The Veiled Woman
The erotic life. .. of women—partly
owing to the stunting effect of civilized conditions and partly owing to
Figures of female sexuality at the fin de siecle are frequently represented as both exotic and veiled. After her forced masquerade as the veiled Turkish wife, Lady Sannox "takes the veil absolutely and forever." A statue of a beautiful veiled woman, surrounded by mummified, embalmed, and petrified bodies, guards the entrance to Haggard’s Kôr; it is inscribed with the warning words: "Behold! There is no man born of woman who may draw my veil and live." In the African jungle, Kurtz paints a veiled woman: "a small sketch in oils, on a panel, representing a woman, draped and blindfolded, carrying a lighted torch" Even the Bostonian Verena Tarrant, who has always looked "like an Oriental" to Basil Ransom, is finally veiled under the hood of her black velvet cloak, which conceals both her "face and her identity," as he wrenches her away from the lecture hall. Most famously, Oscar Wilde’s Jewish princess Salome drops seven veils to reveal the mysteries of sexual difference, creativity, and the psyche.
The veiled woman had many nuances and meanings for fin-de-siécle artists, and one can construct "a poetics or thematics of the veil in the texts of literature, psychoanalysis, and philosophy, as well as in the cinema."* She was associated with the mysteries of the Orient, the Sotadic Zone, and the harem or seraglio. Indeed, the Oriental woman behind the veil of purdah stood as a figure of sexual secrecy and inaccessibility for Victorian men in the l880s and l890s, much as the nun, another veiled woman, had done for Gothic novelists in the 1780s and 1790s.British civil servants in the Punjab especially were fascinated by the sexual aspects of Indian religion. They took a strong interest in the purdah, in women behind the veil who seemed to embody "what was unknown and inscrutable in Indian life."
Why was the veil linked with femininity? First of all, veiling was associated with female sexuality and with the veil of the hymen. The veil thus represented feminine chastity and modesty; in rituals of the nunnery, marriage, or mourning, it concealed sexuality. Furthermore, science and medicine had traditionally made use of sexual metaphors which represented "Nature" as a woman to be unveiled by the man who seeks her secrets. As Ludmilla Jordanova has shown, these images were embodied in fin-de-siècle allegorical sculpture, such as the statue exhibited in Paris in 1895 by Louis Ernest Barrias. Entitled La Nature se devoilant devant Ia science (Nature Unveiling Herself Before Science), it depicts a beautiful young woman, eyes modestly lowered, breasts seductively bared, who lifts her hands to remove the veils that conceal the rest of her body. The statue, identical to one that stood in the hall of the Paris medical faculty during the nineteenth century, suggests the ways that the unveiling of women’s bodies became associated with medical and scientific vision.† If there had been a companion piece called Science Looking at Nature, it would have depicted a fully clothed man, whose gaze was bold, direct, and keen, the penetrating gaze of intellectual and sexual mastery.
The veiled woman who is dangerous to look upon also signifies the quest
for the mystery of origins, the truths of birth and death. In one of his
shortest but most influential essays, Freud interpreted the myth of Medusa’s
head as an allegory of the veiled woman, whose unshielded gaze turns men
to stone. According to Freud, the decapitated head of Medusa with its snaky
looks is a "genitalized head," an upward displacement of the sexual organs,
so that the mouth stands for the vagina dentata, and the snakes
for pubic hair. For men to unveil the Medusa is to confront the dread of
looking at the female sexual organs: "To decapitate: to castrate. The terror
of Medusa is thus a terror of castration that is linked to the sight of
something. Numerous analyses have made us familiar with the occasion for
this: it occurs when a boy, who has hitherto been unwilling to believe
the threat of castration, catches sight of the female genitals, probably
those of an adult, surrounded by hair and
Source: Elaine Showalter, Sexual Anarchy 144-45