Reconceiving Leda

Open Inquiry Archive
Vol. 1, No. 9 (2012)
ISSN 2167-8812


Reconceiving Leda: Violence, Eroticism and the Unconscious in H.D. and Dalí


Srishti Krishnamoorthy


The rape of Leda by Zeus in the form of a swan has been polysemously enacted within the mythopoetic fabric of Modernism, with each ‘representation’ in effect reconstituting, and thereby reconceiving the actors, the actions and the articulation in light of sensibilities and discontents of the time. In this essay, I look at the Ledas of Hilda Doolittle and Salvador Dalí to plot movements in the understanding of sexuality, violence and difference.

The Modernist period fraught with a system of sexual anxieties serves to problematise canonised readings of the Leda myth. H.D.’s “Leda” becomes extremely important in this context because of the rupture it embodies in its very presence within the tradition of Leda representation – the poem marks entry of the female authorial voice, the metaphorical wound [Note 1] in what hitherto had been an almost exclusively male culture of literary production. Historically, this imbues the allegory – allegorical precisely because the myth seems to exist on its own terms outside the domain of discourse – with a hypertext of violence, a breach in the uninterrupted stream of narrative linearity that endows power relations with the force of naturalness. While H.D.’s version is conventionally read as celebrating surreal seduction as opposed to the fetishising of obscene violence,[2] I propose to argue that brutality in the poem is entirely defined through negative presence.

H.D.’s 1918 “Leda” springs forth in an oneiric landscape, a febrile ‘pastoral’ setting that helps upturn the first point of power dynamics in the poem – the central subject.[3] Entitled “Leda,” the poem ostensibly draws attention to the woman as the nodal point of the narrative. However, the opening of the poem instantaneously subverts this assumption. The swan is sharply drawn into as Zeus, who becomes the locus that defines contours of the landscape around him. It is as though the sinewy movement of the river performs in mimesis of the swan’s neck, the expansive rush of the sunset-scarlet-singed tide a borrowed movement from his frothy plumage. The swan becomes a fragment of the landscape it occupies, or rather, the landscape appears to radiate from its form.[4] The ‘deep purple/ of the dying heat’ that bleeds into the lily is an entropic dissipation of the red that appears to diffuse out of the startling swan. This constitutes the erotic subtext of the poem, the carnal touch of an immaculate rape. Even before the swan actually enwraps the lily in a kiss, there has already been a virginal yet visceral consummation.[5]

H.D.’s curious choice of a ravishing palette of colours for the swan marks a laceration within the established tradition of representing Zeus – the movement from a white bird to one in psychedelic red and purple. This colour choice is made complex by the connotations of red and purple throughout Greek antiquity.[6] Purple is documented to have been first extracted by the Phoenicians, a process that comes bearing an intractable strain of historical violence.

Pliny, in Book IX of Natural History documents the process of production of Tyrian purple. The synthesis of the dye requires the violent incursion of man into the natural world of specific species of shell fish. The purple becomes a convergence of man and beast, a startling symbol of Zeus himself, one that is sedimented with the thrust of violence:

Purples are taken in a sort of little lobster-pot made of fine ply thrown into deep water. These contain bait, cockles that close with a snap, as we observe that mussels do. These when half killed but put back in the sea gape greedily as they revive and attract the purples, which go for them with outstretched tongues. But the cockles… nip the creatures nibbling them. So the purples hang suspended… and are lifted out of the water.

… Subsequently the vein… is removed and to this salt has to be added, about a pint for every hundred pounds; three days is the proper time for it to be steeped… and it should be heated in a leaden pot… This will cause it to gradually deposit the portions of flesh which are bound to have adhered to the veins, and after about nine days the cauldron is strained, and a fleece that has been washed clean is dipped for a trial, and the liquid is heated up until fair confidence is achieved.

… The total amount of dye-stuffs required for 1,000 lbs. of fleece is 200 lbs. of whelk and 111 lbs. of sea-purple… [The] highest glory [of Tyrian purple] consists in the colour of congealed blood, blackish at first glance but gleaming when held up to the light; this is the origin of Homer’s phrase ‘blood of purple hue’. (251-55) (my emphasis)

The small amount of dye yielded was composed of a pigment that brightened and not decomposed under light.[7] The purple comes precipitated with a history of brutality ending with the symbolic ‘stain’, an ancient perpetration timelessly reiterated.[8]

The red of the swan functions as a close associate to the purple within the colour spectrum.[9] However, importantly, it is also an overwhelming menstrual signifier. The twentieth century witnessed a new political intimacy to the woman’s body, as exclusively female experiences such as menstruation, childbirth and pregnancy came to be unpeeled of oppressive patriarchal significations to make available a new, if discomfiting familiarity with a somatic idea of femaleness. By attributing Zeus with this attribute, H.D manages to position a feminine subjectivity on him in an involuntary identification with his love object.

The idea of the dual contained within the swan prefigures in the discourse of sexed bodies. Zeus is a single entity that contains the double – beast/god. In his taking on a female consciousness, he is also bisexualised. In the visual idiom this paradox surrounding the swan’s body has always been a problem in Leda representation. For an act as stiflingly gendered as rape, where bodies are violently sexed, the representation of the rapist runs into a quandary. The swan in its visible totality appears to be an extremely ‘feminine’ creature; practically indistinguishable sexually in terms of anatomy in the natural world, the swan with its downy body and frothy plumage does not exude connotations of aggressive machismo.[10] Helen Sword describes H.D.’s swan as ‘an oddly feminized rapist’. I would argue that H.D.’s erotic aesthetic serves more to dualise, and therefore bisexualise the swan, in a manifestation of her own authorial sexual anxieties.

The question of gender is also examined in Sidney Nolan’s 1960  Leda.* Located within an extensive body of personal work dealing with the subject,[11] this particular representation shows an androgynous, if not masculine (male?) Leda from whose lower body a swan seems to erupt. This works at least at two levels – it is an inversion of the dominant sexual position, with Leda appearing to enter the swan from behind. There is a clear negation of penetrative rape as instrumentalised by Zeus. Second, (again via a refracted, redoubled gender lens) the image shows a crude parturition – Leda the mother ‘engendering’ the swan, supplying an artistic validation to the Oedipal complex.[12] Leda forms the primal mother (but perhaps for Nolan, the phallic mother) who the swan desires to violate. It is the terrible double-bind – the sexual identification with, and the desire for the parent – but without the neutralising presence of the castrating father.

When it comes to a painting such as Leda, it is evident that semantic components of the text take on a syntactic function. The difference between something like Nolan’s Leda,[13] and a piece that is fairly contemporaneous, Salvador Dalí’s  Leda’s Swan (1961), is the way the spectator-response is defined – while the latter works with the idea of the sublime as something that elides comprehension of the viewer as well as author[14] (both of who seem to take on the part of vanquished Leda within the painting), the former extracts a sense of disorientation by inserting a paradigm of sexual difference onto the body of Leda. Nolan plays with the fact that in the long tradition of representing the rape of Leda by the swan, while the sexual identity of Zeus has been variously thrown into crisis, Leda is unquestioningly understood as female. The artist then manages to challenge not just the idea of a truth of an external world, but patterns of (male) textuality that reiterate patriarchal norms, both in the act of producing and the act of reading.[15]

A much earlier redaction of the myth, Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1907 poem “Leda”[16] makes a nuanced evaluation of the prismatically-sexed bodies[17] involved in this communion. For Rilke, there are at least two instances of entering involved – that of Zeus slipping into the swan, and the swan as god (instead of the other way around) penetrating Leda. There is a strained narrative of homoeroticism here. The conjoining of the material swan and divine Zeus (or possibly, the divine swan and material Zeus) draws a close parallel to the idea of the creative body being violently usurped by the muse. (Obviously, this further complicates gender relations with the muse being understood as a female presence and the author defined as male.)[18]

With specific reference to the Rilke text, I would argue that it is not poetry that “finds its sexual analogy in rape”[19] but sexuality that demands as its ontological condition the creative violence immanent in poetry. If one looks at the way in which poetry (especially within the Modernist context) brings together disparate, fragmentary, inorganically dissociated elements and tries to manipulate it into a ‘whole’ that is defined according to the pleasure and force of poetic consciousness, it becomes evident that this kind of unnatural coupling cannot escape a discourse of violence. If one reads sexuality in terms of poetry, one would observe how a similar principle underlies its constitution – in the predatory coming together of disjunctive bodies, the enforced cohesion of one entity to another, the experience of ecstasy that comes from this ‘artificial’ intersection of components, a union perpetually threatened by rupture as poetry is through interpretation.

This is validated within Rilke’s text where the initial coming over of the muse does not suffice to produce the poetic body. The homoeroticism can be analysed through the lens of a shared subjectivity; the muse appears to be contiguous to the poet himself, rather than some form of a (desired but feared) colonial assault. The poet and the muse form the kind of monistic collusion that cannot be a fertile site of meaning. That necessarily requires a second penetration (this time, heterosexual) in order for the first to fully realise itself. Leda’s ‘gaping wound’ takes Zeus in, and for the first time, he ‘becomes’ swan in her womb. The sexual and maternal conflate with a Freudian inversion, drawing up a vortex of libidinal discontents cast upon the template of poetic vision.[20]

The identification with a ‘mother Leda’ also finds articulation in Dalí. His 1961 painting shows a surreal, monstrous swan hovering menacingly over a naked Leda, seated, with her face buried into the avian form towering past her. The image is relentlessly violent, with the swan’s claws clutching onto her thighs, an ambiguous dark red streak around her exposed breast and buttocks possibly indicating blood. However, almost incongruously, the entire scene is ensconced within an egg-shaped frame. Dalí talks about a primal identification with the birth trauma – every (male) child shares a deeply visceral bond (that translates into the sexual) with the mother owing to the shared horror of the experience of gestation and birth. The trauma is then located, not in the sexual violation (or desire thereof) that characterises psychosexual development of the child, but in the moment of birth that irrevocably ties together two separated bodies. In the case of Dalí’s painting, the painful identification is not with the mother but with Zeus as phallic father, who in his rape of the mother, threatens a similar fate to the prurient child outside the defined visual circle. This psychic subtext of fear foregrounds the act of looking as the point of view of the artist is telescoped to that of the viewer, making the latter complicit in the voyeuristic gazing.[21]

In his autobiography, Dalí discusses his fascination for masturbation and auto-sodomy, a predilection that finds its way into his paintings.[22] Dalí’s 1934 Masochistic Instrument produces a composite of angst and sexual arousal where the former is defined by an obtuse signifier in the form of a deliquescent musical instrument.[23] There is a deliberate ambiguity to the way the artist comes to imagine the pain-pleasure binary. Dalí seems to enable a fluid differential where one segues into the other within a libidinally-charged semantic network rather than occupying positions of sharp opposition. In fact, as a lot of his work might suggest, pain appears to be a necessary point of origin which then retrospectively dissociates into an entropy of pleasure.[24] This image can be extrapolated to draw out threads of masochistic fantasising and to liberate concealed instances of erotic inadequacy as well as phallic anxiety in Leda’s Swan. Reading an image as a ‘condensed’ version of previous ‘drafts’ also becomes an important methodological intervention going back to H.D.’s “Leda”. Friedman in “The Return of the Repressed in Women’s Narrative” appropriates the Freudian technique of the ‘hermeneutic of recovery of the repressed’ in order to read women’s writing as a cultural production inextricably bound to totalitarian politics of a heteropatriarchal, phallocentric society:

Literary narratives are neither dreams nor symptoms. But as indirect fictionalizations, they often share with these articulations of the unconscious the linguistic mechanisms of productions that Freud associated with the grammar of the dream-work and the psychodynamics of repression and desire governed by the ‘censor’, that mysterious personification of the force that forbids…

Freud’s hermeneutic in turn fools the censor – undoes the suppression of the social order, the repression of the psyche – by a process that he names “decoding” … a removal of the layers in a palimpsest… (Friedman 141-42)

The image of the flower in H.D.’s “Leda’ can be read as symptomatic of this intranscribable “dialectic of speech and silence” where poetic consciousness attempts to “negotiate a compromise between revelation and concealment of the forbidden through textual disguise (Friedman 142)”, often arriving at a terse relation with its own historical trajectory.

In ‘naturalising’ the form of the woman to a flower (and thereby almost unsexing the rape), H.D. introduces a fourth element to the man-beast-god triptych. The lily becomes the etymological precipitate of a ‘deflowering’ by the god. If one were to form the text-cluster of the flower images that the poet uses, one would notice the historical signification with which the lily comes trapped.

In H.D.’s 1916 collection Sea Garden, the rose takes on a harshness that allows it to exuviate its romantic connotations. Far from engaging with residual aesthetics of the body of artistic representation that looks at this flower as a tender, feminine, virginally passionate symbol of infinite love, H.D.’s rose is uncompromisingly Steinian in its refusal of metaphoricity. It is then a rose that is a rose and that is nothing but a rose.  In stark contrast, the sea-lily is ravaged, not resilient, slashed at by the wind, decimated, always already a victim. The lily appears to contain a disintegrative force that threatens to implode, a staggering manifestation of a latent cataclysmic past. If one is to pursue the imagery of the maternal in “Leda” (the swan appears to ensconce the lily almost as though it were an egg), one could probably release the ‘black hole’ it conceals. H.D.’s pregnancy ended with a stillbirth in 1915, a traumatic event that found its way unguarded into the 1916 “Sea-Lily”, and that asymptotically vanishes in the 1918 “Leda”.[25] The surface of tender eroticism in “Leda” cracks to reveal a brutally stained swan and a brutalised Leda, only more cautiously censored. The touch that seems perpetually deferred has already penetrated, ravaged and wounded.

The figure of Leda also undergoes significant ‘overdetermination’ within Dalí’s corpus. At any given point, his representation of the rape appears to be paradigmatically fed by multiple sources of obsession, all tapering off into indeterminate origin. Dalí’s work on paranoia helped him shape his grammar of art theory as the Surrealist enterprise of negotiating with the kinesis and stasis of the unconscious was systemised into a new technique of producing as well as receiving art.[26] Dalí, who “defines paranoia as a ‘delirium of interpretative association involving a systematic structure’ and paranoiac-critical activity as ‘a spontaneous method of irrational knowledge based on the interpretative-critical association phenomena’ (“Dalí’s Paranoia-Criticism” 64)”, engaged with this form of critical intervention as a process of organising aleatory elements within a charged paranoiac framework. Using this unconscious cohesion as the defining principle, I will follow images within Dalí’s fixation of Leda to pursue stains of meaning thus formed.

Dalí worked on the Leda myth at various points in his career, every visual sedimented with curiosities of the time. I will begin my argument with the 1961 Leda’s Swan, flanked by his painting Leda Atomica (1949), and an etching (1963) and a sculpture (1972) on either side. Leda’s Swan establishes a crucial paradoxical power dynamic in the painting. Traditionally referred to as rape, Leda’s encounter with Zeus becomes a carnival of the terrible sublime. The mighty god takes on the form of a surreal, hyper-real swan, descends upon a ‘staggering’ maiden and violates her with lascivious designs. Dalí introduces a new problematic to this discourse of sexual violence, and in doing so, upturns (at least at this point) a primordially assumed male hierarchy. The phrase “Leda’s swan” indicates possession, almost objectification of the swan by Leda.

The name of the painting produces the first dichotomy in the text. If it suggests that Leda is the one possessing the swan, the painting clearly disrupts it. The fantastical, formless swan engulfs most of the canvas as it does Leda, while the crouching, seated woman is re-established as the traditional (unwilling) receiver. The swan with its talons aggressively gouging into her thighs forms the visual counterpoint to Leda as she is ‘femaled’ in sensuous nudity, her sheer supplication.[27] The phrase “Leda’s swan” also appears to indicate a sense of infantilisation of the swan, as though Leda has already assumed a powerful maternal role whose authority can be disavowed but never completely repressed. This finds visual validation in the way in which the painting is framed – the egg shape. The historical allusion to the egg is to the two eggs Leda produced, giving birth to Helen and Polydeuces, and Clytemnestra and Castor. This would obviously imply that the egg is a product of the intentional trajectory of the rape. Dalí throws into a temporal crisis this sequence of events. If the egg is the result of the rape, an indelible wound, then why does this action of this violation itself take place within it? The egg becomes the site of the genesis of history; the climax of the rape is the inception of a new cycle, a shuddering birth of another age.

The painting plays with its techniques of narrative – the egg that frames the rape almost functions like cinematic prolepsis, where the glimpse of a future ravage is localised in the past. Dalí potentially offers another reading of narrative time in the framing: if the egg is the location of the germ of history, does that become our moment of ‘truth’, our access to what the present entails? If the egg is the source of this sublime historical intervention, then are we merely retrospectively positing the rape as ‘fiction’ that could be undone at any moment? [28] If the egg is defined through perpetual presence, does this imply that the rape can only be constructed in the realm of negation of what the egg signifies?[29]

Leda’s Swan, which is the second of the series, has the swan atop a seated Leda, with the latter wrapped in an embrace, perhaps fearfully. In the third etching, the swan helplessly collapses over Leda but she clasps her arms around his neck aggressively, even passionately. Dalí’s final sculpture has an arched Leda, an egg as her seat, predatorily, rapturously manipulating the swan into complete domination. Dalí plays out a psychical drama where each image sequentially subverts a heteropatriarchal, phallic authority, reinstating Leda in a primal position of power – this is the moment when the aporia is tracked back to the maternal body, the point that absorbs, and absolves contradictions.

The problem of a male author appropriating the female body runs through the entire trope of Leda representation. Gilbert and Gubar call this process a ‘sexchange’ – the narrative assumption of an alternate gender identity fraught with a painful misrecognition.[30] The sexchange takes on a particularly feverish disposition with D H Lawrence. His poem on Leda opens with a plea to “come not with kisses, not with caresses” but with the (eminently phallic) harshness of the unwavering beak.[31] Lawrence’s assumption of this female position seems to stem less from a feminine point of view and more from a deep-seated masochistic identification with the figure of the father.[32] Lawrence in his engagement with the inescapable violence of ravishment hauls to the surface a masochistic pleasure that forms only a peritext in Rilke:

Lawrence’s poetics of inspiration articulates itself here as a fiat, a plea to the inspiring other not for a kinder, gentler, visionary influence but rather for a ‘sudden blow’, an energetic unmediated impact; the more violent the annunciation, Lawrence suggests, the more vibrant and intense the resulting enunciation. In 1913, he describes poetic inspiration as a necessary but frightening violation… In “Leda”, written more than a decade and a half later, he calls for a similarly violent force to energize his poetry and put him back in touch with the universal mystery from which England’s industrialized postwar society had, he felt, isolated itself. (Sword 311-12)

Lawrence’s painting on Leda serves to further problematise his position. Aligned along a skewed perspective, his image cordons in a swan sinuously gliding between Leda’s breasts, herself a naked figure decapitated by the bottom frame.[33] Lawrence appears to reduce the violation itself to a fragmentary experience of the body, devaluing her somatically and relocating the site of pleasure to the male perpetrator’s body. The central focus is the swan fluidly weaving its neck around Leda’s breasts, giving rise to the problem of representation of male accommodation of the female body. Unlike H.D.’s poem, where the river seems to alter its course to encase the movements of the swan, Lawrence’s painting contains a swan that does the manoeuvring around Leda’s body.[34] There is an uneasy dialectic of interlocking and separation here that produces an almost mechanical image – of labour and poesis, of a violence of convergence that produces art.[35] Dalí’s swan rents through the surface of the canvas in the three-dimensionality of the paint splatters it is composed of. This marks a key Modernist move – the return to the recognition of the material itself. Paint is no longer a signifier to an image, paint becomes the image itself. This is also true in the way language is queered in H.D. The unconscious within which H.D.’s material poetry functions comes deeply stratified with the sexual-textual politics of her identity as a woman, a poet and a bisexual.[36]

Representation betrays a densely refracted process of construction. With Modernism, this becomes complicated by not just the awareness of the auteur to this constituted nature of things, but that of the thing to itself. There is a violent, almost erotic turning in of the consciousness as the symbol ossifies to a singularity, as the material intervenes meaningfully in the crisis of the representational object.

About the author

Srishti Krishnamoorthy is a recent postgraduate in English Literature from The English and Foreign Languages University, India and currently is studying at Birkbeck, University of London on the London Consortium Indian Studentship for a Master of Research in Cultural Studies. Her research interests cover the spectrum of concerns within gender and sexuality studies, including (but not limited to) psychoanalysis, feminism, queer theory, body studies, discourses of abnormality, power, politics of exclusion and subjectivity.

Contact her here.


* Please see “OIA Statement on image use in articles” (click here) for more information.

Works Cited

Aristotle. Complete Works. Ed. Jonathan Barnes. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1984.

Cate-Arries, Francie. “Salvador Dalí, Federico Garcia Lorca, and the Persistence of Memory: Revealing Hidden Faces”. Anales de la literatura española contemporánea 20.1/2 (1995): 11-28. JSTOR. Web. 12th September 2012.

http://www.dalí Web. 26th November 2011.

Finkelstein, Haim. “Dalí’s Paranoia-Criticism or The Exercise of Freedom”. Twentieth Century Literature 22.1 (Feb 1975): 59-71. JSTOR. Web. 12th September 2012.

— “The Incarnation of Desire: Dalí and the Surrealist Object”. RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 23 (Spring 1993): 114-137. JSTOR. Web. 12th September 2012.

Freud, Sigmund. The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. James Strachey. New York: W W Norton, 1976.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. “The Return of the Repressed in Women’s Narrative”. The Journal of Narrative Technique 19.1 (Winter 1989): 141-156. JSTOR. Web. 12th September 2012.

— “Creativity and the Childbirth Metaphor: Gender Difference in Literary Discourse”. Feminist Studies13.1(Spring 1987): 49-82. JSTOR. Web. 12th September 2012.

Gilbert, Sandra, Susan Gubar. “Sexual Linguistics”. New Literary History 16.3 (Spring 1985): 515-543. JSTOR. Web. 12th September 2012.

— “Sexchanges”. College English 50.7 (November 1988): 768-785. JSTOR. Web. 12th September 2012.

Hopkins, David. “Salvador Dalí. Venice”. The Burlington Magazine 146.1221 (December 2004): 843-845. JSTOR. Web. 12th September 2012.

James, Merlin. “Sidney Nolan. London”. The Burlington Magazine 139.1134 (September 1997): 644-646. JSTOR. Web. 12th September 2012.

Jensen, Lloyd B. “Royal Purple of Tyre”. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 22.2 (April 1963): 104-118. JSTOR. Web. 12th September 2012.

Kossman, Nina. Gods and Mortals. NY: Oxford UP, 2001.

Messinger, Lisa M. “Twentieth Century Art”. Recent Acquisitions (Metropolitan Museum of Art (1987-88): 60-77. JSTOR. Web. 12th September 2012.

Pliny. Natural History Vol. 1X. Ed. T E Page. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1967.

Sword, Helen. “Leda and the Modernists”. PMLA107.2(Mar 1992): 305-318. JSTOR. Web. 12th September 2012.

Trowbridge, Hoyt. “Leda and the Swan: A Longinian Analysis”. Modern Philology 51.2 (November 1953): 118-129. JSTOR. Web. 12th September 2012.


[1] The use of the word ‘wound’ here is with deliberate metaphorisation of the narrative tradition as a (primarily phallocentric) body where the female poetic voice (here, H.D.’s) serves to be the marker of female sexuality, the corporal ‘wound’. The textual-sexual dynamics of the poem and of the history of Leda representation have been explored later in the essay.

[2] A common argument within Leda scholarship attempts at positioning a sexual authorial binary in the way rape comes to be represented. Male poets (predominantly Yeats and Lawrence within Modernism) have been held in contrast to female poets in that the former inadequately appropriate the victim position while their inherent maleness drags the ‘event’ into a discourse of violence, whereas the latter reclaim the rape by insinuating a more tender seduction and consensual playfulness. See Helen Sword for a critical description of the way the act of rape almost comes to be elided in H.D.:

If H.D.’s poetry and fiction tend to dwell long and hard on themes of memory, regret and betrayal and particularly on the sexual and psychological victimization of women by men, the “Leda,” in adamantly avoiding such themes, becomes instantly suspect by virtue of its omissions. How, we must ask, could a poet so well versed in both real-life and literary injustice portray a rape scene that admits no trace of ugliness or terror? One reply, of course, is that H.D. was merely following fin-de-siècle precedent, echoing rather than questioning familiar representations of the story as a romance rather than as a rape; her poem, after all, was published two years before Yeats would thematize mythic violence in “Leda and the Swan,” nine years before the publication of Lawrence’s strange, swampy swan poems. (314)   

[3]  Quoted in. In Sword, 313-14.

[4] One could read the swan as the fragment which becomes the point of origin in the imagination of the whole, in an inclination of H.D.’s Modernist disposition. As befits a Modernist fragment, the swan continues to retain a sense of totality it belongs to, the past it comes from. Zeus is then not an arbitrary instance of a god descending upon a mortal – he becomes a metaphor in a formal sense, his ‘swanness’ is in excess of the swan he is. Robert Snukal provides a validation for this in his claim that “Leda is being raped not only by a god, but by history as a god.” (Sword 307) One should then question perhaps as to what happens to this notion of the swan as a fragment within Post-Modernism. Does the swan become an ‘orphan fragment’ trying to compose its (absent) past in the very act of rape? If H.D.’s poem examines how history becomes rape for Leda, will a Postmodern text mark how rape becomes history? Leda and Zeus would presumably take on the role of characters independent of larger metaphysical brackets, composed entirely in the act of representation.

[5] I argue here for the consciousness of materiality of the medium that was particularly acute for the Modernists. (This is also pursued towards the end of the essay.) The colours that H.D. uses in her poetry, and their movement within the body of the poem become a material representation of the eroticism that is embedded in signification. The red and the purple of the evening heat mimic the hues of the swan. And when the late sunbeam touches the lily, flecking it with colour, I argue that what is in fact happening is a transfer of the touch from Zeus to the lily, although the two bodies are not yet in contact.

[6]  As discussed later, the process of extracting purple invoked an exceptional stress of resources, both manual and material, thus making it available only to royalty. I read this as the moment in which purple moves from being material itself to pure signifier. The connotations of regal lineage associated with the colour make it an appropriate association for Zeus. However, I think H.D. is deliberately engaging with the process by which signification comes into play here – Leda is violated not by the swan but by his swanness, the rape is the representation. This perhaps also holds an echo with Rilke’s notion of ‘becoming swan’; Zeus in H.D. transcends the ‘truth’ of the body, conflating the sublime, symbol and substance in his subjectivity.

[7] Aristotle, in his treatise On Colours, discusses an alternate method of dye-production using purple-fish, one that does not escape the inherent violence. “When in dyeing purple they put in the purple colouring matter from the vein of the purple-fish, at first it turns brown and black and hazy; but when the dye has been boiled sufficiently, a vivid, bright violet appears.” (10)

[8] If one is to transpose the Yeatsian image of ‘indifferent beak’ (refer end of this footnote) onto H.D.’s purple perpetrator, one should perhaps look at retrospective accounts of the way in which the colour came to be laden with its signification of callousness. “One modern source states that purple dye of murex was manufactured really very simply. The murex were piled in heaps and left to die, and from these dead decaying sea snails the purple liquid ran off and was collected. Also, it is stated that the supply was over-fished so that the Phoenicians had to find new beds of murex. This of course was not generally the case… The eggs of murex have great survival value and moreover the supply of purple never met the demand in ancient times.” (Jensen 108) See “Leda and the Swan,” as quoted in Kossman, 17. 

[9] “The different shades of crimson and violet depend on differences in the strength of their constituents, while blending is exemplified by mixture of white and black, which gives grey. So a dusky black mixed with light gives crimson… But a vivid bright violet is obtained from a blend of feeble sunlight with a thin dusky white… [A] great quantity of light blended with primary black gives crimson. Add vividness and lustre, and crimson changes to flame-colour.” (On Colours 3-4)

[10] As compared, for instance, to the bull that spirits away Europa, or even for that matter, the eagle that rapes Ganymede, the swan does not immediately conjure images of masculine violation or the potential to petrify the woman into submission. In fact, what it comes most close to doing is providing an ‘aestheticisation’ of the rape. Helen Sword argues using Bram Dijkstra’s analysis, “Pastoral depictions of Leda as the swan’s acquiescent lover characterize women as ‘other-than-human’ creatures, craving still the ‘animal pleasures’ that men have transcended, are to be despised as well as feared; at the same time, the swan-god’s ‘assertive act of rape’ allows male artists to control such dangerous femininity by returning Leda to woman’s supposedly ‘predestined submission to the abject position of male authority (307).”

[11]  Nolan’s obsessive engagement with the Leda motif (the link is to some of his works) produces a complex and comprehensive picture of the radical possibilities ensconced in the interaction of the two actors within this cultural imaginary. Because a study of the complete Nolan oeuvre would require critical intervention outside the scope of this essay, I have chosen to bracket all but one of his paintings on Leda. The specific rationale behind this choice has to do, to some extent, to the historical moment within which it was produced – one of his earliest Ledas, one that is produced close to the primary Dalí I am looking at. But also, especially crucially, in this particular painting, Nolan inserts the problematic of the sexed body in a way no other artist does – he dislocates the moment of sexual ambiguity onto the body of Leda rather than the swan, as is discussed in the main text. This marks a transfer of the violence of discourse itself that works at least two levels.  One, the dialectic of male representation compromising the bodily integrity of the female rape victim is thrown into a conundrum – here we have a male artist reimagining the possibility of a recovered maleness in the position traditionally accorded to the female casualty of patriarchal representation and perpetration. Secondly, in an almost Rilkean fashion, Nolan articulates the violence of the female wound as not that of rape but of birth, thus visualising Leda as producing history rather than being caught up helplessly in its machinery.

[12] Freud discusses the nature of sexual attraction between a male child and his mother, the “Oedipal complex”. The mother becomes the primary sexual object for the infant during the phallic stage of psychosexual development due to a complex libidinal interaction within the child. The desire for the mother is accompanied by a simultaneous hatred for and fear of the father who threatens to castrate.  One can read an enactment of this psychic drama in Nolan’s painting, but through an inversion. For Freud, the maternal ‘transforms’ into the erotic. In Nolan, the traditionally held sexual liaison between the rapist and his victim comes to be re-imagined as the atavistic connection between a mother and her child. This is also an important site for examining split subjectivities – most redactions of the rape show Zeus and Leda in the moment of coitus, thus representing the (albeit forced) internalisation of the former by the latter when two bodies become one. If one reads the parturition dialectic in Nolan, what we in fact have is the moment of expulsion of (the child) Zeus from (the mother) Leda, where the singular placenta-unified body becomes two.

[13] In a discussion on Nolan’s style from around the 1960’s, Merlin James discusses how “when his work is compelling, the economy is one of differences played against each other to maximum effect, not of a single quality given full rein. In a sense, the ‘illustrated’ content itself becomes a formal or quasi-formal element, and within the overall mechanism of the work, the viewer is aware of appreciating it in a detached manner (as well as perhaps ‘receiving’ it as a primary message) (646).”

[14] For more on a related text, see Hoyt Trowbridge’s essay on the presence of the sublime in Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan”. “Sublimity, according to Longinus, is the quality in writing from which ‘the greatest poets and writers have derived their eminence and gained an immortality of renown.’ Its effect is ‘transport,’ a conquest of the reader or hearer, uplifting the mind by its overpowering force, filling it ‘with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard.’ Sublimity is the ‘echo of a great soul,’ communicated to the reader through speech (119).”

The Yeatsian swan draws a close parallel to Dalí’s representation, particularly in the way the human subject seems to be aggressively contracted into submission before the ‘divine’ presence. Says Trowbridge, “[Yeats’] bird is allegorical; as in other poems of his, the swan is a symbol of passion, which he conceives as a supernatural force, shattering in its power, which flashes upon mankind from above, revealing an unearthly glory and splendor and fusing the human with the divine (121).”

[15] Within a patriarchal order of representation, writing takes on a predominantly phallocentric function that emphasises upon singularity of interpretation. In Nolan’s subversion of the notion of the fixed femaleness of Leda’s body, he produces a challenge to the hegemony of the ‘one’ (and thus, to androcentrism) through plurality, temporality and diffusion of the sexual.

[16]    Quoted in Kossman, 16.

[17] Rilke’s poetry appears to pre-empt Nolan’s aesthetics of mapping sexual difference in corporeality. In Rilke, the swan appears to undergo a sexual redoubling of sorts, sequentially occupying a female subjectivity that is entered into by Zeus and in turn, entering Leda in his maleness. The body in discourse then comes to be fractured by a shifting multiplicity of sexes.

[18] “Inspiration, as its best, signifies a positive, generative influence, a fertilizing encounter of human and divine energies. But although poets and mystics throughout history have figured creative and religious inspiration in terms of shared union and shared sexual ecstasy, the dark side of inspiration is violation, a violent overwhelming of self by Other that finds its sexual analogy in rape. As the Leda myth itself dramatizes, the rape analogy is an uncomfortable one for male and female writers alike, for it posits a sexual cosmogony that characterizes the inspiring Other as male and thus explicitly feminizes the inspired poet…

[Rilke’s] poem offers an emphatically male point of view: it reverses the rape-by-the-Other by suggesting that, if the myth be read as a fable of poetic inspiration, Zeus, rather than Leda stands in the poet’s role. Thus the story enacts, not the poet’s violation by an inspiring Other, but his own visionary penetration of his poetic object.” (Sword 305-06, 309)

[19] See footnote 18 directly above.

[20]  See footnote 12 on the Oedipal complex above.

[21] See also Freud’s analysis of the ‘Wolfman’ case where he explains how the (imagined) act of watching the parents have sexual intercourse, seeing them enact the ‘primal scene’ becomes one of the most vulnerable pathways to psychosis. The trauma associated with this primeval voyeurism produces a deep-seated terror in the child, who recognises this as the moment of sexual difference as well as death.

[22] “‘Naked, and comparing myself to my schoolfriends, I discovered that my penis was small, pitiful and soft,’ Dalí told Andre Parinaud in 1976 for what became The Unspeakable Confessions Of Salvador Dali.

‘I can recall a pornographic novel whose Don Juan machine-gunned female genitals with ferocious glee, saying that he enjoyed hearing women creak like watermelons. I convinced myself that I would never be able to make a woman creak like a watermelon.’

Having a small penis is a common self-criticism among men, of course, but biographer Ian Gibson, having scoured Salvador’s adolescent writings with a magnifying glass, said he’d found ample evidence in the frank outpourings that the young Dalí’s relationship with his first girlfriend had suffered because of his shortcoming and he ended up masturbating frequently.

Presumably the ‘revelation’ is important to art historians trying to track the meaning of Dalí’s paintings, in which masturbation, like the tower, was a regular theme. (n.p.)” 

[23] See also Dalí’s 1954 painting Young Virgin Auto-Sodomized by the Horns of Her Own Chastity which shows a nubile naked girl poised fluidly across a railing which itself dissociates into fragments as one looks at the painting. The subject appears to be poised to be penetrated anally, with varying imaginations of phallic devices training against and in the place of her buttocks. Dali’s reference to ‘auto-sodomy’ implies a breakdown of the necessary duality that characterises sexual encounter as the subject and object of sexual desire/intervention collapse into one body. The problematic of texture, as in the musical instrument mentioned above, is re-encountered here – do the fragments of the metal railing represent the cold, steely nature of a brutal dildo, or does their pliant form indicate a formal adaptability to the needs of the virgin?

[24] For Dali’s earlier work on this relationship, follow his 1927 treatise “Sant Sebastia”. His writing appears to mark a departure from personal mythology of the erotics of pain by drawing up a sanitising distance between him and the subject. “A familiar icon in Renaissance painting and homoerotic literature, St. Sebastian is usually represented as a semi-naked, handsome youth tied to a tree, his tortured flesh pierced by the arrows of his martyrdom. In his article, Dali uses the figure of the saint to propose a new artistic perspective of ironic distance, a mathematical objectification of emotions, a kind of rigorous ‘deshumanizacion’ of a traditional icon of pain and suffering. The pathetic – the saint in agony – becomes geometric, abstract, precise, a signifier of serene, indifferent artistic control.” (Cate-Arries 13-14)

[25] “The childbirth metaphor is a controversial one that has been both selected and rejected by contemporary feminist theorists, critics, and writers. On the one hand, French theorists who promote the concept of l’ecriture feminine insist on a poetic of the female body. As Helene Cixous writes, ‘women must write through their bodies.’ Women, ‘never far from ‘mother’’, write in ‘white ink’. Using the birth metaphor itself, Cixous describes ‘the gestation drive’ as ‘just like the desire to write: a desire to live self from within, a desire for a swollen belly, for language, for blood.’ On the other hand, feminists oppose modes of thought they consider biologically deterministic, essentialist, and regressive. Examination of [the cultural resonance of the childbirth metaphor, gender difference in the metaphor’s meaning as constructed in the process of reading, gender difference as reflected in the process of writing reveals] that women writers have often risked the metaphor’s dangerous biologism in order to challenge fundamental binary oppositions of patriarchal ideology between word and flesh, creativity and procreativity, mind and body.” (“Creativity and the Childbirth Metaphor” 50-51)

This allows a complication of Nolan’s “Leda”. Would Friedman’s argument that the childbirth metaphor seems to be a trope exclusively associated with women writers imply that the only way in which Nolan can legitimise his assumption of a female art object in the act of parturition is by either decocting the symbol to an image, or by reproducing the very textual codes of patriarchal oppression that the shock-value of the painting negates? Does the woman viewer then also hold a more privileged access to the text than either the male viewer or the male artist?

[26] On Dalí’s formulation of the Surrealist Object. Finkelstein in “The Incarnation of Desire” writes:

Even Breton’s objets oniriques were still a proposal, albeit one that proved to be more fecund and lasting for Dalí than most. Breton envisaged the effect of his proposed dream-objects in terms of a discrediting of ‘reasonable’ beings and objects that would demolish the ‘detestable concrete trophies’ that encumber man’s life (Points du jour 24). What Breton’s text remained oblivious to at that point was the erotic dimension. It was the concept of symbolic functioning (fonctionnement symbolique) that was to introduce this dimension, providing Dalí with a mechanism that would animate this new form of expression and help channel his erotic preoccupations. As defined by Dalí in “Objets surrealistes,” the objets a fonctionnement symbolique, “lending themselves to a minimum of mechanical functioning, are based upon phantasms and representations that are likely to be provoked by the realization of unconscious acts.” These acts correspond to “distinctly characterized erotic fantasies and desires,” and Dalí argues further that the “incarnation of those desires, their objectification through substitution and metaphor and their symbolic realization, all constitute a process of sexual perversion, which resembles, in all respects, the process involved in the poetic act” (Oui 1178). (“The Incarnation of Desire” 118)

[27] Dalí’s imagination of the 1961 nude Leda also marks an important iconographic transition from the 1949 Leda Atomica. The former is clearly an image of a tender seduction that is virginal in its absence of touch. The forms of both Leda and the swan are well-defined, the shapes concrete and the details sharp. In contrast, the latter has a shadowy form, the swan is a strategic splatter of paint, and the background is saturated with indefinite shapes and fumes in black and yellow.

[28] A glimpse of this is offered in the set of four Ledas he produced between 1948 and 1974. The first, Leda Atomica, shows Leda and the swan in a loving repose, virginally just distant from each other. Almost the antipode to H.D.’s “Leda”, this painting does not contend with the issue of touch at all, except through negative definition. Unlike H.D.’s poem where the moment of convergence of the swan and the lily is textually anticipated in the union of landscape elements that precede it, Dalí’s text does away with touch altogether. The image of Gala as Leda is poised in free floatation over a pedestal that is not grounded, the swan hovers beside her, wings syncopated to the curve of her arms, not in touch with it, and the sea floats over the land like a translucent skin. The composition is informed by the principle of quantisation of matter – the idea that all matter is made up of discreet elements (quanta) that provide an illusion of continuity that the eye perceives.

Another stylised representation, a 1954 Dalí Nude, in Contemplation Before the Five Regular Bodies Metamorphized into Corpuscles, in Which Suddenly Appears the Leda of Leonardo Chromosomatized by the Visage of Gala could help ‘fix’ a paranoiac motivation to this complex of images. The central focus of the text is a collection of ‘corpuscles’ suspended above the kneeling figure of Dalí by the sea. The still molecular entities project a surprising visual of the face of Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic Leda, provoking a disruption of motion into stillness.

See also Dalí’s 1958 Madonna where “he paints two different overlapping subjects in a profusion of pink and grey dots” There is a similar technique in play here. “The disintegration of the surface and the subjects into rows of pulsating dots arose from Dalí’s interest in nuclear physics in the late 1950’s. The technique is actually a visualization of the concept of antimatter, releasing tremendous amounts of energy. Here, Dalí plays on this theory by creating a painting in which the image dissolves and reorganises itself.” (Messinger 62) Iconographically, the images of da Vinci’s Leda and Dalí’s Mary appear startlingly similar, drawing parallels of the rape to the Annunciation. (I am excluding a more detailed discussion on the subject of the Annunciation for the purpose of this essay – the interaction of religion and sexuality is a complex project that requires a wholly separate line of argumentation.)

[29] David Hopkins, in his review of Leda Atomica, draws an interesting photographic parallel to this formal organisation, stating that it appears “to be assembled from photographic images in precisely the way that art students are sometimes advised to avoid, leading to deadening pictorial effects. All of this could be offset, however, by the fact that Dalí actively sought to be anti-aesthetic. He famously described his images as ‘instantaneous colour photography done by hand’.” (844)

[30] “When we ourselves use the words ‘woman’ and ‘man’, ‘female’ and ‘male’, ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’, therefore we are deploying what we, too, understand as artificial, socially determined signifiers. But we are also always using these terms both to explore their changing resonances and to examine the ways in which such changes in meaning affected the lives and lives of the writers we have chosen to study. On the one hand, therefore, we do not regard biographical speculations as irrelevant to our enterprise, since we assume that the concepts ‘female’ and ‘male’ have an impact on human experience which has always… been gendered. On the other hand, we seek to locate the text in its sociocultural context, since we believe, too, that the concepts ‘female’ and ‘male’ are inextricably enmeshed in the materiality and mythology of history, which we have found, has almost always been experienced as gendered.”  (“Sexchanges” 722)

[31]    Quoted in Kossman, 16-17.

[32] In “A Child is Being Beaten”, Freud explicates how children fantasise about being chastised by the father, and derive erotic pleasure from this imagined enactment of punishment. Though Lawrence, by all accounts, disagreed with Freud, it appears at least in his poetry, that he is after all submitting to an almost universal experience of psychical struggle against conflicting desires for the father.

[33] Lawrence’s painting could also be read as a somewhat bizarre repositioning of the gaze at Michelangelo’s sixteenth-century work Leda and the Swan. While the latter uses the profile, thereby opening up the visual field to the spectator and allowing a shared space to exist between Leda and Zeus, Lawrence incriminates the viewer as the perpetrator. The viewer (specifically in his intercepted gaze) is positioned where Leda’s head should be, thus participating directly in the visual violation of her bodily integrity. This is the closest substantive parallel one finds to the interpretation-as-discursive-rape paradigm.

[34] This accentuates the issue of the body in art, especially in contention with representation of two figures in a conjugal position, but belonging to different species. In terms of the Modernist impulse towards ‘cross-talk’, this alignment of the male body over the female, the rapist’s over the victim’s, the swan over the girl brings in the problematic of weight. The discourse of rape is inextricably linked to power; the question of corporeal enforcement becomes almost the pre-given variable when it comes to representing violation. In the case of Leda, however, the image of one body brutally weighing down another becomes incongruous with the available visual of the downy underbelly and the ruffled plumage of the swan. The strategy deployed is the imagination of space. Nolan and Dalí have upright figures, with the latter privileging the swan, and the former, Leda. Lawrence has supine figures, but with the swan occupying the traditional missionary position. The placement of one body over the other such that the dominant occults the recessive allows room for the alignment to remain skewed. Authorial responsibility towards verisimilitude is covered by the positioning of one body to overlap the other.

The problem of weight, and its associated political underpinnings, is sublimated thematically. Dalí’s swan is a fearsome spectacle – the featureless face arched back in orgasmic triumph, the invasive wing span, the eagle-like talons leave no scope for the viewer to imagine anything but the transcendental experience of terror. Nolan works through association. The inversion of our conditioned reading of the rape, Leda not as victim, or as consensual participant but as the perpetrator as poor Zeus is reduced to an infantile, almost foetal apparition of himself, conduits the horror of the rape along an alternately sexed pathway. Lawrence’s representation is perhaps the most conventional of all – the obliteration of the Leda figure in the painting is also her erasure from the discourse of power that she is dragged into occupying.

[35] Dalí, in his exposition of the paranoiac-critical method, looked at how the obsessive paranoia forms a framework that helps cohere completely aleatory elements into a composite whole. Zeus’ obsessive desire for Leda is what composes this concert of contradictory components – the unholy consortium of the bestial, the human and the divine, rendering it an artistic, and by extension, an aesthetic-ethical felicity.

[36] “Is her body a linguistic term in (male) language? Does her body express or repress a (female) language of its own? When she organizes ideas, does she organize, organicize, or even orgasmicize herself as a subordinate clause in the syntax of patriarchy? Given such an organization of thought, how can she come thoughtfully to terms with her own terminology? If the Phallus is the magic wand (or want) that opens the gates of language, if the Name-of-the-Father is the password into the palace of rational discourse, what name, what wand (or want), what password can safeguard her rites of passage? Neither metaphorical nor metaphysical, her appraisal of sexual linguistics is both personal and political, founded not in experimental speculation but in experiential reality.” (“Sexual Linguistics”, 517)


Text copyright 2012 Srishti Krishnamoorthy

One thought on “Reconceiving Leda

  1. How to comment on this article:

    Effective January 24, 2013, all comments regarding articles in Open Inquiry Archive must be submitted on the Feedback page and in the form of a Letter to the Editors.

    Please visit that page for more information and to submit your Letter. The Feedback page an be accessed directly here:

    Thank you.

    – the Editors

To find out how to submit feedback about this article, please visit the "How to Submit Feedback" page of this site.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s