Women with Power Over Men Which Men Feel Is as Mighty as the Power of the Mother over the Child


Paul Delvaux, “Bathing Nymphs”, 1938

The difficult task for the male child is to outgrow his mother’s psychological legacy as an overwhelming and incomprehensible power – to be able to discover a woman (female without the motherly connotation as a power). We all but especially precociously emotionally sensitive among us, to various degrees fail in this very endeavor. The result is lingering unconscious fear of women that complicates, paralyzes or sometimes even prevents happiness between sexes.

Endless prejudices against women (human history left behind and continues to create to this day) is the confirmation of the truth about how difficult it is for men to discover in women not only amorous attractiveness and sexual irresistibility but a close friend and a responsive partner in mutual love. Men are prone to be afraid of women’s otherness, they don’t know what to expect, they are afraid to be betrayed, laughed at, to be hurt.

Men feel that they can never be completely sure that they really know the soul of woman they love, her way to perceive reality, and “what woman really wants, looks for and dreams about”. Of course this is true about any other human soul belonging to woman or man, but men feel that somehow their mind is especially helpless before the opposite sex. And they are especially afraid that their attraction to a concrete woman (amorous, sexual or transferential) makes their mind paralyzed or subdued.

Paul Delvaux’s many paintings express this typical men’s complex about women, this murky and disbalancing feeling that you can never be sure what nasty surprises await you any minute and every second, that happiness with a woman is crude and a frail bridge over an abyss.

The feminine soul we feel as unknown (the unknowable?) is always silent even when the woman we love is talkative. In “Bathing Nymphs” Delvaux shows how women’s souls are perceived by men as almost mutinous because they refuse to make themselves transparent, to open themselves to men’s scrutiny. The pantomimes of nymphs’ bodies and their facial expressions belong to the experiences we are alien to. That makes these attractive creatures dangerously seductive – our sight pushes us toward them but our soul retreats. The nymphs belong to their own world as we to ours, and this is exactly what makes them so suspicious to many men. When men deceive woman it is not really deception – “it is men’s innocent spontaneity, naturalness, genuineness, even naiveté”. Woman’s deception of us, on the other hand, is perceived by us as the mother’s betrayal, a devilish calculation, treachery beyond any forgiveness. Delvaux’s nymphs are independent from our expectations. They are… feminists! More, womanists! They exist independently from our desires and our needs or even our existence. What a disgraceful and unnatural scandal!

The traditional – mythological (men-inspired) interpretation of what nymph is mythologizes women as creatures who are hooked on men even when negatively. Delvaux parts with this male simplemindedness. Women-nymphs’ internal world is hermetically clothed from us, and this makes us helpless, and suspicious to an irrational degree! Nymphs challenge our power; they dare to be autonomous even when they want to be noticed by us, even when they expose themselves to us, as one nymph does in the painting!

Delvaux’s nymphs live in a strange realm of nocturnal country – in a kind of parallel universe to the one where men live but so close that we can easily feel its transparent touch and unyielding breath. Men are creatures of the day, but nymphs lighten their nights with a dull shininess of the skin of their bodies. Men work and have fun together, we like to share our impressions and ideas with one another, but nymphs are solipsistic. Even when we see them together they are scattered apart, separated from one another by individual dramas of their internal world.

Night, silence, waves and foam envelop them but also expose them in their signaling dissimilarity from us. The sea waves of the lake of their home are never stormy but never quiet either. They are the abode of their souls which enslave you without conquering. Their bodies are as alien to the nymphs as the human soul is strange to men who are prone to create physical symbiotic assemblages with weapons, machines and ideas.

Why nymphs need hand-fans or giant fans (like the one we see on the roof of a theatre-hotel where nymphs await their victims), and the castles with yards and openings inside? Fans are their psychological weapon which are opposite of what men understand as weapon. It is a weapon to enslave without conquering, to enslave with minuscule movement of the hands, with slight hesitations of the air. And castles with no opposition between inner and external space are their battlefields without battles where men fall to offer nymphs their spasmodic vitality.

In Delvaux’s paintings men often arrive by trains and are seen in railway stations – from nymphs’ perspective men, probably, are a kind of trains and their souls are a kind of railway stations. But Delvaux’ nymphs belong to the public space even more than men! Women’s frightening essence has nothing to do with men’s private life (privatized woman is already conquered by men’s spirit, de-nymphed). Delvaux’s nymphs are a sublimated version of whores and harlots! Males are prone to call women “whore” when women exactly didn’t reciprocate them (meaning that they sleep with men only for money). But they should call a woman who refuses them not a hussy but nymph (who ignores their appeal because of incompatibility of her otherness and emotional individualism with men’s survivalist/succeedist/conquest sharpened pragmatics). Men are not capable to breach nymphs’ mystery because of the crudeness of their souls.

Delvaux’s Nymph is an eternal internal object of male’s unconscious. Men’s psyche is using Delvaux’s artistic intuition to depict its own dreams, desires, hopes and fears about women.


Paul Delvaux, 1897-1994