Artist for art's sake or artist for sale: Lulu's and Else's failed attempts at aesthetic self-fashioning.
Frank Wedekind's Lulu, of his plays Earth-Spirit (Erdgeist, 1895) and Pandora's Box (Die Buchse der Pandora, 1904), and Arthur Schnitzler's Else, from the novella Fraulein Else (1924), are not artistic producers in the traditional sense, since they neither create concrete art objects nor base their professions on aesthetic talents. Both female protagonists can nonetheless be considered artists due to their construction of stylized and aestheticized selves. To understand the connection between Lulu, Else, and the figure of the artist it is helpful to examine how a turn-of-the-century strain of aestheticism, particularly Nietzsche's version in The Gay Science, redefined the artist's attributes by including professionals who do not create external artistic work. "The problem of the actor has troubled me for the longest time," Nietzsche observes. He then continues:
I felt unsure (and sometimes still do) whether it is not only from this angle that one can get at the dangerous concept of the "artist"--a concept that has so far been treated with unpardonable generosity: Falseness with a good conscience; the delight in simulation exploding as a power that pushes aside one's so-called "character," flooding it and at times extinguishing it; the inner craving for a role and mask, for appearance; an excess of the capacity for all kinds of adaptations that can no longer be satisfied in the service of the most immediate and narrowest utility--all of this is perhaps not only peculiar to the actor? Such an instinct will have developed most easily in families of the lower classes who had to survive under changing pressures and coercions, in deep dependency, who had to cut their coat according to the cloth, always adapting themselves again to new circumstances, who always had to change their mien and posture, until they learned gradually to turn their coat with every wind and thus virtually to become a coat [...]. As for the Jews, the people who possess the art of adaptability par excellence, this train of thought suggests immediately that one might see them virtually as a world-historical arrangement for the production of actors, a veritable breeding ground for actors. And it is really high time to ask: What good actor today is not--a Jew? [...] Finally, women. Reflect on the whole history of women: do they not have to be first of all and above all actresses? Listen to the physicians who have hypnotized women; finally, love them--let yourself be "hypnotized by them"! What is always the end result? That they "put on something" even when they take off everything. Woman is so artistic. (316-17)
Nietzsche asks here whether falseness, simulation, and disguise are "perhaps not only peculiar to the actor," and in so doing, he invites us to assign the actor's attributes to a larger group of people for whom role-playing and acting come naturally. According to Nietzsche, the shared histrionic impulse of the lower classes, women, and Jews aligns members of specific class, gender, and religious groups not only with actors, but also with the figure of the artist. Two of the three categories clearly relate to Lulu and Else as women in precarious financial situations, while Else faces the additional burden of hiding her Jewishness. Nietzsche's expansive definition of actors and the link between them and the "dangerous concept of the 'artist'" underlie the present examination of the artist as a self-fashioned aesthete.
By comparing Lulu and Else as female performers who fashion themselves as actors, artists, and aesthetes, (1) I aim to illuminate how and why woman's performativity can either become a form of empowerment and agency or a path toward commodification and consumability. Just as art objects became commodified in turn-of-the-century consumer culture, so too do these female aesthetes become exchangeable or buyable commodities. Changes in the literary marketplace throughout the nineteenth century meant that art and the artist figure were no longer sacred or elitist. Industrial-capitalist society allowed market values--the laws of supply and demand, the notion of salability, concerns regarding production costs, and the ability of goods to be mass-produced and mass-consumed--to determine artistic worth. Simply put, artistic worth became devalued to make exchange value the determining factor of art. In Theories of Surplus Value Karl Marx argues that "capitalist production is hostile to certain aspects of intellectual production, such as art and poetry" (Literature and Art 28). Moreover, for turn-of-the-century women in particular, the fact that economic considerations contaminate aesthetic ones means that the female performance artist can easily become a commodified and consumable object. Because she produces herself as art, she is easily objectified. Thus, despite Lulu's and Else's attempts to achieve agency by fashioning themselves as artists, socioeconomic forces and the men who control them turn both women into aesthetic objects.
Previous scholarship has neglected this aspect of Wedekind's and Schnitzler's female protagonists. In the seventies, critical attention to Schnitzler's Fraulein Else was mainly concerned with the protagonist's psychotic, neurotic, pathological, or morbid personality (Cohn, Beharriell). More recent readings from the eighties and nineties have focused on issues of vision, seeing, or surveillance (Anderson, Huyssen). My interpretation of the novella centers on acting and performativity, and thus shares a concern with certain critics for Else's literary and theatrical experiences (Aurnhammer), her "self-dramatizing tendency" (Yeo), and the overall importance of play, playacting, and drama (Raymond). It also examines her commodification and consumption, an aspect of the novella that has not yet been amply explored. My reading of Fraulein Else aims to show how Else's predicament and demise are not solely, or even primarily, the result of her position as bourgeois daughter, i.e., as a young, unmarried, middle-class woman, which has indeed been the most recent interpretive trend (Szalay, Huyssen). Rather, my comparison of Else with Lulu shows that despite their many differences, a similar fate ensures that both women ultimately become the commodified objects of male consumption, and thereby lose the initial agency and power that acting affords them.
While it is difficult to map the critical trends that relate to Wedekind's Lulu, one can locate five overarching interpretive tendencies over the last four decades: Lulu as (1) male fantasy and a projection of male desire; (2) "mythic persona in an archetypal mode" (Harris 44), i.e., as a reflection of Pandora, Eve, Lilith, Dionysus, Zarathustra, etc. (Littau, Jones, Weidl); (3) the incarnation of a masochistic female principle, some natural, lustful drive, an intrinsically destructive force, or the femme fatale par excellence (Willeke, Libbon, Midgley); (4) a deviant, degenerate, or a pathological figure (Gilman); (5) an actress (Boa), a construct (Hallamore), a multivalent character (Peacock), and a dandy-like figure (Finney). My interpretation of Lulu coincides with the last of these interpretive possibilities in that I consider her, at least initially, a protean actress and a dandified female aesthete. Given such beginnings, it is interesting to note how Lulu changes as a result of her interactions with society in general and the male characters in particular.
Before highlighting the parallels between these two views of the female performer, it is essential to note the gaping differences between Lulu and Else: the former's sexual experience, lower-class origins, public performances, and amorality versus the latter's virginity, upper-class background, sheltered upbringing, and moral considerations. In many ways, Else longs for the kind of liberated lifestyle that Lulu embodies, as evident in Else's self-narrated, yet secret fantasies. There are nonetheless striking parallels between these equally famous fictional women from the German-language tradition. Lulu and Else are both actresses in the broadest sense of the term; they fluctuate between self-affirmed visions of themselves as performers and self-critical notions of their fate as spectacles. Otherwise stated, they perceive their dual positions as artists and art objects, they are both forced into the role of commodity and prostitute by male figures, and they both die as a result of some form of "consumption," whether at the hands of Jack the Ripper in Wedekind's plays or through the consumption of a deadly dose of Veronal in Schnitzler's novella. This comparative reading thus examines how and why both female protagonists die in a tripartite transaction in which aesthetics, erotics, and economics converge.
As female aesthete, Lulu of Earth-Sprit self-consciously fashions herself as an artwork and invites her spectators to see her as such. Lulu constructs herself through a series of appearances, evident in her multiple names, costumes, and lovers. Although men continually try to give her a single name--Goll calls her Nelli, Schon suggests Mignon, and Schwarz prefers Eve--Lulu as Proteus refuses to be fixed or typecast. She becomes each new role she chooses, thus erasing within the world of the play the distance between actor and character. Rather than being separate from her performances, Lulu as actor exists only within them. Hence, Schwarz can respond, upon seeing Lulu in the pierrot costume, "Her whole body was as much in harmony with this impossible costume as if she had been born in it" (15). Likewise, Alwa can exclaim, while watching Lulu dance, "She was conforming strictly to her role" (64). Although Lulu's various lovers attempt to fix her in a given role, they cannot prevent her from changing forms and discarding them one by one, just as she does her many costumes.
Being so good at changing costumes and "so excited when [...] dressing" (71), Lulu of Earth-Spirit should be understood as an aestheticist ideal, a living example of art for art's sake. Based on this characterization, Lulu, always perfectly aware of herself, is the aesthete protagonist par excellence (19). Men might try to attain "an accurate picture" of her (49), or they might wish to see her, as Lulu speaks of Schon's misconception, as "an enchanting creature [...] with a heart of gold," but Lulu insists, "I'm neither the one nor the other. It's unfortunate for you that you think I am" (77). She cannot be defined by those external to her, nor can one speak of her true essence. Truth and hypocrisy become irrelevant terms once Lulu's appearances come to constitute her entire being. As she contends, "If men have done away with themselves for my sake, that doesn't reduce my value. [...] I've never in the world wanted to be anything but what I've been taken for, and no one has ever taken me for anything but what I am" (97, emphasis added). Here Lulu's "value" depends on her ability to overcome the splitting and alienation of the actress; being in her role, not estranged from it, proves empowering for her. What Judith Butler claims about gender identity and performance applies to Lulu in a more general way:
If gender attributes and acts, the various ways in which a body shows or produces its cultural signification, are performative, then there is no preexisting identity by which an act or attitude might be measured; there would be no true or false, real or distorted acts of gender, and the postulation of a true gender identity would be revealed as a regulatory fiction. (180)
Lulu not only performs her gendered identity, but also "woman," "self," or in her case, "selves." Indeed, she exemplifies the female performance artist who purports to be herself in the act of performing. In this regard, she is what Jeanie Forte would call a "subject-performer" (257). On the one hand, Lulu's protean nature allows her to be anything and everything. On the other hand, her chameleon-like self-construction makes Lulu proud of never having wished to appear other than she is, namely because her state of appearing is always a state of being. Hence Schwarz, the artist who captures Lulu's variegated images in his paintings, can rightly assert that every day he feels as if he were seeing Lulu for the first time (39).
Lulu's mode of self-fashioning finds its philosophical parallel in Nietzsche's notion of "brief habits." A mode of self-formation based on brief habits responds to the conviction that life is bearable only as an aesthetic phenomenon. Despite the necessary ephemerality of each habit or, in Lulu's case, each role, it creates a feeling of endurance and wholeness; one is content and "desire[s] nothing else, without having any need for comparisons, contempt, or hatred" (Nietzsche 237). Yet even before one habit or role ends, another has already begun. Additionally, Lulu combines her series of roles and brief habits with a succession of masculine detours. Lulu, the actress who scripts her roles, turns herself into a spectacle and presents herself to a multitude of male onlookers. Wedekind's choice of a female seducer has led many critics to confuse Lulu's aestheticist self-poeticization with what they see as the willingness to be objectified by the male gaze. This interpretation establishes a "split between the male as active bearer of the look and the female as the passive receptor of it," and in so doing fails to see the powerful aspects of Lulu's performativity (Finney 91). A careful consideration of Lulu's detour method reveals that an occasional passivity can actually be in the service of one's active self-formation. Lulu's desire to be, as she claims, "good enough to eat," does not--at least not yet--imply complicity with consumption or woman's objectification (44). On the contrary, Lulu's role as actor is validated and her existence strengthened each time her spectators engage in observing her. Thus, even if being named by men and disappearing into roles seems too self-effacing to be protean or positively connoted, Lulu's role-playing ensures her power and survival throughout the entire first play. As Elizabeth Boa rightly asserts, "the way in which Lulu acts out men's desires does not necessarily signify lack of autonomy, for she consciously chooses to act and enjoys her own skill" (56). When Lulu sees herself as a pierrot in Schwarz's eyes or wishes she were a man when she looks in the mirror, she adds a narcissistic detour to her own general narcissism, thereby turning the passive act of being a spectacle into an active affirmation of her own being as constituted by acting and artistry. In short, Lulu determines and directs the male gaze, rather than being the passive recipient of it. It is not until Pandora's Box that, as Wedekind himself notes in the foreword to the second play, Lulu "plays an entirely passive role in all three acts" (103-04).
As such, Lulu's self-experimentation underscores her constructed and artistic nature, which opposes naturalistic interpretations of her as either "the primal form of woman" (Wedekind 11), or as "consisting of nothing but flesh and vulva" (Michelsen 55). Unlike characterizations of Lulu as a natural principle, I concur with critics who recognize Lulu "as the embodiment of artifice, carefully oiling, powdering, and dressing herself in an almost dandified manner" (Finney 90). It is, above all, Lulu's "cosmetic box" that serves as the main reference to the Pandora myth (Schuler-Will 31). In "Woman as Spectacle and Commodity: Wedekind's Lulu Plays," Gail Finney offers a similar interpretation of Lulu as a powerful artist and performer who represents "a type of the artist, her theatrical skills constituting a creative power otherwise denied to the sterile femme fatale" (90).
Although Schnitzler's Else appears neither on stage nor in portraits, she likewise represents an actor and artist in the Nietzschean sense due to her unceasing will to illusion, what Siew Lian Yeo terms her "self-dramatizing tendency" and her "literary-theatrical experiences" (18). At the outset of her monologue, (2) Else clearly constructs herself as an actress. Her first inner comment, "[t]hat was a rather good exit," establishes the theatricality of her character as she, like an actress, reflects on the quality of her performance (4). Else also concerns herself with the reception of her performance, evident in her next thought: "Did I nod back ungraciously or haughtily? I didn't mean to act that way" (6). Else's entire performance combines language-for-oneself and being-for-others, a combination that often requires her to double as other or to invent an imagined interlocutor in order to ensure that there is always an audience to watch her display.
Else is particularly aware of her dissimulation in the scene just before her interview with Herr von Dorsday, when she requests thirty thousand guilders to save her father from financial ruin. Else wonders, "What shall I wear? [...] At all events, I must look seductive when I interview Dorsday" (27). Her attractiveness will aid her, or so she assumes. Else believes that her multiplicity of roles will allow her to successfully persuade Dorsday: "I'll talk to Herr Dorsday of Esperies and I'll appeal to him, I, the haughty, the aristocrat, the Marchesa, the beggar-maid, the embezzler's daughter" (29). As Else explains, it is because of this protean cast that she is able to climb so well: "No one is a better climber than I am; no one has so much spunk. I'm a sporting girl. I should have been born in England, or else been a Countess" (29). Social-climbing via acting establishes the affirmative power of Else's will to illusion and links her with Lulu in obvious ways: both women clearly embody Nietzsche's conception of the artist as a social-climbing actor, on the one hand, and a histrionic woman, on the other hand. Moreover, both female protagonists represent the general tendency of women, both fictional and real, to use their bodies and acting skills to promote themselves.
Thus, whereas Else initially occupies a societal position above Lulu's humble beginnings, changes in her family's class status, coupled with their attempts to appear better off than they are, align her with Wedekind's protagonist. Else reminisces about the days when she and her family were better off, and pities herself as "the poor relative, invited out by her rich aunt" who, despite passing as an elegant young woman, is down to her last pair of silk stockings (6, 32). In fact, when she thinks of how her mother has been able to maintain the facade of wealth in the face of continual financial crises, Else comments, "Mother's really an artist," thus supporting Nietzsche's claim that the lower classes come to emulate the actor out of the necessity to keep up appearances (332). (3)
Acting out of necessity does not automatically undermine the agency and empowerment evident in my reading of Lulu in Earth-Spirit. Acting in the Nietzschean sense constitutes Lulu's mode of self-fashioning as well as her method of self-preservation. She has attained a life of "regal luxury" not only due to Schon's "superhuman efforts to advance [Lulu] in society," but also because of her own innate theatrical abilities and performative talents (43, 46). Given that "[s]he learnt how to change costumes when she was still a child," Lulu can change clothes more quickly without the help of her professional "dresser" (69). "If I hadn't known more about acting than they do in the theatre," Lulu reflects, "I wonder what would have become of me" (67). Unquestionably, Lulu's role-playing on- and offstage has taken her far. And even though acting saved her from poverty, Lulu refuses to see her talent solely as a result of sheer economic necessity.
Curiously, however, the Lulu tragedies do not sustain this privileged status of art, appearances, and surfaces. Beginning with Schon's death and Lulu's imprisonment at the end of the first play, and climaxing early in the second work, Lulu's art for art's sake becomes art for sale. This transition occurs most poignantly in act 2 of Pandora's Box, when the failed speculation on the Jungfrau shares (4) leads to Lulu's diminished wealth and prompts her lovers to turn into her employers and exploiters. Lulu and Alwa are "high and dry"; they "handed over" their last penny to purchase more Jungfrau shares and thus "no longer have any money" (133). Knowing of her imminent poverty, Rodrigo plans to turn Lulu into a magnificent trapeze artist, while Casti-Piani wants to become her "employment agent," a euphemism for being her pimp (133). In Earth-Spirit, Lulu as chameleon and performer manipulates men in a variety of ways and brings them to their downfall, but in the second play, men bring Lulu to her tragic end. Wedekind underscores this reversal in two ways: (1) by creating a growing rift between Lulu as aesthete and her portrait as art object, and (2) by eliminating Lulu's series of performances and casting her in the permanent role of commodity or object of exchange. As she becomes scripted by others, Lulu must recognize that she longer authors her own roles, nor does she maintain control of her spectators. Lulu goes from being her own master to being a slave. In fact, Geschwitz uses the term "slave" to refer to Lulu toward the end of the second play, the same word Else employs to describe Dorsday's treatment of her (138).
To understand the progression from art for art's sake to the commodification of art, a comparison between Lulu as self-fashioned aesthete and her portrait, a concrete art object, is useful. Unlike Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which Dorian remains untouched by the hands of time while his portrait decays, Wedekind's Lulu plays emphasize the growing disparity between Lulu and a past performance, a former role, as preserved in the portrait. Lulu, not her painted image, undergoes a loss of value, what Walter Benjamin terms "aura." Whereas Benjamin defines the "aura" as "that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction," in Lulu's case it is she, and not her portrait, that undergoes loss (221). Because of her aging, her decay, and her numerous exchanges, Lulu herself erodes over time to a trace of her earlier beauty. To understand this transition, let us first consider act 1, scene 2 of Earth-Spirit, in which Lulu poses in her pierrot costume before three delighted spectators, her successive husbands Goll, Schwarz, and Schon. In this initial scene, Lulu appears as a "picture before which Art must despair" (19). Mounted atop the throne she herself, far more than her portrait, affords her onlookers a rare pleasure as they watch from their observation posts below (18). Here Lulu as artist and actor is celebrated. Alwa's and Schigolch's comments in the final scene of Pandora's Box on Lulu's relation to the portrait provide a striking contrast:
ALWA. (comparing the portrait with LULU) In spite of all that she's been through since, the childlike expression in the eyes is still quite the same. (Pleasurably excited) But the dewy-freshness which was on the skin, the fragrant breath about the lips, the radiant whiteness of the brow, the bold splendour of the flesh on neck and arms-- SCHIGOLCH. All that has gone into the dustbin. But she can confidently say 'That's what I once was.' No one into whose hands she falls today can form any conception of the glories of our youth.
ALWA. (cheerfully) Thank God, one doesn't notice the advance of decay when one is constantly together. (Lightly) A woman blossoms for us precisely at the right moment to plunge a man into everlasting ruin; such is her natural destiny. (165, emphasis added)
Here Lulu's portrait provides the pleasure. Her ideal image becomes frozen and fixed in the art object, while she herself has been type-cast in the role of men's commodity, now curiously linked with her natural destiny and "mystified [...] into a supposed law of [woman's] nature" (Marx, Capital 771). Up until this point in the play Lulu has been "intoxicated with her own beauty, [...] idolatrously in love with it," but can now no longer stand to see her portrait and screams at Geschwitz, "Take that picture out of my sight! Throw it out of the window!" (69, 164). Clearly Lulu is now split and no longer one with her role. This splitting of self from object diminishes Lulu's power and leads to her alienation.
Along with this fragmentation comes Lulu's commodification. The reactions of other characters to her vis-a-vis her portrait foreshadow Lulu's new exchange value. Schigolch thinks the portrait will make an excellent impression on the clientele given that now "[t]he whole flat has a more elegant appearance" (164). Alwa, too, derives pleasure from the painting: "In the face of this portrait I regain my self-respect. It makes my destiny comprehensible" (164). These men derive use-value from the painting, and, more importantly, they come to see themselves as the owners of it and also of Lulu, a commodity from whose exchange value they intend to profit (Marx, Capital 179). The price or money form of a commodity stems from its inherent exchange value; Alwa traces in overtly passive language Lulu's exchange-value when he reminisces how "[t]he artist's wife became the wife of my lamented father. My father's wife became my mistress" (159). Here Lulu's masculine detours no longer signal an active subject; rather, Lulu becomes an object of possession, a commodity exchanged: the artist's wife, the father's wife, the son's mistress. Interestingly, all three of these men inhabit the artistic world as a painter, an editor and critic, and a playwright, respectively. Alwa establishes the male artist as Lulu's proprietor. Just as others have owned her portrait, so too might they own Lulu. Thus, while Geschwitz encounters a potential buyer for the portrait, Lulu, now forced into prostitution by her male-guardians, discovers her own price on the streets of London. Even the faithful Geschwitz admits that she was unwilling to sell Lulu's painting. Allowing Lulu to sell herself seems to be the preferred solution for her various "owners," who no longer see her as an empowered performative-subject, but merely as a sexualized body whose "work" or "sale" can turn them a profit.
We might ask, however, whether Lulu's acting has always bordered on prostitution, since she, at the young age of twenty, was already three times married and "had given satisfaction to an incredible number of lovers" (122). In stark contrast to "Fraulein" Else, "the young Lulu suffers not from a lack but from an excess of sexual knowledge" (Finney 85). Nonetheless, for both female protagonists there is an important distinction to be made between giving oneself and selling oneself. Interestingly, however, when the transition from Lulu as artist to Lulu as prostitute does occur at the end of the second play, the traits that made Lulu a successful aesthete are now cited as desired qualities for her new profession. For example, when Casti-Piani threatens to turn Lulu in to the police if she will not accept work as a prostitute, he insists that this new job well suits Lulu's "natural vocation" due to her "outstanding talent for languages" and her "heavy consumption in men" (133-35). Her "consumption" of men initially came from role-playing, yet when Lulu becomes "consumed" by men, it is because she has lost her ability to exist as actor, artist, and aesthete and has changed from active subject to passive object.
Wedekind's Lulu tragedies highlight the distinction between the empowered actress and the victimized prostitute, only to show how the latter usurps the position of the former. Lulu insists repeatedly that she would not make a good prostitute. "I cannot sell the one thing I've ever owned," she argues (136). Lulu likewise explains to Schon in act 2, scene 3 of Earth-Spirit, "I danced and was a model and was glad to be able to earn my keep in that way, but to love to order is beyond me" (49). Here, she shows agency given that she has loved her sex-partners, something prostitutes do not do. She reiterates the same notion--"I can't sell myself. That is worse than prison" (136)--while questioning Casti-Piani's plans for her: "Me, in a brothel?" (137). In these moments, the gulf separating the actress from the prostitute seems unbridgeable.
Yet despite her ability to escape from Casti-Piani, Lulu succeeds only by promising herself to both Schigolch and Geschwitz. The fine line between self-sanctioned and forced prostitution becomes blurred. Ultimately, Lulu is forced into prostitution by another set of male figures: Alwa and the mysterious father-figure, Schigolch. As Finney points out, "Pandora's Box presents us with one male character after another trying to 'cash in on' Lulu" (98). Still, in the final act Lulu again questions her ability to play the part of a prostitute, claiming, "I'd like to see the woman who could earn money with the rags I have on my body" (156-57). The donning of rags, a sign of Lulu's socio-economic position and not a new costume, disrupts the beauty of appearances and gives way to Lulu's material essence or bodily reality. Whereas Lulu was initially a body in representation or in performance, she now becomes a material body. (5) A series of roles, brief habits, and detours no longer constitute Lulu's essence. Instead she becomes one Lulu: the prostitute and object, not the actress and subject.
Wedekind foreshadows Lulu's tragic fate throughout the entire second play, in which Lulu no longer changes clothes, but rather exchanges them. In prison Lulu switches underwear with Geschwitz so as to contract cholera; in the hospital she trades clothes with Geschwitz once again in order to escape unnoticed; later, while in exile, she exchanges attire with Bob, the bellhop, to elude the police. The only "costume" mentioned in the second play is the humble garb Lulu wears as she makes her debut on the streets of London, "barefoot and in a torn black dress" (155). It is in this attire that Jack sizes up Lulu's body and determines that it is "well-made" and perfectly formed (173). Here she wears her "costume" out of necessity, not pleasure. Moreover, Lulu's discontentment with such a costume further underscores her splitting and contrasts starkly with her earlier disappearance into her roles. Any form of splitting, whether between her and the portrait or her and her costume, undermines Lulu's power. Now nothing but materiality,. Lulu no longer represents a multiplicity of roles or a palimpsest of appearances, but simply a body, soon to become a corpse at the hands of the greatest male exploiter of turn-of-the-century Europe. As Littau aptly notes, when the serial killer Jack the Ripper kills Lulu, he also "kills her seriality" (902). Consequently, we see that once Lulu falls from her privileged position and undergoes a loss of wholeness and agency, she changes from female aesthete to exchangeable commodity.
In a strikingly similar manner, Schnitzler's protagonist is also threatened by men's attempts to convert her penchant for acting into a proclivity for prostitution. Interestingly, Else's histrionic sense of self allows her to interpret Dorsday's indecent proposal from the perspective of an actress. Dorsday tells Else that he wishes nothing more than "to see" her, since she will bring him much pleasure when she unveils (60-61), yet Else turns the act of unveiling into the possibility of a performance. Schnitzler's young female protagonist sees here an opportunity to demonstrate her theatrical abilities: "The moon hasn't risen yet. It'll rise only for the performance, for the great performance on the meadow" (82, emphasis added). The notion that an unveiling could be a "performance" suggests that, for Else, nakedness will be a new costume. The role of revealer is a part Else might enjoy playing: "I look forward to it. Haven't I longed for something like this all my life?" she muses (110). Viewing disrobing as a performance allows Else to transcend the notion of commodification. Her striptease can be an aesthetic or artistic act, and not merely an economic transaction.
Although Else can affirm the act of unveiling and revel in its eroticism, she cannot accept her audience, the single spectator who gazes at her as if she were his "slave" (82). Dorsday's presence hinders Else's enjoyment and thwarts not only her erotic, but also her artistic enjoyment of this new performative role. Regarding the first of these tensions, that between the erotic and the ethical, it is important to note that most critics emphasize the confrontation between morality and desire in Fraulein Else. They note how Schnitzler's autonomous narrator oscillates between fantasies of the sexually liberated woman and the ideal bourgeois wife and mother, between one who enjoys herself sexually and one who feels shames over such enjoyment. Even before Dorsday's proposition, we sense Else's contradictory wishes and desires regarding marriage, motherhood, and fidelity. Such ambivalence should be understood as the product of upper-class Viennese society, which has shaped Else and created a paradoxical situation for her. It thus underscores what Aurnhammer notes as the difference between the societal role assigned to Else and the erotic dreams or wishes that she cannot completely repress (503).
Consequently, just as Dorsday's request triggers Else's sexual awakening, so too does it force her to censor her own desires in order to avoid becoming a slave or a prostitute. Else can only give herself if she chooses the object of her desire. Precisely for this reason, Dorsday is unacceptable. "No; I won't sell myself. Never. I'll never sell myself," Else exclaims. Then later: "Yes; if once I find the right man, I'll give myself" (68). Else insists that she choose the spectators of her performance, and she would rather "go to anyone else--but not him" (68). In a manner similar to Lulu, Else declares, "I'll be a wanton, not a prostitute" (68). The unveiling would not be as problematic if Else were in control of her own performance rather than the object of Dorsday's unrelenting gaze, of those eyes that will "stab" and "drill" their way into her (86). Once again, it is the split between subject and object that threatens to undermine the female performance artist's power.
Before replacing Dorsday, the undesirable, single viewer, with a group of people as a permissible audience, Else briefly becomes her own public as she performs before herself in private. This moment allows her to regain temporary control of the situation. In the famous mirror scene, Else attempts to define herself independently of society in general and male desire in particular. Gazing at her reflected image, she reveals her narcissistic desire:
Oh, how pleasant it is to walk up and down the room, naked. Am I really as beautiful as I look in the mirror? Oh, won't you come closer, pretty Fraulein? I want to kiss your blood-red lips. What a pity that the mirror comes between us. The cold mirror. How well we'd get on together. Isn't that so? We need nobody else. Perhaps there are no other people. [...] We merely dream of them. (105-06)
As spectator of herself, Else becomes both the subject and object of her own affection, particularly as her "pervasive self-address reaches a fitting climax" (Cohn 246). Now showing the "self-sufficiency" that Freud so famously attributes to beautiful, narcissistic women, Else compensates for "the social restrictions upon her object choice" and separates her ego from "anything that might diminish it" (Freud 70). Rather than being the object of Dorsday's voyeuristic desire, Else combines the active and passive extremes of voyeurism and exhibitionism as she enjoys both looking and being looked at. Like Lulu, Else seems here to be most in love with herself and her own beauty.
Nonetheless, we must also recognize the shortcomings of Else's perspective in the mirror scene, since she undeniably becomes a subject in this scene but still treats her body like a sexual object. Unlike Lulu, Else fails to become one with her role, since her splitting can easily be seen. We might ask then, along with Elisabeth Bronfen, whether Else "uses this histrionic self-display as her source of self-authorship, as the materialisation of her own fantasies," which would be akin to Lulu's positive self-construction in the first play, or whether "she stages an appearance that has nothing to do with her, that reduces her to the medium of another's fantasies" (282). We know that if Else discloses her own exhibitionist fantasies here, she also confortos to the voyeuristic desires of her culture. Else cannot fully eliminate the roles of object, other, and slave from her repertoire. She might appropriate the male gaze, but she still directs that gaze upon herself, thereby objectifying herself yet again. Narcissism is not necessarily liberating for her, whereas for Lulu it had the potential to be empowering.
Else does attempt to bridge the gap between subject and object when she says goodbye to her "dearly-beloved" mirror image and allows others to observe her naked body (111). Having decided "[i]f one sees me, others shall see me," Else chooses to disrobe publicly for a larger audience that will include, but not be limited to, Dorsday (103). Now Else will try to reassert her position as an artist, since disrobing for a man alone is prostitution, while disrobing skillfully and showing her beautiful body in public is art. Here I differ with other scholars about Else's reason for unveiling before a public rather than a private audience, for maintaining yet altering her original contract with Dorsday. According to Andreas Huyssen, Else "imagines how she might stage her naked body, seeking a way to make it a public event rather than satisfying Dorsday's private voyeurism, thus both fulfilling and negating the contract" (42). Anderson likewise asserts, "FrAulein Else attempts to challenge the external voyeur's control over her by exposing herself openly" (15). Cathy Raymond adds that Else "retain[s] a modicum of self-respect by disrobing publicly instead of only for Dorsday" (178). Yeo agrees that Else's "nakedness and eventual exhibition become almost a defiant assertion of her moral integrity [...], since she is fulfilling her exhibitionist inclinations in public rather than doing so 'discreetly' [...] as the Sklavin [slave] of Herr von Dorsday," and thus can act out the "'extreme' behaviour that she has only hitherto fantasized about" and still remain a virgin (22-23). While these arguments locate the growing tension between erotic desire and moral integrity that leads to Else's public unveiling and eventual suicide, (6) I wish to uncover an additional, but by no means incompatible or mutually exclusive reading. By focusing on the novella's ending I would like to emphasize how Else gradually abandons the artistic aspirations of the actress and settles for the role of art object. None of the aforementioned interpretations have recognized that the public unveiling provides an acceptable audience for the artist's new role. Whereas a sole spectator such as Dorsday likens the performance to prostitution, a public spectacle allows Else to justify her actions not only in morai but also in artistic terms.
Else suggests on several occasions that her true professional calling would be as an actress or artist. "I should have gone on the stage," she claims (29). "Everything would have been possible for you, FrAulein," says Fred to Else's corpse in one of her imagined dialogues or death dreams, adding "[y]ou could have been a pianist, or a bookkeeper, or an actress. There is no end of possibilities in you" (33, emphasis added). Else clearly blames her financial dependency on others' failure to support her theatrical talents: "They've brought me up only to sell myself one way or another. They wouldn't hear of acting. They laughed at me" (82). Unable to work as a professional actress, Else laments her inability to earn enough money to support herself and her family. She bemoans more than just her economic dependency and is also keenly aware of the fact that marriage is another form of slavery with similar demands and obligatory unveilings. Else begins to see her life as a series of unveilings and as continual servitude. "For whom will I have to strip next time," she wonders (66). Acting would have empowered her, despite the paradox of unveiling, whereas both marriage and prostitution "strip" Else of her agency.
Thus, in response to the predicament set in motion by her father and Dorsday's various requests, Else stages the performance before a larger public, one including her imagined and desired lover, the Filou, and thereby manages, at least in her own mind, to transform an economic exchange into an aesthetic act. Whereas Else formerly criticized Dorsday as the sole member of her public in part for his lack of theatrical talents--he "speaks like a poor actor" and "sounds like a book" (63, 61)--she now arranges a more appropriate audience from the hotel guests. Thus Else's theatrical conception of the event in the scenes directly preceding the public unveiling becomes very apparent. She insists that the "performance may begin" and even considers staging "a little rehearsal," one that would give new meaning to the phrase "dress" rehearsal, on the steps before heading downstairs (110, 112). On her way to what she calls the "[g]reat performance," Else must enter through the "[g]reen curtain over the door" that leads to the "Spielzimmer" or card room (112, 120). (7) As she takes center stage and prepares for her performance, she is keenly aware of her spectators, as well as the accompanying music, Schumann's Carnival. Else rejoices in the climactic moment of the unveiling: "How wonderful is it to be naked" (123). She also revels in the reaction her performance receives from Dorsday's wide-open eyes and the Filou's glowing eyes (124). In this moment Else is truly alive, despite her imminent death.
Else's naked body quickly becomes a corpse as her acting ceases and death begins. Unable to sustain her role as an actress, she will become simultaneously, as did Lulu, the prostitute and the inanimate art object on display. The transition from Else's exhibition to her deanimation underscores the notion that "once exhibited, the undressed body of superlative feminine beauty literally transforms into a corpse" (Bronfen 281). Elisabeth Bronfen explains that by dying, "a beautiful woman serves as the motive for the creation of an art work and as its object of representation" (71). She continues, "As a deanimated body, she can also become an art object or be compared with one" (Bronfen 71). Else does just this: she imagines herself becoming an art object and compares herself to one in various scenes throughout the novella. When dreaming up an alternative to Dorsday's indecent proposal, Else considers leaving a letter with the following testament:
Herr von Dorsday has the right to see my body, my beautiful, naked corpse. So you can't complain, Herr von Dorsday, that I made false promises. You're getting something for your money. Our contract doesn't specify that I must be alive when you see me. Oh, no. There's nothing to that effect. So--a view of my corpse I bequeath to the art dealer, Dorsday. (90, emphasis added)
Else's explicit argument in this scene, as Bronfen astutely observes, is that "their contract does not stipulate that she must be a living sight, yet by inversion she implies that to be an object of aesthetic/erotic voyeurism, to have her nude body perceived as an artwork, is itself a form of death" (286). Instead of choosing a larger public for her performance, she decides here to negate the performance by changing artistic genres. No longer a living actress, she will play the part of the dead art object. This connection is underscored elsewhere in the novella when Else imagines what Dorsday might say at her funeral. She envisions his reaction to her death: "I must pay my last respects. Wasn't I the first one to disgrace her? Oh, it was worth the trouble, Frau Winawer. I've never seen such a beautiful body. It cost me only thirty million. A Rubens costs three times as much" (67). Here the price paid to "view" Else's beautiful body parallels that paid to view or own a painting. As an art dealer, Dorsday simply treats Else as he would a work of art. She is to be purchased from her current owner or male guardian, her father, and in the exchange process she loses her life of performativity and becomes frozen, inert, framed. Death allows Else to become both the aesthetic object that the art dealer demands and the commodity that her father needs. In the process aesthetic and economic concerns supersede moral and erotic ones.
Else comes to imagine her naked body not only as a corpse on display, but also as a representative work in the pictorial tradition. Indeed, Else the actress has an increasing interest in the plastic arts, beginning even in the famous mirror scene. While lost in self-absorption, she tells herself, "You're beautiful in the coat. Florentine ladies had themselves painted that way. Their portraits are hung in galleries and it is considered an honor" (110). Framed by the mirror, her image is held in place, fixed as is an art object. Later, on the verge of death, Else imagines another glimpse of the same mirror, only this time the framed image has changed to Cissy, Paul's secret lover, who is, in Else's imagination, "standing before the mirror." "What are you doing there by the mirror?" Else asks Cissy. "Isn't my picture still in it?" (136). Thinking that she will leave a trace of her beauty behind, like Lulu with her portrait, Else is shocked to find that no sign of her living self remains. Interestingly, whereas Lulu's death comes in the split between her performative and objectified self, Else, who once fed off of her double, now no longer intuits her "other," but rather the "others," or the audience that observes her death. Yet her public can only observe her as a dying body, not as a living, performative one.
To understand Else's choice of a public unveiling over a private one and of death over life, we must interpret Dorsday's request as implying both an artistic exchange and a sexual transaction. It is clearly no coincidence that Schnitzler assigns his antagonist the profession of art dealer, one who represents "the late bourgeois capitalist society and its mercantile law insofar as buying and selling are the lifeblood of this society" (Rey 63, trans, mine). He buys and sells art, while Else can only sell herself, the never-fully-realized artist turned art object, the failed actress turned prostitute. Just as Lulu's performativity gave way to her position as commodity and object of exchange, so too does Else fall victim to the market tendencies of the capitalist system that allow men and male artists to control both women and money.
The fates of both female protagonists point to the process of commodification that increasingly permeated nineteenth-century European culture but was especially evident regarding women, who have always been commodified to some degree. Hence, although Lulu's and Else's acts of artistic self-fashioning can occasionally be interpreted as forms of production that omit exchange and avoid alienation, the whole process is ultimately undermined when they lose control of their creations and become commodities exchanged by men. Rather than functioning as producers of images of protean femininity, these fictional performers become the inanimate artistic objects of male consumption, even if they do serve as prototypes of the powerful female performer one sees today in figures like Madonna. The commodification of art and women in turn-of-the-century European society accounts for this important and, as we have seen, tragic process of reversal.
Despite their desire for a series of roles and a constantly expanding wardrobe, Lulu and Else fail to "become," to use Nietzsche's metaphor, whichever coat they wear, namely because they eventually and literally lose their costumes, along with their attire and their lives. In spite of Caesar Ann Hallamore's insistence that Lulu is "a succession of clothes" and that she changes attire whenever something unpleasant happens, we must remember that she leaves the narrated world just as she entered it: barefoot, penniless, and in rags (199-200). Lulu's death and her corpse's dissection, together with Else's suicide and the exhibition of her body, signify that these women never succeed in replacing their physical bodies or natural cores with a permanent palimpsest of fictions, costumes, and roles. Lulu and Else's artistic aspirations are undermined by economic realities and male exploitation: Lulu becomes scripted by others as she prostitutes herself for Alwa and Schigolch and speaks English according to Jack the Ripper's "script"; Else internalizes the male gaze and becomes the inanimate object men desire her to be. (8) These literary works echo the Nietzschean conviction that an important connection exists between class status and economic dependency, on the one hand, and the need to be an "actor" or the need to be "adaptable," on the other hand. Yet Lulu and Else can neither sustain an elevated class position nor construct themselves through acting alone since, according to Wedekind's and Schnitzler's fictions, economic and erotic demands ultimately "outstrip" aesthetic ones (Nietzsche 317).
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(1) To take Nietzsche's connection between the actor and the artist one step further, I wish to note that the equivalent of this combined term (actor-artist) might best be found in the figure of the aesthete.
(2) Dorrit Cohn defines the "autonomous monologue" as a "single narrative genre entirely constituted by a fictional character's thoughts," and she cites Schnitzler's Fraulein Else as one example of this narrative mode (218).
(3) Andreas Huyssen points out that Else and her family are likewise concerned with masking "by strategies of assimilation" the "precarious situation" of their Jewish background (41). Susan C. Anderson agrees that Else must engage in a "double monitoring of her role as woman and as assimilated Jew" (19).
(4) As the character Puntschy explains, the Jungfrau shares refer to stock options in the cable-railway that was to be built up the Jungfrau mountain. Lulu is one of several characters in the second play who erroneously saw these shares as an "opportunity [...] to make oneself a small fortune" (131). When the stock crashes, however, Lulu and her companions are left in a state of poverty. One should also note that the word Jungfrau means "virgin" in German, a word that seems wholly out of place in Wedekind's play.
(5) See Jeanie Forte's discussion of the relationship between the material body and the body in representation.
(6) David F. Kuhns offers an interpretation of Wedekind's Lulu tragedies that closely resembles traditional readings of Schnitzler's Fraulein Else. He posits that Wedekind "probed the very tension between erotic freedom and its repression, between healthy sensuality and its exploitative corruption" (53).
(7) Cathy Raymond likewise notes these same theatrical elements (the curtain, the "play" room), which are inserted into the novella just prior to Else's public unveiling.
(8) It is interesting to note that, unlike the situation of the male dandy, who "experiments with himself, makes new experiments, enjoys his experiments; and all nature ceases and becomes art," these female performers are unable to extricate their "nature" from their "art" insofar as their artistic and theatrical sides are never completely free from their corporeal nature (Nietzsche 303). Here we see evidence of the oft-noted distinction between the effeminate dandy and woman in that the dandy's adoption of the stereotypically feminine traits of performance and adornment "paradoxically reinforce[s] his distance from and superiority to women, whose nature renders them incapable of this kind of free-floating semiotic mobility and aesthetic sophistication" (Felski 106).
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|Publication:||Women in German Yearbook|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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