Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Why Sylvia Plath Still Haunts American Culture

Her name, at this point, is almost onomatopoeic: the elegantly coiled, haute-American Sylvia, poised and serpentine, and then the Germanic exhalation of Plath, its fatal flatness like some ruptured surface resealing itself. Her whole history is in there somehow: the shining prizewinner with a death obsession, the supercharged, comical/terrible talent whose memory is the lid of a sarcophagus.

 “This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary / The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.” That’s the Plath-world, freakishly bleak, exerting its tractor-beam fascination on American culture. Fifty years after she killed herself, we find her vital, nasty, invincible, red-and-white poetry sitting in a region of cultural near-­exhaustion. Her short life has been trampled and retrampled under the biographer’s hoof, her opus viewed and skewed through every conceivable lens of interpretation. A Massachusetts girlhood; a precocious literary ascent interrupted by an early nervous breakdown; a decampment to England; marriage to—and separation from—the poet Ted Hughes; suicide. In her lifetime, she published just one book of poetry (The Colossus and Other Poems), one novel (The Bell Jar), and a few stories in magazines. Upon her death, the bulk of her work—including the completed manuscript of Ariel—was still unknown to readers.

Out of these elements, endless constructions and conjurations. The ’70s enthroned her as a feminist martyr. She has been posthumously psychoanalyzed, politicized, astrologized. She did, it’s true, pack into her three decades a remarkable number of reboots and re-selvings—transformation, and its lethal opposite, was her theme—but even so … Can’t we leave her alone?

Not just yet, we can’t. This year has already brought us two new biographies, two more runs at the imago. Carl Rollyson’s American Isis declares her “the Marilyn Monroe of modern literature.” This is not as daft as it sounds: When Plath arrived in England in 1955, on a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge University, she was, at least to English eyes, ablaze with American glamour. She had fashionable hair, man-eater lipstick, and a wobbly sense of momentum about her. She posed in a swimsuit for the university newspaper. She wore red shoes, as in a fairy tale. She wanted, she needed, to be famous. Rolly­son makes much—too much, perhaps—­of a dream Plath had three years later, in which Marilyn appeared to her “as a kind of fairy godmother,” giving her a manicure and promising her “a new, flower­ing life.”

Mad Girl’s Love Song, by Andrew Wilson, cuts a little deeper, because it comes in at a sharper angle. Querying the notion that Plath’s career was essentially a countdown to the artistic blastoff ofAriel—­the poems she wrote in the months preceding her death—Wilson zooms in on her pre-Ted life: the bold college girl, adventuress in the virginal ’50s, who finally rebelled into madness. In Wilson’s book, we get to know in depth her extraordinary, leather-jacketed pen pal Eddie Cohen, who wrote to Plath after reading a short story she had published in Seventeen magazine and then—though only a couple years her senior—took it upon himself to be her epistolary instructor in art, sex, and the life authentically lived: “Petting, if it does not culminate in orgasm for both parties, will increase rather than alleviate frustrations.” Cohen was of the “Howl” generation (“I have seen many of my friends,” he wrote in one letter, “all of whom are hard-headed, clear-thinking people, driven to sanatoriums and asylums”), and he had intuited that Plath was a high risk for cracking up. Plath, on the other hand, in literary-hustler mode, would later propose that their correspondence be published as a book called Dialogue of the Damned.

Wilson also gives us one priceless image: that of Plath, her hair bound up, retiring each night in a viscid mask of Noxzema, its odor so strong that her roommate considered finding alternative accommodations. This is about as Sylvia Plath as it gets: the bedtime beauty routine turned ceremonial horror, the lady cream with its repellent smell—ecce mulier, at the brink of the underworld, passing semi-­monstrously through the rituals of American womanhood on the way to some deeper, darker initiation.

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Monday, 25 May 2015

Flawed Perfection - Edna St. Vincent Millay

EDNA MILLAY GOT her vivid and aristocratic-sounding middle name from the hospital in New York City that saved her Uncle Charlie's life. Drunk on the New Orleans waterfront, Charles Buzzell boarded a ship while it was loading grain and fell asleep on a bale of cotton in the hold. He woke to find himself pinned below deck, out of earshot and unable to move. After ten days without food or water, he saw a bright light expanding suddenly in the black hull, "& I could see through the ship as though it was made of clear glass." Rushed to St. Vincent's, he was convinced forever after that he had entered the spirit world and been reborn. He began to appear at the Globe Museum on the Bowery as "The Adventurer and Evangelist Chas. A. Buzzell, The New Orleans Stowaway." Six days after his miraculous rebirth, Edna St. Vincent Millay—nicknamed "Vincent" almost immediately—was born on Washington's birthday, February 22, 1892, in Camden, Maine.

Millay's parents were so badly matched that, as her mother Cora wryly remarked, "any crank on Eugenics would have said we were perfectly mated for the propagation of a family." Henry Millay liked to fish, to play poker, and to drink. When his industrious wife complained about his inability to hold a job, he beat her. Cora finally kicked him out in 1900, when Edna turned eight, and raised her three daughters—one blonde, one brunette, and one redhead (Edna, the eldest)—alone. A hairdresser and a self-taught nurse, she found occasional work in neighboring towns, often leaving the girls to their own devices.

Under their mother's tutelage, all the girls played the piano, wrote poetry, and acted. Cora Millay had a bohemian strain intertwined with aristocratic pretensions, a sometimes unattractive combination that she passed on to her eldest daughter. When a New Yorker profile in 1925 harped on Edna Millay's humble beginnings, her mother sent in a haughty correction: "Certain Millays owned houses and lands—but that was long ago." Still, as Cora remarked with equal pride in an interview, "The hardships that bound the children together made them stronger, and banded them together in self-defense against the world....I let the girls realize their poverty." That use of "realize" is nicely turned. In her best poetry it can be said that Edna Millay realized—acknowledged even as she made something real and lasting from—her poverty.

MILLAY’S CHILDHOOD IS a story of precocious virtuosity. She excelled at everything, and was always the leading lady in the school play, the class poet (except once, when her classmates, tired of her queenly ways, voted for the class dullard), the star. Music and poetry were her refuge from the daily grind of keeping house in ever more modest rented rooms along the rocky Maine coast. Nancy Milford, in the moving opening section of her painstaking and sympathetic biography, cites a poignant memory of Millay searching for a chord on the organ, and asking her exhausted mother for help.

We did not have the notes of it, it was something she knew by heart. I called her to help me with the chord, and she came in. She had been doing washing, and her hands, as she placed them upon the keys[,] were very pink, and steam rose from them. Her plain gold wedding ring shone very clean and bright, and there were little bubbles on it which the soap suds had left, pink, and yellow, and pale green. When she had gone and I was sure that she would not hear me, I laid my cheek softly down upon the cool keys and wept. For it had come into my mind with dreadful violence as she bent above me and placed her fingers upon the keys ... that my mother could die; and I wanted to save her from that, for I knew she would not like it; and I knew that I could not.

Poetry also came from Cora. "Mother gave me poetry," Millay wrote. Her discovery of the physical thrill of poetry was a perfect match for Emily Dickinson's famous statement that "if I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry." Millay said of her own first encounter with poetry: "I know that it knocked the wind clear out of me, and left me giddy and almost actively sick ... when, on opening at random my mother's gargantuan copy of Shakespeare, I read the passage from Romeo and Juliet about the ‘dateless bargain’ and Death keeping Juliet as beautiful as she was in life, to be his `paramour.'" She began writing poems early, and perhaps too early learned to meet perfectly the editorial expectations of the popular children's magazine St. Nicholas. By the time she was eighteen, the cut-off age for submissions, she had won every poetry contest that the magazine offered. The awareness that poetry was a matter of prizes and editors as much as a giddy and gut-wrenching experience set her on the path of a big career—but one sometimes wishes that her eyes had not always been so firmly locked on the prize.

BY HER TWIENTIETH birthday, in 1912, Millay had written the first half of a masterpiece, the claustrophobic "Renascence," which recalls in its hammering tetrameters both her hemmed-in Maine childhood landscape and her Uncle Charlie's below-deck ordeal:

All I could see from where I stood

Was three long mountains and a wood; I turned and looked another way, And saw three islands in a bay. So with my eyes I traced the line Of the horizon, thin and fine, Straight around till I was come Back to where I'd started from; And all I saw from where I stood Was three long mountains and a wood.

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Elizabeth Bishop at Summer Camp

“I have never been homesick but just at present I feel awfly campsick,” wrote Elizabeth Bishop, the summer she was fourteen. She had just finished a month at the sailing camp on Cape Cod where she spent her teenage summers, a camp where she found respite from the families engaged in a tug-of-war over her upbringing (it would be too much to say her affections), her father’s in Worcester, Massachusetts, and her mother’s in Revere and farther away in Great Village, Nova Scotia. For much of her childhood, this shy and sickly girl had been carted from one set of relatives to another like a piece of luggage.

Bishop was born in Worcester in 1911. When she was still a baby, her father, William Bishop, died of Bright’s disease (the term a century ago for acute or chronic nephritis). After his death, her mother’s grief slowly hardened into suicidal despair, and she tried to take her life by leaping from a hospital window. At last, having for five years dressed in mourning clothes, Gertrude Bishop became delusional, afflicted with imagined illnesses, convinced that she was being “watched as a criminal.” In 1916, she was permanently confined to a mental hospital. Her doctors must have felt there was no hope of recovery, because her little daughter was “taught to think of her as dead,” according to the poet Frank Bidart. Having been dragged about by her nervous and overwrought mother, now to Boston, now back to Nova Scotia, Elizabeth found a home with her mother’s family in Great Village, where she was enrolled in the village primary school. When her father’s parents visited a year and a half later, they were shocked to find the barefoot six-year-old racing wild through the village lanes.

Her Bishop grandparents “kidnapped” her—at least it felt that way, she later said—and carried her off by overnight train. Her father’s father was a wealthy New England contractor, the founder of J. W. Bishop Company, which built mills, stores, churches, hospitals, gymnasiums at both Brown and Harvard, the Boston Public Library, the Museum of Fine Arts, and numerous mansions for private clients. The firm, which had been in business since the 1870s, was a nineteenth-century example of vertical integration, owning quarries as well as a woodwork and ornamental-iron mill.

The Bishops were already elderly (her grandfather seventy-one, her grandmother sixty-eight) when Elizabeth was spirited away to Worcester. Most of their nine children were already dead. Her grandparents lived outside the city in a dark, spraddling farmhouse behind a white picket fence, one block before the end of the trolley line, though John W. Bishop Sr. was driven to work each morning by a chauffeur. The Bishops never mingled in Worcester society. Though distant, austere presences to this frail young girl, they were apparently kind and thoughtful. Her grandfather, who showed off numerous gold teeth when he laughed, once carted home, all the way from his company’s Providence office, three Golden Bantams— pets for his little granddaughter.

Bishop found life in her home country difficult. Separated from her mother’s parents, whom she adored, she “didn’t want to be an American.” (As she told a critic, “I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander.”) According to her memoir “The Country Mouse,” saluting the American flag made her feel “like a traitor”—in the Great Village school, she had been taught to sing “God Save the King” and “The Maple Leaf Forever.” Her grandmother in Worcester, whose most violent oaths were “Pshaw” and “Drat,” tried to make her memorize “The Star-Spangled Banner,” every verse.

Often severely ill with bronchitis, asthma, and eczema, Elizabeth spent nine miserable months with the Bishops. After that disastrous winter, she was dispatched, no doubt by chauffeur, to a drab neighborhood in working-class Revere to live with her mother’s eldest sister, Maude (always spelled “Maud” by Bishop). The girl spent the rest of her childhood with Maude and her husband in their dingy second-floor apartment, frequently missing school because of her illnesses. She later said that during those years, “I was always a sort of a guest.”

Bishop may have felt close to Aunt Maude at first; later, when she was in prep school, she tried to avoid staying in Revere during the holidays. Her favorite aunt, Grace Boomer, another of her mother’s sisters, shared the apartment but moved back to Nova Scotia in 1923, when Bishop was twelve. That same fall, her Bishop grandparents died, first her grandmother and then, five days later, her grandfather. Their son Jack, who became head of the family firm, took charge of her schooling. Whatever Uncle Jack’s failings as a businessman (under his management, J. W. Bishop Company soon fell on hard times), as her guardian he sought an education for her beyond that available in public schools—or perhaps he was just shooing her out of the way. Though Bishop felt no fondness for him, he seems to have responded to his young ward. He knew that in Revere she had few friends.

Her cousin Kay claimed that the move to Revere was suggested by Bishop’s doctors, who thought her asthma would improve if she lived by the sea, a common prescription of the day. Perhaps the “saltwater camp” on Cape Cod was chosen to get her to the shore, the fees no doubt paid by her guardian—they would have been beyond the means of Maude and her husband. The July after her grandparents died, Bishop was packed off to summer camp for the first time. She returned every summer for the next five years.

Camp Chequesset overlooked the shellfishing fleet in Wellfleet Harbor, in the 1920s still the main source of the town’s economy. The camp stood across the bay from the town pier, on some forty acres of ground once inhabited by Chequesset Indians, whose shell heaps could still be found along the beach. There were two main camp-buildings. Big Chief Hall contained the dining hall, a wardroom, and craft shops. On the mantel above its massive open fireplace stood a ship’s clock and a pilot wheel, the symbol of the camp. There were more craft shops in the Bungalow, which also had a library of some five hundred books and rooms for visiting former campers—”Old Chequesset girls,” as they were called. Though a fair amount of swimming and sailing was required, the camp offered archery, tennis, baseball, dramatics, and dancing, interrupted by walks to the Cape’s backshore or a clambake on Jeremy Point. The camp navy consisted of a clutch of sailboats and canoes, a few rowboats and dories, and a forty-foot sedan-cabin cruiser, the Mouette, with her famously unreliable engine. The name was French for “seagull.”

The campers’ “lodges” were scattered in the pines, each with room for three or four girls and a counselor (a “skipper,” in the camp’s nautical slang). These cabins, screened on all sides, with shutters for bad weather, had been given whimsical names like the Look-Out, the Hopp-Inn, the Kennel, and the Nursery. An early photograph in Cape Cod Magazine shows a “cosy dormitory corner” with simple cots covered in what even in black-and-white look like colorful blankets. The Mary Louise, the cabin where Bishop berthed for the summer of 1926, was a forty-seven-foot sloop marooned in a cradle nearby. Forty girls, the youngest twelve years old, spent July and August at this “Nautical Camp for Girls.”

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Dante Turns Seven Hundred and Fifty

On April 24th, Samantha Cristoforetti, Italy’s first female astronaut, took time off from her regular duties in the International Space Station to read from the Divine Comedy. She picked the opening canto of the Paradiso, in which Dante describes his ascent through the circle of fire and his approach toward God:

I was within the heaven that receives
more of His light; and I saw things that he
who from that height descends, forgets or can
not speak.

As Cristoforetti spun around the globe at the rate of seventeen thousand miles an hour, her reading was beamed back to earth and shown in a movie theater in Florence.

Ten days later, the actor Roberto Benigni recited the last canto of Paradiso in the Italian Senate. His selection included the poem’s famous closing lines:

Here force failed my high fantasy; but my
desire and will were moved already like
a wheel revolving uniformly by
the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

The senators gave the comedian a standing ovation. That same day, Pope Francis made some brief remarks about the poet, officially joining what he called the “chorus of those who believe Dante Alighieri is an artist of the highest universal value.” He can, the Holy Father added, help us “get through the many dark woods we come across in our world.”

Dante’s seven-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday is sometime in the coming month—he was born, he tells us in Paradiso, under the sign of Gemini—and, to mark the occasion, more than a hundred events are planned. These include everything from the minting of a new two-euro coin, embossed with the poet’s profile, to a selfie-con-Dante campaign. (Cardboard cutouts of the poet are being set up in Florence, and visitors are encouraged to post pictures of themselves with them using the hashtag #dante750.) There’s talk of extending the celebrations to 2021, the seven-hundredth anniversary of the poet’s death.

I teach Dante to American undergraduates, and I struggle to convey to them his place in Italian culture. The obvious comparison is to Shakespeare, but this is like trying to make sense of Mozart by means of Coltrane: the number of centuries that divide Dante from Shakespeare is practically as large as the number that separates Shakespeare from us.

Italian kids first encounter Dante at school, when they’re in the equivalent of seventh grade. They return to him in the eleventh grade to study the Inferno in more depth. In twelfth grade, they work on the Purgatorio. Secondary school—liceo—lasts five years, and so in what might be considered the thirteenth grade, the text for the year is the Paradiso. I recently asked the high-school-aged son of an Italian friend of mine about the experience. “It’s annoying, boring, and it never ends,” he told me. “But then you get to like it.”

At the college level, the study of Dante ratchets up by slowing down. In the late nineteen-eighties, I spent a semester in Florence, where I sat in on a Dante course at the university. The entire term was devoted to the analysis of a single canto. As it happened, the canto was Inferno 19, which is devoted to simony. Dante reserves a special hole in the third sub-circle of the eighth circle of Hell for corrupt Popes; they are stuffed into it, one after another, headfirst. Their feet are then lit on fire. Among the issues the class discussed at length was how, exactly, new Popes could be accommodated. Had space been left open for all those that would come along? Or did each new arrival compress his predecessor into some kind of pontifical pesto?

Either because of or despite this pedagogical program, Italians, to a surprising degree, stick with Dante. Since 2006, Benigni has been staging hepped-up variations on the traditional lectura dantis, a form that goes back all the way to the fourteenth century, to Boccaccio, who lectured on the poem in Florence’s Santo Stefano church. A typical lectura opens with a detailed gloss of a particular canto, followed by a dramatic reading of it. Benigni’s performances in Rome, Florence, Verona, and other cities have been watched live by more than a million people. Millions more have tuned into them on TV.

Similar, if stodgier, lectures are delivered all over Italy at societies set up expressly to foster appreciation of the Divine Comedy. In Rome, for example, the Casa di Dante sponsors a lectura dantis every Sunday at 11 A.M. Owing to holidays and long summer breaks, six years of Sundays are required to get through the poem, at which point the whole process starts over again. It’s not unusual for two hundred Romans to attend. Some are liceo students, perhaps there under duress, but most are middle-aged and beyond. After one recent session at the Casa di Dante, I asked the white-haired gentleman sitting next to me what everyone was doing there. “I don’t know about the others,” he said. “I always come.”

There are, of course, many possible explanations for Dante’s hold on Italy, including, after seven hundred and fifty years, sheer momentum. Language, too, clearly plays a part. When Dante began work on the Comedy, none of the different dialects spoken in Italy’s many city-states had any particular claim to preëminence. Latin, meanwhile, was the language of the Church and of institutions such as the courts and universities. (Dante wrote “De Vulgari Eloquentia,” his defense of the vernacular, in Latin.) Such was the force and influence of the Comedy that the Tuscan dialect became Italy’s literary language and, eventually, its national one. The fact that people in Venice and Palermo could understand Cristoforetti as she read from the Paradiso in space was due, in a quite literal sense, to the poem that she was reading.

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Sunday, 24 May 2015

A Back Way Into Eden: Elaboration on Kleist

To be innocent is to be on the right side of the law, to have avoided crime. But if you’re ignorant of the law, that alone is enough to render you innocent—if not legally at least morally. And of course if there were no law at all one would be innocent always. No action is in itself enough to stain one’s innocence, to render one guilty; knowledge of right action is needed as well. (There are men who in their whole lives will never be as entirely innocent as a cat tormenting a half-eaten mouse.) It is not the criminal act itself but its relation to a law—its difference with respect to law—that makes for sin. Yet even to obey a law (to act not merely in accordance with it but because of it) is already to know the seed of this difference. Christ taught that even merely to lust after a woman is already to commit adultery in one’s heart, and we understand very well that this is so: in lust one part of our soul is already over the line. But if Christ is right, no one has ever obeyed the commandment against adultery: both those whose lust led them to act and those who resisted temptation out of respect for the law are equally at fault. Innocence became impossible from the moment this commandment was given. This is a formal characteristic of moral law as such, independent of which particular acts are forbidden; the moment there is law, obedience is already too little, already sin. The moment an “ought” cracks through the unbroken surface of what is, sin is there; obedience, as such, can never restore what was lost. Christ saw this and drew his conclusions (not to abolish but to fulfill the law)—but he was not the first to see it. The intimate relation between law and sin is already inscribed with exacting clarity in the story of the Fall.
The problem of law, considered formally, extends beyond the moral domain to spheres with which we moderns are perhaps more familiar. Think of the “self-consciousness” which prevents a person from dancing well, or conducting himself charmingly. Isn’t it precisely the same story? One becomes conscious of a difference between how one is and how one ought to be; every effort to correct it is futile, because real grace is precisely effortless. (Again, cats come to mind.) One knows this, one decides to relax and simply be oneself, but alas! It’s too late. Effort is futile, and the subterfuge which tries to stop trying is equally so, since it still hopes. The harder one tries, the more evidently one is “trying too hard.” To know what would be right is immediately to act wrong.1

* * *

Physical grace, then, is analogous to spiritual grace in at least this respect: both are beyond the rule’s dilemma, or before it, and neither is to be attained through conformity with a rule. This analogy orients Heinrich von Kleist’s elegant 1810 story, “On the Marionette Theatre.” The story takes the form of a dialogue between the narrator and his friend, a talented professional dancer. Yet he is often to be found at the local puppet theatre, watching the show. His friend asks what could attract him to such a vulgar entertainment; he answers that “any dancer who wished to perfect his art could learn a lot from [the puppets].” What is to be learned, however, turns out to be rather sad: no human dancer can “perfect his art.” “Where grace is concerned, it is impossible for man to come anywhere near a puppet. Only a god can equal inanimate matter in this respect.”
A dancer more than any other artist attempts to embody his art, to be the beauty he creates; but this dancer believes his effort to be in vain and envies the puppet. He’s tragic, maybe, but he’s also ridiculous, and his friend is skeptical. What advantage could a wooden puppet have over a human? His friend offers three.
First, a puppet moves as a whole. The narrator has always wondered how a puppeteer can manage, without dozens of strings, to control each movement of every limb of his puppet—but his friend explains that the puppeteer doesn’t need to. He simply moves the whole body, and the limbs swing in relation to it like pendulums; they follow the same curves as planets in orbit, and with the same necessity. A human dancer must control every aspect of his every movement separately in order to generate a whole; the puppet, just because it is not human, can’t help but present unbroken completeness in every gesture.
Second, the puppets have a negative advantage: unlike human dancers, they are incapable of affectation. And what is affectation?
“Affectation is seen, as you know, when the soul, or moving force, appears at some point other than the centre of gravity of the movement... Take that young fellow who dances Paris when he’s standing among the three goddesses and offering the apple to Venus. His soul is in fact located (and it’s a frightful thing to see) in his elbow.”
The dancer’s center of gravity is the place where he most fully is; his soul is the place from which he moves. In a human these loci scarcely ever overlap—it’s as hard to ground your action in the place you find yourself as it is to concentrate your mind in the present moment. Only the unsouled, who do not act at all, who move in perfect obedience to necessity, can achieve this grace perfectly.

Finally, a puppet does not need the ground. According to the dancer, puppets do not need the ground, because they “are not afflicted with the inertia of matter, the property most resistant to dance.” This appears true in one sense: lifted by its strings, a puppet can fly through the air in a way no dancer could. Yet it appears to contradict the dancer’s argument. Puppets are matter, mere objects, and this was supposed to be their advantage over human dancers . In what sense are they not subject to inertia?
The dancer explains:
Puppets need the ground only to glance against lightly, like elves, and through this momentary check to renew the swing of their limbs. We humans must have it to rest on, to recover from the effort of the dance. This moment of rest is clearly no part of the dance. The best we can do is make it as inconspicuous as possible...
The contradiction is only apparent: We have been imprecise about the condition of the puppet’s grace. For a human, the ground and the need for rest are a limit. A human is spirit embodied, the dance is the spirit’s expression, the rest is the body as border: opacity and the tremor of death. The puppet has no inertia (the tendency of a body to resist changes in motion, as the schools say) because it knows nothing of resistance. It does not strain against itself. It is a machine for dancing. The condition of its grace is not that it is matter but that it is only matter, one thing entirely, at one with itself. 2

* * *

When the narrator remains skeptical even after these weighty arguments, the dancer becomes frustrated:
It seemed, he said, as he took a pinch of snuff, that I hadn’t read the third chapter of the book of Genesis with sufficient attention. If a man wasn’t familiar with that initial period of all human development, it would be difficult to have a fruitful discussion with him about later developments and even more difficult to talk about the ultimate situation.
The narrator defends himself: he does indeed understand “how consciousness can disturb natural grace.” To illustrate, he tells a story. He once knew a charming and graceful boy hardly afflicted with vanity. One day, when he and this boy were dressing after a bath, the boy caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and was reminded of the famous “Boy with Thorn” statue which he had recently seen. He told the narrator of the discovery, and the narrator, chuckling, asked him to demonstrate by repeating the pose. The boy tried once, twice, ten times, but was unable to do it!
From that day, from that very moment, an extraordinary change came over this boy. He began to spend whole days before the mirror. His attractions slipped away from him, one after the other. An invisible and incomprehensible power seemed to settle like a steel net over the free play of his gestures. A year later nothing remained of the lovely grace which had given pleasure to all who looked at him.
The tale naturally calls to mind the story of Narcissus—but only to remind us of how superficially we have understood it. Narcissus’ story is in no sense a parable of vanity; Narcissus does not recognize himself in his reflection, he simply falls in love. If the story teaches us anything, it is not the folly of the vainly beautiful but that of their lovers. Beauty in its pure form does not know itself, not even face to face; it is perfectly unselfconscious, therefore perfectly at one with itself. Narcissus’ fate suggests, strangely, a certain ideal of love: do not lovers wish to be a single being? Isn’t their difference the limit of their love? Vanity merely reproduces this difference within the subject, but Narcissus enthralled by his own image is otherwise: a being in love with itself, therefore in love absolutely. Poor Echo, to chase such a thing! What can she hope to hear from it but the sound of her own longing?

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Vivian Gornick: 'Most people who are writing memoirs are not writers'

The first thing one notices about Vivian Gornick’s apartment is how spare it is. The walls are lined with tall bookshelves but there is little other element there by way of decoration other than some cat paraphernalia for her pair of tabbies. I have come prepared for the sight; towards the beginning of her typically lucid new memoir, The Odd Woman and the City, Gornick writes that her friends tease her about her “indifference to acquisition”.

It’s not really the result of anti-materialism, though Gornick is very aware of class and labour issues. “All my life I’ve made do with less,” she writes, “because ‘stuff’ makes me anxious.” Another thing this memoir records Gornick as failing to acquire is a live-in partner, but that is treated as a secondary question to her working life and to the city – New York – where she has lived this whole time. The whole book then serves as an implicit clarion call to her fellow “Odd Women”, a term she borrows from the George Gissing novel to describe her condition.

The confession of anxiety in the text is startling. Not much about the smooth, self-critical persona Gornick has built in her writing hints at it. And there is no trace of any kind of anxiety throughout our conversation. In person Gornick is affable and warm and has a wonderful thick laugh, but she speaks in perfect, resolute sentences. She is 79, but for most of our interview I feel pressed to keep up with her as she repeatedly prods and pokes at the basis of my questions.

I start out by asking her about memoir, the form in which she has worked for more than a quarter-century. Though she wrote books before it, it was the publication in 1987 of her highly regarded memoir of her mother, Fierce Attachments, that made Gornick’s literary reputation.

Though her books have never sold exceptionally well, Gornick since became a kind of sage of the form in literary America. She wrote a well-regarded guide to the writing of personal narrative called The Situation and the Story, which has moved onto many an MFA syllabus across the country. She also gave an interview to the Paris Review on the subject. Google Vivian Gornick and you’ll find her quoted on innumerable aspiring memoirists blogs. And since memoir is the genre of the moment, that’s a lot of blogs. (Gornick doesn’t spend much time online; she is pleased, but disbelieving, when I tell her she’s “big on the internet”.)

She confidently bats away my question about the critics of the genre. “It’s quite a long time now, that the memoir has had such cachet. And a large part of it is because fiction writing has been for many years now, proven unsatisfying,” she said. “Modernism itself, the whole movement of modernism, has sort of run its course.” It’s not that she doesn’t believe there are bad memoirs; on the contrary, she readily admits it. “Just as you have thousands of novels that are not good, that did not achieve literature,” she said, “so in the same way you have a small number of memoirs that have a rich life and that achieve literature.

“If a memoir is to achieve literature, it has to have an organizing principle, it has to have an idea, it has to have something that will be of value to the disinterested reader,” she said. “And that doesn’t happen so often, because most people who are writing memoirs are not writers.” The books that these other people – celebrities, crime victims – create she calls “testament”, a genre she traces back to the second world war and credits with creating the appetite for memoir in America. But she’s very clear on the nature of the skill involved in elevating the book to literature: “The ability to turn yourself into a persona who is able to generate drama, narrative drive, conflict, all the things that are required, is very hard,” she told me. “And not too many people achieve it.” (She did once get herself into a controversy about the use of composite characters in her work, which she defended by writing: “What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters.”)

Gornick’s own persona on the page is successful, in large part because of her great ability to enact her ambivalence without making the tone of her memoir tentative. In The Odd Woman and the City, we hear about many of Gornick’s failures. One phrase early in the book recurs to me as I’m talking to her: “I began to write but nobody read me above Fourteenth Street.” The admission of wanting a wider audience strikes me as a very vulnerable thing for a writer to put in print. But when I mention it to her I get only a warm smile. “People always say to me, ‘You reveal so much,’” she says a bit later. She doesn’t think so: “I never write when I am vulnerable.”

Gornick was not always a memoirist. Initially, she was a journalist. She worked for the Village Voice in its heyday, the early 1970s, where she was known as a feminist polemicist. She’s a bit bashful about that writing now: “Many people have gone and looked back at the files of the Village Voice, which was a passionate subculture,” she said, “And you know, it’s all very dated.” She quit the newspaper, she has said in several interviews throughout the years, because eventually being a polemicist became exhausting. “We were a lot of testifiers in those years,” she smiles, “and only a few of us turned out to be writers, is really how it comes down.”

But Gornick doesn’t quite repudiate her feminist past as a force in her writing; in fact she credits the 1970s practice of consciousness-raising as leading her to a desire to delve into her own experience. Talking about the after-effects of 1970s feminism’s discovery that women were “second-class citizens”, she adds: “The neurosis that that helped create in each of us couldn’t be cured in the repetition of our claim on the world, it could only be cured psychologically. As Chekhov said: ‘Others may be a slave, but I must squeeze the slave out of myself drop by drop.’”

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