Bathsheba or the interior Bible.
As its title indicates, this poetic text will contemplate Bathsheba. According to the Biblical story, Bathsheba is the woman King David perceived bathing one evening as he looked down upon her from his faraway window. He forthwith summoned her to his bed. Bathsheba, then, is that obscure object of David's gaze and of his desire. David later plots to kill her husband so that she can be his wife. And in that plot a letter will play a part, as letters so often do. Thus, by a murderous letter, Bathsheba becomes King David's queen.
But Cixous's Bathsheba is not only, not mainly, the Bathsheba of the Bible. She is the Bathsheba of an interior Bible, the Bathsheba painted by Rembrandt, seen bathing in one of her intimate interiors. Rembrandt draws the curtain aside for us, and Cixous responds, like David and yet nothing like him, by falling for this radiantly drooping nude. Step by step, Cixous takes us along the inner path that her eye and her body travel in response to being confronted with, under the sway of, the body of Bathsheba according to Rembrandt. She places us, the readers, in her perspective, as she sees and reacts to the colors, the light, the women, the composition, the letter, to what is present as well as to what is absent, in this stunning canvas.
Cixous moves on to read several other paintings by Rembrandt and compares Rembrandt to painters such as Vermeer and Rubens, searching for what is peculiar to Rembrandt and for why his work moves her so particularly, so profoundly. She notes that Rembrandt paints without extensive ornamentation or furnishings, he paints the inner secrets rather than the outer surfaces of things, and he is a prolific portrait painter, of exotic strangers and of the foreign in his own and other common human faces. Through his insistence on exploring what we have lost rather than what is "real," he gives back to us the "stuff of night" and all the tactile qualities of the body's "dough."
Perhaps the most provocative comparison struck in this piece is the one Cixous makes between the painting of Bathsheba and another Rembrandt masterpiece, The Staughtered Ox. Through this juxta-position, Cixous's poetic sensations graze the terms of an aesthetic debate that was of great import to artists and philosophers of Rembrandt's own time, but which dates back to Plato and Aristotle. Painting was condemned by Plato because of its colors; it was rescued by Aristode thanks to its relation to drawing. Thus the terms for discussing the merits and perils of painting were set for many centuries to come: drawing, because of its relation to form, was seen as belonging to the realm of the rational and of the Ciceronian category of docere (to teach), and the formlessness of color was criticized by the aesthetic puritans of Rembrandt's century as being too evocative of the irrational, and of the rhetorical category of movere (to move).
There is perhaps nothing so very strange, then, in comparing the rent made in a canvas by the depiction of a nude woman with the equally, if differently, violent rent made by the depiction of a slaughtered ox: for in both canvases the central subject is not so much the body as it is the flesh. It is precisely the distinction between these two, the body and its flesh, that Aristotle insisted upon, considering the former a form, and the latter a dangerous formlessness, a kind of chaos. Flesh is most magnificently rendered not through the skill of one's drawing but through one's supple use of light and colors, a painterly accomplishment called, to use the Italian term, morbidezza. In this word we can hear echoes of death as well, the death of the ox, the death Bathsheba provokes and mourns.
Nothing better pays tribute to the materiality and specificity of painting than do paintings of the flesh, and it is surely the body's flesh, rather than its form, that has been at times so very feared by philosophy, whereas it has been honored by Cixous in this text and elsewhere. The "Interior Bible" of Cixous's title is that ponderous inside place that Rembrandt beckons us to enter and to feel, that essential fleshlike space of "palpitating folds." Cixous traces Rembrandt's particularity to the way he paints interiors as though they were thoughtful foreign landscapes, meant for showing us our own humanity, our intimitude,(3) our "naked nudity." It has been suggested that philosophy's secret dream might be of a fleshless body; Cixous's hymn to Rembrandt's paintings is sung for their powerful presentations of thought incarnate. This text imagines painting, with its flesh tones and its chiaroscuro effects, as born from dreaming of an intimate union between corpulence and contemplativeness - in color, of course.
I would like to thank Jacqueline Lichtenstein, whose wealth of knowledge and ideas shared in both her classroom and her writings has informed my understanding of theories of painting. I would also like to thank Helene Cixous, Peter T. Connor, and Marguerite Sandre for having reviewed the following translation with me. As always, their insights were invaluable. Regrettably, errors may remain; they are mine alone.
(1) Helenee Cixous, "Without End no State of Drawingness no, rather: The Executioner's Taking off," New Litera7y History, 24 (1993), 91-104. (2) Please see n. 2 in the translation for an explanation of this term. (3) See n. 1 in the translation for an explanation of Cixous's use of this word.
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|Title Annotation:||Papers from the Commonwealth Center for Literary and Cultural Change; includes article discussing translation|
|Author:||Cixous, Helene; MacGillivray, Catherine A.F.|
|Publication:||New Literary History|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1993|
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