Apollo and Daphne: Symmetries of Desire
If art is worth anything at all, it is most certainly in its ability to be employed as metaphor and instruction through which to understand ourselves, our minds and any cultural environment in which we may find ourselves embedded. To this end, I am here opening up a conversation regarding the topologies (i.e. shapes) and symmetries (patterns) apparent in visual culture, gender relations, and the psychological dynamics (energy) emerging from, among other things, a notionally psychoanalytic reading of the mythological narrative and gender-symmetry rendered concrete in a classic work of art: Gianlorenzo Bernini‘s sculpture “Apollo and Daphne” (1622-1625). This will lead the discussion into a wide range of areas, both cultural and also more broadly conceptual.
A caveat at this point may be necessary. None of the reflections here are necessarily final and complete statements of truth concerning male or female desire or roles in the vaster network of object and conceptual relationships which is psychological life and culture as a whole. It is merely that, in this one part of art history and an associated Greek mythology there exists a specific codified relationship which then becomes fodder for further research and in-depth conversations to be initiated. I do not claim that there is any ultimate (necessary) “Truth” to the threads and strands of the cultural and psychological which are teased out and asserted here, just that (and like so much of psychoanalysis and its associated semi-sciences) there is some compelling, qualitative justification for interpreting the revealed patterns and dynamics as being little “t” (contingent) truths.
The mythological narrative which underlies the moment captured in the sculpture appears to have a number of variations in the literature. A brief overview is available here and an online search will return many references. Wikipedia has an extensive information page on the myth.
The essence of the myth for our purposes is that through the mischievous arrows of Eros, the god Apollo has fallen deeply in love with the nymph Daphne and that a curse has been cast that should he ever touch her, she will metamorphose into a laurel tree. Bernini’s sculpture captures the moment of transformation, as Daphne’s toes begin to sprout roots, her legs grow bark and her outstretched fingers start becoming leaves. Taken purely as a work of art, I feel that this sculpture is truly exquisite and unparalleled.
The Male Gaze
The Male Gaze is a concept with deep resonances in the analysis of the history of art and visual culture. It can be viewed as a powerful explanatory tool to interpret the notion of the female as being the object of the male gaze, the idealised, sexualised goal and in some senses as being the raison d’être of the male psychological viewpoint. That women have been historically disempowered in what has been a predominantly male-dominated world is not really of any contention. That this disempowerment is an ongoing feature of gender power relations, visual culture and societies-at-large is also not really in dispute. What is interesting to me is that this symmetry, or dynamic relationship, between the male and the female as objects or entities in a cultural and psychological matrix of shifting meanings and evolving complexities – this dynamic of relationship is apparent as a decentralised, global feature of culture, information and power-relationships. The notion that the female is necessarily disempowered in this relationship is only a particular instance of one reading (i.e. interpretation) of the sculpture and of culture. As a reflection of the dynamics apparent in the broader swarm of symbols and power relationships in a larger cultural and psychological world it may be that either male or female may be sited in the scopophilic seat of power, it just happens to be a male chasing a female in this myth but it is in no sense a mandatory gender configuration or power relationship in this context of psychological and cultural analysis.
In “History after Lacan“, Teresa Brennan asserts that (among other things) the male identity is fundamentally a psychotic entity anchored upon and secured by a “fantasy of woman”. What we see here is not limited to male/female relationships but is characterised across a spectrum of entities and disciplines where there is an Object of Knowledge and a Knower of that Object. There is likely much to be said in regards to science and a cultural anchoring upon the construction of the realities which orbit our fantasies, simulations and portrayals or interpretations of reality. There is also a great deal to be said in regards to Foucault‘s interpretation of power/knowledge relationships and their dynamics in culture and more broadly politics, the sciences and civilisation. To attempt to rein in the blossoming referential complexity, it is better to narrow this back to a brief overview of what may be meant by a male psychosis in this context.
Psychosis here is a representation of a psychological state which represents “an inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a fantasy of reality”. (This definition of psychosis has itself been co-opted from a definition of hyper-reality which in itself reflects a broader cultural and psychological symmetry and area for investigation.)
In Lacanian theory, child psychological development features a seminal “Mirror Stage“. This is the point around 18 months to 2 years old where the child becomes reflexively aware of itself, as literally seen in a mirror but potentially also as seen (or interpreted) through the logic of language or broader culture around them. The recognition of the Self as a separate, unique and complete image in the reflection is a paradigmatic moment, it encompasses an elemental phase transition in infant psychological development.
Whereas the child has always perceived itself piecemeal and as a bundled aggregate of disordered feelings and sensations, it is now able to perceive itself as a single, complete and whole image. This is the basis for a fantasy (of self or other) and it is the basis for power relations. The schism here lies in the fact that although the image in the mirror appears to be complete and whole or is otherwise known and comprehensible, it fails to account for the less-than-complete self that is the source of the reflection. The image in the mirror assumes a certain perfection and fantastic ideal of control and knowledge which the physical, embodied self fails to live up to. In this dichotomy between the perceived perfection of an externalised projection and perception of completeness and the incompleteness and disarray of the physical body we find the basis for both elementary object relationships and the template upon which interpersonal and epistemological structures are constructed.
The elemental dichotomy between the fantasy of perfect self and the less-than-perfect actual self is reflexively absorbed in some sense (and to be understood consciously or unconsciously or acknowledged in any sense it could only ever be internally captured or represented), it is internalised and then become the basis for a lifetime of mistaken identities, insecurities and fantasies of perfection.
To recap: we have here in the Mirror Stage a theoretical basis for the self/other dichotomy which itself evolves into a cornucopia of object relations, power systems and is evident in social and cultural relationships and artefacts or more generally in media. As a generative symmetry for object and power relationships, this Mirror Stage indicates how an externalised image or concept can be projected, interpreted or known; the fantasy of the other (or of self) can be progressively overlaid with sedimentary layers of knowledge, memory, scientific discourse, language and symbols or signs and references back into broader culture.
We find the progressive historical search for, and projection of, a fantasy of completeness upon reality through scientific history and technological development, through the ongoing fabrication and sedimentation of knowledge and discourse around the Object of reality and the world. This is an aspirational apple cart which is periodically and unremittingly overturned by progressive scientific and mathematical discoveries.
Fantasy of Woman
In the notion that the male psyche is in some sense “anchored” upon a psychotic (i.e. unreal or hyper-real) fantasy of woman we see some important features of power and gender relationships. In the sense that it is a male in the position of power in this structure, there is no reason that it has to be – the viewing point of the knower, the constructor of knowledge and fantasy could just as easily be a woman or any non-specific category other than male. This is not even necessarily limited to gender relations – this knower could be a scientific field of research, a governmental records system, a system of surveillance or basically anything which constructs knowledge around an object or posits identity of some sort. It just appears to have fallen out of history and the development of human civilisation that the male is predominantly the one assuming this power position in regards to the gender relationship, there is no reason why the male should assume this assertive position in regards to the apparent, assumed or attributed passivity of the fantasy object.
In regards to the notion that the male identity is in this way “anchored” upon the fantasy of female through a psychotic projection or sexualisation of the female fantasy, the power relationship may in fact be much more fragile than it would at first appear (or at least would be without a wily emergent reorganisation of internal logical dynamics as referenced in the proposed orbit discussed later here). If the male identity is defined in regards to (what may be a fundamentally unhealthy) visual, symbolic or other logical-systems relationship to a fantasy of woman, then it is completely and utterly dependent upon this fantasy for its own continued existence.
The object of desire is projected, constructed and progressively adorned with layers of complex sexual or analytical desire or knowledge. The male is defined in this way by the relationship with the object of desire but this object is something that threatens the male identity (although not here specifically implicating the Oedipal castration) by the very fact that if this fantasy were ever truly and completely attained, known and controlled – it would dissolve the difference and distance through which the male defines their identity and reality. (The male is itself no less a fantasy than is the female, no less a construction and fabrication based upon the internalisation of the projected and externalised fantasy of the Other. Once this fantasy and the object-relations it entails has been reflexively internalised, the male identity in this regards becomes a fantasy to itself no less than the female remains its necessary and defining fantasy in its relation to the world beyond it).
Fatal Attraction: Free-fall
The only way that it would be possible for the male subject (the knower, here) to safely and continuously approach the female object (the known) is for it to be in constant orbit, or free-fall, around it. It may (or may not) be clear at this point that we are not purely discussing the relationship of male and female here and that an extrapolation to a narrative concerning science and its object or more generally speaking – self and other – is just as valid. It just happens to be that here the topic is more explicitly male and female power relations and psychological (or at least partially – psychoanalytic) definitions.
Consider the relationship here like this: the male subject is a bow, the projection of fantasy (or desire) is an arrow and the female object is the target. The actual completion of the trajectory of the arrow to the target, the acquisition and attainment of the goal invalidates the requirement for the bow (or the arrow). The attainment and complete control of the fantasy-of-woman dissolves the fantasy-of-man which constructs it. As a general principle this may indicate a common psychological dynamic and the ongoing psychological flaws of a great many people in their inability to bring situations to closure (as they define their own identity through their relationship to that situation or constructed fantasy of other which sustains their discomfort and consciously or unconsciously defines and reinforces their own self-identity through this problematic relationship).
The subject/object dichotomy assumes a more subtle psychological and symbolic configuration which allows the fantasy of other (and thus reflexively – the fantasy of self) to be perpetuated without threatening the subject’s ongoing existence. The symmetry and dynamic energy displayed is precisely that of an object in a state of gravitational free-fall around a massive gravitating body. More precisely, this is a symmetrical relationship where the subject is in gravitationally-locked orbit around the object. The gravitational field is that defined by the (hyper-)Real and that which becomes more Real as one moves towards it. As the Subject is in the constant free-fall of orbit around the Object, there is no existential threat to the identity of male, of subject, of knower. The orbit is precisely the unending free-fall towards an object but at such a precise angle and velocity that there is no chance of collision or intersection of paths.
So here we can see that it has been possible for symmetries and dynamics of object relations and psychological constructs of self and other to be balanced by introducing a richer and deeper conceptual vocabulary to construct elaborate metaphors of logical relations. Like most other psychoanalytically derived ideas and concepts, this provides compelling but incomplete explanations of subject/object and male/female relationships and power structures in culture and history. The subject/object dichotomy itself is clearly amenable to much richer elaboration and exploration – translating the symmetries and dynamics into a broader visual and psychological culture of knowledge and identity. Emergent complexity within the logical symmetries of subject/object and gender relations as a method of psychic self-perpetuation is not at all surprising – the drive to self-perpetuate identities, structures and logical system relationships and dynamics seems to not require volition or conscious intention. Complex systems very often self-organise and seek the most effective survival strategies through a tortuously long selection process of trial and error. The Knower can never fully comprehend the Known because this would invalidate the very existence of the Knower – a Catch 22; this logical incompleteness is designed to keep the Knower in business, so to speak.
In returning to the origin of this essay in fantasy here, I think it is instrumental to consider that in Greek myth Apollo’s lyre (among other things he was the god of music) was made of laurel wood. Bernini’s sculptural representation of Daphne’s metamorphosis captures the moment of her transformation into a laurel tree and inadvertently points towards there being considerably more power on the Object side of male/female power relationships and also implicates a deeper and more fundamental interdependence than may have been previously considered. In both mythology and in art history we can see that the capture or attainment of the desired fantasy proves to be much more complex and incomplete than we might at first hope for: Apollo can eternally play music on his lyre and we can continuously, unendingly reflect further and more deeply upon male and female, object relations, self and other – in indefinite free-fall around the object of our fascination.