What do the mermaid's genitals look like

In February of this year, the painting “Hylas and the Nymphs” by John William Waterhouse (see picture above) was taken down in the Manchester Art Gallery as part of an art campaign by Sonia Boyce - the aim was to initiate a debate about the representation of women in art trigger. Accordingly, during the period in which the picture was taken down, the visitors could leave notes in the resulting blank space on which they could write their opinion on this topic and the possibilities of an appropriate contextualization of the painting when it was re-exhibited. "This gallery presents the female body as either a" passive decorative form "or a" femme fatale ". Let's challenge this Victorian fantasy! ”, The curator Clare Gannaway explained the intention behind this action, which actually caused debates in this country, presumably also because it was here with the seemingly endless discussion about the deletion of“ Avenidas ”at the Alice Salomon College Associated.

In fact, this form of art performance - and that should be the suspension - is not entirely successful, not at all because art loses its purposefulness in itself as part of an art performance and becomes a means of art, which is at least an interesting development in recent decades is. Above all, this art action was unsuccessful because it does little to enlighten and emancipate visitors, unlike what would have been the case if, for example, different artistic representations of women were shown and explained in a well-prepared exhibition at the end would have given the opportunity to leave notes. That is actually the job that curators should do, if they want to “challenge” a “fantasy” in order to come up with this idea, they don't need any suggestions from visitors. In such an exhibition, the visitors * could have got an idea of ​​the representation of women in art, a debate could have been conducted on the basis of information - and thus perhaps would have been a reasonable debate about the representation of women in art and not a debate about censorship that actually sparked the art action. Not hanging out, but information leads to maturity - and it would have been nice to show completely different representations of femininity by artists in the context of such an exhibition.

Because that Clare Gannaway with her diagnosis - that women in the art history dominated by men are usually portrayed either as passive-decorative (mostly: the wife) or as femme fatale (mostly: the beloved) - not only in relation to the Manchester Art Gallery, but in relation to the arts in general, is right, has been a truism of feminist discussion since Simone de Beauvoir's “The Other Sex” at the latest. And this can be demonstrated par excellence in the myth that was so popular in the Romantic era and which is probably why it can also be seen in the romantic painting by Waterhouse that was hung in Manchester: that of the mermaid.

Andreas Kraß shows this in “Mermaids. History of an Impossible Love ”, a comparative study of the mermaid's motif from antiquity to the present that is as easy to read as it is exciting. The mermaid, who has had a fish tail only since Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale “The Little Mermaid”, which at some point became a Walt Disney film, is always the figure of - as the title of Kraß ‘book suggests - impossible love story. According to literary studies, stories of mermaids are assigned to the narrative pattern of the "disturbed mermaid marriage" (mahrte = fairy), that is, stories of tragic connections between humans and fairies. Usually there is a taboo in such narratives that must not be violated by humans, but is then violated, which leads to the death of at least one of the characters.

Mermaids are surprisingly diverse: the sirens of antiquity were presented as birdwomen who lead people to their death with their song, the medieval Melusine is a snake woman, nymphs were usually more or less human until Andersen gave them a fishtail . Typically, they all bear traits of the spoiler, the woman who gave birth or the seductress, with different emphases, i.e. traits of the mythical image of women that - as Kraß shows, but also long before Simone de Beauvoir - often of men in art and cultural history has been designed: the woman is the other to the man, on her he projects his wishes and fears. The mermaid, for example, often competes with the appropriate wife during the romantic era, so it is the female myth in which the problem of the compatibility of passionate love as a romantic ideal and civil marriage as reality is negotiated. So cool sums up

“The mermaid as a symbol for love. The essential difference between human and fairy is ultimately a metonymic shift, it stands for the imagined essential difference between man and woman. The mermaid represents a male phantasm of the female that exaggerates the woman as a fairy. "(Andreas Kraß: Meerjungfrauen, Frankfurt a. M. 2005, p. 17)

A look at the table of contents of the study shows that this is the case: only two of the texts examined are from authors (Ingeborg Bachmann “Undine goes”, Bertha Pappenheim “The Weihernixe”). At the same time, the mermaid, as a fantasy creature, is often a symbol for poetic imagination and therefore also a symbol of literature itself - Kraß also examines the mermaid motif with regard to this aspect.

Since men have created a female myth, an image of women that arises from their heads, not from female reality, in that the nymph is the other to the man, every such imagination tells not only of the (man-made) image of women, but also, ex negativo, of the image of men at a time. One cannot talk about the male image of women at a time without at the same time speaking of the male image that is contained in it. But this is precisely where the asymmetry lies: Ex negativo, it is still an image of masculinity designed by men, not one designed by women. Art and cultural history is dominated by a male view of femininity and masculinity, the female view of both is usually missing. There is no such thing as a male myth created by women.

“Since women do not set themselves as subjects, they have not created a male myth in which their designs are reflected. They have no religion and no poetry that belongs to them: even when they dream, they do it on the way through the dreams of men. ”(Simone de Beauvoir: Das other sex, Hamburg 2000, p. 194)

This is exactly what Melissa Broder does in “Pisces”: On the way she dreams about the dreams of men. But: She breaks this dream. That is why “Pisces” is a feminist novel.

The protagonist of the novel, Lucy, is in her late 30s, lives in the desert in Phoenix, tends not to work on her dissertation and is devastated after the breakup of their eight-year relationship - she not only tries more or less consciously to kill herself, she breaks her ex also the nose and has to go to therapy. Her sister offers to look after her beach house and dog in Venice L.A. while she is on a trip, while attending group therapy. Lucy accepts this offer, attends her therapy sessions rather irregularly, which she finds repulsive - the novel here is a parody of safe-space and trigger-warning discourses, but without becoming hateful or ultimately denying the legitimacy of the cause behind it -, and instead plunges into disastrous Tinder dates. She gets worse and worse until she meets Theo on the beach, who turns out to be a fishtail merman, with whom she falls in love and with whom she is finally loved as she had wished in her previous relationships. If only it weren't for the question of her future place of residence: After a few weeks, Lucy has to return to the desert, to Phoenix, where Theo cannot follow her; Theo, on the other hand, wants Lucy to come underwater with him, which would mean her death.

So Theo is a female fantasy, an appropriation of the male fantasy: he is 40, but looks like 21, is emotionally almost overly sensitive and, to top it all, is incredibly good in bed (or rather: on the rock and on the sofa, because the bed is on the first floor and stairs are an obstacle for a man with a fishtail). It is designed based on the model of Andersen's fairy tale - it has a fish tail - but at the same time it is also an erotic seducer and spoiler - Theo and Lucy use the term "siren" several times, at the end of which is his wish to drown Lucy in water.

Theo could be just Lucy's imagination: Before she meets him, the head of her therapy group announces that her “male deprivation” could also lead to hallucinations. Towards the end of the novel, she is not sure whether someone is an outsider during sex on a rock on the beach would see her with a merman or whether this outsider would not only see her rubbing against a rock - Lucy is an unreliable narrator, and perhaps that is precisely why completely surreal events are told here as plausible reality.

In fact, Theo fills exactly the “emptiness” that Lucy repeatedly stresses to carry within herself and which she thinks she can only fill with a man, which is why she desperately throws herself into new dates that end in disappointment: Lucy is initially over For long stretches of the novel not a feminist figure, but one that defines itself extremely through its effect on men. First.

Melissa Broder knows the psychoanalytic interpretation of the figure of the mermaid: Freud wrote in “The Motif of Choosing a Box” (cf. also: Andreas Kraß: Mermaids, pp. 30-37) about the often fatal connection between man and fairy in fairy tales , which expresses the principle of symbolic substitution, the reversal of wishes: The man wants to choose life and connects with a woman who presumably stands for life in her youth and beauty, but who turns out to be a spoiler. The wish for life and death mutually overlap, one proves to be the other.

The same inverted wish takes place in "Pisces": Lucy connects with a young, extremely attractive merman who knows and apparently fills her inner emptiness, who helps her through her depression, and who nevertheless stands for death. Again and again there is not only talk of a deep sadness that Theo brings with it and transfers it to Lucy, in the end he wants her suicide, her death in the sea, and during the first oral sex that Theo and Lucy have on the rock on the beach, Lucy's laughter turns into a "cold, deadly serious darkness" (p. 184) shortly before orgasm. Eros and Thanatos are connected, turn into each other: Lucy thinks that she is following her instinct for life, that she has found a partner with whom she can live - even if only at night on a rock - and yet she has found a partner who is capable of death , represents her death instinct, her depression. At the end of the novel in particular, one is no longer sure whether Theo is not just a figure Lucy imagined, whether he is not a personification of her depression that wants to drive her to suicide.

The novel works even more centrally with the theory of "archetypes" by C. G. Jung - a poster with these archetypes also hangs in the room in which Lucy's group therapy takes place, so Broder explicitly places this trace in her novel. According to C. G. Jung, sirens and the figure of Loreley belong to the animus / anima archetype. Animus / anima are the two most important structures of human imagination and emotion in the collective unconscious - men personify in anima (examples include: Siren, Loreley, Faust's Gretchen) their female soul parts, their archetype of women themselves, women act in mirror image Animus.

And Theo can consistently be understood as Lucy's animus: He fulfills her wish to be desired, to mean everything to another person - a wish that Lucy herself attributes to the early death of her mother and therefore to a childhood trauma. This also shows how strongly the novel is psychoanalytically inspired: The main problem of the protagonist is explained biographically from her childhood - and that is exactly what I would actually see, as consistent in the whole of the novel, as a weakness of the novel: That he is looking for the reason for the protagonist's problems in herself and her private environment, not so much in society, the normative ideas of love and interpersonal interaction that prevail there. But as written, that's right in the layout of the novel, even if I think it's too short-sighted.

Theo now fulfills Lucy's desire to be desired, at the same time he is empathetic and he reverses the division of roles that Lucy otherwise got to know in their relationships: Even at the beginning of the novel, she describes it as typically masculine to have power over one's partner, especially because it is always the man who leaves at some point on whose desires she depends. With Theo it is now different: He is not only more vulnerable than her in several ways, emotionally but also physically on land because of his fishtail, in this case it is above all she who will leave him, who also knows this and is hiding it from him . Lucy knows that she only lives temporarily in Venice L.A. and that sooner or later she has to return to Phoenix, she is the one who will leave him and thus takes on the male role that she otherwise never played in relationships.

Theo is also conceived as a figure with clearly feminine characteristics due to numerous other characteristics: he smells "a bit of pussy" because of his fishtail and Lucy perceives his fishtail, although he was "phallic [...] perceived as female" (p. 191) . Accordingly, Lucy wants to “touch him like a woman” (p. 192) and she states during oral sex: “His sperm in my mouth didn't taste bitter as it does with some men, but it wasn't sweet either. The taste was more feminine. ”(P. 207). Lucy's female sexual organs transform into male ones, her vagina “existed like a second penis”, while Theo exudes “desire and devotion”, classic female patterns (p. 229). Theo comes from the sea, historically the symbol for growth and decay, and at one point he disappears into the sea and looks "as if he was diving into a huge vagina" (p. 349). Theo is the counterpart to Lucy, who comes from the desert, Lucy compares Theo with the sea god Poseidon and herself with the earth goddess Demeter (p. 207f.); the rock is the intermediate world, the boundary between them. Theo, divine according to his name (from the Greek “theos” = God; Theo is also associated with “darkness” several times, pp. 223-225, 240), is the mirror image of Lucy (the closeness to “Lucifer” is obvious , derived from the Latin “lux” = light), it is their animus.

Accordingly, as soon as they have sex, they are a unit, two sides of the same coin. Lucy compares them to Yin and Yang / light and dark (p. 214, 245) and twins (p. 275): their love feels like “ to be one with each other ”(p. 208), he is“ a mirror ”(p. 229) of her, she asks herself“ Who are you? Are you me? ”(P. 240), and comes to the conclusion:“ I was man and woman at the same time. Theo and I were two sides of the same coin ”(p. 275).

And by representing the counterpart to Lucy, her male myth, Theo enables her to try out other (male and female) behaviors and to change.

In “Pisces”, Melissa Broder turned a male fantasy into a female fantasy with a remarkable use of psychoanalytic theory, appropriating a female myth created by men. There is also a taboo in this marriage - Theo admonishes Lucy several times not to tell anyone about him. As already written above, in the romantic tales of mermaids, contemporary problem situations were played out by men who had to choose between the romantic ideal of real love and the civil order of a marriage commensurate with their class. As a result, triangular relationships are often found in these stories: the man stands between a water woman and a bourgeois woman.

Broder also transfers this to a female figure and to the present: Lucy stands between her ex-boyfriend Jamie or the possibility of having a "mindful" relationship with human men and Theo, a merman. She, too, stands between civil order and desire: Accordingly, she is considering living like a homeless person on the beach, i.e. leaving the civil order in order to live with Theo. In the context of the sessions of her therapy group and the resulting friendships with other women, the contrast between insane desire and a healthy, “mindful” relationship is discussed.

There is also a second love triangle: Lucy also stands between Theo, who embodies erotic fantasy love, and Dominic, her sister's dog, who embodies pure love (p. 326f.). Accordingly, her therapist asks her whether she is really looking for love or just desire - a question to which Lucy has no answer because she has never asked herself this question. Lucy stands between different understandings of love, but what I have already criticized above comes through here: Due to the strong psychoanalytical orientation of the novel, social conventions and also social notions of "love" are reflected too little precisely, which is why the novel here does not come to any really tangible analysis. Still, it is interesting how the old romantic model of the triangular relationship is turned around here.

Broder also reverses the old myth of the sirens in such a way that Theo becomes Lucy's muse: the ancient sirens are descended from the muses, classically female characters who as a rule - apart from Sappho, who plays a central role in the novel - inspired male artists . Theo, who is repeatedly associated with sirens, now inspires Lucy to finally write her doctoral thesis on Sappho, although she no longer writes a scientific text, but a literary and therefore art.

[A few spoilers will follow, watch out]

Melissa Broder not only appropriates an almost pornographic way of writing about sex, which has perhaps been known from Houellebecq in recent years, but also an entire male-made myth of femininity - and turns it around. However, one could still reproach her for not being feminist because, as quoted above, she only dreams of men on the path of dreams. In fact, Broder goes one step further by breaking precisely this dream: Lucy decides against Theo and against suicide, she does not follow him into the sea. Instead, she chooses to be there for her sister and friends she met in the therapy group; she chooses the “sisterly love” (p. 341) that she has taught her group. At the end of the novel, Lucy is no longer dependent on men and defines herself through male love, but decides in favor of female solidarity and a third form of love, "sisterly" or maternal love. This may also have to do with the fact that the novel at least implies the possibility that Lucy might be pregnant.

Melissa Broder's “Fish” is actually a feminist novel. Not as clear as “Undine goes” by Ingeborg Bachmann, a story in which the nymph Undine turns against men and women who are subordinate to them alike, but with the same conclusion as this she turns the female myth around and calls for female solidarity instead Submission to structures made by men.

[Spoiler end]

In this novel - very well translated by Eva Bonné - there is much more work on the subject and the history of the subject than one might think if one reads it without knowing the history of the subject and psychoanalytic theory. Unfortunately, "Fish" by Melissa Broder is exposed to a danger to which well and easily written novels by women are always exposed: that because it is funny and well told, it also deals with femininity and, above all, female sexuality - quite in a certain continuity to George Sand - grappling with, perceived as an entertainment novel for women and not as literature to be taken seriously. Any literary seminar could very well spend a few seminar sessions interpreting this novel.

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Posted in Novel, Non-FictionTagged appropriation, gender roles, mermaids, myth