Notes on The Male Sphinx
By Harriet Rix
There were occasions when what had been suppressed forced its way to the surface, and the death of his dearly loved mother was one of these.
Leonardo da Vinci, Freud
“Why don’t you like Kubin?”
“Boring palette. Misogynistic.”
“Was he really?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know much about him.”
“Let’s go in. We’ll discover him together.”
In Kubin’s childhood, women came and went; his mother died when he was a child, his father’s subsequent wives also died. “Her familiar face suddenly turned pinched and alien”, he said of his mother’s death. He had no sense of the self-effacing obscurity of permanence. He had no idea that the person from whom you are born, lacking as they do demarcations of advent and departure, can form a nebulous cloud in your mind. He did not understand that, humbly ignorant of a need to explain themselves to you, mothers can be an insoluble riddle.
“The Male Sphinx. This is the drawing that makes you think Kubin a misogynist? Why? The Egyptians made their sphinxes male.”
“Not in this way, craggy and autochthonous. When I look at that drawing, I see Kubin forcing an alien character onto the sphinx; he blocks out what should be playful, dangerous, and unexplained; he replaces it with an exaggerated, innocent masculinity. He’s trying to force certainty on an enigma, flesh onto a dream.”
Instead of a female enigma, unlike Ingres, Moreau or Bacon, Kubin gives us the male sphinx. He gives us a sphinx hawk-nosed and powerful, chained to its own pedestal by square, crudely formed, mushroom nails driven through his wrists (it is on the wrists, not the palms, that stigmata comes). He gives us a sphinx with a strap holding him down along the upper thigh, and a sort of amiable acceptance. He gives us a lean waist and ribs gaunt enough that we can sense each muscle and each bone.
“No mother ever passes on knowledge to her children, haven’t you realised? It’s the reason that all young men assume their mothers are foolish and illogical. The reason that boarding schools exist. Motherhood is a lesson in endless restraint; trying not to repress your children by revealing how much you know. Imagine if when you were born, your nearest companion deluged you in thirty years worth of knowledge.”
“I think I’d survive.”
“Oh really? Remind me why you once attacked the Steinway with kitchen knives?”
“My mother sight-read perfectly, and I assumed that it would develop naturally when I grew up.”
“Q.E.D. For this reason you have the appalling wastefulness of the human race, that every generation re-learns.”
“But here Kubin’s trying to say that there really are men who are able to inquire deeply into a subject, come to a proper, deep understanding, and pin a riddle down.”
“Perhaps; but if so he was also pointing out that such people end up trapped by their own certainty. They make their own shape within it, and cast their knowledge in their own mould. The best teachers only pass on the bones of knowledge to their pupils, and we clothe them with flesh.”
Bone gives us the starting point for enigma that Kubin lacked – the male sphinx is a lion more than a man. Those ribs, then the radius and the ulnar, tucking together to produce a hefty outward bulging shoulder, the deltoid, the infraspinatus, the triceps and biceps all beefing it up, the ribs tucking under, to leave the escape route, a tunnel under the ribs. No vertebrae, but then a hip bone, sharpened, confined, and heading seamlessly into the leg, or is it a muscle? At any rate it continues unexpectedly into the stomach. A stomach exhausted by fasting.
“Run your eyes along that muscle, hip to stomach. Should men have muscles like that? Do you?”
“I don’t think so, but isn’t this the genius of what Kubin is doing? The impossible tangible; his dreams a reality.”
“It reminds me of Leonardo’s picture of St Jerome; the unfinished one in the Vatican with the muscle fierce from collar bone to bicep.”
“There’s a beauty in the adapted body; the muscles developed for their work, the callouses on the cellist’s fingers, the swelled knuckles of the gardener.”
“Yes; but what need did Jerome have of that sideways thrust? I think it was Leonardo, carried away with the power of shading, creating a sophistic man for his own pleasure.”
Let’s assume those sharpened hip-bones are a carrier for the shading that forces us to run our eyes over muscle; the semitendinosus of a lion, or is it the gluteus medius of a man? And their linked replacement into the latissimus dorsi, this common to both man and beast. In its lifelessness, the eye slides off the prostrate penis, but though large, this seems unimportant. An unnecessary appendage for a man, why stick it on a lion?
“Was Kubin carried away too? Why has he whittled away at the flesh of his reality here?”
“You’re dissecting this too far. Kubin is using shading to introduce sensuousness.”
“But in that case why make a grown man innocent? And why make so much of his sphinx a man? I prefer my chimaeras Arian; the human subordinate to the lion, or at any rate leaving it half a body.”
In spite of all the conflated gradations of man-lion, he is unambiguous and solid. He is chained by the very sparseness of that muscle, imprisoned by iron through the unbreakable strength of that bone. He has no flesh that can melt away and liberate him from the riddles of life, and his face — blunt broad cheekbones, and high-bridged nose — expresses this immobile helplessness in blind trust and slow, contemplative power. He will never morph in order to liberate himself.
“I’ve just realized something about you. You’re Freud’s second type of a man; you sublimate your sexual urges into intellectual ones, but never reach the comfort of a solution.”
“I’m a woman.”
“You know what I mean. Look at all these pictures Kubin drew, look at the sphinx. When Kubin put it onto paper he was reaching some form of reality, drawing a fear out of his mind, placing it and finalising it, delineating reality. But you seem to hate any sort of solution. Is this why you won’t let me go? What do you want out of this?”
“Shall I be frank? Then here it is; I have dreams of you, dreams of happiness that I know will never be matched by reality. Ambiguity is the best I can hope for. Like Kubin, I’m ambitious for my angst.”
In the picture there is a sylph above him, connected only by gentle osculation between calf and mane. She is escaping from him, is she forcing him to remain chained? She can escape anywhere with subtlety and steal the limelight. Her thigh bones are painfully bent back on themselves like Houdini with rickets, and she is defined in sigmoids. Her breasts echo the landscape, the pointed desert hills which might have been transferred from Ingres’ sphinx, not stubbled in hair like Kubin’s lion mane, but outlined in human skin. Her unbound hair pours off her like a whip; femininity unleashed. The sylph can wind herself through weakness and duplicity out of any chains, and her tongue is forked.
“I was right not to trust you. Frivolous, uncertain, twisting, unfixed. Why did I ever think I could know you?”
“Perhaps you’d feel you could if I were a mirror. Perhaps this is what the sphinx is trying to see here, trying to find the woman as a mirror, starve her into the shape of a sickle moon, polish her away to silver so that he can admire himself.”
“Damn that. Not everything is an allusion! The sphinx can go hang.”
Kubin tried to commit suicide when he was nineteen. He was experiencing some of the worst psychosis of his life when he drew the male sphinx. His way through psychosis was to draw his dreams; to flesh out the enigmas that terrified him. He remained close to the dreamworld, kept his drawings drained of colour as they appeared to him in the absence of light.
“Look! About the dream world they were never wrong, those Sufferers: they walked the line between reality and hope, and tried to draw their hope into reality.”
The male is chained by his own power, by riddles he cannot fathom, from a darkness he can never escape. How good are a male sphinx’s riddles? Can he free himself through asking the right questions of the right people? Kubin’s answer to this question is “no”.
“I must go now; I have to meet my mother at the Royal Academy.”
“Look at that light, the gold mist over the park. I’ll walk back; I need some colour, some light, some reality.”
The author gratefully acknowledges words from Pádraig Belton, James Halliday, İhsan Oktay Anar, and W.H. Auden.
Read more of Harriet Rix’s prose in Pericles at Play:
Greek, late 5th – early 4th century BC
4387, Freud Museum London
Male Sphinx, 1901-1903