The nature of art extends to almost every aspect of the human experience. Life, death, emotions, experiences, and even such concepts as gender and sexuality are often seen in various works of literature, music, and cinema. Often these themes and topics are represented through the beliefs and ideas of the author. One such work is the collage novel by Max Ernst titled “The Hundred Headless Woman.” The novel is highly interpretive but has strong themes of gender and sexuality. This paper will examine the gender and sexual themes of the novel by utilizing the gender concepts outlined by Eve Sedgwick.
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Gender Theory and Queer Theory
To fully understand the views of Eve Sedgwick on these themes, a brief explanation of the theories related to them, as well as their history is required. These topics have been examined many times throughout the years, but only recently have they become represented in the mainstream discourse. Two types of theories are related to this discussion: gender theory and queer theory. Donald E. Hall refers to the term “gender theory” like this: “though commonly used, the term “gender theory” is something of a misnomer or, at best, a euphemism” (107).
His issue with the term is that in reality it mostly focuses on the critical examination of the identity politics of sexuality. Therefore, he suggests that a correct term would be “sexuality theory.” Raymond Williams describes the original meaning of the word “sex” like this: “in its early uses it is a description of the division between them [the sexes]” (283). He describes the meaning of sexuality in two ways: a scientific one that refers to the spermatozoon and a more casual one that refers to people (Williams 285).
The original meaning of these words accurately represents the term “sexuality theory” proposed by Hall. It is important to note that the gender theory has its roots in the feminist theory’s analysis of gender roles. However, its focus on sexuality differentiates it from the feminist theory and leads to different ideas.
Gender theory is not a recent phenomenon. Although the term “gender theory” has not been used in centuries past, every era had its gender theory that evolved over time. An idea of the era’s gender theory can be gained from an analysis of its art. Classical literature especially can be representative of this because it survived throughout the years and established itself as an important piece of art (Hall 107).
For example, classical Greek poetry was often focused on the beauty of youth and the desire for intergenerational relationships. Ancient Greece had a strong culture of tutelage between adults and young boys. Adults would provide education for the boys while getting emotional and physical affection in return. The sexual nature of this affection is often debated, but the culture of the time supports this notion (Hall 107). Other works suggest that heterosexuality and homosexuality were looked upon equally, and without judgment. Later, due to the increased influence of Judaism and Christianity, these ideas slowly changed over time (Hall 108).
Currently, Western art is slowly transitioning from treating homosexuality, lesbianism, and transsexuality as taboos to putting more focus on these forms of sexuality. Although a certain stigma against this movement still exists in the modern society, the increased representation is an important step in changing the current gender theory.
Another modern theory related to the gender theory is called “queer theory.” The term “queer” changed from a homophobic slur to a uniting term for political activists fighting against negative representations of gay people during the first AIDS crisis of the 1980s. American media and the status quo were set against the gay population at the time. The negative effects of the AIDS and HIV on the LGBT community were downplayed, and the response from the politicians was lackluster and even harmful in some situations. The actions of the queer movement have had a strong effect on the crisis, and have jumpstarted a greater focus on the non-heterosexual sexualities (Hall 112).
During the 1990s, the movement grew into its philosophical theory, now known as “queer theory.” The focus of the theory is the idea that almost every aspect of the human society is a social construct, including sexual norms, gender, and desire. The first essay that brought up the idea of separation between gender and sexuality was written by Gayle Rubin in 1984 under the title “Thinking Sex: Notes from a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” The essay proposed an argument that the separation of gender and sexuality is essential for a more accurate reflection of the differences in their societal existence (Hall 112).
Eve Sedgwick is a highly influential writer in the field of queer and gender theory. The ideas in her works are often considered fundamental to the queer theory (O’Rourke 12). Sedgwick’s book from 1985 “Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire” was focused on the exclusion of homosexuality from the modern Western culture (9). Her 1993 book “Tendencies” further explores these ideas and introduces the term “queer” as an umbrella term for “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning when the constituent elements of anyone’s gender, of anyone’s sexuality, aren’t made (or can’t be made) to signify monolithically” (“Tendencies” 8).
Sedgwick’s ideas on gender are expressed in the 1990 book titled “Epistemology of the Closet.” Sedgwick analyzes and challenges the traditional binary opposition of homosexuality and heterosexuality. She argues that the binary view is much too simplistic to fully reflect the diversity of the human sexuality and that a more flexible solution should exist instead (“Epistemology of the Closet” 1). Throughout the book, she examines the literature and historical context of the nineteenth century to underline the importance of sexuality for personal identification. Also, she hypothesizes that the fear of “queer” people who have AIDS is directly linked to the misunderstanding of sexual orientation.
Gender and Sexuality in “The Hundred Headless Woman” by Max Ernst
“The Hundred Headless Woman” is a collage novel by Max Ernst. The novel depicts a variety of men and women in various poses and degrees of nakedness in collage illustrations. Each illustration has a small passage of text underneath which helps the reader interpret the story. The illustrations were taken from various journals and combined to represent different scenes that have a vague connection between them.
As a student, Max Ernst studied the psychological theories of Sigmund Freud and was inspired to implement them in his art. Sigmund Freud’s ideas of chance, the subconscious, condensation, and juxtaposition were most commonly used by Dadaists and Surrealists such as Ernst and Salvador Dali. Often, these ideas were applied to sexuality, resulting in revealing and almost erotic paintings. The artist’s focus on the subconscious makes their works of art partially representative of their subconscious (Ubl 12).
The book begins and ends with the same image which suggests that it is a looping story. The caption on the last image reads: “End and Continuation (Ernst, “The Hundred Headless Woman”). This caption reveals that the structure of the story might not be so linear. Throughout the book, the actions of the recurring characters such as Loplop and the hundred headless woman can be seen as being out of order, and perhaps can be arranged differently.
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The novel consists of nine chapters which are connected by one central theme of art and its nature. It is never stated in the text, but some suggestions exist such as the two images with captions “Gray, black or volcanic blacksmiths will whirl in the air over the forges and…” which is subsequently continued with “… will forge crowns so large that they will rise higher” (Ernst, “The Hundred Headless Woman”). The first image shows blacksmiths working in a smithy, while the second shows their creation of the hundred headless woman. She could represent art, and by forging her, the blacksmiths are able to become more important than were previously. This theory is supported by the possible references to the works of Freud, Dante, Keats, James Joyce, and Friedrich Nietzsche.
The sexuality of the novel is overt. The hundred headless woman is a portrayed as a combination of a deity, such as in the image with the caption “her smile of fire will fall on the mountain sides in the form of black jelly and white rust.” However, in others, she is an omnipotent force that becomes stronger through unrest “each bloody riot will help her to live in grace in truth” (Ernst, “The Hundred Headless Woman”).
A lot of images of objectified women are present in the book which might serve as a commentary on how often women are treated as objects in art. One image titled “baggage check-in is worth a title of nobility” portrays a half-naked woman in stocks as if she was baggage being loaded onto a train (Ernst, “The Hundred Headless Woman”). Some images feature women’s body parts casually placed around the scene.
Overall, women are portrayed as both powerful and powerless. It would be important to note the message given on one of the pages “be advised that, in the memory of man, the hundred headless woman never had a rapport with the phantom of repopulation. Nor will she: rather would she be crushed in the dew and feed upon frozen violets” (Ernst, “The Hundred Headless Woman”). This message suggests that she is virginal, and will always stay innocent.
Loplop is the artist’s alter ego, and he is presented with traditional masculine characteristics. After the image with a caption “and Loplop, the Bird-Superior, has transformed himself into the flesh without flesh and will dwell among us” his character becomes a brutish, naked man with a strong, muscular body (Ernst, “The Hundred Headless Woman”). He has a relationship with the woman, but it is unclear if it is romantic in nature.
Despite the traditional image of masculinity, the author does not disregard its dangers. An image with the caption: “nothing will stop this passing smile which accompanies heterosexual crimes” shows an assault on a woman by multiple men (Ernst, “The Hundred Headless Woman”). This image could represent the dangerous parts of masculinity. The characters of Loplop and the woman help to explore the sexuality of the novel.
The gender concepts of Max Ernst have connections to the modern gender and queer theories. The book addresses the different aspects of sexuality, as well as the dangers that heterosexuality can represent. Because of its interpretive nature, the reader can create their own story, but it is likely that its characters would stay the same.
Ernst, Max. “The Hundred Headless Woman.” Web.
Hall, Donald E. “Gender and Queer Theory.” The Routledge Companion to Critical and Cultural Theory, edited by Simon Malpas and Paul Wake, 2013, 107-119.
O’Rourke, Michael. The Ashgate Research Companion to Queer Theory. Routledge, 2016.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. Columbia University Press, 2016.
—. Epistemology of the Closet. University of California Press, 2008.
—. Tendencies. Duke University Press, 1993.
Ubl, Ralph. Prehistoric Future: Max Ernst and the Return of Painting Between the Wars. University of Chicago Press, 2013.
Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford University Press, 2014.