Tuesday, February 22, 2011

James Tiptree, Jr. & Gustav Klimt: Painters of Woman?

I can’t say I have ever read many stories (or any at all) quite like those of James Tiptree, Jr. Given my inability to compare Tiptree to any other writer I am more familiar with and somehow try to orient myself, I found myself thinking not of literature but of art—specifically, Gustav Klimt (this is thanks in part to ARC 242 again). There is a chapter in Carl Schorske’s book, Fin-de-Siècle Vienna Politics and Culture, entitled “Gustav Klimt: Painting and the Crisis of the Liberal Ego.” Crises of ego and identity were as characteristic of Klimt’s time as they are of Tiptree’s. Klimt was involved in an artistic movement that Schorske describes as “oedipal revolt.” It was an attempt by the young generation of artists and designers to “save culture from their elders” and fashion a new identity fit for modern man.

Schorske describes Klimt as “the psychological painter of woman” whose work attempts to “capture the feeling of femaleness.” Several of his paintings and drawings involve women and water. Schorske points out how Klimt’s women are “at home in a liquefied world, where the male would quickly drown.” These water-loving ladies “overwhelm the male…with a sense of his inadequacy in the face of their seemingly inexhaustible capacity for carnal bliss.” This reminded me of Doctor Ain, who is described as “obsessed with her, with the miracle, the wealth of her body, her inexhaustibility” (4). There seems to be an inherent disconnect between the inexhaustibility and limitlessness of the female and finitude of the male.

As we saw in “A Rose for Ecclesiastes,” the relationship between the Martians and man is not quite mutual—the Martians get what they need from Gallinger, and then the two go off on their separate ways. This issue of an unbalanced mutualism is further addressed in Tiptree, especially in “The Women Men Don’t See” and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” In these stories, men seem to need women (or at the very least, to really, really want women) but women get along just fine on their own. In fact, they can not only get along but also thrive without men. As one of the Judys puts it: “Why do there have to be men?” (210).

Interestingly, the epidemics that strike Mars in “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” and Earth in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” affect only the male segment of the population, implying how different men and women are. They are almost two different species, and not even the same viruses can infect the two. The same is true of Klimt’s women: they are at home in a watery, “liquefied” world where men would drown—men and women cannot even inhabit the same space.

Carl Schorske concludes that Klimt’s attempt to “liberate sexuality from the constraints of a moralistic culture” resulted in an outbreak of psychological problems. A “fear of sex” replaced the “moral sense of sin” that had existed before, and woman’s sensuality in particular was seen as “threatening.” Is this the same fear that seems to infect the men of “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?”? But it seems now to not be inexhaustible female sensuality but women’s independence that may make men anxious. In “The Women Men Don’t See,” Althea likes their Mayan pilot because he is more “independent” than other people she has seen in Mexico (119). But in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” a world of women is a stagnant world—there are no wars or significant conflicts, but there is also little progress or technological advances made. Does this world represent an ideal, almost utopian vision or is it just a dead-end?

Here are two links, not related to my post, but of possible interest to the class:

· one on interesting SF book covers: http://flavorwire.com/153215/sci-fi-cover-art-the-good-the-bad-and-the-totally-bizarre

· another on artists and video games: http://flavorwire.com/152604/10-artists-who-use-video-games-as-their-medium


Peter Jin said...

Are you familiar with Aristophanes? His gender-centric plays like Lysistrata seem to capture the same tensions but with comic resolutions. I wonder what Alice Sheldon might have thought about them.

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