Idol fantasies: toward an ethics of image-making in Wilde, Conrad, and Hitchcock
Engley, Robert Christian
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This dissertation examines the motif of idolatry in the work of two modernist authors, Oscar Wilde and Joseph Conrad, and one modernist filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock. The idols in these texts serve a contradictory role, signifying both increasing commodification under capitalism and an attempt to formulate a new ethics of image-making in response to this global transition. Chapter 1 analyzes Wilde’s play Salomé. Attending to the original French and to biblical allusion, I demonstrate that the text’s key generative trope is idolatry, which occupies a position both sacred and profane. The play superimposes two moments of historical rupture, positing Salomé as the embodiment of a new artistic potential of idolatry under monopoly capitalism. Chapter 2 analyzes Conrad’s early fiction, particularly The Nigger of the “Narcissus,” “The Return,” “Karain,” and Nostromo. I track a three-stage development in Conrad’s representations of idols, whereby the idol is associated with utopian fantasy, false ideals, and the artistic process. I also identify a new image-making technique, “retroactive modification,” which attempts to destabilize the image and thus counter problems of narrative representation, particularly reification and historical inauthenticity. Chapter 3 analyzes Hitchcock’s Blackmail, Saboteur, and Shadow of a Doubt, and challenges the notion of Hitchcock as auteur. The first two films culminate in sequences featuring monumental and iconic statuary. In the earlier British film, this process signifies a reckoning with history; in the later American film, it signifies the threat of history’s erasure and the degradation of art. Shadow of a Doubt signals a shift to a post-modern global-capitalist paradigm and a focus on the celebrity idol. My methodology builds on the work of Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek to elucidate cultural fantasies underlying the texts and the ways in which the texts perform the psychical maneuver of disavowal, whereby a proposition is simultaneously asserted and denied. This double movement in Wilde, Conrad, and Hitchcock’s texts bespeaks a striving, through the motif of idolatry, to represent the image in motion. Though this desire is finally realized in the technology of film, the authenticity of that realization is undermined by the historical contradictions that enable its production.