Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture

Bram Dijkstra

This encyclopedic study of images of the femme fatale in academic painting from the mid-19th to the early 20th century is as breathtaking in its sensual splendor as it is nauseating in its display of a “veritable iconography of misogyny,” the visual component of what the author calls “the morass of the 19th century’s assault on women.” Sticking to primary sources in contemporary exhibition catalogs, periodicals, and books and tracts by philosophers, pathologists and scientists, the author shows how artists and intellectuals pooled their dark fantasies of women—which were reflective and extensions of those of the public at large—to invent these dangerous creatures.
As the position of women evolved along with their nascent efforts to liberate themselves, the counter-efforts—to define, explain and control them—also changed and evolved. Here we have a wealth of glowing Ophelias; slumbering armies of exhausted onanists; voluptuous slaves; spaced-out mirror-gazers; Lolitas and transcendent ephebes; predatory female flowers single-mindedly seeking to drain man of “that great clot of seminal fluid”—his brain; bestial vampires capable of the most atrocious crimes; and more. The images and writings reproduced here are so lush in their testimony to human lust, fear, disgust and striving for sublimity it is hard to regard these archival materials with a furrowed brow, especially since, by dissecting the oppressive forces that gave rise to them, Dijkstra has helped to defuse their destructive power. The prevalence of this repertoire of images of women in the popular media today is testimony to their tenacity and insidiousness. MH

Publisher: Knopf
Hardback: 480 pages

Simple Living: One Couple’s Search for a Better Life

Frank Levering and Wanda Urbanska

Perhaps David Lee Roth said it best: “Found out the simple life ain’t so simple.” To bring it off successfully requires, for most people, a philosophical transformation as well as a wealth of acquired know-how. This book is a paean to the joys, struggles and potential pitfalls of the simplifying process as well as a how-to manual full of practical advice. Its authors are neither ideological gurus nor ascetics, but rather a likable and creative couple who decided to give living for the present a try.
Wanda Urbanska and Frank Levering had as good a shot at L.A.’s (and most of America’s) vision of success and happiness as anyone: He was a screenwriter who’d had a film produced, and she was an editor at a major newspaper. This story begins when Levering’s Quaker family’s heavily indebted apple orchard (in southwestern Virginia, 12 miles north of the original Mayberry, R.F.D.) is finally facing collapse, and his father’s health seems in peril. The authors admit they are “secretly and utterly miserable with our own lives,” and make the decision to quit the life they know and the dreams of glamor and material splendor they have nurtured since college.
The book chronicles the most difficult struggle they faced: to recast their dreams, to find joy in hard work and the beauty of everyday life close to nature, neighbors and community, rather than hoping that the deferred fulfillment of the rat race and “making things happen” would someday pay off. They take the reader through their painful, humorous and ultimately successful transition, along the way introducing others who have made it, from a lesbian couple living outside the cash economy to the co-founders of Habitat for Humanity, who gave away their hard-earned millions and devoted their lives to building affordable housing in poor neighborhoods. MH

Publisher: Penguin
Paperback: 272 pages