Week 4 – ♦Jack♦
Short story: “The Secret Woman”, by Colette, tr. Margaret Crosland (1924, La Femme Cachée. IN: The Other Woman, 1971)
We are at a masked ball and we follow a man who has lied to his wife, Irene, so as to be able to attend the ball alone. Since he is a doctor, he pretends to have been called by a patient in an emergency case, and tells his wife that she should go without him. “Can you see me in a crowd, at the mercy of all those hands…”, she answers in disgust.
He knows she would never attend a ball like that, so he feels safe in going alone in a costume. All the same, once there, he feels afraid of removing his disguise, and recalls his conversation with Irene the night before. While he is lost in thought, he hears a familiar cough and his attention is drawn to a person dressed as a Pierrot: is it possible that it is his wife? Did Irene lie to him, did she come to the ball alone after all?
Thinking that there must be a rival, he follows his wife, as she slowly makes her way among the dancers, like a mischievous cat. She drinks champagne, flirts with random men and women, moves in what the husband thinks as a masculine way, dances with a naked wrestler, kisses a young man at random. Behind the liberating anonymity of disguise, she is enjoying a provisional form of freedom.
I love the way the husband’s perception of Irene evolves throughout the story: first, she seems to be a very conventional, rather naïve wife who wishes her husband would not see her as a woman who could go to a masked ball alone; then, she is an unfaithful, treacherous woman who lies and goes out to meet a lover in secret; she is an androgynous figure dressed up as a Pierrot who scratches her ties “in a proletarian way”; then, she is a sexual predator, moving her “little satanic hands, which were entirely black…”; and, finally, in the end, she is just a woman who, much like her husband, wants to enjoy herself alone. In short, a woman whom “a little mask and a hermetic costume had restored to her irremediable solitude and her immodest innocence“.
It feels as though Irene were always escaping her husband’s definition of her, evading the terms of what constitutes a wife. All of this we see through the eyes of her husband – who, in the end, simply goes way and leaves her be: “He was sure that she was not waiting or looking for anyone, and that abandoning the lips she held beneath her own like an empty grape, she was going to leave again the next moment, wander about once more, collect some other passer-by, forget him, and simply enjoy, until she felt tired and went back home, the monstrous pleasure of being alone, free, honest in her crude, native state, of being the unknown woman, eternally solitary and shameless, restored to her irremediable solitude and immodest innocence by a little mask and a concealing costume.” Not a predator nor an angel, Irene is left to enjoy the party, unmediated by her husband’s perception.
I like the way Colette plays with gaze, gender roles, and their reversal: while, at the beginning, the doctor and Irene seem to be performing to each other the roles of husband and wife – he, the protective man who is obliged to forego the party for work; and she, the ladylike, bashful woman who wouldn’t dare to go to the ball alone or to be touched by a crowd -; in the end, their parts seem to have been switched – or, at least, the ideas of wife and husband, masculinity and femininity are seen just as different kinds of masks or roles to be performed.
Furthermore, the anonymity of disguise, in the ball, seems to release an identity quite different from the Irene her husband thinks he knows – La Femme Cachée, the hidden woman, the secret woman behind the mask of conventional femininity.
Is the secret woman the real woman? Is her identity restored to her by a mask? Or is it just another creation? Does the mask hide or reveal?
My rating: ★★★★☆
Short story: “I Stand Here Ironing”, by Tillie Olsen (Tell Me a Riddle, 1961)
The story opens with a working-class single mother reminiscing about her daughter Emily, after receiving a message from someone who is worried about the girl and wants to help her. While the mother irons, she reflects about the way she should respond to the message, and we are offered a retrospective of her relationship with her daughter since she was a baby. “I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.“
Born during the time of the Great Depression, Emily is the eldest of five children and is now nineteen. “There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me.” Her life was not easy: Emily’s father left the family when she was baby, her mother had to leave her with relatives to find a job, then had to leave the child alone at home while she worked. Other children were born and Emily had to grow up fast and help. “I put the iron down. What in me demanded that goodness in her? And what the cost, the cost to her of such goodness?“, muses the mother. “We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth”.
The iron in the title hints at all the external circumstances that shape one’s life, the circumstances that shaped the mother, the daughter, and their relationship. It also hints at the mother’s inner struggle to straighten out her life and her relationship with her daughter. Further, the movement of the iron going back and forth mirrors the main theme of story: the act of reckoning with guilt, and of coming to terms with everything that might have been – particularly, everything that is not in our power to change.
As a response to the message that sparked her recollections, the mother comes to a compromise between the inescapable weight of the iron and the agency of moving it a little: “She kept too much in herself, her life was such that she had to keep too much in herself. My wisdom came too late. She has much to her and probably little will come of it. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear. Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom – but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by. Only help her to know – help make it so there is cause for her to know- that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.”
This story made me cry, for reasons difficult to articulate here. Olsen tells it like it is.
My rating: ★★★★☆
In this short essay, Georges Didi-Huberman explores the dialectics of history as a process of reassembling: rather than in a deductive or consecutive manner, history is made by the layering of different temporalities, that is, by a combination of the act of démonté (to dismantle, to analyse and explore, to be confused and bewildered, to lose countenance, the stormy and rough sea); the act of remontée (return to the origins, recover lost ground, climb again); and the idea of remontage (reassembly, put together the pieces of a machine, make it work again, bring together different elements to achieve a particular effect).
He argues that montage is, par excellence, the procedure by which politics is philosophically and artistically exposed: montage discloses the conflicts, paradoxes, and reciprocal shocks through which history is woven, by dismounting them and making them take a new position in the whole.
Disassembly combines two meanings: the idea of unique positions, and the act of transgression, the art of getting all things out of their usual places. The montage separates things that are usually brought together, and connects things that are usually separate. It creates shock and movement.
Instead of univocal concepts or laws, philosophical ideas are seen as configurations: ideas are for things what constellations are for planets. Consequently, ideas only make sense through their respective positions in a given montage.
Endorsing Walter Benjamin’s take on history, Didi-Huberman argues that dialectics and montage are inseparable in the deconstruction of historicism: it is a two-way movement that creates intervals and discontinuities, so that historical knowledge becomes a form of temporal assembly that remains constantly at the threshold of the present, releasing the present moment from the destructive cycle of repetition, and taking from the discontinuity of time the chance of a reversal.
The material created through the montage does not stop running, migrating from one temporality to another. Montage, in this sense, looks like a “ghost story for grown-up people”: “A melancholy and subtle story of mourning, like a wind of ashes. A cheerful and orderly story, as fun as disassembling a watch.”
Album: “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”, by Wilco (2002)
Noisy percussive psychedelia, with evasive lyrics about self-conscious people being misunderstood and having their hearts broken. This album brings me back to the early 2000’s as no other. Can’t believe it’s almost 20 years since its release.
- Length: 51:51
- My rating: ★★★★★
- Album n. 493 on Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time
- Album n. 03 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 Best Albums of the 2000’s
- Album n. 458 on NME’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time
- Favourite songs:
“I need a camera to my eye
To my eye, reminding
Which lies I have been hiding
Which echoes belong
I’ve counted out days
To see how far
I’ve driven in the dark
With echoes in my heart
My voice is climbing walls
Smoking and I want love
(…)” (Poor Places)
Let’s forget about the tongue-tied lightning
Let’s undress just like cross-eyed strangers
This is not a joke, so please stop smiling
What was I thinking when I said it didn’t hurt?
(…)” (I Am Trying to Break Your Heart)
“Cheer up, honey, I hope you can
There is something wrong with me
My mind is filled with silvery stars
Honey, kisses, clouds of fog
Shoulders shrugging off
Cheer up, honey, I hope you can
There is something wrong with me
My mind is filled with radio cures
Electronic surgical words
Picking apples for kings and queens of things I have never seen
Oh, distance has no way of making love understandable
(…)” (Radio Cure)
“Jesus, don’t cry, you can rely on me, honey
You can combine anything you want
I’ll be around, you were right about the stars
Each one is a setting sun
Tall buildings shake
Voices escape singing sad, sad songs
Tuned to chords, strung down your cheeks
Bitter melodies turning your orbit around
Our love, our love, our love is all we have
Our love, our love is all of God’s money
Each one is a burning su
(…)” (Jesus, etc)
All my lies are always wishes
I know I would die if I could come back new
(…)” (Ashes of American Flags)
“All I can see is black and white
And white and pink with blades of blue
That lay between the words I think
On a page I was meaning to send her
You I couldn’t tell if it brings my heart
The way I wanted when I started
Writing this letter to you
If I could you know I would
Just hold your hand and you’d understand
I’m the man who loves you
(…)” (I’m the man who loves you)
Film: Marriage Story, directed by Noah Baumbach (2019, IMDb)
The film opens with a pair of voice-over monologues by a married couple, Charlie, a New York theatre director, and Nicole, an actress in his company. In the monologues, they make a list of what each one loves about the other. However, we soon find out that their marriage is crumbling, they are splitting, Nicole is moving to the other side of the country to star in a television show – and the monologues are, in fact, letters they never read to each other.
While it is true that Marriage Story relies heavily in dialogue, its main framework is silence: everything that remains unspoken between a couple, like a corrosive substance hidden underneath several layers of habit and convenience, very dangerous to the touch, and always threatening to spill out.
My favourite scenes are the ones where the characters are caught in a web of internal monologue and rapid-fire dialogue, and we get a sense of how much a relationship can be shaped by this duelling given-and-take – and how much its beginning and its end are framed by everything that remains unspoken, everything that is in fact incommunicable.
One key scene happens during the legal hearings, when Nicole and Charlie’s lawyers verbally battle for their clients, spilling out the couple’s intimacy in the cruellest light, while the couple itself remains silent and appalled. We have a strong sense of the way the law reshapes their relationship to a point where they do not recognize themselves. And we also have a sense of the way this process of reshaping both robs them of their voices in the matter (peeling off the layer of the unspoken and letting out everything they would rather had remained locked underneath), and gives them a new framework, a new voice, or at least a new vocabulary.
We cannot help but feel that, as nasty as the court situation is for each of them, it gives Nicole an opportunity to be heard by Charlie: to offer her perspective on him, on their marriage, and her frustrations. And part of the reason why this scene is so uncomfortable for her is also the fact that we are not quite sure whether she wants to have those frustrations spilled out. Everything is said by proxy and in the exact words she used – but, at the same time, everything seems to come out in a somewhat distorted way.
Another key scene happens when the couple tries to communicate without the mediation of their lawyers, and their frustrations escalate to the same degree as their incommunicability. It is a scene filled with words, but what emerges from it, ultimately, is silence: we have a representation of the reason why the marriage crumbled, with Nicole lashing out her anger against her husband’s oblivious selfishness, and Charlie rejecting her claims in a way that only reinforces them and demonstrates his obliviousness.
However, while I can see what it is trying to do, the film made me feel nothing. It is too warm-hearted and bland, too aware of its potential to hurt – a potential that, ultimately, is left unexplored. For a film so rooted on frustrations, anger, and on the unspoken, Marriage Story should not have been so worried about smoothing out its rough edges.
- Running time: 136 min
- My rating: ★★★☆☆
- Favourite scenes: the opening with the voice-over monologues, the court scene, the confrontation scene, and the piano-bar rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s song Being Alive, morphing the movie into a musical in a delirious way.
That’s all for now, folks. What have you been reading/ listening/ watching this week? Tell me about it.