The Ambivalent Art of Katherine Anne Porter

The Ambivalent Art of Katherine Anne Porter

The Ambivalent Art of Katherine Anne Porter

The Ambivalent Art of Katherine Anne Porter

Excerpt

I will make beauty after my own secret thought,” said
the Princess, “and I will also devise my own cruelties,
rejecting utterly the banal sufferings imposed by nature
.”

In a story composed during the 1920s but unpublished in her lifetime, Katherine Anne Porter created a brilliant and masochistic young woman who dedicates her life to art. The Princess glories publicly in her choice but weeps privately at its price—social alienation and childlessness. “Nature is abhorrent, a vulgarity,” the Princess proclaims; she celebrates an eccentric creativity expressed in elaborate costume and stages a personal rebellion against proscribed gender roles. Family and social law mass against Porter’s Princess, and she dies, literally drowning beneath the weight of her dedication. The oppositions created in this early story, and the tensions they generate, are painful and absolute. On one side is life as an artist, a choice demanding all of body and mind; on the other side are social norms, in particular traditional gender roles. Porter’s “The Princess” belongs in the company of other remarkable tales of female sexuality and art, such as Isak Dinesen’s “The Blank Page.” Like Dinesen, Porter creates an imaginary world to make visible some of the underlying cultural assumptions of her own. This story (which is discussed in far greater detail in chapter 1) provides a standpoint for viewing Porter’s literary achievement; evidence of its tensions appears everywhere in her work, from her earliest tales for children to her final opus, Ship of Fools.

“The Princess” is an early and extraordinarily important example of Porter’s thinking about gender and identity. The story’s complex and ambivalent contents merit summary. Society in “The Princess” defines female identity through the physical body; biological materiality determines role and ritual. Yet through her art, which takes the form of elaborate costume, the Princess makes it clear that the body can provide a stage for the imagination. When these two ideological positions meet, tensions arise. The Princess’s sartorial art suggests that female identity is endlessly manipulable, performative. Yet, as the . . .

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