Adorno and the Showgirl

or Late Style



Remember the figleaf’s lesson. Styles betray

Some guilty knowledge. What to dress ours in —

A seer’s blind gaze, an infant’s tender skin?

All that’s been seen through. The eloquence to come

Will be precisely what we cannot say

Until it parts the lips.

                                            — JAMES MERRILL


Table of Contents

Sight Lines

[This very brief introduction establishes why a book on “late style” should begin with “has-been” characters in Hollywood musicals. It indicates, as well, just who the real – or rather, fictive – “showgirl” of the title is.]

(1) Has-Beens of the “Cinema Firmament”

[This chapter, by examining various characters in musicals and also by determining which ones of them are good role models and which ones are bad, suggests that many a “late style” in the arts – be they performing, visual, or literary arts – must be motivated by the artist’s fear of becoming a related kind of professional – and perhaps even personal – “has-been.”]

(2) Wunderlicher Alter

[By comparing the allegedly very bad writing style of Theodor Adorno with the clearly very good style of Charles Rosen – to whom, incidentally, the book is dedicated – this chapter shows, among other things, that some aging artists – and even critics – are fortunate enough never to need a late style.]

(3) E di pensier, e di pensier…

[This chapter looks at various “has-been” characters in the films of Federico Fellini, revealing in the process that it is the aging showgirl in (as played by Yvonne Casadei) and not the film director there (as played by Marcello Mastroianni) who is Fellini’s true alter ego; the poor woman represents the kind of artiste that this by now world-famous auteur fears he may have already become. The chapter also, by looking at those films in their entirety, traces Fellini’s growing and also related disbelief in any afterlife – or indeed in any God.]

(4) The Most Happy Fella

[The late literary style of our “most famous atheist,” Friedrich Nietzsche, is among other things (like still being musical) quite hyperbolic. Various other critics have educed various reasons for this, including that the man may have been nuts. But the real reason, one infers, is simply that Nietzsche now really enjoyed writing.]

(5) Monsieur Bonbon

[Joseph Cornell, a rather famous “outsider” artist, really was nuts. He was also both profoundly and problematically sentimental. He was not so much afraid of becoming a has-been, that is, as he was of ever expressing this sentimentally of his in artwork. Yet in late work done after the death of Cornell’s dearly beloved brother, Robert, the fear seems to have dissipated, despite the fact that, or perhaps because, the artist no longer believed in the afterlife this work either so clearly represents or so obliquely invokes.]

Vanishing Point

[This very brief conclusion explains something that any careful reader will have already figured out: that the whole book – for its author, at least, another atheist who can’t believe in an afterlife – is an at least “somewhat artful” as well as “rather joyful” attempt to master his having lost Charles Rosen.]


Works Cited



Jacqueline Bonbon

Sight Lines

The critic Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) may be least well liked, even by fans of his, for having said some pretty odd things about jazz. But Adorno is quite well liked, by fans, for some equally odd – or perhaps tone deaf – things that he said about classical music, and in particular compositions of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), and in further particular compositions of late Beethoven. In fact he is so well liked, and by so many fans, for these particular sayings, which are on what Adorno called “late-style” Beethoven, that they have been applied – of late – to other kinds of music, be it Romantic, Modernist, or Post-Modernist, as well as to many other art forms.

I am not a fan of Adorno, but nor am I a foe. I simply don’t believe him on late-style Beethoven and so nor do I appreciate – or applaud – that application. I do think, though, that any number of things not derived from Adorno can – and probably should – be said about late work by any number of creative artists. Some such things, of course, have already been said – and said extremely well – by other critics. In this book, then, these variations on a theme, as it were, I have undertaken to say, and also to repeat, a somewhat limited number of them. I have chosen, for this task, five such artists of whom I am – or at least have been – a fan. They are all dead now, alas, as well as white, male, and Western: the Romantic composers Franz Schubert (1797–1828) and Robert Schumann (1810–1856); the film director, or auteur, Federico Fellini (1920–1993); the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900); and the assembleur Joseph Cornell (1903–1972).

First, though, I will say something – in the chapter “Has-Beens of the ‘Cinema Firmament’” – about performing artists. I do this, in part, because I myself – even as a writer – have always been something of a showman. (You could say, I guess, that I’m as much a creative writer as I am a critic, but it would be more accurate to say that my critical work – to invoke speech act theory – is performative.) And now, at age fifty-four, as of this writing, I am something of an old – if not quite has-been – showman. I do this because so too were Schubert, Schumann, Nietzsche, Fellini, and Cornell.

The show-girl of this book’s title does not, by the way, refer to any of the three old strippers to be discussed in that first chapter: “Tessie Tura,” “Miss Mazeppa,” and “Miss Electra” from the musical Gypsy. It refers, instead, to the character “Jacqueline Bonbon” from Fellini’s. (This is a film that Adorno, no doubt, never bothered to see. In fact, I’m pretty sure that he never saw any such film by Fellini – or, indeed, any such film by anyone else.) This poor girl, or woman, rather, is – unlike those strippers, as you’ll see in the chapter “E di pensier, e di pensier…” – a total has-been. As such, moreover, she represents – at least to me – that which many an artist as well as many a performer strive never to become, as well as that which the late-in-life style, if not the late style, in Adorno’s sense, of such people’s work aims to avoid.



(1) Has-Beens of the “Cinema Firmament”

People at a certain age, let’s say fifty, can do one or two things to stay sexually attractive to younger or at least younger-looking partners. They can diet. And they can exercise.

People who teach young students, once fed up with the kids, can do only one of two things. They can become alcoholics. Or they can become alcoholic administrators.

Theatrical performers, once other people are fed up with them, can – according to the culture industry at a certain age – do only one of four things. They can kill themselves. Or they can become murderers. I say this based on the well-known and only somewhat realistic films A Star Is Born from 1954 and, from 1962, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Or they can become – while unaware of it – spectacular failures. Or they can become uncanny, unaccountable successes. I say this based on the films Singin’ in the Rain from 1952 and, from 1953, The Band Wagon.

I will now discuss, in reverse chronological order, the main has-been characters there. These are “Baby Jane Hudson” (as played by Bette Davis), “Norman Maine” (James Mason), “Tony Hunter” (Fred Astaire), and “Lina Lamont” (Jean Hagen). I will discuss, too, some ways in which each character’s professional impasse, on stage or on screen, relates to personal and perhaps erotic ones. But – as the subject is too personal for me – I’ll have nothing more to say about teachers.

Before doing this, though, I’ll answer two questions that you may have: “Why should anyone, nowadays, care about old movies that are so dumb or something?” And: “Who the hell are you to discuss them?” The answers are, in part, that gay men, or at least men who call themselves “gay,” should care. As David Halperin (1952–?) has written with specific reference to the Broadway musical Gypsy, first performed in 1959, and also to the 1962 film version of that show: “It is clear that traditional gay male culture – that is, subculture – continues to provide queers of all sorts with emotional, aesthetic, even political resources that turn out to be potent, necessary, and irreplaceable. The open and explicit gay male culture produced by gay liberation has not been able to supplant a gay male subculture, grounded in gay identification with non-gay forms, or to substitute for it an original gay male culture grounded in the vicissitudes of gay identity” (427). And I myself, to answer your second question, am gay. I am even, like Halperin himself, a so-called if not quite self-identified queer theorist.

Not that you have to be gay – or queer, which, according to some other queer theorists, everyone is – to love or even to have learned something from not-so-dumb old movies. For if, like these ones, the movies also happen – contrary to what the “critical theorists” Theodor Adorno (1903–1969) and Max Horkheimer (1895–1973), who, put together, coined the term “culture industry,” as well as, for that matter, the term “critical theory,” would have us think – to be works of art, they can show almost anyone certain things – things about ideology in particular – that works of theory, such as ones by the critical theorist Louis Althusser (1918–1990), not to mention Adorno and Horkheimer, can only tell us. To his credit, though, Althusser did know – and even theorized – this about art. “What art makes us see, and therefore gives us in the form of ‘seeing,’ ‘perceiving,’ and ‘feeling’ (which is not the form of knowing),” he writes, “is the ideology from which it is born, in which it bathes, from which it detaches itself as art, and to which it alludes” (222).

And before I get to “Baby Jane Hudson,” I’d like to say a word or two about three or four has-been performers in Gypsy. My excuse – or rationalization – for doing so is that the film version, co-starring Natalie Wood (as “Gypsy Rose Lee”) and Rosalind Russell (as her mother), came out the same year as What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Natalie Wood: 1938–1981; Rosalind Russell: 1907–1976). The has-beens here include three women at a certain age who – apparently not yet fed up with doing this – teach young “Gypsy Rose Lee,” while she’s still known by her real name, “Louise,” how to become a successful stripper. Louise is soon to be announced or, rather, mis-announced for the very first time, on the stage of the theater where these three already work, as “Gypsy Rose Lee.” The thus nominally challenged announcer is a man named Pastey. “Gypsy Rose Lee” (1911–1970), incidentally, was a real but also somewhat mythic woman. As “Louise,” though, she herself was by now, at this point in the musical Gypsy, a has-been of the vaudeville stage. (This has nothing to do with her lack – when compared with those of her younger sister, “Baby June” – of almost any song-and-dance or even just acting talents. Vaudeville itself had died.) As “Gypsy Rose Lee,” though, a shimmering, glowing star of burlesque will now have been born.

The three teachers of “Louise” here are “Tessie Tura” (as played by Betty Bruce [1919–1991] in the film), “Miss Mazeppa” (Faith Dane [1923–?]), and “Miss Electra” (Roxanne Arlen [1931–1989]). Their instruction is contained in their one musical number, “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.” (Gypsy Rose Lee’s gimmick, by the way, will be for her to act lady-like while stripping.) That number may well be the funniest in Gypsy. The funniest line in it, written by Stephen Sondheim (1930–?) who of course is gay, has gotta be: “Once I was a schlepper / Now I’m Miss Mazeppa.” I love it because it’s so Jewish, much as Sondheim himself also is, as well as so gender-troubled. Schlepper is Yiddish for “dummy.” Mazeppa – despite the feminine-sounding suffix – was originally the surname of a real but also somewhat mythic (and Ukrainian) man: Ivan Stepanovich Mazepa (1639–1709). It is the title, moreover, of a narrative poem by Lord Byron (1788–1824) about that (mythic) man (or gentle-man, as he is often identified in history books) and also of a Transcendental Etude (for solo piano) by Franz Liszt (1811–1886); Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837) wrote a poem about the (real) man in response to the one by Byron; Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) then composed an opera based on the Pushkin. These are things, I would imagine, that not many show queens – let alone Miss Mazeppa – would know. Nor would they know that her namesake, in myth, was stripped of all of his clothing by a rival – the much older husband of a woman with whom Mazepa had had an affair – and then tied by that husband to a horse. The show queen and also queer theorist D.A. Miller (1948–?), for instance, doesn’t seem to know these things. “Just as by rechristening her [as ‘Lee’ instead of ‘Louise’], Pastey insinuates Louise’s shady male past [as what Miller calls ‘Boy Louise,’ with whom, along gender lines, gay male fans of the show are supposed to identify] into her brilliant new career as all girl – or GRL, if we prefer the spelling on her monogram – so thanks to a rhyme whose imperfection our sense of its power to pick up the whole dramatic subtext of Gypsy would give him every right to shrug off,” Miller writes mid- to late-career, “Sondheim conflates the self-assertion of her less famous colleague with the memory of a time when the latter had to bear, among other things, a masculine suffix: ‘Once I was a schlepper / Now I’m Miss Mazeppa’” (Place for Us 77). (Miller’s gimmick, in writing of late, has been, in addition to allusiveness, this kind of rather impressive syntax. My own such gimmick – or shtick – has been among other things a kind of chattiness. Also, I’m not now very lady-like in print. Nor even gentlemanly.) For while it is true that the noun schlepper, in Yiddish, is grammatically masculine – a masculine noun in that language can refer to a woman if no distinct feminine form exists – it is also true that the name Mazeppa, as I’ve said, only sounds feminine. It too, is grammatically masculine – in Ukrainian, where it also means “dummy” – and so Miss Mazeppa, there, still bears a masculine suffix.[1]

At any rate, the first of two rather impressive things about the three instructive strippers – Tessie Tura, Miss Mazeppa, and Miss Electra – is that they only look like has-beens. True, they – admittedly – have no talents whatsoever; unlike Louise, they can’t sing, dance, or even act at all. True, no amount of diet and exercise could restore – or simulate – the truly youthful beauty that Louise here (unbeknownst to her for the moment) represents. Thanks to those gimmicks of theirs, though – one strips while playing the trumpet (or “bugle,” as she also calls it), another while illuminating herself (with little light bulbs), and another while moving with what she calls “finesse” – they can probably expect or, rather, we can expect them to have had stripping careers quite as long, if not as illustrious, as that of the real Gypsy Rose Lee. The second impressive thing here, in their number, is that – although soloists on stage – the three women display strength in numbers. They are particularly strong, I think, in the all-too-soon-abbreviated canon they sing at the end. (“Do something special / Anything special / And you’ll get better because… / You’re more than just a mimic / When you gotta gimmick / Take a look how different we are!”)

“Tessie Tura,” “Miss Mazeppa,” and “Miss Electra” are, I think, rather terrific role models for soon-to-be has-beens – gay or otherwise. They say to us: “You won’t have to be a has-been, professionally, because all you’ll have to do not to be one is get a gimmick.” They say to us: “You can even be altogether dumb or something and still succeed.” (I just love Mazeppa’s line: “[O]ne more disasparaging [sic] remark about my ballet will find this bugle right in your…” And if you don’t yet believe that these things can be true for professional queers, or for academic writers in general, consider the late-in-life career, in print as well as on the lecture circuit, of one of the two queer theorists – both named Judith – who continue to flourish with the altogether dumb gimmick, or rather, sound bite: “gender is performative.”) Those three strippers also say to us: “You won’t even have to be alone, offstage.” So I say, let’s say, along with them – all together now: “Schleppers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your shticks.”

Before I get to “Baby Jane Hudson,” I would also like to say a word about, no, not about the mother of Gypsy Rose Lee (although as a truly monstrous stage-door mother, or wannabe-and-then-never-was star of vaudeville, she’s really pretty interesting), I’d like to say something about the four mothers in the very gay musical Hairspray. (The non-musical film called Hairspray came out, as it were, in 1988; the Broadway musical version of that film in 2002; and the film version of that musical in 2007.) Their names are Edna Turnblad, Maybelle Stubbs, Velma Von Tussle (as played by Michelle Pfeiffer [1958–?] in the 2007 film), and Prudy Pingleton. Edna comes eventually to accept her plus-sized and even-bigger-hearted self and be a rather good mother to her stage-struck and plus-sized daughter, Tracy. Maybelle has always been a good mother to her stage-struck daughter, Inez, and also to her son. Velma, though, is (like Gypsy’s mom) another monstrous stage-door mother – not to mention racist – who can’t get over her brief moment in the spotlight as “Miss Baltimore Crabs” and who therefore not only dreams of but also tries to create an even greater celebrity for her probably not-so-stage-struck daughter, Amber. She may also, incidentally, at least in the musical version of Hairspray, have killed the girl’s father. Prudy – who is both racist and some sort of Christian fundamentalist – is just a horrible, and horribly abusive, mother to her daughter, Penny. And that girl’s father must be in jail.

Before I get to “Baby Jane Hudson,” I would also like to say a word about the has-been character “Honoré Lachaille” (as played by Maurice Chevalier [1887–1972]) in the film Gigi – which co-stars Leslie Caron – as “Gigi” – and Hermione Gingold – as her grandmother (Leslie Caron: 1931–?; Hermione Gingold: 1897–1987; years during which Maurice Chevalier no doubt collaborated with Nazis: 1940–1944; Chevalier, in French – think here of the mythic Mazeppa – means “horseman”). My excuse for doing so is that such an old (not to mention old-fashioned) Frenchman would certainly thank his lucky stars – or, rather, “heaven” – that a “little girl” like Louise, in Gypsy, has grown up to be such a “delightfully” beautiful woman. True, Honoré is not a theatrical performer; he himself, who has never been married, is an allegedly delightful alleged womanizer. But Chevalier, from whom, due to his actorly and utterly revolting self-regard here, it is impossible to distinguish Honoré, was such a performer: on stages ranging from the Folies Bergère in Paris to the Palace Theatre in London to New York City’s Friars Club, where, thank heaven, he was the first celebrity to be formally roasted.

But why on earth would I call this Honoré/Chevalier character a has-been? For one thing, Chevalier was seventy years old when, in 1958, the film came out. And that’s pretty old – which is to say way beyond a certain age (fiftyish). Fred Astaire (1899–1987), as we’ll see, was fifty-four years old – my own age, as of this writing – when, five years before this, The Band Wagon came out. For another thing, Honoré/Chevalier – no matter what he may think about it, consciously, and also no matter how many women he might still get to have sex with – will never, according to the “if you like it then you’d better put a ring on it” ideology of the film, be as happy as his nephew, Gaston (as played by Louis Jourdan [1921–?]) is, now that, close to the end of the film, this very rich and handsome young man has decided, instead of just having Gigi be his at-some-point-to-be-discarded mistress, a fate to which, against the poor girl’s better judgment, she has only recently become resigned, to marry her. And nor will Honoré/Chevalier ever be as happy as he would have been – we are meant to feel in their one duet (“I Remember It Well”) – had he himself, against her own better judgment, married that grandmother. For another thing, it’s not all that clear from the film – and I say this well aware of how self-censoring it had to be under the Motion Picture Production Code – that Honoré/Chevalier does still get to have sex with women. Not even with the grandmother. All he ever seems to get to do with them is to take them out for dinner at Maxim’s. And so his famous solo – “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” with which Gigi both opens and closes – comes across, to me at any rate, as a rather fatuous hymn to self-mystification and self-misrepresentation. And so, moreover, the entire film – even though based on some rather wry and artful writing by Colette (1873–1954) – cannot be considered, by me at any rate, the kind of artwork that Althusser would have appreciated. It’s just too much of an untroubled endorsement of, to invoke the title of a 1952 film (co-starring Aldo Ray [1926–1991] and Judy Holliday [1921–1965]) that I will not discuss because it’s not a musical, the “marrying kind.” But then so too had been the near-identical – both musically and narratologically – previous effort, based on artful writing by George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), of the duo that created (for film alone, initially) the musical Gigi: the lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner (1918–1986), along with the composer Frederick Loewe (1901–1988). Can you guess what this effort was? Do you remember it well? Well, I’m talking about My Fair Lady, which first came out – on Broadway – in 1956, or just two years before Gigi. (In Pygmalion [1912], the play by Shaw upon which My Fair Lady is based, Professor Henry Higgins will remain a bachelor for the rest of his life. In that musical, he will most certainly marry – it is implied – his by now former student Miss Eliza Doolittle.)

Honoré per se is a terrible role model for has-beens – gay or otherwise. He tries to get by on a certain kind of charm – or delightfulness – that now escapes everyone but the man himself. He has no gimmick, or at least none that I can detect. He lies to himself, about himself, as well as to other people – something that I, thanks to the queer theorists Michael Moon (1950–?) and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950–2009) at mid-career, do realize points to a rather good definition of celebrity. (“What can a celebrity body be if not opaque?” those two ask rhetorically. “And yet what if the whole point of celebrity is the spectacle of people forced to tell transparent lies in public” [227]?) Chevalier-as-Honoré, moreover, is a terrible role model for us. He, too, tries to get by on that kind of charm. He, too, has no gimmick – other than playing, with no finesse that I can detect, a certain kind of boulevardier. And so all he is, in my opinion, is a self-regarding as well as pretty bad actor, who also happens to sing pretty badly.

Now, though, I’ll finally get to – or re-start with – “Baby Jane Hudson.” (The film version of My Fair Lady – co-starring Rex Harrison [1908–1990] and Audrey Hepburn [1929–1993] – came out in 1964, or just two years after What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The stage version of the film Gigi first came out – on Broadway – in 1973.) True, the film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? – like The Marrying Kind – is not a musical. But it does contain a pretty badly sung number that one, for this as well as other reasons, can’t help but recall clearly for the rest of one’s life – ah, yes, I remember it well – and also try to fathom. Here, “Baby Jane” – who is more or less the rather undelightful monster that “Baby June” would have grown up to be had she, too, been a very successful child-vaudevillian; had she (and here are the personal impasses involved in this character’s professional one) probably wished to remain one for the rest of her own life; had she therefore begun drinking too much when a subsequent film career of hers, unlike that of her own supposedly less-talented sister, doesn’t pan out; had she then, at parties, begun doing drunken and yet very wicked imitations of the sister; had she then, after one such party, mistakenly thought she’d caused a car crash that, having snapped the sister’s spine, would leave her in a wheelchair for the rest of her own life; had she then begun wearing too much pancake makeup in order to look young, instead of just dieting or doing exercise; had she then continued, on the telephone, doing wicked imitations of her sister; had she started starving her sister, and then nearly kicked her to death, and then locked her, bound and gagged, up in her bedroom; had she then bludgeoned to death a nice but much too nosey cleaning lady; and had she then become completely deranged – here she performs a very sentimental song-and-dance (called “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy”) for a very talented (and somewhat effeminate) piano player who, she imagines, will as her accompanist enable a long-awaited theatrical comeback, long-awaited by her, that is, and who, she also imagines, must be a bit turned on by her. The song-and-dance is what Jane was probably best known for having done on stage, along with her actual father during the dance bit, back when, about forty years earlier, she was in fact – as opposed to her gothic if rather funny current fantasy – a little girl.

A fifty-four-year-old Bette Davis (1908–1989), here as throughout all of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, is trying to prove that, as a film star, she’s at least less of a has-been – as well as less self-regarding an actor – than is her fifty-eight-year-old co-star – Joan Crawford (1904–1977) as the sister, “Blanche Hudson.” (This, by the way, is the only film that those two women made together.) She’s proving that despite the fact that Blanche is supposed to have been a much better film actor than Jane ever was, Davis is better here – much, much better, in fact – than Crawford ever was. (I’m not saying that Crawford was as bad an actor as, say, Chevalier. Nor am I saying that he’s as bad a singer as Davis was. But then she never pretended to be a good one.) Davis is proving, too, that she alone, of these two almost equally old co-stars, is well aware of how ridiculous this comeback vehicle – the film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? – may seem to be. One is reminded, here, of the Sondheim song “I’m Still Here,” from his 1971 show Follies: “First you’re another sloe-eyed vamp, / Then someone’s mother, / Then you’re camp.” (This song was first performed by Yvonne De Carlo [1922–2007], or “Lily Munster” on the old sitcom.) And so while Jane, in this too-late-in-life rendition of “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy,” represents what Susan Sontag (1933–2004), just two years later, would call “naïve” camp (oblivious, as the performer is, that there’s anything funny or even pathetic about the performance), Davis represents, in part, what Sontag calls “deliberate” camp. Davis knows, and somehow manages to indicate that she knows, that she – and not Jane – is injecting this long-dead and therefore now quite insignificant form – a vaudeville song-and-dance meant for only a little girl to do – with some new, rather ironic, and even rather interesting content: that, for instance, many men, contrary to what Honoré/Chevalier sings in Gigi, do not want little girls to grow up. (This was true, for instance, of Joseph Cornell [1903–1972]; I will have more to say on that in the final chapter of this book, “Monsieur Bonbon.”) They want them, instead, to stay little – which is pretty pathetic not to mention perverse of the men. (The pianist, in a later scene, will underscore this point by – now pretty drunk himself – fondling a somewhat over-sized “Baby Jane” doll.) Davis knows, too, as well as indicates, that this utterly theatrical performance by Jane is probably no more theatrical than many things the character has ever done in real life – or than things Davis herself has done there. Gender is, indeed, performative.

Jane per se is a terrible role model for has-beens – gay or otherwise. She is much too mean to her sister not to mention the cleaning lady. (Davis, incidentally, may well have been the screen’s greatest sadist and Crawford its greatest masochist.) Plus she’s pretty pathetic herself – in general, that is, and not just during that performance (or perhaps rehearsal) of “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy.” (She’s both friendless and boyfriend-less, which is the main erotic impasse involved in this character’s professional one.) Plus she’s a drunkard. Plus she’s mad.

Davis-as-Jane, however, is a terrific role model for us. She seems (to me) to deliberately camp it up – to camp up the film, that is.[2] She also seems to be – or at least sounds like she is – uncannily good at imitating Blanche/Crawford. Ironically enough, though, it was Crawford who dubbed in her own voice – imitating herself, as it were – at those moments. (Gender is performative.) So perhaps, here, it is Blanche/Crawford who is a good role model for has-been academics. For if you have already said – or at least written – all you have to say on a certain subject, like queerness, you may as well keep writing it the way – perhaps the gimmicky way – that you always have. Or you should just let someone else – a student, perhaps – pretend to be doing this. So, you see, I’m not just an expert on what – ironically enough – I called “plagiarism” in my last book. I am an expert as well on its two flipsides. (Two flipsides? I believe this is called a solecism. Or perhaps a logical impossibility.) “Ghostwriting,” to quote my chatty self there, “is the flipside of plagiarism: instead of wrongly claiming, ‘I did this,’ it wrongly claims that someone else did” (189). Forgery, I write there as well, is another such flipside.

And now for A Star Is Born – the 1954 plagiarism, if you will, of a 1937 film (also called A Star Is Born) that co-starred Janet Gaynor (1906–1984) and Fredric March (1897–1975). It, in turn, would be plagiarized by a 1976 film (also called A Star Is Born) that co-starred Barbra Streisand (1942–?) and Kris Kristofferson (1936–?). True, the film – like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? – is not, technically speaking, a musical. It is a dramatic film about a performer, stage- or rather screen-named “Vicki Lester” (as played by Judy Garland [1922–1969]), who, with the help, initially, of her action-film-star husband, “Norman Maine,” just happens to perform in musicals – in the same kind of musicals, in fact, that Garland herself (while still at MGM) used to be in. And so the film contains lots of diegetic numbers, only one of which, though, the very first number (“You Gotta Have Me Go with You”), which begins with an abbreviated canon, also happens – quite by accident – to contain Norman. The two haven’t officially met – let alone married one another – yet. He’s drunk – and also rather belligerent. (He’s also, still, unlike Honoré Lachaille, an actual womanizer. Heavy drinking, incidentally, is the main personal impasse involved in this character’s professional one.) He barges onto the stage of the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, where for some charity event Vicki (or “Esther,” to use her “real” name) is performing this number as a girl-singer (with two chorus boys) in the band. Norman now refuses to leave the stage – and even brutally shoves Esther when she both gracefully and graciously tries to get him to leave. (They’re both out of the spotlight at the moment, so no one in the theater audience seems to see this most ungentlemanly move of his. We see it, though. He’ll also slap her once, offstage, but that move is rather friendly.) Esther now enables him to both save face and seem to be part of the act. They will soon meet, officially, fall in love, and get married. She, too, will (as I’ve said) get to be a film star (as “Vicki Lester”); but he will stop being one – because his drinking (as I’ve said) has gotten way, way, way out of hand – and then, after overhearing that his wife plans to give up her career so as to take care of him somewhere far from Los Angeles, he’ll go walk into the ocean.

The film does not, of course, recommend that any other has-been – if male – deliberately (while not drunk, at least) barge into just any other person’s act, or that he shove people around there, or that he drink himself to death (while drowning his sorrows, as it were), or that he too just cut to the chase by literally drowning himself. What it does show, ideologically, is that any man has his professional pride and that any woman of his (note the possessive) should not do anything professional herself (including, in an ironic double-bind, leaving the profession) that could put such pride in jeopardy. Failing that, it shows, this woman should devote herself to the memory of her now dearly departed man. “Hello, everybody,” a by now widowed and very reclusive Vicki announces, or mis-announces, from – once again – the stage of the Shrine Auditorium, where we’re all about to see or hear (via radio broadcast) her do some singing for the first time since her man’s funeral. “Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine.” I say “mis-announces” because legally – to use her man’s “real” name – this is Mrs. Ernest Sidney Gubbins.

And yet A Star Is Born – as an artwork – also interrogates this very heterosexist ideology. Wouldn’t it be fun – it shows or rather recommends in the opening and very upbeat girl-is-soon-to-meet-the-soon-to-be-has-been-boy number (“You Gotta Have Me Go with You”) and even then reminds us (because she’s back on that same damned stage now) in the closing and very downbeat girl-has-lost-the-boy announcement (“This is Mrs. Norman Maine”) – wouldn’t it be fun to barge at least somewhat drunkenly into some typically terrific song-and-dance number by, well, by someone like Judy Garland (and also by someone like Vicki Lester, who here is still going by the name “Esther Blodgett”), to dance with her a bit (even though your dancing talent, especially when you’re somewhat drunk, is nowhere near that of those chorus boys let alone Garland’s), to not sing with her (because, even though somewhat drunk, you know, as Chevalier never seems to have known, that no one really wants to hear you sing and anyway you yourself would rather hear her do it), and then, after having unnerved the audience a bit, to be applauded by them? (Merely applauded, I suppose I should say, because this is not the even better reaction – a standing ovation – that “Mrs. Norman Maine” will get here on stage for thus announcing herself.) I, for one, can see myself – though not at all drunk – now doing such a thing, figuratively speaking, to the queer theorist Wayne Koestenbaum (1958–?). (He’s a good friend of mine.) Or maybe even to D.A. Miller. (He isn’t a friend.) Wouldn’t it be fun, moreover, to finally get to ironize such a number – to seem in the end to be dancing badly on purpose (even though you know you couldn’t possibly, even when sober, not do it badly nowadays) so as to indicate that you don’t think it’s worth at least your own time or energy to dance well. Wouldn’t it be fun, for instance, to write – as here – some rather impressive (and yet not at all drunken) syntax rather badly, when, that is, you’re not otherwise occupied sounding chatty (and perhaps a bit tipsy) in print, and yet to do this in such a way that other people will think, perhaps mistakenly, that you could, if you cared to, write it rather well. Wouldn’t it be fun, moreover – especially if you’re a gay man – to get to treat Garland somewhat queerly. To treat her, that is – forget your troubles, come on get slap-happy – as if there were no gender division or for that matter any kind of division at all between the two of you. Wouldn’t it be fun, for instance, to write something – like this – any way you please while imagining that the only person in the world who’ll ever get to read – or perhaps to hear – this stuff is one of your good friends who also happens to write rather well at all times. In my case, I’ll sometimes do this with Wayne Koestenbaum in mind. “I am older than Anna Moffo was when she recorded [the opera] Thaïs,” Wayne wrote when still mid-career at age forty. “I am as old as Maria Callas when she recorded Carmen. I am at the age when a career can end” (192). (He’s now fifty-six years old, as of this writing.) Or as the critic Richard Dyer (1945–?) wrote mid-career, and in rather impressive syntax written rather well, about what he calls the “stylish androgyny” of Garland in numbers like “Get Happy” from Summer Stock (1950), which was the very last film she made for MGM, and also like “You Gotta Have Me Go with You” from A Star Is Born:

‘It is not only the outfit [in “Get Happy”] that creates [this] stylish androgyny, but Garland’s movement. Near the beginning she pushes the hat from behind with her palm over her brow, a gesture taken from Apache dancing, suggesting the male going in for the sexual kill (cf. Maurice Chevalier in Love Me Tonight [1932]). Towards the end she pushes it back from the front with her thumb, in a gesture more reminiscent of James Cagney getting down to business. Garland’s relationship to the male dancers is ambivalent too. She is centered by them and this, plus her stockinged legs, insists on her femininity, but they do not surround and present her as other male choruses do in musical numbers centered on a female star. They are choreographed in a balanced (but not uniform) style around her, and her dancing picks up on the movements of different men at different times. In other words, she is to some degree “one of the boys,” especially in a movement of flexing the thighs forward and heels up that is used for men in urban ballets of the kind Jerome Robbins developed. [And] this image from her last number in an MGM film is picked up by her first number in her next film (but four years later and post-1950) A Star Is Born. Costuming and routine are similar, and the sense of being one of the boys is heightened by her amused and professional handling of Norman who stumbles drunkenly on stage during the number, “You Gotta Have Me Go with You.”’ (174–176)

And so, if only in this way and in only this opening number, Norman, too is a terrific role model for us.

Fred Astaire, as “Tony Hunter” in The Band Wagon, dances (rather well) with a new-born star – Cyd Charisse (1922–2008), playing the ballerina “Gabrielle Gerard” – who unlike Garland is not at all androgynous. (The Band Wagon was produced by the same unit at MGM – run by Arthur Freed [1894–1973], who in 1939 had first come to prominence there with his behind-the-scenes masterminding of The Wizard of Oz – that would later give us Gigi and that had recently given us Singin’ in the Rain. Charisse had been featured, dancing, in Singin’ in the Rain; “Gabrielle Gerard” was her first starring role in a film, one that required her to “sing” as well as to dance – as well as to act, of course. Her acting in it is nearly as good as her dancing. Her singing, though, was dubbed, which is to say done for her by someone else. That someone is a woman who was screen-named “India Adams” [1927–?].) Charisse here is, as we used to say, “all woman” (va-va-voom). She is even almost too much of a woman for both Astaire and the Astaire-based character he’s playing: she’s too young for him, too beautiful, too sexy, and too tall. (The two were exactly the same height, but of course Charisse is either en pointe, at some point, or wearing heels in the numbers – both onstage and off – that they do together.) She’s even an even better dancer than either Astaire or that character he’s playing. (Tony Hunter, in fact, is even more intimidated by this than Astaire apparently was. Tony, early on in the film, makes more than one disasparaging remark about Miss Gabrielle’s ballet. Astaire himself, however, once said something like: “When you’ve danced with Cyd Charisse, you stay danced with.” Compare this quote with one, by Katharine Hepburn (1907–2003), about Astaire’s earlier and more famous partnership with Ginger Rogers (1911–1995): “He gives her class; she gives him sex appeal.” Arguably, though, Rogers, too, was an even better dancer than Astaire. To quote a by now famous line that originated, in 1982, in a comic strip called Frank and Ernest: “Sure he was great, but don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything that he did, backwards … and in high heels.”) Nonetheless, due to the both sexist and heterosexist ideology that drives the plot, he will still – albeit rather awkwardly – get the girl in the end. This getting is awkward because, as I must reiterate, the boy is so much older than the girl; he is also – at least by movie-star standards – ugly; he is also – albeit inadvertently – asexual. (This asexuality is the main erotic impasse involved in this character’s professional one. Tony seems far more attracted to the artwork he collects – oil paintings – than he is to any people with whom he shares the stage. Astaire, here, seems far more attracted to that artwork than he is to people with whom he shares the screen.) And so we cannot imagine, nor do we care to imagine, those two kissing let alone getting it on with one another.

I’m not interested, though, in that somewhat unbelievable finale. Nor am I interested in those numbers that Astaire and Charisse perform together – not even in the most graceful of these, “Dancing in the Dark,” which is done offstage and in a park. (“There’s probably no chagrin,” writes the critic Judith Thurman [1946–?], “for which the grace of perfection can’t console us” [219]. That’s why we love such work by Astaire and Charisse. It makes the very difficult seem doable, the artificial seem natural, and the obsessively rehearsed seem spontaneous.) I am interested, as with James Mason (1909–1984), or “Norman Maine” from A Star Is Born, in Astaire’s first dance number – which takes place before his character even meets that of Charisse. (Astaire does sing an opening number – a rather downbeat solo called, appropriately enough, “By Myself” – but without dancing in it.) Astaire here – or, rather, “Tony” – is or rather has been, up until very recently, a star of films very much like the ones that Astaire used to be in. He’s just now come back (from Los Angeles, California) to New York, New York, where his career as a hoofer must have begun, to see if he can make it here as the star of some Broadway show that’s supposed to suit his talents. And he will finally make it as the star of such a show – which is what I meant at the opening of this chapter by referring to “uncanny, unaccountable success.” For the moment, though, he is anxious about all this and not a little depressed. He is also depressed and even rather alienated by what the Broadway area – what a dump, as Bette Davis might have said of it – now looks like. (It’s very seedy, we’re meant to understand, although the film, being more or less, technically speaking, a musical, can’t quite bring itself to show this realistically. Nor does the park in “Dancing in the Dark” – New York’s Central Park – look at all seedy.) Just now, though, he sees an even more depressed (because equally unoccupied) “shoeshine boy” (as played by Leroy Daniels [1928–1993], who shined shoes in real life at the time) and in a number called “Shine on Your Shoes” … well, just watch the thing sometime.

“Shine on Your Shoes” is, among other things, a very queer number. It is performed, as you will have noticed, under the literal sign of “The Gayest Music Box.” It is performed, too, not by the usual pairing of a man and a woman, but by two men together. One of these men, moreover, is white, and the other black; one of them is upper class, and the other lower class. Astaire treats Daniels, that is, almost as if there were no race or class or for that matter any kind of division at all between the two of them. Daniels, likewise, treats Astaire this way. This is also true, by the way, for Edna Turnblad, who is white, and Maybelle Stubbs, who of course is not. Thanks to the both liberal and progressive ideology of the original film as well as of the musical, one thinks of their relationship – which takes place in 1962 Baltimore – as proto-post-racist. (Does Astaire, then, give Daniels class here, or does Daniels give Astaire class? It’s hard to say. I can say, however, and with some certainty, that neither one of them gives the other any sex appeal. And so the critical word here, to invoke Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, sans Moon, is not homoeroticism; it’s homosociality.) Astaire (as “Tony”) clearly manages, much to our own delight as well, to cheer Daniels up – just as Daniels (as himself) cheers Tony up. Tony cheers himself up, too, just as Daniels does – which I think is even more interesting, not to mention inspiring, because these two put together, getting happy by (sing hallelujah) making someone else happy, are terrific (not to mention very graceful) co-role-models for other has-beens. Or other soon-to-be has-beens. Am I – as I hope I am – cheering any of you up, for instance, with this little – or maybe not so little – song-and-dance number of mine? I’m certainly, as I write the thing, cheering myself up!

And now finally, for “Lina Lamont” – as played by Jean Hagen (1923–1977) – in Singin’ in the Rain. Seeing Lina – a very beautiful but strident-voiced star of silent films and because of that voice a soon-to-be has-been with all those damned “talkies” now the rage – seeing her, that is, onscreen always cheers me up. (Perhaps it’s because, in part, I more or less first heard her – back in college – before ever seeing her. A friend of mine there used to mimic – almost perfectly, as I’d later come to realize, and in a fantastic falsetto voice – the woman’s lines: “What’s wrong with the way I talk?” “Why, I make more money than – than – than Calvin Coolidge! Put together! What do they think I am – dumb or something?” And of course “‘People’? I ain’t ‘people.’ I am a – ‘a shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament.’ It says so – right here.” Such stridency is of course the main personal impasse involved in this character’s professional one.) In fact, she’s my favorite character in the film – due to a brilliant and rather hilarious performance by Hagen. Numerous other people, I have noticed, feel likewise – even without, I presume, having first heard someone other than Lina doing a not wicked but loving imitation of her.[3]

Is it only because of irony? Is it only because, that is, we enjoy feeling we know something about certain monsters of egotism that they themselves do not know? Think here, for instance, of the character “Dame Edna Everage” (as played by Barry Humphries [1934–?]) who doesn’t realize that she is a far cry from the multi-talented and well-intentioned “mega-star” she feels herself to be. Or think, if you can think back that far, of the real-life non-opera-singer Florence Foster Jenkins (1868–1944) performing – at age seventy-six, which once again is to say way beyond a “certain age” – in New York’s Carnegie Hall. (Do not, however, think back to Maurice Chevalier, a monster whose ill-founded egotism and all-too-obvious obliviousness we for some reason cannot enjoy. Perhaps it’s because he’s a man.) Or just think of Velma Von Tussle.

Or is it only because we enjoy seeing such monsters finally get their come-uppance (as neither Florence Foster Jenkins nor Edna Everage ever does but as Velma Von Tussle certainly does). “Kathy Selden,” the ingénue character played by Debbie Reynolds (1932–?) in her first starring role, does (unintentionally) throw a pie at Lina. (That pie was meant for Lina’s silent-film co-star: “Don Lockwood,” as played by Gene Kelly [1919–1996]. Lina believes, mistakenly, that Don is in love with her – an erotic impasse involved in this character’s professional one.) Kathy is also finally revealed to be the (both singing and acting) voice of Lina in her first and presumably only “talkie” with Don: The Dancing Cavalier.[4] (This revelation is what I meant at the outset by referring to “spectacular failure.” Lina is unaware of that revelation – which happens when a quickly but silently raised theater curtain shows a heretofore hidden Kathy singing while Lina merely lip-synchs the song “Singin’ in the Rain” – for quite some time.)

Or is it – do we love this character so much – only because Lina, despite her gender, so clearly represents – yet in a way that prompts everyone’s enjoyable dis-identification with her – what Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–1885) had called (now here’s an idea I haven’t yet deployed in print or even in the classroom) “the last man”?[5]

No, it is not only that – although the film does provide both aesthetic and ideological support for these three pleasures. It is also because, I’m fairly certain, almost everyone identifies – rather than dis-identifies – with such characters. Whether or not we’re academics, and whether or not we’re either has-beens or soon-to-be has-beens of any kind, we all feel that we, too, have some unrecognized talent. (Lina’s clearly visible but never commented upon talent is that, like Tessie Tura in Gypsy, she moves – on screen – with considerable finesse. I’d even go so far as to say that, like Astaire and Charisse, she moves there quite gracefully.) We identify, too, with the actors (like both Barry Humphries and Jean Hagen and, too, Michelle Pfeiffer) who play such characters – or at least we very much admire them. For to once again quote Judith Thurman: “There’s probably no chagrin” – including the chagrin of having become a has-been – “for which the grace of perfection can’t console us.”

The grace of perfection displayed by other people, that is. As for ourselves, whether by ourselves or banded together with a bunch of old cronies, it may be our own special gimmicks, along with our own irony (or deliberate camp) and even queerness, that in artworks like this one, perhaps – by which I mean this entire book of mine – can console us for has-been chagrin. And beyond consoling us, it is these things that, well … that thank heaven can delight us.



(2) Wunderlicher Alter

I have noticed lately, and I’m not the only one to have, that a number of critics who are not music theorists, nor even musicologists, will still – along with Adorno – say that some classical music composer – like Beethoven – ended up with a “late” and arguably proto-Modernist style.[6] I am thinking primarily of the late Edward Said (1935–2003) – and also of Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995) and Félix Guattari (1930–1992).[7] They also, albeit inadvertently, say something more interesting, not to mention more accurate, about themselves. They may also – inadvertently – say what they fear will soon happen or worse yet has already happened to their own writing. Or perhaps what they wish would happen. I have noticed too, though, that no such thing ever does happen to it. I think I know, having been helped a bit by the novelist Thomas Mann (1875–1955), just why no such thing ever happens. And I myself wish – in Adorno’s case, if not that of Said – that it had.

Mann, who when writing Doctor Faustus (1947) would eventually get help – on truly Modernist music – from Adorno, was in his late thirties when Death in Venice (1912), a novella, came out. In it, as you may know, a Munich-based and supposedly straight fifty-something-year-old, based on Mann himself, primarily, has – as is age-appropriate – a sort of midlife crisis. It’s a professional crisis, at first: Gustave von Aschenbach, a celebrated and even already canonized author of both fiction and nonfiction (“selected pages from his works [are included] in compulsory primary-school readers” [10]), can now either try doing something different and no doubt risky in print – because his current work “lacked those tokens of fiery, playful spontaneity which were a result of joy and in turn created the joy of his readers more than any depth of substance could” (5) – or he can just keep on doing the same old safe thing.[8] He does neither. He goes to a beach, sees some beautiful and elegant young man there, falls in love with him, and dies. And so that professional crisis of his became sexual, or at least homosexual.

Real writers, though – writers of fiction, that is – will often eventually do something different in print. As the novelist J.M. Coetzee (1940–?) has observed:

‘It is not uncommon for writers, as they age, to get impatient with the so-called poetry of language and go for a more stripped-down style (“late style”). The most notorious instance, I suppose, is Tolstoy, who in later life expressed a moralistic disapproval of the seductive powers of art and confined himself to stories that would not be out of place in an elementary classroom. A loftier example is provided by Bach, who at the time of his death was working on his Art of Fugue, pure music in the sense that it is not tied to any particular instrument.

One can think of a life in art, schematically, in two or perhaps three stages. In the first you find, or pose for yourself, a great question. In the second you labor away at answering it. And then, if you live long enough, you come to the third stage, when the aforesaid great question begins to bore you, and you need to look elsewhere.’ (88)

“In the case of literature,” he adds, “late style, to me, starts with an ideal of a simple, subdued, unornamented language and a concentration on questions of real import, even questions of life and death. Of course once you get beyond that starting point the writing itself takes over and leads you where it will. What you end up with may be anything but simple, anything but subdued” (97). (Aschenbach’s style, by the way, is described as having a “late-won simplicity” and as having finally “overcome his learning and outgrown all irony” [39, 59].) This jibes somewhat with rather stylish statements made by the novelist John Updike (1932–2009). Updike, when reviewing for the New Yorker that last and also posthumous book, called On Late Style (1999), by Said, said:

‘Last words, recorded and treasured in the days when the deathbed was in the home, have fallen from fashion, perhaps because most people spend their final hours in the hospital, too drugged to make any sense. And only the night nurse hears them talk. Yet, at least for this aging reader, works written late in a writer’s life retain a fascination. They exist, as do last words, where life edges into death, and perhaps have something uncanny to tell us.’ (64)

Said, by the way, considered himself “cosmopolitan” – but of course he was also, and fundamentally, Palestinian.

Here is Adorno’s by now classic description of certain late artwork – including that of Beethoven:

‘The maturity of the late works of important artists is not like the ripeness of fruit. As a rule, these works are not well rounded, but wrinkled, even fissured. They are apt to lack sweetness, fending off with prickly tartness those interested merely in sampling them. They lack all that harmony which the classicist aesthetic is accustomed to demand from works of art, showing more traces of history than of growth.’ (Beethoven 123)

Here is Adorno’s almost sarcastic description of how others, heretofore, have misunderstood this “lack”:

‘The accepted explanation is that they are products of a subjectivity or, still better, of a “personality” ruthlessly proclaiming itself, which breaks through the roundedness of form for the sake of expression, exchanging harmony for the dissonance of its sorrow and spurning sensuous charm under the dictates of the imperiously emancipated mind. The late work is thereby relegated to the margins of art and brought closer to documentation.’ (Beethoven 123)

Here’s what Adorno proposed doing, instead, to explain the lack: “Only a technical study of the works in question could help towards a revision of the accepted view of the late style” – a study that “would concentrate first on a peculiarity which is studiously ignored by the current view: the role of conventions;” for whereas “the [middle-period] Beethoven absorbed the traditional trappings into his subjective dynamic by forming latent middle voices, by rhythm, tension, or whatever other means, transforming them in keeping with his intention,” the late-period Beethoven is quite different:[9]

‘Everywhere in his idiom, even where it uses a syntax as singular as that of the five last piano sonatas, conventional formulae and phraseology are inserted. They are full of decorative trills, cadences, and fiorituras. The convention is often made visible in unconcealed, untransformed bareness.’ (Beethoven 124)

And so, adds Adorno: “The relationship between conventions and subjectivity must be understood as the formal law from which the content of the late work springs, if these are really to represent something more than touching relics” (125).

I agree with what Charles Rosen (1927–2012), a brilliant pianist and also musicologist and also music theorist for whom – as he put it in The Classical Style (1971, rev. 1997) – “the simplest way to summarize classical form is as the symmetrical resolution of opposing forces” (83), has said of this:

‘Adorno’s perceptive observation about the conventional formulae in the late style is illuminating, but he fails to understand that Beethoven had become by then simply more laconic, more economical. Adorno, however, wishes to characterize the late style as revealing a despair at no longer being able to achieve a synthesis of objectivity and subjectivity rather than a growing impatience with the facile low-level methods of synthesis and a sustained attempt to incorporate the most disparate and opposing elements within a single structure.’ (Freedom and the Arts 256)

I agree with Rosen that Adorno – for quite personal and also political reasons – had a “particular strategy” in mind. To quote Rosen – who himself quotes both Adorno and Said here – at tremendous length:

‘For his view of the history of music and society, he needed [the whole late style of Beethoven, which he nevertheless revered, to be a failure]. In what seems like a forecast of the movement to come of deconstruction in criticism, it is the greatness of an artist’s failure that awakens Adorno’s imagination. In order to understand the seduction of Adorno’s view, I quote the following passage:

The late Beethoven’s demand for truth rejects the illusory appearance of the unity of subjective and objective, a concept practically at one with the classicist ideal. A polarization results. Unity transcends into the fragmentary. In the last quartets this takes place by means of the rough, unmediated juxtaposition of callow aphoristic motifs and polyphonic complexes. The gap between both becomes obvious and makes the possibility of aesthetic harmony into the aesthetic content of the work; makes failure in a highest sense a measure of success.

This is eloquent and moving. It is also largely false. Contrary to what he says, the juxtaposition of disparate material begins very early in Beethoven, reaching an early fulfillment in the piano sonatas op. 31. In the Tempest Sonata, op. 31 no. 2, for example, within the space of a few seconds Beethoven forces together a slow mysterious arpeggio and a dramatic short allegro phrase. The contrasts of the late style are perhaps more difficult to accept at first hearing but a close listening reveals a powerful interaction.

The claim that “unity transcends into the fragmentary” is a fine example of Adorno’s style: the fragmentary suggests failure, the transcendence a failure that has become a nobler success. But the claim cannot be seriously defended. No quartet has ever given a more obvious impression of greater unity than Beethoven’s op. 131 in C-sharp Minor, and for most musicians even the abrupt changes of mood and character in the Quartet in B-flat Major, op. 130 (Beethoven’s favorite quartet, he once said), have an extraordinary effect and become increasingly justified with repeated listening. Adorno’s characterization of late Beethoven as fragmentary comes down in the end to nothing but a more grandiose way of saying how abrupt and disconcerting the late Beethoven can be.

The failure is not Beethoven’s, but Adorno’s. Samuel Schonbaum once demonstrated that each biographer of Shakespeare saw him as resembling the biographer: Lytton Strachey’s Shakespeare at the end of his career was bored with life and bored with literature, and Oscar Wilde saw a dramatist interested in elegant young men. Adorno wanted a Beethoven that resembled him. The most autobiographical of his books, Minima Moralia, is subtitled “Reflections from Damaged Life.” Adorno’s view of the world and of culture has been beautifully characterized by Edward Said, who [in “Adorno as Lateness Itself”] puts his finger directly on what was essential:

Adorno is very much a late figure because so much of what he does militates ferociously against his own time. Although he wrote a great deal in many fields he attacked the major advances in all of them, functioning instead like an enormous shower of sulfuric acid poured over the lot…. It is the Zeitgeist that Adorno really loathed and that all his writing struggled mightily to insult.

His condemnation of his time, easy enough to understand and justify, did not, however, lead Adorno to support any movement to improve or alleviate the deplorable cultural conditions that were steadily worsening. His hatred was poured into his criticism, not into possibilities of action. The sad last days of his life were colored by this refusal of practical engagement. When the student revolts of 1968 reached the University of Frankfurt, Adorno evinced no sympathy for the students, and was seen shaking hands with the stocky chief of police who brutally put down the rebellion. The students organized a Bacchanalian dance around him in the lecture room. He fled and died of a heart attack not long after.

Adorno’s contempt for contemporary society fueled his passion, and in a time of troubles, could be welcome; it strikes a responsive chord. It was brightly colored by the relentlessly polemical tone and the use of pejorative terms to express ordinary developments as if they were a failure of ethics. If Stravinsky uses tonality in an original way, that is called “mutilated tonality.” Beethoven’s increasing interest in fugue and his renewed study of Bach are pretentiously described by Adorno as if they were the acts of a desperate man:

The composer experiments with strict style because formal bourgeois freedom is not sufficient as a stylization principle. The composition unremittingly controls whatever is to be filled out by the subject under such externally dictated stylization principles.

Under Adorno’s hands, many of the terms so frequently repeated begin to lose a great part of their meaning. He himself makes a fetish of “fetishism,” as well as of “bourgeois,” “subjectivity,” “regressive,” “infantile,” and other words, which tend to become vacuous when applied so mechanically and so uncritically. I do not know what he means by “the withering of harmony” in late Beethoven, and I do not believe that it could be an adequate description of any phenomenon that I would recognize.’ (Freedom and the Arts 260-62)

The phrase “the withering of harmony” – not otherwise cited by Rosen in this final book of his, Freedom and the Arts (2012) – is one that Adorno used repeatedly about late work by Beethoven. Take, for instance, this quite characteristic and therefore incomprehensible line: “Beethoven’s stepping back from appearance, the withering of harmony in the widest sense, stems from resistance to subsumption by the unchanging” (Beethoven 157).

I agree, too, with something else – in addition and also in opposition to the appreciative bit about the phrase “unity transcends into the fragmentary” – that Rosen, a brilliant prose stylist who, at least for this aging reader, never needed to and in fact never did change his way of writing, says about Adorno’s way. (The pianist Jeremy Denk [1970–?] has written – also for the New Yorker – about Rosen’s writing: “[The] rhapsodic parts are wonderful, but I’ll admit that my favorite, life-changing parts … are the blow-by-blow accounts of great passages of music in the wonkiest of terms.” He writes on Rosen’s late-in-life and also non-public piano playing: “Critics often said that his playing was cerebral or stiff, but his playing in private felt wonderfully wayward, Romantic, old-school. True, sometimes it was just erratically erratic, but it could also be meaningfully erratic, inspired erratic: precious liberty from a more forgiving time.”)[10] For although at times “eloquent and moving,” as Rosen admits, and although at times “pretentious” yet comprehensible, as Rosen indicates, Adorno’s “difficult prose” – even, one assumes as a non-reader of that language, in the original German – “is a stumbling block” (Freedom and the Arts 249). (“[E]ven his closest colleagues,” Rosen adds parenthetically, “admitted that they could not always understand his writing.”) It is all too frequently, like some otherwise delicious milk or oxygen-rich blood gone bad, very “clotted” (Freedom and the Arts 253).

This is not to say that Adorno – unlike Rosen – is never very funny or that like late-in-life Aschenbach (or Mann, for that matter) he took no joy at all in writing. “More than Walter Benjamin, more than Roland Barthes, more than Jacques Derrida, Adorno epitomizes the ostentatious stylistic virtuosity that the would-be intellectual journalist and the would-be-journalist intellectual, neither of whom can stand a show-off, agree to call ‘bad writing,’” writes the rather stylish critic Joseph Litvak (1954–?). “But what complicates Adorno’s gravity isn’t just the relations between virtue and virtuosity, or between ‘morality and style,’ as he titles one of the fragments in his Minima Moralia (1951). What complicates Adorno’s gravity is also his levity: his Jewish (as differentiated from Hebraic) way of developing the comic tendency of style’s ontological lightness” (34, emphasis original). This was also, Litvak hastens to add, a quite cosmopolitan way: “Adorno’s fluency in a variety of languages itself argues against the reduction of Jewishness in his text to shtetl vulgarity and parvenu hysteria. That fluency serves to recall a much more attractive family of Jewish images, in which [Adorno’s] Jewishness [like Rosen’s Jewishness and also like Said’s Palestinianism] is associated with cosmopolitanism, erudition, intelligence, intellectuality, and so forth” (37).

(Adorno wasn’t really – or at least not technically – Jewish. His mother – from Corsica – was a devout Catholic; his father, a convert – from Judaism – to Protestantism.)

Rosen, by the way, is not averse to also noticing – and still without reifying – the late style of composers other than Beethoven. (The descriptions – one trusts as a mere amateur of both classical and Romantic-style music – are correct; Rosen’s writing style, as always, is clearly flawless and perfectly clear.) He finds in Mozart’s final work, for instance, an absolute simplicity and yet a learned complexity, an impression of continuous melody, an almost faux-naïf grace, an almost perfect symmetry, an almost exotic pureness and bareness, an almost willful leanness, exquisite orchestration, voluptuous Romanticism, and intimacy. (One fine example he cites is Pamina’s aria, from The Magic Flute [1791]. [Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: 1756–1791.]) He finds such works by Schubert to be both intimate and Romantic as well – and to have a more intense control of line than before[11] (Franz Schubert: 1797–1828). About Robert Schumann (1810–1856), he writes that the attempt to “weaken the energy” of the earlier works whilst revising them was accompanied by a “loss of vigor” in the style of the late ones, and that recent attempts to reevaluate those late works as well as the more orthodox judgment that there was a falling off in the last ten years of the composer’s life seem correct. The difficulty Schumann had in sustaining movement in late chamber works and symphonies, Rosen adds, is made clear by the poor man’s effort to avoid there the kinds of quirky, irrational, and “obsessional details” that had once inspired solo piano music and songs; the “obsessional rhythms,” moreover, are by now “unenlivened and unrelieved” (Romantic Generation 689). Nevertheless, there is “an intense inward, reflective beauty” about some later works, plus a few undeniable master-works: the slow movement of the Symphony in C Major, op. 61 (1847), for instance; many parts of the oratorio “Scenes from Goethe’s Faust”(1853); and the first of the solo piano set Gesänge der Frühe (1855).

Roland Barthes (1915–1980) – one of those three style virtuosos (or “show-offs”) who are linked by Litvak to Adorno (the other two are Jacques Derrida [1930–2004] and Walter Benjamin [1892–1940]) – also loved, but for quite personal and not political reasons, the first Gesang der Frühe. He writes in Camera Lucida (1980), a very late work – or text, rather – which was written shortly after the death of the old man’s beloved mother, a text, moreover, which Barthes claims to have derived from some old snapshot (which he calls the “Winter Garden Photograph”) that he in turn claims beautifully captures this woman’s essence (in youth, presumably) and also reproduces her presence (in old age, presumably), or, to use his own terminology, that “accomplishes the unheard-of identification of reality (‘that-has-been’) with truth (‘there-she-is!)” (73, 113):

‘This Winter Garden Photograph was for me like that last music Schumann wrote before collapsing, that first Gesang der Frühe which accords both with my mother’s being and my grief at her death; I could not express this accord except by an infinite series of adjectives, which I omit, convinced that this photograph collected all the possible predicates from which my mother’s being was constituted. … The Winter Garden Photograph was indeed essential, it achieved for me, utopically, the impossible science of the unique being.’ (70–71, emphasis original)

Rosen, to my knowledge, never wrote about this beautiful, which is to say, quoting Rosen once again, very “eloquent and moving” passage. I myself did, once – in an early-period book of mine called Beethoven’s Kiss (1996):

‘I find this passage [by Barthes] remarkable for a number of reasons. First, Gesänge der Frühe (op. 133; Songs of early morning) weren’t the last compositions Schumann wrote before “collapsing.” [Actually, they were – I later learned. And by “collapsing,” Barthes means: succumbed, apparently, to syphilis-related insanity.] I do, however, understand the sentimentality that turns treasured texts into dying declarations. Second, Barthes can’t quite register the fact that the first Gesang der Frühe sounds like Brahms. [I can’t now recall how I myself “registered” this fact, but – trust me – it’s not something I could have done on my own.] It even features a retrograde version of a theme found in an early Brahms sonata (op. 2). [Come to think of it, my friend Thomas Christensen {1954–?} – a music theorist – must have told me about this.] Did Barthes find his mother inexplicably Brahmsian? If so, what would that predication mean? Does he omit it, along with every other adjective, because he doesn’t care for, or cathect, the “Brahmsianicity” of Brahms? [Johannes Brahms: 1833–1897.] And why shouldn’t he cathect Brahms, when Schumann, whom Barthes does “love,” did? [I should explain now that Barthes has an essay called “Loving Schumann” {1979} in his book The Responsibility of Forms {1985}.] Third, “truth,” for Barthes, is fundamentally inexpressible. It’s too private and too paradoxical to divulge. Yet, “there-she-is!” There she is, in the Winter Garden Photograph Barthes fails to reproduce (a typical refusal: Barthes won’t speak his mind for fear we’d come to see what he means). There she is, in the Gesang der Frühe anyone can choose to hear, and some can choose to play. Barthes writes: “I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. [And maybe, as you’ll soon see in this chapter, not even for him.] For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the ‘ordinary’; … at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound” (Camera Lucida 73). Does he really feel we’d get the point, the maternal punctum, with Schumann? That we’d come to know, love, and desire Mme Barthes as well? That we’d even come to grieve her loss? I suppose it’s possible.’ (47–48, emphasis original)

I wish, sometimes, that I could still write – non-chattily – like this. I wish I could still write in so Barthesian – if not Brahmsian – a way. (Like Rosen, Barthes never needed to, at least for this reader, and in fact never did change his both brilliant and beautiful way of writing.) It’s one that Derrida, by the way, has described beautifully – if a bit mournfully: “His manner, the way in which he displays, plays with and interprets the pair studium/punctum, all the while explaining what he is doing by giving us his notes – in all of this we will later hear the music. This manner is unmistakably his. [For] the rigor is never rigid.”

‘In fact, the supple is a category that I take to be indispensable to any description of Barthes’s manners. This virtue of suppleness is practiced without the least trace of either labor or labor’s effacement. He never did without it, whether in theorization, writing strategies, or social intercourse, and it can even be read in the graphics of his writing, which I read as the extreme refinement of the civility he locates, in Camera Lucida and while speaking of his mother, at the limits of the moral and even above it. It is a suppleness that is at once liée, linked, and déliée, unlinked, flowing, shrewd, as one says of writing or of the mind.’ (The Work of Mourning 40–41, emphasis original)

Richard Howard (1929–?), who was one of Barthes’s translators (as well as one of his lovers, I’ve been told by Howard himself), has described it as well:

‘Barthes, a writer of great persuasion and power, characteristically “runs” to a very long sentence, a rumination held together by colons and various signs of equivalence (“in other words,” “i.e.,” “in short”); clearly he is reluctant to let his sentence go until, like Jacob’s angel, it turns and blesses him.’ (ix–x)

Maybe I can, though, still write – non-chattily – like Barthes. Maybe I still do, at times, write like him. I’m still, after all, a sort of show-off. Maybe, though, being a different sort of show-off – or perhaps showman – by now, I now do not ever write that way. It’s hard, as you can tell, for me to tell. More to the point, though, I have always wished that I could write like Rosen. I wish, too, that I knew everything about both music and literature that that man seems to have known. And Rosen, I’m pretty sure, was no sort of show-off. He was only ever, in the best sense of the term, the non-pejorative and also non-egoistic sense, a virtuoso.

Both Barthes and Derrida, coincidentally, are the rare sorts of critic who – like some late-in-life fiction writers, according to Coetzee – allow themselves to deal, in the end, with questions of life and death. Barthes deals, as noted – in both Camera Lucida and a posthumous book called Mourning Diary (2009) – with the death of his mother. Derrida deals – in The Work of Mourning (2001) – with the death of Barthes. Adorno is of course that sort of critic as well. He deals – as in the man’s perhaps most famous line, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” – with the Holocaust.[12] So am I, I’m afraid, that sort; I am one now dealing, as was Jeremy Denk for the New Yorker, with the death of Rosen.

For previous work of mine on Rosen, and on some professional as well as personal encounters that we had – about which encounters you should not infer, even though the two of us, like Barthes and Howard but unlike Adorno and Said, were gay, that there may have been something somewhat sexual – see the chapter called “Hatchet Job” in my latest book, Confessions of a Plagiarist (2012). That book, as it turned out, would be published just a few months before Rosen, at age eighty-five, died. But fearing, whilst writing that chapter, that Rosen, who was by now a very old man, might never get to read it, I sent him a letter of apology. This concerned a by then somewhat old and also tawdry – if non-sexual – matter, which I had also just discussed in the chapter. To this, he very kindly – and promptly – replied:

“Dear Kevin – I can’t imagine why you are fussing over a review in the past that I never read (I paid no attention to [the journal] 19th-Century Music after [Lawrence] Kramer began editing it [this, by the way, could not possibly have been true, as Rosen published things there under that editorship]), and that I would not have minded anyway. Controversy is generally welcome. I once got a letter that delighted me from someone whose book I had unfavorably mentioned, which read: ‘You and other scribblers of your ilk will receive your just deserts in the preface to my new book.’ (Kramer also threatened in a letter to the New York Review of Books to attack me in a forthcoming book, but he probably refrained or someone would have called it to my attention. [This, too, could not have been true.] I was once attacked long ago at great length by a sociologist in The Nation, which was encouraging, and once by B.H. Haggin [a music critic in The Nation, from 1936 to 1957] who misquoted something that he found out I had said to a friend on the telephone, and that did annoy me, but otherwise I like to be talked about.) You have oddly stirred my memories of criticism. All best wishes – Charles.” (Personal correspondence)

At any rate, the musicologist Laura Tunbridge (1974–?), to whom, in this chapter’s first and sixth footnotes, I have already referred, has had far less personal, far more professional things to say about that first Gesang der Frühe. Here she is:

‘The opening Gesang der Frühe is deceptively simple. It has a chorale-like texture and falls into four verses. This seemingly straightforward structure is constantly undercut, however. For instance, the first verse (bars 1-8) subverts an antecedent-consequent design: considering the melodic line, the close on V in bar 4 is answered by the implicit V-I of C sharp-E-D in bar 8. Cadential closure, though, is denied by the cycle of fifths motion in the bass (from bars 5-9: E-A-D-G-C sharp-F sharp-B).’ (Schumann’s Late Style 203)

Tunbridge then says something very interesting – and which I did not know until reading her work – about Barthes’s “Winter Garden Photograph.” Here she is, again:

‘Schumann’s music embodies for Barthes his mother’s “being,” and his “grief at her death.” More generally, Barthes tells us, the photograph symbolizes the fragility of human relationships, making us aware of our own mortality alongside those we have loved. Schumann’s late music might be thought the sonic equivalent of that testimony of death in the future, at once consoling and disturbing in its fractured beauty. Barthes did not include the “Winter Garden Photograph” of his mother in Camera Lucida, saying that it would mean nothing to anyone apart from him. But recent research has suggested that it probably did not exist.’ (208)[13]

This may not matter, though; the photograph’s “fictional truth” – to quote the critic Margaret Olin (1948–?) – is “powerful enough to survive its possible nonexistence” (112). In contrast, notes Tunbridge, the first of the Gesänge der Frühe almost did not come into existence: Schumann removed it from the set, only deciding to return it just before publication.

As Schubert, when only thirty-one years old, lay dying – of syphilis, no doubt – he did three things that people nowadays find interesting. He “sang ceaselessly” when delirious, according to one visitor. He had, when lucid, Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, op. 131 (1826) – the one about which Rosen writes, “No quartet has ever given a more obvious impression of greater unity” – played for him. Schubert then asked, allegedly: “After this, what is left for us to write?” (The film A Late Quartet [2012], starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman [1967–2014], makes much of this anecdote.) And he corrected proofs for the second part of his song cycle Winterreise.[14]

Adorno, when only twenty-five years old, both wrote and published a self-consciously literary and yet to my mind almost completely incomprehensible essay on late works by Schubert. (It becomes comprehensible – and to my mind at least somewhat sentimental – only in the last several lines. Close to the end of his life, incidentally, Adorno called this very early work of his: “my first comprehensive study … of the meaning of music.)[15] The essay associates Winterreise (1828) in general and its final song, “Der Leiermann,” in particular with the kind of despair on the young composer’s part that the even younger writer, Adorno, would later come to associate with a no longer young Beethoven. (In “Der Leiermann,” as you may know, the speaker sees a barefoot, starving, and freezing-to-death old organ-grinder. No one has given the poor man any money, or even listens to him, whilst dogs just growl at him. But he keeps on grinding away, playing the same old tune, with the speaker finally asking: “Strange old man, should I go with you? Will you play my songs?” “Strange old man,” which is what one most often finds in English versions of this song, translates the phrase: wunderlicher alter. Other versions make this – incorrectly, I’m told – “wonderful old man,” as if the word were wunderbar and not wunderlicher. Another good translation, of wunderlicher, would be – I’m told – the word “wondrous.”) Adorno also, in those last several lines of the essay, found it all very moving – or both tear-jerking and joyful:

‘In these images of death the earth reveals itself: in its direct accessibility, we see the dissolution of nature itself. Thus there is no pathway in Schubert to genre and to home-grown art, but only one to fundamental depravation and to the barely expressed reality of the liberated music of people transformed. In jagged lines, like a seismograph, Schubert’s music has recorded the tidings of man’s qualitative change. The right response is tears: the desperately sentimental tears of Lilac Time, and tears from the trembling body. Schubert’s music brings tears to our eyes, without any questioning of the soul: this is how stark and real is the way that the music strikes us. We cry without knowing why, because we are not yet what this music promises for us. We cry, knowing that in untold happiness, that this music is as it is in the promise of what one day we ourselves will be. This is music we cannot decipher, but it holds up to our blurred, over-brimming eyes the secret of reconciliation at long last.’ (“Schubert [1828]” 14)[16]

Nor could Barthes decipher the song. “The world of the [R]omantic song,” he writes in an essay called “The Romantic Song” (1976), “is the lover’s world, the world which the amorous subject has in his head: a single-beloved, but a whole population of figures.” And “Der Leiermann,” Barthes says there, “recalls the lover’s great summing up of the figures of discourse.”

‘This faculty – this decision – to elaborate an ever-new speech out of brief fragments, each of which is both intense and mobile, uncertainly located, is what, in [R]omantic music, we call the Fantasy, Schubertian or Schumannian: Fantasieren: at once to imagine and to improvise: in short, to hallucinate, i.e., to produce the novelistic without constructing a novel. Even the lieder cycles do not narrate a love story, but only a journey: each moment of this journey is in a sense turned back on itself, blind, closed to any general meaning, to any spiritual transcendence: in short a pure wandering, a becoming without finality: at one stroke, and to infinity, to begin everything all over again.’ (290–91, emphasis original)[17]

Rosen, though, could decipher “Der Leiermann,” and he did so – even without citing either Adorno or Barthes on it – quite movingly yet not at all sentimentally. “The oncoming presence of death fills the last five songs,” he writes in The Romantic Generation (1995): “the signpost that points to the road from which there is no return; the cemetery that appears as an inn; the blasphemy and the false cheer in the face of despair; the mysterious subsidiary suns from which the light goes out on life as they set; and finally the organ-grinder as Death himself.”

‘The succession of these apparently unrelated images all moving to the same point has a cumulative power. It is, in fact, an advantage here for Schubert that the cycle lacks the strict large-scale harmonic scheme or subtle motivic relations we find in Beethoven and Schumann: they would have drawn attention away from the disparity of poetic image, each represented by an almost exaggerated contrast of musical texture. The disparity is essential to the emotional power; too tight a web, too formal a scheme would have been irrelevant, out of place. Even the final image of death does not close except with a question of the poet, now the composer: “Wonderful [sic] old man, should I go with you? Will you play my songs?” Schubert singles out this question with striking emphasis: it identifies death with the music itself, and it forces the autobiographical interpretation to the surface. This was, by his time, already a tradition: even the poet Wilhelm Müller insists on it in the earlier cycle [Die schöne Müllerin {1824}] by making the poet a miller. By the end of Winterreise, the subject is the composer’s own imminent death, its approach already visible.’ (203–204)

Schubert, incidentally, was not famous – as a composer – in his own lifetime. Bach was, though, as was Handel; Mozart was, as was Haydn; Beethoven was, as was Schumann.[18] (Schumann had also been famous for his music criticism.) Aschenbach, too, as I have already indicated, was famous – as an author – while alive, and like Beethoven, if not like those other composers, he seems to have been rather obsessed with his fame. He was also obsessed – again, like Beethoven – with how to maintain it:

‘Since his entire nature was bent on fame, he proved to be, if not exactly precocious, then at least, thanks to the decisiveness and pithiness of his personal accent, ready and able to confront the public at an early age. Hardly out of high school, he had made a name for himself. Ten years later he had learned to uphold his reputation and be a good steward of his fame.’ (Death in Venice 6)

Just before having a rather ridiculous make-over at the Hôtel des Bains: “He thought about his fame, he recalled that many people recognized him on the street and looked at him with respect because of his apt and graceful writings” (27). Just before dying there, he thought (as represented in free indirect discourse): “He sat there, the master, the artist who had attained dignity … he whose fame was official, whose name had been ennobled [from Aschenbach to von Aschenbach] and whose style boys [in primary school] were exhorted to take as a model” (59). And maintaining this fame, as I have also already indicated, involved the man’s more or less unconscious need never to change his writing style.

Adorno, Barthes, and Rosen, too, were famous in their own lifetimes. I’m not sure, though, and nor do I now have any way of ascertaining, that like Gustave von Aschenbach (and Ludwig van Beethoven) they were especially obsessed with that fame. I do suspect, though, that on a level less clearly conscious than that of Aschenbach, the three of them wished – even when dealing with death – to maintain that fame. I myself would, were I even at least somewhat famous. On the other hand, I do wish that Adorno ever came to realize, consciously, that he’d probably be even more famous (or at least popular) than he was, and (like Nietzsche [1844–1900], as you’ll see in the chapter “The Most Happy Fella”) have enjoyed work even more than he did, if he did not write lines (so irksome to Rosen) like: “Beethoven’s stepping back from appearance, the withering of harmony in the widest sense, stems from resistance to subsumption by the unchanging.” Or that – even in German – he should have written more like the way Barthes did, in French, or the way that Rosen – that wonderful old man – did in English.



(3) E di pensier, e di pensier…

One could argue – as I would – that almost every film by Federico Fellini (1920–1993) is about death, primarily. La strada (1954) concerns the actual death of Gelsomina (Giulietta Massina [1921–1994]) as well as the spiritual death of her tormentor, Zampanò (Anthony Quinn [1915-2001]). (Massina, by then, had married the soon-to-be all-too-unfaithful Fellini. One reason for this infidelity seems to have been the deaths – in utero, and then not long after his birth – of their two only-begotten offspring; another, related reason is that they may never have had sex together after that.)[19] Il bidone (1955) concerns the spiritual death and then also the actual death by murder of the film’s titular “swindler,” Augusto (Broderick Crawford [1911–1986]). Nights of Cabiria (1957) concerns the oncoming death of the film’s eponymous protagonist, a prostitute (Massina, once again) who also happens to be somewhat childish. La dolce vita (1960) concerns the death by suicide of Steiner (Alain Cuny [1908–1994]), an aesthete-intellectual as well as a father-figure for Marcello, this film’s protagonist, and then also the spiritual death of Marcello himself (Marcello Mastroianni [1924–1996]). (Steiner, unfortunately, kills his own two children as well.) It concerns, too, the near death from what may be a heart attack of Marcello’s real father (Annibale Ninchi [1889–1967]). The film (1963) concerns the death – and imagined burial – of the real father (Ninchi, once again) of its film-director protagonist, Guido (Mastroianni, again). It concerns, too, the both imagined and figurative death – and burial – of the aging showgirl, Jacqueline Bonbon (Yvonne Casadei), to whom I have already referred in this book’s introduction (“Sight Lines”). Toby Dammit (1967) concerns the death in an automobile accident of its protagonist, a drunken actor (Terence Stamp [1938–?]). Fellini-Satyricon (1969) concerns the death by murder of Ascilto (Hiram Keller [1944–1997]), the roommate and also erotic rival (perhaps the Doppelgänger as well) of its protagonist and narrator, Encolpio (Martin Potter [1944–?]). Roma (1972) concerns the actual death and figurative burial of some ancient Romans – not to mention the spiritual death of modern-day ones. Amarcord (1973) concerns the death from what seems like cancer of the mother (Pupella Maggio [1910–1999]) of its protagonist. And the Ship Sails On (1983) concerns the actual burial at sea of a fictive opera singer – Edmea Tetua (Janet Suzman [1939–?]) – whom it seems Fellini must have based on Maria Callas (1923–1977). Or not the burial, per se, as that singer’s ashes – blown away by wind – are actually scattered at sea.

In this respect, the film director – Fellini – can be thought of as novelistic. For to quote Walter Benjamin (1892–1940):

‘A man listening to a story is in the company of the storyteller; even a man reading one shares this companionship. The reader of a novel, however, is isolated, more so than any other reader. (For even the reader of a poem is ready to utter the words, for the benefit of the listener.) In this solitude of his, the reader of a novel seizes upon his material more jealously than anyone else. He is ready to make it completely his own, to devour it, as it were. Indeed, he destroys, he swallows up the material as the fire devours logs in the fireplace. The suspense which permeates the novel is very much like the draft which stimulates the flame in the fireplace and enlivens its play.

It is a dry material on which the burning interest of the reader feeds. “A man who dies at the age of thirty-five,” said Moritz Heimann once, “is at every point of his life a man who dies at the age of thirty-five.” Nothing is more dubious than this sentence – but for the sole reason that the tense is wrong. A man – so says the truth that was meant here – who died at thirty-five will appear to remembrance at every point in his life as a man who dies at the age of thirty-five. In other words, the statement that makes no sense for real life becomes indisputable for remembered life. The nature of the character in a novel cannot be presented any better than is done in this statement, which says that the “meaning” of his life is revealed only in his death. But the reader of a novel actually does look for human beings from whom he derives the “meaning of life.” Therefore he must, no matter what, know in advance that he will share their experience of death: if need be their figurative death – the end of the novel – but preferably their actual one. How do the characters make him understand that death is already waiting for them – a very definite death and at a very definite place? That is the question which feeds the reader’s consuming interest in the events of the novel.

The novel is significant, therefore, not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger’s fate by virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.’ (100–1, emphasis original)[20]

One could argue instead, though, or in addition, that Fellini made two very different types of film: films in black and white (Variety Lights [1950] to [1963]), and films in color (Juliet of the Spirits [1965] to The Voice of the Moon [1990]). One could further argue, as does the critic D.A. Miller (1948–?), that the black and white films are much better than those “late style” ones in color – and also that the best black and white film, or at least the most ostentatiously stylish and therefore socially irrelevant of them, is . “Art isn’t easy” (this alludes to the Stephen Sondheim musical, Sunday in the Park with George [1984]), writes Miller both stylishly and ostentatiously as well as with reference to Adorno on “negative dialectics”:[21]

‘Style “unchained” is more than a negative social value; it is the value of social negation itself. That is why it cannot be practiced in ’s social world without being either hypocritically denied (the Cardinal, [the critic] Daumier), or homeopathically marginalized ([Guido’s mistress] Carla). Fellini’s style is so profoundly antisocial that it doesn’t let us envision revolution or even social change. It offers only the practice of irrelevance, sustained with – and even like – a vengeance. Far from arguing or apologizing for this irrelevance, his style simply puts it before our eyes. Its only “reason” is the self-evident pleasure we take in it: the pleasure of annihilating a social relation felt to pertain to us so thoroughly that, like [Guido] in traffic, we are in danger of suffocating. While we watch , such mere pleasure proves as compelling as the harshest social necessity.

But style, in this sense, is also a rare thing. Most styles are simply not powerful enough to achieve social negation even momentarily. And if they are, they tend either to dialecticize it as the ruse of redemption after all, or to trivialize it as so much detailing on a winsome niche brand. The latter course, we know, was embraced by Fellini’s own style after . It turned itself into Mistress Carla, glibly self-contained in tics-become-trademarks. “That’s Fellini for you!” became the all-sufficient explanation of Fellini’s strangeness, which, thus canned for safe consumption, proved less and less strange. As if anticipating the depleted post-modern “citations” of – most recently by Todd Haynes in I’m Not There (2007) – Fellini’s subsequent style devolved into an otiose footnote to what it had been. This dulling of style-as-negation has broader causes (cultural, commercial) than the merely existential fear of death that Fellini evinced in abandoning ’s original ending [which involved possibly dead characters on some kind of imagined train] and the “Mastorna” project [a film about a musician killed in a plane crash who then navigates an afterlife in which Fellini may well have believed at the time but without quite knowing what it is – KK]; but it joins with that fear, as its formal counterpart, in determining the artistic downturn of his career. With the exception of Toby Dammit (1967) – Fellini’s great, nauseated self-parody – , the first great instance of his style, is the last time it contains wholly live cultures.’ (100)[22]

I’ll have more to say about that imagined fear of an actual and oncoming death. I have no more to say about negative dialectics, except that it’s just such an attitude that caused the character Steiner, in La dolce vita, to do those clearly horrible although not necessarily evil things to himself and to his kids. (The man’s last words – to Marcello – are: “Sometimes at night this darkness, this silence, weighs on me. Peace frightens me. I’m afraid of peace more than anything else. To me it seems that it’s only an outer shell and that hell is hiding behind it. I think of what my children will see tomorrow. ‘The world will be wonderful,’ they say. From what point of view? When a phone call can announce the end of the world…”)

One could also argue, as do the critics Tullio Kezich (1928-2009) and Frank Burke, that Fellini made three types of film – (1) plot-driven, character-based, more or less Neo-Realist and early-period films (Variety Lights [1950] to La dolce vita); (2) druggy, dreamlike, more or less episodic and middle-period films ( to Amarcord); (3) Post-Modern and late-period and also late style films about filmmaking or, more generally, about the discursive construction of reality (Fellini’s Casanova [1976] to Intervista [1987]) – and that the director’s very last film, The Voice of the Moon (1990), is all three of these in one.[23] (Those druggy and then those Post-Modern films, I myself would argue, are also more and more satirical – hence individual characters therein have long since become increasingly grotesque caricatures; as such, moreover, they are far more likely to be foolish or at least ridiculous than they are to be evil or at least horrible. Hence, moreover, Fellini had no late style per se.) And yet in some sense, as M. Thomas Van Order points out, the films of Fellini had almost always been about – in addition to death, I’d say – such discursive construction:

‘Swindlers and film directors share a love of deception, and both require willing victims. Cinema needs two things in order to swindle an audience: the disposition of the audience to believe the narration – to suspend disbelief – and continuity and invisibility in the narrative apparatus. Each side has a part in the bargain: the viewer will agree to pretend that the narration is realistic as long as the narration follows established conventions of continuity. Fellini was never entirely satisfied with this implicit pact, and unlike American crime films of the 1950s, where narrative continuity determines form, Il bidone is self-consciously aware of its artificial rhetoric, just as the swindlers within the film are aware of the artificial nature of their costumes and speech.

A case in point is the … cinema sequence, where the sound tracks of three films mingle in a strange metacinematic space. Augusto, an aging, jaded criminal, enters a darkened movie theater with his teenage daughter just as the first feature is about to end. Low, ominous notes from the film within the film fill the sound track. But the threat lurking in the shadows is closer than it seems: it is present in the theater of Fellini’s film together with the protagonist. The victim of a swindle involving fake medicine will soon confront Augusto, accusing him of almost killing his brother. The threat is not immediate, however, and the music quickly changes to a sentimental violin as an usher guides father and daughter to seats toward the back of the theater. Augusto, chuckling at the misunderstanding, comments that the usher must have mistaken them for lovers. The sentimental tune continues as the two sit down and Augusto informs Patrizia that he will give her a handsome sum of money so that she can continue with her studies. Patrizia, happy beyond words, smiles broadly, throws her arms around her father’s neck, and kisses him as the diegetic music from within the theater swells to a dramatic crescendo, commenting seamlessly on the actions of Augusto and Patrizia as if it were non-diegetic music artificially edited for Il bidone. [“Diegetic” music, in film, occurs within the narrative being shown; “non-diegetic” music does not. It comes, instead, from outside that narrative.] Because viewers of Fellini’s film do not see images from the film Augusto and Patrizia watch, but only hear the sound track (without dialogue), the relationship between music and image pushes the sound emanating from the film within the film outside the diegesis and into a vague non-diegetic space, thereby creating an artificial synchronicity between the two films. Art might be imitating art (Il bidone borrows from [the crime film] Black Tuesday [1954]); or art might coincidentally reflect “reality” (Black Tuesday coincidentally comments upon this moment in the lives of Augusto and Patrizia); or Augusto, Patrizia, and the usher might be manipulated by art (the usher hears a sentimental tune and projects it onto the couple before him, finding them a seat toward the back of the theater, and Augusto, equally moved by the music, chooses that moment to offer money to his daughter). None of these suggestions, however, stands up to close scrutiny. We will never know exactly from what narrative space this music originates because Fellini is not interested in offering a static representation of social “reality;” rather, the ambiguity of the musical sources in this scene reflects Fellini’s longstanding fascination with the multiplicity of narrations that mediate understanding between Self and Other, art and life.’ (Van Order 74-76)

Is death, though, for Fellini – as represented in his films – ever not discursively constructed? Is it ever something unknowable? Something unrepresentable? I’d say it isn’t – despite what we’re told, in The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), by the more or less psychoanalytic critic Slavoj Žižek (1949–?). And yet just how Fellini represents ways in which we all represent death to ourselves – within orders that Žižek, following the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901–1981), would call either “Imaginary” or “Symbolic” – does evolve in curious and ever less childish ways, as can be told most efficiently and perhaps gracefully by now looking at, as well as listening to, several either tomb or graveyard scenes in the films.[24]

Nights of Cabiria begins with one man, Georgio (Franco Fabrizi [1926–1995]), both robbing and then nearly drowning the protagonist. It ends with another man, Oscar (François Périer [1919-2002]), both robbing and then nearly throwing her off a cliff. About midway through the film, she – along with an unnamed man (Leo Cattozzo [1912–1997]) whom she accompanies while he delivers food, clothes, and other provisions to some homeless people in some caves near Rome – comes upon and recognizes, in one of these caves, a formerly well-heeled prostitute. She’s named Elsa, but had been known professionally – and therefore to Cabiria – as “Bomba.” (Cabiria’s own real name is Maria. Elsa also happens to have been the name, Oscar will tell Cabiria, of his by now long dead mother. Cabiria’s own mother, unnamed, died when Cabiria herself was about fifteen. The only other thing we know about the woman is that she had something to do with this daughter’s prostitution. “Who understood anything?” Cabiria will tell Oscar. “My mother just wanted the money.”) Elsa/Bomba – although she herself does not seem to realize it – is now rather old, ugly, and graceless. Having lost her money as well, she now has no choice but to live – with no professional gimmick (à la “Tessie Tura,” “Miss Mazeppa,” and “Miss Electra” from the musical Gypsy [1959]) or even just trick left up her sleeve – in this here hole in the ground as this here, Cabiria must realize, professional has-been. (Although the film itself does not make any such connection, such a fate is more or less – as any opera queen would realize – how things might have turned out for Violetta Valéry, in Verdi’s middle-period opera La traviata [1853], had this extremely well-heeled courtesan not died while young, and also had she been Italian. [Giuseppe Verdi: 1813–1901.]) And so in seeing Elsa/Bomba now, Cabiria can also see where she herself is headed – if, that is, she does not find some better line of work to do and maybe some guy to marry. It is to just such a death-like existence in just such a grave-like space.

The sound track – both diegetic and non-diegetic – underscores, as it were, this foresight of her own self – as Elsa/Bomba – that Cabiria gets to have. The scene begins, as in so much of Fellini’s work, with the presumably diegetic sound of wind. As this cuts out we hear some fluty and no doubt non-diegetic music, identified by Van Order as “Theme A.” This cuts out as Elsa/Bomba begins speaking both to Cabiria and to “the man with the sack.” It picks up again when Elsa/Bomba stops speaking to them. As Van Order observes, this kind of “musical silence” in the film can reflect the “bewildering void” into which the first attempted murder had thrown Cabiria (89). Here though, he implies, because of the particular music (“Theme A”) that frames or rather is interrupted by this silence, it cannot reflect this. It shows or rather continues to show, instead, a particular spiritual quality – one of selfless generosity – that Cabiria (unbeknownst to herself) seems to have but that Elsa/Bomba, who says she will not be sharing any of these here provisions with any of her cave-mates, very clearly lacks.[25]

This graveyard scene, which is the only such scene in the film, shows death to be discursively constructed by confirming, or at least conforming to, what may well be a notion of it long held – ever since her childhood – by Cabiria. This by now middle-aged woman – Cabiria looks to be in her thirties, as was Massina when filming – has probably always thought of death, that is, as still rather lifelike. She has probably always thought of it, that is, as a form of existence – in heaven, ideally, but maybe in only a cemetery – where you still get to have your body; an existence where you either don’t know that you’re dead, much as Elsa/Bomba doesn’t realize that she’s a has-been, or you do know this but are not too bothered by it; an existence where you will either socialize with some dead cohort, much as Cabiria hangs out with other prostitutes, or else, like Elsa/Bomba with those cave-mates of hers, you will not socialize; an existence, moreover, where from time to time you will even – if in a cemetery – get to see, like Elsa/Bomba with both Cabiria and “the man with the sack,” some people who are not yet dead. That Cabiria probably does think of death this way is suggested by a later scene in which, just before leaving with Oscar on what she thinks will be their honeymoon, she tells a framed photograph of her by now long dead mother: “Take one more look, and then I’m getting married. I’m getting married, too!”

Elsa/Bomba, incidentally, is in relation to Cabiria a kind of uncanny – and also specifically Modernist – Doppelgänger. (Nineteenth-century Doppelgängers in literature – think of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in the novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde [1886] by Robert Louis Stevenson [1850–1894] – tend to be supernatural; twentieth-centuries ones in both literature and film – which occur less frequently – tend to be uncanny.) Another such use of that convention, probably unknown to Fellini at the time of Nights of Cabiria, is the rather ugly and graceless old man – graceless old queen, I should say – whom the crypto-gay Gustave von Aschenbach, in that only-somewhat-avant-garde novella, Death in Venice (1912), by Thomas Mann (1875–1955), first sees on a boat:

‘One of these [young male] passengers, in a light yellow summer suit of an extravagantly stylish cut, red tie and jauntily uptilted Panama hat, outdid all the rest in jollity with his squawky voice. But scarcely had Aschenbach taken a closer look at him, when with a sort of terror he realized that the youthful impression was spurious. This was an old man, there could be no doubt. Wrinkles surrounded his eyes and mouth. The faint crimson of his cheeks was rouge; the brown hair beneath the straw hat with its colorful band was a wig; his neck was scraggy and sinewy; his little stuck-on mustache and the tiny beard on his chin were dyed; the complete set of yellow teeth, which he displayed as he laughed, was a cheap denture; and his hands, with signet rings on both index fingers, were those of an old, old man. With a feeling of horror Aschenbach watched him and his intercourse with his friends. Didn’t they know, didn’t they notice, that he was old, that it was wrong for him to be wearing their dandified, colorful clothing, wrong to be playing the part of one of them?’ (13)

Another Italian – and by then old, old – film director, Count Luchino Visconti (1906–1976), who unlike the very non-gay Fellini had never been the marrying kind and who in fact had always been openly gay, would eventually feature this still rather, to Aschenbach if not to either Mann or Visconti himself, horrible old queen, not to mention that he’s so clearly a has-been of a queen, in an arguably late style and yet faithful adaptation of that novella, also called – in English – Death in Venice (1971). This starred, as Aschenbach, the not-so-openly gay – and also British – actor, Dirk Bogarde (1921–1999). But as with Adorno and work by Fellini, this was only one of many such films that Fellini himself, who rarely enjoyed watching and therefore almost never bothered to see other directors’ work, would have at that point – fourteen years after his own Nights of Cabiria – no doubt ignored. A less horrifying use of the Doppelgänger convention, in Mrs. Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf, is the nice neighbor lady seen, within her own bedroom, by this far more avant-garde novel’s eponymous and also party-hosting protagonist: “She was going to bed, in the room opposite. It was fascinating to watch her, moving about, that old lady, crossing the room, coming to the window. Could she see her? It was fascinating, with people still laughing and shouting in the drawing-room, to watch that old woman, quite quietly, going to bed” (283).

There are two graveyard scenes in . The first of these, which involves a more or less real graveyard, is a dream that Guido has when asleep after sex with his mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo [1933–?]). The second, which involves a figurative graveyard, is a daydream that he has after seeing Carla – from afar – at an outdoor café. The post-coital dream – which is somewhat childish or perhaps Cabiria-like – is of seeing Guido’s dead and also somewhat disappointed father in the cemetery (or in perhaps some surreal representation thereof) where the man either has been or should have been buried. (The dream begins with the father complaining of a too-low ceiling in the mausoleum where one also sees an aboveground sarcophagus. It ends, nearly, with Guido lowering the father into a hole in the ground that is just outside of this mausoleum and then with Guido asking him: “What is this place? Do you like it here?”) It is, as well, a dream of seeing Guido’s not yet dead mother here – a woman who at the very end of the dream turns into his own long-suffering wife, Luisa (Anouk Aimée [1932–?]). The café daydream is of managing most of all the women in Guido’s life – past and present – in a harem that also represents the farmhouse of his by now long dead grandmother. One woman here, though, that old has-been of a showgirl called “Jacqueline Bonbon,” has been banished to the grave-like basement of the house. She’s simply too old, ugly, and graceless by now – too ridiculous, if not too horrible – to be of any erotic (let alone aesthetic) interest to Guido. None too happy about this interment, nor about her inevitable and impending displacement somewhere upstairs here to spend the rest of her life – or rather her figurative death – with other such cast-off has-beens, Jacqueline begs to be allowed to stay on the ground floor among her erstwhile – and figuratively non-dead – cohort. This begging by her, though, is of no avail. She must go up, say both Guido and most of all the other women. (Carla alone suggests that Jacqueline could stay.) First, though – after a comical and also satirical and also it turns out rather predictable revolt by almost everyone in the harem (Luisa alone, along with her good friend, Rossella [Rossella Falk {1926-2013}], stays out of it), a revolt during which we hear the very loud and non-diegetic music of “The Ride of the Valkeries” (1870) by Richard Wagner (1813–1883) – Jacqueline is allowed to perform one final and also very old-fashioned song and dance – the song is “Ça c’est Paris” (1926) by José Padilla (1889–1960) – which she does so badly, which is to say in such a pathetic and even foolish manner, that she must stop about midway through.

Any viewer – and auditor – of this film is meant to conceive of that basement as grave-like. Or at least to conceive of it this way on a subconscious level, for as Jacqueline emerges from down there we hear the same very soft and non-diegetic music – a theme called “Cimitero” – that we last heard, also non-diegetically, all throughout the dream about the parents. We are also meant, though, to associate Jacqueline with both Guido’s dead father and Guido himself, the former being actually dead and the latter – like the showgirl – only figuratively so. Or so I’d say he fears. Guido – a Doppelgänger or at least alter ego for Fellini – fears that he himself may be as much of a professional has-been as is his own Doppelgänger, Jacqueline. He fears, that is, that he is at the very same impasse as was Fellini after making La dolce vita. And so D.A. Miller is wrong, I’d say, to assert that the director in real life is afraid by now of his own actual and oncoming death. (In response to Guido’s questions – “What is this place? Do you like it here?” – the father says: “I haven’t figured it out yet. But it’s going much better. At first, you see, at first…”) Fellini-as-Guido – or Guido-as-Fellini – is afraid that his own figurative death – as was not yet the case for Cabiria when seeing Elsa/Bomba in a cave – had already happened.

How, then, to explain Fellini’s rather odd – and innovative – use of a female double to embody such a male protagonist’s professional fear? (It is very hard to think of other such cross-sexed Doppelgängers within Modernism. There are the twins Sigmund and Sieglinde, in Thomas Mann’s story “The Blood of the Walsungs” [1905]. There are Ulrich and his younger sister, Agathe, who in the unfinished novel The Man without Qualities [1930–1943] by Robert Musil are described as conjoined twins [Robert Musil: 1880–1942]. Post-Modern texts, however, have any number of them: Neo [Keanu Reeves {1964–?}] and Trinity [Carrie-Anne Moss {1967–?}] in the film The Matrix [1999]; Margaret [Anne Carlisle {1956–?}] and Jimmy [Carlisle, once again] in the film Liquid Sky [1982]; Jethro [Max Baer Jr. {1937–?}] and his twin sister Jethrine [Baer, again] in that satirical and also ridiculous old sitcom, The Beverly Hillbillies [1962–1971], the premier of which very nearly coincided with that of Fellini’s .) Is Fellini trying to tell – or to convince – himself just how foolish, pathetic, and maybe even insane this fear may be? (“This one is crazy,” says one harem inhabitant – from Guido’s distant past – about Jacqueline.) Is he, in other words, disavowing, rather unselfconsciously, the fear of professional failure – the fear of his having become a has-been of the workplace and also, as a by now internationally famous film director, a has-been of the world stage – by incorporating this fear within a non-male body? Or is he thereby both displaying and ridiculing – thereby disavowing – the disavowal itself. Perhaps he is doing both of these things at once.

There are three graveyard scenes in Roma – with all of them involving figurative graveyards. The first of these scenes is set in the basement of a burlesque theater where audience members – during World War Two – must sit out an air raid. The second of these, coming just after that first scene, is set on the ground floor of an ancient and therefore now – in the present moment of this film from 1972 – subterranean home where some soon to be almost completely obliterated frescoes of ancient Romans suddenly and for the first time in millennia – during a subway excavation – both see the light of day (or at least that of flashlights) and feel the to them horrible fresh air. The third is set somewhere in a rather palatial home. Some old princess, apparently, lives alone in it. But she is here now – still in the present moment of Roma – with some guests, who are friends as well as family members, gathered together to sit and watch an overlong and satirical although not very funny fashion show. The couture shown there, we’re told, is “ecclesiastical.”

All three scenes in Roma are meant by Fellini to be read off of one another; all three of them, moreover, present death, discursively, not as a still lifelike and embodied existence somewhere other than on the face of the earth – up in heaven or maybe belowground – but rather as only a quasi-lifelike and disembodied existence. (The documentary Fellini: A Director’s Notebook [1969], which has one scene set belowground on a subway and another scene aboveground by some mausoleum, underscores the director’s belief at the time – or perhaps his non-disbelief – in ghosts.) We know that they are meant to be read this way because all three scenes have either immobile or immobilized figures, human ones, that are either seated along or – in the case of the frescoes – standing directly on the walls of a darkened room. We know it, too, because these people either seated or standing there either sense that they may be about to die (as do the ones in the burlesque theater), or they have died by now (as have the ones in the ancient home), or they are no less spiritually dead than either Zampanò or Augusto (as are the ones in the palatial home). That fashion show, by the way, reveals finally – with nuns and priests roller-skating past a shipwreck full of cobwebbed skeletons – that it, too, has been about death. (I’d say, therefore, that it’s a ridiculous ghost ship.) We know, moreover, that all three scenes present death – perhaps non-discursively – as ghostly and disembodied existence not because – as had been the case in Nights of Cabiria – any ghostly and non-diegetic music connects them but because the fresh air that almost completely destroys the frescoes is represented throughout that scene, somewhat unrealistically, by the very loud sound – a sound that as I have said one often hears in work by Fellini – of some rather spooky wind.[26]

Slavoj Žižek, though, has understood – or misunderstood – the fresco scene otherwise. He believes that Fellini here has finally – and rather successfully – represented something that allegedly defies representation. It is something, therefore, that defies understanding:

‘The sublime object is an object which cannot be approached too closely: if we get too near it, it loses its sublime features and becomes an ordinary vulgar object – it can persist only in an interspace, in an intermediate state, viewed from a certain perspective, half-seen. If we want to see it in the light of day, it changes into an everyday object, it dissipates itself, precisely because in itself it is nothing at all. Let us take a well-known scene from Fellini’s Roma: the workers digging tunnels for a subway find the remnants of some old Roman buildings [sic: the frescos are found not in multiple “buildings” but rather in one single home (“A Roman house from two thousand years ago,” says someone here as they all enter the room)]; they call the archaeologists [sic: they call the film crew that is supposed to be filming Roma], and when they enter the buildings together, a marvelous view awaits them; walls full of beautiful frescos of immobile, melancholic figures – but the paintings are too fragile, they cannot withstand the open air and immediately begin to dissolve, leaving the spectators alone with the blank [sic: they’re now only nearly blank] walls…’ (192)

Žižek, like Fellini, is of course quite focused – though unlike Fellini perhaps only subconsciously – on death. I say this not so much because of what (following Freud) he says elsewhere in The Sublime Object of Ideology about our human “death drive.” I say this because of the fresco passage quoted above as well as because of two other examples of his – and for me, being both death-focused (if not death-driven) and Jewish, these are the most memorable examples that Žižek provides – of what Lacan had meant by the unrepresentable and yet somehow horribly enjoyable “Real.” The first other example of this “Real” is that of the Nazi – but not only Nazi – concentration camps. Žižek writes: “It is the same with a phenomenon that designates most accurately the ‘perverse’ obverse of twentieth-century civilization: concentration camps. All the different attempts to attach this phenomenon to a concrete image (‘Holocaust,’ ‘Gulag’…), to reduce it to a product of a concrete social order (Fascism, Stalinism…) – what are they if not so many attempts to elude the fact that we are dealing here with the ‘real’ of our civilization which returns as the traumatic kernel in all social systems?” (51)

The second other example is that of the wreck of Titanic. Žižek writes: “[Look] at the photos of the wreck of the Titanic [sic: the ship’s name was “Titanic,” with no definite article] taken recently by undersea cameras – where lies the terrifying power of fascination exercised by these pictures? It is, so to speak, intuitively clear that this fascinating power cannot be explained by the symbolic over-determination, by the metaphorical meaning of the Titanic: its last resort is not that of representation but that of a certain inert presence. The Titanic is a Thing in the Lacanian sense: the material leftover, the materialization of the terrifying, impossible jouissance” (76).[27]

What do these three things – or “Things” – have in common for Žižek? First of all, they are all actual structures, or they’re at least part of such structures, that were originally designed, in part, for habitation. (The Nazi camps, at least, were of course also – and ultimately – designed for annihilation. Titanic was also designed – like the fictive ship Gloria N. in Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On – for transportation.) So, perhaps, for Žižek the Post-Structuralist (if not for Lacan the, according to Žižek, non-Post-Structuralist Hegelian), the “Real” has something to do with the (conceptual) ruination of at least figurative structures. Second of all, the actual ruination here is rather elemental. (I refer, here, to the four classical elements – earth, air, water, and fire – and not to our modern periodic table thereof.) The dead bodies of millions of Jews (and other Others) were of course incinerated (in ovens) at those concentration camps – and some victims there were just burned alive (in grave-like pits). The Titanic photographs to which Žižek refers are of a sunken ocean liner that has by now been badly decomposed by water – or at least in water. The Fellini frescoes – which of course are rather un-Real, by which I also mean just fictive – are decomposed by, as Žižek puts it, “the open air.” (This is underscored in the film, as I’ve said, by the very loud, only somewhat realistic, and possibly non-discursive sound, on its post-synced soundtrack, of wind. It sounds to me, here, as if we’re all suddenly aboveground.) Third of all, these three “Things” are all, in some sense, tombs.

Or rather, they’re now figurative tombs in which – as Žižek must know at least subconsciously – any living and then dead bodies that were there have long since disappeared: turned to ashes within ovens or pits and then blown away by wind; drowned and then eaten away by oceanic scavengers (or so I imagine they’ve been); buried (if not cremated) somewhere outside of Rome and then eaten by worms.[28] Now, we don’t need either Structuralists or Post-Structuralists to have taught us that what really (as opposed to “Real”-ly) distinguishes us human beings from other animals is that we alone know, quite consciously and/or within the Symbolic order, or big Other, that we’ll all have to die someday. Or at least we imagine that no other animals could know this. We alone know, too, we imagine, that we may be senselessly killed by some other human or even by some horrible (and maybe even evil) government in something like the Holocaust – or like an air raid. We alone know, too, we imagine, that we may have to die – like many aboard Titanic – in an accident. And these last two thoughts – the conscious knowledge that any one of us, even if we’re not Jewish, may be killed by someone other than our own self or by something other than a natural cause – are not just two bits of universal and also discursive awareness, they are also, I would argue, although I don’t think that Žižek would agree with me, bits of primal – and therefore probably non-discursive and also far from late-in-life – fear. As such, then, aren’t these fears not so very different from the primal and by now no doubt merely subconscious fear of being killed and then devoured by some unseen and horrible (although not necessarily evil) predator: an enormous cave bear, say, or maybe a saber-toothed tiger?[29] I myself believe that we’re all hard-wired to still sense such pre-historic and by now – in reality – non-existent threats. That’s why all children – and maybe even some grownups – still have those nightmares: the monster under the bed; the monster in the closet; “the beast in the jungle” referred to by Henry James (1843–1916) in The Beast in the Jungle (1903), a late-period novella with yet another crypto-gay and also very fearful protagonist.[30] That’s why in the end, as at the very beginning of our pre-history, Lacan’s “Real” may still have as much to do with other animals (lions, and tigers, and bears – oh my!) that once really did threaten humankind, or at least hominid-kind, as it has to do, as at Auschwitz, with our all-too-real and also all-too-horrible inhumanity or evildoing to one another – or to do with just foolishness. I mean, that is, the foolishness of our having ever designed something like Titanic (or like the fictive Gloria N.) – if not the foolishness of our having ever used the thing.[31] Anyway – back to Fellini.

There are two tomb scenes, shown back to back, in Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On – a film made when, as the film itself makes clear, its director was by now both old enough and wise enough to disbelieve in ghosts. The first of these tomb scenes, set in the fiery and therefore rather hellish boiler room of the perhaps titular “ship,” is set up in an earlier scene where various singers are down in that room for a tour. (The ship in the film’s title, after all, may refer to something other than Gloria N.; it may refer to life itself.) The second tomb scene, set in a museum- or rather, mausoleum-like stateroom, is set up in a scene shown shortly before that boiler room tour. Fellini’s disbelief in ghosts, let alone in any embodied afterlife, is clarified in a scene shown not long after the tour: a rather foolish, rather ridiculous séance, which is held in a library. The ship Gloria N., after all, is a “Ship of Fools” – as was life itself, always but also increasingly so, for Fellini, as the by then nearly old, old man’s own actual death came on. (Life is now, I’m afraid, almost such a thing for me.)

One mere observer of the séance, the not-so-grotesque Count Bassano (Pasquale Zito), is a not-so-old opera queen especially and as it turns out fatally devoted to the dead singer, Edmea Tetua, whose ashes all of the passengers here have assembled, in the year 1914 and therefore on the very brink of World War One, to scatter. (There is something very Count-Bassano-ish about Joseph Cornell [1903–1972], as you will see. That assembleur, though, was not nearly as handsome – and nor as well-heeled – as this fictive aristocrat.) The séance begins. The Count, unbeknownst to others in the library, sneaks out. He must now run over to his stateroom – the mausoleum-like room mentioned above, where he displays, for himself alone, various stage costumes worn by the not-so-grotesque Edmea as well as some framed photographs of her. He displays there as well some silent-film footage of her – some of which we had watched with him, to the non-diegetic accompaniment of Debussy’s “Clair de lune” (1905) for solo piano, in the second setup scene mentioned above (Claude Debussy: 1862–1918). But now back to the library, where the Count – in female drag, for he’s wearing one of those costumes displayed – sneaks back in to rather spookily impersonate Edmea. This impersonation, though, is very quickly exposed – by one of two rival tenors on board, Aureliano Fuciletto (Victor Poletti [1949–?]), to have been a hoax. Aureliano, who although very fat and ugly imagines himself a ladies’ man, finds that hoax to have been hilarious; the Count, though, find this all-too-public exposure by him humiliating.

Fellini’s disbelief in ghosts, moreover, is implied when yet another aristocrat on board, the extremely thin and also grotesque Princess Lherimia (Pina Bausch [1940–2009]), recounts a dream she had in which her brother, the extremely fat and also grotesque Grand Duke of Herzog (Fiorenzo Serra), is snapped up and then also flown off with by an eagle. The eagle, though, finds the Grand Duke much too heavy to carry and so is forced to drop him. He is then, says the Princess, swallowed up by a presumably grave-like hole in the ground – never, we understand, to be seen and nor heard from again. When the ashes of Edmea are scattered by wind, she too, we understand, is never to be seen and nor heard from again, except on such gramophone recordings as the one played diegetically throughout this final and also funereal ceremony (the recording is of her singing the aria “O patria mia” from Act Three of Verdi’s late-period opera Aida [1871]) or in such silent-film footage as that which the Count had displayed (his footage ends with Edmea still dressed as Violetta in La traviata and now taking one last curtain call) and then that, having refused any place on a lifeboat, he will again watch for one last time as the ship they are all on, Gloria N., having been foolishly and even rather evilly attacked by a warship, sinks, and so also as both (1) the boiler-room-turned-tomb, with all of the workers here trapped inside of it (we last see those workers standing plastered – like ancient frescoes – against the room’s wall, we last hear them here singing, quite improbably, a chorus from Act Two of La traviata about Violetta’s suffering), and (2) the mausoleum-like stateroom, in which the Count once again sits alone, again transfixed by the rather lifelike, if soundless, image of this beloved singer, while we alone hear, non-diegetically, first a lyric theme from Verdi’s not-so-late-period opera La forza del destino (1862) played on a piano and then “Clair de lune” once again … and so also as both these rooms fill with seawater. (We do hear wind, too, in the final, funereal ceremony. But unlike the wind in Roma, it’s not very spooky. And the very moment that all of the ashes have been blown away by this wind, we no longer hear “O patria mia” played – diegetically – on that gramophone. The aria, in fact, stops mid-word, suggesting – somewhat surreally – that as soon as there are no more ashen remains of Edmea for anyone to see, nothing at all, not even a sound, can be said to remain of her.) Nor, of course, will either the Count or those workers – not even as ghosts – be ever seen or heard from again.

We are told two things of significance about Edmea: that (like Maria Callas, perhaps) she was the greatest of all singers; and that the role with which she herself most “fully identified” was that of Violetta. (This is also the role, one infers, with which fans most fully identified her. We are not told, though, why the singer so identified. Perhaps, as with Callas and that actual ladies’ man and also shipping magnate, Aristotle Onassis [1906–1975], she was something of a well-heeled courtesan.) And so when Edmea’s only real professional rival, or perhaps Doppelgänger, Ildebranda Cuffari (Barbara Jefford [1930–?]), is asked by some boiler room workers, in the first setup scene mentioned above, to perform for them, she will choose – after some hesitation – to sing Violetta’s Act Two signature line: “Amami, Alfredo, amami quant’io t’amo.” (“Love me, Alfredo, love me as I love you.”)

Before Ildebranda can do this, though, Aureliano obliges the workers by singing the final words of “Celeste Aida,” an aria for the character Radames in Act One of Aida. (The words – ironically enough, given just where on the ship this boiler room is situated – are “vicino al sol” [“next to the sun”].) Aureliano’s own professional rival, or perhaps Doppelgänger, a rather fit and handsome mama’s boy named Sabatino Lepori (Fred Williams [1938–?]), now tries to outdo him by singing the final words (translated from the original French into Italian) of the “Flower Song” from Bizet’s Carmen (1875; Georges Bizet: 1838–1875). Aureliano now tops Sabatino by singing the final words of the aria “Di quella pira” (“All’armi, all’armi!” [“To arms, to arms!”]) from Act Four of Il trovatore (1853), another middle-period opera by Verdi. Now some woman other than Ildebranda – Ines Ruffo Salitin (Linda Polan [1939-2009]) – tries to outdo these two men by singing I’m not sure what. And then before Ildebranda can finish the line from La Traviata, she is interrupted first by Aureliano and then by Sabatino and then by that other woman, with all of them singing, sometimes in unison but always in higher and higher keys, a part of the Act Three aria (“La donna è mobile”) of another actual ladies’ man, the Duke of Mantua, in yet another middle-period Verdi opera, Rigoletto (1851):

La donna è mobile / qual piuma al vento, / muta d’accento / e di pensier.

(Woman is flighty / like a feather in the wind, / she changes in voice / and in thought.)

Ildebranda now rejoins this rather foolish, rather ridiculous contest – as does a third woman, Teresa Valegnani (Elisa Mainardi [1930–?]) – and she also finally wins it. No one here can sing the final line – “e di pensier” – any higher than she does.

In the opera, Rigoletto, the aria “La donna è mobile” involves two ironies. First, it is the man singing it, the Duke of Mantua, and not the many women he will have seduced, who like so many other men – including Fellini – is mobile (meaning “flighty”) or unfaithful. (This first irony is situational.) The Duke’s latest conquest, for instance, is Gilda – the motherless and therefore no longer very virginal daughter of the eponymous and also hunch-backed court jester. This young woman, oddly, by which I mean even after having been both abandoned and humiliated by the Duke, and even after having become aware that the Duke has moved on to a next conquest, Maddalena, the sister of an assassin named Sparafucile, remains devoted – fatally devoted – to him. Second, the sound, heard from afar, of the Duke singing this aria for a second time signals to Rigoletto – the jester having hired the assassin to kill the Duke – that the supposedly dead body in this sack that he is carrying must be the body of someone else. It is Gilda’s body, he now – upon opening the sack – discovers. (This second irony is tragic.) But she’s not dead yet. Gilda dies while explaining to her father – and these are her final and therefore unchangeable thoughts – why she knowingly, and at Rigoletto’s suggestion in male drag, took the Duke’s place at Sparafucile’s place and also that she’ll be praying for him, for Rigoletto, that is, when up there in heaven with her mother: “Lassù in cielo, vicina alla madre, / in eterno per voi pregherò.” (Violetta, while dying, says such a thing to her rather more faithful lover, Alfredo. “Le porgi quest’effigie / dille che dono ell’è / di chi nel ciel fra gli angeli, / prega per lei, per te.” Aida and her lover, Ramades, die together – of asphyxiation – in an actual tomb and also while singing – in unison – about their post-mortem existence together in heaven. “O terra, addio; addio, valle di pianti… / Sogno di gaudio che in dolor svanì. / A noi si schiude il ciel e l’alme erranti / Volano al raggio dell’interno dì.”) An irony – for Verdi, at any rate – of that line of Gilda’s is that, unbeknownst to her, she’ll be doing no such thing. For the composer himself – already old enough, wise enough, and also atheist – no doubt knew at the time of composition that there is no such thing as heaven. Nor is there even such a thing – apart from life itself, in large part, as Steiner too would have it and also as those boiler room workers would have to experience it – as hell.



(4) The Most Happy Fella

A most famous atheist, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), seems never to have considered himself what we would call a “has-been.” (He declared God dead, or at least has a “madman” character do so, in The Gay Science [1882]: “Gott ist tot.”) In Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85, 1891, 1892), moreover, Nietzsche himself calls, or at least has an alter ego, “Zarathustra,” call, such a poor unfortunate man or woman the “last man” – der letzte Mensch. This last man is the antithesis, in effect, of the imagined overman (der Übermensch) who according to Nietzsche had already – with male artists like Beethoven and Goethe – very nearly come into being (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: 1749–1832; Ludwig van Beethoven: 1770–1827). He is the antithesis, more importantly for my own purposes here, of Nietzsche himself … at least when writing artfully. The last man, says Zarathustra while using the so-called grand style of expression (a combination of tremendous power and certainty that Nietzsche very much admired in artwork by others, including music by Beethoven and writing by Goethe, and that he therefore tried to realize or rather simply allowed himself to realize in his own written work), is the “most contemptible” man.[32]

“It is time that mankind set themselves a goal. It is time that mankind plant the seed of their highest hope.

“Their soil is still rich enough for this. But one day this soil will be poor and tame, and no tall tree will be able to grow from it anymore.

“Beware! The time approaches when [men] no longer launch the arrow of their longing beyond the human, and the string of their bow will have forgotten how to whir!

“I say to you: one must still have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star. I say to you: you still have chaos in you.

“Beware! The time approaches when [men] will no longer give birth to a dancing star. Beware! The time of the most contemptible [man] is coming, the one who can no longer have contempt for himself.

“Behold! I show you the last [man].

“‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’ – thus asks the last [man], blinking.

“Then the earth has become small, and on it hops the last [man], who makes everything small. His kind is ineradicable, like the flea beetle; the last [man] lives longest.

“‘We invented happiness’ – say the last [men], blinking.

“They abandoned the regions where it was hard to live: for one needs warmth. One still loves one’s neighbor and rubs up against him: for one needs warmth.

“Becoming ill and being mistrustful are considered sinful by them: one proceeds with caution. A fool who still stumbles over stones or [men]!

“A bit of poison once in a while; that makes for pleasant dreams. And much poison at the end, for a pleasant death.

“One still works, for work is a form of entertainment. But one sees to it that the entertainment is not a strain.

“One no longer becomes poor and rich: both are too burdensome. Who wants to rule anymore? Who wants to obey anymore? Both are too burdensome.

“No shepherd and one herd! Each wants the same, each is the same, and whoever feels differently goes voluntarily into the insane asylum.

“‘Formerly the whole world was insane’ – the finest ones say, blinking.

“One is clever and knows everything that has happened, and so there is no end to their mockery. Men still quarrel but they reconcile quickly – otherwise it is bad for the stomach.

“One has one’s little pleasure for the day and one’s little pleasure for the night: but one honors health.

“‘We invented happiness’ say the last [men], and they blink.” (9–10, emphasis original)

The writer Marco Roth (1974–?), as I have already mentioned (in a footnote) in “Has-Beens of the ‘Cinema Firmament’” (the first chapter of this book), has described last men and also women as people who remain stuck in the old ways without knowing why they’re in the old ways and without being able to change – whose lives have no meaningful motive apart from basic animal needs: food, clothing, shelter, sex.[33]

All quotations in this chapter, I should warn you, will continue being as (tremendously) long as that one from Thus Spoke Zarathustra and also that one (in the first footnote here) from Twilight of the Idols (1889). Call me lazy. Or just consider such quotation – along with yet in opposition to an increased chattiness and also along with such (mostly parenthetical) self-interruption (or self-qualification or self-correction or just digression), which in itself could be considered “computer style” – to be aspects of what may or may not be my own “late style.”[34] Nietzsche, by the way, would have loathed such written work – along with any type of critique. “Scholars spend all [of] their energy saying yes and no, criticizing what other people have already thought – they do not think for themselves any more,” he writes in Ecce Homo (1908).

‘I have seen it with my own eyes: natures that are gifted, rich, and disposed to be free, already “ruined by reading” in their thirties, just matches that have to be struck to emit sparks – “thoughts.” Early in the morning, at the break of day, when everything is fresh, in the dawn of your strength, to read a book – that is what I call depraved!’ (96, emphasis original)

Having never considered himself (à la Jacqueline Bonbon in the film [1963]) to be some old (showgirl-like) has-been, nor even just on the verge of becoming one, Nietzsche therefore also seems never, not even when repeating himself (which he did come to do quite a lot), to have felt the need: (1) for some gimmick (whereas those three old strippers in the musical Gypsy [1959] feel this need and maybe also whereas I – what with all the chattiness here – feel it); or (2) to be very graceful (whereas both Fred Astaire in the film The Band Wagon [1953] and the character he plays there, “Tony Hunter,” feel this need); or (3) to be very kind to other people (whereas “Tony Esposito,” an old grape farmer in the musical The Most Happy Fella [1956], feels this need), or (4) to be campy (whereas Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? [1962] feels this need). He only ever, for some reason, felt – late in his not-so-long productive life – the need to be, in addition to whatever else can be said with accuracy about Nietzsche’s probably not-so-(in-Adorno’s-sense)-“late-style” late style (that, say, it is increasingly personal, or that it’s increasingly aphoristic), more and more hyperbolic. The “last man,” to once again quote Zarathustra, is the “most contemptible” man (emphases added).

What, though, might that reason or maybe those reasons be? The first but I think least plausible one to come to anyone’s mind – it’s the saddest one as well – is that Nietzsche’s more and more hyperbolic style might just be a sign or rather a symptom of the fact that the poor unfortunate man himself (like “Baby Jane Hudson,” the character played by Davis in that film) was already somewhat insane.[35] (Nietzsche completely lost his mind, at the age of forty-five, when on January 3, 1889, he saw some poor unfortunate horse being hit. The medical cause of this loss may have been either syphilis or a brain tumor.) The Nietzsche biographer R.J. Hollingdale (1930–2001), for instance, who praises Nietzsche’s last original book, Ecce Homo: How to Become What You Are – which was written in 1888 and then first published, posthumously, in 1908 – as (unlike “clotted” writing by Adorno, to quote Charles Rosen [1927–2012] once again on this) “undoubtedly one of the most beautiful in German” and who says that many passages in that book, Ecce Homo, “are a non plus ultra of richness combined with economy” (216), also says of other passages there not to mention such chapter headings as “Why I Am So Wise,” “Why I Am So Clever,” and “Why I Write Such Good Books”: “Where Nietzsche leaves philosophy and writes about himself, his sense of his own quality passes the bounds of reasonableness and lands in absurdity.”[36] The man, in other words, says Hollingdale, “quietly attributes to himself impossible abilities” (199–200). (I must contest that adverb, “quietly,” in this context, and even the verb “attributes.” So too would the Nietzsche scholars Alexander Nehamas and Claudia Crawford, as you will see later on in this chapter, contest them.) For what Hollingdale senses in those other, autobiographical passages, comments the Nietzsche scholar Aaron Ridley (1962–?), “he [Hollingdale] takes to be symptomatic of Nietzsche’s impending mental collapse: euphoria, megalomania” (ix).

(The musicologist Joseph Straus [1954–?], incidentally, has a theory of late style in music that – at least insofar as composers like an ever more deaf Beethoven are concerned – qualifies at least two aspects of Adorno’s theory. Straus objects to the characterization of such style as either commemorating past styles used by the composer or anticipating future ones to be used by others who perhaps are not yet born. He objects, as well, to the detection – in such late-style work – of a composer who, even though in a state of either physical or mental deterioration, is somehow fully present. Instead, Straus deems the style of such late work to be a so-called disability style, one that cannot represent the composer’s deteriorated but otherwise complete selfhood [or subjectivity or perhaps individuality] but that can represent the deterioration. In Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles [1966], for instance, Straus finds “a metaphorical recreation of physical disintegration, of a body fracturing and losing its organic wholeness” [14]. This theory of disability style may relate as well to Hollingdale’s sense – or indeed to anyone’s sense – of an increasingly hyperbolic because already somewhat insane Nietzsche. I will have more to say on disability style in the next chapter of this book [“Monsieur Bonbon”], which is on both Joseph Cornell and his disabled brother, Robert.)

Ridley now adds, most importantly for my own purposes: “He [Hollingdale] may be right about this: I don’t know. Nor does it seem tremendously important to know. Incipient insanity may take the form of hyperbole, and what is exaggerated may be true, or interesting, even when pitched at a level that can seem deranged. And I think that there are good reasons to conclude that this is so with Ecce Homo. Precisely the kinds of passage that Hollingdale singles out as early signs of madness strike me as helpful dramatizations of a distinctive strand in Nietzsche’s later philosophy, a strand having to do with freedom and self-realization – with what, in the subtitle to Ecce Homo, he calls becoming ‘what you are’” (ix-x).

And yet, says Ridley – please note his use here of understatement (with “not implausible”) – the hyperbole in late work by Nietzsche “is also a means of self-deflation, a form of deliberate over-statement that is meant to be seen through, if not at once, then at least pretty quickly. And from this point of view, it is not implausible to read Nietzsche as debunking his aesthetic ideal, as admitting that it is not fully realizable, at the same time as he dramatizes its realization” (xxi, emphasis added). (That particular form of understatement, incidentally, is the rhetorical figure known as litotes.) I myself find this interpretation to be quite implausible – even though Nietzsche scholars other than Ridley (and also other than Nehamas and Crawford), including ones whose work I otherwise respect, have more or less shared it. Take Walter Kaufmann (1921–1980), for instance, who finds both the style and the substance of such late work to be relatively “modest.”[37] (Do not, though, take – and please note the sound-alike surname – Sarah Kofman [1934–1994], who, happily for her, finds them to be most “arrogant” [d’une hauteur inégalée]. Unhappily, Kofman killed herself on the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of Nietzsche’s birth.)[38] Or take Charles Altieri (1942–?), who uses Ecce Homo – which is among other things an autobiography – to claim that Nietzsche’s “refusal of decorum” there can be seen as a “self-absorbed attempt to evade the trap of narcissism.”

‘First, he continually warns his reader not to be seduced, not to idealize the will to power that linguistically dances an attempt to fascinate him. And more important, aware that “idealism – is the real fatality in my life, the superfluous and stupid in it,” Nietzsche tries to break all the mirrors to his dance. His dream is to have self-assertion which is so authenticated in the doing, in the truthfulness and courage of radical action, that there is no need to take pleasure in static reflection on one’s deeds. One tries to keep becoming where one is rather than turn back in suspended phrases to revel in the intention of the meaning or the value of what one did. Autobiography becomes a precondition for revaluing the hierarchy between deeds and the terms of self-knowledge and self-approval which are the subject matter of philosophy.’ (395)

And yet that’s not how narcissism – within autobiography – ever works. To quote myself (much as Nietzsche quotes himself in Ecce Homo) in what may be the very best of the (as of this writing) six tremendously good books that I have written (and, happily, have also had published), a book that also happens, Professor Altieri, to be on a real and therefore non-figurative dancer (the über-fascinating Vaslav Nijinsky [1890–1950]): “Many people … associate identification with misrecognition and self-expression with misrepresentation. I, for one, insist that my own narcissism is merely performative, or theatrical, yet feel most myself when pretending to be less intelligent and attractive than I really am” (123). As you, my ideal reader, who I (unlike Nietzsche, in Ecce Homo) trust already exist, may well know, Socrates – that nemesis or perhaps, as will be seen, Doppelgänger of Nietzsche – may well have felt something similar whilst, ironically enough, pretending, so far as his own intelligence was concerned, the exact same thing. (Socrates: circa 470 B.C.–399 B.C.)

But enough about me. The Nietzsche scholar Daniel W. Conway (1956–?) considers late work by Nietzsche, in terms of its style, to be neither symptomatic of insanity, nor helpfully dramatic, nor self-deflationary, but to show the man to have become, at last, as Nietzsche himself, according to Conway, must have realized, a kind of last man – or at least a kind of old (if not also old-showgirl-like) has-been of rhetoric.

‘While the esoteric teaching dispensed by the rhetorical master is designed to enlighten or transfigure its recipients, the exoteric teaching does not and need not effect a change in the souls of its recipients. [Late works by Nietzsche, including Ecce Homo, are exoteric attempts to effect just such a change – at least insofar as some readers probably not yet born at the time of publication are concerned.] The exoteric teaching consequently brings about the intended political consequence, while excluding its recipients from the esoteric teaching it serves to reinforce. In order to attain rhetorical mastery, teachers of esoteric wisdom must assume the double aspect of Janus, the divine patron of all gatekeepers and guardians of the truth. Each mask displayed by the rhetorical master functions as a selective portal, simultaneously granting admission to the elite cognoscenti while turning away the [sic] unwashed hoi polloi. [“The … hoi poloi” is redundant, as “hoi” in Greek means “the.”] In an apparently autobiographical aphorism published [in Human, All Too Human] in 1880, Nietzsche acknowledges and presumably accepts the personal demands of rhetorical mastery:

Stylistic caution. – A: But if everyone knew this, most would be harmed by it. You yourself call these opinions dangerous for those exposed to danger, and yet you express them in public? B: I write in such a way that neither the mob, nor the populi, nor the parties of any kind want to read me. Consequently, these opinions of mine will never become public. A: But how do you write, then? B: Neither usefully nor pleasantly – to the trio I have named.

Nietzsche’s enmity for the reading “mob” never wanes, but by 1888 his confidence in his own rhetorical skills has faded appreciably. He may [to quote Ecce Homo] “have a ‘second’ face in addition to the first, and perhaps also a third,” but his besetting decadence prevents him from manipulating these masks in the continued service of esotericism. Indeed, whatever degree of facility he might once have possessed in the art of masquerade has largely vanished. By 1888, his masks have become increasingly unstable and fragile, compromising the integrity of his esoteric teachings while encouraging in his exoteric readers an untoward familiarity. Unable to safeguard his esoteric teachings from the taint of decadence, he cannot realistically hope to persuade his exoteric readers to further unwittingly his political ends. He attempts to compensate for the corruption of his rhetorical strategies, displacing himself behind his [to again quote Ecce Homo] “most multifarious art of style,” but his Silenian elusiveness largely backfires. Indeed, despite his best rhetorical efforts, Nietzsche has become a philosopher “for all and none,” embraced by Christians, liberals, feminists, postmodernists, anti-Semites, democrats, anarchists, and virtually every other community or constituency that he expressly condemned.’ (148–49, citations and footnotes omitted, emphases and italics original)

I myself find this interpretation by Conway to be quite, well, insane. (I have always had the habit – in life – of calling anyone who ever disagrees with me, “insane.” I do this, that is, behind his or her back – whilst in chatty conversation with other people. Why such hyperbole? Because I find it amusing to thus present myself as – or to pretend to be – quite as insane as I pretend to imagine that some others are. I guess it’s not too late – or too soon – for me to start doing so solo and whilst sitting alone up here in the attic at this here computer and then – one hopes – out there in the world at large, in print.) This interpretation by Conway is insane – or at least unwarranted – because exoteric teaching need not not try to effect “a change in the souls of its recipients.” Surely that of Socrates, as recounted by Plato, tried to do just that. (Plato: circa 427 B.C.–circa 347 B.C.) It is unwarranted because late work by Nietzsche does not go in for “Silenian elusiveness.”[39] After all, the man addresses himself – primarily – in such work. “On this perfect day, when everything is ripe and the grapes are not the only things that are turning brown, I have just seen my life bathed in sunshine,” Nietzsche ends his Preface to Ecce Homo:

‘I looked backwards, I looked out, I have never seen so many things that were so good, all at the same time. It is not for nothing that I have buried my forty-fourth year today, I had the right to bury it, – all its living qualities have been rescued, they are immortal. The Revaluation of All Values [The Anti-Christ], the Dionysian Dithyrambs, and for recuperation, the Twilight of the Idols – all gifts of this year, of the last three months, in fact! How could I not be grateful to my whole life?‘ (74, emphases original)[40]

“And so,” this ending ends, “I will tell myself the story of my life.” I think it safe to say, as to my knowledge Adorno (a “Herr Bonbon” or rather “Herr Professor Bonbon” of critical theory) never does say, that such primarily private work by an artist, late or otherwise, work, that is, that no longer tries to please if not to pander to some audience other than the artist him- or herself, is the work of his or hers that is most unlike and perhaps far more interesting than, or at least far more revealing than, their primarily public work, even if, as often happens, such private work is done, as was Nietzsche’s, with such an audience (perhaps posthumous but perhaps merely post-production) also in mind. (To quote Cecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest [1899] by Oscar Wilde [1854–1900], on a diary of hers which for the time being – the very sensitive time, that is, of its composition – she wishes not to show to the man now courting her: “You see, it is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication. When it appears in volume form I hope you will order a copy” [515]. To quote Lady Bracknell, or this man’s aunt in the play: “German sounds a thoroughly respectable language, and indeed, I believe is so” [497].) And it – this interpretation by Conway – is unwarranted because Nietzsche now knows, even better than he knew before, how best to reach that other audience – those equally superior Übermenschen-to-be (or at least those wannabe-overmen) of the future. (Who cares, the man must have thought, if men or women inferior to us – Christians, feminists – will also read this stuff of mine and then even imagine they understand it!) He knows, that is, the best kind of rhetoric with which to accomplish that which he says explicitly he would accomplish: “Let us look forward a century and assume that I have succeeded in my attempts to assassinate two thousand years of anti-nature and desecration of humanity. The new faction in favor of life that takes on the greatest task of all, that of breeding humanity to higher levels (which includes the ruthless extermination of everything degenerate and parasitical), will make possible a surplus of life on earth that will necessarily regenerate the Dionysian state” (Ecce Homo 110, emphasis original).


Nietzsche did develop, late in his productive life, the power to do this. He developed, to quote Claudia Crawford (1945–?), “the decisive traits of nature” (271) to confront humanity with (as Nietzsche himself says at the beginning of his Preface to Ecce Homo) “the most difficult demand ever made of it” (71). He developed the traits, that is, of (as Nietzsche himself says later in that book) “the juxtaposition of the brightest and most disastrous forces, the will to power as no man has possessed it before, the reckless courage in spiritual matters, the boundless energy for learning that does not overwhelm the will to act” (111). “The most difficult demand ever made”? “The brightest and most disastrous forces”? “The will to power as no man has possessed it before”? Crawford explains:

‘Nietzsche’s excessive uses of language in the last quarter of 1888, especially in Twilight of the Idols, The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, The Case of Wagner, and in notes and letters from this period, are not symptoms of megalomania and impending madness, rather that Nietzsche was consciously wielding a grand style of agonal rhetorics of prophecy, apocalypse, legislation, and the dithyramb in order to do just what he claimed to be attempting – to assassinate two millennia of anti-nature and desecration of man and revive a Dionysian age!‘ (271, emphasis original)[41]

This is particularly true, says Crawford, of Nietzsche’s excessive use, at the time, of hyperbole. Hyperbole, per se, is excessive. It is linguistic exaggeration, extravagance, and want of due proportion. But its use can also “evoke sublimity, greatness.” Thus, such impropriety and excess (or such tremendous excess) can in cases of masterly use – such as that of Nietzsche – “become great, sublime” (273, emphasis added). (This rhetorical figure of hers, incidentally – from “sublimity, greatness” to “great, sublime” – is known as chiasmus.)

The woman, I think, is quite right to say all this. But it is Alexander Nehamas (1946–?) who, as Crawford herself admits, first said it (in his first book, Nietzsche: Life as Literature [1985]) and so who must also have first suggested, likewise, to Aaron Ridley, that one finds in Ecce Homo and other such late works, or rather that one finds in the hyperbole there: “helpful dramatizations of a distinctive strand in Nietzsche’s later philosophy, a strand having to do with freedom and self-realization.” Nehamas suggests as well – exoterically, or rather to one and all (if not “for all and none”) – that any late-period hyperbole was nothing very new for Nietzsche – and that, ironically enough, the man’s a lot like Socrates this way.

I shall now, therefore, quote Nehamas at – appropriately enough – tremendous length. A feature of Nietzsche’s writing that “remains constant from the time of The Birth of Tragedy to that of Ecce Homo and that itself constitutes a traditional rhetorical trope,” he writes, is the figure of hyperbole. (The same can be said, more or less, of Beethoven – as even Adorno sensed. Take, for instance, the recapitulation in the first movement of the [middle-period or middle style] Fifth Symphony, about which, primarily, Adorno writes: “But that the affirmative gestures of the reprise in some of Beethoven’s greatest symphonic movements assume the force of crushing repression, of an authoritarian ‘That’s how it is,’ that the decorative gestures overshoot the musical events – this is the tribute Beethoven was forced to pay to the ideological character whose spell extends even to the most sublime music ever to aim at freedom under continued unfreedom. The self-exaggerating assurance that the return of the first is the meaning, the self-revelation of immanence as transcendence – this is the cryptogram for the senselessness of a merely self-reproducing reality that has been welded together into a system. Its substitute for meaning is continuous functioning” [Beethoven 44, emphasis added]. Adorno, explains the musicologist Rose Subotnik [1942–?], indicates both here and elsewhere a link between the composer’s middle style and his late style not so much by positing early instances or clear anticipations of the late style but rather by noting certain hyperbolic strains in the middle style at precisely its most characteristic. [Subotnik is generally credited with – or discredited for – having introduced the work of Adorno to English-speaking or rather to English-only-speaking musicologists in the late 1970s.] “Principal among these,” she writes, “are the exaggerated assertiveness of the development and recapitulation [of sonata form] procedures, in which Adorno discerns … the incipient transformation of freedom into force” [22, emphasis added]. The music theorist Jeffrey Swinkin [1970–?] concurs with Subotnik on Adorno: “In short, the middle style at its most visceral exposes a fine line between organic unity and necessity on the one hand, and external convention and contingency on the other. It is primarily the rhetorically charged repetition – whether of formal entities on a large scale or of harmonies or harmonic progression on a local scale – that most calls structural necessity into question. In this respect, the late style [of Beethoven] merely tips the scale more toward conventionality and artificiality, exploiting an ambiguity inherent in the middle style itself” [295, emphasis added]. Like Rosen, by the way, who found one in Mozart and in Schubert, although not in Beethoven, Nehamas is not averse, where appropriate, to finding decidedly new late styles in philosophers other than Nietzsche. He finds one, for instance, in Michel Foucault [1926–1984]: “As to [Foucault’s] style, I think it undergoes the most radical changes during the course of his writing. If you start from the very early work you’ll find the influence of [Martin] Heidegger [1889–1976.]. You’ll then detect in the middle works a shift toward Nietzschean ideas, although they are expressed in the most impersonal style – so impersonal that it has its own personality. The very late works, the second and third volumes of The History of Sexuality [1984], for example, or the last lectures, which I discuss in the book [The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault], are written in a completely different style, completely personal” [“On the Philosophical Life” 146].) At any rate – this single most pervasive feature of Nietzsche’s work, writes Nehamas, this use by Nietzsche of the figure of hyperbole, attracts, moreover, “a certain kind of reader to him, repels another, and causes a third to alternate between comprehension and blankness, between exhilaration and despair, and so ultimately to pass him by.”

‘Nietzsche’s writing is irreducibly hyperbolic. It is, for example, one thing to claim that Greek tragedy came to its end through the dramas of Euripides, that the genre was exhausted by them, that tragedy had nowhere to go after Euripides wrote. It is quite another to write, and to mean, as Nietzsche does [in The Birth of Tragedy {1872}], that “Greek tragedy … died by suicide … tragically,” that Euripides actually killed it, and that he used and was used by “aesthetic Socratism as the murderous principle.” It is one thing to be suspicious of the notion of truth and to question whether a general theory of truth and knowledge is possible or even desirable. It is quite another to ask [in Beyond Good and Evil {1886}], “What in us really wants truth? … Suppose we want truth: why not rather untruth? and uncertainty? even ignorance?” We accept, often as a necessary evil, the fact of human cruelty. But how can we come to terms with the view that [to quote On the Genealogy of Morals {1887}] “to see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but an ancient, mighty, human, all-too-human principle… Without cruelty there is no festival: thus the longest and most ancient part of human history teaches”? Voltaire, for one, was certainly not a friend of Christianity. But how much in Voltaire compares to Nietzsche’s statement [in The Anti-Christ {1895}], chosen almost at random, “I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great innermost corruption, the one great instinct of revenge, for which no means is poisonous, stealthy, subterranean, small enough – I call it the one immortal blemish of humanity”? Humility has never been a central character trait of the great figures in the history of philosophy, art, or science. But even among them, the tone of the Preface to The Anti-Christ or of the whole of Ecce Homo is remarkable for its stridency.’

“These few instances are not even the beginning of an elementary listing of the hyperbolic in Nietzsche,” Nehamas now comments. “I am merely using them to call to mind how often passages like these confront his readers and how difficult it is to know quite how to react to them. I want them to bring out what may well be the most consistent and the most conspicuous feature of his writing, the fact that Nietzsche, as he very well knew, shouts” (22–23, citations and footnote omitted, ellipses and emphases original).

And here – to continue such tremendously long quotation of the man – are three consecutive paragraphs, by Nehamas, on both Nietzsche and that all-too-quiet nemesis (or Doppelgänger) of his:

‘Socrates of course always pursues his goal personally and in conversation, while Nietzsche is the most writerly of philosophers. Socrates believes that not enough questions have been asked, while Nietzsche is afraid that too many answers have been given. Socrates considers self-knowledge at least the beginning if not the very content of the good life, while Nietzsche denies that in Socrates’ sense there is either a self that can be known or a knowledge that can capture it. Socrates thinks that action must be grounded in objective value, while Nietzsche urges that values are created through actions. Socrates considers explicit and articulate rational understanding the greatest and most distinguishing human achievement, while Nietzsche [in The Gay Science] laments that “the task of incorporating knowledge and making it instinctive is only beginning to dawn on the human eye and is not yet clearly discernable.” Finally, irony, which in Socrates’ case consists of saying “too little,” functions for him just as hyperbole, which is saying “too much,” functions for Nietzsche.

Despite Nietzsche’s claims [in Beyond Good and Evil and in The Genealogy of Morals] to have found his antipode in Ernest Renan (“It is so neat, so distinguished to have one’s own antipodes!”) and Paul Rée, his real antipodes are constituted by none other than Socrates. [Ernest Renan: 1823–1892; Paul Rée: 1849–1901.] Nietzsche disagrees with Socrates, issue for issue, on every question about the content and the method of philosophy, yet he is engaged in exactly the same effort of affecting people’s lives: the two are constantly and directly competing with one another. Socrates and Nietzsche are inextricably joined by their common efforts, but each is inevitably repelled by the direction the other wants life to take as a result of his influence.

It is, then, just this personal, Socratic element in Nietzsche’s project that accounts for his exaggerated, swaggering, polemical, self-conscious and self-aggrandizing, un-Socratic style. Both desperately need their audience’s attention. Socrates tried to secure it in conversation, through his ironic humility, his arrogant self-effacement, which draws people either unsuspectingly or angrily into argument – but which in either case draws them in. Nietzsche attempts to attract people through his thick style, which is often insulting and in bad taste, but which never lets his readers forget that the argument they are getting involved in is always in more than one sense personal. Both Socrates and Nietzsche often fail in their efforts and have no effect at all; but as long as they even manage to upset their audience, they have already partly won the contest: in such situations, any attention is better than no attention at all. Hence, for Nietzsche [in Twilight of the Idols] the supreme irony of Socrates’ death: “Socrates wanted to die: not Athens, but he himself chose the hemlock; he forced Athens to sentence him.”’ (26–27, citations omitted, emphases original)

Nehamas later, in an interview done (conversationally) about fifteen years after that first book of his was published, chose both to reiterate and to clarify much of this. When asked whether he had meant to say, in the book, that the function of hyperbole in Nietzsche – along with that of aphorism – is “aristocratic,” the man rather chattily or perhaps Socratically said no:

‘I think once you realize Nietzsche’s view is hyperbolic, that he is stating it in more extreme terms than he might have, you can’t forget that it is his view. What you then go on to do is left open. You may decide that it’s Nietzsche’s view and also ridiculous; or you may decide that you will accept it precisely because it’s Nietzsche’s view (a silly reaction); you may decide, “Well, it is Nietzsche’s view: Do I agree with it? How shall I react to it? Is he right?” In the end, if you agree with him, you will be aware that you are agreeing with him and accepting part of his picture of life, and not just with some abstract truth that has no consequences for how you live. That, I think, is the rhetorical function of hyperbole; it is not particularly aristocratic.’ (149, emphasis original)

When asked by the interviewer about any “views” thus presented by Nietzsche, Nehamas said:

‘When you are faced with hyperbole, your first reaction is to find what it says silly. So, you ask, “Why is he shouting so much?” You need to interpret before you understand. It is the same with the aphorism: it doesn’t wear its meaning on its face, and that’s what Nietzsche is saying in the Genealogy: you need to do your own work in order to understand anything. But by doing our own work, you are, so to speak, changing yourself. So, again, the effect of both hyperbole and aphorism is to make you ask, not, “Does Nietzsche get it right?” but rather, “Who do I become as a result of trying to understand what he is saying?”’ (149)

When then asked about Socrates, Nehamas – sounding a bit like Ridley (“it is not implausible to read Nietzsche as debunking his aesthetic ideal, as admitting that it is not fully realizable”) but without going quite that far – said:

‘There are so many ways in which Nietzsche and Socrates are mirror images of each other: hyperbole is for Nietzsche what understatement is to Socrates. Socrates is always putting himself down, admitting ignorance, saying, “I don’t know, you tell me.” Nietzsche, by contrast, is always, so to speak, “in your face:” he’s always putting himself forward, always speaking as if he knows everything a little better than everyone else. But by using aphorisms, which, as he says, require a lot of interpretation, he makes it very difficult for you to know exactly what he’s saying. Now, as I say in The Art of Living [1998], it’s never clear that ironists – and both aphorism and hyperbole have an element of irony in them – always know what they are saying. So, in a way, these literary strategies create a sense that Nietzsche himself is not sure, that he himself is trying things out. On the one hand, you hear this voice of extraordinary certainty, and on the other, when you start listening carefully to its sound, you find that the mechanisms that express that great self-confidence also undermine it. In that way you realize that he is actually much less dogmatic a philosopher than he sounds! And since the content of his views is an attack on dogmatism, we have here once again a coalescence of style and substance. So, Nietzsche’s strategies are Socratic because they are masks and because they are ironic and because they promote a tentativeness and a willingness to try out ideas that I find essential to the Socrates of the early dialogues [that is, the “Socrates” – as created in writing by Plato – who seems to be more himself than does the more and more Platonic “Socrates” of later such work]. Also they demand a personal response. Ideas shape life, because they are part of life, not something to be contrasted to it. Both Nietzsche and Socrates knew that, and make a central point of it.’ (150)

One must bear in mind, though, that for Nietzsche, writing in general has, or at least it should have, as much to do with the direct expression of both thought and affect (or perhaps emotion) as his own increasingly hyperbolic and also aphoristic way of writing – his own late-in-life “grand style” – may have to do with affecting people’s lives. And yet such emotion, for him, should never be sentimental.[42] (This would soon also be the case, as you’ll see in the next and final chapter of this book [“Monsieur Bonbon”], for Joseph Cornell.) One must bear it in mind, moreover, because Nietzsche himself does. He asks himself, and others, in Ecce Homo: “Does anyone at the end of the nineteenth century have a clear idea of what poets in strong ages called inspiration?”

‘If not, I will describe it. – If you have even the slightest residue of superstition, you will hardly reject the idea of someone being an incarnation, mouthpiece, or medium of overpowering forces. The idea of revelation in the sense of something suddenly becoming visible and audible with unspeakable assurance and subtlety, something that throws you down and leaves you deeply shaken – this simply describes the facts of the case. You listen, you do not look for anything, you take, you do not ask who is there; a thought lights up in a flash, with necessity, without hesitation as to its form, – I never had any choice. A delight whose incredible tension sometimes triggers a burst of tears, sometimes automatically hurries your pace and sometimes slows it down; a perfect state of being outside yourself, with the most distinct consciousness of a host of subtle shudders and shiverings down to the tips of your toes; a profound joy where the bleakest and most painful things do not have the character of opposites, but instead act as its conditions, as welcome components, as necessary shades within this short of excess of light; an instinct for rhythmic relations that spans wide expanses of forms – the length, the need for a rhythm that spans wide distances is almost the measure of the force of inspiration, something to balance out its pressure and tension … All of this is involuntary to the highest degree, but takes place as if in a storm of feelings of freedom, of unrestricted activity, of power, of divinity … The most remarkable thing is the involuntary nature of the image, the metaphor; you do not know what an image, a metaphor, is any more, everything offers itself up as the closest, simplest, most fitting expressions. It really seems (to recall something Zarathustra once said) as if things approached on their own and offered themselves up as metaphors (– “here all things come caressingly to your speech and flatter you: because they want to ride on your back. Here you ride on every metaphor to every truth. Here words and word-shrines of all being jump up for you; all being wants to become a word here, all becoming wants to learn to speak from you–”). This is my experience of inspiration; I do not doubt that you would need to go back thousands of years to find anyone who would say: “it is mine as well.”’ (126–27, footnote omitted, ellipses and emphases original)[43]

Not that thought would always present itself to Nietzsche in an always already grand style that was always already ready to be later written down and published. As Nietzsche himself, in a notebook entry from 1885, admits to himself alone – when stopping to think, in writing, about some of his least inspired thinking or rather, I would infer, to think about any serious thinking he has ever done that has not been done in or better yet as writing:

‘In the form in which it comes, a thought is a sign with many meanings, requiring interpretation or, more precisely, an arbitrary narrowing and restriction before it finally becomes clear. It arises in me – where from? How? I don’t know. It comes, independently of my will, usually circled about and clouded by a crowd of feelings, desires, aversions, and by other thoughts, often enough scarcely distinguishable from a “willing” or “feeling.” It is drawn out of this crowd, cleaned, set on its feet, watched as it stands there, moves about, all this at an amazing speed yet without any sense of haste. Who does all this I don’t know, and I am certainly more observer than author of the process. Then its case is tried, the question posed: “What does it mean? What is it allowed to mean? Is it right or wrong?” – the help of other thoughts is called on, it is compared. In this way thinking proves to be almost a kind of exercise and act of justice, where there is a judge, an opposing party, even an examination of the witness which I am permitted to observe for a while – only a while, to be sure: most of the process, it seems, escapes me. – That every thought first arrives many-meaninged and floating, really only as the occasion for attempts to interpret or for arbitrarily fixing it, that a multitude of persons seem to participate in all thinking – this is not particularly easy to observe: fundamentally, we are trained the opposite way, not to think about thinking as we think. The origin of the thought remains hidden; in all probability it is only the symptom of a much more comprehensive state; the fact that it, and not another, is the one to come, that it comes with precisely this greater or lesser luminosity, sometimes sure and imperious, sometimes weak and in need of support, as a whole always exciting, questioning – because every thought acts as a stimulus to consciousness – in all of this, something of our total state expresses itself in sign form. – The same is true of every feeling. It does not mean something in itself: when it comes it first has to be interpreted by us, and how strange this interpretation often is!’ (34-35, emphases original)

It is an interesting although not unusual contradiction. And nor is it very mysterious. All it indicates, at bottom, is that Nietzsche was not what Roland Barthes (1915–1980) – late in life – would call either a teacher or an intellectual. The man – the overman, if you like – was a writer. (And so Nehamas was right to write – using an allusion to Barthes – that “Nietzsche is the most writerly of philosophers” [Nietzsche 26, emphasis added].) “Over against the teacher, who is on the side of speech,” wrote Barthes in 1971, “let us call a writer every operator of language on the side of writing; between the two, the intellectual, the person who prints and publishes his speech. Between the language of the teacher and that of the intellectual there is hardly any incompatibility (they often co-exist in a single individual); but the writer stands apart, separate. Writing begins at the point where speech becomes impossible (a word that can be understood in the sense it has when applied to a child)” (“Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers” 190, italics and emphasis original).

(Nehamas himself, in that interview mentioned above, had something relevant to say – chattily – about all this. “[One] reviewer of [my book] The Art of Living objected that Nietzsche led a wretched life, and that he couldn’t possibly set an example for us to follow: ‘I wouldn’t wish that life on anyone,’ he wrote, ‘not even Rousseau.’ [Jean-Jacques Rousseau: 1712–1778.] I was wondering what that could mean. Does it make sense to say, ‘I wouldn’t wish that life on anyone’? That could mean you wouldn’t wish anyone else to be Nietzsche. Well, of course no one else could be Nietzsche! That’s trivial. But it could mean that it would have been better for Nietzsche if he had never lived. And that’s clearly false – false for Nietzsche, and also false for us. People who believe that think of the ‘life’ of philosophers as everything other than their work. But that’s silly. Nietzsche’s life is inextricably tied up with the writing of his books: the books are as central a part of his life as any – perhaps its most central part. The question is not, ‘Was Nietzsche’s life apart from his work “good,” would you like to have had his migraines, and his near-sightedness, and his disappointments, and so on?’ Well, of course not! Who in his right mind would want just the headaches and to vomit all the time and not to see where one is going? The question, really, is ‘Were all the miseries justified and transformed through the work, does the whole constitute a worthwhile life, a life with significance?’ And if that’s what it took for him to have been able to write these great books, you might want to say that it wasn’t such a bad life after all. Nietzsche flourished, even though he was unhealthy; he succeeded as a human being, even if his books didn’t sell” [152-53, emphasis added].)[44]

And yet the ever more hyperbolic style of late work by Nietzsche – the ever greater incidence of what Nehamas calls “shouting” there – might also be, even by standards that Nietzsche himself brought to bear on work by others, a sign or perhaps a symptom of how much – when not otherwise occupied by writing – he had or rather of how much more he now had to fight, in life. “An Englishman recently described the most general danger facing uncommon men who live in a society tied to convention: ‘Such alien characters at first become submissive, then melancholic, then ill and finally they die. A Shelley would not have been able to live in [New] England, and a race of Shelleys would have been impossible,’” the man wrote – back in 1874 – in Schopenhauer as Educator.

‘Our Hölderlin and Kleist, and who knows who else besides, were ruined by their uncommonness and could not endure the climate of so-called German culture; and only natures of iron, such as Beethoven, Goethe, Schopenhauer and Wagner are able to stand firm. But these too exhibit many of the effects of the wearying struggle they have had to engage in: they breathe heavily and their voice can easily become too loud.’ (138)[45]

Not that Nietzsche himself would ever have associated his own hyperbole with any such fight or struggle – and so nor with any such heavy-breathing or loudness in work by, say, Goethe or Beethoven. Just why he would not have – for what reason or reasons he in fact never did associate these – must remain for me a matter of mere conjecture. Perhaps Nietzsche preferred to believe that he was by now – at least when writing – above all such struggle. (My favorite entry in the late notebooks is where Nietzsche – by implication – disclaims all personal responsibility for his ever writing badly. “The absolute necessity of everything that happens contains no element of compulsion: to have thoroughly realized and felt that is to have reached a high degree of knowing. Such a belief does not give rise to forgiving and excusing – I strike though a sentence that has turned out badly just as I realize the necessity which made me write it badly, for the noise of a cart disturbed me – thus we strike through actions, possibly people, because they’ve turned out badly” [62, emphasis added].) Perhaps he did not see his own hyperbole as a type of rhetorical or even musical (so to speak) loudness – as rhetorical (or musical) shouting, as Nehamas would have it. (In this case, that man – Nehamas – would be wrong to cite “the fact that Nietzsche, as he very well knew, shouts” [Nietzsche 23, emphasis added]. Nietzsche did, however, see – or hear – his own writing, in general, if not his own thinking apart from writing, in musical terms. “[A]n instinct for rhythmic relations that spans wide expanses of forms,” as you’ll recall Nietzsche having described his own poetic or perhaps writerly inspiration; “the length, the need for a rhythm that spans wide distances” [Ecce Homo 127, emphasis original]. In a letter from October 1887, moreover, he wrote: “[T]here has never been a philosopher who has been in essence a musician to such an extent as I am.”) And perhaps the main emotion, or the main “affect,” as the psychologist Silvan Tomkins (1911–1991) would have it, that Nietzsche felt when writing, and when writing hyperbole in particular, as well as the main one that when doing so he felt himself to express directly, had no connection – or at least none of which the man was aware – with any struggle that was no doubt still occurring elsewhere in his otherwise miserable life; that affect, of course, is joy. (Joy, or enjoyment, according to Tomkins, is an “affect,” not an emotion – something more natural than cultural, more physical – or visceral – than mental. “A delight whose incredible tension sometimes triggers a burst of tears, sometimes automatically hurries your pace and sometimes slows it down;” as you will also recall Nietzsche having described his inspiration, “a perfect state of being outside yourself, with the most distinct consciousness of a host of subtle shudders and shiverings down to the tips of your toes; a profound joy where the bleakest and most painful things do not have the character of opposites, but instead act as its conditions, as welcome components, as necessary shades within this short of excess of light” [Ecce Homo 126–27, emphases original {in italics} and also now added {in bold as well}]. Other such “affects” are interest, surprise, distress, shame, fear, anger, disgust, and “dissmell” or reaction to stench. For Tomkins, interest and enjoyment are positive, surprise is neutral, and the rest are negative. Disciplines other than psychology, I’m afraid, or rather I’m just disgusted to say, define “affect” differently.)[46] “The highest and most illustrious human joys, in which existence celebrates its own transfiguration, are reached, as is just, only by the rarest and best-formed men,” writes Nietzsche in another late notebook entry: “and even by these only after they and their forebears have led long, preparatory lives toward this goal, without even knowing of the goal.”

‘Then, within one man an overflowing of wealth of the most diverse forces lives amicably alongside the most agile power of a “free willing” and of lordly decree; then the spirit feels just as comfortable and at home in the senses as the senses feel at home and comfortable in the spirit; and anything which occurs only in the spirit must call forth a subtle, extraordinary happiness and play in the senses. And just the same in reverse!’ (48)

“And just the same in reverse!” And just the same in reverse!! AND JUST THE SAME IN REVERSE!!!

We’ll stop shouting now.



(5) Monsieur Bonbon

I first heard of Joseph Cornell (1903–1972) from the rather brilliant second book by a rather brilliant, brotherly, Doppelgänger-like, and also by now long-term friend of mine. The book is The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire (1993). Its author, Wayne Koestenbaum (1958–?).[47] Cornell was the so-called outsider and, in fact, rather eccentric visual artist who while most famous, as I would only later discover, for such very beautiful and at times disturbing shadow-box assemblages (to use the French term) as Medici Slot Machine (1942) and Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall) (1945–46), all done during a rather long middle period of his career, had also done, during both early and late periods, and in addition to some short films and occasional criticism, a lot of collage work.

Early collage by Cornell is only ever in black and white; late collage by him is in color. All the collage, though, is both Romantic (in the most general sense of the term as it is applied to artwork) and Symbolist, as well as quite deliberately and yet, at least to anyone other than the artist himself, only ever obscurely autobiographical.[48] (By Romantic, here, I mean the situation of intense emotion – as opposed to that of classical reason – as the most authentic source of aesthetic experience. Such Romanticism first arose in the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-centuries. Charles Rosen [1927–2012], as you may recall from the chapter “Wunderlicher Alter,” has said that “the simplest way to summarize classical form is as the symmetrical resolution of opposing forces” [The Classical Style 83]; he offers no such short definition of Romantic form. By Symbolist, I mean the late-nineteenth-century idea – which opposed mid-nineteenth-century Realism – that art should represent only absolute truth and also that such representation should be indirect or in other words allusive, associative, and quite possibly replete with what the poet Charles Baudelaire [1821–1867] had called [in French]: correspondances. The English word for this is the cognate: correspondences.) So too is all of the shadow-box work by Cornell both Romantic and Symbolist – although this work subdivides, not so neatly, into: (1) a somewhat Surrealist period; (2) a somewhat Neo-Romanticist period; and (3) a somewhat Abstract Expressionist one. I say “somewhat” here, much as I said “eccentric” above, because Cornell never considered himself – despite his having known in person, and had his own artwork appreciated by, leading figures within all three of those movements – to be a full-fledged member of any of them. He did, though, consider himself both Romantic and Symbolist.[49]

“Collage is a technique that gay artists have found useful,” writes my friend Wayne in The Queen’s Throat: “Joseph Cornell’s homages to ballerinas, Robert Mapplethorpe’s pasteups based on 1950s soft-core male physique magazines, Robert Rauschenberg’s assemblages, incorporating autobiography and history” (64). (Robert Mapplethorpe: 1946–1989; Robert Rauschenberg: 1925–2008.) Those “ballerinas” were for the most part, as I also later discovered, a few long-dead stars of early-nineteenth-century ballet (Romantic Ballet), including Marie Taglioni (1804–1884) and Fanny Cerrito (1817–1909), and hence, if only to Cornell, just some very special and also very young women whom that by now no longer young man, Cornell, could never have gotten to see dance onstage – let alone to know at all in person.[50] (The man had also loved some opera stars from back then, including Giuditta Pasta [1797–1865] and Maria Malibran [1808–1836].) These homages of his, moreover, as well as any such thing that one can sense in the shadow-box work, can also – more accurately – be called attempts to reclaim aesthetically and also to preserve, perhaps for all eternity (or “eterniday,” to use Cornell’s own rather oddball and pretentious term), some fragile moment of the by now all-too-distant past.[51] (Métaphysique d’éphemera is another – and more typically French – such term that he himself used. Cornell, notwithstanding both a pretty weak grasp of the language, French, and the fact that he never travelled to the country from which it arose, France, or for that matter to any country outside the United States of America, which is his own native land, was quite the Francophile.) Cornell, though, no matter how female- or even female-star-identified he may have been, and no matter how frightened by the adult female body he must have been, and also no matter what his devotion to such stereotypically feminine (not to mention nineteenth-century) art forms as collage work and shadow-box assemblage, was not – no matter what Wayne must have thought while writing that second book of his – at all gay.[52] (Cornell, in other words, was more of a Count Bassano type, to invoke that doomed character from the Fellini film, And the Ship Sails On [1983], than he was a stereotypical “opera queen” or for that matter balletomane.) He was a lifelong bachelor, not to mention celibate, who both loved and – unbeknownst to Cornell himself, I’d imagine – lusted after a great number of for the most part very young girls.[53] Nymphets, as he would sometimes – in private writing – call such creatures. (This of course sounds rather like a certain non-celibate and hence even more clearly pedophilic – and also Francophilic and also quite fluently Francophone – character: the fictional and also French-born “Humbert Humbert” who, as a kind of hyper-literary confession as well as a seemingly heartfelt and therefore somewhat sentimental love letter, in her own native tongue, English, to the conceived-in-Mexico but American-born and also all-American nymphet, Dolores Haze, also known to him, oddly, by the basically Spanish nickname “Lolita,” we are to imagine wrote the novel also called Lolita [1955] and whom its real author, the Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov [1899–1977], does at least have narrate the thing. This narrator, incidentally, Humbert Humbert, was born – according to Lolita – not only in Paris, France, but also in the very same year, 1910, as was – in reality – the much younger and unfortunately quite disabled brother, Robert, of Joseph Cornell. [Robert Cornell: 1910–1965.] It sounds, too, rather unlike the character “Honoré Lachaille” as played by Maurice Chevalier [1888–1972] – Monsieur “They-Grow-Up-in-the-Most-Delightful-Way” – in the film Gigi [1958].) Cornell lusted as well – perhaps “beknownst” to him – after at least a few still-very-young women. But those creatures, too, like the young girls, must have seemed to him – or to sentimental Cornell – still quite childlike, which is to say innocent. (By sentimental, here, I am thinking of a definition – in a novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald – that I’ll be getting to in just a bit.) And at least two of them – Tamara Toumanova (1919–1996) and Allegra Kent (1937–?) – were, as it happens, ballerinas. Those two, moreover, Cornell did get to see onstage and also – if only for a short period of time and to the very limited extent enabled or rather disabled by Cornell’s rather oddball and also, it seems to me, sociopathic personality – to know. The man had no lifelong or even just long-term friends, let alone any lovers. He did, though, have that brother of his.

I next heard about Cornell while researching one of my own books, Neatness Counts: Essays on the Writer’s Desk (2004) – a study of various famous writers’ workspace and of ways in which such space relates to the work that they produced there. One such writer is the poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979). Bishop, who only ever had a very messy workspace and yet whose rather brilliant poetry, in its final form, is anything but messy, simply loved – as I discovered back then – the perhaps equally poetic work of Cornell. (To be honest, though, Bishop didn’t always do her best work in such a workspace; she would sometimes do it, she said, while standing up in the kitchen in the middle of the night – or even at a bar.)[54] Cornell’s workspace – the dining room and then the kitchen tables, at first, and then an entire basement – was, as I later discovered, equally messy. The man, quite clearly, was both an obsessive collector and a rather bad hoarder. And the house he shared, for many, many years, not only with his brother, Robert, but also with his early widowed and, I take it, rather awful mother, Helen, was far too small for all that. The long-dead father, Joseph Sr., had died when their older son, Joseph, was only fourteen years old and the younger one, Robert, only seven. (This left Joseph, as a father figure, to more or less parent poor little Robert.)[55] This house was in Queens, New York, on Utopia Parkway in Flushing there, and as it happens just about three miles from where, on Pompeii Avenue in Holliswood, I myself, along with both parents and four older siblings, three of them much, much older than I am, and one of them – now long-dead – only two years older, first lived. (The dead one is my brother, Steve [1957–1979].) Those three, incidentally – Joseph, Robert, and Helen – had not only Helen’s (and also Joseph Sr.’s) two daughters, named Elizabeth (or “Betty”) and yet another Helen, both of whom were born in between the two boys, also living with them; they had her father, an only recently widowed Howard Storms, there as well – until, that is, those girls got married and moved further out on Long Island and then this grandfather of theirs died. Cornell, incidentally, may well have taken some bicycle rides past what would only later – just before I myself was born – become our house; he was quite fond, throughout the 1940s, of taking such trips around there.[56] If only, I have sometimes wished, we had lived much closer to Cornell; I could have been one those seemingly innocent but in reality rather knowing neighborhood kids to whom – out of affection for children (or perhaps for childishness) in general and for (as I’ve said) girl children in particular – he would sometimes give artwork. Then again, I’ve thought, I myself would have to have been a girl for this to happen.

Bishop, at any rate, is perhaps most famous for having written, very late in life, the villanelle called “One Art” (1976). The art here is what the poet calls that of losing. The poem is, even for her, exceptionally brilliant. It is also, for her, unusually autobiographical – or confessional. (It is about Bishop having lost, amongst other less important things, “three loved houses.” It is also about her being afraid that she’ll lose the very latest and as it turned out last one of three long-term lovers – Alice Methfessel [1943–2009].) Like everything she wrote, though, or at least ever finished writing and then had published, the thing is not at all sentimental. (“The ethic of this poet,” writes the poet Edward Hirsch [1950–?] about “One Art” and about Bishop’s work in general, “is never to overstate the nature of the feeling, to be as precise as possible about the possible impact of loss” [35].) But as I also discovered while researching Neatness Counts, and even more to the point of this last chapter of mine here, by the time Bishop finished “One Art,” she had already translated, into English, a rather less brilliant poem about Cornell – or rather about his own most famous type of work: all those shadow boxes that he made. This poem, called “Objects and Apparitions” (1974), had been written by its original author, the Mexican-born Octavio Paz (1914–1998), in his own native tongue, Spanish – a language that, unlike both English and Portuguese, Bishop did not know at all well. (Bishop, unlike Cornell, travelled a lot. She even, for many years, lived with the first one of those three lovers – Lota de Macedo Soares [1910–1967] – in both Rio de Janeiro and Petropolis, Brazil.) And it, too, is not at all sentimental:

‘Hexahedrons of wood and glass, / scarcely bigger than a shoebox, / with room in them for night and all its lights. // Monuments to every moment, / refuse of every moment, used: / cages for infinity. // Marbles, buttons, thimbles, dice, / pins, stamps, and glass beads: /
tales of the time. // Memory weaves, unweaves the echoes: / in the four corners of the box / shadowless ladies play at hide-and-seek. // Fire buried in the mirror, / water sleeping in the agate: / solos of Jenny Colonne and Jenny Lind. // “One has to commit a painting,” said Degas, / “the way one commits a crime.” But you constructed / boxes where things hurry away from their names. // Slot machine of visions, / condensation flask for conversations, / hotel of crickets and constellations. // Minimal, incoherent fragments / the opposite of History, creator of ruins, / out of your ruins you have made creations. // Theater of the spirits: / objects putting the laws / of identity through hoops. // “Grand Hotel de la Couronne”: in a vial, / the three of clubs and, very surprised, / Thumbelina in gardens of reflection. // A comb is a harp strummed by the glance / of a little girl / born dumb. // The reflector of the inner eye / scatters the spectacle: / God all alone above an extinct world. // The apparitions are manifest, / their bodies weigh less than light, / lasting as long as this phrase lasts. // Joseph Cornell: inside your boxes / my words became visible for a moment.’ (In Ashton 117–18)[57]

Bishop herself, moreover, as I also discovered back then, had already – and in homage to Cornell – made one or two such boxes. As have I, not that long ago. I have most recently, though, done some collage work. (Like Cornell himself, I am unable to draw; I will have more to say about that inability of his in just a bit. Bishop, though, did draw well.) These collages of mine represent dreams that I can well imagine any number of friends of mine, including Wayne, may have had. (See: All of them – like late-period such work by Cornell – are in color. Some of them – like almost any-period work of his – are, I must confess, somewhat sentimental. But unlike all that work of his, these ones – of mine – are deliberately so.

I first saw some shadow boxes made by Cornell – saw in person, that is, as opposed to as photographs – about two years after writing Neatness Counts and so about twelve years after reading The Queen’s Throat. This was at the Art Institute of Chicago, which in its permanent collection has quite a lot of them. These include: Untitled (For Tamara Toumanova) (circa 1940), which is both indigo blue and milky white; Homage to the Romantic Ballet (1942), in both blue and white; Soap Bubble Set (1948), in blue and white; Untitled (Sequestered Bower) (circa 1948), in amber yellow, apparently; Nouveaux Contes de Fées (New Fairy Tales) (1948), in blue and white; Cygne Crépusculaire (Twilight Swan) (1949), in blue and white; Untitled (Lighted Dancer) (circa 1949), in blue alone; Untitled (Hôtel du Nord) (1950), in blue and white; and Dovecote (Colombier) (1950), in white alone.

My reaction there was threefold. I thought, first of all, that by the only two definitions of art to which I have ever really subscribed, these are in fact art-works. Both definitions are by Nabokov. One comes from a lecture that he gave at – it just so happens – Cornell University: “Beauty plus pity – that is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the individual” (“Franz Kafka” 251, italics original). The other definition – by Nabokov – is really an inference drawn – by me – from a line very near the end of Lolita. Humbert Humbert, here, mentions “the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art” (283). All artwork can ever really do, I inferred from this, is to ease the pain – but not cure some figurative disease and nor undo some literal trauma that may have caused the pain – of its consumers as well as of its producer. Humbert Humbert, for instance, is at this late point in the novel both literally and figuratively heartsick; he now knows, both full well and quite painfully, not only that he has truly loved Lolita but also that he has lost her. Unbeknownst to him, moreover, he will soon die – at only forty-two years of age – of a heart attack. And yet the writing of Lolita – by this narrator, supposedly – has at least, one imagines, palliated the heartbreak.

Second of all, I thought there, these shadow boxes are not just beautiful. They are, as I have already mentioned, very beautiful. But one of them, as I have mentioned as well, is also disturbing. Sequestered Bower features a naked and therefore clearly pubescent female doll, bound at the waist within some sort of rough-hewn prison while also, somehow, seemingly preserved in amber. This is because we gaze into this box, and then into the eyes of the doll here, through amber-yellow-colored glass. The doll herself gazes out of it through the same amber-yellow-colored glass. But of course, being a doll, she does so quite blankly and therefore does not look back into our eyes.[58] She is an apparently brainless – or perhaps deliberately “out of it” – and therefore unfazed victim of some sexual and probably violent assault that, one imagines, can only ever be about to happen.

I thought, third of all, that all of those shadow boxes – at the Art Institute – are somewhat sad.[59] For despite the extreme beauty of these representations of either (1) the youthful beauty of, say, some ballet performance by Marie Taglioni (a performance that can only have been imagined by Cornell, because all such performances were done before films of them could have been made just as opera at the time could not have been recorded) or (2) the youthful beauty of, say, Taglioni herself (of which, likewise, there can now exist no photographs or even daguerreotypes and the image of which came down to Cornell in only some rather vague lithographs) – and such representations, as I have mentioned, are quite clearly both Romantic and Symbolist ones, with Homage to the Romantic Ballet, for instance, having ice cubes represent, or correspond to, some jewelry – neither one of these two kinds of youthful beauty (now that it was so long after, say, this particular ballerina, Taglioni, had become so old, and also, one imagines, so very ugly, so pitifully ugly, and then, at the age of eighty, had finally died) could ever have been reclaimed by Cornell (or for that matter by any artist not alive to see such a person not only alive herself but also still in her prime) in a non-Symbolist which is to say Realist manner and then also been preserved by him. And Cornell himself, I thought, must have known or at least – on some level – sensed all this.

I myself, though, did not yet sense – while at the Art Institute – that almost all those shadow boxes are both Romantic and somewhat sentimental. (I am not that interested, I should now confess, in any artwork by Cornell for its Symbolism, nor for its Surrealism, Neo-Romanticism, or Abstract Expressionism. Nor am I that interested, beyond such work, in the man’s pedophilia, nor in his Francophilia, nor in his sociopathology.) Romanticism, of course, has any number of definitions – to some of which I subscribe – other than the situation of intense emotion as the most authentic source of aesthetic experience. But the one such other definition most relevant here – in this discussion of Cornell – comes from very near the end of the rather brilliant and also very first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940). (Note that Fitzgerald here does not capitalize the word “romantic.” And nor shall I myself do so from now on, in order to distinguish such romanticism from Romanticism.) The young and beautiful Eleanor Savage, at this point, has just accused the protagonist, the young and handsome Amory Blaine, of sentimentality. He responds to her: “I’m not sentimental – I’m as romantic as you are. The idea, you know, is that the sentimental person thinks things will last – the romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won’t.” (209) Such a romantic, and not Romantic, person has in other words mastered what Elizabeth Bishop – in that villanelle of hers, “One Art” – called the “art of losing.” Such a sentimental person has not done so.

So, too, does sentimentality have any number of definitions, some of which appreciate it but most of which – or the more recent (by which I mean post-eighteenth-century) of which – do not. The ones most relevant here in this discussion – if only because Cornell neither wanted his artwork to be seen by others as at all sentimental nor ever really saw it that way himself – belong to the latter (by which I mean non-appreciative) group.[60] Sentimentality, say many non-appreciators of it, involves the inappropriate idealization of some person, place, or thing – or of even a past time period. It involves supposedly inauthentic or unwarranted feeling. It involves both self-indulgent and ostentatious display of such feeling. It is irrational. It is effeminate. And it is either old-fashioned or simply trite. Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), for instance, claimed that: “A sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” He, too, incidentally, was a Francophile. R.H. Blyth (1898–1964) – a Japanophile – claimed that: “We are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.”

The late, great critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950–2009), moreover, has noted both how queer or at least “gender-equivocal” (post-nineteenth-century) sentimentality can be and also how closely associated it often is with some voice from beyond or at least from nearly beyond the grave. “The gender-equivocal first person, or the impossible first person – such as the first person of someone dead or in process of dying – are common and, at least to me, peculiarly potent sentimental markers: my goose bumps, at any rate, are always poised for erection at ‘She walks these hills in a long black veil, / Visits my grave when the night winds wail,’ and my waterworks are always primed for ‘Rocky, I’ve never had to die before,’ or letters to Dear Abby purporting to be from seventeen-year-olds who were too young to die in that after-school car crash” (143).

I myself, as I have already mentioned with reference to my own collage work, am not always non-appreciative of sentimentality. (I do realize that this book, at least up until that reference, may well have given readers the false impression that I am. I can recall in my first chapter, for instance, having described “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” – the old vaudeville number in the film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? – as very sentimental. This description was not meant, as you must have inferred, to be a compliment.) By this, though, I do not mean that I can appreciate the trite, effeminate, irrational, ostentatious, or self-indulgent display of unwarranted or inauthentic feeling. Nor do I mean that I idealize stuff – not even that one brother, Steve, whom I lost. Nor do I mean, to quote Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise, that I “think things will last.” I mean, merely, that I do appreciate tenderness where it is both warranted and authentic – perhaps especially where I either know or sense that it will not be seen as such by many other people. Or I appreciate the at least somewhat limited expression of tenderness. I appreciate it, that is, where it is considerably offset – and even almost overpowered – by either an excessive rationality or a good sense of humor. (Cornell, by the way, had no such sense of humor. He could not be funny in life – where it would be more accurate, I think, to say that he was lugubrious – and so perhaps nor could he be in his artwork.)[61] I myself, in other words, am not now and nor have I ever been much like what I imagine the Egyptian-born poet Constantine Cavafy (1863–1933) to have been in later life. And nor has my own published work ever been much like work that Cavafy did then – or, for that matter, much like any finalized and then published work by Bishop. By the age of forty, the man had lost almost all of his family – including two brothers – as well as most of his friends. And yet … or, perhaps, and therefore his poetry, at this point, became thoroughly anti-sentimental and, as such, became, for many critics, quintessentially Modernist. This is perhaps most clearly seen in one particular revision that he did.[62] At age thirty, Cafavy wrote a thoroughly sentimental and therefore pre-Modernist work that he called “Sweet Voices.”

‘Those voices are the sweeter which have fallen / forever silent, mournfully / resounding only in the heart that sorrows. // In dreams the melancholic voices come, / timorous and humble, / and bring before our feeble memory // the precious dead, whom the cold cold earth / conceals; for whom the mirthful / daybreak never shines, nor springtimes blossom. // Melodious voices sigh; and in the soul / our life’s first poetry / sounds – like music, in the night, that’s far away.’ (In Mendelsohn 79)

After forty, Cavafy not only both shortened and thoroughly de-sentimentalized this work. He now called it simply – and note the omission here of that quintessentially sentimental word sweet – “Voices.”

‘Imagined voices, and beloved, too, / of those who died, or of those who are / lost unto us like the dead. // Sometimes in our dreams they speak to us; / sometimes in its thought the mind will hear them. // And with their sound for a moment there return / sounds from the first poetry of our life – / like music, in the night, far off, that fades away.’ (Ibid. 80)[63]

I am instead much more like the Modernists Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) and J.D. Salinger (1919–2012). Woolf, for instance, ends the hyper-rational and otherwise utterly unsentimental novel Jacob’s Room (1922) by having Richard Bonamy, a decidedly gay character based on the decidedly gay writer Lytton Strachey, left alone in that suddenly empty and also eponymous room with the mother of his friend Jacob (a decidedly non-gay character based on the author’s decidedly non-gay and by then dead brother, Thoby) and unable to answer the poor woman when, holding out to him a pair of her by now dead son’s empty shoes, she asks that suddenly sentimental and in fact unanswerable question: “What am I to do with these, Mr. Bonamy?” (176). Salinger, for another instance, in the rather funny and otherwise unsentimental novella Zooey (1957), has a depressed and probably pregnant character, young Franny Glass, make the suddenly sentimental and in fact impossible demand of her somewhat older and also eponymous brother, Zooey Glass, that he call their even older and by now dead brother, Seymour, for her.

‘“Do you want me to try to get [their not quite that much older brother] Buddy on the phone for you tonight?” he asked. “I think you should talk to somebody – I’m no damn good for this.” He waited, looking at her steadily. “Franny. What about it?”

Franny’s head was bowed. She appeared to be searching for fleas in [their pet cat] Bloomberg’s coat, her fingers very busy indeed turning back tufts of fur. She was in fact crying now, but in a very local sort of way, as it were; there were tears but no sounds. Zooey watched her for a full minute or so, then said, not precisely kindly, but without importuning, “Franny. What about it? Shall I try to get Buddy on the phone?”

She shook her head, without raising it. She went on searching for fleas. Then, after an interval, she did reply to Zooey’s question, but not very audibly.

“What?” Zooey asked.

Franny repeated her statement. “I want to talk to Seymour,” she said.’ (149–50, emphases original)

Salinger, incidentally, often liked to quote R.H. Blyth on sentimentality. Or rather he liked having Seymour – in the novella Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (1955) – do so in private writing:

‘“We got passes, till midnight after the parade. I met Muriel at the Biltmore at seven. Two drinks, two drugstore tuna-fish sandwiches, then a movie she wanted to see, something with Greer Garson [1904–1996] in it. I looked at her several times in the dark when Greer Garson’s son’s plane was missing in action. Her mouth was opened. Absorbed, worried. The identification with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer tragedy complete. I felt awe and happiness. How I love and need her undiscriminating heart. She looked over at me when the children in the picture brought in the kitten to show to their mother. M. loved the kitten and wanted me to love it. Even in the dark, I could sense that she felt the usual estrangement from me when I don’t automatically love what she loves. Later, when we were having a drink at the station, she asked me if I didn’t think that kitten was ‘rather nice.’ She doesn’t use the word ‘cute’ any more. When did I ever frighten her out of her normal vocabulary? Bore that I am, I mentioned R. H. Blyth’s definition of sentimentality: that we are being sentimental when we give to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it. I said (sententiously?) that God undoubtedly loves kittens, but not, in all probability, with Technicolor bootees on their paws. He leaves that creative touch to script writers. M. thought this over, seemed to agree with me, but the ‘knowledge’ wasn’t too very welcome. She sat stirring her drink and feeling unclose to me. She worries over the way her love for me comes and goes, appears and disappears. She doubts its reality simply because it isn’t as steadily pleasurable as a kitten. God knows it is sad. The human voice conspires to desecrate everything on earth.”’ (77–78, emphasis original)

Tenderness for me, I suppose I should now explain, pretty much means – just as it seems to have meant this for both Seymour and Muriel – love. (This should explain why even in print, and also in digital publication, I have often misremembered and therefore misquoted that definition by Blyth.)[64] And I just happen, to quote the Queens-born girl group The Exciters (1961–1974) in that by now old-fashioned hit song called “Tell Him” (1962), to know something about love – or at least about nineteenth- and also twentieth-century love.[65] I know, too, a thing or two, as I have already implied, about losing a brother – or at least a somewhat older (by two years) and rather insanely beloved brother.[66]


I shall now, ladies and gentlemen, discuss six artworks by Cornell. The first two are early period and rather obscure collages made at some point in the 1930s. (It can be very hard and at times impossible to date almost all such work – the shadow boxes in particular – with any precision. Cornell almost never inscribed work with specific years, in large part because he would often redo seemingly finished pieces – boxes in particular – over a period of many years and at times even decades and even then not deem them done.) The next two artworks are middle period and rather famous shadow boxes, already mentioned in the first paragraph of this chapter. The final two are late-period collages made after the deaths of Cornell’s not-so-insanely beloved and quite unfortunately disabled brother, Robert, in 1965 and then just one year later that of his mother. In doing so, I will discuss both style and substance – as I myself along with several art critics see the two – with the hope of understanding how Cornell, no doubt inadvertently but even so as an artist, may or may not have become either more (if not less) romantic, in the sense meant by Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise, or more (if not less) sentimental over time. (These art critics – with one significant exception – will be mentioned only in footnotes.) I will discuss both style and substance, too, with the perhaps related hope of understanding – to invoke once again the novelist J.M. Coetzee (1940–?), whom I already quoted on this in “Wunderlicher Alter” – if he ever changed or rather if he finally did change his approach, if not his answers, in artwork, to questions of life and death.

I have already mentioned Cornell’s thing for – that is to say his love of and also idealization of – both young girls and girlish young women. He had a related thing for birds as well and for pigeons in particular.[67] (Much to his mother’s chagrin, the man fed all sorts of birds in their backyard – sparrows in particular – and would watch these for hours at a time while either standing at the kitchen window or seated under a much beloved quince tree, which had been planted as a mere sapling by that mother, out back. Her chagrin stemmed from the fact that the mess involved in all this bird feeding had ruined the lawn. Cornell, while searching or perhaps scrounging for stuff that he could use someday in artwork, would watch pigeons all throughout New York City – but in Manhattan in particular. He would also sometimes have young male assistants film such birds over there. Young female assistants worked for Cornell only at home.)[68] He saw the two of them – both girls and birds – as purely spiritual and therefore almost disembodied. (He was therefore especially drawn – think back now to the box called Cygne Crépusculaire [Twilight Swan] and shown the Art Institute – to bird roles that a ballerina might perform, roles such as Odette, the White Swan, along with her Doppelgänger Odile, the Black Swan, in the ballet Swan Lake [1877] with music by Tchaikovsky.)[69] As non-human as well as rather endearing creatures, though, all these birds were even more childlike and also rather pet-like to Cornell than were either young girls or girlish young women. They were seemingly vulnerable creatures, even when fully grown, in need of both constant care and supervision and also a nurturing environment – or so Cornell imagined. As such – I myself have come to realize although to my knowledge no art critic has ever done so – both birds and other such animals were, for Cornell, a lot like his brother Robert. Robert’s disability – which was cerebral palsy – had left him, ever since infancy, with both extremely limited mobility and tremendously impaired speech. It left him, as well, with a very sweet, sunny, sociable, and therefore childlike – by which I mean also doglike – disposition.[70]

Joseph Cornell, as you will have inferred by now, had no such disposition. He did, however, retain throughout his life the eating habits of a child – or at least those of an unsupervised one. For if left to his own devices (which he pretty much was when away from home to scrounge for stuff and also which he could be even when at home, after his mother was no longer living there with him), Cornell would eat only very sweet things – things like day-old pastry, automat pie, and candy. This of course was just terrible for his physical wellbeing. (He cannot be said to have ever flourished in that way. One is reminded of what Alexander Nehamas, in an interview, said of Nietzsche [and eudaimonia]: “The question is not, ‘Was Nietzsche’s life apart from his work “good,” would you like to have had his migraines, and his near-sightedness, and his disappointments, and so on?’ Well, of course not! Who in his right mind would want just the headaches and to vomit all the time and not to see where one is going? The question, really, is ‘Were all the miseries justified and transformed through the work, does the whole constitute a worthwhile life, a life with significance?’” [“On the Philosophical Life” 153]). But then Cornell – unlike that mother of his and also his sister Helen – was an almost lifelong Christian Scientist who did not much believe in taking any care of or in even the reality of his own body.

The first of the two early-period and also untitled collages that I will discuss shows, in black and white and also with the utmost sentimentality, four birds and a girl.


It is a very bleak scene set in winter; the by now completely bare branches of a very small tree, along with the ground below them, are covered in both ice and snow; heavy snow continues to fall. The girl – or perhaps it’s just some statue of a girl – occupies the first plane that we can see. She is very poorly dressed for such bad weather and so, gazing down and out past the viewer, looks miserable. She reminds us, or at least she reminds me, of the little match girl in “The Little Match Girl” (1845) – a children’s story by Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875).[71] (Cornell, as it happens, loved such work by Andersen – as well as some collage work that the Danish master did.) Both girls – the one in the Cornell collage and the one in that Andersen story – are about the same age and both, I think, must be freezing to death. Just behind this girl, or statue, and perched on some kind of gate before a rather nice house, are two pigeons. These pigeons look away from the viewer and up at a very dark door to the house, in front of which door the snowfall can be seen most clearly. This snow here seems star-like. (The perspective within the collage is linear perspective, although with no clear vanishing point.) The door behind this snow occupies the distant plane. Just below the pigeons, scrounging around on the ground, are two sparrows. These sparrows are in search, presumably, of something to eat. We might also presume, as Cornell must have, that all four birds, too, are freezing to death and that they too, like the girl, must long to get inside such a nice, warm house – the kind of house, that is, that both the budding artist (but also family breadwinner) and his mother had already begun to keep, although on a far more modest scale, for Robert et al.

Both pigeons and sparrows, though, as species, do just fine outdoors in the wintertime – as long as there’s food.

I say “with the utmost sentimentality” because the collage here is if not quite irrational, then a both trite and effeminate display of if not inauthentic then at least unwarranted feeling. (It is, though, given what I have just revealed about both pigeons and sparrows in wintertime, at least – unbeknownst to Cornell – somewhat irrational.) The collage is trite because the images used by Cornell derive from nineteenth-century engraving. It is effeminate both because collage per se is as I have already mentioned a pretty girly or rather it’s a stereotypically feminine art form and because the dying girl – or perhaps statue – in this collage, who is the only figure shown in it to nearly meet our gaze, quite dominates the scene. The feeling displayed is unwarranted both because – once again – of what I have just revealed about such birds in wintertime and because that dying girl may well be just a statue. I say “with the utmost sentimentality,” too, because the image of the girl – or statue – is idealized. Just look at those enormous, neotenic eyes of hers and at that classically beautiful face. And I say it because to once again invoke Amory Blaine, Cornell here seems to think that the girl’s awful – by which I also mean rather maudlin – suffering will last forever.[72] That is why he chose to use what does seem to me to be, upon due consideration, an image of the statue of a girl. It is somewhat irrational, moreover, to think that a real girl wearing so little clothing would be outdoors in such bad weather – or that a real girl outdoors then would wear so few clothes. Not in such a nice, rich neighborhood, at any rate. That kind of thing, I’m told, happens only in children’s stories or in fairy tales. I do not say, though, that there is anything very romantic – as that term is used by Amory Blaine – about this artwork. Cornell shows no signs of having yet mastered – in this or for that matter in any early-period work – the “art of losing.” Nor had he yet shown such signs in real life itself. And so nor did it seem that he would ever show them anywhere.[73]

The second untitled and early-period collage shows two birds and some kind of wizard. Or maybe he’s a magician. The birds, though, are definitely bowerbirds. They are Great Bowerbirds, to be precise.


The collage is in black and white, once again. It, too, like the first one I have discussed, is not at all romantic. Unlike that first one, though, this collage is not at all sentimental. It is a springtime scene this time. The wizard, or magician, occupies the first plane as with his wand he indicates, to the female bird standing just behind him, that a humidity chart – it’s in French, this chart, but uses Arabic numerals – is registering a six out of ten. (“Ten” there would also be “très-humide” very humid, or sultry.) This bird seems to be gazing at that humidity chart with him. (Whereas the perspective is still linear here, with once again no clear vanishing point, the scale is now way off – or unrealistic – because that wizard-magician is tiny. The man is not much taller than either bird being shown.) But had Cornell, using the seamless cut-and-paste method that he had by now perfected, not imposed the wizard-magician on top of the female bird and had he not also interposed the chart in between her and the male bird – who stands (perhaps sequestered) just within the avenue-type bower that he must have spent nearly all of his time all year long first constructing out of sticks thatched together, and also decorating it with snail shells, stones, leaves, and other objects of various sizes, which objects he so obsessively collects, and then also defending it from other male bowerbirds in the neighborhood, and also maintaining it, and also displaying himself there to any and all female bowerbirds in the neighborhood – she would be gazing, instead, at him. And he, the male bird, would without that interposition also be gazing at her. (Unlike with pigeons, a species in which both males and females brood and then co-parent nestlings, only female bowerbirds – using nests that they themselves, without help from males, have had to construct – do all this work. The bowers made by males may look to us like nests, but they are not. They are for courtship and hopefully sex purposes only. As such, they are an example of what is called, by naturalists, the “transfer effect” – or the transfer of sexual selection from morphological characters to external objects.[74] An avenue-type bower, as opposed to the hut-like bower made by other kinds of bowerbird than the Great Bowerbird, is in reality, although this is not shown in the otherwise realistic old engraving that Cornell used for this collage, always placed beneath a live and also leafy tree branch.)

This collage, unlike the sentimental one with pigeons, must have been meant by Cornell to be at least somewhat humorous. It is not. It is, at best, whimsical. What’s so funny, after all, about someone coming in between – in any way – any two potential lovers who look to be well matched? What on earth does it mean, moreover, for it to be too humid – if not too sultry – for the two of them to have sex? Unless of course that wizard/magician is also suggesting to the female bird that this particular potential lover is only a mere six on the scale of sexual selection – and so she should just move along and look for some better one.

Did Cornell, I have wondered, identify on either a conscious or unconscious level with any of these three: female bowerbird, male bowerbird, and wizard/magician? I cannot imagine now, notwithstanding the extent to which the man may have been female-identified, that he identified on either level with this one particular – or for that matter with any particular and also uncaged – female bird. For as a female-identified straight man who associated birds in general with the women and also the girls he found attractive, Cornell was much more likely to identify with this particular male bird, who is trying ever so hard – or perhaps so desperately hard, due to what the wizard-magician here is doing – to get the female’s attention. (Cornell, much like Nietzsche, was no ladies’ man in real life. Most women aware of any sexual interest that Cornell had in them simply found him much too odd or even off-putting to ever enjoy such interest. A few women, though, didn’t mind his very clearly – and presumably platonically – being in love with them.)[75] The male bowerbird, in general, has a lot in common with Cornell the artist. Both of them are – or were – obsessive collectors, not to mention hoarders, of not only found natural objects like sticks and snail shells but also of art objects. Both of them make – or made – some very beautiful assemblages out of these things. (The travel writer Bruce Chatwin [1940–1989], incidentally – a married and very much closeted gay man who like Cornell was an obsessive collector, plus hoarder, and who also like Cornell liked to talk a lot – considered himself, quite consciously, to be a lot like various types of bird, including, in particular, the bowerbird.)[76] Both types of assemblage – bird bowers and Cornell artwork – might deploy the optical illusion that is also known as false perspective. (The male bowerbird, as can be seen in the collage, will sometimes arrange objects with all of the smallest ones just in front of and also behind him. Such arrangement makes it seem – to any female passersby but also to other male ones – that the bird is larger than he really is.) Both types of assemblage, moreover, serve for their creators the function of attracting possible mates. (Cornell would give artwork not only to those seemingly innocent girls in his neighborhood but also, if they happened not to be dead yet and he ever had the chance to know them in person, to the seemingly innocent young stars – including both Tamara Toumanova and Allegra Kent, who as I have mentioned were dancers, and also including the writer, plus closeted lesbian, Susan Sontag [1933–2004] – to whom such work had been devoted.) And both types of assemblage are – or were – in an almost constant state of revision. Or at least that’s true, for Cornell, with the shadow-box work; collage work is not that easy to re-work. Cornell did, though, do collage work – just as he did shadow-box work – in series.[77] With the boxes, for instance, there are the so-called Soap Bubble Sets, the Medici Slot Machine series, the Pink Palace series, the Hotel series, the Observatory series, the Habitat series, and, naturally enough, the Aviary and Dovecote series. The Aviary boxes tend to have a cockatoo (or two) in them.[78] The Dovecote or to use once again the French term, which of course Cornell himself preferred to do, Colombier boxes tend to have only either eggs or some abstract forms, such as cubes or spheres, representing either eggs or birds, unless of course these forms, as some art critics maintain, represent the absence here of any such avian thing; or they tend, like some unused or rather no longer used nest, or like Jacob’s room at the end of that novel by Woolf, to be quite empty.[79] Such emptiness can suggest, sentimentally – to once again invoke Amory Blaine (“the sentimental person thinks things will last”) – that whatever doves or perhaps pigeons used to be here have long since or perhaps only quite recently flown the coop; it can suggest, romantically – to continue with the invocation (“the romantic person has a desperate confidence that they won’t”) – that they have died.

Cornell may have identified, as well, with the wizard/magician in this collage. He had had, throughout childhood and then early adolescence, an obsessive, idealizing, and also – one assumes – self-constitutive interest in Harry Houdini (1874–1926), perhaps the most famous magician of the time.[80] He later, throughout the 1930s and then for the rest of his life, came to see all such magicians – much like Cornell himself now and even more so than he may have ever seen male bowerbirds – as both artists and illusionists. He also quite consciously came to see himself as practicing, in artwork, a kind of benevolent “white magic” – as opposed to the “black magic” of certain committed Surrealists that he knew.[81] And of course the magician here in this collage – at least from his, the magician’s, own perspective if not that of the male bowerbird – is being benevolent.

I’m not sure why this bird-sized wizard/magician – unlike that male bird – deploys no false perspective of his own to seem larger or at least taller than he is. Perhaps that’s part of what Cornell himself (at least) considered the humor – if not the ironic humor – of the work.[82] Or perhaps, being an untrained artist who like me never could draw very well and who therefore unlike me never even tried to draw anything, unlike brother Robert as well, who despite his limited mobility had at least some skill or some still childish skill or perhaps a so-called disability style as a draftsman and who even spent a fair amount of his rather unlimited time, every single day, ladies and gentlemen, drawing rabbits and other such creatures, which as you’ll see soon were often quite humorous, Cornell simply had nothing on hand that he could cut and paste so as to create, on behalf of the wizard/magician, this particular illusion.[83] (A “disability style,” to quote once again the musicologist Joseph Straus [1954–?], represents not some composer’s – or perhaps some visual artist’s – deteriorated but otherwise complete selfhood but rather the deterioration itself. In Requiem Canticles [1966] by Igor Stravinsky, for instance, Straus finds “a metaphorical recreation of physical disintegration, of a body fracturing and losing its organic wholeness” [14].)

Robert also, throughout his life, liked to play with trains.


Medici Slot Machine (1942) may well be Cornell’s most famous artwork. The series to which this shadow box belongs – the Medici Slot Machine series – is certainly the most famous of them.[84] This particular box, like all of the ones in its series, is far more classical in style than it is Romantic – at least insofar as it is almost perfectly balanced and symmetrical. (See the figure below. And while seeing that figure, recall the short definition by Charles Rosen of classical form: “the symmetrical resolution of opposing forces.”)


A large central figure is flanked by and also looms over some lesser-sized compartments. This figure is a monochrome reproduction of almost all of a full-length and also full-color oil (and also early-period) painting by Sofonisba Anguissola (circa 1532–1625), done in the middle of the sixteenth century (in 1557, to be precise). This painting, we now know, is of a nine-year-old and also (as seen here) neotenic-eyed Massimiliano Stampa, the third marquis of a very small city in Italy called Soncin. The two flanking compartments are filled for the most part with towers of some very small wooden cubes that might well be – or are at least suggestive of – some children’s blocks; these, though, are mostly covered not with letters of the alphabet plus related illustrations (with “g,” for instance, for giraffe and “z” for zebra) but with additional reproductions, taken from the same painting by Anguissola, of that nine-year-old’s face. This face of his, unlike that of either the nearly naked “little match girl” statue from the collage or the completely naked and not-so-young-looking female doll within Sequestered Bower, quite clearly gazes – while looking us square in the eye – back at us. His body, almost all of which can be seen in the central reproduction, is completely covered in mourning clothes – although it is not clear to me that Cornell would have known these clothes to be this. Four of five compartments below this reproduction contain for the most part some other toys: marbles, jacks, etc. They contain, in other words, some additional signs, apart from those possible children’s blocks above them, of an altogether happy childhood – or of a childhood that to Cornell’s clearly nostalgic and therefore rather unrealistic memory (or imagination) at least seems to have been happy.[85] The fifth and central one of these contains a compass. Both vertical and horizontal sightlines, painted on the glass pane that covers this shadow box, emphasize not only the symmetry of everything placed behind the glass but also the basic and therefore rather abstract grid pattern, or perhaps graph pattern, that – in addition to young Massimiliano, or to his particular childhood as imagined and also idealized by Cornell, or to childhood in general as imagined and also idealized by him – the box also represents. Two such lines cross one another – like the x-axis and the y-axis at the so-called origin of a graph – on the central or largest face of Massimiliano, just next to the nose. Another two cross on that of the compass, at its very center point. This grid pattern is emphasized as well by map fragments (showing some ancient palace ruins that still exist in modern-day Rome), which by surrounding the central reproduction divide it from those two cube-tower compartments on either side of it.

Of course, this shadow box suggests – in its Symbolism – more than just children’s blocks. As do all the ones in its series, it suggests the actual slot machines (or vending machines) that back in Cornell’s day used to be all throughout New York City. He claimed, in fact, that one such machine – a certain candy machine at a subway stop – had inspired the series. (Those cubes, therefore, may correspond – poetically – to both children’s blocks and chocolate bars; those marbles may correspond, I’d imagine, to gumballs.) It suggests, to some, Cornell himself as a clearly pre-pubescent boy.[86] It may even have suggested Cornell himself – as a supposedly happy boy – to Cornell himself. But in its sentimentality, the box may also have suggested to Cornell his brother as a happy boy. It may, moreover, have also suggested to Cornell this brother of his, Robert, as a grown-up. For here Robert is thoroughly idealized: he is not only still – or preternaturally – good-looking, in that girlish way of only pre-pubescent and even some early-adolescent boys; he is not only – as always – sweet, sunny, and sociable, in that gaze-meeting way that I have called both childlike and doglike (it is also, more generally, pet-like); he is not only quite pure and innocent, like some young girl or girlish young woman; he is also standing – it would seem – without anyone’s or even anything’s assistance. (In the oil painting done by Anguissola, it is clear that Massimiliano leans on a pedestal; in the reproduction used – and probably cropped – by Cornell, this cannot be seen.) He is no longer, mirabile dictu, disabled. And so the box may have suggested to Cornell both Robert and himself together: two sides of the same shiny and by necessity perfectly balanced coin; or better, mirror images of one another, with the one, Robert, both conceived of and idealized as the far better and yet still (via wishful thinking) symmetrical opposed alter ego (and perhaps Doppelgänger) of the other. To quote Brian O’Doherty (1928–?), the rather knowing (not to mention writerly) art critic and also once-upon-a-time (epistolary) correspondent of Cornell:

‘For most of his life, Cornell had beside him a living example of pure innocence, of which he was the solicitous guardian. His younger brother, Robert, was (to use Elizabeth Bowen’s phrase) detained in childhood. Here constantly at hand was innocence incarnate. Months after his brother’s death in 1965 another letter [from Cornell to O’Doherty] arrived: “To the end … he retained the pure joy of the child-mind although cruelly plagued.” Cornell guided his brother in his play (the famous toy trains), helped him draw, studied his whimsy, putting Cornell in the position of the experienced and worldly counselor. I believe the influence of his brother was profound; he provided a mirror in which Cornell saw the persona that would bear him safely into past time. His brother’s figure, dimly seen, accompanied Cornell on his journeys – a privileged double before whose innocence everything lay open. These two ghostly figures represent modalities of innocence and experience which together form not a body but a cluster of senses.

What kind of senses? Nostalgia’s idealized senses offer a convincing version of experience. They displace the present by reversing the flow of time to make the actual world appear unreal. The senses are particularly acute in childhood; so the fiction of innocence, when applied to the artificial time of nostalgia, gives the senses a sharpness that can piercingly isolate their object. Cornell’s conversation and work abound with such moments when the romantic vapors of nostalgia are sharply inscribed with a sensation – a passage of music recalled, a discarded photograph restored by a chance encounter, an actress’s face immobilized on memory’s screen. In this zone of sentimental reverie, the senses can conjure remote experience into fictions of extraordinary clarity. Cornell always had the madeleine at hand.’ (8)[87]

Or to quote the poet Stanley Kunitz (1905–2006), in a collage-poem that he wrote for Cornell:

‘To climb the belltower, / step after step, / in the grainy light, / without breathing harder; / to spy on each landing / a basket of gifts, / a snowbox of wonders: / oranges, plums, pieces / of colored glass, / a postcard from Niagara Falls, / balloons, the Southern Cross, / child Mozart at the clavichord, / or is it your twisted brother?’ (“The Crystal Cage” [1974], in Ashton 121)[88]

This shadow box, then, must have been meant by Cornell to be happy.[89] It, along with that title he chose, Medici Slot Machine, must also have been meant by him to be if not humorous, then at least – like Robert himself, oftentimes – whimsical. For it is whimsical to place – dead center – such an old artwork, the oil painting by Sofonisba Anguissola, within such a modern-day albeit transmogrified gizmo, just as it is to put the word “Medici” before the words “Slot Machine.” It is whimsical, moreover, to debase such a highbrow artwork as that painting by encasing – or by framing – it within something so basically commercial as that gizmo. (Think here of Marcel Duchamp [1887–1968] having drawn a mustache plus goatee upon an image of the Mona Lisa; or think of what Andy Warhol [1928–1987], using silkscreen, would later do to her.) But of course the box is at least as sad, for almost anyone other than Cornell, as it is happy. It is as at least as wistful for us, or for us grown-ups, as it is whimsical.[90] For in the two senses meant by Nabokov, it is both beautiful and pitiful. (“Beauty plus pity – that is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the individual.”) And in the two senses meant by Amory Blaine, it is both romantic and sentimental. Happy-childhood, here, is presented by Cornell – both thinking wishfully and feeling wishfully – as endless. We know, though, never to be that nostalgic – not even in artwork. Whose childhood, after all, was ever altogether happy? (Not Little Nell’s, certainly. Not Little Cor-nell’s, for that matter. Not that of the Little Match Girl. And certainly not that of both disabled and fatherless Little Robert.) We know, too, as adults with any number of burdens (like having had an awful mother and then continuing to live with her for the rest of her life, or like having had to care for a crippled, childlike, and beloved brother for all of his life but then losing him anyway, or like living all of your own life as celibate) and maybe even a tragedy or two to bear, that any sort of childhood ends. (My own such tragedy, incidentally, is that my brother Steve – accidentally – killed himself when only just twenty-one. [Had you already done the math?] I do think, though, or perhaps imagine, merely, that I have by now – finally – mastered the art of losing him. Or that I have in writing – like this – that I do.) This is probably why Cornell preferred showing and sometimes giving his artwork to kids. They, at least, or so he imagined, could not yet be saddened by it.

The untitled shadow box known as Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall (1945–46) is very similar in its classical style (or classical form) to Medici Slot Machine (1942). (This box is not considered by most art critics to be part of the Medici Slot Machine series. It should be, though.) The box, that is, is almost perfectly balanced and symmetrical, with a large central figure flanked by and also looming over some smaller-sized compartments. There is also another such compartment above it, situated in between two horizontal lines of even smaller portholes. Behind these portholes and also through that compartment, one can see, when this gizmo is operated, as it in fact can be, an amber-yellow-colored ball both crisscross and descend the thing.


Both vertical and horizontal sightlines, perfectly centered on the y-axis, divide that central figure in two places, with the horizontal lines placed just about where that amber-yellow-colored ball can also crisscross in front of it. The main color of the box, though, is not amber yellow. It is indigo blue. Indigo blue and amber yellow were Cornell’s two favorite colors. They dominate almost all of his shadow-box work, but most often do so, as here, in alternation with one another, with some boxes mostly blue and others mostly yellow. This was a self-conscious imitation of Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675), in whose paintings, however, these two colors are most often found together. Cornell, moreover, had painted his bedroom this dark a blue – in imitation not so much of Vermeer, perhaps, as of the starry night sky into which he would so often love to gaze.[91]

The central figure, though, is no longer almost all of an almost full-length oil painting of a nine-year-old boy: the by then – in 1942 – long since dead Massimiliano Stampa. It is just the face, in close-up, and as seen in a black and white and also very glamorous studio photograph, of the at that point – in 1945 or 1946 – up-and-coming film star, Lauren Bacall (1924–2014), taken when she was only just nineteen. (The look here is that very sultry look for which Bacall would soon become very famous. The at that point very recent film, in black and white, for which the photograph had been taken, in Hollywood, is To Have and Have Not [1944] – based on the 1937 novel by Ernest Hemingway. The studio that produced it was Warner Brothers.) Cornell, clearly, had a crush on as well as an attraction to Bacall.[92] But he never had the chance to know her at all in person. And so – much to this woman’s chagrin, much later on – she never got to be given the box by him.

The compartment above the central figure contains – in indigo blue and milky white, mainly – some mounted photographs, taken from various angles, of skyscrapers; these are not all set in the same plane and so the ball, as I have said, goes quite literally through the buildings. (After the colors indigo blue and amber yellow, Cornell most loved milky white. It dominates the Hotel, Aviary, and Dovecote series.)[93] Cornell must have thought, mistakenly, that Bacall – throughout her childhood – had lived in Manhattan. (In fact, she was born in and also grew up in the Bronx.) The two compartments that flank the figure contain, once again, cube towers. This time, though, the cubes are either painted blue, or they are covered with additional reproductions of that glamorous close-up, or they are covered with reproductions of two quite similar candid and therefore not-so-glamorous photographs – once again in close-up – of Bacall as young, supposedly happy, and probably pre-pubescent child; or they are covered with close-up photo reproductions of the beloved dog – a spaniel – that as Cornell well knew she had had back then as a pet. The three compartments below the figure, this time, contain no additional signs – such as toys – of anyone’s happy childhood: that of Bacall, of course, in particular. Instead, they contain some other studio photographs of the star. The shots, as with the skyscrapers, were also taken from various angles and so – when compared or perhaps opposed to the central figure – are not all that sultry. But they do at least echo – or perhaps mirror – those buildings, or rather the buildings echo them.

This shadow box, too, must have been meant by Cornell to be happy. It must also have been meant by him to be very whimsical. And it is very whimsical, especially because, as I have already mentioned, the thing – unlike the Medici Slot Machine that I have discussed – is operable. One really can – as can be seen on YouTube, as of this writing – put that amber-yellow-colored ball into the top of the box on its right-hand side, and then watch the ball crisscross behind those portholes and through skyscrapers, and then watch it crisscross twice in front of the central figure, and then watch it come out from the bottom of the box on its right-hand side.[94] It is not, however, very sad or wistful. Not, that is, when compared to that other shadow box I discussed. This is probably because the work was made when Bacall – unlike an early nineteenth-century dancer such as Marie Taglioni or singer such as Giuditta Pasta – was not only not long dead and not only still very much alive but also still both very young and beautiful. (So while there may be pity, here, as well as beauty, in Nabokov’s sense, there isn’t really – relatively speaking – all that much of it. Not for Cornell, at any rate, at the time of the work’s assemblage, and therefore not so much for any of the rest of us.) This is also because there is no suggestion, or no nostalgic suggestion, of the supposedly happy childhoods of both Cornell Brothers – even though the older brother, Joseph, may well have identified on some level with the budding film star. Nor is there any such suggestion here of the supposedly happy – meaning childlike – adulthood of the younger brother, Robert. (And so this is a sentimental work, in Amory Blaine’s sense, but not a romantic one.) Unless, of course, that spaniel of Bacall’s suggested to Cornell, on what could only have been an unconscious or indeed poetic level, the doglike – or to use once again a more general term for this, pet-like – aspect of that very vulnerable and all too dependent adulthood of Robert’s. (It may be quite as fair, if not as rude, for me to now call Cornell a “pet-o-phile” as it was for me to call him a pedophile. It’s certainly funnier.) But even I don’t think that this is very likely to have happened.

Why such formal balance or stylistic symmetry here? I do think that it is to introduce and then to hold – and this is quite un-characteristic of Cornell’s work in general – an at least somewhat anti-sentimental view of Bacall alongside – and here I mean, in part, quite literally or rather quite laterally alongside – a sentimental view of her. The sentimental view – which radiates out from the central figure, primarily – is the one that simply idealizes her. (And so here I no longer invoke Amory Blaine’s sense of the sentimental; I invoke the ordinary sense.) The anti-sentimental and perhaps at least somewhat realistic view of Bacall comes from those two candid shots of her that cover some cubes. (There are two such cubes on the left side and three on the right.) But, alas, they are quite literally dwarfed by that central figure. As I have said, it “looms” over them. And that figure is of course quite literally central to the work. We tend to look – and even to gaze – at it and it alone. The rest of this box we see for the most part using only our peripheral vision. Does this not mean, you might well ask, that we register the idealizing, sentimental view of Bacall on a conscious level, primarily, and the anti-sentimental, somewhat realistic view of her on an unconscious one? I doubt it. For one thing, whereas the young girl shown in the candid photographs may not be as beautiful as the nineteen-year-old in the studio ones, she is still unusually – if not quite preternaturally – pretty. On balance, therefore, the sentimental view of Bacall – in my view – outweighs the anti-sentimental one.


The two late-period collages that I’ll now discuss were, as I have already mentioned, done by Cornell after his brother, Robert, died.[95] They show, in part, a combination of Christian Science belief about the afterlife and Jungian psychology.[96] (Cornell knew the work of Carl Jung [1875–1961] rather well. He had taught it to himself just as he had so much else: through avid and often obsessive reading.) They show that Cornell, towards the end of his own life, became – as an artist – both less romantic and more sentimental, in the sense of these terms meant by Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise, and also both differently Romantic and more sentimental, in these terms’ general sense. By “less romantic” and “more sentimental” in Amory Blaine’s sense, I mean that Cornell no longer shows in artwork a desperate confidence that things won’t last; instead, he seems quite certain here that they will last – or at least that Robert will. (In Elizabeth Bishop’s sense, then, Cornell has still not yet mastered and so cannot now hope to ever master – even in artwork alone – the “art of losing” or rather that of having accepted loss.) By “differently Romantic” and “more sentimental” in the general sense, I mean that the main emotions – or affects – shown here are no longer those of both sadness (or perhaps distress) and joy. There is only one such affect here, and it is joy. (Affect, here, is a term that I take from the psychologist Silvan Tomkins [1911–1991]. I have already mentioned it, and him, as you may recall from the chapter “The Most Happy Fella,” when discussing joy in Nietzsche. I have also already just mentioned, in this chapter, that the shadow box called Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall is somewhat similarly joyful, except that the late, great film star featured there, Bacall, if not the film-star-when-just-a-child idealized there, was at the time of the work’s assemblage still very much alive.) I mean, moreover, that this one affect here is inauthentic. I mean, too, that Robert here is even more idealized – as the incarnation or perhaps resurrection of both pure innocence and of what Cornell himself, in that letter to Brian O’Doherty, called “pure joy” – than he had been in the Medici Slot Machine box discussed. “To the end,” wrote Cornell in that letter to O’Doherty, “he retained the pure joy of the child-mind although cruelly plagued.” There is no clear intimation, in these two late collages, or for that matter in any such work by Cornell, that Robert was ever disabled or that he ever felt “plagued” by disability. (As believers in Christian Science – for both these brothers belonged to that rather oddball religion – neither Cornell nor Robert should have felt plagued by the latter’s limited mobility and impaired speech. Like all illness, according to the Church of Christ, Scientist, the cerebral palsy that caused that limitation and impairment is not at all real and so need not be experienced as real by any sufferer of it, or rather of its consequences, and nor as real by any caretaker of such a person.) The collages show, therefore, that Cornell – in artwork – did finally change his approach, if not his answers, to questions of life and death.

But before I say just how they show all this, I must transcribe some of Cornell’s own transcriptions of dreams – “very sad” ones, as Cornell himself will indicate – that he had just had, about Robert, after Robert died. I do this for two reasons: (1) Cornell always took quite seriously both dreams and even daydreams that he had; and (2) he often used them, quite directly, as the basis for work.[97]

August 24, 1965:

– dream of shopping for taking home to Robert 2 items for a meal – bag of pot. puff balls + 10¢ indiv. coffee cake (round) rationalizing abt pancakes if he could digest them early (confusion) after someone’s passing (his own – confusion) shadowy image of him at desk no one else in house – (Joseph Cornell’s Dreams 59)

February 25, 1967:

an especially rare dream of Robert walking

asking him to go into another room for the pleasure it gave me of him being able to walk (Ibid. 69)

August 30, 1967:

Telephone at left. R. center – (supposedly) large window at right – R. at a table 2 books in a corner – his question “what is that (object) before it sinks into ocean?” It was a world almanack the thick common paperback kind –

was going to dial and let [Cornell’s sister] Betty hear him talk or laugh, but refrained because if he saw me he might say “Why – haven’t I always been here with you have I ever really been absent?”

– I wondered how to approach him (Ibid. 75)

September 11, 1967:

Exquisite dreaming – life size pastel (?) drawing or painting of a young girl – browns high-lighted with white on an easel – I was rubbing in the white finishing touches – then it was as though the girl came to life + was going away for good – very sad – would she write to me?

– something about Robert having sculpted part of some woodwork as though decorating a fireplace – cinnamon colored – various animal motifs – (Ibid. 77)

October 2, 1967:

Recalled dream – breaking somewhat

+ driving along a waterfront impressive picturesque landscape clouds etc…

poss. influenced by R’s last ride but one that celestial one by the World’s Fair Grounds (Ibid. 78, ellipsis original)[98]

These dreams show that, for Cornell, who while dreaming was both thinking and feeling quite wishfully, Robert, although dead, is still somehow or at least somewhat very much alive.[99] Robert, that is, may not now be – despite what Christian Science had taught Cornell about the higher reality of “eternal life” – just pure spirit. For he can now walk, unassisted; he can now sculpt rabbits and such things, also unassisted, which must be both far more difficult and more fully embodied than his having, in non-eternal life, merely drawn them; he might now, like that young girl in the drawing or painting, come back to non-eternal life; he might now have some appetite left.[100] They show, in other words, Cornell both thinking and feeling about or rather they show him believing in an afterlife more or less the way that Cabiria, that middle-aged yet still somewhat childlike woman in the Fellini film Nights of Cabiria (1957) does.[101] And they show, alas, Cornell very much missing Robert.

Two of the dreams, moreover, those two that have Robert speaking to Cornell from beyond the grave, are – as theorized by Sedgwick, although the voice here was probably masculine and therefore not gender-equivocal – both sentimental and Modernist. “What is that (object) before it sinks into ocean?” Robert asks him in the one dream. “Why – haven’t I always been here with you?” he asks in the other.

The two collages do not seem to have been based, even indirectly, on any of these dreams, nor on other dreams like them, and nor, I’d imagine, on any daydreams like them. Instead, they show Cornell thinking wishfully, or perhaps just pretending to think, that he does not believe what the transcribed dreams show he did in fact believe. They show him thinking wishfully, or just pretending to think, that he does believe – purely joyfully – in that “eternal life” after death taught by his faith. (It is for this reason that I say the one affect here – joy – is inauthentic.) They show Robert, that is, to be – now and forevermore – really just pure spirit.

Memorial Collage to Robert Cornell (1965) is one of a series of quite similar collages in which Cornell has inset a full-color reproduction of an oil painting, Time Transfixed (1938), which had been done by René Magritte (1898–1967). (That series by Cornell, too, is called Time Transfixed. That painting by Magritte is from his middle period.) In this painting, a very small if not quite toy-sized locomotive, painted black, is, as it emerges from an otherwise empty fireplace, stopped dead in its tracks.


There are no tracks, though, or train tracks. The locomotive, along with any box- or passenger cars that might be pulled along behind it, must be – birdlike – flying unassisted through the air. Atop the mantelpiece sit two rounded brass candlesticks, a somewhat small and rectangular clock, painted black, and a very large and rectangular mirror, gilt-framed. The walls are otherwise bare, apart from some carved-wood and amber-yellow-colored wainscoting. The floor here – bare wooden floorboards – is uncarpeted. The mirror reflects both the candlesticks and the clock but is otherwise empty, and so this entire room, one assumes, must contain neither furniture nor any living being. Cornell, for its use in this collage, must have cropped the reproduction a bit; the top sections of the mirror and of the wall have been cut off. The locomotive, quite clearly, represents the toy trains with which Robert used to play all the time – as well as, by metonymic association, Robert himself. Cornell himself has made, in graphite, a very large circle around the reproduction – an echo, perhaps, of the rounded clock face. (The time is now twelve forty-three.) He himself has also made some lines out from Magritte’s image – these extend both the wainscoting and the floorboards – plus some lines that are not contained in that image. The ones from the image emphasize the linear perspective used by Magritte and also, in the case of the wainscoting, further indicate where, clearly, a vanishing point should appear. They indicate too, perhaps, where in Cornell’s imagination both he and Robert, one “eterniday” in the probably not-so-distant future, will once again be together. (Cornell himself has not, though, put in any train tracks. Perhaps he both wishfully and quite consciously – or at least unconsciously – thought that a not only birdlike but also Robert-like train should of course now be able to fly.) The circle, for Christian Science, is a symbol of eternity.[102] For Jung, it is a symbol of the self. And so Robert’s self, this particular circle made by Cornell suggests, is now an eternal self. Cornell has also added, using his cut-and-paste method, some very small and also, oddly, flat-bottomed icebergs. These, having been strewn about or perhaps floated across the floor, sit beside the fireplace. They suggest, perhaps, some water that has been stopped dead – or frozen solid – in its own tracks. Perhaps they, along with the floor, prompted Cornell – about two years later – to dream of that ocean into which “world almanacks” might sink.[103] He has added as well a couple of golden-haired, very young – or cherubic – and also scantily clad angels.[104] These two little boys – which are so very twee – bear bright pink flowers, beat amber-yellow-colored and also feathery wings, and trail sky-blue drapery. They also reflect – or quite exactly mirror – one another. The one floats just in front of the lower left edge of the mirror, while looking at the locomotive; the other floats just in front of the upper right edge of the circle (more or less where the main light source must be), while also looking at the locomotive. (In another collage from the Time Transfixed series, Cornell has added, instead of more such cherubs, one single brown-haired, rather older, fully clothed, gender-indeterminate, wingless, and yet still twee angel. This not-so-little boy or girl kneels just to the left of the fireplace, while playing a lute.)


Those cherubs suggest – to me – two guardian angels, although Christian Science does not teach followers that angels have wings. They suggest, too, the now eternally young spirit, or child-mind, of Robert. And so perhaps, as mirror images of one another, they suggested – to Cornell – both Cornell himself (that lifelong and, to quote O’Doherty again, “solicitous guardian” of Robert) and Robert.

An untitled collage that I will call Prince Pince (circa 1965) is one of a series of quite similar collages in which Cornell has inset a rather humorous drawing, or perhaps cutout, which with Cornell’s assistance had been made by Robert as part of his own series.[105]


© The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

This drawing is very large and also very abstract. It represents the head and shoulders – and also bowtie – of a certain imaginary and, at least as shown in this particular work in that series by Robert, rather dapper male. The two of them, both Cornell and Robert together, had named this male – this male rabbit, I should say – “Prince Pince.” The head is done in milky white, with the shoulders and the bowtie in shadow. I say the drawing is abstract because there is no perspective at all here, linear or otherwise. As is typical of all such childlike or even just childish art, the presumably three-dimensional Prince Pince is both rendered here in only two dimensions and made to look almost completely flat. I say the drawing is humorous, and that the male rabbit shown is dapper, because of that bowtie.[106] Plus that tie is set at what seems to me to be a rather rakish angle.

The head of the rabbit is surrounded by a very large circle, once again made by Cornell in graphite. This circle is set within an indigo-blue border and it suggests, once again, that Robert’s self is now an eternal self. The bottom edge of the circle cuts across the top of the bowtie. The top edge of the circle cuts across the top of the rather short and also oddly pointed ears of the rabbit. That bowtie is, perhaps, an echo of those ears. Cornell has added, as well, nine apparently real and clearly foreign postage stamps – not so much cut and pasted by him as torn, by someone else, perhaps, along perforations, and then pasted by him. These are placed along the left edge and by the lower right-hand corner of the collage. These stamps suggest, perhaps, that Robert is now – in spirit – a kind of world traveller, much as Cornell no doubt wished that he himself – while still alive – had been able to be one and also as he could at least pretend – in artwork – that he had even time-travelled back to nineteenth-century France.[107] They suggest, moreover, that Prince Pince is a postcard now sent back home to Cornell, in Queens: not so much a sadly sentimental voice from beyond the grave as a kind of joyous writing – or at least readable illustration – from there. (“[I]t was as though the girl came to life + was going away for good – very sad – would she write to me?”)

One stamp, which has an indigo-blue background, features a rather grand and also milky-white sailing ship – a suggestion, perhaps, of the many sailing ships that had been owned by Cornell’s apparently very rich and also quite idealized great-grandfather on his mother’s side, Commodore William R. Voorhis. (A number of early-period collages by Cornell also feature such ships. An oil painting of one Voorhis schooner had always loomed large in the house on Utopia Parkway in Flushing, Queens.) Another stamp features an angelfish – suggesting once again, perhaps, a guardian angel – and has a sky-blue background. Another stamp features a seashell – prompting once again, perhaps, that dream ocean – and also has a sky-blue background. Three stamps, one of which also has a sky-blue background, feature butterflies, which Cornell saw pretty much the way he had always seen both birds and girls and also, even long before the poor man died, Robert: as purely spiritual and therefore almost disembodied. These, therefore, must have suggested Robert himself to Cornell – and so too would any “Prince Pince” drawings in that collage series by Cornell have done so. (I can’t stop myself from writing here, perhaps not so humorously, that Robert appears there at times as a kind of Dapper-gänger of Cornell.) Another stamp features Claude Debussy (1862–1918); it includes, primarily, in addition to red drawings of a piano and of a harp, a black and white one of just the head and shoulders of that (of course) French composer. (It too has a sky-blue background.) This drawing of the composer, although not abstract, clearly echoes and in a way mirrors the drawing of the rabbit here. (Cornell, by then, had come to love the music of Monsieur Debussy. In private writing, moreover, he had once quoted him: “To complete a work is like being present at the death of someone you love.” Cornell was not, in fact, present at Robert’s death – and nor at that of his mother. And nor had he been there for that of his father. And nor had that man’s wife or other three children been there.) Yet another stamp – from Rwanda – features an indigo-blue and also gender-equivocal child; this child is looking at an – opened – alphabet book. (The suggestion here, which I probably need not indicate, is that of Robert’s own childlike character. This stamp, too, has a sky-blue background.) The two illustrated pages in this book that we as well as the child can see are – oddly enough, because clearly non-consecutive – for “g” on the left-hand side (giraffe) and “z” on the right (zebra). These drawings, too, are non-abstract. They are also done in same indigo blue as the child.

The most significant stamp, though, is also the one placed uppermost on the left edge of the collage. This stamp, which happens not to be French, features a drawing even more abstract and also flat looking than that drawing of the rather dapper – and presumably immobilized – Prince Pince. (This rabbit is immobile, though, not because he is paralyzed, like Robert, but because in Robert’s imagination it must have been posing. This stamp is Spanish.) The drawing – also done in milky white – is of a beautiful dove, or perhaps it’s a pigeon, in flight.[108] The form of the dove’s wings, as shown, is quite clearly an echo of that of the rabbit’s ears – and also of his bowtie. This, of course, underscores Cornell having almost always associated Robert with birds. It also, perhaps, indicates the artist’s almost lifelong wish that his little brother be able to walk, or fly, as well as his current wishful thinking that, because now pure spirit, Robert really can walk – as in that “especially rare dream of Robert walking.” Or that he can even really fly now, like a bird – or like an angel.

The stamp is the only mainly orange-colored element of this collage. It is also the only stamp here to bear a cancellation mark: May 6, 1961. Perhaps we are to think that Prince Pince – qua postcard – was sent back home to Cornell from Spain. More likely, though, this mark does not signify. Cornell just liked the stamp, especially, for what it shows – a rabbit-like and also Robert-like bird in flight.[109] He did not like the stamp, especially, for it alone on this collage having ever been used in real life by someone other than his now dead brother, nor for its having been used by such a person in Spain. But perhaps he liked it too, especially, because this is the only stamp on the collage to have the format called – in French – mise-en-abyme. That dove – or pigeon – as drawn there is set within a second drawing. This second drawing is of a postage stamp. That postage stamp as drawn there both mirrors and is set slightly askew within – like some collage element – the actual stamp used by Cornell on Prince Pince. The suggestion here, I feel, is that there is an endless, or eternal, series of such stamps – both unseen by the viewer and unseeable, but imaginable – and that these must recede at ever more rakish angles toward some vanishing point that, given the late-in-life perspective here, cannot be indicated.

I do hope that these two – or rather, three – late collages, along with other such artwork made by Cornell after Robert died, eased at least his own pain.



Vanishing Point

This book is the first and also probably the last one of mine to have been written, or at least drafted, as if it were not a book. Instead, I first wrote what you have just read as a series of lectures – much too long ones, no doubt, ever to be delivered. (In other words, that draft is rather like some old “closet drama.”) I did so for three reasons. First, this made it much easier for me to be chatty, which chattiness both enables me to be a bit less of a showman as a writer and indicates to readers what I’m really like when just talking.[110] Second, this made it much easier for me to be – discursively – performative. (So-called performatives are, after all, basically speech acts. For some perhaps related reason, I like doing things to readers as well as with them.) Third, this facilitated – one hopes – the kind of movement that is almost never heard in both late-period and “late style” work by Robert Schumann. (To again quote the musicologist – and pianist – Charles Rosen [1927-2012] on this: “The difficulty that Schumann had in sustaining movement in the chamber works and symphonies which occupied his late years is made more evident by his effort to avoid the quirky, irrational details which were so often the inspiration of the piano music and songs” [Romantic Generation 689]. For some other perhaps related reason, I like to move musically – so to speak – in prose. So, too, as you may recall, did Nietzsche.)

Perhaps you already inferred all this. Perhaps, if you have also read my previous books, you consider this one – and for the reasons mentioned above – to improve upon them. Perhaps you do not think it does. Despite what some strains of deconstruction teach – those strains most inspired by Paul de Man (1919-1983), that most Maurice-Chevalier-like of all littérateurs – I cannot control what the critical reception, if any, of my own late-period late style (if any) will be.

This book, however, will not have been, to again invoke the novelist J.M. Coetzee (1940-?), the first and nor the last time that I address questions of life and death. (“In the case of literature,” wrote Coetzee to the novelist Paul Auster [1947–?], “late style, to me, starts with an ideal of a simple, subdued, unornamented language and a concentration on questions of real import, even questions of life and death” [97].) All my previous books deal, somehow, with the premature death of my brother Steve. All but the first one of these, Love’s Litany, deal as well with the not-so-premature death of my father. The most recent of these, Confessions of a Plagiarist, deals as well with that of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950–2009). This book, Adorno and the Showgirl, deals, as you well know, with that of my old friend – or perhaps father figure, or perhaps uncle figure – Rosen. (Perhaps you already inferred, as well, that in fact this book has been – to me – an at least somewhat artful and also more than just somewhat cheerful and even rather playful and also even rather joyful mastery of my having lost him, or that it has consoled me for this loss, or that it has palliated it. Perhaps you inferred – quite correctly – that unlike Adorno and his followers, or even unlike Coetzee, I do not think it wise to set down general rules about late style in the arts. I do think, still, that such a thing has only ever been, and can only be, quite idiosyncratic.)

And yet this will have been the last time I address those questions in the form of nonfiction, written for grownups and also meant for publication. For as I write these few last lines, there are soon to be, thanks, initially, to both my husband and his former wife, some grandchildren on the scene – all of whom will have been begotten by three by now grownup sons of ours. I am, of course, already writing a series of short stories – much too short short stories, perhaps – for such grandchildren alone. Those stories, therefore, are not meant for publication. But they are to be illustrated somehow, beautifully illustrated, by one or more of our sons. Like Joseph Cornell, as you well know as well, I never could draw anything by hand. And I am too old now, alas, or at least, having both worked and played with words for so long, other writers’ words and my own words, too left-brained now, to learn how to draw that way. Or even, I’d imagine, to learn how to do so digitally.




Adams, India

Ades, Dawn. “The Transcendental Surrealism of Joseph Cornell.”

Adorno, Theodor

—–. Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music: Fragments and Texts.

—–. Minima Moralia.

—–. Negative Dialectics.

—–. Prisms.

—–. “Schubert (1828).”

Aida – opera

Aimée, Anouk

Althusser, Louis. “Letter on Art in Response to André Daspre.”

Altieri, Charles. “Ecce Homo: Narcissism, Power, Pathos, and the Status of Autobiographical Representations.”

Amarcord – film

Andersen, Hans Christian

—–. “The Little Match Girl.”

Anguissola, Sofonisba

—–. Portrait of Marquess Massimiliano Stampa.


Arlen, Roxanne

Ashbery, John. “Pantoum: Homage to Saint-Simon, Ravel, and Joseph Cornell.”

Ashton, Dore. A Joseph Cornell Album.

Astaire, Fred

Bacall, Lauren

Bach, Johann Sebastian

—–. Art of Fugue.

Baer, Max, Jr.

Bagehot, Walter

The Band Wagon – film

Barthes, Roland

—–. Camera Lucida.

—–. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments.

—–. “Loving Schumann.”

—–. Mourning Diary.

—–. “The Romantic Song.”

—–. “Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers.”

Baudelaire, Charles

Bausch, Pina

Beethoven, Ludwig van

—–. String Quartet in B-flat Major, op. 130.

—–. String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, op. 131.

—–. Tempest Sonata, op. 31 no. 2.

Benjamin, Walter

—–. “A Short History of Photography.”

—–. “The Storyteller.”

The Beverly Hillbillies – sitcom

Il bidone – film

Bishop, Elisabeth

—–. “One Art.”

Black Tuesday – film

Blum, Cinzia. “Marvelous Masculinity: Futurist Strategies of Self-Transformation through the Maelstrom of Modernity.”

Blyth, R.H.

Bogarde, Dirk

Bowen, Elizabeth

Brahms, Johannes

—–. Sonata, op. 2.

Bruce, Betty

Buonarroti, Michelangelo

Buren, Abigail von

Burke, Frank. Fellini’s Films.

“By Myself” – song

Byron, Lord

“Ça c’est Paris” – song

Cagney, James

Callas, Maria

Carlisle, Anne

Carmen – opera

Caron, Leslie

Carter, Elliott

Casadei, Yvonne

Cattozzo, Leo

Cavafy, Constantine

—–. “Sweet Voices.”

—–. “Voices.”

Caws, Mary Ann. “Introduction” and annotations.

Cerrito, Fanny

Charisse, Cyd

Chatwin, Bruce

Chevalier, Maurice

Chopin, Frédéric

Christensen, Thomas

Coetzee, J.M. “Letter on Late Style in Response to Paul Auster.”


Conway, Daniel W. Nietzsche’s Dangerous Game: Philosophy in the Twilight of the Idols.

Cornell, Elizabeth (Betty; sister)

Cornell, Helen (sister)

Cornell, Helen Ten Broeck Storms (mother)

Cornell, Joseph

—–. Cygne Crépusculaire (Twilight Swan) (1949) – box construction.

—–. Homage to the Romantic Ballet (1942) – box construction.

—–. Joseph Cornell’s Dreams.

—–. Joseph Cornell’s Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files.

—–. Medici Slot Machine (1942) – box construction.

—–. Memorial Collage to Robert Cornell (1965) – collage.

—–. Untitled (Bébé Marie) (early 1940s) – box construction.

—–. Untitled (Bowerbirds) (n.d.) – collage.

—–. Untitled (Penny Arcade Portrait of Lauren Bacall) (1945-46) – box construction.

—–. Untitled (Prince Pince) (circa 1965) – collage.

—–. Untitled (Sequestered Bower) (circa 1948) – box construction.

—–. Untitled (Winter Scene) (n.d.) – collage.

Cornell, Joseph, Sr. (father)

Cornell, Robert (brother)

Crawford, Broderick

Crawford, Claudia. “Nietzsche’s Psychology and Rhetoric of World Redemption: Dionysus versus the Crucified.”

Crawford, Joan

Cuny, Alain

“Dancing in the Dark” – song

Dane, Faith

Daniels, Leroy

Davis, Bette

De Carlo, Yvonne

Death in Venice – film

Debussy, Claude

—–. Clair de lune.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. “1837: Of the Refrain.”

Denk, Jeremy. “Postscript: Charles Rosen.”

DeNora, Tia. “Deconstructing Periodization.”

Derrida, Jacques

—–. Of Grammatology.

—–. The Work of Mourning.

Dickens, Charles. The Old Curiosity Shop.

La dolce vita – film

Duchamp, Marcel

Dyer, Richard

—–. Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society.

– film

Fabrizi, Franco

Falk, Rossella

Fauré, Gabriel

Fellini, Federico

Fellini: A Director’s Notebook – documentary

Fellini-Satyricon – film

Fellini’s Casanova – film

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. This Side of Paradise.

Follies – musical

La forza del destino – opera

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality.

Freed, Arthur

Garland, Judy

Garson, Greer

Gaynor, Janet

“Get Happy” – song

Gigi – film

Gigi – musical

Gilliard, Ernest. “Bower ornamentation versus plumage characters in bower-birds.”

Gingold, Hermione

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

Goldberg, Jonathan. Writing Matter: From the Hands of the English Renaissance.

Grisey, Gérard

Gypsy – film

Gypsy – musical

Hagen, Jean

Haggin, B.H.

Hairspray – film

Halperin, David M. How to be Gay.

Handel, Georg Friedrich

Harrison, Rex

Hartigan, Lynda. “Joseph Cornell: A Biography.”

—–. “Joseph Cornell’s Dance with Duality.”

Hauptman, Jodi. Joseph Cornell: Stargazing in the Cinema.

Haydn, Franz Joseph

Heidegger, Martin

Heimann, Moritz

Hemingway, Ernest. To Have and Have Not.

Hepburn, Audrey

Hepburn, Katharine

Hirsch, Edward. How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry.

Hoffman, Philip Seymour

Hölderlin, Friedrich

Holliday, Judy

Hollingdale, R.J. Nietzsche: The Man and his Philosophy.

Horkheimer, Max

Houdini, Harry

Howard, Richard

—–. “Closet Drama: An Aporia for Joseph Cornell.”

—–. “Translator’s Note.”

Humphries, Barry – as “Dame Edna Everage”

Hussey, Howard

—–. “Collaging the Moment.”

“I Remember It Well” – song

I’m Not There – film

“I’m Still Here” – song

Intervista – film

“I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy” – song

James, Henry. The Beast in the Jungle.

Jefford, Barbara

Jenkins, Florence Foster

Jourdan, Louis

Juliet of the Spirits – film

Jung, Carl

Kafka, Franz

Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist.

Keller, Hiram

Kelly, Gene

Kent, Allegra

Kezich, Tullio. Federico Fellini: His Life and Art.

Kleist, Heinrich von

Knight, Diana

Koestenbaum, Wayne

—–. “A Fan’s Apostasy.”

—–. “Hermaphroditus (Joseph Cornell).”

—–. The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire.

Kofman, Sarah. Explosion II: Les enfants de Nietzsche.

Kopelson, Kevin. Beethoven’s Kiss: Pianism, Perversion, and the Mastery of Desire.

—–. Confessions of a Plagiarist: And Other Tales from School.

—–. Love’s Litany: The Writing of Modern Homoerotics.

—–. Neatness Counts: Essays on the Writer’s Desk.

—–. The Queer Afterlife of Vaslav Nijinsky.

—–. Sedaris.

—–. “Sentimental Journey.”

—–. “Tawdrily, I Adore Him.”

Kopelson, Stephen (brother)

Kramer, Lawrence

Kristofferson, Kris

Kunitz, Stanley. “The Crystal Cage.”

A Late Quartet – film

Lee, Gypsy Rose

Lehrman, Robert. “Living with Cornell: A Collector’s View.”

Lerner, Alan Jay

LeSueur, Joe. Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara: A Memoir.

Lilac Time – operetta

Liquid Sky – film

Liszt, Franz

Litvak, Joseph. “Adorno Now.”

Loewe, Frederick

“The Long Black Veil” – song

Love Me Tonight – film

Maggio, Pupella

Magritte, René. Time Transfixed.

Mainardi, Elisa

Malibran, Maria

Mallarmé, Stéphane

Man, Paul de

Mann, Thomas. The Blood of the Walsungs.

—–. Death in Venice.

—–. Doctor Faustus.

Mapplethorpe, Robert

March, Fredric

The Marrying Kind – film

Marx, Karl. “Theses on Feuerbach.”

Mason, James

Massina, Giulietta

Mastroianni, Marcello

The Matrix – film

Mazepa, Ivan Stepanovich

Mazeppa – melodrama

Mendelsohn, Daniel. “Learning to Lose.”

Menken, Adah Isaacs

Messiaen, Olivier

Methfessel, Alice

Mill, John Stuart

Miller, D.A.

—–. .

—–. Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical.

Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It.

Millington-Drake, Teddy

Milo, Sandra

Moffo, Anna

Moon, Michael and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. “Divinity: A Dossier, A Performance Piece, A Little Understood Emotion.”

Moss, Carrie-Anne

The Most Happy Fella — musical

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus

—–. The Magic Flute.

Müller, Wilhelm

Musil, Robert. The Man without Qualities.

My Fair Lady – film

My Fair Lady – musical

Nabokov, Vladimir. “Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis (1915).”

—–. Lolita.

Nehamas, Alexander. The Art of Living: Socratic Reflections from Plato to Foucault.

—–. Nietzsche: Life as Literature.

—–. “On the Philosophical Life.”

Neubould, Brian. Schubert: The Music and the Man.

Nietzsche, Friedrich

—–. The Anti-Christ.

—–. Beyond Good and Evil.

—–. The Birth of Tragedy.

—–. The Case of Wagner.

—–. Dionysian Dithyrambs.

—–. Ecce Homo: How to Become What You Are.

—–. The Gay Science.

—–. Human, All Too Human.

—–. On the Genealogy of Morals.

—–. Schopenhauer as Educator.

—–. Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

—–. Twilight of the Idols.

Nights of Cabiria – film

Nijinsky, Vaslav

Ninchi, Annibale

Noyes, Betty

O’Doherty, Brian

—–. “Innocence and Experience.”

O’Hara, Frank. “Joseph Cornell.”

Olin, Margaret

Onassis, Aristotle

Pasta, Giuditta

Paz, Octavio. “Objects and Apparitions.”

Périer, François

Pfeiffer, Michelle


Poe, Edgar Allan

Polan, Linda

Poletti, Victor

Potter, Martin

Proust, Marcel. In Search of Lost Time.

Puccini, Giacomo

Pushkin, Alexander

Quinn, Anthony

Rauschenberg, Robert

Ray, Aldo

Rée, Paul

Reeves, Keanu

Renan, Ernest

Reynolds, Debbie

Ridley, Aaron. “Introduction.”

Rigoletto – opera

Robbins, Jerome

“Rocky” – song

Rogers, Ginger

Roma – film

Rosen, Charles

—–. The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven.

—–. Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature.

—–. The Romantic Generation.

Roth, Marco. The Scientists: A Family Romance.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques

Rushdie, Salman

Russell, Rosalind

Said, Edward

—–. “Adorno as Lateness Itself.”

—–. On Late Style.

Salinger, J.D. Zooey.

—–. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.

Schnittke, Alfred

Schopenhauer, Arthur

Schubert, Franz

—–. “Der Leiermann” – song

—–. Die schöne Müllerin – song cycle

—–. Winterreise – song cycle

Schumann, Robert

—–. Gesänge der Frühe.

—–. Scenes from Goethe’s Faust.

—–. Symphony in C Major.

Scriabin, Alexander

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky

—–. Epistemology of the Closet.

Serra, Fiorenzo

Shaw, George Bernard

—–. Pygmalion.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe

Shelley, Peter. Grande Dame Guignol: A History of Hag Horror from Baby Jane to Mother.

“Shine on Your Shoes” – song

And the Ship Sails On – film

Sibelius, Jean

Simic, Charles. Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell.

Singin’ in the Rain – film

“Singin’ in the Rain”song

Soares, Lota de Macedo


Solomon, Deborah. Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell.

Solomon, Maynard. “The Creative Periods of Beethoven.”

Sondheim, Stephen

Sontag, Susan

—–. “Notes on Camp.”

Stamp, Terence

Stampa, Massimiliano

A Star Is Born – film

Starr, Sandra. Joseph Cornell and the Ballet.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

La strada – film

Straus, Joseph. “Disability and ‘Late Style’ in Music.”

Strauss, Richard

Stravinsky, Igor

—–. Requiem Canticles.

Streisand, Barbra

Subotnik, Rose. Developing Variations: Style and Ideology in Western Music.

Sunday in the Park with George – musical

Suzman, Janet

Swan Lake – ballet

Swinburne, Algernon. “The Greatness of Dickens.”

Swinkin, Jeffrey. “The Middle Style / Late Style Dialectic.”

Taglioni, Marie

Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilyich

“Tell Him” – song

“Thank Heaven for Little Girls” – song

Thurman, Judith. Cleopatra’s Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire.

To Have and Have Not – film

Toby Dammit – film

Tolstoy, Leo

Tomkins, Silvan

Toumanova, Tamara

La traviata – opera

Il trovatore – opera

Tunbridge, Laura. “Saving Schubert.”

Updike, John. “Late Works: Writers and Artists Confronting the End.”

Van Order, M. Thomas. Listening to Fellini: Music and Meaning in Black and White.

Variety Lights – film

Vermeer, Johannes

Vidal, Gore

Vinci, Leonardo da

—–. Mona Lisa.

Vine, Richard. “Eterniday: Cornell’s Christian Science ‘Metaphysique.’”

I vitelloni – film

The Voice of the Moon – film

Waldman, Diane. Joseph Cornell: Master of Dreams.

Wagner, Richard

—–. Ride of the Valkeries.

Warhol, Andy

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? – film

Wilde, Oscar

—–. The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

—–. The Importance of Being Earnest.

Williams, Fred

Wolf, Hugo

Wood, Natalie

Woolf, Virginia. Jacob’s Room.

—–. Mrs. Dalloway.

“Would You?” – song

Xenakis, Iannis

“You Are My Lucky Star” – song

“You Gotta Get a Gimmick” – song

“You Gotta Have Me Go with You” – song

Zito, Pasquale

Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology.



Works Cited

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Adorno, Theodor W. Beethoven: The Philosophy of Music: Fragments and Texts. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

—–. Prisms. Trans. Samuel Weber and Shierry Weber Nicholsen. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983.

—–. “Schubert (1928).” Trans. Jonathan Dunsby and Beate Perrey. 19th-Century Music 29.1 (2005): 3–14.

Althusser, Louis. “Letter on Art in Response to André Daspre.” In Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster, 221–28. London: New Left Books, 1971.

Altieri, Charles. “Ecce Homo: Narcissism, Power, Pathos, and the Status of Autobiographical Representations.” In Why Nietzsche Now?, ed. Daniel T. O’Hara, 389–413. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Ashton, Dore. A Joseph Cornell Album. New York: Da Capo Press, 1974.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill & Wang, 1991.

—–. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill & Wang, 2010.

—–. “Loving Schumann.” In The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation, trans. Richard Howard, 287–98. New York: Hill & Wang, 1985.

—–. Mourning Diary. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill & Wang, 2010.

—–. “The Romantic Song.” In The Responsibility of Forms: Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation, trans. Richard Howard, 286–92. New York: Hill & Wang, 1985.

—–. “Writers, Intellectuals, Teachers.” In Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath, 190–215. New York: Noonday, 1988. (Orig. pub. 1971.)

Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov.” In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, 83–109. New York: Schocken, 1985.

Blum, Cinzia Sartini. “Marvelous Masculinity: Futurist Strategies of Self-Transformation through the Maelstrom of Modernity.” In Modernism and Masculinity, ed. Natalya Lusty and Julian Murphet, 87–102. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Burke, Frank. Fellini’s Films. New York: Twayne, 1996.

Caws, Mary Ann. “Introduction” and annotations. In Joseph Cornell’s Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files, ed. Mary Ann Caws, 17–55 (“Introduction”) and passim (annotations). London: Thames & Hudson, 1993.

Coetzee, J.M. and Paul Auster. Here and Now: Letters, 2008–2011. New York: Viking, 2013.

Conway, Daniel W. Nietzsche’s Dangerous Game: Philosophy in the Twilight of the Idols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Cornell, Joseph. Joseph Cornell’s Dreams. Ed. Catherine Corman. Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2007.

—–. Joseph Cornell’s Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters, and Files. Ed. Mary Ann Caws. London: Thames & Hudson, 1993.

Crawford, Claudia. “Nietzsche’s Psychology and Rhetoric of World Redemption: Dionysus versus the Crucified.” In Nietzsche and Depth Psychology, ed. Jacob Golomb, Weaver Santaniello, and Ronald Lehrer, 271–94. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. “1837: Of the Refrain.” In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, 310–50. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

DeNora, Tia. “Deconstructing Periodization: Sociological Methods and Historical Ethnography in Late Eighteenth-Century Vienna.” Beethoven Forum 4.1 (1995): 1–15.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammmatology. Corrected Edition. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore, MD, and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

—–. The Work of Mourning. Ed. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Dyer, Richard. Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. Basingstoke: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1986.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. This Side of Paradise. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970. (Orig. pub. 1920.)

Gilliard, Ernest T. “Bower ornamentation versus plumage characters in bower-birds.” Auk 73 (July 1956): 450–451.

Goldberg, Jonathan. Writing Matter: From the Hands of the English Renaissance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Halperin, David M. How to be Gay. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

Hartigan, Lynda R. “Joseph Cornell: A Biography.” In Joseph Cornell, ed. Kynaston McShine, 91–119. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1980.

—–. “Joseph Cornell’s Dance with Duality.” In Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday, by Lynda R. Hartigan, Richard Vine, and Robert Lehrman, 12–34. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003.

Hartigan, Lynda R., Richard Vine, and Robert Lehrman. Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003.

Hauptman, Jodi. Joseph Cornell: Stargazing in the Cinema. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 1999.

Hirsch, Edward. How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt, Inc., 1999.

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Hussey, Howard. “Collaging the Moment.” In Joseph Cornell: Collages 1931–1972, 15–24. New York: Castelli, Feigen, Corcoran, 1978.

Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. 4th edition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Kezich, Tullio. Federico Fellini: His Life and Art. Trans. Minna Proctor. New York: Faber and Faber, 2006.

Knight, Diana. Barthes and Utopia: Space, Travel, Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Koestenbaum, Wayne. “A Fan’s Apostasy.” In Cleavage: Essays on Sex, Stars, and Aesthetics, 191–96. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000.

—–. The Milk of Inquiry. New York: Persea Books, 1999.

—–. The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire. New York: Poseidon Press, 1993.

Kofman, Sarah. Explosion II: Les enfants de Nietzsche. Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1993.

Kopelson, Kevin. Beethoven’s Kiss: Pianism, Perversion, and the Mastery of Desire. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996.

—–. Confessions of a Plagiarist: And Other Tales from School. Denver, CO: Counterpath Press, 2012.

—–. Love’s Litany: The Writing of Modern Homoerotics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.

—–. Neatness Counts: Essays on the Writer’s Desk. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

—–. The Queer Afterlife of Vaslav Nijinsky. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997.

—–. Sedaris. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

—–. “Tawdrily, I Adore Him.” Rev. of The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, by Wayne Koestenbaum. Nineteenth-Century Music 17.3 (Spring 1994): 274–85.

Lehrman, Robert. “Living with Cornell: A Collector’s View.” In Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday, by Lynda R. Hartigan, Richard Vine, and Robert Lehrman, 192–228. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003.

LeSueur, Joe. Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara: A Memoir. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

Litvak, Joseph. “Adorno Now.” Victorian Studies 44.1 (Autumn 2001): 33–39.

Mann, Thomas. Death in Venice. Trans. Stanley Applebaum. New York: Dover Publications, 1995. (Orig. pub. 1912.)

Mendelsohn, Daniel. “Learning to Lose.” Pen America 17 (2014): 78–80.

Miller, D.A. . London: BFI, 2008.

—–. Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Millier, Brett C. Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Oxford: University of California Press, 1993.

Moon, Michael and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. “Divinity: A Dossier, A Performance Piece, A Little Understood Emotion.” In Tendencies, by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, 215–51. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993.

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—–. “Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis (1915).” In Lectures on Literature, ed. Fredson Bowers, 251–83. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.

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—–. “On the Philosophical Life.” In Philosophers in Conversation: Interviews from The Harvard Review of Philosophy, ed. S. Phineas Upham, 139–57. New York and London: Routledge, 2002.

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—–. The Birth of Tragedy. Ed. Stanley Appelbaum, trans. Clifton P. Fadiman. New York: Dover, 1995. (Orig. pub. 1872.)

—–. Schopenhauer as Educator. In Untimely Meditations, ed. Daniel Breazeale, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, 125–94. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. (Orig. pub. 1874.)

—–. Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Ed Adrian Del Caro and Robert Pippin, trans. Adrian Del Caro. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. (Orig. pub. 1883–85, 1891, 1892.)

—–. Writings from the Late Notebooks. Ed. Rüdiger Bittner, trans. Kate Sturge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

O’Doherty, Brian. “Innocence and Experience.” In Joseph Cornell: Dovecotes, Hotels, and Other White Spaces, 5–12. New York: Pace Gallery, 1989.

Olin, Margaret. “Touching Photographs: Roland Barthes’s ‘mistaken identification.’” Representations 80 (2002): 99–118.

Poe, Edgar Allan. “The Philosophy of Composition.” In The Portable Edgar Allan Poe, ed. J. Gerald Kennedy, 543–54. New York and London: Penguin Books, 2006. (Orig. pub. 1846.)

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Rosen, Charles. The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. Expanded edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997.

—–. Freedom and the Arts: Essays on Music and Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012.

—–. The Romantic Generation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Roth, Marco. The Scientists: A Family Romance. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

Said, Edward W. “Adorno as Lateness Itself.” In Adorno: A Critical Reader, ed. Nigel Gibson and Andrew Rubin, 193–208. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.

—–. On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain. New York: Vintage Books, 2006.

Salinger, J.D. Franny and Zooey. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, 1961.

—–. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown, 1963.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Shelley, Peter. Grande Dame Guignol Cinema: A History of Hag Horror from Baby Jane to Mother. Jefferson, N.C., and London: McFarland & Co., Inc., 2009.

Simic, Charles. Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell. New York: The New York Review of Books, 1992.

Solomon, Deborah. Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell. Boston: MFA Publications, 1997.

Solomon, Maynard. “The Creative Periods of Beethoven.” The Music Review 34 (1973): 30–38.

Sontag, Susan. “Notes on Camp.” In Against Interpretation: And Other Essays, 275–92. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1966.

Starr, Sandra L. Joseph Cornell and the Ballet. New York: Castelli, Feigen, Corcoran, 1983.

Straus, Joseph N. “Disability and ‘Late Style’ in Music.” The Journal of Musicology 25.1 (2008): 3–45.

Subotnik, Rose Rosengard. Developing Variations: Style and Ideology in Western Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Swinburne, Algernon C. “The Greatness of Dickens.” In Charles Dickens: A Bookman Extra Number. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1914.

Swinkin, Jeffrey. “The Middle Style / Late Style Dialectic.” The Journal of Musicology 30.3 (2013): 287–329.

Thurman, Judith. Cleopatra’s Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.

Tunbridge, Laura. “Saving Schubert: The Evasions of Late Style.” In Late Style and Its Discontents, ed. Gordon McMullan and Sam Smiles. Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.

—–. Schumann’s Late Style. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Updike, John. “Late Works: Writers and Artists Confronting the End.” New Yorker 82.24 (August 7, 2006): 64–71.

Van Order, M. Thomas. Listening to Fellini: Music and Meaning in Black and White. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2009.

Vine, Richard. “Eterniday: Cornell’s Christian Science ‘Metaphysique.’” In Joseph Cornell: Shadowplay Eterniday, ed. Lynda R. Hartigan, Richard Vine, and Robert Lehrman, 36–49. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003.

Waldman, Diane. Joseph Cornell: Master of Dreams. New York: Abrams, 2002.

Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. In The Complete Illustrated Stories, Plays & Poems of Oscar Wilde, 488–534. London: Chancellor Press, 1986. (Orig. pub. 1899.)

Woolf, Virginia. Jacob’s Room. London: Hogarth Press, 1980. (Orig. pub. 1922.)

—–. Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1925.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London; New York: Verso, 1989.

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Denk, Jeremy. “Postscript: Charles Rosen” (December 18, 2012). <; (accessed July 14, 2014).

Kopelson, Kevin. “Sentimental Journey” (April 29, 2009). <; (accessed July 14, 2014).

—–. “Conversations: An Interview with Kevin Kopelson, Part 6.” <; (accessed July 14, 2014).

“The Lina Lamont Fan Club” (August 10, 2012). <> (accessed July 14, 2014)



[1] The stripper name “Miss Mazeppa,” though, encodes a specifically feminine – and also theatrical – reference. It is to the actress Adah Isaacs Menken (1835–1868). She was best known, and known internationally, for her performance as (the mythic) Mazeppa in a melodrama also called Mazeppa (1830).

[2] What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? inspired a film subgenre that one critic has called, somewhat campily, “grande dame guignol.” The critic is Peter Shelley (1962–?). His book is called: Grande Dame Guignol Cinema: A History of Hag Horror from Baby Jane to Mother (2009).

[3] See <> (accessed July 14, 2014).

[4] Although Singin’ in the Rain revolves around the idea that Kathy Selden has to dub over for Lina Lamont’s voice, in the scene where Kathy is dubbing a line of Lina’s dialogue (“Our love will last ’til the stars turn cold”), the normal speaking voice of Jean Hagen is used. Debbie Reynolds herself, ironically enough, was dubbed (by an uncredited Betty Noyes [1912–1987]) in the songs “Would You?” and “You Are My Lucky Star.”

[5] “The last man” (der letzte Mensch) is a term used by Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra to describe the antithesis of the imagined superior being, the Übermensch. The writer Marco Roth (1974–?) has aptly described last men (and women) as “people who remain stuck in the old ways without knowing why they’re in the old ways and without being able to change themselves …. whose lives have no meaningful motive apart from basic animal wants: food, clothing, shelter, sex” (140).

[6] Not that there aren’t musicologists, lately, who do this. As Laura Tunbridge notes, rather stylishly, in her forthcoming essay “Saving Schubert”: “Every composer has a late style nowadays. Not only Beethoven but also Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, Brahms, Wolf, Puccini, Scriabin, Debussy, Fauré, Stravinsky, Strauss, Sibelius and Messiaen have been viewed through a late-style lens in the past decade, as have more recent composers such as Gérard Grisey, Iannis Xenakis and Alfred Schnittke. By the time of his death aged 103, Elliott Carter was even said to be in his ‘late late style.’ The late style industry inevitably says as much about the current interests of Anglophone musicology as it does about the achievements of any individual artist. It reflects both the continuing influence of arch-modernist Theodor W. Adorno, and the persistence of a traditional mode of scholarship that aims, through music analysis and biographical reportage, to prove the genius of the composer.”

[7] See Said, On Late Style. See also Deleuze and Guattari, “1837: Of the Refrain” (1972–1980).

[8] Jacques Derrida writes – joyfully – in Of Grammatology (1967): “Writing represents (in every sense of the word) enjoyment. It plays enjoyment, renders it present and absent. It is play” (312, emphasis original).

[9] The three-part periodization of Beethoven’s creative life began in the nineteenth century. Maynard Solomon (1930–?) has traced this in “The Creative Periods of Beethoven” (1973). The sociologist Tia DeNora (1958–?) has discussed the implications of this for music scholarship in “Deconstructing Periodization” (1995). Coetzee, you will have noticed, understands fellow novelists likewise. The critics Tullio Kezich and Frank Burke, as you’ll see in the next chapter of this book, understand the film director Federico Fellini (1920–1993) this way. I myself, as you’ll see in the next as well as the last chapters, understand both the composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) and the visual artist Joseph Cornell (1903–1972) this way.

[10] See <; (accessed July 14, 2014)

[11] Note that Rosen does not find late work by Schubert to be proto-Modernist. And to quote Tunbridge once again: “We might balk at the notion of someone like Schubert [who died at age thirty-one] embarking on a late period. But then, lateness in this sense has little to do with historical specifics. Its concern, rather, is subjective experience: that of the artist in question and, more tangibly and more often, that of the modern interpreter. In the ‘last or late period of life,’ as Edward Said characterizes it [in On Late Style], with a degree of self-reflexivity rarely claimed by other writers, comes ‘the decay of the body, the onset of ill health or other factors that even in a younger person bring on the possibility of an untimely end.’ More than that, late style is, for Said, about how ‘near the end of their lives,’ the ‘work and thought’ of great artists ‘acquires a new idiom.’ The untimely aspect of being late here means, paradoxically, being avant-garde; of going beyond one’s historical present. In recognizing a composer such as Schubert as having, in his last years, reached towards the future, one needs to separate his works from their original context, transplanting them into the seemingly more sympathetic environment of today’s concert halls and domestic interiors. Writing off late style as historically suspect does not, in other words, get us very far. But it would be helpful for musicology to account for the modernist ideology – and technology – applied to last works in order to convert them late works; to acknowledge how that process raises the aesthetic status of a composer and perhaps even saves him (typically) from oblivion” (“Saving Schubert”).

[12] This notorious quote first appeared in the final passage of a typically “clotted” essay from 1949, “Cultural Criticism and Society.” The essay was reprinted as the first one in a book called Prisms (1967). Here is the entire passage: “The more total society becomes, the greater the reification of the mind and the more paradoxical its effort to escape reification on its own. Even the most extreme consciousness of doom threatens to degenerate into idle chatter. Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today. Absolute reification, which presupposed intellectual progress as one of its elements, is now preparing to absorb the mind entirely. Critical intelligence cannot be equal to this challenge as long as it confines itself to self-satisfied contemplation” (34).

[13] The described photograph, apparently, resembles one of Franz Kafka (1883–1924), at age six, which had been included by Walter Benjamin in his “Short History of Photography” (1931). This was discovered – and demonstrated – by the critics Diana Knight and Margaret Olin in the years 1997 and 2002, respectively.

[14] See Newbould 275.

[15] “Als erste unfangreichere Arbeit des Autors zur Deutung von Musik,” Moments musicaux, in Gesammelte Werke, 8 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1964).

[16] Lilac Time is one of two English titles for a once popular pastiche operetta, Das Dreimäderlhaus, by the composer Heinrich Berté (1857–1924). (Das Dreimäderlhaus was adapted from a best-selling novel about Schubert, Schwammerl [1912], by Rudolf Hans Bartsch [1873–1952]. Schwammerl, which is used there as a nickname for Schubert, means “Mushroom” – or even “Little Mushroom.” An English version of the name might be “Tubby.”) This operetta, which also included music by Schubert, premiered in Vienna on January 15, 1916; it then opened in Paris, in French, as Chanson d’amour, on May 7, 1921; it then opened on Broadway, in English, as Blossom Time, on September 29, 1921, with Schubert’s music now arranged by Sigmund Romberg (1887–1951); it opened in London, as Lilac Time, on December 22, 1922, with music now arranged by George Clutsam (1866–1951).

[17] Similarly, Barthes writes in A Lover’s Discourse (1977): “[L]ove makes me think too much. At times, result of some infinitesimal stimulus, a fever of language comes over me, a parade of reasons, interpretations, pronouncements. I am aware of nothing but a machine running all by itself, a hurdy-gurdy whose crank is turned by a staggering but anonymous bystander, and which is never silent” (160).

[18] Johann Sebastian Bach: 1685–1750; Georg Friedrich Handel: 1685–1759; Franz Joseph Haydn: 1732–1809.

[19] “A few months after the marriage, Giulietta falls down the stairs and has a miscarriage. She gets pregnant again and on March 22, 1945, they baptize their baby Pierfederico. He has encephalitis and dies on April 24, just over a month later. This will remain a painful chapter in the couple’s life. Years later, Federico would still refuse to discuss it, though Giulietta occasionally spoke of it in order to explain the puerperal fever that she suffered for quite a while afterward. Among the couple’s most intimate friends, many speculated that the tragedy strengthened their spiritual union but prematurely ended their physical relationship” (Kezich 74).

[20] Moritz Heimann (1868–1925) war ein deutscher Schriftsteller, Kritiker und Lektor jüdischer Herkunft (getauft).

[21] Adorno, late in life, was very critical of the way that Communist parties had transformed Marxism into a mere ideology, and the opening salvo in his book Negative Dialectics (1966) is the deadpan observation that the famous invitation by Marx to “change the world,” in his “Theses on Feuerbach” (1845), had miscarried. For Adorno, after World War Two and the Holocaust, there could be no universal history that leads from savagery to humanitarianism; there’s only one that leads from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.

[22] Todd Haynes (1961–?) is an American – and also openly gay – film director. He is best known for Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987), Poison (1991), Velvet Goldmine (1998), and Far from Heaven (2002).

[23] “[The Voice of the Moon] seems, uncannily, to offer an almost perfect summation to Fellini’s career. It has the tight organization and thematic consistency of Fellini’s early work. Moreover, its focus on ‘enlightened deviancy’ recalls Gelsomina and the emphasis on authenticity and the natural, unmediated intelligence in Fellini’s most important early film: La strada. Through its emphasis on quasi-mystical or visionary experience, it also recalls the creative ‘head trips’ of Fellini’s 1960s films, which brought him his widest acclaim as an auteur. And, at the same time, it clearly situates itself in postmodernity, equating visionary experience with insanity and pure reproduction, and thus undercutting its own discourse of the authentic” (Burke 291).

[24] According to Lacan, the order of the Real is everything that resists symbolization and representation in the unconscious. The Real, for him, is that which resists the dialectical process typical of the Symbolic order (also called “the big Other”), in which one signifier is interchangeable with another. The Real, therefore, does not exist as a signifier. Lacan calls this phenomenon, which cannot be symbolized, as the Thing (with a capital T). Lacan’s concept of Thing is inspired by Freud’s distinction between things that are represented in the unconscious and Things that are not. The Imaginary order, according to Lacan, is constituted through the birth of the “I” in what he calls “the mirror stage.” The “I” of the Imaginary order is constituted through vision, as a coherent image that a baby has of him- or herself in the mirror or in the presence of someone else. This coherent image, according to Lacan, is at odds with the baby’s motor experience at this stage, which is characterized by a sense of fragmentation. This dissonance, between a coherent image and fragmented sensation, will continue, according to Lacan, to be a part of the person’s life for as long as he or she lives.

[25] “Reflecting its function as an indicator of a specific motif, Theme A, unlike all of the other musical themes in the film, retains the same instrumentation and slow tempo each time it occurs on the sound track. The tune first appears, after its introduction with the opening credits, when Cabiria, lost in the middle of the night in the countryside near Rome, encounters a man distributing clothing and food to the homeless. Cabiria does not understand his motivation: he does not seem to work for an organization or for the church, and there is nothing self-righteous in his demeanor or in his language. Theme A … begins when ‘the man with the sack’ first calls out to an elderly homeless man living in a cave and continues as he distributes food, blankets, and clothing. Cabiria and ‘the man with the sack’ next meet Elsa, a prostitute with whom Cabiria had worked in the past and whom she knows as ‘Bomba.’ Theme A continues until Elsa/Bomba begins to talk about the riches that she had before growing old. The music fades out as Elsa lists the money, clothes, and jewels that are no longer hers, thereby associating the music with the generosity of the mysterious man rather than with her loss. As ‘the man with the sack’ walks away from Elsa/Bomba Theme A returns to the sound track, again emphasizing conscious sacrifice over random misfortune” (Van Order 94–95).

[26] Richard Dyer (1945–?), too, has noticed this ubiquity. “The wind is a persistent feature of Fellini’s films, the sound of it and the visible effect it has. This persistence can in part be explained biographically (the wind is often the wind heard and felt on beaches or piers, drawing on Fellini’s childhood in the seaside town of Rimini) and in part symbolically (as in the wind that carries away the words of Guido’s potential saviour at the end of La dolce vita or that promises renewal at the beginning and end of Amarcord). However I want to try and understand these dimensions and the presence of the wind in Fellini more in terms of its affective value. It is a sign of movement, always a central felt value in Fellini’s work, at once joyous energy and debilitating restlessness. But part of what makes the wind fascinating is also that it is something that can be heard and felt but cannot be seen except, residually, in its effects. It is this quality of the wind that gives it importance in relation to the feeling of movement, linking it to Fellini’s sense of the reality of magic and mystery in his portrayal both of the social world and of the artifice of circus and cinema” (Unpublished lecture, reprinted here with the author’s permission).

[27] In French, the word jouissance means enjoyment, in terms both of rights and property, and of sexual orgasm. The latter sense – sexual orgasm – is partially and at times quite problematically lacking – to invoke another favorite concept of Lacan’s – in the English words “joy” and “enjoyment,” the former of which, the word joy, will come into considerable play in my next chapter.

[28] Ancient Roman cemeteries were located outside the pomerium, the sacred boundary of the city. Interment was done regularly, but cremation was the most common burial practice in the Mid- to Late Republic and also the Empire.

[29] The cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) was a species of bear that lived in Europe during the Pleistocene Epoch and became extinct at the beginning of the Last Glacial Maximum. Saber-toothed tigers, also and more properly known as saber-toothed cats, were found worldwide from the Eocene Epoch to the end of the Pleistocene.

[30] For a “queer” analysis of this novella, see “The Beast in the Closet: James and the Writing of Homosexual Panic” in Epistemology of the Closet (182–212) by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. For an only somewhat horrifying look at my own early-period use – or rather, appropriation – of that analysis, see “My Cortez” in Confessions of a Plagiarist (1–12).

[31] Van Order, writing on I vitelloni (1953), has this take on Fellini’s reality (as opposed to or differentiated from the director’s “Real”) in that early-period work: “‘Reality’ lies behind the juxtaposition of fictions, and not in neat narrative resolutions” (48). The late Roger Ebert (1942–2013), though, had this take – upon its release – on Roma: “What is unreal, and where is the real? Fellini doesn’t know, and he seems to believe that Rome has never known. Rome has simply endured, waiting in the hope of someday finding out.”

[32] “The highest feelings of power and self-assurance achieve expression in a [grand] style. Power that does not need to prove itself; that scorns to please; that does not answer lightly, that does not notice the presence of witnesses; that is unaware of any objections to itself; that rests fatalistically within itself, a law among laws; this it how the [grand] style expresses itself” (Twilight of the Idols, 197–98, emphases original).

[33] See Roth 140.

[34] See Goldberg, on typewriterly as opposed to computerly style. “It has been a long time now since I wrote by hand. For many years I wrote at the typewriter. The fantasy was that language was there in the keys and that striking them would release the text (Michelangelo’s fantasy about the stone that contained the statue, transferred to the machine, but still a logocentric fantasy). But now the fantasy is that somewhere there is (or someday there will be) a program, and rather than having to write oneself, the machine will be able to do it. Considering the opprobrium that so-called ‘computer prose’ has already elicited, it is clear that, for some, that day has arrived. Perhaps it is here. A machine wrote this” (318). See also Kopelson, Neatness Counts, 53, on late-period and also typewriterly work by Roland Barthes. (Michelangelo Buonarroti: 1475–1564.)

[35] The critic Cinzia Blum (1956–?) considers the similarly hyperbolic style, in writing, of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944), a founder of the avant-garde movement called “Futurism,” to have derived from anxiety that he had about his own masculinity – something, she adds, that was common among full-grown men in general and male artists in particular during the first part of the twentieth century: It “reveal[s] the same tensions and contradictions that run through the most anxious modernist responses to contemporary changes and challenges” (88). Yet it also both derives from and reveals, she suggests, this man’s non-anxious love of Nietzsche: “Marinetti’s notorious rhetorical excess creates a uniquely extravagant authorial persona, a self-transfiguring embodiment of the futurist superuomo” (100).

[36] The full quote by Rosen on Adorno’s writing, which I did not provide in the second chapter of this book (“Wunderlicher Alter”), is as follows: “In this clotted prose, Adorno contends that Stravinsky’s motifs are not dynamic: they generate neither sequences nor the developing variation that characterize the Austro-German tradition, which he thought the only defensible musical style” (Freedom and the Arts 253). (Igor Stravinsky: 1882–1971.)

[37] “These ‘philosophers of the future,’ and Nietzsche as their ‘herald and precursor,’ would be more modest and less ambitious than Schopenhauer and his kind. Greatness would consist in ‘holding one’s own in an unfinished system with free, unlimited views’ as Leonardo da Vinci did” (Kaufmann 87, citations omitted). (Leonardo da Vinci: 1452–1519.)

[38] “Le lecteur ‘intuitif’ auquel s’adresse Zarathoustra est aussi le lecteur ‘ideal’ de Nietzsche. S’il n’existe pas encore de lecteurs capables d’accéder à ses ‘dures vérités,’ c’est aussi parce que Nietzsche ne s’abaisse pas à en faire demonstration: il les laisse plutôt ‘deviner’ par l’usage d’un style d’une hauteur inégalée, à la hauteur des ‘vérités’ inouïes qu’il voudrait communiquer sans pourtant les vulgarizer. Si, par ‘style,’ l’on entend, avec Nietzsche, l’art de communiquer par des signes un certain état de tension interne, un certain pathos, le style nietzschéen n’a pas encore trouvé d’oreilles capable de s’élever à la hauteur de ses passions et de leur expression: des lecteurs dignes de s’élever à son tempo, celui de ses passions, et celui, correlative de son écriture, des lecteurs auxquels il pourrait et devrait se communiquer, qui, en affinité typologique avec lui, mériteraient de l’entendre” (Kofman 44, italics original).

[39] At the beginning of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche tells the ancient story of King Midas hunting in the forest for the wise Silenus, the companion and tutor of Dionysus. At last, after many years, Midas manages to capture Silenus and asks what is the best and most desirable thing for man. Silenus maintains a surly silence until, goaded by Midas, he bursts out with a contemptuous laugh and says, “Oh, wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and misery, why do ye compel me to tell you what it were most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all is beyond your reach forever: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you – is quickly to die” (8, emphases original). Nietzsche’s idea, back then, was that the Greeks must have known and felt this horror of (or perhaps horror at) existence and that they constructed their beautiful art and their Olympian gods as a kind of dreamlike camouflage to conceal the truth.

[40] Twilight of the Idols was written in 1888 and then first published a year later, in 1889; Dionysian Dithyrambs was written in 1888 and published in 1891, as part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra; The Anti-Christ was written in 1888 and published in 1895.

[41] The Case of Wagner was written and also first published in 1888. It is both a critique of that once dearly beloved composer, Richard Wagner, and an announcement of Nietzsche’s break with him.

[42] See Sedgwick 141–81, on anti-sentimentality in both Nietzsche and Wilde. See also Kopelson, Sedaris, 239–49, on sentimentality in Sedgwick, and my “Sentimental Journey,” which is a revision of those eleven pages done after Sedgwick’s death.

[43] Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), for one, had no such clear idea. “Most writers – poets in especial,” he wrote in “The Philosophy of Composition,” “prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy – an ecstatic intuition – and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought – at the true purposes seized only at the last moment – at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view – at the fully matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable – at the cautious selections and rejections – at the painful erasures and interpolations – in a word, at the wheels and pinions – the tackle for scene-shifting – the step-ladders and demon-traps – the cock’s leathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of the hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio” (544, italics original).

[44] By using the word “flourish,” Nehamas here invokes eudaimonia. In Aristotle, eudaimonia – or “human flourishing” – is used as the term for the highest human good, and so it is the aim of practical philosophy, including ethics and political philosophy, to consider and also to experience what it really is and how it can be achieved. (Aristotle: 384 B.C.–322 B.C.)

[45] That “Englishman” is Walter Bagehot (1826–1877). Nietzsche quotes, quite possibly from memory, from Bagehot’s Physics and Politics (1872). (Percy Bysshe Shelley: 1792–1822; Friedrich Hölderlin: 1770–1843; Heinrich von Kleist: 1777–1811; Arthur Schopenhauer: 1788–1860; Richard Wagner: 1813–1883.)

[46] See Kopelson, Sedaris, passim, on the affect “shame.”

[47] See Kopelson, Confessions of a Plagiarist, passim, for an account of the relationship that Wayne and I enjoy.

[48] See Ashton 91, on the autobiographical nature of Cornell’s work. See also Solomon: “Cornell’s boxes have the quality of coded entries in a diary, and it’s not clear that he wanted them to be decoded” (140; Deborah Solomon: 1957–?).

[49] See O’Doherty 12, on Cornell’s Romanticism. See also Waldman 13. See Ashton 68, on the Symbolism of Cornell’s work. See also O’Doherty 12; Solomon 194. See Waldman 62, on Cornell and correspondence.

[50] See Waldman: “In the Romantic era, Cornell found the fantasy, longing, and escape that he so eagerly sought in his own life” (58; Diane Waldman: 1936–?).

[51] See Hauptman: “[I]n each of his portraits of movie stars, the artist positions himself as a caretaker or custodian – of their well-being, reputation, history, dignity, or innocence” (209). See also Starr 34.

[52] See Hauptman 110, 155, on Cornell’s cross-gender but not gay-male identification with women. See also Hauptman on his identification with girls: “But what is the nature of Cornell’s identification with this Victorian child? By conceiving of a ‘Berenice’ rather than a ‘Billy’ as a child version of himself, Cornell reveals not only that he would like to gaze on the innocent little girl but also that he aspires to her purity and cleanliness” (181).

[53] See Caws: “The desire that permeates every aspect of Cornell’s writing and seeing and creating of boxes – right along with its strong religious sublimation – focuses on the figure of the female as the surrealist ‘woman-child,’ angel and seductress, who mixes the naïve with the vaguely erotic, the untouchable with the inviting image” (34; Mary Ann Caws: 1933–?). See also Solomon: “Innocence excited Cornell, though his work is not at all innocent and is very much the product of an imaginative vision that found sexual pleasure in the act of putting off sex in order to prolong the fantasy” (155).

[54] See Millier 544.

[55] See Hartigan, “Joseph Cornell”: “Confined to a wheelchair, Robert Cornell nonetheless led an active life in which his brother played an integral role. One of their strongest mutual interests was the movies, which they frequently attended in Bayside and Flushing from the 1920s on. While building his own film collection in the following decade, Cornell also began showing old films at home, often only for Robert and himself, and occasionally for gatherings of the family and other guests. As a young adult, in the 1930s, Robert pursued a variety of other hobbies, such as music, drawing, train collecting, short wave radio receiving, and reading, all with the assistance and encouragement of his family, especially his brother, Joseph. Cornell, for example, often assembled Robert’s train accessories and helped him design and build an elaborate, portable layout for his train sets” (102, footnotes omitted). (Lynda Hartigan: 1950–?) See also Solomon: “During his visits to Utopia Parkway [in the late 1950s], Dr. [Samuel] Lerman also took note of Cornell’s intense attachment to his brother. ‘Robert was like Joseph’s child,’ the doctor added. ‘He represented the only emotional warmth in Joseph’s life, the only tangible warmth’” (255).

[56] See Joseph Cornell’s Theater of the Mind 107, 113, 121, 132, for evidence that Cornell took bicycle rides right past, or at least very close to, my own future home.

[57] Other such poems are by Frank O’Hara (1926–1966) (“You are always a little too / young to understand. / He is / bored with his sense of the / past, the artist. Out of the / prescient rock in his heart / he has spread a land without / flowers of near distances.” [“Joseph Cornell” {1955}, in LeSueur 84]); by John Ashbery (1927–?) (“Eyes shining without mystery / Footprints eager for the past / Through the vague snow of many clay pipes, / And what is in store?” [“Pantoum: Homage to Saint-Simon, Ravel, and Joseph Cornell” {1956}, in Ashton 119]); by Richard Howard (1929–?) (“Any apartment lobby is a necropolis, / every dresser drawer a forbidden city – / so much you taught me, intimated, warned: / colors are trite, edges not to be trusted, textures, behind glass, refuse to explain / a world where fate and God Himself have grown/ so famous only because they have nothing to say.” [“Closet Drama: An Aporia for Joseph Cornell” {circa 1974}, in Ashton 124]); and by Wayne Koestenbaum (“I was left alone with a hard wooden nipple – / the oldest redwood nipple in the nation – / one could drive through it for a modest fee – / undulations like sand dunes interrupted / the aureole and led to apple juice – / not milk – at the gift shop I bought a film / of the nipple – 8mm – five minutes long – // it showed the nipple’s ancient history – / I edited the documentary to make it sharper – / three minutes – I cut the ancient parts – / now we begin with the Middle Ages – / I also bought a chess set – queen / and pawns were nipples – carved / in Morocco by a rebbe with a gynecological practice – ” [“Hermaphroditus (Joseph Cornell)” {1999}, in The Milk of Inquiry 114). All four of these men – O’Hara, Ashbery, Howard, and Koestenbaum – are gay.

[58] See Solomon 168, on Cornell’s own inability – in person – to make eye contact. See also Hauptman 50, on the blank stare of another such doll – a Cornell-family heirloom called Bébé Marie – in another such shadow box: Untitled (Bébé Marie) (early 1940s). That doll is fully clothed, though. Solomon, nonetheless, calls that box, too, “a bit too sentimental, and a bit too disturbing, to be completely satisfying as a work of art” (153).

[59] See Caws: “[I]n his boxes as in his letters and the diaries, we sense some enigma always withheld, untransmittable, a once sad and exhilarating like some richness just out of reach” (53).

[60] See O’Doherty: “Cornell’s dialectical gymnasium, where even the most unathletic dunderhead can appear pard-like and swift [is] a familiar gymnasium, the parallel bars, time and space, firm to our grasp; the swings from high culture to bits of trash easy to ride; the sentimental rest-benches for the hopelessly out-of-shape, comfortable” (6). See also Ashton 59; Caws 281; Hauptman 108; Solomon 113, 277. The art critic Hilton Kramer (1928–2012) saw in all of Cornell’s work, but in the late work in particular, “[n]ot the pathos of experience, but the sentimental reverie of an innocent dreaming of experience” (quoted in Solomon 312).

[61] See O’Doherty: “Cornell had lots of wit, playfulness, and no humour” (9). Cf. Ades: “There is an element of bizarre humor in Cornell’s early collages that is largely absent from his later works” (17; Dawn Ades: 1943–?).

[62] See Mendelsohn.

[63] Readers way wish to recall at this point the use by Adorno – in English translation – of the word “sweetness” to describe non-late-period work by Beethoven and others: “The maturity of the late works of important artists is not like the ripeness of fruit. As a rule, these works are not well rounded, but wrinkled, even fissured. They are apt to lack sweetness, fending off with prickly tartness those interested merely in sampling them” (Beethoven 123, emphasis added).

[64] See, for instance, my essay “Sentimental Journey.” What is supposed to be wrong with sentimentality? I ask there. Apart from being feminine, old-fashioned, and irrational, I answer this question, it is both excessive and insincere. “Too much emotion: loving something more than God does, to cite J.D. Salinger. Inauthentic emotion: as if one could turn such feelings off and on.” See also Kopelson, Sedaris, 239–49, the earlier version of that essay, written before the death of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.

[65] See Kopelson, Love’s Litany, passim.

[66] See Kopelson, Confessions of a Plagiarist, 75–82, for an account of the relationship that Steve and I once had.

[67] See Caws 33, 196. See also Waldman 139.

[68] Cornell would also at times feed birds in the kitchen itself. See Solomon: “During her first days on the job [as his assistant in the early 1960s], Cornell struck [Pat Johanson] as a charming oddball. It was the dead of winter, and he would toss birdseed on the kitchen table and open a window so that sparrows flew in from the yard. The birds ate off the table as Cornell looked on, as if willing the dream of his Aviary boxes into life. ‘When you saw the man in situ,’ she later remarked, ‘that was the interesting part: he lived all those tableaux that appear in his boxes’” (273–74, italics original).

[69] See Starr 64.

[70] See Ades: “[Robert was] a childlike invalid, barely able to speak or move, but one whose imagination and gaiety were cherished by and at times stimulated Joseph” (18).

[71] The girl (or statue) represented in this early-period collage by Cornell might also remind the viewer – for she does remind me – of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), by Charles Dickens (1812–1870). Probably the most widely repeated criticism of this novel is the quip reputedly made by Oscar Wilde: “One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” (Nell’s death, though, is not actually described by Dickens.) Of a similar anti-sentimental opinion was Algernon Swinburne (1837–1909), who called the character “a monster as inhuman as a baby with two heads” (183). For a brilliant reading of that quip by Wilde along with a joke about it made by Gore Vidal (1925–2012), see Sedgwick: “Gore Vidal begins a recent essay on Wilde: ‘Must one have a heart of stone to read The Ballad of Reading Gaol without laughing?’ [The Ballad of Reading Gaol {1898} is a very late and also very sentimental poem by Wilde, about a male prisoner condemned to death for having murdered a woman.] The opening points in only too many directions. Between it and the same remark made by Wilde himself, a century earlier, about the death of Little Nell, where to look for the wit-enabling relation? One story to tell is the historical/thematic one … that whereas in the nineteenth century it was images of women in relation to domestic suffering and death that occupied the most potent, symptomatic, and, perhaps, friable or volatile place in the sentimental imaginaire of middle-class culture, for the succeeding century – the century inaugurated by Wilde among others – it has been images of agonistic male self-constitution” (146–47, footnote omitted, italics original).

[72] Cornell once recalled, in 1948, that his experiences with dancers engendered “a poignancy sometimes bordering on the sentimental and maudlin” (quoted in Starr 5).

[73] See Hauptman (“For Cornell, love and desire are expressed only as mourning, and pleasure is always experienced through loss” [53].), (“In the end, Cornell is not frustrated that his grasp of the past is continually undermined; like his passions for the cinema and the daguerreotype as well as his love of watching passersby, he enjoys the melancholic pleasures of having and losing” [139, italics original].). See also Caws (“In the diary entries, he often notes the weather, the time of day, the music he is listening to, perhaps what he has just eaten or is about to eat, and the place where he is ‘penning,’ in order to hold on to things” [77].); O’Doherty (on Cornell’s “consistent obsession: the retrieval and re-presentation of the spirit of culture to defy, or at least delay, its erosion by time” [12]); Simic (on Cornell’s “quest for the lost and the beautiful” [24]); Vine (“Cornell’s lyrical infatuation with loss, his memorialization of persons, places, and experiences past or never attained, may be seen as a preparation for his inevitable forfeiture of the world itself” [44].). (Charles Simic: 1938–?)

[74] See Gilliard, on the “transfer effect.”

[75] See Solomon: “It’s not hard to understand why Cornell could seem a little scary, eyeing women with a tense excitement that suggested the dry harsh breath of lechery. Yet if anyone suffered from his anomalous behavior, it was he” (274).

[76] See Kopelson, Neatness Counts: “Chatwin couldn’t work in his own home because he was distracted by otherwise valued possessions and because he needed an audience other than [his wife Elizabeth] Chanler. (Other writers … abandon studies too organized, too disorganized, or simply too familiar to work in.) An indefatigable talker who rehearsed things before writing them down, Chatwin also recited work in progress both to himself, doing different voices, and to hosts to see if it held their interest. (Salman Rushdie [1947–?] never met anyone who talked so much: ‘He was a magnificent raconteur of Scheherazadean inexhaustibility.’ Michael Krüger [1943–?], Chatwin’s German publisher, never met anyone who talked so quickly: ‘It was psychotic, not making an end, and, whenever interrupted, zigzagging back.’) The man was a magpie, and for more than one reason: ‘Chatty’ Chatwin was a bit of a thief. Other birds came to mind too. Teddy Millington-Drake [1932–1994] considered Chatwin a cuckoo because he ‘made his nest in whatever part of the house he had been assigned [and then moved on to] someone else’s.’ Chatwin considered himself various migratory birds with both ‘a compulsion to wander and a compulsion to return’: a swallow at first and then an Arctic tern, the ‘beautiful white bird what flies from the North Pole to the South Pole and back again.’ But he also considered himself a bowerbird, arranging his home with bits of this and that to attract a mate – or simply to please himself” (117–18, footnotes and citations omitted).

[77] See Hartigan, “Joseph Cornell’s Dance with Duality”: “Some artists work with a loosely related succession of styles and themes; others proceed erratically in different directions and media or develop a one-note orientation. Still others, like Cornell, take a cyclical or serial approach, culling and weaving permutations of materials, forms, and concepts from an expanding central vocabulary that affords opportunities to modify, refine, and extend” (31).

[78] See Solomon: “What are we to make of the solitary birds perched in the white settings of Cornell’s Aviaries? Are they literal stand-ins for the artist, capturing him amid the quietude of his white-painted kitchen? Cornell, too, was a caged bird, caged by his family and not free to have lovers. Or are the birds not a self-image at all but, rather, objects of desire, symbolic sisters of the ballerinas and divas of Cornell’s earlier work?” (186–87).

[79] On the emptiness of some of the shadow boxes, see Ashton 94; Caws 29, 47, 311; O’Doherty 11; Simic 73, 74; Waldman 85, 90.

[80] On Cornell’s interest in Harry Houdini, as well as the influence of Houdini on Cornell’s artwork, see Solomon (“The metal rings and suspended chains that would later become common elements in his boxes refer at least partly to Houdini and the memory of a lonely boy who wished to vanish from the shackles of day-to-day reality” [4].), 18, 27–28, 45, 96, 166, 248. For more on Cornell’s lifelong loneliness and on that loneliness as reflected in the artwork, see Solomon 217. See also Waldman 66.

[81] See Caws 267, on Cornell’s “white magic.”

[82] Cf. Ashton: “[S]eashells, pressed flowers, and butterflies were in the final analysis closer to Cornell’s vision than were [Marcel] Duchamp’s ironies” (77). (Dore Ashton: 1928–?) See also O’Doherty: “Cornell never allowed irony – lost on children – to visit him” (8).

[83] See Hartigan, “Joseph Cornell”: “Although he had deliberately shied away from drawing as a means of expression, Cornell had encouraged Robert’s hobby, which had produced since the 1920s a voluminous body of pencil and ink drawings based on imaginary characters, family events, and works by other artists. Sensitively colored and often humorous in tone, most were naively but painstakingly rendered” (114).

[84] For one art critic’s thoughts on the two shadow boxes discussed in this section and on additional works in their series, see Waldman (“Cornell superimposed memories of his own [supposedly] happy childhood upon that of the Medici prince and princess, with the recognition that these happy times were lost to them and to him” [69].), (“The Medici series coheres more, both formally and emotionally, than any of his earlier work, and it became the standard for what was to follow. There is an element of gravitas in the series that he explored further in the more austere boxes of the 1940s and 1950s” [74].).

[85] Cornell – very late in life and only to himself, in private writing – did acknowledge his own nostalgia: “[E]xposure to Surrealism’s philosophy relative to, concern with, the ‘objet’ – a kind of happy marriage with my life-long preoccupation with things. Especially with regard to the past, a futile reminiscence of the [John Stuart] Mill notion that everything old is good & valuable – mystical sense of the past – empathy for antiques – nostalgia for old books, period documents, prints, photographs, etc.” (Joseph Cornell’s Theater of the Mind 387). On Cornell’s nostalgia, see Ashton (“Cornell’s imagery is saturated with nostalgia” [73].); Hauptman (“Something from the past – something romantic – is, the artist explains, more genuine and authentic than anything that can be found in the present” [21].); O’Doherty (“[Nostalgia is] the weakest part of Cornell’s poetics” [9].); Solomon (“Cornell was not a slave to nostalgia but rather its master; what really excited him was a nostalgia for people he had never known, for places he had never been, for an innocence that had never existed” [156–57].). On Cornell’s sense of childhood as a very happy time, see Waldman 86. On his use of memory in artwork, see Waldman 35, 125.

[86] See Waldman: “Is the Medici prince a surrogate for Cornell? Indeed, the lean figure of the Marchese resembles the young Cornell. In an article in the October 14, 1939, the sitter was identified as possibly Piero de’ Medici, whose mother died when he was eight years old. The fatherless Cornell might have felt a connection with this early tragedy” (70–74). This of course does not comport with the sense – or with at least my own sense – that Cornell, in this shadow box, both idealizes and sentimentalizes childhood as altogether happy.

[87] O’Doherty here is alluding to the famous incident in the enormous novel À la recherche du temps perdu (1913–1927) by Marcel Proust (1871–1922) where the narrator first senses, epiphanically, that he can recapture lost time, in all of its fullness and truth, via some type of sensory experience; in this case, it is the taste, in the man’s middle-age, of a type of pastry – called madeleine – that has been dipped in tea and that he can now recall, but only involuntarily, having last enjoyed in childhood. He later – a few thousand pages as well as some years later – comes to think, epiphanically, that he can only ever really do this (recapture lost time in all its fullness and truth) by making (literary) artwork. See Vine 41, on Cornell’s interest in Proust and on Cornell’s own (visual) artwork as Proustian. See also Caws (“The essential scene, forever hypostatized, is set behind the glass of the boxes, its experience untouchable and unchangeable. Like a Proustian epiphany captured verbally, so emblematized, it can be returned to repeatedly, our moments of re-perception being gradually absorbed – as were his own – into its own matter and vision, over time” [46].), (“Cornell’s own numerous epiphanic or ‘Proustian’ moments are central points of his diary, these experiences he is so eager to note before they fade. His scribblings everywhere, his files abulge, and his boxes are based upon his faith in the ‘metaphysics of ephemera,’ a desperate hope of finding, or refinding, what might last, in time regained” [394].). Time Regained is the title – in English translation – of the final volume of Proust’s novel.

[88] See Ashton 123, where the collage element of this work by Kunitz, alongside the verbal element, has been reproduced.

[89] See Caws 109, on Cornell’s desire to represent happiness or even – à la Nietzsche with his hyperbole – joy and rapture. See also Waldman 106.

[90] See Caws: “Cornell’s constant regret about the passing of time and the incapacity of the pen to hold down the moment is undeniably Romantic, but the effort to represent the moment is decidedly symbolist in tone and technique. The boxes themselves suggest the room in which Mallarmé places his Igitur (‘Therefore’), who is about to – and not to – roll a pair of dice. It is a musty room with heavy Victorian furnishings, draped in mourning, yet precious, reeking of absence as well as presence. It has the flavor of a flower symbolically present even as it is actually ‘absent from all bouquets.’ Cornell’s boxes have something of the same aura, with their birds often departed from the perch” (29; Stéphane Mallarmé: 1842–1898). See Ashton 82, on Cornell’s artwork as “wistful.”

[91] See Waldman: “Cornell understood the fundamentals of Vermeer’s art, especially the rigor with which the Dutch master structured his images, his interest in perspective, color, and light, and his painstaking attention to detail. Vermeer created domestic interiors in which the everyday and the commonplace take on the aura of the transcendental and the sublime. One can almost sense the air and feel the light in the room, and his female subjects seem both palpable and inaccessible. Following in Vermeer’s path, Cornell underscored the structural component of his shadow boxes to give free rein to his own highly developed poetic imagery. Cornell emulated Vermeer’s use of genre subjects as well as, in many boxes, the Dutch master’s use of blue, yellow, and white” (74). See also Ashton 87; Lehrman 204.

[92] See Hauptman: “In setting the terms of boundary and division, the box’s walls function as thresholds of shame, embarrassment, and disgust. As for Bacall, the ball inserted at one side not only introduces temporality into the visual field but abstracts a sexual encounter and transforms the spectator into an intruder or participant” (83).

[93] See Waldman 99.

[94] See (accessed July 14, 2014).

[95] On Cornell’s late-period work, see Caws (“In this period the solipsism that has been threatening to engulf the boxes takes over” [351].); Solomon (“Cornell’s final series of boxes … have the trademarks of a ‘late’ style: they combine intense emotion with an outward austerity, while casting a glance toward the heavens” [248].), (“Cornell’s collages from the 1960s are not at the same level as his earlier work and are often marred by mawkish sentiment” [344].); Waldman (“[A] sense of longing and loss … typifies the later works” [42].), (“Although his [late] collages often lack the transcendental quality of his boxes, they retain the same symbolic connections between images” [132].). See also Hartigan et al. 178, 189.

[96] See Waldman: “[Cornell’s] commitment to Christian Science and the belief in matter transformed into spirit [is] at the heart of all of his work” (41). See also Vine: “Cornell inhabited a fallen world, but one sprinkled with tokens of a better time, a higher place. Christian Science gave him earthly solace – and a cosmic model that, in his handcrafted art, became eternity in a box. His ‘white magic’ was realized when a work, to his eyes, embodied – or at least implied – ‘total simultaneous existence,’ all fragments orchestrated into harmony with a spiritual end, a state of pure timeless being. The works are quietly admonitory, showing us that such a state, though impossible in the world, may be apprehended through the world, which is therefore achingly precious for what it conveys” (47, emphasis added). See Solomon 198, on Cornell’s belief in an afterlife.

[97] See Waldman: “Cornell’s working method necessitated the making of variations. He often began with a recollection of a dream, which inspired him to note it in his diary or gather materials from different sources, the whole taking shape after a long period of gestation in his mind” (77). See also Vine 45.

[98] Cornell refers here to the two New York World’s Fairs held in 1939/1940 and then again in 1964/1965 at Flushing Meadows Corona Park, which is not that far from his old home in Flushing. He bought many of the clay pipes used in the Soap Bubble Sets at the first of these fairs. The pipes are used there – autobiographically –to indicate the artist’s own Dutch ancestry.

[99] See Ashton 57, on Cornell’s wishful thinking (about Robert) once Robert was dead. See also the chapter “E di pensier, e di pensier…” in this book, to compare Cornell’s almost lifelong belief in an afterlife – and in a God as well – with Fellini’s eventual disbelief.

[100] The young girl in the drawing or painting dreamt of by Cornell must be either drawn or painted by Cornell himself; given the man’s inability to do such a thing in reality, this is of course another form of wish fulfillment.

[101] See my discussion of this film in the chapter “E di pensier, e di pensier…”

[102] On Cornell’s use of circles and also spiral forms as such a symbol, see Vine 43. See also Waldman: “The circle may stand for the moon and the stars, the flight pattern of birds, a lens or a soap bubble, but it is most impressive as the organizing force for all of the [late] collages in which it is used” (138).

[103] For a different way to think of such icebergs, see O’Doherty: “[In] the static time of nostalgia, unearned emotion … idealizes and savors the past at the expense of the present. Nostalgia’s paralysis, which has an arctic crystal at its center, offers the illusion of movement. It mobilizes the past as a repetitive dream, which can be rehearsed but not quite experienced. Its ache, which the ache of loss, is spurious, since the loss is fictitious” (6–7).

[104] See Hussey, on the “symbolic presence” of Robert in an “unexpected number” of late collages. “A cherub, a cupid, a rocking-horse, a leaping horse, a color somewhere between dark apple and dull autumn-leaf red, a squirrel, a rabbit, a locomotive, all are aspects of Robert’s active participation in the art of Joseph Cornell” (23). Howard Hussey, in the late 1960s, was one of Cornell’s last assistants.

[105] See Hartigan, “Joseph Cornell”: “Just as Cornell had appropriated and transformed reproductions of works by other artists in both his boxes and collages, he similarly developed a dozen collage series based on photostats of his favorite drawings by Robert. In most examples, he modified the images with staining, penciled designs, or paper cutouts. Although not collaborative efforts in the strictest sense, Cornell generally affixed a facsimile of Robert’s signature on the verso of these collages; then he documented his role in the drawings’ transformation through inscriptions on each work” (114).

[106] See Caws: “The innocence of the animal [the rabbit “Prince Pince”] and of his beloved sweet-tempered brother seem to reinforce each other for Joseph Cornell” (393).

[107] See Ashton: “[Cornell’s] special device for suggesting imaginary voyages [is] the freshly minted exotic postage stamp” (111).

[108] See Starr 35, on what white doves represent in work by Cornell.

[109] See Solomon, for a discussion of another late work where a bird seems to represent Robert: “Some of the collages were better than others. Among the stand-outs is The Encounter [1966], in which a gentlemanly mouse in a coat and a hat offers some feed to a little bird. The mouse is not an anonymous creature but Robert’s beloved Mouse King, and the drawing might be understood as an idealized double portrait of the two brothers. The meek and mousy Cornell here becomes a ‘king,’ as if through his act of kindness, and the wheelchair-bound Robert becomes a creature capable of flight” (305).

[110] See <; (accessed July 14, 2014).


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