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BalletMet- 'Belling the Slayer'

A closer look at the Death and the Maiden

Continued from Page 2

The Ecstasy and Guilt of 'Petit Mort'

Sex and death are associated in a less damning way in the colloquialism, 'petite mort,' a ribald euphemism for orgasm which refers to the ecstasy and the intense delight experienced in the loss of the participant's mind. Artistically, however, the classical forms used by Fuseli to shape the posture of the female figure in Nightmare share a similar coupling of endings. For example, the female figure's thrown-back head, the severe arch of her upper torso, and the stretch of her dangling arms recall ancient Greek artwork used to depict either ecstasy of the Dionysian variety, or dead bodies. Although Fuseli may have meant to shock and entertain rather than moralize with "Nightmare," combining the evil and sexual connotations of the incubus with its oppressive perch upon the young woman's chest, and the sexual innuendo implicit in her ecstasy/death/petite mort posture restates the Augustinian equation of sex equaling death. The overt titillation of Fuseli's illustration of what can otherwise be seen as a gothicized idea of a wet dream, nevertheless connects covertly with Victorian art's project to regulate female sexuality and conscience. [See footnote 1]

In "Belling the Slayer," the classical forms for ecstasy and death that inform the young woman's posture in Fuseli's "Nightmare" translate into a swept-back arch sculpted by arms, head, and torso. This swept-back pose first appears on a cadence that ends the first section of the pas de deux for the Young Woman and her Fiancé in Scene 1. Finishing on the supportive arm of her Fiancé, the Young Woman unself-consciously opens like a rose and completes the reaching sweep of her blooming motion in the rounded backward stretch of arms, head, and torso. The flow and simplicity of the musical phrase that ends the first part of their duet, however, realizes the contemporary use of the term ecstasy -- an experience of intense delight. Moreover, as a summation of the relationship -- real or imagined -- between the Young Woman and her Fiancé, the willing consent embodied in her swept-back figure marks the ballet's gentlest and brightest moment.

A sudden pain-ridden distraction, however, wrecks her joy and the Young Woman flees her Fiancé's embrace. She crumples near the foot of her bed. This dramatic moment of light and shadow resembles the action/consequence of moral exchange -- specifically one of disobedience, then punishment.

And if we consider the possibility that her sudden attack stems from the Augustinian dogma of mankind's inherent evil and guilt, then rather than being -- as a certain psychological theory posits -- an effect or a symptom of the Young Woman's sub-conscious incestuous conflicts, the motivation for and the contents of her withering Nightmare issue from her own zealous conscience. And, rather than serving her, it has become instead predatory -- an opportunistic killer that feeds on and in darkness. In "Ode to Sleep" by Keats, for example, the poet beseeches Sleep, "Save me from curious conscience, that still lords/ Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole." Succinctly, the Young Woman's death-mad conscience now possesses her. [See footnote 2]


[1] An artwork that represents that sexually oppressive Victorian moral ethos and also offers a tenable motivation, a possible prequel, if you will, to the Young Woman's nightmare in "Belling the Slayer" is William Holman Hunt's 1853 painting, "Awakening Conscience." Described in cinema terms, the link between the works begins with a close up on the terror-marked features of the Young Woman's face in the 'awakening scene'- scene 1- of "Belling the Slayer". The picture then telescopes to a long shot that reveals the full-blown contours of terror in the facial expression and frozen flight of the young woman in" Awakening Conscience." What the young women share in this moment of awareness is a presage of perdition -- while Hunt's young woman envisions, Peterson's young woman experiences: a pas with death.

[2] Sudden Unexpected Nocturnal Death Syndrome or SUNDS, a malady of selective virulence that at the moment favors male refugees of the Laotian Hmong people living in the USA, identifies otherwise healthy persons that have died in their sleep. Autopsies, for example, performed on SUNDS victims confirmed the victim's former health rather than discovered the cause of death. In a cross-disciplinary effort, including sleep research, psychology, folklore, and others, to understand this phenomenon folklorist Shelley R. Adler suggests that the experience described by survivors- persons woken up in the midst of the symptoms- fit those of a nightmare. Distinct from a bad dream and 'night terrors' and common across cultures and time, the experience of a nightmare includes: a sense of wakefulness, a "realistic perception of the environment," intense fear, and paralysis. Although, the distinctive features of the Fuseli illustration such as the Nightmare demon pressing the life out of its supine victim describe important aspects of many recorded experiences of a nightmare, neither the position of the victim nor the crushing sensation are universal. Building on the common features of a nightmare, however, Adler theorized that when informed by a belief system such as the one held by the Hmong people, a nightmare could become lethal. In the Hmong culture, for example, it is important to perform certain timely actions that both honor and care for one's ancestors. Failure to do so exposes the careless to attacks by evil spirits- attacks that a content ancestor could ward off. Given this moral milieu, it is possible to say that a Hmong SUNDS victim could have died from a possessive and punishing conscience.

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Edited by Mary Ellen Hunt

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