The eroticised body and the transcendent word: Representations of the dancer in the works of Théophile Gautier, Arthur Symons and W.B. Yeats (2004)
AuthorsCoulter, Maureen Elizabethshow all
For a number of French and English writers of the mid to late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the dancer was a central aesthetic symbol. These writers felt alienated from bourgeois society, so they raised art - in particular poetry - almost to the status of religion, with themselves as its priests. Accordingly, art, and the dancer as a symbol of art, were represented as antithetical to all they abhorred. Because bourgeois life was seen as philistine and utilitarian, and dominated by a faith in scientific and economic progress, art could have no purpose other than to exist as pure, transcendent beauty, beauty that was desired, but unattainable; and because bourgeois society was hypocritical, puritanical and bound by rules, art should be free in both expression and form. Western art has a long Platonist tradition that readily transposed to the Petrarchan worship of the unattainable goddess; it is unsurprising therefore that the beautiful woman dancing on the stage came to be seen as a symbol for art that is remote and spiritual. According to nineteenth-century gender attitudes, however, dancing woman is also seen as sexually available, hence she is the disruptive Other to bourgeois society. Thus, as a symbol for art, the dancer is a site of irreconcilable contradiction: she is both transcendent art, and erotic woman, or, conversely, erotic art, and transcendent woman. This thesis is concerned with the representation of the dancer as a symbol of art, with its contradictions, in the work of three writers, Théophile Gautier, the nineteenth-century proponent of I'art pour I'art, Arthur Symons the English fin-de-siècle, Decadent writer, and W.B. Yeats, the Irish Symbolist writer. For these writers, the dancer, as a symbol for art, is also a threat: they identify with her because she is female and Other to patriarchal society, but fear losing their masculine identity as a consequence. Although they attempt to do so, neither Gautier, nor Symons, nor Yeats resolves the contradictions that their choice of the dancer as a symbol of art presents. For all three writers, to a lesser or greater degree, there is continual oscillation between seeing the dancer as pure art, and erotic woman.