Perceptions of the Feminine Through Art in the European Union

Fuencisla Zomeño,
Utah State University


The objective of this paper is to investigate how women and the concept of feminine have been perceived by the European Union and how this perception has been reflected in art, in particular literature and film. This paper concentrates on two artistic expressions that are concerned with the contradictions between the personal and social realms present in the process of Europe unification, and analyzes their attempts to offer novel approaches to resolving the contradictions.

To explore how the role of the feminine is perceived in the European Union, I have selected two artistic expressions from two European countries, Spain and France. The example chosen from Spain is the work of Dolores Soler-Espiauba, a woman writer, who is also a professor of Spanish in the "Conseil de l'Europe". Her novel, Los canardos, illustrates the role of Spanish women in the cultural unification of Europe of the 80's. The example selected from France is Krzysztof Kieslowski's movie Blue , filmed in the 90's. The director is actually from Poland, which makes the movie even more interesting, since it represents an "outsider's" perspective on the topic studied, showing the relationship between the importance of individual development and social/political issues. Each work illustrates the role of the feminine in a different aspect of unity in the new European reality.

It is generally accepted that the European Union has been an economic success. In fact, the role of this organization in its original form was strictly limited to facilitating economic development in member countries by developing an integrated economic structure. It was only later that the idea of unification among the member states in the political and cultural realms was formulated and pursued. Despite the fact that this experiment has been going on for a number of years, it is not at all clear that much progress has been made in these two areas, particularly with respect to cultural unification. This is, in my opinion, related to the fact that the cultural problems should be formulated and analyzed in the subjective language, that requires interpretation and is quite different from the objective language used to describe the economic/functional. Since the origin of the union lies in the economic realm, it is not at all surprising that the unification in the cultural realm is pursued within the union using the objective, approach, particularly since it has proven rather effective in the economic integration. This, of course, creates problems, since the cultural world cannot be reduced to the objective map. The same is true about the realm of subjective/individual, i.e., the realm of feelings, whose understanding requires interpretation, and whose complexity cannot be mapped using the flatland language of physical sciences.[1 ]

According to Wilber the Kosmic development takes place in four realms which even though complimentary, cannot be reduced to each other (The Eye of Spirit 13). According to Wilber these realms are: 1. individual-subjective; 2. individual-objective; 3. cultural; and 4. structural-functional (political-economic) (The Eye of Spirit 13). Human development also takes place in the four quadrants, and any transcendence in one of them needs to be accompanied by related development in the other three, if such transcendence is to be stable. Thus, harmonious and stable development is the one that takes place in all four quadrants.

If we follow Wilber's approach in our analysis of the European Union, we recognize, through the works studied, that the European Union is practically neglecting the individual-subjective and cultural aspects, concentrating mainly in the structural-functional (political-economical) realm. In Soler-Espiauba's work, which is focused on the situation of the language professors in the Conseil de l'Europe, we can observe the cultural aspects of the unification. Her work demonstrates the dominatory structure that the European Union still has with regard to these aspects. Kieslowski concentrates on the other subjective realm, the individual one. In some ways this realm seems to be, at least at the first glance, quite removed from the issues of the unification. In Kieslowski's work, however, we see a clear connection between the cultural unification and an individualís ability to be in communion with the society. Kieslowski's movie demonstrates that the European Community is an union only in a quite limited sense, since it concentrates only on the political and economical issues and does not address the individual fulfillment and development. Both works confirm an observation expressed frequently in the European mass media, that is well summarized by the Spanish periodical Tiempo: "the European Union thinks only about money" (Sanchez Bardon 28; my translation) [2], and does not pay attention to the cultural and individual aspects.

As we indicated before, Soler-Espiauba's work is concerned with the cultural unification of the European Union. Her work shows the discrimination born by some language professors in the European Union, specifically in the Conseil de l'Europe, because of their profession and nationality. This discrimination is fostered by paternalistic attitudes and nationalisms present among the driving forces of unification, which in turn originate in cultural bias based on the projection of economic ranking onto the cultural relationships, as well as by a technocratic-economic approach towards cultural values, and reveals that the unity proclaimed by the European Union is much more apparent than real.

Soler-Espiauba's novel conveys the impression that the unification process defends only the economic interests, marginalizing the groups which do not directly contribute, at least in the perception of decision-makers, to the economic production. Her work demonstrates that the European Union not only does not address, let alone resolve, the issue of economic bias towards culture, which have been present in the member countries since before the unification, but adds to it another type of bias related to cultural-nationalistic prejudices. Not only does this situation show that no transcendence of the local, nationalistic tendencies in cultural relationships has been achieved, but it also demonstrates that the continuation of the old regime, organized around a system of hierarchies which places the non-productive cultural element in a position of inferiority is still well alive. The European Union, based on the suppression of economic and labor boundaries, is also attempting to include all the languages of member countries in its activities, the latter being a step towards cultural unification. Soler-Espiauba, in Los canardos, refers to the European Union as the "house" (9; my translation) which includes all different nationalities, with their cultures and languages. It is curious that she chooses the same image that was used by Juan Gelpi in Literatura y paternalismo en Puerto Rico to describe a single nation. Gelpi defines a person that uses paternalist rhetoric as: "The one who sees himself as a father and places other members of society in an inferior position of children" (2; my translation). The paternalist rhetoric, Gelpi continues, refers often to familial relationships, and its main metaphor is to compare the nation to a "large family" (2; my translation). According to Gelpi any attempt of unification that is based on the interests of a particular group is bound to result in a paternalist approach to politics. Soler-Espiauba criticizes this kind of unifying space. In her novel she presents the Community as a house in which not all members receive the same treatment and some of them are considered "foreign" for reasons of nationality and profession. The main character of the novel states:

In front of the elevator door, which threatens to close if I do not harry up, reserved and courteous gestures by two German translators, somewhat familiar: "You first," "of course, you," "no, no please." She fat and pink, completely similar to the millions of compatriots, has just told me with her best smile: "Please, go, we are the ones who are home, we should be the ones who are polite." I am shocked. I enter with my best smile too... she has convinced me. How dared I think I was home? After working here for five years, not missing a class even one day, not arriving late..., of course I am not home, because there must be a difference between an European translator and a professor of languages. (9; my translation)

From this example we can deduct that some kind of hierarchy is established according to the nationality and narrowly perceived economic productivity of a person. According to the author, in this hierarchy the ranking of language professors is quite lower than that of technocrats and businessman. This productivity based hierarchy distinguishes even between translators and language teachers, the former ranked higher, presumably because they contribute directly to economic integration and production. Soler-Espiauba refers directly to this situation in the same novel: "You think, with bitterness, about your colleagues from different nations, who have worked here since the Institution appeared, more than 20 years ago... Professors from Italy, France, Holland, suffering with a smile the same humiliations, injustices" (66; my translation). The ranking of language professors goes even deeper and depends on the geographic origins of the language, since there exists a certain prejudice towards the countries of the South in Europe. The main character states: "Portugal, a country which was good taste to ignore, because everything that was ìsnobbishî lied north of the Pyrinees" (17; my translation). The author, in a personal interview expressed openly the contradiction that exists between the theoretical plan of equality of the European Union and the hierarchical reality which exits in the Institution:

The discriminatory treatment that the group of professors, where I belong, suffers is very obvious, since a couple of months ago the powers that be thought of privatizing the service, which of course would be our end... I do not think this as a discrimination against Spanish, since we have been integrated since 86. At the beginning perhaps yes (the scene at the elevator they were not German by chance: Italians would not have reacted this way, not even French)... As for the kind of language, I told you about a "word" that is used and that I do not like: "les petites langues" or "les langues exotiques." English and French have all rights and are very important. German is wining much importance with the entrance of countries from the East... After it's Spanish, thanks to the Latin-American background, of course. Dutch has some audience, because of the bilingual situation of this country. The rest have not any importance. (Personal interview 7-12-96; my translation)

From this we can conclude that the cultural integration expressed by the inclusion of all the member languages in the Unionís proceedings is more a political manipulation than a true means of unification. This is reflected in the principal characterís words: "He complemented you that night, simulating his interest, on your contribution as a language professor to the European Union during the difficult time of unification" (52; my translation). This politics is similar to the paternalist rhetoric since it places some members in a position of inferiority, while at the same time letting them believe in a participation which is illusory.[3] We thus see that the diversity of cultures and languages within the European Union, which could be a source of its richness, in practice turns into pathological, dominatory structure. In this respect the author says: "The opposition North/South is evident in all situations. This opposition could be quite enriching, as is demonstrated mainly in classes. Not so much in faculty meetings and discussions about work, where the lack of understanding or opposition could be ferocious" (Personal interview, 7-12-96; my translation).

Through Soler-Espiauba's novel we can see that another important aspect of the discriminatory attitude towards the "cultural" professions is related to the issue of gender. Based on the novel one might conclude that one of the main reasons for the discrimination toward language professors is the fact that the majority of them are women. In addition, we believe that the discrimination is related to the fact that the problem-solving oriented rulers of the European community find it difficult to understand and accept the subjective character of the cultural unification. This character is subjective regardless of whether it is women or men who are actually involved in the cultural unification. In our opinion it is not by accident, however, that we find that the majority of language professors are women. It is a domain in which the drive towards communion, unification and mutual understanding is of great value. And this drive is, of course, characteristic of the feminine. Although Soler-Espiauba does not indicate how this characteristic could be used to facilitate cultural unification, it is still clear that in her novel, women appear as a "denuncia" voice, the voice that speaks for the cultural realm of the European Union.

The focus of Kieslowski's movie is the personal growth and transcendence of differences within the subjective, individual quadrant. Although the movie does not directly deal with the socio-political and cultural issues, it reflects the partial character of these realms indirectly by showing the lack of individual fulfillment within the European cultural and political reality. During the 80's Kieslowski described his impressions of the chaotic situation in Poland and the world in general as follows: "During the martial law, I realized that politics aren't really important. In a way, of course, they define where we are and what we're allowed or aren't allowed to do, but they don't solve the really important human questions" (Stok 144). It is obvious that Kieslowski is concerned with the problem of freedom, but in his opinion this freedom is related more to the internal conditions of human being than to the exterior situation. He says:

I believe we're just as much prisoners of our own passions, our own physiology, and certainly our own biology, as we were thousands of years ago. Prisoners of rather complicated, and very frequently relative, division between what is better and what is a bit better and that which is a bit better still, and what is a little bit worse. We're always going to find a way out. But we're constantly imprisoned by our passions and feelings. (Stok 150)

In Soler-Espiauba's work we see the cultural conflicts and differences that need to be transcended and integrated for true cultural unification to take place. Kieslowski, on the other hand, shows similar conflicts and differences that have to be addressed and resolved within the individual, subjective realm. In a way, he transfers the structure of political and cultural conflicts to the personal level by presenting a womanís internal conflicts. The movie's main character is a woman, Julie. The principal conflict of the film is related to the deaths of Julie's husband and daughter, and to the infidelity of her late husband, discovered only after his death, and her feelings towards all these facts. At the end we see that Julie is able to achieve a new level of personal freedom only by transcending the self-centered feeling of separation and extending her love towards her late husbandís mistress and their expected child. Dave Kehr comments about Kieslowski's trilogy:

The trilogy charts a movement from a deep sense of solitude to an understanding and acceptance of community, to a sense of shared values and mutual interdependence. "Three Colors" is an epic of reconciliation, in which fragmented parts come together to make a whole, just as the three colors of the title create the French flag. (13)

Kieslowski's movie, Blue, belongs to a film trilogy of three colors that are the colors of the French flag, blue being the symbol freedom. The allusion to the French flag is a way to make a connection with the French Revolution, arguably the most dramatic attempt in search of human freedom in the history of civilization. It is worthwhile mentioning that the individual and cultural/social aspects are connected in the film by the character of husband, a very important music composer who dies while he is finishing a composition in honor of the European Union. This reference to the European Union, combined with the major theme of individual freedom, illustrates Kieslowski's concerns about the relationship between the socio-cultural realm and individual human problems. It seems that Kieslowski is proposing that the transcendence to the new level of human freedom cannot happen via political transformation only, but that is necessary to establish a connection among the social, cultural and individual quadrants, and that the transformation needs to take place in all of them. The European Union's political structure is supposed to facilitate social, cultural and individual freedom, and to an extend it does. However, Kieslowski, through Blue, says that human being and its individual self-centered attitude are a main obstacle to this freedom, since, as Kieslowski said, "human being is a prisoner of his own passions and feelings" (Stok 150). It is very important to observe that only after Julie transcends her individual alienation, is she able to come back to and participate in the cultural realm by finishing her late husband's composition.

It is interesting to analyze the difference between the initial, in our opinion mechanical, freedom that Julie is given by the external circumstances (the deaths of her husband and daughter) at the beginning of the movie, and the kind of freedom she achieves at the end of it. Dave Kehr refers to the tragic aspect associated with the initial freedom: "In Blue, liberty becomes a tragic notion. Julie is free because she has been violently separated from her past and from her family. With no emotional ties, and wealthy enough to do what she wants, she steps off into a void" (15). Julie, to avoid pain, tries to sever any connection with the world, and with her emotional past. This initial reaction, and the lonely freedom that is associated with it, turn out to be unsatisfactory, and Julie slowly develops new connections with her surroundings and in this way achieves a true communion and freedom. Julie is able to arrive to this communion by transcending her personal, self-centered suffering. This pilgrimage from individual solitude to communion is illustrated in the movie by music. The music works in the movie as the cement between past and present, solitude and communion, and individual and cultural. As Gareth Rees comments:

She is unable to escape her husband's music. Just before his death, he was working on a commission for a grand symphonic chorus that would be played at a festival of European Unity. Whenever she is reminded of her husband, poignant extracts of this unfinished chorus appear to haunt her. She visits the archives and destroys the manuscript, but still the ethereal music follows her.

Through these connections Kieslowski seems to say that the present and the past, agency and communion, and individual and cultural, are all interrelated and it is not possible to clearly separate them. The music, which symbolizes in the movie both cultural and communal aspects, as Bryant Frazer comments, pursues Julie "until she confronts [it]... as well as her own devastated psyche." And only when she does it, is her psyche healed by developing communal connections with her surroundings, which in turn allows her again to participate in the cultural world.

Julie's transcending and unifying behavior seems to be catalyzed by the drastic and involuntary break with the past, which in turn enables her to break with social restrictions and limitations, thus giving her a freedom that in other situation would be very difficult to have. It is because of her newly-found detachment from moral judgment that she does not want support expelling the prostitute who is living in her building, even though the majority of the neighbors want the prostitute to leave. In fact, Julie becomes one of her best friends, since for Julie such divisional moral values do not longer exist. The emptiness she found herself in allowed her to look at others without the culturally conditioned righteousness which creates social and moral divisions. The same is true when she meets her husbandís lover and finds out about her pregnancy. Instead of rejecting her she transcends her suffering and feelings and gives her and her expected child the house where she used to live with her husband, thus unifying present with past, and transcending the "moral" right and wrong. For Kieslowski, the division between right and wrong, good and evil, is an arbitrary convention which in practice limits human being's freedom (Stok 150-151). This is why, for Kieslowski, "freedom lies within" (Stok 150), in the resolution of everybodyís internal conflicts, and in the balance between the agency and communion.

For Kieslowski, the feminine affinity towards communion is a urgently desired characteristic that facilitates achieving a balance between the action-oriented economic and political realms and the individual/subjective life. That's precisely why he chooses a woman to personify the idea of unification, freedom and understanding in the realm of individual. And it is due to this affinity that Julie is able to transcend her husbandís infidelity and the initial rejection towards his lover that accompanies it. In his films an apparently contradictory combination between tragedy and understanding, differentiation and transcendence, pain and peace, is always present. This contradiction is, Kieslowski seems to say, what seems to constitute human being's progression in life. Dave Kehr has alluded to the fact that tragedy produces a rebirth: "In each of the three films of the trilogy, a betrayal leads to a sense of larger understanding. In Blue, Julie's discovery of her husband's infidelity allows her to forgive him and recover him, in the form of Sandrine's child [her husband's lover's child]" (18). The liberation of human beings seems to be related to the ability to transcend the feelings which hold us hostage, and in Kieslowski's movie this transcendence is made possible by the feminine affinity towards communion. In this respect we could conclude that Kieslowski sees feminine values as a crucial component of the human growth process, a continuous process of liberation and unification.

Both works have chosen women to explore the subjective quadrants, individual and cultural, of the European reality. Soler-Espiauba's perception of the role of women in the European Union is associated with the aspect of cultural unification and the discriminatory attitudes that this Institution has created towards the cultural realm. Her message, which in nutshell says that a true European unification has to include the cultural realm, is more of a "denuncia" of the partial character of the process of socio-economic and political integration, than a solution to the problem of holistic unification, although this "denouncia" is quite radical in its expression.

One major difference between Kieslowski's and Soler-Espiauba's works is timing. Soler-Espiauba wrote her work in the 80's when the major focus of attention was the cultural realm, and its relationships to social structures and conditions. In the 90's, however, the focus has shifted to the individual, showing how important the internal life of human being is in the process of humankind evolution. Even though Kieslowski's movie only indirectly refers to the political reality of the European Union, it is clear, however, that he is concerned with the relationships between the European politics of unification and human being's freedom. His message seems to be that in a true unification, individual freedom is important, and this one is achieved not only through economic and political changes and measures, but by a combination of those with internal growth. His work, even though it was filmed in France, and refers to the Europe of unification, has a wider, perhaps universal scope. It is in this wider context that we see the importance of his movie's message, that the liberation of human being is conditioned on our ability to transcend the feelings that hold us hostage, and this transcendence is facilitated by the feminine affinity towards communion.



1. These realms are analyzed in depth by Ken Wilber in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, The Spirit of Evolution (Boston & London: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1995) and The Eye of Spiriti (Boston & London: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1997).
2. This reference was translated by F. Zomeño from the original. In subsequent cases "my translation" will appear following the translated text in parenthesis.
3. Juan Gelpi refers to such members as "deceived children" in Literatura y paternalismo en Puerto Rico (San Juan: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1993) 2.

Works Cited

Frazer, Bryant. Rev. of "Blue," by Krzysztof Kieslowski. Deep Focus. Internet. n.d.
Gelpi, Juan. Literatura y paternalismo en Puerto Rico. San Juan: Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1993.
Kehr, Dave. "To Save The World. Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy." Film Comment 30 (Nov/Dec. 1994): 10-13
Macnab, Geoffrey. "Trois Couleurs: Bleu." Sight and Sound (Nov. 93): 54-55.
Michalski, Milena. "Trois Couleurs: Bleu." The Slavonic and East European Review 72 (Oct. 94): 790-1.
Rees, Gareth. Rev. of Three Colours: Blue by Krzysztof Kieslowski. 1993. Home Film
Reviews. Internet. n.d.
Sanchez Bardon, Luis. "El futuro de la Europa social. El precio del euro." Tiempo (30junio 1997): 26-36.
Soler-Espiauba, Dolores. Los canardos. Badajoz: Universitas Talleres Gráficos, 1989.
Stock, Danusia, ed. Kieslowski on Kieslowski. London & Boston: Faber and Faber, 1993.
Wilber, Ken. The Eye of Spirit. Boston & London: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1997.
- - -. Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. The Spirit of Evolution. Boston & London: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1995.
Zomeño, Fuencisla. Personal interview with Dolores Soler-Espiauba. 7-12-96.