The tenacity of life in its minute frame

Hi, folks,

Here are some things I read, listened, or watched this past week. For more about this project & my previous posts on it, go here: Weeks 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 |

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Week 6- ♦09♦

Short story: “A Dream of Winter”, by Rosamond Lehmann (The Gipsy’s Baby, 1946)

It’s winter, there has been a great frost, and the lady of the house is sick in bed. For some months, there has been a bee hive hidden under the roof, and she cannot stand the constant humming. There are small hints that war is looming somewhere close by, and the lady’s son complains that, if she can’t stand the hum of the bees, what will she do in an air-raid? Despite the cold, two workmen are now outside her window taking the shingles off the roof to remove the noisy bees.

Two images are at the heart of this story for me: honey and bird. The honey which the protagonist imagined pouring from beneath her roof; then the dry bee hive the workmen initially find (a world extinct); and finally the honey they unexpectedly discover (inviolable, a microcosm of summer). Similarly, we have the stiff bird found at the back of the boiler, suddenly alive, flying out of the hands of the lady’s child, dashing against the mantelpiece, then flying into the fire, and finally staggering, desperately clinging to life. “The tenacity of life in its minute frame appalled her.

The story is soaked in a diffuse melancholy, and the author manages to create a blurring between the lady’s feverish dreams and the reality outside her window – which, in turn, mirrors the blurring between the domestic life inside the house and the war happening outside, and between creation and destruction, life and death, death in life. “She took her temperature and found it was lower: barely a hundred.  He had done her good.  Then she lay listening to the silence she had created.  One performs acts of will, and in doing so one commits acts of negation and destruction.  A balcony weighed upon her: torn out, exposed, violated, obscene as the photograph of a bombed house.”

My rating: ★★★★★

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Short story: “The Jest of Jests”, by Djuna Barnes (1917. Smoke, And Other Early Stories, 1982; Collected stories, 1996)

The place is Long Beach, and we begin with two rivals in love, known to us as the Physician and Josiah Illock. Both are in love with the flirtatious Madeleonette  “All men begin by loving a woman for what she isn’t and end by perceiving what she is.  In the beginning they caress the skin with kisses, and in the end they puncture with the pistol.”

Madeleonette and Josiah make a bet: she is certain that the Physician loves her, but Josiah suggests they should submit him to a test. All our heroine has to do is to make the Physician jealous to the point of shooting; Josiah promises to provide her with a gun loaded with blanks; and she must fall and play dead. “Men shoot what they do not understand.”

It sounds simple enough, but Madeleonette and Josiah do not know that the Physician also wants to submit our heroine to a test of his own invention. He could only marry a brave woman, nothing less.

Not only the whole test but also the story itself will be a “jest of jests”: it will not end where we think it did, and the narrator will redirect us to the beginning, throwing a new light on the second paragraph. Right where we started, we will find the denouement.

My rating: ★★★☆☆

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Essay: “Sobre a Arte Contemporânea” (‘On Contemporary Art’), by César Aira, tr. Vctor da Rosa (2010)

Aira starts his exploration of contemporary art by saying that his point of view is that of the writer who seeks in painting his inspiration, encouragement, methods, and themes. He then goes on to point out which for him is the determining aspect of contemporary art: that is, the fact that it is comprised by works of art that “are committed to an obstinate desire not to let themselves be photographed”.

Here he makes explicit his objection to the philosophical question concerning the “aura” of a work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction: to Aira, the work of art always implied its own reproduction. “When exposing itself to perception and memory, it is inevitable that works of art unleash ghosts in time and space. In this sense, the work of art is only the model of its reproductions, and almost nothing else”.

From the moment where contemporary art starts to take place, Aira argues that “it is as if a race had started to take place between the work of art and the technical possibility of its reproduction. And perhaps this race, this flight ahead, is what is dictating the form that the work of art takes. The contemporary work of art flees from its technical reproduction as it advances and improves. The work becomes a work of art today when it takes a step forward from the possibility of its reproduction”.

According to Aira, the contemporary artist keeps moving forward, “and puts his ingenuity and creativity in the service of making his work contain an aspect, side or edge that remains hidden even from the most innovative and exhaustive reproduction technique”. Furthermore, the irreproducible aspect of the work of art exists to generate not exactly a different work itself, but a different story from it. “Perhaps the work of art has always been adjusted so that no reproduction would represent it forever. We must think of an expanded concept of “aura”, which would include the account from which the work arises. The concrete reality of the work would be shaped by the work itself and by the time that comprised its conception and execution, the historical course, in which each of its points is unique and unrepeatable, and therefore unrepeatable.”

Aira argues further that, in the race between the work and its reproduction, they will eventually become blurred. Reproduction becomes work of art, and work becomes reproduction, and what matters in the end is the story which moves both. “Reproduction itself becomes a work of art or, more precisely, art without a work. ‘Dream not dreamed,’ said De Chirico. Dream not dreamed, but latent, without the arrogance of the realized. Art becomes a slightly fantastic game over time: it is the documentation of something that was, and at the same time, the promise of something that will be. Newbie and posthumous. Perhaps the work of art has always been a being of precarious or ambiguous existence, suspended between before and after, subordinated to a script that hides its beauty and its charm as a secret.”

Based on the image of stories as bridges between the work and its reproduction, Aira then defines literature as a form of “expanded reproduction” – expanded in all directions of a multidimensional continuum, as a reproduction of a work of art that has ceased to be important, or pertinent, a work that exists or not. “To incorporate what is not done into what is done is the task that some artists seem to have assigned to themselves. (…) What is done will continue to be the necessary support for what is not done, which lodges itself in its material as a secret story. Literature, or literature as I understand and practice it, could be the silver bridge between the done and the not done, which establishes a mysterious and suggestive asymmetry between them.”

Musing about the concepts of reproduction, art and craft, Aira argues that: “Art, on the contrary, is not art if it is well done (that is, if it is submitted to the established values). In the case of art, it does not need to be done well – and it is a regrettable waste of time (which only young people incur) to strive for it. If it is art, or for it to be art, it must create new values; it does not need to be good, on the contrary: if it is possible to be classified as good, it is because it is obeying quality parameters already set, and it would then be placed, according to this innovative concept of the 18th century reinterpreted by me, in the category of ‘craft’”.

To Aira, to do art means to create new values, to intervene in the viewer’s personal history, to give him a new point of view, to move into the dimension of the not done. The work of art becomes secondary to the account from which it emerges: creating values ​​is to tell stories. “From Duchamp’s urinal, almost any work of Contemporary Art, taken from its context, from its history, from the explanation that surrounds it, lends itself to a sarcastic description. More than lends itself: we would say that it was made as the object of this sarcastic description, and that such description is a kind of degree zero of its reception. Without this first degree, the reception of a work of art cannot take off. (…) Hence the formula “anything”, which can be taken as both a formula for freedom and irresponsibility. I prefer the first, and I am an ardent supporter, in the literature I write and in the art I appreciate, of “anything” like the Open Sesame of creation. (…) Everything must be allowed so that what emerges from this whole can have the liberating value that we should claim from art”.

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Album: “My Woman”, by Angel Olsen (2016)

  • A mix of dreamy, sad songs
  • Length: 47:17
  • My rating: ★★★☆☆
  • Favourite songs: Woman, Never Be Mine
  • Lyrics:

“(…)
Everyone I know has got their own ideal
I just want to be alive, make something real
Doesn’t matter who you are or what you do
Something in the work will make a fool of you
(…)” – Intern

“My watch is blurry when I look down at my hands
I’m just another, alive with impossible plans
I turn the lights low but we both know where we are
And when it’s over, what becomes of your pure heart?
A love that never seems to curse or to confine
Will be forever never lost or too defined
To lose the feeling of an endless searching through
How to have made what is never about me or you
That is the kind of love I’d always dreamed to be
However painful, let it break down all of me
‘Til I am nothing else but the feeling
‘Til I am nothing else but the feeling
Becoming true
Can’t help feeling the way that I do
Become a prophet
Become a fool
(…)” – Not Gonna Kill You

“(…)
Am I not allowed
To think kindly of a stranger
Who reflects the sound
Of my heartache
As it’s beating
My life to the ground
(…)” – Woman

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Film: Little Women, by Greta Gerwig (2019, IMDb)

This movie is that rare thing: a film adaptation that tries to be faithful to the spirit of Louisa May Alcott’s book, while presenting a fresh, contemporary version of it. The film opens and closes at a publisher’s desk, and in-between we have an artist’s coming of age journey. It’s Jo March’s journey, but it is also Louisa’s.

When the film opens, Jo is entering the office of a publisher to offer him her short stories. He skims the manuscript, crosses out some pages, and tells her to bring him more stories, making sure that the heroines are married in the end — “or dead, either way.” By the end of the film, Jo and Louisa are blurred, they have successfully negotiated their royalties, managed to retain the copyright of their work, and the freshly printed book has just landed in their hands. It will be a huge success. “If I’m going to sell my heroine into marriage for money, I might as well get some of it.

Between the opening scene and the last, we have a celebration of our multiple readings of Little Women, and our shared memory of it. Past and present scenes of the March sisters’ lives are juxtaposed, and the timelines switch back and forth throughout the film: this narrative choice, coming back and forth from adulthood to childhood, gives us a deeper melancholy, a sense of innocence lost, of childhood dreams that have gone astray, creativity stalled by life demands, and time gone by.

It is a narrative choice where present reality and memory of the past intermingle, giving us a sense that we are following Jo as she is writing the story of her family; we are following her as she remembers her past, weaving her memories back and forth with her present; we are following her from the moment she first entered the publisher’s office to the moment she comes out with her book. And we are finally puzzled into thinking that the movie we’ve just watched is not only Alcott’s book itself, but the story of the writing of the book.

Jo’s struggles parallel Alcott’s, and Gerwig makes use not only of Little Women itself, but of other novels by the author, as well as her letters. In the scene where, talking to her mother, Jo puzzles whether she had really made the right decision by rejecting Laurie’s marriage proposal, the words were taken from Alcott’s Rose in Bloom (1875):

““That may be the case with many, but not with us, for Phebe and I believe that it is as much a right and a duty for women to do something with their lives as for men, and we are not going to be satisfied with such frivolous parts as you give us,” cried Rose with kindling eyes. “I mean what I say, and you cannot laugh me down. Would you be contented to be told to enjoy yourself for a little while, then marry and do nothing more till you die?” she added, turning to Archie.

“Of course not that is only a part of a man’s life,” he answered decidedly.

“A very precious and lovely part, but not all,” continued Rose. “Neither should it be for a woman, for we’ve got minds and souls as well as hearts; ambition and talents as well as beauty and accomplishments; and we want to live and learn as well as love and be loved. I’m sick of being told that is all a woman is fit for! I won’t have anything to do with love till I prove that I am something besides a housekeeper and baby-tender!”

“Heaven preserve us! Here’s woman’s rights with a vengeance!” cried Charlie, starting up with mock horror, while the others regarded Rose with mingled surprise and amusement, evidently fancying it all a girlish outbreak.” (Rose in Bloom)

Gerwig gives Jo a line that Alcott said of herself: “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe”, she wrote in her journal in 1860. Furthermore, one of the best scenes, Amy’s speech to Laurie, is not even in Alcott’s Little Women, but was inserted by Gerwig from a conversation with Meryl Streep:

Amy: Why should I be ashamed of that?

Laurie: It’s nothing to be ashamed of, as long as you love him.

Amy: Well, I believe that we have some power over who we love. It isn’t something that just happens to a person.

Laurie: I think the poets might disagree.

Amy: Well, I’m not a poet. I’m just a woman. And as a woman there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family. And if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property, so don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition. Because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.”

We have the story of Little Women, but also the story of the writing of Little Women: Gerwig breaks the story into fragments, so as to break open our collective retellings and memories of the book; the stories we tell about it; the stories we tell about girls and women and what is appropriate for women to feel and do; and the untold story of gender limitations that runs through the March sisters’ lives.

The film tries to convey the story behind the book. While writing the novel, Alcott wrote in her diary: “Girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life. I won’t marry Jo to Laurie to please anyone.” Years later, in 1896, in a letter Alcott wrote to a friend, she said: “Jo should have remained a literary spinster but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn’t dare to refuse & out of perversity went & made a funny match for her. I expect vials of wrath to be poured out upon my head, but rather enjoy the prospect.”

The stories, told and untold, are tied together by the scene in the end, where the publisher insists that the heroine of Jo’s (or Alcott’s?) book should get married by the end. They haggle, and Jo (or Alcott…) agrees to marry her off. The film then cuts back to the romantic scene between Jo and Professor Bhaer in the rain – which is deliberately made more dramatic and artificial, almost like a joke, so as to make clear that what we are watching is fiction, something that takes place only in the novel Jo is writing. We are then cut back again, to Jo (or Alcott…) as she is overseeing the printing of her book. “The hat trick I wanted to pull off was, what if you felt when she gets her book the way you generally feel about a girl getting kissed?Gerwig explained in an interview. “So it’s not girl gets boy, it’s girl gets book.”

What remains to be debated is whether Little Women is itself a girl-gets-boy story. Jo does get married, but not to Laurie. And she gets professional satisfaction – but not with writing. To me, rather than a girl-gets-boy story, Alcott’s novel is a story about compromise: the idea that one must negotiate one’s aspirations under the limitations of one’s circumstances; the idea that dreams do not come true, innocence is lost, and childhood eventually must end. It’s a book about a girl who cannot get a book and nonetheless must find some accommodation, some form of happiness. As 30-year-old Jo says, “The life I wanted seems selfish, lonely, and cold to me now.” To me, this is the heart of Little Women – but, I guess, a film centred on the ideas that some girls do not get the book, childhood eventually must end and dreams do not come true wouldn’t fit the spirit of our times. And it most certainly wouldn’t make a millennial blockbuster…


That’s all for now, folks. What have you been reading/ listening/ watching this week? Tell me about it.

Yours truly,

J.


Andrew Wyeth. “Wind from the Sea”, 1947

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