Jen Caruso: The Anatomy Museum: Reading Irigaray
Articles » April 2001

How to preserve the memory of the flesh?

Ernst Bloch describes for us the entrance of a circus, the place which marks the passage to the freakshow:

The tent boats weigh anchor for a short time in the dusty cities. They are tattooed with pale green or blood thirsty paintings in which votive pictures projecting rescue at sea disasters are mixed with those of the harem. The motor drives the orchestration with foreign, fatty, inhumane, breathless sluggish sound. Sometimes it is connected with a dancing wax lady screwed down next to the entrance. And she dances with sudden contortions, moves with twisted gestures of screwed-down wax that turn into dance, and she throws her head back from time to time. Eventually she comes to a halt and trembles in this position right behind the barker, who fears nothing. The type of world extolled here has the secrets of the bridal bed and also of the miscarriage at one end and the secrets of the bier at the other end. "The lady will reveal her beautifully built torso. You will see the secrets of the human physique." (178).

It is with the hyperbolic voice of a circus barker that Freud greets us in the introduction to his "The Pyschology of Women": "Ladies and Gentlemen....Throughout our history people have knocked their heads against the riddle of the nature of femininity..." (153). The voice promises an explanation of the mystery of woman, promises the revelation of secrets. Acting as impresario, seeking that 'unknown element' which "anatomy cannot lay hold of" (Speculum 15). All this is made even more strange by the fact that this is a phantom lecture, never delivered. Despite the invisible mysterious presence of the formless 'unknown' hidden in the sideshow tent, 'the barker fears nothing'. Despite the woman who "comes to a halt and trembles...right behind" him (178). The spectacle of the "dancing wax lady" who "comes to a halt" is replicated in Freud's own analysis of "things...which are able to arouse in us a feeling of the uncanny in a very forcible and definite form" (The Uncanny 378). The starting point for uncanny feeling is supposed to be the anxiety over whether "an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might not be in fact animate" (378). But while Freud will assure us that he does not entirely accept the view that these things epitomize the uncanny feeling, he chooses to begin with "the impression made by wax-work figures, artificial dolls and automatons" (378).

Mme Tussaud: A Dame of Other Days

We must keep her still. The wax woman is the dream of fluidity contained. The first wax forms were icons of the dead, respectful preservations of history, wax museums where figures line up in rows. The art is practiced by women first, gestures of love and remembrance for those to whom they had given birth, mourning. Epitomized with Mme. Tussaud, who transforms the art, infusing it with new life. The waxwork is resurrected to glory with this artist, who arranges the dead into life-like scenes "anatomical according to a mimetic order" (Speculum 124). History is represented by her and displayed in silent tableaux. Yes, even "translated into a script of body language" (Speculum 124). Mme. Tussaud's is a highly lucrative business. She is always "there in the flesh" handling admissions, her manner "easy and self-possessed, and were she motionless you would take her to be a piece of wax work; a dame of other days" (Schwartz 103).

What happens next? Irigaray: "Is it necessary to add, or repeat, that women's 'improper' access to representation, her entry into the specular and speculative economy...make it impossible for her to work out or transpose specific representatives of her instinctual object goals?" (124). Hillel Schwartz, in The Culture of the Copy, will tells us that after the death of Mme. Tussaud, the art of waxwork "declines in station" (104). It is of course, "women's work":

Any attempt on a woman's part to claim an artistic equivalence with men had ordinarily to be made under the guise of a male persona. Wax figures, in this context, were being reduced as women themselves were being reduced, to a confining domestic correctness (Schwartz 104).

Irigaray: "Women's special form of neurosis would be to 'mimic' a work of art, to be a bad (copy of a) work of art" (125). Her works begin to shrink and fragment "from full figures and scenes to 'wax flowers' and baby's hands and feet" (Schwartz 104). And it is just at this stage that people begin to become sensitive to the smell of decay associated with the wax work. 'Stillness' once speaking of 'dignity' becomes "redolent of decay" (Schwartz 104). "Artifice, lie, deception, snare - these are the kind of judgements society confers upon the tableaux, the scenes, the dramas, the pantomimes produced by the hysteric" (Speculum 125). At the very least, wax work is the woman's equivalent to playing with dolls. For it is not the girl who fears her dolls coming to life - that is in fact, her desire, "if she were to look at them in a particular way, with as concentrated a gaze as possible? (The Uncanny 386). And :one could point out that a game - even of dolls...frustrates the opposition by the economy of repetition that it puts into play" (Speculum 77).

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