Ruminations on architecture, from Ken Allinson
Tag Archives: Siren.
May 14, 2012Posted by on
The arrival of a femme fatale
I can’t recall when I first came across Henrik Ibsen’s Masterbuilder … It was as a script rather than a performance; and somehow performances that I’ve seen will never quite fit my image of the central characters: the weepy, damaged and fragile housewife; the young, discontent and ambitious architectural apprentice; a groin-stirring vivacious femme fatale; and the central character: a philandering, middle-aged architect whose career success is coloured by anxiety.
Halvard Solness’s discontent is on every front: with his disturbed wife, his ambitious employee, and with a career that, although successful, is as middling as his class status and his own age: an architect who has ‘been there; done that,’ seen it all and is yet cursed with an inferiority complex: he didn’t go to the academy. Survival, yes; success, yes, significance, perhaps not.
Into the life of this provincial story steps a fateful young woman – not only a femme fatale, but an enchantress and a muse. And she comes to make a claim.
It seems that, some years ago, when this woman was a precocious fourteen-year old girl, she watched Solness climb to the top of a newly-constructed church steep and shout his success – and, as she put it, she heard ‘harps in the air.’ Somehow, in what one imagines to be the alcohol-fueled celebratory aftermath of this exhilerating experience, Solness meets with the girl and, hints Ibsen, enjoys a sexual adventure that ends (or begins?) with a promise to one day build for her ‘castles in the sky.’
When Hilda eventually turns up to make her claim, Solness, of course, has no recall of the escapade. However, he is soon utterly capitivated. They plan to elope; his life is to be turned upside down and she is to get her castles in the air.
In essence, this is a not unfamiliar story, played out in a thousand and one variations in many an architectural office every day. However, before you blush, let me complete this tale.
Hilda issues a challenge. She wants Solness to prove the recovery of a re-found manhood and, more especially, his valour and daring: she wants him to climb the tower of his nearly completed new house. The occasion is a traditional topping-out ceremony, as at the church steeple, but Solness is terrified. He has accomplished this once and didn’t intend doing it again. However, Hilda is insistent and Solness rises to the challenge. (Sorry, it’s difficult to avoid the sexual symbolism.)
The point in all this is not just daring or foolhardiness, but that, when Solness climbed the church steeple he had, high up there, shouted angry defiance at his God. This is what Hilda heard as ‘harps in the air.’ Now, he was to do it again, but instead of renouncing church building in lieu of secular work, he is renouncing his bourgeois existence.
And so he climbs. Wife and community are horrified; the architectural apprentice can’t believe it; Hilda is exultant. As he reaches the top and shouts, she waves he shawl in the air and there is a hint that this is what makes him fall from the scaffolding … Meanwhile, Hilda remains exultant midst expressions of horror all around her: “But he mounted right to the top. And I heard harps in the air.”
The import of Fortezza
It has always seemed to me that, when Solness shouts, he is protesting at fateful determinations. And, in turn, I imagine his God shouting back: ‘Right on, my man … Way to go!,’ and then winking at Hilda: ‘Job well done, girl …’ This is not, in other words, a scenario such as that painted by Michelangelo, in which God benignly reaches across a loving and helpful hand to a laid-back Adam. Gamesmanship is involved.
And this brings me to a similar kind of tale that belongs to the Italian Renaissance. In 1501, Lucrezia Borgia married Alfonso d’Este and, at their marriage, a pageant was performed called a Battle between Fortuna and Hercules. In this, Juno send Fortune to do battle with her enemy Hercules, but she is overpowered and chained up. Juno has to plead for her freedom, which is finally given on the promise that the houses of Borgia and Este will henceforth be favoured.
Apparently many variations on this scenario were played out during the Renaissance. In a story from Giordano Bruno, for example, Fortuna is allowed to go anywhere she pleases, but she is denied her claim of Hercules’ place among the Olympian gods. Hercules is Valour, and where truth, law and right judgement are to reign, Valour (Fortezza) must be present. It is, as Ernst Cassirer puts it (cf. The Individual and The Cosmos in Renaissance Philosophy), “the palladium of every other virtue, the shield of justice and the tower of truth.”
Well, Solness hadn’t quite got there yet, but at least he had discovered the daring upon which valour is premised. Without that daring, Ibsen implies, there can be no ‘castles in the air.’
This has always seemed to me to be a simple truth of architectural practice. We censor our own potentialities, we gate ourselves off from true creative daring, indulge in substitutes and parodies, and bind ourselves with a thousand tiny entwined ropes.
One has to dare to be creative. But one can’t do so abstractly; one does so as a situational response, as if to respond to a call or claim that is being made upon one. Such a claim may be laid upon us at any time and place – Fortuna pops up, slaps down a claim and, usually, we’re too sleepy to notice; too habit bound and witless to be able to aptly respond, at that moment; too afraid to break out and dare to think and do. Nor is one talking about dramatic situations; Hilda’s claims might be laid down quietly, surreptiously, slid into the familiar everyday situations with a mischievous grin …
And perhaps there is another, rather obvious message in Ibsen’s drama. Our Muse, the bearer of the claim, is given to us as a femme fatale. She is dangerous. She has the task of seducing us out of our slumbers and timidity, of stirring us into a territory of potentially that, however, should bear a health-warning sign. In the case of Solness, arousal leaves family devastation, career neglect and communal shock behind him. And for what? Pointedly, for ‘castles in the air.’ He has exercised a death wish and the outcome is predictable. On the other hand …
A lesson learned?
In my own re-write of The Masterbuilder, Aristotle would, at this point, enter from stage left, probably accompanied by a spontaneous groan from the audience. The spell would have been broken. And he’d turn to it and condescendingly ask, “Well, what do you think the lesson was? What do you think Solness should have done?”
And the audience would collectively moan: ‘The Mean … He should’ve taken the Mean …’
Aristotle would be surprised and somewhat disconcerted, but he’d be pleased. “Ehmm, quite. Very good … Yes, exactly: he should have taken the Mean … But what does that mean? Sorry, ehmm, you know what I mean … I mean …” And everyone would groan again and start muttering to one another and shifting about.
“No, no, seriously: what should he have done? It’s important.”
The audience would start to break up and leave. And the actor playing Solness would come forward and shout angrily at the Aristotle and the Director, ‘I told you this wouldn’t bloody work. I told you!”
Meanwhile, Aristotle would be still muttering to a receding audience: “But it’s a serious question: what should he have done? Bourgeois life on the one hand and castles in the air on the other … Grumpy ageing wife or vivacious femme fatale …”
Much later, in an empty theatre, he would be found disconsolately sitting on a darkened stage, head in hands, while an aged cleaner applied a broom to the boards around him … And he would still be muttering, now to himself, ‘What should he have done …? Valour, on its own, isn’t sufficient … What …what should he have done?”
And then perhaps a young woman would silently enter upon the stage … Who is she? Who is this strange woman whose beauty and vivacity would make men shudder if they but knew her game?
A postscript: Both the Greek Muses and Sirens were enchanting songresses, However, while the former (the daughters of Zeus by Mnemosyne) were divine inspirers of posey, the latter charmed only to destroy. This leaves Hilda Wangel in a strange role characteristic of noir fiction: the coincidental meeting; love at first sight; tragedy in the offing … As one academic puts it: “She [the femme fatale] knows all along that she is fated and can, therefore, turn what is inevitable into a source of power. Indeed, the classic femme fatale has enjoyed such popularity because she is not only sexually uninhibited, but also unabashedly independent and ruthlessly ambitious, using her seductive charms and her intelligence to liberate herself [...] Furthermore, though she gains power over the noir hero by nourishing his sexual fantasies, her own interest is only superficially erotic. She entertains a narcissistic pleasure at the deployment of her own ability to dupe the men who fall for her, even as she is merciless in manipulating them for her own ends. Duplicity thus emerges as her most seminal value, insofar as she is not simply willing to delude anyone in order to get the money and the freedom she is after, but because she will never show her true intentions to anyone, especially not the hero she has inveigled, even if this entails not only his death but also her own. [...] [H]er desire for freedom as attainable only in death. At the same time, in that she uses her seductive to lead the noir hero from the sunlit exterior into a nocturnal world of transgressions, betrayals, and, ultimately, his demise, she also embodies the death drive, albeit in a highly ambivalent manner. On the one hand, one could speak of her as a figure of male fantasy, articulating both a fascination for the sexually aggressive woman, as well as anxieties about feminine domination. [...] On the other hand, the femme fatale is more than simply a symptom of the hero’s erotic ambivalence. She sustains his self delusion, but also gives voice to a feminine desire that may include him in order to attain its aim, but also exceeds his fantasy realm. [...] [S]he can be understood as moving towards an ethical act meant to radically undercut the blindness of self-preservation her lover seeks to entertain at all costs.” Etc. (Elisabeth Bronfen, Femme Fatale: Negotiations of Tragic Desire, 2004)
But Hilda Wangel is more than this. She is a figure who returns us to myth and the play of the gods, as if a messenger and teacher who lifts the life of Solness from out of its own deceptions and, at the price of death, brings him a redemption and salvation for which, peculiarly, she also pays a heavy price (what next …?). Strangely, valour is not an issue for her. But, for Solness, the practical judgment that one imagines Aristotle calling him to practice demanded that he should first learn to exercise this virtue.