results.
3. The Satyr Play
less, in Gillray's print. Darwin's is encapsulated best in the Fuseli-Blake collaboration on
Fertilization of Egypt. Note that by "aesthetic consequences" I do not mean to make
Darwin the motor force of a phenomenon that Fuseli only applies: but it would be
disingenuous to give the painter center stage on all fronts of an evolving neopagan theory
of human nature. There is an aspect of this theory which the doctor, for all his faults,
articulates with greater differentiation than can the painter as illustrator. This explicitness
of Darwin's, which casts salutary light on Fuseli's naturalism, may be seen to great effect
in a passage in The Loves of the Plants which compares the coexistence of Islam and
Hinduism in India to the variety of animal life along the Ganges:
Cold from a thousand rocks, where Ganges leads / The gushing waters to his sultry
meads; / By moon-crown'd mosques with gay reflections glides, / And vast
pagodas trembling on his sides; / .. .Charm'd on the brink relenting tygers gaze, /
And pausing buffaloes forget to graze; / Admiring elephants forsake their woods, /
Stretch their wide ears, and wade into the floods; / In silent herds the wondering
sea-calves lave, / Or nod their slimy foreheads o'er the wave; / Poised on still wing
attentive vultures sweep, / And winking crocodiles are lull'd to sleep. (IV: 345-348,
355-262, p.l 18)
The connection between religion and vegetation, or between Ovid and Linnaeus, is an
understanding of sex as communion, or to put it less liturgically, as mutual action. In
uniting sexually, individuals do not exploit each other but construct extra-individual
bonds.123 For Darwin the natural modes of self-reproduction are also the social modes of
self-transcendence of the individual: in the family, the polis, the beyond of religion and
culture. None of these is reduced to sex: but sex, in being generalized as a principle of
self-transcendence, is freed from a single normative morality even as it is posited as
intrinsic to all moralities.
Sade's vacillation is well-put in a 1791 letter to Gaufridy: "Que suis-je a present? Aristocrate ou
democrate? Vous me le direz s'il vous plait, car pour moi je n'en sais rien." (CEuvres I: lxxvii).
3. The Satyr Play
As usual with Darwin, the effect in the Ganges passage borders on the ludicrous, on
parody or self-parody. This is only in part due to his poetic limitations. Darwin's
biologism is revolutionary, and with truly novel ideas, as opposed to merely violent ones,
one cannot always be sure when one is serious or in jest. In this sense, Gillray may have
been right to include Darwin and Fuseli in the New Morality after all.
Fuseli's Erotica and the Sexual Anthropology of Pierre d'Hancarville
With Darwin and Sade we have reached a standstill in eighteenth-century liberal thought.
Theorists critical of modernity have inclined to see in Sade the nightmarish conclusion of
the Enlightenment project.124 In proffering Darwin as an immanent alternative, I have no
intention of rewriting the disastrous history of the past two centuries, of prophesying a
happy future of biologized metaphysics, nor of projecting such Utopias into the past: " i f
we had been wise enough to listen to Darwin, things might have been different..." Such
speculation is of slight historical value. Darwin has not been taken seriously as a political
thinker in part because he wasn't one. My contention in this study is that to grasp the
lived significance of classical liberalism, and to evaluate its force in the present, we have
to look beyond explicit political discourse, at painting and poetry and antiquarian
practice, in short, culture. It is here that liberalism promises not just social compromise,
but positive happiness. The really interesting question is, what kind of happiness does
liberalism promise?
For this reason, it would not occur to Darwin that (selfish) sex could be used for communitarian ends, as
it does to Sade in "Encore un effort...," where he suggests incest might promote patriotism.
Horkheimer might be singled out both for the prominence he gives Sade, and the circumstances of his
essay—around the midpoint of the Second World War, with the end of 'civilization' in sight.
3. The Satyr Play
One might reply on the basis of the preceding pages: sex. Differences aside, Sade
and Darwin agree on the fundamental place of sex within human nature and on the
positive value of sexual liberty. Sexual liberty can even become a regulative or an
authoritarian ideal, if, as in Sade, it must be pursued at the expense of all conduct—and
persons—unwilling to participate. It seems that with this double thesis of the
irreducibility and variability of sex we have struck the nerve of late eighteenth-century
theories of human nature, from which elaborations as different as Sade's atomism and
Darwin's transcendentalism depart. In this portion of the essay I shall examine the
doctrine of sex in its explicitly aesthetic-anthropological form, in the work of certain
French and English antiquarians in contact with Fuseli and his circle. I hope in this way
to shed some light on Fuseli's much-discussed, but still mysterious, erotic drawings.125
Let us begin with an exemplary late specimen of this work (FIG.3.1 1). Done
around 1810, the drawing is 'labeled' with a citation from Aeschylus's Promethus Bound
(864), reading roughly, "May Love thus come to my foes!"126 Prometheus predicts the
murder of fifty men of Argos by their wives on their wedding night. This charged passage
is particularly suggestive in juxtaposition with Fuseli's orgy, with its authoritative women
outnumbering and apparently stifling the lone male. But distrust of female sexuality
hardly exhausts this drawing. The tragic quote which organizes it is not self-explanatory:
we are not shown the contents of Prometheus' prophecy, any more than the spectacle of
The best account is Gert Schiff s, who links the domineering women with abstract hairdos to Fuseli's
'fear of commitment' and of women in general. This account is clearest, and most clearly ahistorical, in
Gert Schiff, "Fuseli, Lucifer, and the Medusa," Henry Fuseli 1741-1825 (London: Tate, 1975), 9-19. See
also David H. Weinglass, "The Elysium of Fancy" in Erotica and the Enlightenment, ed. Peter Wagner
(New York: Peter Lang, 1991), 294-353, for a cautious restatement of Schiff s thesis.
Aeschylus' Greek reads: "toi&5' etc' exGpoijg xoug s|iou<; eXGoi Ku7tptq." Myrone (172) cites Potter's
1777 version, "Thus fatal to my foes / Be Love" which removes the ambiguity which Fuseli twisted to
affirmation. However, Myrone gets the tone of the drawing right: "Not as simply ingratiating as
pornography, but neither... wholly removed to an 'elevated' realm of pure contemplation..."
3. The Satyr Play
Prometheus enduring his own torture. The context of the Aeschylean citation shows
rather its ambivalence. Prometheus has just recounted the sorrows of Io at the hands of
her cruel lover Zeus and the jealous Hera; he then speaks of Io's descendant Herakles,
who would one day free Prometheus himself. Of the fifty brides poised to kill their
husbands (Io's great-great-great-great-grandchildren), one woman, "charmed by desire"
(himeros thelxei), spares her partner and eventually sires the line of Herakles. What
Fuseli cites is an utterance encompassing love's destructive force and its life-giving
force. This force acts politically (Prometheus' liberation) and somatically (engendering
Herakles). To invite love "thus to come" to one's enemies is not just to have them
overpowered sexually—but to have them overpowered for the ultimate good. The sexual
violence and promise in this drawing only superficially resemble those qualities in the
work of Sade; the 'reaching through' sex to organic life on one end and transcendent
belief on the other are profoundly liberal in Darwin's tradition, even if they dispense with
the Ovidian pleasantness of The Botanic Garden. But to spell out this position in Fuseli's
work, and to see its superiority over Sade's atomizing view for a liberal politics of sex
and culture, we must untangle the knot of convictions about sexuality, life, and belief in
the enlightenment anthropology of sex.
Sexual anthropology was eminently the domain of 'Baron' Pierre Francis
d'Hancarville. Born Pierre Hugues on New Year's Day, 1719, to a family of fabric
merchants in Nancy, d'Hancarville, as he came to call to himself, led a colorful early
career as soldier and intriguer in the style of Barry Lyndon; after being imprisoned in
Berlin's Spandau Citadel for posing as a nobleman, he took up scholarship, a less
3. The Satyr Play
hazardous calling.127 In 1752 he published an obscure but ambitious piece of political
economy, the Essay (sic) de politique et de morale calculee.m
Praised by Voltaire, the
Essay made no impression on French political theory, which was then being
revolutionized by the far more disciplined economic calculation of the physiocrats.129
True to character, d'Hancarville reinvented himself: he examined gems in Florence,
climbed Vesuvius with Winckelmann, and struck up a friendship with Sir William
Hamilton, the English envoy to Naples. Over the decade from 1767 to 1777, Hugues
published four volumes of the Collection of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman Antiquities
from the Cabinet of the Honorable Wm. Hamilton,130 These made his reputation as a
historian and book designer, but for all their intellectual invention, they are limited by the
conventional purpose they served, that of learned advertisement and dissemination of
Hamilton's collection. In the Antiquities d'Hancarville only cautiously states his master
theme: the worship of Bacchus as driving force of primitive art and religion.
Le Bacchus, represente sous la forme d'un Bceuf par les Egyptiens, les Arabes &
les Pheniciens, se composa dans1-5la1 Grece, de la figure humaine & de celle de cet
animal, qui rappelle son origine.
D'Hancarville's biography is both fragmentary and apocryphal. I rely mainly on A. E. Barbier,
Dictionnaire des ouvrages anonymes, vol.2 (Paris: G.P. Maisonneuve & Larose, 1964.), 211.
Anonymous, Essay de politique et de morale calculee (Londres, 1752). The absence of author and
publisher names, and the suspicious place of publication suggest that d'Hancarville feared the censor. The
anglicized title recalls Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis's Essay de philosophic morale (1747), which
argued that "dans la vie ordinaire, la somme des maux surpasse celle des bonnes." This thesis in turn
impressed Rousseau; see Arthur O. Lovejoy, "Rousseau's Pessimist," Modern Language Notes, Vol.38,
No.8 (Dec.1923), 449-452. Maupertuis's residence in Berlin as President of the Prussian Academy makes it
likely that d'Hancarville met him (cf. Barbier, 211).
Voltaire, Correspondence, vol. XIII. In 1753 Turgot published Questions sur le commerce; in 1758
Quesnay published Tableau economique; d'Hancarville's Essay was reprinted once, in 1759.
See Haskell, "The Baron d'Hancarville"; Vases and Volcanoes, 45-51 and 93-105; Coltman,
Fabricating the Antique, 57-61, and the recent monograph by Pascal Griener, LeAntiquita etrusche,
greche, eromane, 1766-1776 di Pierre Hugues d'Hancarville (Rome: Edizione dell'Elefante, 1992).
Antiquites etrusques, grecques et romaines tirees du cabinet de M. Hamilton envoye extraordinaire
plenipotentiaire de S.M. Britannique en cour de Naples (Naples: 1767 [really 1776], vol. Ill: 128.
3. The Satyr Play
Bacchus and his symbolic animal, the bull, stand jointly for the male principle of
insemination, which ancient people according to d'Hancarville worshipped as the origin
of human life and, mystically, of existence in general. These phenomena constitute the
human relation to "la puissance Divine, qui crea, qui conserve, qui detruit." The
excavation of this relation "dans cette marche lente des formes" of visual art is the task
d'Hancarville set himself in his magnum opus, the Recherches sur I'or igine, 1'esprit et
lesprogres des arts de la Grece, published in London in 1785.132
Purporting to be a modest study of the origin and decoration of Greek coins, the
Recherches soon spun an ambitious argument of the dissemination of a primitive fertility
religion throughout the ancient world, whose shambles survive in folk belief into
modernity. It is not possible really to produce a close reading of this work, whose detail
and tendentiousness do not reward piecemeal exposition.133 Instead I will sketch
d'Hancarville's motives, the work's plan and method, and the impact of the work on
British culture. For the Recherches are not really conceived as an academic work, but
rather as a radical, erudite contribution to the culture of neopaganism.
First, we must regard the ostensible form of the book, a numismatic discourse.
D'Hancarville apologizes for the boredom this might cause in the preliminary discourse,
but sets aside a more rewarding examination of ancient art because he wishes to trace
ancient religion were it is most copiously preserved: the inscriptions on coins.134 Ancient
coins, though crude as artifacts, reproduce not just rituals and cult images, but the whole
Preface, II: ix-x. The full title is Recherches sur I'origine, I'esprit et lesprogres des arts de la Grece;
sur leur connections avec les arts et la religion des plus anciens peuples connus; sur les monumens
antiques de I'Inde, de la Perse, du reste de I'Asie, de I'Europe et de I'Egypte (London: C. Appleyard,
1785). The initial publication consisted of two volumes and a supplement.
But see Maty's review, reprinted in the supplement.
Recherches, II: iii-viii.
3. The Satyr Play
continuum of ancient artifacts from monuments to carved gemstones. Coins are not only
of practical value to the historian. Their crudity is of theoretical value: they epitomize the
failure of all artifacts to measure up to the divine image. The human effort to represent
the divine is bound to fail because of the chasm between the two worlds; but the effort
drafts into service every aspect of our world.135
Les Elemens, les Astres, les Plantes, les Animaux, etant les objets les plus
remarquables de la nature, & ceux qui portent d'une maniere plus frapante
l'empreinte de l'idee de son Createur, on chercha parmi eux des emblemes...a
representer la Divinite.136
From fire, representing the generation of all things, to the lotus, representing the hovering
of spirit over the waters (Genesis), through the bull (fertility) and snake (rebirth),
d'Hancarville enumerates, with much learning and little scruple, a Vast collection of
symbols found among the Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Persians, Egyptians, Phoenicians,
Arabs, Scythians, and Greeks, which supposedly verily his thesis.137 In unrolling this vast
carpet of interpretation, the author is aware of the fissures that deface it. He phrases the
historian's challenge in moving language:
Les siecles ne sont que des instans dans 1'incommensurable duree des tems, la vie
des nations n'occupe que peu de ces instans...Les peuples entiers, avec leurs
monumens les plus solides, courent s'ensevelir dans la nuit du passe & dis138
paroissent sans retour.
In passages like this, d'Hancarville forgets his Voltairean detachment and professes a
conception of the relative insignificance of human life in relation to the cosmos. There is
a substrate of historical feeling in this mysticism, first articulated in the Antiquities'.
Recherches, II: x,
Recherches, II: xi.
Recherches, II: xvii.
Recherches, II: xxvi.
3. The Satyr Play
On vient de voir les grands Changemens...qui donnerent un nouvel Ordre a l'Etat
Civil, Politique & Religieux, aux Coutumes, aux Moeurs, mais surtout aux Arts &
Sciences de l'ancienne Grece ; c'est parla principalement, que ces temps si
eloignes de nous, se lient avec celui ou nous vivons; car c'est par la secrete
influence qu'ils ont sur les Esprits, que les Siecles se touchent & se rapprochent
malgre l'intervalle de la Duree qui les separe... 139
Here we have d'Hancarville's dreams and fears together: the elusive correspondence
between objects and life, the yawning abyss which separates us from the past, finally a
"secret influence over the spirit, through which the centuries touch." His is a tactile
philosophy of history. It is as if only the most intimate of senses, touch, could bridge the
historical interval. Touch, as erotic contiguity, is the force preserving archaic religion into
the present. Here d'Hancarville's sign theory of art, which identifies the beginning of
both religion and sculpture with the imputation of a god's presence in a rock or other
natural object, is supposed to transform our circumscribed modern views of sex.140 The
Pelasgians, first inhabitants of Greece, represented the primordial Etre Primitif or Etre
Createur, whom they called Pan, in the form of an obelisk or Terme equipped with
"VOrgan tres-marque de la Generation," signifying "leprincipe de la Vie.,,l4] In this
analysis, penis is not emphatically a male organ: for the Primitive Being encompasses all
sexual nature, and in turn gives birth to "l'Etre aux deux sexes, l'Etre Generateur."142
Symbols of the male organ of generation, which d'Hancarville finds dominant among the
images of the past (FIG.3.12), embody not a dominant male principle embodied in
individual, but a principle of life prior to sexual individuation.
Antiquities, III: 32-33.
On the sign theory, see Antiquities, III: 99 and IV: 7. On the sign in nature religion, see III: 11-12.
Recherches, II: 318, and see the preceding discussion of Pan.
Recherches, II: 304.
3. The Satyr Play
Now, in order to interpret this claim about ancient sexuality and human nature, it
is important not to grant d'Hancarville the sexual pathos so decisive to the tangle of
sexuality and scholarship in the case of Winckelmann. For the author of Geschichte der
Kunst des Altherthum, antiquity was the jealously guarded memory of a departed lover, to
adopt the metaphor of Whitney Davis. 143 An enthusiasm for the Greek ephebe was
transposed into Winckelmann's history without ever quite erasing the pang of longing for
a never-experienced antique sex life. There is none of this reserve, this storing up of grief,
in d'Hancarville. There is indeed a sense of the fugitive past, which evokes melancholy in
the author; yet his means of overcoming it are anything but private. The disarray of
d'Hancarville's life and theory are complementary, one does not compensate for the
other. D'Hancarville the author is prolix, pedantic, and obscure in his frantic bid for
academic credibility. This obstructs discussion of sex in his 'serious' texts, but it does not
repress it as such: sexuality reigns triumphant in the images which dominate his books at
the level of design and of scientific illustration. We must turn to them for an
interpretation of the anthropological thesis just stated.
It is typical already of the Antiquities that the frontispiece to the chapter on
archaic Greek sculpture in Volume III should be a Hellenistic orgy (FIG.3.13). The
satyric-sexual recurs in the miniatures reproduced in the frontispieces of this volume, all
of which date later, even by d'Hancarville's estimation, than the narrative he recounts.
Whitney Davis, "Winckelmann Divided: Mourning the Death of Art History," Journal of
Homosexuality, 27, no. 1/2 (1994), 141-159, reprinted in The Art of Art History, ed. Donald Preziosi
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 40-51. On the contradictions of Winckelmann's work and life,
see also Alex Potts, Flesh and the Ideal: Winckelmann and the Origins of Art History (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1994), Ch.2 and 5. The first modern study of Winckelmann's sexual aesthetic is Leopold
Ettlinger, "Winckelmann, or Marble Boys are Better," in Art the Ape of Nature: Studies in Honor ofH. W.
Janson, ed. Moshe Barasch and Lucy Freeman Sandler (New York: Abrams, 1981), 505-511.Still valuable
is J.W. von Goethe's "Skizzen zu einer Schilderung Winckelmanns," in Winckelmann undsein
Jahrhundert (Tubingen: Cotta, 1805, reprinted Leipzig: Seemann Verlag, 1969).
3. The Satyr Play
The same is true of the plates in Antiquities III and IV, some of which are commented in
a long appendix to the last volume. We can think of d'Hancarville's work of the 1770s
and '80s as a gradual normalization in antiquarian discourse of the sexual undercurrent in
ancient art and religion. The tendency is made explicit only in the erotic volumes
published by d'Hancarville between the printing of the Antiquities and the Recherches,144
Especially in the Culte secret des dames romaines, sexual practice and religious belief are
drolly intertwined with only half-hearted stabs at an Enlightenment moral criticism of
Roman decadence and the excesses of despotism.145 One illustration and its commentary
suffice to convey the thrust of d'Hancarville's thinking, unburdened of the professorial
pretensions of the Recherches. Plate XIII shows Un Satyre qui baise une Femme sur un
Autel antique (FIG. 1.12), an image which we already saw disseminated in a Fuseli
drawing (FIG. 1.13). The text sings the joys of "l'heureux satyre," then stops to wonder at
"une singularite" in the image:
c'est le siege ou est assise la femme qui cede aux desirs du Faune: il est orne de
festons, ce qui ne convient qu'aux autels des Dieux. Si cela est, l'Auteur a voulu
nous donner dans cette gravure, la vive image d'un acte tres-respectable dans la
Religion des Anciens. On sait qu'il y a eu des peuples chez qui, les jours de fete
les plus solennels etoient consacres a l'acte de la generation.14
The chronology of d'Hancarville's texts is complex. A first volume of erotic art (or pornography, if the
distinction holds), called Veneres et Priapi uti observantur in gemmis antiquis (Lugd. Batavorvm
[London?], [177-]), whose text is in English, was once thought to have caused the author's expulsion from
Naples in 1770. Monumens de la vie privee des douze Cesars, and Monumens du culte secret des dames
romaines (both Caprees: Sabellus, 1780 [actually Nancy, printed by Le Clerc]) were reprinted in 1784. Cf.
Alexandre Cioranescu, Bibliographie de la litterature frangaise du dix-huitieme siecle (Paris: Editions du
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 969), II: 930.
A typical intellectual somersault: after declaring that "le culte du vrai Dieu a dissipe celui d'une foule de
Divinites, dont l'exemple portoit naturellement les hommes a la corruption," d'Hancarville asserts that his
century is more corrupt than Rome and Greece, and ask whether it would not be more corrupt still "si notre
culte, nos temples, nos Pretres ne nous offroient journellement que des images, des idees que nous
nommons obscenes, et qui ne 1'etoient point pour les Anciens?" Preface, xvi-xvii.
Monumens du culte secret, 25.
3. The Satyr Play
The effect of scholarly pretension is meant lightly, but set beside d'Hancarville's
historical work, it reveals the two sides of a coin of an anthropology based on sex. The
moral suspension which anthropology has inherited from neopaganism is conspicuous in
the Culte secret: we are told in the introduction that public sex was once "un acte tresrespectable," regardless of its modern connotations. In the Essay, the young
d'Hancarville had defended prejudices as ideas that makes humans happy, however
spurious they may be.147 What is not spurious in all this, d'Hancarville is quick to point
out, is sex itself, which reproduces human life and life in general, even as it reproduces
human ideas of the divine which recur continually. It is assumed by scholars that the
illustrations of the Culte secret are forgeries—it has even been said that they were drawn
by d'Hancarville.148 This is untrue in detail, since at least one plate in the Culte secret
reproduces a stone now in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, which was also copied by
Marcantonio.149 It also misrepresents d'Hancarville's enthusiasm for ancient erotica.
Among his papers is preserved a handwritten note from a collaborator that conveys
succinctly the Baron's approach to collecting:
I have a curious stone to show you and a curious piece of sculpture from the
newly discovered islands, representing a priapus jerking off and scratching his
"Nous avons si peu de moyens de nous rendre heureux, qu'il serait deraisonable, de ne pas profiter de
tous ceux qui se presentent, sous pretexte que ces moyens, n'ont pas un fondement solide; aux yeux de la
politique un prejuge utile cesse d'etre, un erreur; & dans le calcul du bonheur, il est conte comme une
verite." Essay sur la politique et la morale calculee, xv-xvi. The doctrine anticipates Nietzsche.
Henry Cohen, Guide de I'amateur de livres a gravures du XVIII siecle (Paris: Rouquette, 1886).
Plate XXII in Culte secret, see Ornella Casazza and Riccardo Gennaioli, eds. Mythologica et Erotica:
Arte e Cultura dall'antichita al XVIII secolo (Florennce: sillabe, 2005) 74-75.
"J'ai un pierre curieuse a vous montrer et un curieux morceau de sculpture des isles nouvellement
decouverts, representant une priape qui se branle et qui se gratte le cul." D'Hancarville Papers (folder 1,
"unconnected drafts"), Beinecke Library, Yale.
3. The Satyr Play
It remains an open question whether d'Hancarville 'believed' in his sexual pantheism: not
in the sense of a viable religion, but as historical or cultural phenomenon. Yet we can be
sure that he was not alone in positing it. Fuseli's Roman drawing of a couple mating on
an altar to Priapus (FIG. 1.13) clearly follows d'Hancarville's Monumens.151 Certainly the
motif of sex as religious ritual, emphasized in Fuseli by the woman's phallic amulet, and
by the man's grasp of the statue's stone phallus, had resonance beyond d'Hancarville's
circle of acquaintances. It recurs in a remarkably volatile ink drawing by Sergei of a satyr
copulating with a maenad (FIG.3.14).152 The pseudo-classical source in Marcantonio
Raimondi's Modi, featuring a bearded man with club and lionskin, is dissolved by Sergei
into a welter of animal and human bodies and attributes. What might seem like mere
artifacts of messy ink drawing—the fact that Hercules' arched thighs resemble those of a
satyr, that his lionskin mantle could pass for an animal head for the figure—acquire
programmatic coherence, and indeed are justified aesthetically if one reads them in light
of d'Hancarville's religion of sex. One might say that where Fuseli reconstructs a ritual,
Sergei reconstructs pansexual belief.
In returning to the 'ritual' neoclassicism we have discussed in Chapter 1 through
the lens of sexual anthropology, we are able to see the theoretical basis of neopaganism in
a biological vision of human nature. But we ought not to forget the contradictory aspects
of this practice, conspicuous also in d'Hancarville's phallic theory.153 On one hand, a
D'Hancarville, whom he may have met in Rome, sailed to London in 1776 to avoid his creditors. There
are drawings in Fuseli's Roman notebook in Zurich of themes from Antiquities I and II; vols. Ill and IV,
'published' around 1776, did not reach subscribers until 1780 or so—roughly at the time of Fuseli's return.
There is no reason to suspect Fuseli had seen d'Hancarville's rare 1771 Veneres.
There is also a pencil copy of Fuseli's drawing in a Sergei sketchbook. See Andersen, 160.
1 do not use the term 'phallocentrism'because I find it ambiguous: in psychoanalytic usage (e.g. Jacques
Lacan, "The Signification of the Phallus, Ecrits, 688) it means a system of power centered on an absent
(invisible) transcendent object, which dissipates when equated with the humble materiality of the penis. But
3. The Satyr Play
sexual theory of human nature allows d'Hancarville to develop a non-hierarchical view of
Greek art, in which the earliest and crudest is by no means to be neglected, since it flows
from religious conviction.154 On the other hand, it runs the risk of reducing art and
religion to a glorified act of coitus which in no way reflects the fine grain of cultural,
historical, and religious differentiation.
The threat and inadequacy of this sexual universalism are well-articulated in a
pair of Fuseli's most 'd'Hancarvillian' drawings of the Roman period, now in the Museo
Home in Florence. One drawing shows a man embraced by two women in an interior
oscillating visually between bordello and pagan temple (FIG.3.15). The same split
temporality is conspicuous in the figures: the crouching woman, who squeezes the man's
penis between her breasts and chin, has a telltale black mark on her temple suggestive of
a modern prostitute.155 Yet the giant stone penis in a dramatically lit alcove at the back of
the room sways interpretation toward an ancient or timeless occurrence. An inscription
reads "ZeTi APIHN TENETO" {zete arsen geneto, "seek, male ancestor").156 Male
sexual agency is called forth and celebrated in this epigraph, but at the same time it is
rendered involuntary, incomplete through being called forth: the male member is not a
scholars sympathetic to psychoanalysis are apt to take the everyday synonymy of phallus and penis as an
invitation to find phallocentrism exhibited in Hellenic phallic images and neopaganism, which cannot be
the case by definition. This mars an otherwise fine study of d'Hancarville and his epigones, Alessandra
Ponte, "Architecture and Phallocentrism in Richard Payne Knight's Theory," in Sexuality & Space, ed.
Beatriz Colomina (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1993), 274-305.
In the preliminary discourse of Antiquities III, d'Hancarville decries the "numberless prejudices of the
Moderns," which prevent study of ancient art. "This History, far from existing, seems impossible to
the greater number of the Learned." Antiquities, III: 2 (English translation in the original).
The spot, deriving from mercury treatment for syphilis, became a fashion accessory in its own right.
The mixture of capitals and lower-case Greek letters is Fuseli's. genetes = ancestor, zete in = to seek
(zetesis = quest), although Fuseli erroneously uses an epsilon after 'z' instead of an eta. Myrone has the
phrase as "grow large, male progenitor," which is wrong on any reading of 'zete.'
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self-enclosed world of meaning, but a social member.157 In the drawing itself, the phallus
is less a cause of action than one means of response to the actions of the assertive female
lovers, who may be imagined uttering the Greek command inscribed on the altar in the
background. In opposition to d'Hancarville's Utopia of natural phallic sex, Fuseli seems
to find sex natural and social at once.
Another drawing, captioned K^INOIIA^H, (klinopane, bed exercise)158 brings
this disagreement within sexual anthropology to a head (FIG.3.16). The droll title points to
what has not yet occurred: one woman stretches on the bed in anticipation, while another
unlocks the fibula (penis sheath or broach) restraining the hapless male figure. Fibulas, in
antiquity, were used for a variety of erotic and practical purposes, such as emphasizing
the dimensions of the male organ or enforcing chastity.159 In the drawing, this device with
its range of 'castrating' connotations is contrasted with the penis-headed statue of a
Priapus, equipped with a second, giant penis, which glows heroically in the lamplight.160
The humor of the scene depends on the imbalance between the virility of the stone
monument and the drooping indignity of the real thing.161 This deflating irony does not
deprive the drawing of erotic force, but it does deprive the penis of any privilege in
In Augustine, the involuntariness of erection stems from man's rebellion against God. Narcissism as
cause of sex is replaced by Fuseli, as by Darwin some years later, by sex as a relation between people.
The editors of The Wild Swiss suggest a probable source for the expression in Suetonius's life of
Domitian: "velut exercitationis genus clinopalen vocabat." (Di vitis caesarum, §22). Lentzsch, 254.
On the Roman fibula, the only monograph remains Eric John Dingwall, Male Infibulation (London:
John Bale, Sons, and Danielsson, 1925); see also the comments in Amy Richlin, "Towards a History of
Body History," in Inventing Ancient Culture, ed. Mark Golden and Peter Toohey (London: Routledge,
1997), 32. Fuseli, like Winckelmann, was familiar with the practice from reading Martial and Juvenal.
1 read the shape on the figure's head as a foreshortened penis projecting into the space of the drawing,
with the glans at top and the testicles to left and right.
Schiff (I: 113) interprets both drawings as manifestations of Fuseli's polarizing anxiety about sex: the
teasing dominatrix (the reclining woman here, the crouching woman in Fig. 18) shares the bed with a
solicitous servant girl (the woman kissing the man in Fig.15, the woman opening the fibula in Fig.16).
Schiff s 'analysis' fall apart in our next image (Fig. 17), where there is no persecutrix.
3. The Satyr Play
defining sex. This complicates the inevitability of the ritual mating that d'Hancarville and
the Roman artists, Fuseli included, saw as the root of human sexual identity. The
drawings do not refute what is generally called 'normative heterosexuality' or deny a
natural basis for sex: they are not prematurely postmodern. Fuseli is also not developing
an abstract concept of non-normative sex, but describing many kinds of sex in a libertine
eighteenth-century manner. There are drawings by Fuseli exploring male and female
homosexuality, women penetrating men, and other deviations from "l'amour
physique."162 What FIG.3.15 and FIG.3.16 have in common with these more frankly
deviant drawings is the suggestion that natural sex is just one particular determination of
sex, ontologically and morally no better than what is termed deviant sex. I think it is hard
to escape this impression from Fuseli's drawings, if for no other reason than that he
doesn't represent anything in a manner that one could say, "aha, there is [what Fuseli
thinks is] normative sexual behavior!". It is unfortunate that this has generally been
interpreted as a "case study in extreme sexual pathology."163 The burden of the argument
of this chapter is precisely that Fuseli, though interested in virtue and vice, had no
working concept of pathology. For Fuseli, sex varies in accordance with the variety of
human cultures of the body.
This is not quite the same as saying that sex is a fiction, that it is an ideological
formation to be replaced by talk of "bodies and pleasures," nor that it is the ultimate and
According to Knowles, many erotic drawings were destroyed by Mrs. Fuseli. Of those that survive,
particularly interesting are SCHIFF 548 and 925 (female phallicism), 547 and 549 (constraint) 653 and 654
(themes from Herculaneum), 658 (satyric homosexuality), 1619 (female homosexuality), to say nothing of
the nightmare, courtesan, and Nibelungen cycles of images, and sex elsewhere in Fuseli.
Myrone, Gothic Nightmares, 173. To be fair, Myrone is discussing some odd drawings that have been
interpreted (inconclusively) as showing women "more or less explicitly abusing, teasing, or mutilating a
small man or boy." But the very vagueness of that description (the range from teasing to mutilating) should
make us wary of jumping to clinical conclusions. See also the plausible reading of one of these images as a
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only good, to restate the Sadian position. The difference to both positions may seem
subtle or nitpicking, but it is of the essence. What Fuseli does on the face of it is to
rehabilitate sex aesthetically. This cannot issue in the censure of discourse on sex, which
I take to be the Foucauldian position; nor can it be realized in society as a sort of
sexocracy in which the rules of desire suspend every moral judgment and cultural more,
which is the Utopian position of Sade. Sex in Fuseli is contextualized as culture, for
instance through the use of herm monuments and the fibula. Sex under culture is not
universally valid or universally legible, but it is at least legible as a manifestation of
desires and habits held by a particular agent in a particular time and place.
To strengthen this linkage of the variety of sex to varying human motives, I'd like
to present one last erotic drawing, closely related to the last two (FIG.3.17). Here Fuseli
does away altogether with the tension between a unitary phallic anthropology and the
suggestion, found already in Darwin, of a 'natural' human diversity that need not always
have the penis at its centre.164 The three-way sex act typical of Fuseli is at its simplest,
least legible here: the figure of top, for instance, is most likely a woman, but that is not
made obvious.165 What is interesting in this drawing is the figure of the helper who
guides the penis into its orifice. The yoking of sexual nature to intention is economically
conveyed through the grasp of the hand on the 'organ of generation.' The droll touch of
hanging an image of St. George above the bed betrays Fuseli's investment in the bringing
down to earth of sex. The saint with his heroic lance is far removed from the muffled man
being handled by and serving the pleasure of the two women. Fuseli does not escape the
political idealization of Mary Lamb in the figure of a bacchante, in Adriana Craciun, Fatal Women of
Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 38-41.
This drawing is labeled IIEPIXAMBANE, "embrace."
With the usual proviso of possible lost work, I must acknowledge the
3. The Satyr Play
gender and sexual hierarchies of his time; but by ironizing them, he does not just reverse
the terms of an asymmetrical relation of domination, as Sade does in Juliette. There are
images in Fuseli of female sexual violence against men that do seem to fit a story
atomistic sexual self-satisfaction in the manner of Sade's novel, but the images just
3.11 and 315-3.17) offer a multiplicity of sexual configurations which
cannot be reduced to 'dominatrix' or 'harem' or other variations on sexual domination.
Rather, in evoking a variety of antique sexual habits Fuseli finds in sex a plurality of
possible worlds.
Richard Payne Knight and the Liberal Theory of Sex
The idiosyncratic and apparently private status of Fuseli's erotic drawings imposes severe
limits on any interpretation of their political implications. Even if "middle-class and elite
men could be openly sexually expressive in each other's company in the late eighteenth
century,"166 a political claim could only emerge from this intimate sphere in the context
of a universalizing, public gesture. Is it too much to expect such an effort on behalf of
sexual anthropology prior to the therapeutic pathos of Freud or Ellis at the turn of the
twentieth century? Not if we look to half-public articulation in those institutions of
Georgian England which mediated between the profane sexuality of antiquity and the
polite society reaching upward into parliamentary circles. One such institution, perhaps
the classic case, is the Society of Dilettanti. There we find an interest in sex both
conditioned by eighteenth-century life in dialogue with the antique and striving to change
that life through liberal reform.
Myrone, 166. Of course, this openness must be analyzed, not consigned to a mythic 'homosociality.'
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The Society, founded as a drinking club for young English noblemen in Rome in
December 1732, reached a zenith of public prestige with the publication of its
archaeological expeditions in Greece (Stuart and Revett's Antiquities of Athens, 1762)
1 f\ 7
and Asia Minor (Chandler, Revett, and Pars's Ionian Antiquities, 1769-97).
That an
aristocratic drinking society whose most famous early member was the Earl of Sandwich,
which dressed in antique kitsch regalia and stored its meeting minutes in a safe
simulating the Tomb of Bacchus, should sponsor the significant antiquarian enterprises of
the late eighteenth century says much about the gradual and uneven professionalization of
history in Europe.168 By the 1780s, the bulk of the aristocratic first generation of
Dilettanti had been succeeded by ambitious, politically active men like Sir William
Hamilton, Charles Townley, Lancelot Brown, and Richard Payne Knight—bankers,
collectors, and diplomats, Whigs and Catholics and reformers along with stalwart Tories
and the bureaucrats running Britain's imperial machine.
In May 1784 the Society voted to publish a letter of Sir William Hamilton's
concerning the survival of phallic worship in Catholic services in the Apulian town of
Isernia which had sadly been suppressed since Hamilton had been there in 1780. By
1787, the letter, with a long scholarly Discourse on the Worship of Priapus by Knight,
was ready for print; something of a public secret of the society, it was affectionately
referred to as the Priapeia. Copies were presented to all Dilettanti and public figures
On the foundation of the Dilettanti, see the official history by Lionel Cust, History of the Society of
Dilettanti, ed. Sidney Colvin (London: Macmillan, 1898), 7-9. The first meeting, in 1732, may have been in
Rome, as most of the Dilettanti resided there; by they began keeping records in 1736, they met at a tavern
in London. Besides Cust, who represents Dilettanti self-understanding, there are excellent essays on the
Society's research, social life, and art commissions by Bruce Redford, now overtaken by his volume
accompanying a Dilettanti exhibition at the Getty Villa in 2008, Dilettanti: The Antic and the Antique in
Eighteenth-Century England (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2008). See also Coltman, op.cit., and
Giancarlo Carabelli, In the Image of Priapus (London: Duckworth, 1996).
On the Tomb of Bacchus and the problem of drinking in Society meetings, see Cust, 30-36.
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ranging from the Prince of Wales to Horace Walpole.169 The air of conspiracy, as much
as the sexual subject matter, caused a small scandal in the conservative press: Knight had
a career as a member of parliament in the early nineteenth century, which would be rather
remarkable course of events in modern America or Britain. And what of the book itself?
Was it calculated to shock English morals with its "icy Voltairean wit," as Francis
Haskell has felt, or was it a turgid "failure of tact and humorous perception," as the
Society historian Lionel Cust has bluntly put it?
That the text could evoke such a range of responses is interesting in itself. Knight
was an overwhelming figure, setting out to confirm d'Hancarville's results and to surpass
them in scholarly rigor and clarity of prose. Starting as a treatise in pagan cosmology, the
Priapeia traces sexual fertility cults through ancient art and custom to its mutilated
remnants in Catholic superstition; politically, it is a brief for sexual tolerance and an
attack on established Christianity, particularly the Roman Church, which has deep
traditions in English liberalism, in John Locke, and beyond it in the work of Thomas
Hobbes. Contentwise, the Priapeia extends the phallic theory 'upward' into Neoplatonic
theology, and 'downward' into folk practice such as Hamilton had stumbled upon. Knight
spreads his net so widely because he is not in doubt about the universal reach of
anthropology—he begins with the observation that "men, considered collectively, are at
all times the same animals," though "directed to various ends.. .by the variety of external
circumstances operating upon them."170 Culture redirects the flow of human nature but
A partial list of recipients is given in Cust, 123. Given the small number of copies printed (150), the
scarcity of the book is explicable without presuming a later effort on Knight's part to suppress it.
Richard Payne Knight, An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus to which is appended A
Discourse on the Worship of Priapus and its Connexion with the mystic Theology of the Ancients (London:
Spilsbury, 1786), 21-22. The book had printed illustrations inserted and was distributed thus only in May
1787, in accordance with a motion by Dilettante and connoisseur Thomas Banks; this is attested by
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cannot reinvent it; the metaphor of the springs of nature which cannot be stopped, but
"return to their ancient channels, when the causes that perverted them are withdrawn"
strikingly says of human nature what Niccolo Machiavelli had said offortuna, our fate in
the world.171 This literary citation to the Renaissance beginning of the 'human sciences'
announces Knight's ambition to spring the conceptual prison of Enlightenment optimism
about a steadily progressing humanity. As in the case of Herder, the question remains
whether the perspective is thereby made broad enough to do justice to humanity in its
diversity, or whether it imposes on it a false unity lent by the author's cultural starting
point. The question is not answered by Knight's text. Yet the moral and political
emphasis of the book is not in the text alone: for the book is most astutely and
purposefully illustrated. More than the Recherches, the Priapeia is the aesthetic heir to
the Hamilton Antiquities. Where the Antiquities were lavish, the Priapeia aims at
concentrated shock: from the droll
frontispiece (FIG.3.18), which displays a pagan pile-up of the wax phalli that Hamilton
had brought back from Isernia, to the striking tailpiece, illustrations of Hindu temples and
erotic sculptures, the book's images brandish phallic artifacts as if in defiance of English
decorum and accepted historiography.172 The anonymous images, in a sovereignly
smooth neoclassical style, are competently engraved and betray the hand of an artist close
handwritten notes in extant copies, i.e. the Houghton Library exemplar, Harvard University, p.2 The
Priapeia was republished in 1865 with an account of medieval phallicism by Thomas Wright; there is a
reprint of this edition, entitled Sexual Symbolism (New York: Dover, 2006).
Ibid. On 'fortuna', see IIprineipe, chap. 25, and Hans Freyer, "Einfuhrung," in Niccolo Machiavelli,
Der Fiirst, translated by Ernst Merian-Genast (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1961) 19-21.
Partha Mitter (Much Maligned Monsters, 305) observes that Knight, who devalued the Elgin Marbles
was more significant as a pioneer of iconographic approach than as a connoisseur. The classic revisionist
studies of Knight are Nikolaus Pevsner, "Richard Payne Knight," Art Bulletin, vol.31, No.4 (Dec. 1949),
293-320, and S. Lang, "Richard Payne Knight and the Idea of Modernity," in Concerning Architecture:
Essays on Architectural Writers and Writing Presented to Nikolaus Pevsner, ed. John Summerson
(London: Allen Lane, 1968).
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to Fuseli and the Roman 'neopagans' of the 1770s.1731 will comment on a few
exceptional images and their treatment by Knight, which should clarify the Priapeia's
polarizing place in English culture of sexual liberalism.
Let us begin at the end. Returning to Hamilton's pagan-Catholic rite which
opened the book, Knight cites the Church fathers to the effect that the God of Greeks and
Christians is the same. Below, the endpiece, plate VII, represents a marble group of a
faun penetrating a goat (FIG.3.19). The sober final paragraph asserts the identity of the
supreme pagan and Christian deity; one is not to reject the Greek God, but only "the
corrupt mode in which he was then worshipped."174 This last sentence of the book is
separated from the picture of satyric sex only by capital letters announcing THE END,
which might serve as caption to the picture. One cannot divorce the negative, satiric
effect of this juxtaposition from the positive, satyric proposition of sexuality as the
common denominator of all conscious life:
...the same one principle of life universally emanated and expanded and ever
partially returning to be again absorbed in the infinite abyss of intellectual
Knight could equate sexuality with the classic theistic motif of a great chain of being
because for him the rigid distinction of male and female functions in sex that orders the
thought of d'Hancarville and Sade is breaking down.176 The half-human satyr enjoying
the goat represents not the triumph of spirit over matter, of active over passive essence, of
The authorship of the Priapeia illustrations remains a mystery. Stylistically they suggest John Samuel
Agar, commissioned by Knight in the 1790s to draw prominent British antiquities (e.g. the Landsowne
Herakles drawing now in the Getty Center). Fuseli and John Flaxman are also possible candidates.
Knight, 195.
Knight, 48. Cf. Mitter, 102.
On links between Knight's pantheism, sexuality, and Whig politics, see G.S. Rousseau's fascinating if
overwrought essay "The Sorrows of Priapus: anticlericalism, homosocial desire, and Richard Payne
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male over female; or at least not exclusively, for it is also the "returning to be again
absorbed" of subjectivity into matter. The dispersal of this hierarchy into a circuit of
embodiment and interpenetration may be due to Knight's interest in 'mystic theology',
but I would comment his practice in the following way: if one more neologism is
permitted in the articulation of neopaganism, the Priapeia should be called satyric in
joining the sexual-humorous and the sexual-affirmative as one principle at the basis of
human nature, a nature extending out of the closed circle of the individual to encompass
its striving for the divine.
That this satyric principle is culturally pluralist and socially egalitarian can be
seen in the most challenging of the Priapeia''s acts of visual analysis: the discussion of an
Indian erotic marble then in the collection of the rich Catholic connoisseur and Dilettante
Charles Townley, now in the British Museum. Before Knight's discussion can be cited, a
few words are in order about these extraordinary images and their source. The large relief
fragment in igneous stone, supposedly taken by a British expedition from a sixth-century
Hindu temple on the island of Elephanta, was accessible to Knight in Townley's private
collection; from this original, preserving the weathering of the surface and the later
disfiguration of the statues, the leftmost two figures are reproduced as Plate X of the
Priapeia (FlG.3.20a).177 Plate XI (FlG.3.20b) reproduces the entire group, deftly working
in the missing facial features and extremities as if the fragment had been preserved intact.
Below, in a ghostly linear style of stipple engraving that recalls Flaxman, the artist has
rendered the missing lower bodies of the carved figures: to be precise, the large penis of
Knight," Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment, ed. G.S. Rousseau and Roy Porter (Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 101-153.
Below, in the manner of d'Hancarville's plates, Knight reproduces coins with other motifs.
3. The Satyr Play
the figure at right, the top of which is reconstructed in the body of the marble proper; the
female genitals of the center figure, and the penis of the leftmost male figure. The entire
group, especially the leftmost pair, re-acquires some of its presumed original force, and a
spectral antiquarian eroticism of its own. Below, in italic script, Knight provides a factual
description of the object:
This fragment in alto Relievo 2 feet 6 inches long and 1 foot 6 inches high, was
detached from one of the ancient temples, which are excavated in the solid rock
upon the island of Elephanta near Bombay, and was brought to England in the
Year 1784 by William Allen Esq. Captain of His Majesty's Ship the Cumberland.
There follows a bibliography of the ruins at Elephanta, and finally, in bold type, a quote
from Horace: "Et Quid sit pulchrum, quid turpe, quid utile, quid non?" To translate
roughly: "And what is beautiful? What is base? What is useful? What isn't?" The citation
is from the second Epistle, and is not posed as a question in the original. Horace declares
that he was rereading Homer, who gives one more insight (into what is beautiful, what is
base, etc.) than the more 'modern' stoic philosophers, Crantor and Chryssipus.178 The
cantankerous mood of the Roman poet, who dips into antiquity to refresh his perspective
on vital matters, is inverted by Knight. In asking "what is beautiful," he proposes the
marble as an answer to the question. Yet the question form, rather like Pilate's "What is
truth?" presses a challenge to formulate the basic issue: not revealed truth, in this
instance, but the aesthetic value of the radically foreign human artifact. The erotic group
is not only defended, it is transfigured by the moral authority of Roman antiquity and the
pre-moral grandeur of the Homeric world. The moral vistas reopened for Horace by
rereading Homer stand open to us for the first time. Aesthetic relativism is proposed here
not as an ironic distancing from moral-political concerns, but as an all-embracing moral
3. The Satyr Play
stance based on a theory of human nature that foregrounds sex. Knight conveys this
political-moral consequence of his anthropology forthrightly in a gloss on the sculpture:
It contains several figures, in very high relief; the principal of which are a man
and a woman, in an attitude which I shall not venture to describe, but only
observe, that the action, which I have supposed to be a symbol of refreshment and
invigoration, is mutually applied by both to their respective organs of generation,
the emblems of the active and passive powers of procreation, which mutually
cherish and invigorate each other.179
Neither Knight's primness nor his identification of male and female as active and passive
elements ought to be papered over—for Knight does not overturn the social conventions
of Georgian England. These conventions, however, shrink in his 'cosmic' perspective to
one set of moeurs among others. The hierarchy "active-passive" falls into the background
of a newly posited mutuality of sexual refreshment. This is of course as much a
normative assumption about human nature as any previous theory of sexuality, but it is a
peculiarly open concept of human nature. In taking the emphasis off the individual's
motives and the taxonomy of human phenomena privileging the familiar, Knight prepares
the ground for a study of cultures ceaselessly flowing into one another and
interpenetrating erotically—a state of affairs already assumed by Knight's and
d'Hancarville's ceaseless tracing of fertility cults from prehistory to the present. Basic to
the satyric theory is not the advocacy of a heroic form of "antique sex," but of an open
and adaptability of human sexual practice that corresponds to its universe of deities, and
their aesthetics. Sex, as the paradigm of a shared activity, is no single thing: its essence is
in flux, but one can still identify and chart the river.
Epistulae 1:2: "Troiani belli scriptorem, Maxime Lolli, dum tu declamas Romae, Praeneste relegi; qui,
quid sit pulehrum, quid turpe, quid utile, quid non, plenius ac melius Chrysippo et Crantore dicit."
Knight, 47-48. Cf. Mitter, 91.
3. The Satyr Play
The Priapeia was more central to British neopagan thought and artmaking than its
small print run and modest scandal would lead one to believe. Knight went on to do
rather more distinguished philological work on Greek antiquity, and was a member of
Parliament for the borough of Ludlow until 1806.180 He was close to Fuseli, who
reviewed Knight's didactic poem The Landscape, and cautiously took Knight's side in
his campaign against the Elgin Marbles, against Fuseli's own pupil Benjamin Haydon.181
Though the illustrator or illustrators of the Priapeia have never been properly identified,
it is within the realm of possibility that among them was Fuseli or a member of his
circle—the affinities to some Roman drawings of the 1770s are striking. It is no stretch to
extend Knight's politically oriented aesthetics to the work of Fuseli and Darwin, the latter
involved in composing The Botanic Garden as the Priapeia was published. Knight,
particularly in his images, gives articulation to a tendency to view human nature as a
biological diversity of historical phenomena, united as human by supra-individual
consciousness in the mystic sense and more concretely by supra-individual consciousness
made evident in sex. This is prima facie incompatible with a sexual and political atomism
like Sade's, in which the coming together of individuals reflects only the exertion of
individual wills to power.182
To show how the small, subterranean current of satyric-biological thought finally
issue into the broad stream of liberal political argument about sexual tolerance which
Nicholas Penny, in The Arrogant Connoisseur: Richard Payne Knight, 1751-1824, ed. Michael Clarke
and Nicholas Penny (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1981), 11.
On the controversy over the Elgin Marbles and Fuseli's involvement, see Mason, 226-230.
There are moments in Sade where this egoism is tempered by affection, e.g. the moment in Les cent
vingt journees de Sodome when "Durcet, renongant aux etrons de la jeunesse, dit qu'il ne voulait pour sa
soiree que ceux de ses trois vieux amis." Oeuvres completes XIII, 198. But these are irregularities in a
philosophy of sex that has dispensed of love—a process beginning with Pietro Aretino at the end of the
Renaissance and culminating with Julien Offray de la Mettrie's treatise L 'art de jouir (1751).
3. The Satyr Play
flows through John Stuart Mill, John Addington Symonds and Oscar Wilde (to name just
familiar English figures), and widens into contemporary feminism and gay activism, is
beyond the scope of this work. But aligning Knight, Fuseli, and Darwin with this stream
helps us see where they were going, and also why they did not arrive anywhere very
definite themselves.183 The changes they projected had simply to be lived—and fought—
through. But then again, "to live through" is never simple: as a tissue of experiences,
ideas, and fantasies, sexual life, if self-conscious, shades into art. And so we can close the
interpretive circle opened around Fuseli's most enigmatic erotic drawing (FIG.3.1 1). It is
not the artist's experience we are shown, but the image of an experience fashioned from a
political anthropology—an anthropology that permitted a widening of the spectrum of
sexual experience. Sex for Fuseli is at the same time liberatory and an omen of
impending disaster: whatever contingent basis is found for this ambivalence in the artist's
biography, it is its weight of ideas in the work that defeats time and makes the drawing
discomfiting today. The toleration or celebration of a new or foreign moral code can look
like a destruction of the old and familiar one. Fuseli understood this as well as Horace,
who extended his moral compass by immersion in Homer's dreamlike brew of violence
and treachery (he calls Homer "the writer of the Trojan War"). These writers sought to
displace the familiar with the antique, and we should not dismiss their efforts as escapist.
The appeal to antiquity within liberalism is really a reminder of the need for mutual
engagement between cultures, just as sex is mutual refreshment between individuals. As
aesthetics, liberation flows from the present into a past that becomes acceptable for the
first time, but as practice, liberation flows from the past into a morally discontinuous
One could include Wollstonecraft here—not the puritanical persona of the Vindications, but the moral
investigator of Letters from Sweden, who proposed to Mrs. Fuseli a scheme of cohabitation.
3. The Satyr Play
present. And so I should say that aesthetic pluralism is no mere application but a central
testing ground for liberal politics.
Satyric Painting and Pagan Politics: Fuseli's Polyphemus
Having laid the theoretical groundwork for the liberal theory of human nature, and its
practical issue in neoclassical art and bookmaking, it is time to turn our attention, by way
of concluding, to the wider culture of modernist antiquity. This will require a
generalization of the 'satyric' element in neopaganism, and some view of how it enters
political and aesthetic culture beyond a debate on sex. Fortunately, such generalization
can be carried out concisely in a field that has already provided us with empirical
material for examining the wider effects of neopaganism: history painting. The working
of satyric history painting will be discussed through the example of a single painting by
Fuseli, the Blind Polyphemus (FIG.3.1).184
But first, a few words about the historical pertinence of my usage 'the satyric.' On
one hand I mean it as a practical term, indicating how in classical guise a theory of
human nature can reimagine humans as sexual animals. The classical satyr, half-human,
half-goat, occupies a place in Greek myth that lends itself to exposition of such
anthropology—and did so already in the written Greek literature of the city-state. The
modernity of neopaganism, then, is tied to the 'modernity' of the Greek satyr-play. This
artform, of which only one ancient exemplar survives (Euripides's Kyklopes), proved an
object of great scholarly confusion for modern Europe. More than that, it was an object of
consternation: rediscovered in the Renaissance, and studied exhaustively by the
This neglected work by Fuseli is in a private collection in Zurich, where it hangs, appropriately, over a
fireplace. I thank Dr. Conrad Ulrich for graciously allowing me to examine the painting it situ.
3. The Satyr Play
Huguenot antiquarian Isaac Casaubon in the 1605 treatise De satyrica Graecorum Poesi
et Romanorum satira, the satyr play was not produced on the European stage until the
late nineteenth century.185 Speculation on why things did not come to be is always futile,
but in the case of the satyr play we might point to at least two problems: rowdy
burlesques of mythology with its chorus of drunken satyrs must have seemed
uninteresting to modern audiences prior to the turn I described in Chapter 1, which made
them see in Greek theatre a window on ancient Greek society. Also, the Greek satyrica is
overshadowed in literary consciousness by the Roman literary tradition of satire, which
acknowledges its descent from the irreverence of the satyr play but transposes its
slovenliness into crisp social critique. More importantly, because satire was concerned
with the beastly, stupid, and limited aspect of man's existence ("my page smells of man,"
wrote Martial), it builds a continuity between the topical criticism that is alive and well in
the prints of Gillray as much as in the utterances of Fuseli, and the view of humans as
natural beings, as animals, even if rational animals, which is the basic antique Greek
insight revived by neopaganism. Satire was alive and well in Europe during the
Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution. Its shadow can be felt in sexual anthropology,
and also in the period's efforts to come to terms with the satyr play. These efforts saw in
the genre a new beginning at once biologically and historically primal. The attempts to
Casaubon was reprinted in the late eighteenth century: Ioannes Iacobus Rambach, ed., Isaaci Casauboni
De Satyrica Graecorum poesi et Romanorum satira (Halle: I.I. Gebauer, 1774). Euripides' Cyclops was not
printed in the English edition of The Tragedies of Euripides, 2 vols., translated by Robert Potter (London: J.
Dodsley, 1783, reprinted Oxford: W. Baxter, 1823). The first performance on record was staged in Athens
by Ioannis Sideris in 1868 (together with Oedipus Tyrannos)\ the first professional production was by
Antonis Varveris in 1876; Adolf Wilbrandt followed in Vienna's Burgtheater in 1882; as in the case of
tragedy, there were pioneering amateur stagings in English and Australian grammar schools, including a
selection of scenes presented at Rugby in 1871.1 am indebted to the Archive of Performance of Greek and
Roman Drama, University of Oxford, 2008. See Arthur Sidgwick, Scenes from Euripides, Rugby ed., vol.1
(London, 1871), and Helmut Flashar, Inszenierung der Antike: das Griechische Drama auf der Biihne der
Neuzeit (MUnchen: C.H. Beck, 1991), 100-103.
3. The Satyr Play
make the satyr a modern citizen were fragmentary and indirect, and indirectness is a
common feature of modern archaism from Friedrich Nietzsche to Michel Foucault.186
With these cautionary words, we are ready to consider Fuseli's painting. In 1806
the publisher Francis Isaac du Roveray reissued Alexander Pope's translation of the
Odyssey in a lavish picture edition; Fuseli was offered five themes to illustrate, which
were reprinted soon thereafter with Copwer's translation of the Odyssey by Joseph
Johnson.187 Fuseli's originals for these small engravings are oil paintings of rather more
ambitious dimensions: the original for the Blind Polyphemus is 91x71cm (FIG.3.1).
engraving, executed by J.G. Walker, is handsome, communicates the plot economically,
and overcomes some technical difficulties imposed by Fuseli's monochromatic cave
lighting (FIG.3.21). I will address myself primarily to the oil, but it is worth remembering
that the image reached its public in engraved form, and as commentary of the HomericPopian text. In the book, it had the following caption:
The master ram at last approach'd the gate,
Charg'd with his wool, and with Ulysses' fate.189
The quoted text indicates that Fuseli is drawing attention to that climactic moment in
Homer of Odysseus about to escape between the blind Cyclops' legs, tied to the belly of
the ram. The moment is climactic in more than one way, for Polyphemus is about to ask
Since both authors (and many in their tradition) aim to overcome liberalism in politics and morals, it
would be provocative to establish a liberal genealogy for their project. In Nietzsche's case, I have in mind
the theory of Dyonisian religion. Foucault's contrast of the regulative sexuality with "bodies and pleasures"
is only partly fulfilled in the second volume of the History of Sexuality in ancient Athens. These authors
cannot be reduced to Enlightenment satyrism, but they cannot be fully separated from it.
Roveray proposed five illustrations in a letter of June 30th, 1803; the number was eventually increased to
seven. Fuseli ended up contributing a total of thirty illustrations for Roveray's editions (including ten for
Pope's Iliad). See Weinglass, 284-285, and Schiff, I: 568-570. As discussed in Ch.l, Fuseli had a great
influence on Cowper's translated text through his corrections (see Knowles, 67f). The manuscript of these
corrections is in the Beinecke Library at Yale (Osborn c210).
All but four of the thirty designs executed for Roveray are oils (Weinglass, xxii).
The Odyssey of Homer translated by Alexander Pope (IX: 523-4).
3. The Satyr Play
the ram why it hesitated to leave the cave: did it mourn the fate of its master?190 The
silent monologue which the image invites from Pope's text prepares us to see the Cyclops
as a victim. To be sure, he is a victim of his own arrogance and neglect for Hellenic
hospitality. Homer tells us by way of introduction that the Cyclops rule their wives and
children sternly, imposing on them their own law; they are not wild beasts, but rustic
tribesmen enjoying the insular authority of pastoral patriarchy. Polyphemus has neither
wife nor childen, and is thus free to be philosophical with the law, which he scorns. The
irritation of his fellow Cyclops when Polyphemus calls for their help, telling them that
"Nobody" had hurt him, is palpable. He is in fact something of a spoiled child—the son
of Poseidon, he fears no god or mortal, not even Zeus. The Cyclops' character, in archaic
style, is determined through his parentage.
This petulant self-regard of the Cyclops is diminished by Fuseli. We can voice a
first suspicion: that Polyphemus is simply more sympathetic in 'silent' visual form than
in Homer's text. In other words, any image of the blind giant is by definition more
favorable than the text, which filters his misery through Odysseus's resentment. This
supposition, however, is not historically convincing. The blind Polyphemus was a
favorite theme in Italian mannerist art, with its taste for the classically maimed. In Tibaldi
the Cyclops appears as an idealized primitive, heroically muscular and raging in pained
contortion (FIG.3.22).191 Fuseli keeps the signs of pain but eliminates the ideal anatomy.
In Pope's words: '"What makes my ram the lag of all the flock? / First thou wert wont to crop the
flowery mead, / First to the field and river's bank to lead, / And first with stately step at evening hour /
Thy fleecy fellows usher to their bower. / Now far the last, with pensive pace and slow / Thou movest, as
conscious of thy master's woe! /Seest thou these lids that now unfold in vain?" IX: 526-533.
Antal, 97, argues that Fuseli took the gesture of Polyphemus from Primaticcio. Fuseli himself praises
Tibaldi: "Than the Cyclops, M. Agnolo himself never conceived a form of savage energy, provoked by
sufferings and revenge, with attitude and limbs more in unison." Bungarten, Lectures, 1:263. In Tibaldi, the
men escape wearing sheepsAms; Fuseli used this curious motif elsewhere (see Excursus 1).
3. The Satyr Play
His squatting monster seems entirely too unideal—so much so that we suspect the
introduction of a new human ideal, or anti-ideal, which is really the same thing.192 Beside
the expressive magnifications of anatomy—the prominence of the abdomen, the knees
and feet—there is a reddish underdrawing that holds the body together like a formal glue,
rising to the surface in details like the left nipple, the right big toe, the left wrist, and
especially the extraordinary, dripping, open, mouth of the Cyclops. This ideal emerges
starkly in the absence of other human protagonists in the painting. The Greeks are
invisible; only the forearms and feet of Odysseus protrude from the belly of the ram, who
on the other hand is boldly anthropomorphized, with his brilliant cream-colored wool and
the affectionate gesture of rubbing his nose against Polyphemus' hand. This left hand of
the giant assumes a shockingly tender gesture, expressing companionship and seeking
consolation against the pain.
Even more unsettling is the giant's right hand, which covers the ruined eye. There
is of course a practical reason for this gesture, the covering up of the mutilation. But the
gesture, with its curving, claw-like fingers, transcends this practical concern in its
affective resonance. There is a dimension of shame and irredeemable loss that is
somehow bound up with a hand that cannot quite cover what it sets out to cover—this is
akin to the despairing-concealing gesture of Adam in Masaccio's Expulsion from
Paradise in the Brancacci Chapel (FIG.3.23)—and it should be noted that Fuseli executed
an Expulsion from Paradise of his own in 1802, shortly before the Homer illustrations, in
which Eve covers her eyes.193 This gesture, which Fuseli may have learned by way of
Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling, was thought to have been invented by the ancient
Not a Winckelmannian emulatory ideal, but an ideal of ethical relation between artist and subject.
1214. This rather conventional painting need not concern us here beyond the iconography.
3. The Satyr Play
painter Timanthes, and concurrently by Euripides in his tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis, as
Fuseli asserts in his 1801 Royal Academy Lectures. The motif is central to the expressive
practice of classicism, cropping up for instance in the figure of the nurse at the far right of
David's Brutus. For Fuseli it is an ethical as well as a technical solution to the problem of
representing pain: by hiding the grimace of pain, the subject's intimacy is preserved. In
the 1801 Lectures he argued: "Neither height nor depth, propriety of expression was his
[Timanthes'] aim."194 The result in the Polyphemus is a being that is certainly monstrous,
but whose monstrousness is in part the result of an effort to conceal pain—an
unsuccessful effort, but a crucial one.
To see the importance of a balance between expression and concealment in the
pain gesture, we might compare the Polyphemus with Fuseli's application of the same
principle in Silence, an engraving of which served as frontispiece to the first edition of
the Lectures (FIG.3.24). This disconsolate female figure concealing her grief with her
long hair cascade of her hair is in some ways the model for the suffering Polyphemus.
But her gesture, whether voluntary or not, succeeds in a way that the Cyclops cannot: she
can hide her human grief in a way he cannot hide his not-quite-human loss (the single eye
paradigmatic of his species). And yet what makes the gesture legible in both cases is its
relation to subjectivity—to a subjectivity that we sense in being denied access to its
visual markers in the face. The gesture is not stereotyped as exclusively male or female;
this is consistent with the universalism which finds a core of sociability anchoring the
diversity of human phenomena. We saw this attempt to bridge contingent human
difference in Darwin and Knight as liberation from sexual norms: in Fuseli's 'pain'
"Lecture 1: Expression," Bungarten, I: 36.
3. The Satyr Play
works, the universalizing of difference is inverted in efforts to express suffering of beings
radically foreign from ourselves. The woman in Silence is of course not radically foreign,
but she is an abstraction—"silence" means precisely that we do not know why she
suffers. In Polyphemus this state of affairs is bluntly embodied in the pain of a creature
which escapes the bounds of the narrowly human. If we can sympathize with the
Cyclops, Fuseli seems to say, we can sympathize with anyone. But, as we have seen in
Chapter 2, to sympathize means in part to voluntarily see the world through that other's
perspective. The oppressive murk of the painting, comprehensible not as the half-light of
dawn but as the half-light of the blinded giant's sensorium, is pierced by the dazzling
brightness of the ram's wool, which corresponds to the giant's sense of touch and the
affective bond between the two. The emotional exchange between man and beast is
indeed the centerpiece of Homer's and Pope's vision of the scene. Polyphemus implores
the ram:
Oh! did'st thou feel for thy afflicted lord,
And would but Fate the power of speech afford.
Soon might'st thou tell me, where in secret here
The dastard lurks, all trembling with his fear:
Swung round and round, and dash'd from rock to rock,
His battered brains should on the pavement smoke.195
This brutal revenge fantasy is quite moving thanks to the giant's identification with the
experience of his friend. The articulation of Polyphemus's rage in images of slaughter
which he can hardly expect the ram to understand is informed by the giant's frustration at
what the ram might see but cannot tell him. Actually his own utterance is ineffectual in
conveying his rage to the herbivore. The difficulty of communicating one's pain and of
coming to another's aid is one and the same, and it is sobering that Homer should
Pope, Odyssey, IX, 534-539.
3. The Satyr Play
attribute this insight to the Cyclops in his extreme state. This discovery about the limits of
subjectivity and what they require ethically in representation is a burden taken on by
Homer's translators, both Pope and Fuseli. But a painting cannot deliver Polyphemus's
speech: we are trapped in the conceptual sphere of the ram, as much as in that of
Polyphemus, though the two do not coincide.
Could readers and viewers at the turn of the nineteenth century really see the
world through the eye of Polyphemus? Fuseli, hurrying to see the Parthenon Marbles in
1808, was held up on the Strand by a flock of sheep; his pupil Haydon remembers Fuseli
"bursting] into the middle of them, and they got between his little legs and jostled him so
much that I screamed with laughter, in spite of my excitement."196 In a letter recalling his
trip to Vesuvius with d'Hancarville, Winckelmann boasts of having roasted doves over a
lava stream and dining "naked like the Cyclops." 197 1 have dwelt at some length on the
affective dimension of the Polyphemus and its textual basis in order to show the range of
feeling neopaganism affords—a range of feeling, and of reflection on feeling, which are
political through and through. The anthropological postulate of identity in difference is
swept beyond the parochially human to include the semihuman (Polyphemus) and the
simply alive (the ram). And so I am calling the Polyphemus a satyric painting in line with
the satyric sexuality of Knight, Darwin, and d'Hancarville, rather than tragic painting as
discussed in chapter one. Rather than investigating the plurality of human cultures, this
painting investigates the plurality of human beings as biological organisms. This is if
Haydon, 1:86. See also Mason, The Mind of Henry Fuseli, 227-228.
Letter to Francke, 5 Dec. 1767, in J.J. Winckelmann, Briefe, ed. Walter Rehm and Hans Diepolder, vol.3
(Berlin: de Gruyter, 1956), 328: "Ich habe eine ganze Nacht auf dem Berge selbst, in Begleitung meines
Baron von Riedesel und eines beruhmten Avanturiers d'Hancarville, zugebracht, wo wir an dem feurigen
Flusse Tauben brieten, und Winckelmann hielt, wie die Cyclopen, nackend seine Abendmahlzeit." The
3. The Satyr Play
anything more challenging, because it is much easier to accept cultural difference if one
at least has a rigid biological base of humanity to cling to. Yet a relaxation of biological
criteria for humanity is implicit in cultural pluralism. We might call this the private face
of satyric painting. But this painting also has a public face: for we must keep in mind that
the Polyphemus myth, for an erudite reader like Fuseli, is not exhausted by the Homeric
text. Above all, there is Euripides' Kyklopes, the sole surviving satyr play from
antiquity.198 This drama posed an interpretive problem for romantic neopaganism: drawn
to its cheerful violence, the romantics had no terminology to make the work intelligible to
modern discourse.199 A writer of such wide classical culture as Goethe had to fumble for
terms to categorize the drama, settling on "parody," which is just that misleading allusion
to Roman satire we have already encountered.200 Nevertheless, Goethe did perceive the
significance of the piece: Polyphemus "argues with full justice from his point of view,"
which thus "cannot be refuted."201 Here the multiple incompatible standpoints of
relativism are at work; but there is also here the 'natural' eloquence of Rousseau's
primitive. We may imagine that the Athenian public enjoyed an analogous tension in the
bowdlerization of Homer's myth; Euripides exaggerates the rustic common sense that is
already one part of the Cyclops' character in the Odyssey, and the arrogant rapacity of
Odysseus and his men. The playful weaving of myth and critique attracted the politically
third person construction is interesting. In another letter, Winckelmann boasts of being the first to undress
against the heat of Vesuvius (Letter to Stosch, 24 Oct. 1767, Rehm 317).
It must be mentioned that Brumoy thought Euripides' Bacchae to be, or to derive from, a satyr play.
Casaubon's satyrica, which I render satyrism or by the adjective satyric, did not enter common parlance.
The modern satyr play (German Satyrspiet) gained currency after F.G. Welcker, Nachtrag zur
Aeschyleischen Trilogie, nebst einer Abhandlung iiber das Satyrspiel (Frankfurt: Bronner, 1826).
Goethe's unfinished essay was called Uber die Parodie bei den Alten by Eckermann in Goethe's
Nachlass. See J. W. von Goethe, Schriften zur Kunst und Literatur (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1999), 398.
Goethe, 294: "der Kyklope dagegen argumentirt mit voller Wahrheit aus seinem Zustande heraus, und
indem er jenen ganz entschieden widerlegt, bleibt er unwiderleglich."
3. The Satyr Play
radical generation in post-Waterloo England. Percy Shelley translated Kyklopes around
the time Goethe wrote his essay.202 For the vegetarian-anarchist poet, the Cyclops is an
example of pagan moral health. Polyphemus's speech on the right to eat one's guests is
especially revealing in translation:
The earth, by force, whether it will or no, / Bringing forth grass, fattens my flocks
and herds, / Which, to what other God but to myself / And this great belly, first of
deities, / Should I be bound to sacrifice?[...]And as for those / Who complicate
with laws the life of man / 1 freely give them tears for their reward. / 1 will not
cheat my soul of its delight, / Or hesitate in dining upon you;—203
On the immediate level of intellectual sensibility, it is obvious that romantic writers
sympathized with Polyphemus as both a figure of nature and of liberal individuality. The
new biological anthropology gave them more compelling reasons for doing so than travel
literature had given earlier 'primitivists' like Rousseau and Montaigne. Yet there is a
limit to this enthusiasm, or at least a crucial qualification. Polyphemus is right from his
point of view; but Odysseus, however unheroic or mercenary he may be, is also right to
expect not to be eaten. The relativization of argument presents a moral problem in the
confrontation of cultures. This Polyphemus misunderstands when he is taken in by
Odysseus' apparent resignation to be eaten. In a sense, his misfortune is tragic, for what
he cannot understand, and what Odysseus knows, is the limitation of every apparently
permanent worldly order through travel and encounters with other orders. Fuseli, who in
his old age befriended Byron and might have known Shelley's translation of Euripides
(published two decades after his illustration), saw ethnocentrism as a limitation on natural
man as early as the Remarks on Rousseau:
Goethe's text dates from 1823. Shelley died in 1822, but it is plausible that he translated t h c K y p l o p e s in
the period after publishing his translation of Plato's Symposium, that is, around 1818.
Nathan Haskell Dole, ed. The Complete Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Vol.6, Translations (London
and Boston: Virtue & Co., 1904-1906), 94.
3. The Satyr Play
He [Rousseau] traced man to the nipple of nature, found him wrapped up in
instinct,—taught his lore by appetite and fear—harmless because content—content
because void of comparative ideas—solitary, because without wants,—snatching
the moment on the wing, from the past and future ones.—
Yet even in this wilderness of nature he stamps him with the sovereignty of
vegetation and instinct; behold him free, improveable, compassionate."204
The wild man is unaware of other existences parallel to his own: he is "void of
comparative ideas." It is not Enlightenment belief in progress which compels Fuseli to
add that in the "wilderness of nature" man is improveable; without this optimism about
man's ability to learn, it is hard to see how comparative ideas, and with them self-aware
human diversity, could ever arise. Here is Fuseli's account of this process:
With the lapse of times, a chasm beyond the span of Chinese chronometers,—the
spreading race, assailed by diversity of soils, climates, seasons—received their
first lesson of reason from necessity—and then employed art, as nature slid or
thundered the means of sustenance into their hands.—[...]The revolutions of the
globe formed what we call nations and idioms. From climates, aliments, and
similar habits of life, sprang unity of characters and manners; beauty and merit,
become favourite sentiments, and moral life blazes in all is charms and all its
—Here inequality begins—from beauty, force, talent, and their reward, public
esteem—rose vanity and contempt, shame and envy; from opinion, and ideal self
love—revenge and cruelly.—205
It is typical of Fuseli's own puritan-liberal variation on Rousseau that inequality, in his
presentation of the Second Discourse, is not just a social evil but the precondition for
self-consciousness and moral life. More than his master, Fuseli sees injustice as an
inalienable effect of social differentiation. He emphasizes in his Polyphemus precisely
what the satyr play, and its romantic champions, did not much notice: the pain of the
blind, disillusioned ethnocentric. It is not a pain that can be overcome by the subject, but
only by those who sympathize with him from a distance. In this way, satyric painting
Remarks, 25. The 'sovereignty of vegetation' is clearly a reference to Aristotle's "vegetative soul."
Remarks, 27-28. Self-love, amour-propre,
is a negative term for Rousseau (Augustinian in origin).
3. The Satyr Play
does in the end reopen a dialogue with the wider stream of neopagan art that we
discussed under a theatrical metaphor of detachment and suspension of moral judgment:
but the point of satyric painting is that such moral suspension is an aesthetic attitude
which must at some point give way to recognition of subjects, or else refusal of such
At this point near the end of the exposition, it may be helpful to review the
argument thus far. We began from the difficulty encountered by any political theory of
human nature to provide compelling evidence that does not simply presuppose the theory;
then we examined the skeptical-liberal attempts of Rousseau, Hume, and Fuseli to
understand human nature as inherently changeable. With Wollstonecraft we saw the
project gain a new empirical density in the positing of women as human creatures;
Darwin extended creaturliness to human life and activity as a whole, from procreation to
religion. A critical comparison of Darwin with Sade revealed a split in liberal
understanding of naturalized changeable humanity as either social and individualtranscending or individual-egoist. Pursuing the matter further, we found both positions
emerging from anthropology: d'Hancarville identified sex as the root of human cultural
and aesthetic diversification. With Knight and the Society of Dilettanti, this sexual
liberalism is given an ethical emphasis that points to sexual and cultural tolerance—all
subsumed under the expanded biological concept of nature. Bringing this back to earth in
the hypothesis of a satyric painting, we looked closely at one painting by Fuseli in which
a radically different (quasi-human or nonhuman) being, the Cyclops Polyphemus, is
presented as worthy of sympathy.
3. The Satyr Play
With The Blind Polyphemus, and its roots in neopagan biologism and the satyr
play, we have at last joined the ethical and political strands in the romantic theory of
human nature. That makes it a revealing painting, but no kind of official achievement.
Indeed, the intersection of moral and political concerns in this painting is more like a sore
nerve, which reveals to us the promise of a liberal political order to deal justly with
competing claims, and the need to do so founded in intolerable pain. But there are other
political orders who claim to settle competing claims more decisively. With the
intolerable in mind, it is fitting to return at the end of this essay to what is perhaps the
first modern interpretation of the Polyphemus painting, in a lecture given by Ernst
Beutler at the opening of a Fuseli exhibition in the Frankfurter Goethe Museum in August
1938. The manifest intention of the lecture is to present Fuseli as a Fascist; Beutler
concludes by denying the Englishness of Fuseli's work, seeing in it instead "the
breakthrough of a militant German way of life."206 There is some justice in Beutler's
vulgarity: if Fuseli is part of the current we have identified as neopagan, an awareness of
cultural wholes surely includes a German cultural whole. Yet can such a complacent
ethnic thesis fit the monument of pain and grief that is Polyphemus? Beutler found the
painting to be about the "human tragedy of the broken titan." I began the chapter with the
difficulty of these words, the compatibility of the adjective 'human' and the substantive
'titan.' Perhaps a Nazi could see humans as titans or vice versa. I am not interested here
in the incoherence of Nazi humanism, nor in Beutler's intelligence or sincerity. It is better
to pose the question broadly: is the pathos of a biologized human nature, of satyric
neopaganism, a prelude not to pluralism but to a martial, ethnocentric aesthetic? Or even
Beutler, 24: "so kann man bei ihm geradezu von einem Durchbruch einer militanten germanischen
Lebenshaltung sprechen."
3. The Satyr Play
a prelude to the fascist aesthetic? There is no simple answer, and we should not rush to
pessimistic conclusions. To Beutler's text one could counterpose the Kunsthaus Zurich
exhibition catalogue of 1941 celebrating Fuseli's two hundredth birthday (FIG.3.25). This
catalogue, which also reproduces Polyphemus, speaks of the inventory of Fuseli's oeuvre
as "a work of peace," by which, given the substantial English Fuseli holdings, more than
the neutral hope for an end to hostilities seems to be expressed.207 And yet the author of
the study cannot seem to decide, in concluding, whether the hope for a thorough study of
Fuseli should reveal him to be a "representative European" or to affirm "he is ours" (er
ist unser!).
We can perhaps catch a glimpse of how Fuseli himself would have made the
choice by returning to the essence of the satyric, the satyr. As a being half-human and
half-animal (a conjunction found in Polyphemus and ram), the satyr stands for the
relationship of culture to nature. Let us briefly examine at Nietzsche's rendering of this
relationship. The Birth of Tragedy begins with an anecdote also recounted by Casaubon.
King Midas hunts the satyr Silenus in the forest. When Silenus is finally caught, the king
asks him what is best for man. The satyr replies: "Not to be born, not to be, to be nothing.
But the second best for you is—to die soon."208 From the revelation of the
meaninglessness and pain of life, which Nietzsche learned not from Silenus but
Schopenhauer, flows the healing dissolution of Dyonisian religion; this religion is only
superficially hedonistic. Radical despair makes debauchery ethical. In Dionysian revel,
the illusory character of the world of appearances is made clear; cutting through the false
"Es wird ein Werk des Friedens sein, das liickenlose Inventar aller Bestande aufzustellen..." Wilhelm
Wartmann, Johann Heinrich Fiissli 1741-1825 (Zurich: Buchdriickerei derNeuen Zurcher Zeitung, 1941).
The introduction makes much of international cooperation, particularly with Britain.
Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and the Case of Wagner, 42 (section 3).
3. The Satyr Play
appearance of individuality, the mind becomes aware of the common void that is will.
The audience of tragedy is united in finding difference to be nothing but illusion, and it
bands together in perception of the abyss. Despair and communitarian politics are thus
one and the same the lesson of nature. They are given aesthetic expression in the satyr,
but not a lasting form: for the satyr, as the voice of nature, is itself illusion. In
Nietzschean fashion, the truth is told by a lie. One accepts it on blind animal faith,
because there is no choice.209
One cannot place Nietzsche's singular conception of the satyr in some neutral
"history of the satyr idea." But one can compare it with the satyr in art: say, with the
roughly contemporary drawing of a bacchanal by Honore Daumier (FIG.3.26), which in
its own way looks back to Poussin and the French mannerism of Primmaticio; or with the
printed satyrs of Hancarville's Antiquites of a century earlier (FIG.3.27), adapted from
real Athenian red-figure vases, and mediating the aesthetic-erotic foreignness of antiquity
to Fuseli and his peers. There is certainly a melancholy about the modern satyric that has
to do with the revival of beings already mythic in antiquity. And yet, as in Nietzsche's
anecdote, we must know to which master the satyr answers. Does neopaganism demand a
tribal affirmation of identity? Or does it re-imagine human nature more expansively as
variously instantiated through the second nature of various historical cultures? Though,
ominously, the two answers are not mutually exclusive, I think a tendency toward the
second, as opposed to the first, distinguished liberal from protofascist uses of antiquity.
It is worth recalling here the Linnaean interpretation of the satyr: he is an ape wrongly identified as a
deity by ignorant human observers. C.E. Hoppius, "Anthropomorpha," [1760] in Caroli a Linne, ed.
Amoenitates Academicae, vol.6 (Erlagen: I.I. Palm, 1789), 69-70. See C. D. O'Malley and H. W. Magoun,
"Early Concepts of the Anthropomorpha," Physis: Rivista di storia della scienza 4 (1962): 39-63, and
Pieter Smit, "The Zoological Dissertations of Linnaeus," Linnaeus: Progress and Prospects in Linnean
Research, ed. Gunnar Broberg (Stockholm: Almquist & Wiksell, 1980), 118-136.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
The Nineteenth Century and Ordinary Antiquity
It is appropriate, in closing this study of Fuseli as one transformer of neoclassicism, to
examine the final form of Fuseli's neopagan painting, and perhaps of the whole complex
of neopaganism to which Fuseli was central. But to do both adequately, it is necessary to
take a stand outside the confines of Fuseli's life and work, at a point in time at which the
outlines of both phenomena come into focus. One such point, conveniently distant in time
and space, represents perhaps the last significant appeal to classical subject matter by an
ambitious modern painter; it is the Young Spartans Girls Provoking Boys completed
around 1860 by Edgar Degas (FIG.3.28). To justify the discussion of this painting within a
history of neopaganism, it might do to first consider the significance of antique sport in
modernity, and its strange place in the dissolution of a neopaganism fixated on anecdotes
from myth, tragedy, and history. Sport, being almost by definition a habitual rather than
an historic activity, is everyday life—indeed Degas represents it as genre, in a muted
palette learned from the revival of Dutch painting by Eugene Fromentin and other late
nineteenth-century historians and connoisseurs.1 As such, antique sport is everyday life,
and at the same time points to the logical sequence of dissolution of a classical subject
matter into the painting of modern life, which Degas himself was to effect in the decade
following the Young Spartans. On the other hand, this potential dissolution, and the
promise of a subject matter at once ancient and immediate, was present in the 1770s, in
See Eugene Fromentin, Les maitres d'autrefois (Paris: Plon, 1876), and the discussion of Francis Haskell,
Rediscoveries in Art: Some Aspects of Taste, Fashion, and Collecting in England and France (Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press, 1976), 89, and Charles Rosen and Henri Zerner, Romanticism and Realism: The
Mythology of Nineteenth-Century Art (New York: Viking, 1984), 192-213.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
drawings of nude youths engaged in the game of Pallone, a sort of handball played with a
spiky armband, made by Fuseli (FIG.3.29) and Sergei (FIG.3.30) in Rome. What is most
interesting in these drawings is the ambiguous status of the nudity, flickering incessantly
between classical idealization (owing more to the Horse-Tamers and other favorite
statuary than to any real bodies), a sweaty genre athleticism (the nudes in FIG.3.29 wear
presumably authentic headbands), and the very Winckelmannian conviction that in the
sun and good air of the Mediterranean, there is no distinction to be made between the
antique and the everyday. This last position, which is that of the activist neoclassicism we
discussed in the excursus on comedy, is not one into which Fuseli and Sergei can
comfortably settle, as one witnesses from the clumsiness and conflict of movement in the
pallone studies, and the rude inscription appended by Fuseli.2 Particularly suggestive in
the sense of an imperfect overlap between antiquity and the everyday is Sergei's drawing,
in which modernly clothed men of various ages chase the ball while a sphinx-like bust
hovers overhead. It is as if sport, as bearer of everyday antiquity, should reconcile the
present and the classical, and yet fails to do so. Whether this felt failure is final, or is
overcome as neopaganism gives way to the painting of modern life, we can ask in the
context of Degas' Spartans.
Still, since the shift in place and time remains jolting, I will begin by enumerating
some aspects of Degas's enterprise that make it particularly germane for evaluating an
English and pan-European tradition of neopagan painting originating with Fuseli. 1) First,
the discipline of life drawing and rigour in arranging groups of bodies, together with the
Schiff points to a 1692 sonnet, 'II Giuoco del Pallone" as exemplary of the street humor in Fuseli's
inscription, "O Quanto e misto del vom' e del cogion!" (O how the vomit and the testicle [asshole] are
mixed up!) Gert Schiff, Zeichnungen von Johann Henirich Fiissli, 1741-1825 Schweizerisches Institut fur
Kunstwissenschaft, Zurich, Kleine Schriften 2 (Zurich: Fretz & Wasmuth, 1959), 12.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
'virtuous' moral exemplar from Plutarch (the life of Lycurgus, no less), distinguishes the
work as a latecomer in the republican-neoclassical tradition of Jacques-Louis David,
which we have contrasted with Fuseli at various stages in the present study. In particular,
we saw in comparing the "oath" paintings (Oath on the Rtitli, Oath of the Horatii) that
neoclassicism unites through an archaic gesture which abolishes historical distance, while
neopaganism differentiates and compares cultures 'federally' across time and space. Yet
in Degas, the issue of the timely appeal to antiquity in David's sense has been clouded by
a shocking moral novelty more akin to Fuseli: for here we have boys and girls, nude and
half-nude respectively, exercising together. I shall return to this apparent divergence from
the neoclassical, and convergence with the neopagan, shortly. 2) In the rich handling and
linear exuberance of young bodies, Degas assumes another very French tradition, that of
Jean-Dominique Ingres, which in part explains the deviation from David. Ingres himself
is a student of David's, who, in concert with his teacher's late turn to the allegorical and
the erotic, revived a painting of the loves of the gods which has a long history since the
Renaissance—Vasari, Corregio, Rubens, and Poussin are touchstones, and closer in time
if on a lower level of historical distinction, there were David's teacher Joseph-Marie
Vien, David's competitor Pierre Paul Prud'hon, and Ingres's contemporary Fragonard
fils.3 The tradition is 'pagan' in its sexuality, which it actualizes without second thoughts
in an erotic appeal to the spectator. Here, again, Degas fits poorly, for all the 'enticement'
which the thrust of the Spartan girl has suggested to scholars—the appeal is strident,
This ephebic tradition is treated in Abigail Solomon-Godeau's Male Trouble and Regis Michel's Beau
ideal (though these are not of course identical). On Ingres's aesthetic, see Carol Ockman, Ingres's
Eroticized Bodies: Retracing the Serpentine Line (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), on his
reception, see Andrew Carrington Shelton, Ingres and His Critics (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2005) and Amaury-Duval's classic L 'atelier de Ingres [1878] (Paris: Arthena, 1993).
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
military, and aimed exclusively at the Spartan boys, that is, within the narrative of the
painting. Against the neoclassical erotic tradition, Degas deploys a detached dramaturgy
akin to Fuseli's. 3) Finally, there is something precarious about the image, which seems
to unmoor it from both traditions and is not immediately intelligible in Fuselian terms: its
appeal to banality or ordinary life. This has been explained as Degas's departure from
history painting in favor of genre with its repetitive rhythm at the expense of the epic
moment.4 But there is a moment of tension, and the action is neither wholly repetitive nor
illegible, not is ordinary life transfigured in the idealizing manner of classical genre
painting. There is an aggressive ugliness or maladroit quality to the figures, particularly
the boys with their monkish haircuts reminiscent perhaps of the lycee. Linda Nochlin has
drawn attention to the words of Degas's great monographer Lemoisne, who called these
Spartans gamins de Montmartre.5 This contemporaneity is not comic in the manner of
Daumier's parodies of Homer, but rather threatening in its view of a banal, disenchanted
antiquity. The implication is that the past treasured by a conservative humanistic tradition
is not as pretty as one had thought, and perhaps that modernity cannot be spiritualized by
recapturing the Greek understand of human nature, but rather should accept that the
Greeks could not resort to any racial or mythic superiority but shared with us the same
brute animal nature, which their sport laid bare. In order to make this suggestion
intelligible, we must relate it to the pictorial traditions just mentioned, as well as to the
classical-modern tension of Degas's project.
Carol M. Armstrong, Odd Man Out: Readings of the Work and Reputation of Edgar Degas (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1991), 114-128, and esp. 133.
Linda Nochlin, "Degas' Young Spartans Exercising", Art Bulletin, Vol.68, No.3 (Sept. 1986), 487; cf.
Theodore Reff, "New Light on Degas's Copies," Burlington Magazine, Vol.106, No.735 (June 1964), 257.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
As so often in our study, we must first gather what the title can tell us as selfconscious statement on the subject. The catalogue of the Fifth Impressionist Exhibition of
1880, for which Degas intended to submit the painting done two decades earlier, gives
the title as Petites filles Spartiates provoquant des gargons.6 There is thus in Degas's own
presentation of the painting an emphasis on the initiative of the female group, making of
them a subject acting on the object that is the male group. This has led Norma Broude to
suggest a strong feminist interpretation of the painting, that is to say, to impute feminism
to Degas in painting and titling the work thus.7 But since Spartan life as Plutarch recounts
it made little distinction between military training and domestic life, the coeducational
exercise of the painting might also have served as prelude to marriage rites. A reading in
terms of "provocation" as courtship has been proposed, which challenges the imputation
of feminism to either Degas or the ancient Spartans.8 In reply, Broude has shown that for
at least one close associate of Degas, Italian feminist and art critic Diego Martelli, the
painting indeed represented a "challenge of equals," and the gesture of the girls, an
invitation to race. Broude goes on to give a spirited sketch of early French feminism, and
the extent of Degas's engagement with one of its central issues, the status of prostitutes,
in his brothel monotypes. But for our purpose, Martelli's precise words are important:
The young Spartan girls who invite the boys to the race which will decide their
submission, as was the law of that people.
33 in the Catalogue.
Norma Broude, "Degas's 'Misogyny,'" Art Bulletin, Vol.59, No.l (March 1977), 95-107, esp. 99-101,
and Norma Broude, "Edgar Degas and French Feminism, ca. 1880: 'The Young Spartans,' The Brothel
Monotypes, and the Bathers Revisited," Art Bulletin, Vol.70, No.4 (Dec. 1988), 640-659, esp. 640-647.
Carol Salus, "Degas' Young Spartans Exercising," Art Bulletin, Vol.67, No.3 (Sept. 1985), 501-506.
"Le giovani Spartane che eccitano i giovani alia corsa, che decideva, com'era legge di quel popolo, della
loro sottomissione." Diego Martelli, Scritti d'arte, ed. Antonio Boschetto (Firenze: Sansoni, 1952), 105.
See especially Broude (1988), 642.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
It seems that the girls' challenge is related to mating ritual after all, to "their submission,"
whatever that may have meant to Martelli. In light of Degas's own account of the boys
and girls as "fighting in the Plataniste [Spartan exercise ground, so named because of the
palms shading it—AP] under the eyes of old Lycurgus with the mothers at his side."10
Broude concedes that courtship is at stake, though in the larger context of Spartan life:
[These girls'] unusual training in youth might have suggested a more egalitarian
status than the future actually held in store for them as members of a patriarchal
With these words, we have left the enclosed back-and-forth of art historical sparring, and
entered a wider sphere of debate: the question of Utopia, of the content of the painting
pointing beyond itself to a state of society not present in either Sparta or contemporary
Paris, but which the Spartan exercise suggests. Views concerning these questions cannot
be disproved by the identification of Degas's reading or visual sources, but neither can
they be proved by a back-and-forth of opinion concerning Degas's sympathy to women.
Starting from the cautious and uncontroversial observation that there are facts about the
picture amenable to both interpretations, we may say, in Max Weber's neopagan idiom of
modernity as a struggle of the demons, that we have reached an impasse in the case of
this peculiar painting. We choose to see its progressive-feminist side, or its confirmation,
beyond the spectacle of forthright female nudity and athleticism, of a confident Spartan
patriarchy. I do not wish to abolish such a choice for contemporary readers: nor can it be
the business of responsible art history at this remove to settle the question for all time.
"...luttant dans le Plataniste sous les yeux de Lycurgue vieux a cote des meres." Edgar Degas, The
Notebooks of Edgar Degas, ed. Theodore Reff (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), I: 99-100.
Broude, 643.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
But if the comparative rationalizing effort of neopaganism has any substance, we should
be able to put the two interpretations in a perspective that will allow us to see what this
particular appeal to antiquity means to Degas and his contemporaries.
Let me start again, taking the interpretive impasse as our premise. The image can
be schematized as follows: there are two groups of Spartan youths, one female, one male,
which are presented as equal or at least balanced forces in their movement, undress, and
massing of bodies on the flat painted surface. Above this equality, a certain precedence of
action is given to the thrusting girl, as also in Degas's title.12 Beneath this equality lies the
regulative system of Spartan morality with its virtuous mothers: the presence of Lycurgus
and the matriarchs, placed in a temple-like abode in the study now in the Art Institute of
Chicago (FIG.3.31), confirms this conservative ideal. The problem, in a nutshell, is to
know how these conflicting schemes of power relations, the egalitarian, the matriarchal,
and the patriarchal, overlap. Does one come out ahead, or do they blur indefinitely? Do
we have, on the level of narrative, the struggle of the demons taken up en-abimel
Fortunately, this does not seem to be the case. Degas has left a trail of emphases
in the very sequence of preparatory studies, culminating in the perhaps-complete London
painting which he failed to exhibit in 1880. Besides the Chicago oil study (FIG.3.31), I
draw on the fuller-colored oil study in Harvard's Fogg Art Museum (FIG.3.32), and the
drawing of the crouching boy (FIG.3.33) also in the Fogg. The Chicago study is the
earliest of this batch, as can be seen from the elaborate architecture, which is reduced to a
flat podium in the Cambridge picture, and disappears entirely in the London canvas. One
might suspect a desire to reduce the authoritarian motifs from the Life of Lycurgus in this
Richard Brettell goes so far as to see in the lunging girl a parody of David's Horatii. See Richard Brettell
and Suzanne Folds McCullagh, Degas in the Art Institute of Chicago (New York: H.N. Abrams, 1984), 34.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
erasing of the architecture, which places the adults deeper and deeper within the space; in
London they are on the verge of disappearing in pictorial terms. Qualitatively, there is
also a subtle shift in the representation of the adolescents: the shift in physiognomy,
particularly in the London boys. The girls are also less obviously quotations from Greek
vases in the London painting than in the Chicago study. This 'proletarization,'
consistently applied, leaves undisturbed the balance of power between the two groups.
Quantitatively, there is also no shift in the group of girls, nor in the gesture of the
foremost girl. Among the boys, however, there is one figure which undergoes significant
revision throughout the images: the foremost, crouching boy. In the Chicago painting, his
stomach is tightened and his back arched, right foot flexed and left leg back, as if about to
begin the race. In the Fogg painting, much more of this boy is visible, and he already
assumes quite another posture: his back is relaxed and his head upright, and both knees
are on the ground as if he is moving about on all fours. The right foot remains flexed,
somewhat incongruously, as if he were about to kick off into a sprint. The Fogg drawing,
a nude study, clarifies his anatomy and position: here he is firmly on all fours, with
neither leg stretched forward, and neither foot planted on the ground. It is of this drawing
that Martin Kemp's rather tendentious observations of a 'brutal' quality in Degas's
Spartans begin to make sense:
His Spartan boys exhibit the kind of profiles with protruding jaw lines that, in a
post-Darwinian world, were seen as regressive. They have distinctly animalistic
traits, not least in the case of the blond youth on all fours.13
Leaving aside the protuberant physiognomy which Degas did not hesitate to apply also to
the small daughter of his friend the Viscount Lepic, there is surely a kind of ostentatious
Martin Kemp, "Spartan sport laid bare," Nature, vol.454 (28 Aug. 2008), 1053.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
animality that the crouching boy as it were acts out: it is as if he is responding to the
girl's challenge by barking at her. It is this version of the boy which makes it into the
London canvas, and may be taken as Degas's considered final decision on this matter.
But what this animal-boy mean'? We have not escaped the interpretive impasse if
we realize that his animality could well stand for male inferiority (deficiency of mind) or
male superiority (proficiency of body). Could it stand for equality between the sexes? In
narrative terms, understood as the reply in kind to the gesture of provocation, which is
after all a physical challenge with psychic-political reverberations, does the boy's barking
make sense? The question demands placement within the neoclassical tradition of an
animal-human nature. Martelli's text, which we have already cited, provides a clue here:
This painting, begun with sincerity and put aside at a certain point, remained
abandoned and unfinished because of the same sincerity that had impelled Degas
to begin it. A man of the finest education, modern in every aspect of his life,
Degas could not fossilize him-self in a composite past reconstructed from
fragments, which can never be what was or what is, a Chinese puzzle that may
yield excellent results for artists like Gerome, but not for artists who feel the pulse
of real life.14
These remarks are programmatic. Being consummately a modern, Degas could not
reconstruct the past from fragments, "which can never be what was or what is," that is,
neither the truth about the past nor about the present. Such an attempt, paradigmatic for
the entire tradition we have explored, from Winckelmann through Fuseli and beyond,
seems to have tempted Degas in beginning the painting (sincerely), yet he refused its
seduction in the end by not finishing. Perhaps there is no correct relation between Spartan
boys and girls: what the painting could have shown would not have been either Spartan
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
reality or modern reality, but a chimera. Yet this chimera "yields excellent results for
artists like Gerome." Let us examine one such result to see what Martelli had in mind.
In Jean Leon Gerome's Jeunes Grecs faisant battre des coqs, shown in the 1847
Salon (FIG.3.34), we see a young Ingriste making his public debut with a scene of antique
everyday life, spiced up with sex and animal violence. There is, of course, the appeal of
Gerome's "licked surface," calculated to seduce viewers into dreaming of a past which
there is no need to interpret, since it is served up in an appetizing and digestible manner.15
But that is not all that there is, even in Gerome. For the sexual frisson to work properly,
the 'innocent' 1847 viewer must put together imaginatively the tanned, stiffly athletic
body of the young man, whose glorious nudity is Gerome's inheritance in the DavidIngres school of erotic archaism, with the rather bland, demure figure of the girl, her face
baldly taken from the Esquiline Venus.16 To be sure, the flabby posture of the woman and
the billowing gauze overlaying her nakedness add up to a proto-Victorian coexistence of
and sensuality and decorum.17 But insofar as the picture works as enjoyable, vulgar
On Gerome's technique, see Henri Zerner and Charles Rosen, Romanticism and Realism. Gerome, who
had just failed to secure a Prix de Rome, was twenty at the time of exhibition. He was taught by Paul
Delaroche, and, for three months, Charles Gleyre. See Gerald M. Ackerman, Jean-Leon Gerome:
Monographic revisee et catalogue raisonnee (Paris: ACR Edition Internationale, 2000), 28.
Champfleury referred to Gerome and other students of Gleyre as T e c o l e du caique." See Christine
Peltre, Retour en Arcadie: Le voyage des artistes frangais en Grece au XIXe siecle (Paris: Klincksieck,
1997), 192. Gautier, more charitably, called them "Pompeistes." Maxime du Camp, Souvenirs litteraires,
ed. Michel Chaillou (Bruxelles: Editions Complexe, 2002), 55. On the Esquiline Venus, see Ackerman, 52.
1 submit as evidence for the painting's 'Victorian' resonance the remarkable account in the Feb. 1872
Atlantic Monthly, written by Henry James: "Messrs. Williams and Everett [of Boston - AP] have exhibited
an excellent Gerome; none other than the well-known 'Combat de Coqs'. Though small and of simple
elements, this picture is a capital example of the master, and presents in remarkably convenient shape the
substance of his talent—that indefinable hardness which is the soul of his work. The present picture is
equally hard in subject and in treatment, in feeling and in taste. A young man, entirely naked, is stooping
upon one knee, and stirring two bristling game-cocks to battle. A young woman, also naked—more than
naked, as one somehow feels Gerome's figures to be—reclines beside him and looks lazily on. The room
and the accessories are as smartly antique as Gerome alone could have made them. The picture is of course
painted with incomparable precision and skill; but the unloveliness of the subject is singularly intensified
by the artist's sentimental sterility. There is a total lack of what we may call moral atmosphere, of
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
double-entendre, the sexual tension cannot be left frozen in the nude bodies, it must be
somehow put into circulation by the narrative symbolism of the cockfight. And this in
fact occurs: the twisting bodies of the cocks are eloquent sites of projection, mauling each
other as the young Greeks do not, but should. There is also a play on the homoeroticism
of Davidian classicism and bucolic poetry, in that it is two fighting cocks who stand in
for sex, which are richly symbolic of the gifts exchanged between Greek men and their
boy lovers on the surface of Attic vases.18 But beyond this mild titillation of homosexual
subtexts, the cocks neatly broach that social phenomenon which also came to fascinate
Degas: the mating ritual, which has one foot in the brute nature of reproduction and
another in arbitrary human culture. The Salon visitor of 1847 could feel some satisfaction
at the thought that these delicious naked Greeks were in the end animals like the cocks,
and that it is perfectly respectable, even edifying, to watch such beings answering the call
of necessity. There is a whiff of hypocrisy here, since the painting cannot impart to the
spectator the suspicion he is an animal just like those he is observing. In that sense, it
points to but cannot fully participate in the neopagan tradition as a making natural of
culture, which we saw begin with Fuseli's generation and end (at least in the realm of
painting), with the narrative ambiguity of the everyday, in Degas.
sentimental redundancy or emotional by-play. The horrid little game in the centre, the brassy nudity of the
youth, the peculiarly sensible carnality of the young woman, the happy combination of moral and physical
shamelessness, spiced with the most triumphant cleverness, conduce to an impression from which no
element of interest is absent, save the good old-fashioned sense of being pleased." [Unsigned], "Pictures by
William Morris Hunt, Gerome and Others," reprinted in Henry James, The Painter's Eye: Notes and Essays
on the Pictorial Arts, ed. John L. Sweeney (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 51.
Gerome scholars are well-aware of this: the cockfight is "fondamentalement homosexuel." (Ackerman,
33) See also Alan Shapiro, "Courtship Scenes in Attic Vase-Painting," American Journal of Archaeology,
85 (1981), 133-43, and Herbert Hoffmann, "Hahnenkampf in Athen," Revue archeologique, 2/1974, 195ff.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
But the shock of this suspicion is in no way excluded by the painting. As critics
have pointed out, the 'simple pleasures' of the Cockfight were opposed in the 1847 Salon
to the moralizing grandness of Thomas Couture's Romains de la decadence (FIG.3.35).19
The works have much in common: if Couture brought in colossal statues of heroic
Romans to admonish their debauched descendants, Gerome inserts in the backdrop of his
Cockfight a decaying classical Sphinx, handsomely silhouetted against the sea.20 This
monument means to moderate the genre vulgarity of the foreground scene by an appeal to
archaic dignity. But the sphinx is impure, itself a mixture: both Greek and Egyptian,
human and animal, it sanctions the mixing of brutality and sentience which also occupies
the sexual foreground of the painting. But the viewer who sees this, in the process of
being titillated, must extend the equivalence to himself: in enjoying the sex of the young
people as they enjoy the cockfight, the series of enjoyments is made transitive, and he is
pulled in an animal continuum with the 'primitive' Greeks and the fighting birds.
I have sharpened the intellectual and affective demands of Gerome's painting
almost to the point of absurdity. The painting lives on an unsubtle rhythm of attraction
and repulsion. We are not far from the issue of the affective identification with the past
which drove Degas to abandon his own antique sexual-genre painting. To state the
problem broadly: in painting the past for the present, the question is not what is being
painted (the 'real past' or the 'real present,' the only alternatives Martelli allows) but
what attitude the spectator may take before what is being painted. In presenting antique
mores for present consumption, the tendency is either to shock into detachment (roughly,
Albert Boime, Art in an Age of Counterrevolution
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 380.
Couture, of course, also painted spectators within the painting. See Michael Fried, "Thomas Couture and
the Theatricalization of Action in Nineteenth-Century French Painting," Artforum 8 (June 1970), 36-46.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
Fuseli's strategy) or to exhort to virtuous emulation (roughly, David's). Yet, in the late
stage of neopaganism, the two strategies cannot be disentangled. What attracts Gerome
and Degas is the peculiarity of the ritual; but because it attracts them they would like it to
attract the modern spectator. Gerome's solution is the standard Ingriste one: the appeal is
sexualized (de-homosexualized and re-heretosexualized in the case of the Greek cock
imagery), at the expense of the awareness of a difference in sexual morality which makes
the painting provocative in the first place: one is reconciled to the archaic everyday by a
selective forgetting. Degas's technique and biographical feminism do not offer him this
way out, at least not consciously: though the element of titillation lives on in his painting,
in the Spartan girl whose breast is cupped by her neighbor, which has suggested the
interpretation of the painting as exclusively a courtship scene, that is, as a painting
intended for male titillation.21
There is of course another approach to the reconciliation of divergent mores, what
I have called activist neoclassicism: the emulation of archaic virtue pursued by David in
painting and by Diderot in literature.22 That this tradition could have mattered to Degas,
and haunted even Gerome's enterprise, only becomes obvious if one traces its lineage
sufficiently: it is to be found at the very beginning of neopaganism, in Winckelmann's
Reflections on the Imitation of the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks of 1765.1 quote
from Fuseli's 1766 translation:
During certain solemnities the young Spartan maidens danced naked before the
young men: strange this may seem, but will appear more probable, when we
See Salus, 503-504, and the sharp questioning of the motif by Nochlin and especially Broude (1988).
1 have in mind the Supplement to Bougainville, with its defense of Tahitian simplicity. See Ch.3.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
consider that the christians of the primitive church, both men and women, were
- dipped together in the same font.23
Winckelmann is concerned with upholding the gravity of coeducational nudity among the
Greeks, and he finds this confirmed by the continuity of the practice among what Fuseli
renders as the "primitive christians," a noteworthy condensation of Winckelmann's rather
less vivid "Christen der ersten Kirche."24 This radical identification of nudity with virtue,
valid for pagans and Christians alike, rests on an implicit premise which Erasmus Darwin
was later to spell out: humans are sexual animals, and the awareness of this condition
does not preclude godliness but is a precondition for pursuing it. This doctrine would not
have been entirely shocking to a French reader of Plutarch like Degas, painting a decade
before the publication of Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy. But the placing of this naturalized
culture in antiquity is a decisive step, because it effects a full break with the notion of the
Greco-Roman heritage as a privileged possession of European rationality. No wonder it
was a step taken with hesitation, or unwittingly, so many times in the nineteenth century.
Since we find the afterlife of Fuseli's neopaganism bringing it ever into contrast
and collaboration with Davidian activism, it is useful to adopt a perspective general
enough to encompass the two. At its core, every appeal to archaic society articulates two
elements: a contingent historical form of human society, which may be better than the
present one and thus worthy of emulation, and a human nature which endures these
historical contingencies while remaining sufficiently itself to allow comparison, and
Winckelmanns Werke, 1808,1: 15.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
argument about which historical forms are desirable.25 This is what Fuseli meant when he
insisted that "nature is a collective idea" not to be found in any individual, and Wolf
when he defined the program of philology as the elucidation of human nature as it
manifested itself in the Greeks. In accounting for change, historical consciousness
accounts also for the persistent subject of change and presents it with alternatives for
future change or conversation. This is no easy task for painting, which cannot present any
kind of historical becoming but only Utopian snapshots: for Utopian speculation runs the
risk of derailing the balance between the subject and change in favor of a rigid
conciliation. In short, in history painting power and nature are equated.
To see how the republican ideal in painting can effect this imperial digestion of
the rational animal by virtue, we trace back the painting of antique sport to its tentative
origin in the genre painting of antiquity. Such genre painting of antiquity appears with
great definition in the decade of the French Revolution, in the work of the failed French
Swiss history painter Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours (1752-1809). In calling Saint-Ours a 'failed
history painter,' I mean this only in an extrinsic, factual sense, the same sense in which it
applies to Degas or Fuseli. A foreigner and Protestant settled in Paris, studying in the
atelier of Vien (David's teacher), Saint-Ours was ineligible for the Prix de Rome.
Lacking in the requisite archaeological confidence, Saint-Ours persevered and developed,
out of the ashes of such promising dead ends as David's Funeral ofPatroklos, a historical
genre painting representing the customary or periodic events of antiquity: Les Jeux
Olympiques (FIG.3.36) Marriage Germain (probably inspired by Tacitus), and L 'Examen
Antique genre plays on both elements. Albert Boime perceives this in stating that Gerome and his peers
"wanted to demonstrate that the old Romans and Greeks were very much like contemporary people, moved
by identical feelings and ideas." (Boime, 380). 'Identical,' however, is the wrong word: the feelings may be
analogous, but the ideas differ—it is human nature that is presented as a constant, making history possible.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
des Enfans a Sparte
shown in the Salon of 1791. 2 6 In the ebullient pre-Terror
atmosphere of this annual exhibition, with David showing his esquisse of the Tennis
Court Oath, Saint-Ours's collective portraits of Greek community must have struck a
timely chord with their representations of antique virtue as a matter of course. The appeal
to a modern viewer in these large, eminently balanced canvases depends on their
ambiguous relation to the ordinary: on one hand, nude sport and the selection of
newborns resulting in survival or abandonment in the forest (the Spartan examen) are no
part of modern life, and the second may be downright shocking. But they were the daily
life of the ancients, and Saint-Ours's evenness of handling strives to make the masses of
Doric columns and assemblies of bearded men seem as ordinary as a mob gathered on the
Place Louis XV. Saint-Ours demonstrates that neoclassical painting with political
pretensions is neither a priori ordinary nor exotic, but that it is engaged in a process of
making ordinary that which the modern temperament takes to be exotic in antiquity.
But if to make antiquity ordinary had consequences for the French Revolution, as
recognized by Benjamin in his inversion of Marx's comments on Robespierre and the
Romans, it also has consequences that stretch farther into the afterlife of our modernity.
Ordinary antiquity, as we might encounter it today, encompasses the reconstruction of
ancient daily (sex) life in the work of classical scholars like Kenneth Dover and Amy
Richlin, and the ambitious revaluations of Western rationality and sociality carried out in
French philosophy by Michel Foucault, Paul Veyne, Pierre Hadot, and their philosophical
Pictures no. 39, 675, and 687, respectively. See Jean-Frangois Heim, Claire Beraud, and Philippe Heim,
Les Salons de Peinture de la Revolution Frangaise 1789-1799 (Paris: C.A.C. s.a.r.l. Edition, 1989) 337-8.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
forebears, Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Nietzsche. 27 1 have already indicated that this
strand of critique and reconstruction of the Western tradition on antique models deserves
a separate study, one that might present itself as a history of modern political philosophy.
But the antiquity which penetrates modern life in all its guises from the banal and the
fashionable and high Utopian has a dark side which has also come under scrutiny: I have
mentioned, for instance, Alfred Rosenberg, and the Nazi enthusiasm for Fuseli's
Polyphemus', but these discussions were fragmentary, since I was concerned with
showing a neopaganism which rejects the open road to a fascist tribalism glorying in
antiquity. Yet this road is insidious; it has doubled back on us time and again. It stands
before us in the innocuous gesture of Saint-Ours's wrestler, awaiting a decision of the
Olympic judges whether he should spare his slumping opponent further pain.28 The
suspension of moral life in the individual, its virtuous obedience to public tribunal, is
poignant to say the least in a work of classicism painted on the eve of the Terror. More
acutely still, communal virtue poses a challenge to the viewer in the Examen des Enfans a
Sparte: are we "man enough" to explode the continuum of history and admire the Spartan
eugenicists? The road to such virtue is by necessity strewn with bodies. It is the liberal
vision of the completeness, aesthetic and moral, of ancient republican society that allows
moderns to overcome revulsion to a moral code they do not share.29 Tribalism, then, is
Some of the relevant texts are Kenneth Dover, Greek Homosexuality (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard
University Press, 1979), Amy Richlin, The Garden of Priapus (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992),
Paul Veyne, Did the Greeks Believe their Myths? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988, Michel
Foucault, The Use of Pleasure (New York: Pantheon, 1985), Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life
(Oxford: Blackwell, 1995). I do not of course mean to suggest a strict division between classicists and
philosophers, as Veyne is a philosophical historian and Hadot a historian of classical philosophy.
The pose is strikingly resumed by Gerome in his Policce verso of 1872, now in the Phoenix Art Museum.
This has been the burden of argument in Ch. 1. See especially the discussion of child sacrifice in tragedy.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
already there in the pluralist liberal conception of cultures modeled on Hellenic antiquity;
it is a matter of a further choice whether one looks beyond it to the multiplicity of tribes,
and draws from it cosmopolitan conclusions. That this cannot be accomplished within the
neoclassicism of Saint-Ours is not merely a result of anachronistic political conscience. A
suspicion of archaic cultural totality on the civic-virtuous model is at the root of Fuseli's
own, otherwise puzzling and highly questionable rejection of the Parthenon Marbles. In
the Tenth Lecture on Painting, which Fuseli delivered in January 1822, he complains that
the "Panathenaic processions offer the unvaried transcript of Athenian youth."30 It was
the 'unvaried transcript' of Napoleon's soldiers marching across Europe in the decade
before that fixed Fuseli's hostility toward the communitarian ideals of Periclean Athens.31
What is remarkable about Fuseli is not this banal political insight into the coercive nature
of virtue, but his consistency in applying it where one would expect a classicist painter to
look away—in the domain of exemplary Hellenic antiquity, the workshop of Phidias.
We seem to have arrived, in the study of an archaism of everyday life, to the same
difficulty that beset the critical coming-to-light of a liberal conception of human nature,
discussed in Chapter 3. There we found that polemical distortions of 'free' human nature
invented by Voltaire and Gillray could not be refuted by liberals like Fuseli or Darwin;
what liberals could do, when faced with the nightmare radicalization of their doctrines,
was to turn their heads in critical revulsion. There is surely a negative freedom in this
Bungarten, I: 240. The lecture date, January 24, 1822, is found on Fuseli's manuscript in the Kunsthaus
Zurich. Schiff, I: 362, and Bungarten, II: 33 and 97. Fuseli began work on the text already in 1801, but the
Parthenon Marbles only reached London in 1808, when Fuseli saw them with Haydon (see Ch.3).
Knowles reports, perhaps fancifully, that while in Paris Fuseli refused David's offer of an introduction to
Napoleon (Knowles, I: 257-258). More convincing are comments of the war years 1803-8 in the Farington
Diary, e.g.: "Fuseli and Northcote this evening to me execrated the conduct of Buonaparte towards
Spain.—Fuseli said it was "The brutality of domestic selfishness'." (July 21, 1808). Cf. Mason, 186.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
revulsion, a refusal of complicity. And there may be no positive imagery to oppose to
complicity: there has not been an antique Utopia dreamt up by modernity behind which
did not loom the coercive hell of a communal Nowhere. Two choices seem to recur in the
reformist debate: human animals can work out institutions piecemeal, or they can be
grandly consigned to slaughter. Only the second option is vivid enough to be pictured.
Images of the horror in political archaism can be made with the vividness of the dreams
themselves. These horror visions point the way back to critical humanity—the relativist
or pluralist-pagan tradition I have tried to elaborate in this study.
I should like to conclude by elaborating one such escape route through horror, returning
to Fuseli at the end. Let us take another look at Saint-Ours's Examen des Enfans a Sparte.
The canvas, at 1.4x2.6m, reaches a hypnotic equilibrium between the clangor of history
painting and the muteness of genre.32 In the background, Spartan men and women in the
histrionic attitudes learned from David's Brutus (1789) flee with their doomed infants; in
the distance, at far upper left, a woman prepares to casts a child down a flight of steps, as
if in anticipation of Eisenstein's Potemkin.33 This touch of the grotesque takes legitimacy
away from the despairing parents and channels it to the eminent and self-possessed elders
inspecting the goods at a table just to the right of the center of the painting. The mood is
sacerdotal; the iconography of bearded authorities recalls a Christian Presentation in the
The Marriage Germain in Wintherthur is roughly the same size; the Jeux Olympiques, like the Examen
now in the Musee des Beaux-Arts, Geneva, is about twice as large: 2.26x4.07m. See Heim, 337.
This episode is not historically accurate, since the Spartan tradition was to expose infants in the forest.
There are in the Musee des Beaux-Arts many preparatory and related drawings that work through the theme
of Spartan infant exposure in the forest, with a level of psychological detail and compassion that ought to
complicate the schematic reading I give of the history painting here (though the history painting, as is often
the case, is more schematic than the body of preparatory studies). I should also mention the singular study
by Saint-Ours of a Spartan mother weaning her child in the Cantor Art Center, Stanford University.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
Temple-, only one elder, bald, sparsely bearded, and rather less physically distinguished
than the others, leans across the table to gasp the knee of an infant reclining in his young
father's arms.34 The distribution of figures demonstrates Saint-Ours's skill as a dramatic
painter: the athletic father stares stoically at the judge; the judge at the child; the child, as
if contemplating its fate, stares curiously at the elder's hand as it flexes the child's knee.
There is a muffled tragedy shaping up beneath the republican grotesque. It is the tragedy
and above all the intolerability of this heroism that emerges from the final masterpiece of
neopagan painting: Francisco Goya's Saturn Eating his Children (FIG.3.38), painted on a
wall in his house, the Quinta del Sordo, in 1820-1823. It is not likely that Goya knew
Saint-Ours, for all his interest in French painting; however, he knew the militant
republican culture in which Saint-Ours painted and which Napoleon brought to Spain.
But this context cannot force the painting to signify the 'horrors of war' already dealt
with by Goya. On the contrary, the experience of republicanism run amok prepares us to
read in the painting a statement at highest tension of the master thesis of neopaganism:
the alien past as promise and threat. The promise is no longer one of Utopian escape but
of escape from pleasant illusions about human nature.
It is well to begin by stating the obvious: the painting cannot be read as an erasure
of the classical or mythological tradition in the guise of a manifesto for la vie moderne.3S
Goya was not himself trained as a classicist, and an art-world polemic does not suit the
One must wonder whether Saint-Ours is falling back on the moral language of physiognomy in giving
this less than sympathetic elder a 'weak chin.' Physiognomy made itself felt in France with the translation
of Lavater's Physiognomische Fragmente between 1781 and 1803. See Levitine, "The Influence of Lavater
and Girodet's Expression des Sentiments de I'Ame."
1 am thinking again of Daumier's travesties of Homer and Virgil, or Charles Baudelaire's ironical review
of his Parnassian colleagues in "L'ecole pai'enne," [1852]. See Oeuvres (Paris: Gallimard, 1954), 976-981.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
meditative character of the Quinta. The image, besides its immediate affective character
deriving from the narrative and physiognomic judgment of Saturn and his victim, derives
its resonance from a Hellenic tradition almost entirely below the surface of the officious
moralized antiquity of the eighteenth century: the subject from the poet Hesiod, written in
the seventh century BCE, is archaic indeed. In the Theogony at line 460, we learn that
Chronos (Roman Saturn, from which Goya's painting has been named by later critics),
fearing an eventual downfall as ruler of the cosmos at the hand of his children, swallows
them (katepine—"gulped down," in fact) in turn as they are born to his wife Rhea. It is
worth dwelling on this action as it presents itself in the moral economy of Hesiod's
cosmological myth: Chronos is pragmatically getting rid of his immortal children, whom
he presumably cannot kill, by ingesting them, much as his father Uranos kept him and his
siblings imprisoned in the body of their mother Gaia. Rhea is angry, and manages to hide
away Zeus, proffering a rock in swaddling clothes for Chronos to eat in his place; when
Zeus challenges and defeats Chronos, compelling him to vomit up his siblings, preceded
by the rock which had been swallowed last.36
The myth, then, is one of political power and betrayal within the family sphere—a
megalomaniac father terrorizing his spouse and offspring in the most outrageous manner
compatible with their immortality as gods. The swallowing of infant gods is an infamy
that redounds on Chronos when he has to vomit them out. But in Goya's painting, there is
no godly swallowing. The child's body is devoured, head and arms first, and it seems that
Chronos is making a desperate bid to wolf down the remains in as few pieces as possible.
The distended mouth, the eyes staring half out of the canvas and half at the remains of his
See Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns andHomerica with an English Translation by Hugh G.
(Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1914), Theogony, lines 495-500.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
meal, the bloody hands curled around the corpse of his victim, all indicate the difficulty
of Chronos's task.37 The god is scared and perhaps disgusted by his own actions. Taking
a cue from Ovid, Goya has naturalized Hesiod's myth: in the process he has drained it of
its cosmological narrative of containment and release, leaving nothing for the viewer's
edification but the desperate indigestion of the murderer.
We stand, then, at the bleak fag end of a half-century of neopaganism, confronted
with a demonic-relativist feast: emptied of fantasy and ideal, archaic religion is reduced
to human drama, the brute performance of individual desires that intersect disastrously
and irrevocably. We are in Garrick's theatre, but there is no exit to comedy. Or is there?
For here it must be admitted that we as spectators stand at quite a remove from Goya's
work, and are necessarily missing something quite crucial: as it turns out, in the process
of transfer and restoration of the Black Paintings, some rather drastic changes were made,
particularly to the Saturn. Martinez Cubells, the restorer, perhaps bowing to propriety,
painted over Chronos's erect penis, which originally stuck out by the right edge of the
painting like an erect club (FIG.3.39). I must take issue with Nigel Glendinning's
pioneering discussion of the alteration: the phallus can hardly have signified simply that
Chronos takes "a perverse and sadistic pleasure in destroying and consuming his own
offspring."38 Rather he is the old cosmological God-Fool, unable or unwilling to stop
mating his wife Rhea, which will produce the children he fears; he swallows them
The work is in fact on canvas: the oil on stucco was transferred to canvas by Salvador Martinez Cubells,
painter and chief restorer at the Prado, between 1874 and 1878. See Nigel Glendinning, "The Strange
Translation of Goya's 'Black Paintings'," Burlington Magazine, Vol.117, No.868 (July 1975), 465-479.
Glendinning, 474. The penis is still visible in the restoration, but with "unlikely highlighting on the root."
A recent author finds "no phallus visible in photographs of the canvas before restoration..." Edward J.
Olszewski, "Goya' Ambiguous Saturn," in Twenty-First Century Perspectives on Nineteenth-Century Art,
ed. Petra ten-Doesschate Chu and Laurinda S. Dixon (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008), 132.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
stupidly, as he does the rock in Hesiod. His agonized gaze must be understood to be torn
at once with shame and desire: and his spectator can be none other than his original
victim, Rhea, who at the moment of birth must helplessly witness the atrocity. But where
in Hesiod she acts to save Zeus, who in turn rescues the rest, in Goya she is imprisoned in
the place of the spectator, forever gazing on Chronos in mid-bite.
That there is a miserable human comedy within Goya's allegory of inhumanity
may come as no surprise. But there is, behind or with it, a meditation on art history. For
Goya had taken the subject of Saturn eating his Children from a 1678 painting by Rubens
in the collection of the Prado (FIG.3.40).39 Rubens, applying his customary amplitude to
an allegorical theme neglected since medieval anti-Semitic propaganda, produced a piece
of macabre comedy. His Saturn was neither a static emblem out of Cesare Ripa nor the
sophisticated revival of a folk terror like the Bernese Kindlifresser of 1546 (FIG.3.41).40
He is rather a distinguished, muscular, baroque philosopher-king taking petty revenge
against his partner in allegory: the child in his right hand is a fleshy putto, twisting
lithely, much as he would astride a cloud, in honor of Marie de Medici, only here his
father's teeth tear a strip of flesh from his chest. The infliction of pain in this piecemeal
manner is hair-raising: it will take many bites before Saturn is done 'swallowing' the
child, particularly if he doesn't drop his sickle, or use it to slice up his meal. In Rubens,
the attempt to build a classicizing allegory of time out of emblematic raw material runs
Valerian von Loga, Francisco de Goya (Berlin: Grote, 1921), 131, was first to notice the debt to Rubens.
Cf. Folke Nordstrom, Goya, Saturn, and Melancholy (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1962) 185-221. The
differences from Rubens, notably the 'adult-looking' victim, in contrast to the child victim with which
Goya provided Saturn in a drawing is emphasized in Nigel Glendinning, The Interpretation of Goya's
Black Paintings. The Inaugural Lecture of the Professor of Spanish delivered on Thursday 13 November
1975 (Queen Mary College, University of London: 1977).
See Eric Zafran, "Saturn and the Jews," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol.42 (1979),
16-27. The Bernese fountain is itself culturally ambiguous: the medieval monster devours classical putti.
3.1 Excursus on the Satyr Play
aground on the moral enormity of the act of cannibalism, which is rendered by the painter
casually, as if it were one more battle between hunters and lions or boars.
That this appalling painting made an impression on Goya is probable in light of
his handling of the victim. Represented entirely from behind, this child is no infant, but a
well-proportioned classical nude. To make the wild Chronos devour the classical nude is
a programmatic gesture for Goya, but not about painting: for what Chronos devours is
metaphysical faith in the resources of the classical tradition that Rubens relied on to
reconcile mythic violence with modern morality. Giving up reconciliation, Goya
preserves the myth of Saturn as moral confrontation. Chronos chews the bloody body of
his son (or daughter?) while his libido rages uncontrolled.41 His gaze, besides being
eloquent, is singularly tortured in its direction. That is because it must convey not just
lust and shame but a double shame: at his crime and at his lust. He suffers judgment, but
not at the hands of the painter or of a conscience which the painter has imputed to him. It
is rather the goddess who judges, his silent partner in the mythic narrative, the implied
spectator with whom we stand, comparing moral codes and judging right action. For the
liberal hope of neopaganism is that we are not trapped in an eternal struggle of the gods
but in a historical struggle of moral codes, of what we might call god-orientations.
It has been suggested that the victim is not only suspiciously mature, but in fact female: Valeriano Bozal,
Francisco Goya: Viday Obra, vol.2 (Madrid: tf. Editores, 2005), 254-5. Olszewski also argues, somewhat
questionably, that "the torso would seem to be female from the definition of the waist and buttocks." (127)
We might also keep in mind Glendinning's observation that the pre-restoration photograph showed larger,
rounder buttocks ("Strange Translation," 474). Since having had a child myself, I must say that the age and
gender of Saturn's victim seem less than self-evident. It is sounder to insist on the body's classicality.
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion
FIG.3.1 Henry Fuseli, The Blind Polyphemus (Odyssey IX: 440), 1803, oil on canvas, 91x71cm,
private collection, Zurich (SCHIFF 1194).
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion
FIG.3.2 Charles Grignion after Henry Fuseli, engraved frontispiece, 133x89mm,
Remarks on the Conduct and Writings ofJ.-J. Rousseau, 1767 (SCHIFF 301).
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion
FIG.3.3A Henry Fuseli, Retirement,
1806-7, oil on canvas, 91.8x71.2cm, private collection
FIG.3.3B Henry Fuseli, Retirement,
1806-7, pencil and watercolor, 406x273mm, private collection
(SCHIFF 1420).
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion
FIG.3.4AB Moses Haughton after Henry Fuseli, Eleusinian Mysteries, engraved frontispiece, 125x 87mm,
in Erasmus Darwin, The Temple of Nature (London: Johnson, 1803) (SCHIFF 1338);
Hubert Robert, Landscape with Artemis, 1762, red chalk, 450 x 337mm, Hermitage, St. Petersburg.
FIG.3.5AB Henry Fuseli, Creation of Eve, 1803, watercolor, 430x260mm Kunsthaus Zurich (SCHIFF 1422);
Moses Haughton, stipple engraving, 125x85mm, in Erasmus Darwin, The Temple of Nature
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion Pop
FIG.3.6 Antonio da Correggio, Jupiter andIo, 1532, oil on
canvas, 162x73.5cm, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna.
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion Pop
FIG.3.7 Henry Fuseli, Adam and Eve, first seen by Satan (Paradise Lost IV: 325), [1796-9],
pen and sepia, 306x185mm, Kunsthaus Zurich, Grafische Sammlung (SCHIFF 1021).
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion
FIG.3.8ABC The Fertilization of Egypt [The God Anubis at the Source of the Nile] (SCHIFF 974, 1038):
(A) pencil drawing by Heniy Fuseli, 241x194mm, British Museum, London (1863,0509.931).
(B) pen and wash drawing by William Blake, 194x150mm, British Museum, London (1863,0509.932).
(C) engraving by Blake, 130x78mm, Erasmus Darwin, The Botanic Garden (London: Johnson, 1791), 127.
FIG.3.9 Michelangelo da Vinci, 'Vitruvian Man', 1485-90, pen
and wash over drypoint, Galleria delPAccademia, Venice.
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion
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FIG.3.11 Henry Fuseli, " M a y Love Thus Come to My Foes," 1809, pencil, pen, wash and watercolor,
190x247mm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London ( S C H I F F 1620).
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion
FIG.3.12 L. Pignanoli, Engraved plate from Pierre d'Hancarville, Antiquites,
FIG.3.13 Chapter headpiece from Pierre d'Hancarville, Antiquites,
Vol. IV, Plate 114, 1767.
Vol.III, page 5, 1767.
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion
FIG.3.16 Henry Fuseli, 'Bedroom Exercise',
pen wash, 293x420mm, M u s e o H o m e , Florence
FIG.3.17 Henry Fuseli, 'Embrace', pen wash, 292x445mm, Museo H o m e , Florence
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion Pop
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FIG.3.18 Engraved Frontispiece, Richard Payne Knight, Priapeia (London: Spillsbury, 1786).
sicr of the Greeks, not to mean a prohibition of worfhipping t i e £une God, but merely oi the corrupt
mode iu which he was then worshipped, t
* r!3,
ver. sS.
Lib. V,
FIG.3.19 Plate IX, Richard Payne Knight, Priapeia,
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion Pop
FIG.3.20A Richard Payne Knight, Priapeia,
FIG.3.20B Richard Payne Knight, Priapeia,
Plate X, 1786.
Elephanta fragment, 1786.
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion
FIG.3.21 J.G. Walker after H. Fuseli", 1806.
FIG.3.22 Pellegrino Tibaldi, Sala di Ulisse,
1554-6, fresco, Palazzo Poggi, Bologna.
(FIG.3.1) Henry Fuseli, The Blind Polyphemus,
FIG.3.23 Tommaso Masaccio, Expulsion of Adam and Eve,
1425-7, fresco, Brancacci Chapel, Florence.
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion Pop
a - i r . c n 1301,
FIG.3.24 Francis Legat after Henry Fuseli, Silence, engraved frontispiece,
Henry Fuseli, Lectures on Painting (London: J. Johnson, 1801).
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion Pop
'741 F U S S L I 1941
FIG.3.25 Bookcover, Wilhelm Wartmann, Johann Heinrich Fiissli (Zurich: Kunsthaus, 1941).
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion
FIG.3.26 Honore Daumier, Silenus, charcoal and bodycolor, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Calais.
FIG.3.27 Dionysus and Satyr, in Pierre d'Hancarville, Antiquites, vol.1, engraved plate 104 (1767).
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion Pop
/ /: \ -
FIG.3.28 Hilaire-Germaine-Edgar Degas, Jeunes filles spartiatesprovoquant
des gargons,
I860, oil on canvas, 109 x 155cm, London, National Gallery, Courtauld Collection.
FIG.3.29 Henry Fuseli, IIgiuoco delpallone,
1771, pen and wash, 450 x 570mm, Kunsthaus Zurich
(SCHIFF 5 1 3 ) .
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion Pop
FIG.3.30 Johan Tobias Sergei, Ilgiuoco del pallone [1770-2], pen and wash, 232 x 343mm,
Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.
FIG.3.31 Edgar Degas, Young Spartan Girls Challenging Boys, 1860, oil on canvas, 97.4 x
140cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Charles H. and Mary F.S. Worcester Collection.
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion
FIG.3.32 Edgar Degas, Study for "The Young Spartans Exercising," c. 1860-1, oil on paper, mounted on
paper and cardboard, 20.9 x 28cm, Fogg Museum, Harvard University.
FIG.3.33 Edgar Degas, A Nude Youth Crawling, Study for "Young Spartans Exercising," c.1860,
oil on paper-covered board, 24 x 31,7cm, Fogg Museum, Harvard University.
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion
FIG.3.34 Jean Leone Gerome, Jeunes Grecs faisant battre des coqs, 1846, oil on canvas,
143 x 204cm, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
it,. •
; —
FIG.3.35 Thomas Couture, Les romains de la decadence, 1847, oil on canvas, 472 x 722cm,
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion
FIG.3.36 Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours, Tableau representant les Jeux Olympiques,
407cm, Musee des Beaux-Arts, Geneva.
1791, oil on canvas, 226 x
FIG.3.37 Jean-Pierre Saint-Ours, L 'Examen des Enfants a Sparte, 1791, oil on canvas, 138 x 260cm,
Musee des Beaux-Arts, Geneva.
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion Pop
FIG.3.38 Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, Saturno devorando a un hijo, 18201823, mural transferred to canvas, 146 x 83cm, Museo del Prado, Madrid.
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion Pop
FIG.3.39 Goya's Saturn before restoration by Salvador Martinez Cubells, photograph
by J. Laurent in Francisco Zapater y Gomez, Coleccion de 449 reproducciones de
euadros, dibujos y aguafuertes de Don Francisco deGoya (Madrid: 'Aldus,' 1924).
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion Pop
FIG.3.40 Peter Paul Rubens, Saturno devorando a un hijo, oil on
canvas, 180 x 87cm, Coleccion Real, Museo del Prado, Madrid.
3.2 Illustrations to Chapters 3, 3.1, and Conclusion Pop
FIG.3.41 Hans Gieng, Kindlifresserbrunnen,
1545-6, Kornhausplatz, Bern.
The Ends of Neopaganism
I have ranged quite some way beyond Fuseli and his problems of neopaganism in trying
to trace the aesthetic and political consequences of the phenomenon. Starting with the end
of painterly neopaganism in a standoff of pictorial and social forces found in Degas's
Young Spartans of 1860, we traced a counter-tradition of neopagan politics in Goya's
Saturn of 1820-4, which posits, in the plurality of the viewer and painterly subject, a
cultural other person capable of moral judgment. This judging other possesses authority,
and is thus in Weber's terminology a demon or a god or its representative: what we have
then is a neopaganism of value orientations which in no way vitiates a quest for truth or
right political order, but asserts as its stage a liberal plurality of positions which cannot be
reduced to one another.1 To pursue this further into the realm of political theory would
take me beyond my expertise, and has besides been done quite well by a number of very
different writers.2 What I should rather do, in the last pages of this work, is comment on
its applicability to Fuseli's oeuvre as we have presented it.
First, an empirical distinction ought to be made between the work that has made
Fuseli's reputation after his rediscovery in the twentieth century, and which was indeed
treasured by his close circle of friends—his sketches and wash drawings—and the work
which made his public reputation in the eighteenth century, of which we have discussed
the two main protagonists, Oath on the Riitli of 1780 (FIG. 1.25) and The Nightmare of
See Max Weber, "Science as a Vocation," and my discussion of this text in the last section of Chapter 2.
Besides Weber, I cite only Bertrand Russell, Power (New York: Norton, 1938), Ralf Dahrendorf, "In
Praise of Thrasymachus," Essays in the Theory of Society (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1968), 129150, Stuart Hampshire, Justice is Conflict, not to mention the current fad for 'agonistic' democracy.
1781 (FIG 2.1).3 To this later category we may wish to collate the narrative paintings for
the Milton Gallery (1799), du Roveray's Homer, and Fuseli's book work generally. Let
us call this third, mixed item "Fuseli's illustrations." I have argued especially in the first
chapter that the drawn output served Fuseli and his Roman peers as a laboratory or a
theatre of private performances for the reimagining of classicism along Dionysian,
relativist lines. The making public (and intelligible) of this aesthetic revolution in large
paintings did not work for Fuseli with antique Greek subject matter: indeed, we recall
him complaining in a letter to his friend Roscoe about the difficulty of selling his
Oedipus pictures.4 When it did work, in the Rtitli, 'relativist history painting' adopted
existing republican symbolism which has been too easy to assimilate to Enlightenment
universalism, and to David's Oath for that matter; I have shown the difference, in that the
Rtitli is more about the differences among the federated democrats, but the difference is
subtle. Likewise, in The Nightmare a relativist insistence on the unassailability of private
experience, and its central place in cognition, is only subtly distinguishable from the
eighteenth-century taste for sex and occult spectacle that filled the coffers of the inventorquack Dr. James Graham.
If the legible, public work of Fuseli mediated between his private departures from
Enlightenment classicism and the political-commercial pragmatism of the age, it should
not fully surprise us if the relation between theory and practice is decisively sharpened in
Fuseli's most occasional work, work frankly made for the market and for other people's
texts, his illustrations. As we saw especially in Chapter 3, the illustrations, understood as
One would have to include in a history of Fuseli's reception his ambitious failure, the Milton Gallery, and
indeed this was well-done recently by Luisa Cale, Fuseli's Milton Gallery: 'Turning Readers into
Spectators' (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). For reasons which I state presently, I do not regard
the Milton Gallery as a Gesamtkunstwerk or even a complete object of historical analysis.
interpretations of given narratives, displayed a great freedom in exposing a theory of
(sexual) human nature and its political implications on which the less legible public work
and the unseen private work depended. These illustrations, particularly those to Darwin's
poems, are not Utopian schemas of blissful humanity in possession of a society fully in
tune with its nature, but negative Utopias of possibility, projecting into the Genesis story
and the loves of the plants a sexual revolution specific to liberal modernity. Now, it is a
truism, agreed on by Marxists and social conservatives, that liberal modernity contains
the seeds of its own destruction. This is because it unleashes social forces it cannot
control in a manner consistent with its own principle of tolerance. I discussed this
through the consequences drawn from liberalism by Sade, and drawn very differently by
fascism in its transformation of a pluralist language of peoples (Herder's Volker) into one
of struggle between rival forces. The key question, and the one which art can have some
pretension of answering, is: how far does tolerance extend? Or, to put the question
differently, how far does sympathy extend? I explored this question through the
examination of a work which I consider Fuseli's most important: the oil painting for an
illustration of Odysseus' escape from the cave of the cyclops Polyphemus (FIG.3.1).
The difficulties Fuseli struggles with in this painting are precisely those that arise
when one tries to delimit an end to private sympathy or political tolerance. The Cyclops'
pain and blindness are the subject of the painting, and we are somehow asked to see the
escape from his eye—but we of course cannot, being in the lot of the relativist bystander,
and in this sense there is both a limit to our sympathy and to the tolerance we extend to
the political existence of the Cyclops, who is after all a cannibal. In Chapter 3,1 could not
Letter to William Roscoe of Oct. 1, 1791, in Weinglass, ed. Collected English Letters, 73.
in the end answer the related question whether "neopaganism is proto-fascist" or for that
matter antifascist, even when it is very arbitrarily defined to exclude Fascist classicism.
This may be a pseudo-question, but a useful one in that it sets into motion the mechanism
of self-examination by which liberal pluralism claims to work, and thus allows us to see
if the mechanism in fact works or is only a self-deluding myth. Historically, the verdict is
still out: I myself have the feeling the mechanism works, just not very well.
For all the inconclusiveness of the basic questions of the study, the question of
Polyphemus—is there a limit to tolerance?—is not unanswerable, but only too broad to
find one single answer. The discussion of Goya, however, should help us narrow it. For
Goya not only pointed to an embodied spectator of his gruesome deed, but incorporated,
in the very despair of his protagonist, the effect of the viewer's judgment. This viewer,
which to my knowledge I am the first to identify narratively with Chronos' spouse Rhea,
is thus both the generalized spectator of the painting (an abstract universality, if Goya did
not intend the painting to be seen by others) and a real, if mythical, opponent of Chronos.
There is here then a concretization of art's assumption of a spectator to which Michael
Fried has given the name theatricality.5 On one hand there is the old eighteenth-century
theatricality, as Chronos stares out of the picture at us; but there is also the nineteenthcentury narrative kind, since he does not stare at us but at Rhea. What this amounts to is
an equivalence between spectator and historical actor in a Greek myth. Quite differently
from republican emulation, Goya's painting compels us to be good. And since it is a
1 have not discussed 'theatricality' at length because Fried's assumptions are too different from mine to be
discussed here. But I should say that if theatricality is taken as a basic category, and not a term of abuse like
'spectacle,' there are no interesting historical consequences to be drawn from a work being theatrical or
not: the only consequence, as Fried has stressed recently, is that the work is or is not "modernist."
painting and we are not, there is no question of an affective theatre in which both it and
we can participate: we must be good in the world, not in the narrative space of painting.
The difference between the moral reckoning demanded by a pluralist classicism
and the commitment of activist neoclassicism needs no further stressing. The pluralism of
Goya's appeal, or to translate this formula into the language of power, its unforced force,
is at the center of neopaganism in painting as I have sketched it. A regulative ideal rather
than a constant, it is not to be found anywhere else in Goya, and only fitfully in Fuseli.
To reformulate the Polyphemus question in its terms would be: is there an ideal spectator
implicit in the painting, and if so, what attitude does it urge on the real spectator? But in
examining our list of alleged ideal spectators—Odysseus, the ram, Polyphemus himself—
we are stopped short by the peculiar composition from the depths of the cave looking
upward. Narratively there cannot be anyone left in the cave after Odysseus and the ram
depart. For all that Fuseli's staging, painterly technique and use of color may suggest a
subject position close to Polyphemus or his friend, this cannot be imposed on the real
spectator—or on Homer's reader—by the painting as it is. As a plain matter of fact there
cannot be a spectator for the painting at all. And yet the making of the painting implies a
spectator, as does the visibility of Polyphemus' grief. Fuseli has just not left any place for
this spectator. This is not an unusual procedure for the painter. For if the spectator has an
insecure toehold in the painted world of the Riitli or The Nightmare, in more explicitly
neopagan subjects, notably the late Amor and Psyche of 1810 (FIG.3.42), there is no place
for him at all. The painting, with its embrace denoting the end of Psyche's trials, appears
to take place in the nocturnal darkness of Polyphemus' cave. Psyche's closed eyes are
hardly visible; their invisibility is faintly mocked by her prominent nipples and nostrils.
Amor's large right eye appears to be blind—or covered by a massive lid. What is made
visible in this painting is not visible to its protagonists. That they are visible at all is the
only claim made by painting on this evacuated neopaganism. The demon, or god, or godoriented pluralist is left to approach the painting in the dream-theatre of liberalism, of an
ordinary antiquity in which the gods have not had a place prepared for them.6
And so, traveling the path of paganism, we have arrived finally at the secular
world of modernity, and its obverse, ordinary antiquity. We cannot shake off Hegel's
boredom of the world through painting gods we no longer believe in, but we also cannot
attribute the boredom to their absence.7 It is the loneliness of the subject cut off from
other subjects that boredom of the world and the loss of the gods articulate. With
Wordsworth we stand in need of "glimpses that would make me less forlorn."8 For
neopaganism and the liberal tradition that builds on it, this was as true subjectively as it is
politically in a world theatre of persistent if not sharpening ethnocentrism. The work of
combating this tribal loneliness through efforts to "Have sight of Proteus coming from
the sea; / Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn," has been the subject of this study.
Heidegger's late philosophy was devoted to a return of the gods. This project has been taken up recently
in Hubert Dreyfus' s Luring Back the Gods (forthcoming from the Free Press). One surely cannot endorse
Heidegger's Weimar-young-conservative view of giving meaning to a nihilistic modernity. But this is very
likely not what Dreyfus is up to. In a recent essay he has written, in a spirit close to what I am calling
neopaganism: "In the world of the Homeric Greeks, pluralism was the highest good." See Hubert Dreyfus,
"Responses," in Heidegger, Authenticity, and Modernity: Essays in Honor of Hubert L. Dreyfus, ed. Mark
Wrathall and Jeff Malpas, vol.1 (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000), 326.
On the Langeweile der Welt, which Hegel attributes to the death of the pagan gods under the pressure of
Roman imperial expansion, and which he finds to be returning as Christian religion dies out in the wake of
the French Revolution, see G. W. F. Hegel, "Fortsetzung des Systems der Sittlichkeit," [c.1804-1805], in
Johannes Hoffmeister, ed. Dokumente zu Hegels Entwicklung (Stuttgart: Fromanns Verlag, 1936), 318.
Wordsworth, Poems, I: 122. See the introduction for a discussion of this poem.
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