Art as Satan and Savior: The Dual Roles for Women in The Faerie Queene

July 5, 2019 by Essay Writer

The work of art is a central image in The Faerie Queene, though it rarely appears as a neutral force. On the contrary: art often seems to act as a tool of the post-lapsarian world, dragging once-pure characters into earthly knowledge and moral descent. Specifically, in the house of Busirane, art acts initially as an aid to Eve’s original sin as well as, in more secular terms, the loss of sexual innocence in the mythological women Leda and Danae. The tapestries on Busirane’s walls depict the means by which, through artistic transformation or ornamentation, women especially are deceived or invaded. However, while the power and invasiveness of Busirane’s art is clearly emphasized, art seems far from wholly evil in the narrator’s view. As strong as the attempts of Busirane are to display, reenact, or remember female falls in the history of man, so strong (if less often stated) is the work of art’s function as a redeeming force. Just as, in contemporary Christianity, the Old Testament fall is somehow “reversed” through the New Testament redemption of Christ, so too does The Faerie Queene suggest a narrative of fall and ascent. Spenser does not wish the work of art to disappear altogether; rather, he wishes to present a counterexample to both the mimetic and lapsarian views. Through the cases of Eve, Danae, and Leda, the work of art will be seen not only as an accomplice to lapsarian acts, but also as a saving, restorative force, allowing acts of violence to women to be rectified and the women themselves absolved.When the art in Busirane’s house is first described, the reader can begin to realize the harm of which visual representation is capable. As Busirane’s actual situation is one of holding Amoret captive, physically and perhaps sexually, and attempting to force her emotional love, it is tempting to read descriptive scenes as a mirror of this triptych of violence, lust, and desire. Not only does Busirane desire and hold Amoret physically, he wishes to penetrate her psyche, in order to turn her favor his way. This same type of impure desire arises in the first description of Busirane’s tapestries, in which the following passage appears:[The tapestries were] woven with gold and silk so close and nearThat the rich metal lurked privily,As faining to be hid from envious eye.Yet here and there and everywhere unwaresIt showed itself, and shone unwillingly:Like a discoloured snake, whose hidden snaresThrough the green grass his long, bright-burnished back declares. (Bk. 3, c. 11, s. 28)This stanza has implications beyond a pure Platonism, which might suggest that all art is imitation: instead, it imaginatively connects art with the snake in the Biblical Garden of Eden. The tapestries’ metal is connected through a simile to the “discoloured snake,” an image which can be read on the visual level (the snakelike weave of the threads) as well as the metaphorical one (the tapestry being “woven through” with deceit.) Significantly, the rich metal does not seem to declare itself: instead, it “lurk[s] privily,/ As faining to be hid” and “sh[ines] unwillingly.” This phrasing suggests the increased power of art due to its hidden nature: rather than simply stating facts, as a report might, or declaring beliefs in a propagandistic way, the work of art uses more subtle techniques. Though a modern reader might laud the work of art for allowing a multiplicity of interpretations, here it seems that the ambiguous status of the art object leads more easily to lures and trickery than straightforward work. In fact, it is the “hidden snares” of the snake, the secret lures rather than any easily-visible purpose, which reveals the snake’s position at all.Through this Biblical reference, the narrator directly implicates the work of art in connection with Eve’s eating of the apple and, more generally, to the resultant fall of man and loss of paradise. The work of art “lurks” in this post-lapsarian world, mirroring and perhaps even reconstructing the initial fall. The fact that the snake “declares” his back in the present sense suggests that his narrative is still (at least metaphorically) going on; that is, that the content of the tapestries is a dynamic one. In the tapestries, the metal is still “as faining to be hid from envious eye” the viewer, now present at the scene, presumably could perform the function of this “eye,” looking on in amazement and jealousy at the scene before him. This viewer may now, in fact, be enacting a modern version of the Biblical tale of lust and desire. Thus, not only is the work of art brought very much into the narrative of the present, but the viewer himself is implicated in Eve’s sins as well. Considering the work of art in the imitative Platonic sense, this tapestry is a mimicking of the original Biblical event; as such, it performs its mimetic function as a work of art as well as reenacting the lures of Eve. The tapestries’ hidden, “unwilling” shining suggests that it would rather work its evil unseen; because it is visible, however, it participates in the tradition as a work of art, beginning with the first representations of the fall. In this way, the tapestry brings itself to the viewer’s senses, allowing him to consider what relationship it has to the original event. Through visual representation, the fall is continued into the present narrative of the story, allowing the viewer to understand that he too is engaged in the lapsarian act.This ability of art to recall and reinstate a fall from Paradise is not unique to the Biblical tale of Eve; on the contrary, it stretches into the more secular realm of female sexuality. Just as the fall from the Garden of Eden occurred, so too can a “fall” from the realm of female virginity cause a loss of purity or holiness. Especially when this latter fall is not voluntary, its ability to be represented artistically is at once jarring and profound. The presentation, in a tapestry, of rape and voyeurism is made possible perhaps only through the tapestry’s status as an art object, a thing which purportedly may be viewed at a distance from the actual event. If the narrative had been presented in a graphically straightforward way, even as a kind of “criminal report,” the gruesomeness of the acts may have been too much for a viewer to bear. However, because the act is couched in beautiful colors and a pleasing composition, the acts’ nature as invasion and fall may be more easily concealed.Even more relevant, though, is the idea that these acts of rape and voyeurism are themselves abetted through the artistry of deceit. Even a god must transform himself visually in order to be a “successful” rapist or voyeur. In the house of Busirane, some of the tapestries depict the classical god Jove in his function as a violent, invading force. Known as the reigning god, Jove also engaged in numerous earthly activities, including viewing Danae (s. 31) and raping Leda in the guise of a swan (s. 32).Significantly, these narratives participate equally with the Biblical one in the idea of a female character’s fall. In this case, it is not the original fall from paradise, but a parallel, more modernized and secularized, version: that is, the fall from the purity of virginity to the “knowledge” of sexual life. This reference is significant not only because of the mores of the time, but also because of Elizabeth’s status as the “Virgin Queen.” Jove’s transformation into “a golden shower” and “a snowy swan” utilizes the snake’s principles of secrecy and deceit; additionally, it allows for his ability to instigate the fall from virginal wholeness, literally in Leda and visually (Jove wishes “to view” Danae) in Danae’s case. In the Danae passage (s. 31) the narrator emphasizes the additional possibilities open to the transformed Jove. Though Danae “kept the iron door fast barred,/ And watched that none should enter nor issue,” her efforts were all “vain” and “bootless,” once Jove has been changed to a “golden hue.” Like the snake, Jove would not wish his real identity to be revealed; if it were, he would be recognized as the obviously masculine figure which Danae is struggling to keep out. He would have a clear physicality, which in the form of a “golden hue” is absent. Therefore, Danae’s careful attempts to protect herself would have a better chance at success, and Jove would have to struggle against an at least somewhat stronger barrier.Significantly, the episodes of Danae and Leda detail the ways divine illusion and transformation can cause harm to innocents. These tales of Jove are tales of invasion, in which rape and voyeurism are aided by the invader’s transformation into various visual forms. Such transformation helps to instigate the fall from purity for these women, who it seems had little choice in the matter at hand. The fact that these episodes are displayed in tapestries on Busirane’s wall suggests that their content is something he at least implicitly admires. While, in the divine, an actual transformation is possible, a parallel visual transformation may occur in art. To display these episodes alongside that of the snake implies a narrative or even thematic connection between them all in short, their parallel qualities of illusion and secrecy, even of “artfulness,” which give rise to clearly lapsarian acts.However, the idea that art can act as an aid to transformation is, in a very real sense, its saving grace. While art can enable a transformation from purity to baseness, it is equally capable of facilitating the reverse. Acts which occur through art, it seems, can only be done through the same art, allowing the narrative of fall and redemption to come full circle. The restorative power of art, in a very literal sense, can be seen in Busirane’s forced release of Amoret. In this episode (c. 12, s. 31), Busirane has command over Amoret’s body and is attempting to gain control of her mind through spells. The description of the spells seems to resemble the writing of verse or, more generally, the written metaphor. Busirane “figur[es] strange characters of his art” and writes “with living blood those characters,” suggesting that the spell is transformative both as a written document (the “characters”) and as a mixture of the spoken and physcial (the “with living blood.”) In general, it seems that the spell is designed to influence the mind through the use of the physical body, mingling them in a single attempt to be falsely given love. However, when Britomart meets Busirane, who is presumably involved in evil deeds, and begins to slay him, she is stopped by Amoret herself. Amoret’s reaon for doing so is a pure act of self-preservation:So mightily she [Britomart] smote him that to ground He fell half dead: next stroke him should have slain,Had not the lad (which by him stood bound)Dernly unto her called to abstainFrom doing him to die; for else her painShould be remediless, sith none but heWhich wrought it could the same recure again.(Bk. 3, C. 12, s. 34)In what may be the supreme irony of spells, only the person who held Amoret captive would be capable of allowing her to be freed. If Busirane died, the cure would die with him – Amoret’s “pain/ Should be remediless,” and though Busirane would presumably have had justice done to him through his own death, Amoret would be left forever uncured. “None but” the agent of an evil deed here, a deed committed with the help of verbal magic can reverse the deed and turn Amoret back to her original state.Because of this restorative power, Busirane is himself transformed, at least momentarily, into an agent of good. Though it was clearly by his hand that Amoret was first bound, he now is Amoret’s only hope for freedom. Busirane certainly does not commit this act of good willingly: he must be threatened by Britomart that he will “else die, undoubtedly” (s. 35). Still, the idea that Britomart must threaten or bargain with Busirane in order that he might cooperate is very different from that of killing him straight away. Amoret recognizes that not just any spell contains the power to restore her body; it is in fact the same spell that was used to assert power over her originally. Thus, the passage seems to make a case for the restorative power not just of art in general, but the power of negative works of art to answer positively for itself. The harm that a work of art, or a spell, causes can only be erased through its particular magic, and thus it pays to allow even evildoers to live, in order to keep the possibility of restoration alive.The nature of the restoration Amoret undergoes is indicative of Spenser’s broader restorative plan. Not only does the “cruel steel which thrilled her dying heart” drop away, the “great brazen pillar” on which she is placed crumbles and her “riven bowls” are “closed up as it had not been bored”. Amoret becomes an “unbound/ And perfect whole,” restored to a state of metaphorical, prelapsarian virginity as well as given freedom to move. The phallic image of the pillar and the “boring” image of her bowels cannot be denied as sexual; thus, the invasive sexality which Busirane had forced upon her is removed with the physical chains. The women in previous episodes, such as Leda and Danae, act initially as parallels with Amoret, having their privacy or sexuality invaded by forceful men; however, Amoret, through the power of the spell which first bound her, is restored to a state of (at least putative) virginity. The fall represented by the snake, and the secular falls of the two women, drop away in this image of a “perfect whole2E” Because the creator or user of the art was present, it seems, Amoret is able to leave her oppressive state. The women in the tapestries, whose Jove is not now on earth, are incapable of undergoing this change.

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