L’origine du monde (Origin of the World), 1866, oil on canvas, by Gustave Courbet
I first learned about this painting during my second year at Barnard College. It was in a class largely made up of women, with if I remember correctly, the exception of one male student. This was fairly common in the comparative literature department at Barnard, one of the original Seven Sisters. And, one of the last few of its kind. I fully intend to write a post specifically about women’s colleges, Barnard in particular, in the near future. However, that is another related–yet separate–post.
To return to the story of the painting, the instructor was a middle-aged man, widely considered attractive on campus. He was, in so many ways, the stereotypical professor with disheveled hair and wool cardigans, theories on Derrida and Saussure, classically trained at a Very Prestigious University, a persistent look of concern and deep thought pressed into his face. I will refrain from going into too much detail about this professor in particular, considering I intend to use this specific class and this specific man merely as an example of what I believe to be a larger problem–a microcosm, if you will.
We began the semester with a short story entitled “Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu” (“The Unknown Masterpiece”) by Balzac. In short, there is a master painter (Frenhofer) who becomes a mentor for an unknown painter (Porbus). The teacher has been working on a masterpiece (the namesake of the story) for over ten years. It is of a woman, and he cannot seem to find the inspiration to finish his piece. Porbus, his student, offers his own lover, a woman whom he loves dearly, Gilette, to be the model. In so doing, Porbus metaphorically prostitutes his love/lover in the pursuit of art, Truth, and Knowledge–something with a higher purpose. He offers her as a means through which his teacher can gain the last bit of knowledge he needs; Frenhofer must understand women to finish his painting. Her overwhelming beauty enables Frenhofer to complete his masterpiece, but with a price. After the painting is done, Porbus and Frenhofer admire its exquisiteness; yet, all that really exists is an abstract blur with an image of Gilette’s foot. The story ends when Frenhofer goes mad, destroys his masterpiece, and kills himself shortly thereafter.
My professor went on to analyze the story, dabbling in a Freudian analysis of the fetishized image of the foot blah blah blah. He also came to the conclusion that the moral of the story is, more or less, this: it is impossible to capture, to understand, to see the “je ne sais quoi” (the indescribable quality of/ the I-don’t-know-what) of a woman, and the pursuit of knowledge of women will drive, or perhaps more aptly, has driven men mad since the beginning of time. To put it in simpler terms, women are impossible to understand, and to understand a woman is to be mad. Which, in other words, seems to imply that madness presupposes comprehension of the “ever illusive/elusive” woman-figure. What I aim to deconstruct is the very illusory and elusive nature of women. I don’t think that these two words in this instance can be separated. For, the “elusive” nature of woman seems to me to be a fabricated illusion.
And I’ve thought about this exact idea for a long time. Why are so many stories, so many analyses of stories, so many personal stories about how “hard” it is to “understand” “women”? (I use scare quotes around women because oftentimes women are talked about as though there is one underlying truth that would suddenly make every single woman on this earth “comprehensible.” A singular truth of course implies that there is a fundamental nature of all womankind, another fallacy. At this point, I wish to furthermore question what it means to be “comprehensible.” This question of comprehensibility always begets the question of comprehensible/incomprehensible to whom? This is of course, a question of power. Who is the knower vs. the unknown, the sensible vs. the mad, the one who makes sense of something vs. the one who needs to be made sensible?).
Bear with me as I move to another anecdotal story. I was talking to a different man who I happen to be quite close to. We were eating lunch when the conversation turned towards the fact that I am in need of a good gynecologist. I told him that I was hoping to find one soon, but that I have had no luck since moving from NYC. His eyes glazed over, his face contorted, and his response was “Gross. Who would ever want to be a gynecologist?” I don’t quite remember how I responded, probably not in the most even-headed manner. Why is it that gynecologists are often described as “gross” to me? I don’t think that it’s specific to this one man, who actually happens to be very mature. Why is the response often a hushed, whispered inquiry when asking about a gynecologist? Why do people giggle and find alternate words for a gynecologist (my particular pet peeve comes to mind: “a lady doctor”)? The female body is so often enshrouded in silence, approached from every side other than straight on, which is why L’Origine du monde is so fascinating to me. There it is in all of its glory: a vulva, hurray!
The female genitals. Still misunderstood/not understood by scientists and people alike. I met a close friend of mine, a woman, who didn’t know where her clitoris was. This should be shocking, but it actually isn’t. How is a woman supposed to understand her body when society has taken its careful time to hide the female body, to expose it in an objectifying but hardly ever empowering way? How can women understand their bodies when scientists and doctors, largely perceived as authority figures on Truth (with a big, fat capital T) and Knowledge haven’t taken the time to fully understand the female body? I won’t go too far into this article, but it’s what has inspired this post, and it’s definitely worth a read and a re-read. The female clitoris wasn’t truly studied until 1998. That’s less than twenty years ago. This is astounding and infuriating to me.
The human body is undeniably political, from skin color to eye shape, height to hair color, penises to vaginas. (As a side note, I do not wish to create a stark male/female identity schema here, but I do wish to focus specifically on the female body/those who identify as women). A human body is political no matter how you look at it (and conversely, how you do not look at it). If the majority of scientists and doctors are men, if the majority of Authority figures are men, the simple answer as to why women bodies aren’t studied seems to be that it is, in many ways, irrelevant to their own male bodies. Yet, as Simone de Beauvoir pointed out, it is because to be male is to be the neutral. Female is the body that lacks, the body that is other than the male body, never in addition to the male body. The male body is what science purports is sensible, the female body is nonsensical.
What I am trying to say is that the elusive/illusive female body is only elusive and illusive because it is unseen. It is obscured. It is the blurred painting. Not because it is invisible. Because it is visible–but because it is never looked at straight on. Maybe the answer to the age old question of literature and the pursuit of high art, the pursuit of knowledge of the world and art through the female body, the thing everyone is searching for, the answer to the question, the je ne sais quoi of the female body is simply that it is a body. A body that does not lack, but a body that is often pigeon holed by the modifying word of female. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with the word woman/female, but maybe there really isn’t something to “figure out” about women. Maybe, just maybe, a female body is just a body. And maybe it’s only unseen because those in power do not want to see it.