Artist Jessie Mann Explores the Sapphic Displeasures of Proust


Artist Jessie Mann Explores the Sapphic Displeasures of Proust


Photos by Liz Liguori

Lesbianism, by and large, persists in film, literature, and photography, as a pointedly inferred existence. Once referred to in Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media as “the dark hole in the heart” of feminist film theory, Sapphic desire has been, and still is, one of the more tacit topics in social history. Notably excluded from ancient texts and laws, sexual engagement between women has been one of the most veiled subjects in the history of human culture and media. It has, by its history of silence, been deemed a “difficult” subject. It is indeed a hard history to trace, due in large part to how infrequently it is mentioned. Lesbianism as such was a term not coined until the 1800s. In medical and social history, as well as etymologically, it has eluded those hard and fast classifications and gestalts that are frequently applied to male homosexual behavior. Its silence and secrecy are due not entirely to its suppression, but rather, in part, to the fact that female sexuality, by its very nature, transcends explication and thrives on mystery.

While there is very little Marcel Proust found difficult to catalog, describe, and dissect during the course of his seven-volume novel, In Search of Lost Time, the lesbian lifestyle is a subject he studied at a distance. It alone is handled broadly and conceptually, as an icon, a totem even, of secrecy and dissemblance. Its mysteries are never penetrated, its inner workings uniquely evading scrutiny and entry. Whereas Proust catalogued surprisingly rarified subsets of queendom, lesbians were left the same ambiguous shape-shifting amalgamation to which they still are, to a large degree, today. In one of the books, Sodom and Gomorrah, and later in The Captive and The Fugitive, Proust demarcates every possible subclass of sexuality, frequently ballooning out the description of one subset or another. The details of which—speech pattern, mannerism, and style—are so specific and yet universal to that class of species, that the modern-day incarnation becomes immediately apparent to the reader.

Yet in Proust’s excavations, in all of this careful description, even with all of his fine brushwork and delicate dusting, he left the far edges of lesbianism shrouded in cobwebbed reminders of the depths of their burial. In contrast to his usually exhaustive and detailed style, he paints in broad strokes only a few different expressions of female homosexuality. There are only a handful of notable signposts in his landscape of female homosexuality: a map of Saharan sparseness when compared to the insert-window minutiae granted the male population.

When the narrator is not keeping his running tally of homosexuality, his all-consuming ruminations increasingly focus—to a point of near pathology—on the question of what secret doings are happening in the secret lives of these unknowable women. His mate’s mistresses playing footsie around his feet under their table at tea; the cohabiting “near sisters” at the dance; the whores who finish their night in each other’s arms; the musicians, actresses, and working girls who share a flat and swap lovers—all of these women are gazed at long and hard, but the details and mechanics of their relationships, the descriptions of their interior spaces, the patterns of their behavior are all markedly missing from prose that misses very little.

Even the hint that this female secrecy is happening becomes the myopic point of interest for the protagonist. What he can expose, what does warrant page after page of thought (as opposed to description), what one could argue is in fact the true culture spread on the slide of Proust’s microscopic vision, is the very secrecy itself. No ornate description is given of this unexplored corner booth of society because what is being studied is the shrouding curtain; the magnification is left at just enough power so as to see the membrane. The interior life is only guessed at and fulminated on. The one thing Proust could not catalog and contain, the secret of female sexuality, became, of course, his obsession.

A fearful fascination with the depths of this mystery, this private system, this secret sexuality, this potential otherworld, these imagined boundaries, consumes the thoughts of Proust’s narrator. The text on the other hand is dedicated to minute details in the structure of a much less quiet, much less amorphous male homosexuality.

The visuals to accompany the narrator’s obsession, the B-roll for the voice-over, are absent. Just as Manet’s Olympia derives part of her power from the secret feminine life left to be guessed at, so too does the lesbian. Just as she gains meaning the longer our eyes linger, searching behind the curtain, so too for the lesbian. Her freestanding eroticism makes both the female figure in art and the lesbian, similarly awe-inspiring subjects. The chromosomal structure of femininity defines its morphology; the silence of the muse and the lesbian are the protein expressions of something deeply written into the coding of women. This so-called difficulty and impenetrability has everything to do with an identification that began centuries ago. A way of being a woman; one which encompasses those arts of protection, privacy, exclusivity, mystery, dissimulation, and most importantly a unique form of self-awareness. As John Berger puts it, “Women survey their own femininity”; this femininity includes their own status as objects of scrutiny. Women are then capable of an awareness of self, which includes ancillary layers of abstraction. Strengthening their opacity, women are acutely aware of their positioning, in physical space as well as abstract, social, psychic, and mythological spaces.

In Proust, as in life, lesbianism nestles into society, nearly deceitful in its modesty, silent in its expression. The same removed, watchful silence, which makes the muse so oppressive, so fearsome, haunts the image of the lesbian. The narrator’s thoughts are symbolic of our collective fear and fascination with the privately feminine. Its absence in the text is evidence of its enduring and fundamental mystery. Our dumbstruck attention is captured again and again by this self-contained femininity, this coy and self-aware image, this silent expression. These features remain facets of our fascination with the lesbian, the muse, and the vamp. Women keep a uniquely attuned eye on what is and isn’t shown, and this has made their doings so “difficult,” their description a matter for which the English language does not provide enough words and history fewer examples.

The eroticized female gaze, the lesbian, the returned stare of the self-aware nude, the women that want and are also wanted—these are beyond our powers of description, beyond understanding, beyond containment. They exist in a separate space; their lives take place just outside the frame of the painting. These women make voyeurs of us all: the bi, poly and pan-hetero or homo, male or female. All are enjoying a peek at the other. A peek into the electrified air of a forged private space wherein the woman is the subject, the object, the possessor, the possessed, the keeper of secrets—wherein the mystery is the intrigue. Lesbianism, and included within its conception, the erotically active female gaze, stands just outside the reach of description or classification, and therefore stands in the realm of images and imaginings. Outside the scope of history and language, women have elucidated and cultivated one of their most potent gifts through the use of the image. And it is through images that women have revealed their true selves, which are significantly defined by all they keep hidden. As with the muse, the forever silent attendant is neither void nor gagged, but rather filled with secrets and the wisdom to keep them.