Bram Dijkstra's "Idols of Perversity" is not so much, as its subtitle has it, about fantasies of feminine evil in fin de siecle culture, as it is about stereotypes of feminine frailty, submissiveness, supportiveness or menace culled from a cast of hundreds.
A quick list of descriptive epithets picked from his pages yields an alphabet soup of conventional images: aggressive, angelic, adamantine, alluring, animal, amorous; brainless, bountiful or bestial; coy, coarse, cool, cute, corrupting, chaste, copulating, childlike, carnal; delicate, devouring, decorous, diabolic, diaphanous, Dionysiac; enchanting, elemental, emancipated, enticing, evil; feline, ferocious, frolicsome, fatuous, frivolous, fervid, flaccid, fertile, flirtatious; graceful; helpless, horrid, hilarious (though nowhere as much as men!); idealized, innocent, impulsive, immature, insatiable, intoxicating, inane; joyous; lesbian, licentious, lewd, libertine, lustful, lubricious, lethal; mysterious, marginalized, meretricious, maternal; nun-like or nymphomaniac; obscure, obsessive; prurient, pure, primal, playful, passive, pliable, predatory, pious, perverse, pensive, promiscuous, pudic, primitive, passionate, placid; robust, raped; sensual, submissive, sphinx-like, spirited, spiritual, seductive, savage, sirens, saintly, sedate; titillating, tubercular, tender, tempting, tedious; virtuous, voluptuous, virginal, vicious, vulnerable, venomous, vacuous, viraginous, victimized, vampirical, voracious; waif, wild, whores.
Dijkstra's texts (he is a professor of comparative literature at University of California at San Diego) provide a compendium of anti-feminine lore, as flourishing a century ago. These Yellow Pages of platitudes are illustrated by a wealth of visual prosiness, a paradise for the prurient, a treasure-trove of third-rate paintings seldom assembled between two covers, let alone four walls.
One did not realize the enormous output of such paintings--though not all, surely, as Dijkstra has it, for the men alone. My formidably bourgeois grandmother certainly had her say about the choice of pictures as about everything else. So must other women have done, accepting, perhaps enjoying, pictures Dijkstra denounces as perverse.
That makes the flood of imagery, often demeaning, sometimes vicious, the more intriguing. For women too were stalwart gallery-goers, women too feasted their eyes on acres of flesh, on scenes of bondage or of carnage whose every new purveyor felt honor bound to raise the body-count, on broken-backed nymphs inviting assault, and sweet indolent figures suggestive of gentle self-abuse, alluring exhaustion, or graceful listlessness. Is his stock of soft porn really an iconography of misogyny, or just a mirror of desire?
Dijkstra traces the iconographic stereotypes from virgin to vagina, dissects the layers of prejudice from the angel in the house (he actually prefers the image of a nun) to the madwoman in the attic, and ends with the great castrators: Circe, Delilah, Judith, Salome, Turandot. Pictures and prints together confirm the current image of 19th-Century woman as man's captive, plaything or intimate enemy.
Dijkstra's artists limn the pallid languishers, the lily-fingered consumptives subsisting on air and moonlight, sublimely emaciated, their hollow cheeks and chlorotic mien an ultimate icon of virtue.
His draftsmen ransack literature and history for affecting instances of women dying or (still better) dead, sleeping beauties that stir necrophiliac fancies and male fantasies of conquest without battle. They adore Ophelia, precariously poised over a watery grave or chastely floating in it; or helpless, hopeless ladies in bad straits and Liberty dresses. They sketch the temptress in the throes of nature: the arboreal ecstasies of dryads, trees festooned with women, lawns littered with prostrate forms in stages of abandon, inviting physical assault (what Dijkstra calls the concept of therapeutic rape).
The permutations of masculine paranoia are mirrored in the image of their prey. Dijkstra traces the shift from victims to Amazonian brawlers, from cool hands on feverish brows to hot hands moving in quite different directions. The discovery that woman is not the milk-white lamb who bleats for man's protection but an incontinent partner in "solitary vice and restful detumescence" is titillating, but disturbing too. Beneath the restful or the languid pose, the lineaments of gratified desire begin to show. Then, as the century ends, the fair sex converts from passivity on a pedestal to strident new pretentions, social, political. Art, our author says, reflects the backlash to the threat perceived. Misogyny abandons cloying for more grating tones, and clinging vines turn to stifling homicides.
Intriguing rapprochements, florid descriptions, a good deal of sense, some nonsense too (like psychological gynecide leading to Nazi genocide), a spirited style, generous anger over the fate of women and the shallow self-regard of men, make this a winning book and one that is never dull. Which does not mean that it is always right, let alone balanced. Dijkstra will not or cannot see beyond the oppression, absurdity, bad taste that he denounces with such brio.
I doubt that keeping women decked as Christmas Trees built up the husband's credit rating very much. Or that all women were prisoners of male symbolism and forced to buy themselves into imprisonment of male symbolism and forced to buy themselves into imprisonment by their virtue. Splendid viragos like Mme. De Stael or Mme. Roland are notable exceptions to that rule.
The expulsion of middle-class women from participation in practical life had compensatory advantages in leisure and comfortable idleness. Nor were all resident angels cringing household pets (or pests). Dijkstra indicts Albert Besnard for painting dead women, which robbed them "of the dignity of privacy." He does not mention that Gericault (and others) painted dead men. Nor does he mention Besnard's portrait of himself and his wife: two equally strong personalities, notoriously comradely. And Mme. Besnard also enjoyed cigars!
Hasty and often debatable in explanation and analysis, Dijkstra is exhilarating when he gets down to description and denunciation. Since his book consists largely of the latter, it is great fun to read. If you like dirty pictures (alas! in black and white), it's also fun to look at. If you disapprove of the meretricious, scandalized shock can be invigorating too.