Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Zombie Rubens and his army of fat women - this is in Villette, really

Rubens might be a mummy, though, or a ghost. It's in Chapter 23, "Vashti." Lucy Snowe is watching a play, and is enraptured by the actress. She compares this great artist, whose craft, like Lucy's, is based on deception, to the Cleopatra painting that she attacked in Chapter 19.* Compares is not quite right - she imagines that the actress cuts Cleopatra in half with a sword:

"Place now the Cleopatra, or any other slug, before her as an obstacle, and see her cut through the pulpy mass as the scimitar of Saladin clove the down cushion."

And then (a portrait of Rubens and his wife is included to aid visualization):

"Let Paul Peter Rubens wake from the dead, let him rise out of his cerements, and bring into this presence all the army of his fat women; the magian power or prophet-virtue gifting that slight rod of Moses, could, at one waft, release and re-mingle a sea spell-parted, whelming the heavy host with the down-rush of overthrown sea-ramparts."

That end is a tangle, really crazy, but comprehensible. The scene is specific, and easily imagined: zombie Rubens and his army of fat women are for some reason pursuing Moses (the actress) across the parted Red Sea; he (she), of course, reverses the spell and drowns them all.** This is actually one of several puzzling references to Moses at this point in Villette.

Lucy Snowe's vivid imagination is one of the treats of Villette, a mix of the weirdest Biblical and classical and folkloric references. It's obviously Charlotte Brontë's as well, but Lucy so seldom sounds like Jane Eyre. Lucy-the-author's taste for personifying abstractions is part of this. In a single paragraph in Chapter 16, she gives us Life, Death, Grief, Fate, Adversity, and Destiny. The abstractions are not completely abstract - Destiny has "stone eye-balls," for example. Lucy brings them to life. Her extended debate with "[t]his hag" Reason, "always envenomed as a step-mother" in Chapter 21 is central. Lucy submits to Reason, but worships Feeling. Or so she says. Before allowing Lucy Snowe to submit to you, hire a food-taster.

* Her description of the painting is worthy of Mark Twain, a scream. "She was, indeed, extremely well fed," and so on.

** So Rubens is probably not a ghost. Ghosts are incorporeal and can't be washed away. Or can they?

No comments:

Post a Comment