ROGER SCRUTON’S HANDBOOK OF ESSAYS, Beauty (2009), is more appealing in its parts than in the overarching thrust of his argument. His insistence that beauty—the quest for and recognition of it—is a function of the rational mind rings off key. Few of us are unfamiliar with the experience of being overwhelmed by beauty of some kind. At the same time, what moves one of us, however deeply, does not necessarily move another, equally rational, fellow. But setting argument aside for the moment, Beauty, like everything else Scruton writes, is worth reading, worth owning. It advances a lively series of valuable observations combined with provocative assertions that make spirited table talk. Herewith, his passage on Manet’s Olympia:
When Manet famously painted the boulevardienne of nineteenth-century Paris in the pose of a Titian Venus, his intention was not to present her body as a sexual object, but to reveal another and more hardened kind of subjectivity. The hand on the thigh of Manet’s Olympia is not the hand that Titian paints, schooled in innocent caresses and resting with a fairy touch: it is a raw, tough hand that deals in money, that grips far more readily than it strokes, and which is used to fend off cheats, nerds and perverts.
The knowing expression neither offers the body nor withholds it, but nevertheless has its own way of saying that this body is wholly mine. Olympia addresses the viewer with a shrewd appraising look that is anything but erotic, and the great bouquet deferentially presented by the servant shows how futile it is to approach such a woman with romantic gestures. There is an intense moment of individuation in the Titian Venus. We are presented with this woman’s body through the lens of her own awareness. And the connection between self-identity and self awareness is made vivid in her tough reclining form, which is not resting on the bed but ready to spring from it. This is a beautiful painting, but its beauty is not beauty of the woman who is dandling her slippers on the sheets.
Nerds—especially paying nerds—were likely not a bother at all to Olympia. And, no, she does not look ready to spring off her divan. She would trip over those slippers first. Still, Scruton’s emphasis on her self-possession and the subtle ambience of commercial transaction is wonderfully captured in few words. You can argue that Scruton’s description of her hand—raw, tough—is unsupported by the painting. But his wording is appropriate to the sense of the scene and the character of the woman. It is a luminous glimpse into a crucial dimension of the painting.
As the maid with an armful of flowers suggests, Olympia is an expensive whore boulevardienne. But to say anything more than that takes us down the creative writing path. Scruton may not think her expression erotic, but her body is undeniably lovely. That generous bouquet is more likely a tribute to her form, and her talent with it, than her look.
In reality, how self-possessed can any prostitute be? Whether a brothel worker or an upscale independent contractor, she is still vulnerable to every occupational hazard—disease, unanticipated brutality—associated with the sex trade. Nineteen-century France was rife with cholera and tuberculosis. Syphillis, too, was a scourge in times before the discovery of antibiotics. Paris is more glamorous in retrospect than it was to its residents in 1863. [Look up the 2007 movie La Vie en Rose. An early brothel scene is harrowing. Edith Piaf, though born in 1915, lived in a Paris closer to Olympia’s than to Fodor’s.] Historian David Barnes described it this way:
Common to nearly all of the literature—fictional, political, and hygienic—on the growth of Paris in the early nineteenth century was a profound and fearful disgust at the city’s filth, smells, and overcrowding. Vivid descriptions of “purulent warts,” “sticky scabs,” “unhealthy effluvia,” and “a million beings jostling one another” fill many such accounts, in which few aspects of Parisian life could be depicted in any tone other than that of sheer physical revulsion.
Scruton’s gloss, fine as it is, makes apparent the falsity of today’s tendency—certainly among the art crowd—to substitute art history for history itself. We are amused to think that Manet’s contemporaries were shocked or outraged by the painting. How quaint, how moralistic, how totally uncool. But at a time when contagion was an ever-present danger, Manet’s audience understood Olympia better than even a philosopher looking back through the narrow lens of art.
Scruton looks and sees self-assurance, a hard-bitten and defiant poise. Manet’s contemporaries, bereft of the safequards of modern medicine, saw a source of infection.
© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey