The Rage of Caliban: Missing Bodies in Modernist Aesthetics – Michael Davidson (Leeds Centre for Medical Humanities Lecture, 7 November 2013)

Michael Davidson (University of California, San Diego)
‘The Rage of Caliban: Missing Bodies in Modernist Aesthetics’

Thursday 7 November, 5-6pm
Leeds Centre for Medical Humanities
Basement, School of English, Cavendish Road, University of Leeds.

Abstract: Classical aesthetics depends on an ideal of autonomy that removes the body from judgments of taste in the interests of detachment and disinterest. Disability Studies attempts to reinstate the body to the aesthetic by making visible the various and variable bodies around which aesthetic discourses revolves. Rather than seeing disability as a series of tropes for cultural and psychological malaise, this essay regards it as foundational for the aesthetic itself. By focusing on works that mark the transition from fin de siècle aestheticism to works of high modernism, this paper studies the changing fortunes of embodiment in modernist aesthetics, specifically as it appears in music. The talk looks at several works based on Velasquez’s Las Meninas (1656) in which the figure of the court dwarf represented in the painting becomes a site for anxieties about bodily and sexual difference. Alexander Zemlinsky’s opera, Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) from 1922 is the principal focus, based on Oscar Wilde’s story, “The Birthday of the Infanta” (1891).  The libretto for Zemlinsky’s opera by George Klaren transforms Wilde’s story of recognition and betrayal into an allegory of dysgenic characterology, based on Klaren’s dedication to the work of Otto Weininger. What Wilde perceived as a story about the noble soul beneath the grotesque body, Zemlinsky transformed into a Eugenicist allegory of man’s fatal alliance with the femme fatale. As a work that embodies elements of late Romantic chromaticism as well as modernist atonality, Der Zwerg is a site for studying musical representation of bodily difference.

Michael Davidson is Professor of American Literature in the Literature Faculty at University of California, San Diego, where he specializes in Disability Studies, Cultural Studies, Gender Studies and Modern Poetry. He is the author of Concerto for the Left Hand: Disability and the Defamiliar Body (University of Michigan Press, 2008) as well as articles/essays on Deaf culture and disability in modern literature and global contexts. He has also published extensively on poetics, including Guys Like Us: Citing Masculinity in Cold War Poetics (University of Chicago Press, 2003) and On the Outskirts of Form: Practicing Cultural Poetics (Wesleyan University Press, 2011), and is a widely published poet and poetry editor.

For more information please contact Clare Barker or see the LCMH blog.

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