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Steven Z. Levine. The Modernist Myth of the Self. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994. 370 pp.; 127 b/w ills. $70.00; $29.95 paper
Steven Z. Levine's Monet, Narcissus, and Self-Reflection: The Modernist Myth of the Self is at once a psycho-biographical reading of Claude Monet's letters, a study of the reception of his water paintings, and a consideration of the literary context inhabited by the many critics and poets who responded to them. As such, Levine's text has much to offer to readers interested in the literary and artistic culture of late nineteenth-century France. As the title suggests, the book is framed by the myth of Narcissus, the youth obsessed with the reflection of his own image in a watery pool. Using the tools of psychoanalysis and deconstruction, Levine traces the varied and subtle ways that the figure of Narcissus and the narcissistic trope of self-reflection emerged in Monet's paintings and letters as well as in the writings of his friends, admirers, and critics over his long career from 1858 to 1926. Narcissus appears as a figure for Monet himself, a more general allegory of the modernist artist, and an allegory of male subjectivity. Rather than give an authoritative account, Levine aims to represent "something troubling and compelling in and around the water paintings of Claude Monet" (p. xv) and to elaborate a discourse on Narcissus that, he says, is part of a "massive discursive consolidation" of a "European, bourgeois, masculine self" (p. xi). Narcissus also appears as a figure of Levine himself, as he acknowledges early on the projection of his "own narcissistic absorption in the antinomies of self-reflection upon an artist who does not here speak for himself" (p. xv).
In the first two chapters Levine sets out the issues that will structure the entire text. Counter to common understandings of an association between naturalism, Impressionism, and an empirical view of nature, Levine identifies what he calls a "modern allegorical mode" of interpreting landscapes. Even the works of Monet's precursors Gustave Courbet and Eugene Boudin, which represent the "limit case" of naturalism, were endowed by critics with "mythological metaphors" that "express[ed] the erotic and emotional associations of the landscape" (pp. 8-9). Narcissus is the latent figure for this structure, Levine argues, since what the artist/spectator sees "implicitly mirrored" is his own "self-reflective presence" (pp. 3-4). As this allegorical discourse is elaborated, it becomes clear that it proceeds according to a paradigm in which "feminine" nature becomes a screen for male self-actualization.
Levine also devotes the early part of the book to evoking the range of meanings attributed to Narcissus in the nineteenth century. Toward the middle of the century Narcissus was primarily a negative figure of critique. Narcissus could represent an …