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  • Desire and Drive in the Modernist Image of the Dancer
  • Daniel T. O'Hara (bio)
Romantic Image
Frank Kermode
224 Pages; Print, $18.95

The above frame is from a 1905 silent short film entitled "Loi Fuller," which begins with the image of a large vampire bat hovering over the scene. Suddenly, it unfolds and, in rapid movement suggestive of a flower blooming all at once or a butterfly blurring across our field of vision, the dancer appears and begins her gyrations on stage. This composite amalgam of death, life, stasis, excited improvised motion, and highly stylized, colorful, and unconventional feminine beauty is what Frank Kermode analyzes in the Romantic Image as the modernist emblem of symbolist aesthetics shaping the literary history of artistic modernism in the first half of the twentieth century. The aspect of the image I want to underscore is the deathly one. For, the woman dancer represents firstly and ultimately, whatever else she represents, the dying soul of the isolated modernist artist in a profit motive society that, since the romantics, has become progressively conditioned in its economy and culture by positivist science, technology, and instrumental reason to the point where the disconnect between human beings now and in even the immediate past and ourselves has only grown wider.

Now that I have outlined most of the meanings of my title and subtitle, I will tackle the thorniest reminder: "Desire and Drive." The distinction is Lacanian, more than Freudian, though of course Freud first makes it. Basically, for both Freud and Lacan alike, desire arises from the id or the unconscious, is mediated by super-ego or social norms and values, and then is channeled by the ego by identification into a series of object-relationships over the course of a life. In this way, rather than exploding in bursts of wasteful, perhaps destructive and even self-destructive energy expenditures, the psyche can set down a pattern of seeking, securing, and satisfying itself with objects promising pleasures manageable for the human organism. Desire works well with the modern culture of capitalism and a market economy of sellable commodities. Ultimately, desire is a pacifying phenomenon. Drive, on the other hand, is indeed different. It wants a definitive, absolute, or total expenditure of energies that leaves the psyche, empty, self-encircling, and dormant, inert, if not dead or dying. To put the difference in recording terms, think of the endlessly repeating loop of the fade-out ending to a pop song versus the rave-up explosive finale that leaves only the sound of silence reverberating in the ear. Desire is the looping fade-out of a domesticated or tamed life versus drive as the explosive freeze-frame of unreason without limits. The swooning dip of the dancer versus the apex moment of the highest leap.

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Whether we think of the creative process whereby the perceptions of the common world are transformed by the artist into the images of the latter's symbolic world or we think as W. B. Yeats puts it in the last two stanzas of "Byzantium" (1933) with the souls of the dead turning and turning into the artifices of eternity in his ideal city of art, with its timeless mosaics, the aesthetics of high modernism is, as Kermode classically lays out, a symbolist one centered upon the decadent femme fatal archetype of the dancing albeit dying muse-soul luring "spirit after spirit" of male suitors to their transformation from desire to drive, in an epiphanic blink of the eye:

At midnight on the Emperor's pavement flitFlames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,Where blood-begotten spirits comeAnd all complexities of fury leave,Dying into a dance,An agony of tranceAn agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

Astraddle on the dolphin's mire and blood Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,The golden smithies of the EmperorMarbles of the dancing floorBreak bitter furies of complexityThose images thatFresh images begetThat dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

A gnostic allegory haunts the...


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pp. 8-9
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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