Offbeat Essays



Joseph Cornell was the so-called outsider and, in fact, rather eccentric visual artist who while most famous for such very beautiful and at times disturbing shadow-box assemblages as Medici Slot Machine (1942) and 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. (By Romantic, here, I mean primarily the situation of intense emotion – as opposed to that of classical reason – as the most authentic source of aesthetic experience. 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 Baudelaire had called correspondances.) 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.

Romanticism, of course, has any number of definitions 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 discussing Cornell – comes from very near the end This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The young and beautiful Eleanor Savage, at this point in the novel, 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.” Such a Romantic person has in other words mastered what Elizabeth Bishop – in the villanelle “One Art” – called the “art of losing.” Such a sentimental person has not done so.

Cornell, moreover, had an unusual sexuality – as well as sentimentality – that, although almost impossible to express in words, he did represent in artwork. I’d like to unpack three of those representations, linking them either to the very young – and unattainable – women (and sometimes even just little girls) whom he desired or to the considerably younger – and also quite disabled – brother whom he adored, and linking them, as well, to both the man’s Romanticism and his sentimentality. (For a much longer version of this essay, see “Monsieur Bonbon” in my book Adorno and the Showgirl. It looks at many more Cornell works than just the three discussed here.)

The first work I’ll discuss, an early-period collage, shows – with the utmost sentimentality – four birds and a girl.


It is, as you can see, 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 that story by Hans Christian Andersen. (Cornell, as it happens, loved such work by Andersen – as well as some collage work that the Dane 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 rather awful mother had already begun to keep, although on a far more modest scale, for that disabled younger brother, Robert, plus the artist’s two sisters. (Their father had long since died. That house was on Utopia Parkway in Queens, New York.)

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. The collage is trite because the images used by Cornell derive from nineteenth-century engraving. It is effeminate both because collage per se is 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 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 Cornell here seems to think that the girl’s awful – by which I also mean rather maudlin – suffering will last forever. 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 about this work. Cornell shows no signs of having yet mastered – in this or for that matter in any early-period work – Bishop’s “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.

The second work I’ll discuss, Medici Slot Machine, may well be Cornell’s most famous one. The middle-period series to which this shadow box belongs – the Medici Slot Machine series – is certainly the most famous of them. This particular box, like all of the ones in its series, is quite classical in style – at least insofar as it is almost perfectly balanced and symmetrical.


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 painting by Sofonisba Anguissola, done in the middle of the sixteenth century. 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 the nearly naked statue from the collage, 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. 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 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. Cornell, incidentally, was pretty much addicted to candy.) It suggests, to some critics, Cornell himself as a clearly pre-pubescent boy. 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’d call 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 of the other.

This shadow box, then, must have been meant by Cornell to be happy. 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 having drawn a mustache plus goatee upon an image of the Mona Lisa; or think of what Andy Warhol, 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. For it is both beautiful and pitiful. And 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 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 did Cornell, as celibate) and maybe even with a tragedy or two to bear, that any sort of childhood ends. This is probably why Cornell preferred showing and sometimes even giving his work to some children he knew. They, at least, or so he imagined, could not yet be saddened by it.

The third work I’ll discuss, a late-period collage, was done by Cornell after Robert died. It shows, in part, a combination of Christian Science belief about the afterlife (both brothers were Christian Scientists) and Jungian psychology. It shows that Cornell, towards the end of his own life, became – as an artist – both less Romantic and more sentimental. By “less Romantic” and “more sentimental,” 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 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.

This collage 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.


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 Joseph 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. Plus that tie is set at what seems to me to be a pretty rakish angle.

The head of the rabbit is surrounded by a very large circle, made by Joseph Cornell in graphite. This circle is set within an indigo-blue border and it suggests – in its symbolism – 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 (the man, who, incidentally, was pretty much obsessed with all things French, never left New York State) and also as he could at least pretend – in artwork – that he had even time-travelled back to nineteenth-century France. 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.

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, perhaps, a guardian angel – and has a sky-blue background. Another stamp features a seashell 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 girls (as well as birds, for that matter) 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. Another stamp features Claude Debussy; 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 composer. (It too has a sky-blue background.) This drawing of Debussy, 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 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 (as in, in French, giraffe) and “z” on the right (as in 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 at all 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. 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. 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. 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 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 this collage. 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.




One could argue – as I would – that almost every film by Federico Fellini is about death, primarily. La strada (1954) concerns the actual death of Gelsomina as well as the spiritual death of Zampanò – her tormentor. Il bidone (1955) concerns the spiritual death and then also the actual death by murder of Augusto, this film’s eponymous “swindler.” Nights of Cabiria (1957) concerns the oncoming death of this film’s eponymous and also somewhat childish prostitute. La dolce vita (1960) concerns the death (by suicide) of Steiner, an aesthete-intellectual as well as a father figure for the journalist Marcello – this film’s protagonist – and then also concerns the spiritual death of Marcello himself. It concerns, too, the near death from what may be a heart attack of Marcello’s actual father. The film (1963) concerns the death – and imagined burial – of the actual father of its protagonist, a film director called Guido. It concerns, too, the both imagined and figurative death – and burial – of an aging showgirl called Jacqueline Bonbon. Toby Dammit (1967) concerns the death in an automobile accident of its protagonist, a drunken actor. Fellini-Satyricon (1969) concerns the death by murder of the roommate and also erotic rival of its protagonist. 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 of its protagonist. And the Ship Sails On (1983) concerns the actual burial at sea of a fictive opera singer – called Edmea Tetua – whom it seems Fellini based on Maria Callas. Or not the burial, per se, as that fictive singer’s ashes – blown away by wind – are actually scattered at sea.

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. And yet just how Fellini represents ways in which we all represent death to ourselves does evolve in curious and ever less childish ways, as can be told most efficiently by looking at, as well as listening to, a few either tomb or graveyard scenes in some films. (For a much longer version of this essay, see “E di pensier, e di pensier…” in my book Adorno and the Showgirl. It looks at many more films than just the three discussed here.)

Nights of Cabiria, from 1957, begins with one man, called Georgio, both robbing and then nearly drowning the protagonist. It ends with another man, Oscar, both robbing and then nearly throwing her off a cliff. About midway through the film, she – along with an unnamed man 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 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 old opera queen would realize – how things might have turned out for Violetta Valéry, in the Verdi opera La traviata, had that extremely well-heeled courtesan not died while young – and also had she been Italian.) 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 man 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. 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. This kind of musical silence in the film can reflect the bewildering void into which the first attempted murder, by Georgio, had thrown Cabiria. Here though, because of the particular music 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.

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 actual childhood – by Cabiria. This by now middle-aged woman – Cabiria looks to be in her thirties – 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 some 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!”

There are actually two graveyard scenes in the 1963 film called . 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. 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 still 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. 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, stays out of it), a revolt during which we hear the very loud and non-diegetic (orchestral) music of “The Ride of the Valkeries” by Wagner – Jacqueline is allowed to perform one final and also very old-fashioned song and dance – the song is called “Ça c’est Paris” – which she does so badly, which is to say in such a pathetic and even foolish manner, that she has to stop about halfway 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 – an alter ego for Fellini – fears that he himself may be as much of a professional has-been as is Jacqueline. He fears, that is, that he is at the very same professional impasse as was Fellini after making the 1960 film La dolce vita. And so, contrary to what D.A. Miller has written in an otherwise brilliant monograph on , the film director in real life is not 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 just 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 the 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? 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 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, I’d say, he is doing both of these things at once.

There are three graveyard scenes in Roma, from 1972, all of them involving figurative graveyards, which unfortunately I don’t have the time to go into today. But I must mention, very quickly, that all three of them present death, discursively, not as a still lifelike and embodied existence that’s probably somewhere other than on the face of the earth – up in heaven or maybe belowground in a grave – but rather as only a quasi-lifelike and disembodied existence. The documentary called Fellini: A Director’s Notebook, moreover, which has one scene set belowground on a subway and another scene set aboveground by some mausoleum, underscores the man’s belief at the time – or perhaps his non-disbelief – in ghosts.

There are two tomb scenes, shown back to back, in Fellini’s And the Ship Sails On – a 1983 film made when, as the film itself makes clear, its director was by now both old enough and wise enough to disbelieve in ghosts. (This is the final film that I’ll now discuss.) The first of these tomb scenes, set in the fiery and therefore rather hellish boiler room of the perhaps titular “ship,” called Gloria N., is set up in an earlier scene where various singers (plus some other passengers) are down in that room for a tour. (I say perhaps titular because the “ship” in the film’s title may refer, after all, to something other than the 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 Gloria N., after all, is a “Ship of Fools” – as was life itself, always but also increasingly so, for Fellini, as the by then sixty-something-year-old man’s own actual death came on.

One mere observer of the séance, the not-so-grotesque Count Bassano, 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. 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 I just mentioned, 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” (for piano), in the second setup scene I mentioned. 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, 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, finds 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, recounts a dream she had in which her brother, the extremely fat and also grotesque Grand Duke of Herzog, is snapped up and then also flown off with by an eagle. The eagle, though, finds the Grand Duke much too heavy to hold aloft 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 Aida) 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 against the room’s wall, we last hear them here singing, quite improbably, a chorus about Violetta’s suffering from Act Two of La traviata), 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 La forza del destino played on the 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 wind in the film Roma, of which there is quite a lot, 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 boiler room 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, she was something of a well-heeled courtesan.) And so when Edmea’s only real professional rival, Ildebranda Cuffari, is asked by some boiler room workers, in the first setup scene I mentioned, 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.” (It means: “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” [which means “next to the sun”].) Aureliano’s own professional rival, a rather fit and handsome mama’s boy called Sabatino Lepori, now tries to outdo him by singing the final words (translated into Italian) of the “Flower Song” from Bizet’s Carmen. Aureliano now tops Sabatino by singing the final words of the aria “Di quella pira” from Act Four of Il trovatore by Verdi. Now some woman other than Ildebranda – Ines Ruffo Salitin – 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 Verdi’s Rigoletto: “La donna è mobile / qual piuma al vento, / muta d’accento / e di pensier.” (This translates as: 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 – 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 himself – is mobile (meaning “flighty”) or unfaithful. (This first irony is of course 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 called 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 here 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 of course 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. (Violetta, while dying, says such a thing to her rather more faithful lover, Alfredo. 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.) 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, even at only forty-something, already 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 the character Steiner from La dolce vita too would have it and also as those boiler room workers would have to experience it – as hell.




Adorno, that Modernist, cries twice – and only twice, I think – in his writings on music. The first time – in writing done when Adorno was still very young – it’s on music by Schubert, composed when he too was young but also very close to death. (Schubert died at age thirty-one, in 1828.) The second time – in writing done when Adorno himself was close to death but also relatively old – it’s on Mahler. The tears involved, each time, provoke – for Adorno – some thoughts or perhaps feelings on sentimentality. These thoughts are negative, at first. The second time, they are not.

The writing on Schubert, an essay called “Schubert,” was originally published in 1928, in the journal Die Musik; in 1964, Adorno had this reprinted in the collection of his work called (after a solo piano piece by Schubert) Moments musicaux. While referred to in German scholarship from time to time after that, the year 1964, it is not referred to in Anglo-American scholarship until about ten years ago, when the essay was first translated into English. In it, Adorno positions Schubert as somehow post-Romantic and even – I myself would say he suggests – proto-Modernist: Romanticism, Adorno claims there, was an age to which Schubert “barely belonged;” and in the two great song cycles by him, Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, “brook, mill, and black winter wastes, expanding in the Nebensonnen twilight” of the second to last song in Winterreise, are – “as in a dream” – all placed outside of time. Unfortunately, says Adorno, both Schubert and the heartbroken male protagonists in those two cycles have been demeaned – not that long before 1928 – through the petit bourgeois and also – I’d say – pre-Modernist “sentimentality” of both a popular novel about Schubert, called Schwammerl, which was first published in 1912, and an even more popular operetta based on that novel and eventually called – in its British version – Lilac Time. (The American version is Blossom Time. By “sentimentality,” Adorno means, I think, the ostentatious, self-indulgent display – by men in particular – of some supposedly inauthentic, unwarranted, irrational, and also, alas, essentially female emotion.) These two sentimental texts, Schwammerl and Lilac Time, mark for Adorno the “endgame” or destruction of Schubert’s lyrical “dreamscape.” They destroy, in particular, the dreamscape of the last song in Winterreise, “Der Leiermann,” a song that also happens to be – I myself would have you know – the only one in this cycle to present, in the present tense and on the very scene of the protagonist’s singing, or perhaps of his speaking, some human being other than the protagonist himself. As you may already know, the protagonist sees in “Der Leiermann” a barefoot, starving-to-death, freezing-to-death old organ grinder. No one here has given this poor man any money, or even just listens to him play. Dogs here just growl at him. Yet he keeps grinding away, on some monotonous tune, and with the protagonist – at the very end – finally asking: “Strange old man, should I go with you? Will you play my songs?” (This question, though, seems posed more to the protagonist himself – or perhaps, as will be seen, to the composer, Schubert, himself – than to this organ grinder.) With these “images of death” from “Der Leiermann,” adds Adorno with reference to both their disheartening sentimentalization and to their pre-sentimental setting by Schubert, “the earth reveals itself: in its direct accessibility, we see the dissolution of nature itself.”

The right response is tears: the desperately sentimental tears of Lilac Time, [but also] 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.

“Der Leiermann,” by the way, features only two chords in the piano accompaniment: a tonic minor triad and a dominant major one. This dominant major triad, though, only ever sounds there, as played from time to time by the right hand, over a drone-like open fifth – derived from the tonic minor triad and played by the left hand – that sounds throughout the song.

“Mahler’s minor chords, disavowing the major triads,” says Adorno in his book called Mahler, “are masks of coming dissonances.” (The book, which itself presents Mahler as proto-Modernist, was published in 1960. Adorno, at age sixty-five, would die in 1969; Mahler, at fifty, had died almost fifty years earlier.) “But the impotent weeping that contracts in them [those minor chords], and is rebuked as sentimental because it acknowledges impotence, dissolves the formula’s rigidity, opens itself to the Other, whose unattainability induces weeping.” We are now a far cry, as it were, from the “untold happiness” of Adorno’s own pre- or, rather, anti-sentimental response – about thirty years earlier in the essay “Schubert” – to Schubert’s minor chords. Other listeners, you may be interested to know, and probably most other ones, according to the song recitalist and also scholar Ian Bostridge in a new book of his on the nearly lifelong “obsession” he has had with Winterreise, respond to Schubert’s major chords the way those disheartened or rather “desperate” sentimentalists demeaned in the essay by Adorno are said to respond to his, Schubert’s, minor ones. This change, of course, this late in life acceptance by Adorno of what he himself had earlier “rebuked” – or demeaned, or perhaps disavowed – as mere sentimentality, may well have been a function of his age at the time of writing the book on Mahler – a relatively old age, as I have said, and hence, as is all too often the case, a relatively downbeat and death-obsessed one – as opposed to his young age, which was relatively upbeat and life-affirming, when writing the essay on Schubert. It may also have been, though, a function of an age-specific change in Adorno’s sense of just who this Other of his – “unattainable” or otherwise – is. In the essay, on the one hand, this Other is Adorno himself – still far from being either death-obsessed or even dead already – at some attainable point in the future: “this music is as it is in the promise of what one day we ourselves will be.” (Chalk that up, perhaps, to the narcissism, or at least egocentrism – plus hopefulness – of youth.) In the book, on the other hand, this Other is some dearly beloved but also, alas, long lost – or no longer attainable – human being other than Adorno, or perhaps than Mahler, himself. “[L]ove and grief,” he also says there, hopelessly yet still egocentrically, “are apt to go hand in hand.” And minor chords – or, rather, minor chords in relation to parallel major ones – are both “equated with suffering” and “symbol[s] of “mourning.”

This is not, for all I know, a bad reading – by Adorno – of Mahler, even if it is a bad or at least unnecessarily lonely, maudlin way to end up one’s own life. But the reading by him of Schubert, or at least of Winterreise by Schubert, or at least of “Der Leiermann” from Winterreise, is rather bad. The reading by Ian Bostridge – for whom Schubert is not post-Romantic – of that song is, I think, rather better. “[W]e feel, and are meant to feel, pity and revulsion in equal measure as we encounter this outcast fragment of humanity with his irritating little folksy tune, droning on and on,” says Bostridge of “Der Leiermann” in his book; “Our compassion is complex, and what ultimately complicates it is the fear that this lonely, squalid figure could be us.” (Bostridge is now, as of this writing, fifty years old.) The reading by Roland Barthes – for whom Schubert is not post-Romantic – of that song is better yet. “Der Leiermann,” says Barthes in an essay from 1976 on art song, “recalls the lover’s great summing up of the figures of discourse.” In his book on a lover’s discourse, published one year after that, Barthes says: “[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.” (Barthes died in 1980, at age sixty-four.) And the reading of it by Charles Rosen – the concert pianist and also scholar – is best of all. “The oncoming presence of death fills the last five songs [of Winterreise],” says Rosen in his book on the Romantic style: “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 [Nebensonnen] 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: “[Strange] 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] by making the poet a miller. By the end of Winterreise, the subject is the composer’s own imminent death, its approach already visible.

Rosen himself died, in 2012, at age eighty-five. That book of his I just quoted, called The Romantic Generation, was published in 1995. My own new book, called Adorno and the Showgirl, will be dedicated to him.

So – a relatively “bad” reading by Adorno of “Der Leiermann.” Put together, though, with the ones by Bostridge, Barthes, and Rosen, it indicates at least one revolutionary – and also Romantic – aspect of art song, or at least of Lieder (German art song), or at least of Schubert’s Lieder. That aspect is this: such music, in the right hands, can prevent the Modernist and now post-Modernist disavowal of whatever so-called “sentimentality” still resounds in it. For as Barthes writes in his memoir from 1975, Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, the reintroduction into current subjectivity of even “a touch of sentimentality” would be “the ultimate transgression … the transgression of transgression itself … [the return of] love … but in another place.” (I myself, as some of you may already know, just love this particular tune by Barthes.) But that “other place” mentioned by Barthes is, for him, as well as for Adorno, among so many others of us, the space, primarily, of private, solitary experience – at least with respect to art song in particular and to Romantic music in general.

Not, of course, that I am the first scholar to have noticed this. Laura Tunbridge, in a new essay called “Saving Schubert,” observes that “[t]he empathy Adorno feels for Schubert – his desire [in the essay ‘Schubert’] to cry in joy and sadness – and his emphasis [there] on the effect this music had on him as a listener has proved inspirational [within the last ten years] for a number of [Anglo-American] writers keen to explore the ways in which we might explain the emotional and aesthetic engagement in terms of interior monologues.” She asks, rhetorically: “How modern is that?” She then explains why this is:

[T]hat is, perhaps, the appeal for Adorno’s readers today. He wrote not about Schubert in the salon, but about Schubert as heard on modern technology that enabled the music to be listened to privately, repeatedly, structurally. An audience of one, he found a kindred spirit in the lone Romantic wanderer.

So, too, to repeat myself perhaps post-structurally, did Barthes – like Adorno, an amateur pianist (in private) as well as professional scholar (in public) – write this way: about Schubert as heard on modern technology when at home or maybe somewhere else alone. (Unlike Barthes, Adorno also composed music – music more like that of his teacher, Alban Berg, than like that of Schubert. Unlike Barthes, moreover, Adorno claims to have been a child prodigy; as such, as I myself can say based on personal experience, he would have played the piano a bit in public back then.) Bear in mind, though, that both Ian Bostridge and Charles Rosen do not write this way. They write, in large part, as men who – in an even more important part of their professional as well as personal lives, more important for them, that is, than that part played there by their research and writing on music when alone, or by their relatively passive listening to music (via modern technology) when alone, or by their necessarily far more active learning of music (via vocal cords for Bostridge and at the keyboard for Rosen) when alone, or even, I would imagine, by their non-live recording of it in studios – are very public performers of music. And so those two must experience it primarily when communicating music to audiences of far more than one in either recital halls or concert halls – and even from time to time reducing such audience members to tears. (Bostridge says of one audience member, hearing him do Winterreise in Moscow: “It may have meant something very particular to him, [or] he may have had an upsetting day, week, or month; but I couldn’t help ascribing it to the mythical Russian soul, that literary trope in which for these people, the emotions lie very close to the surface.” Adds Bostridge, though: “Only that once did I catch someone, just one person, crying in the audience.”) Those two must also, therefore, experience at least Romantic music far more sentimentally there – in either recital halls or concert halls – than when somewhere else all by themselves, or nearly so, and doing any of those other music-related things.

As writers, though, both Adorno and Barthes – like both Bostridge and Rosen as musicians but also as writers – are very public performers. As writers, moreover, they are rather like – to speak metaphorically now – performers of at times tear-jerking art song. Bostridge and Rosen, as much as I love their written work as well, are not rather like this as writers. For instance, that line of Adorno’s about how Schubert “holds up to our blurred, over-brimming eyes the secret of reconciliation at long last,” no matter how incorrect it may be, and that correct line of his, for another instance, about how the “impotent weeping” that contracts in minor chords by Mahler “opens itself to the Other” – well, let’s just say you don’t have to be Russian (or even just Jewish, which by the way Adorno was not) to find them both lyrical and moving. This is not to say, of course, that such lines alone, let alone the larger works in which they are so sentimentally embedded, can move us anywhere near as much as art song. Recall, if you can, and if you’ve ever read it I know that you can, that definition by a true proto-Modernist, Flaubert, from his basically ironic work, Madame Bovary, about a female sentimentalist: “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to inspire pity in the stars.”

“So what?” you may be asking yourselves. I’ll tell you what. I’ll tell you why, rather – even though, ironically enough, it is rather irrational of me to provide reasons for such an emotion – it matters that any form of artwork should make us cry. You already know these reasons, though, I’d imagine. The tearful response to artwork can be a pleasure – a pleasure, moreover, that is not embedded in any personal, very painful grief. This tearful response can remind us that we’re human, or only human, or – for someone like Nietzsche – all too human. (Elephants cry too, by the way, although I don’t know that they do so in response to artwork.) Nietzsche says, in Human, All Too Human:

How strong the metaphysical need is, and how hard nature makes it to bid it a final farewell, can be seen from the fact that even when the free spirit has divested himself of everything metaphysical the highest effects of art can easily set the metaphysical strings, which have long been silent or indeed snapped apart, vibrating in sympathy; so it can happen, for example, that a passage in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony will make him feel he is hovering above the earth in a dome of stars with the dream of immortality in his heart: all the stars seem to glitter around him, and the earth seems to sink farther and farther away. – If he becomes aware of being in this condition he feels a profound stab in the heart and sighs for the man who will lead him back to his lost love, whether she be called religion or metaphysics. It is in such moments that his intellectual probity is put to the test.

The tearful response to artwork may also matter when for some reason – perhaps because the pain of it would be unbearable, perhaps because one is Modernist – one’s own grief cannot induce weeping. “Because I don’t cry very often about anything in my own life, even though such a reaction would be healthy and warranted,” says the scholar Deborah Manion, “I cry fairly easily at books, good movies, masterful songs, etc., and sometimes really intensely and prolongedly. I believe Aristotle. I need the catharsis of a fictional story to help me emotionally progress in my own life. In fact, for my entire life, I have always preferred – by far – music, books, films, etc., that are beautifully, intensely melancholy. I crave them in order to exist.”




My mother, who was born on July 14, 1922, who died on May 3, 2013, and who is now the girl – or rather the grown woman – of my dreams alone, along with some pretty offbeat memories, told me that she once sang as part of a high school group for Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia. The song, she said, was “The Lost Chord.” (This had been composed by Arthur Seymour Sullivan in 1877 at the bedside of his older brother Fred during Fred’s last illness. The manuscript is dated January 13, 1877; Fred Sullivan died less than a week later. The lyrics were written as a poem by Adelaide Anne Procter called “A Lost Chord” and published in 1858 in the English Woman’s Journal.) And then she sang the song for me.

Mom once told me that she had once been a Miss Subways runner-up. (The Miss Turnstiles character in On the Town – played by Sono Osato in the original 1944 stage version of this musical and then by Vera-Ellen in the 1949 film – was based on Miss Subways.) Upon retelling this story, I often claimed that Mom won this contest.

Mom told me that she did once win a dance contest – at age sixteen in some Starlight Park in the Bronx. (She also claimed to have been given the trophy by Mitzi Gaynor, aka Nellie Forbush in the 1958 film version of South Pacific. If so, Gaynor would have been about six at the time. The presenter, then, must have been Mary Martin, or Nellie, from the original stage version.) Mom then performed that routine for me – a jitterbug.

I, shortly thereafter, asked Mom to teach me to dance. Our first lesson began not with the box step or something equally basic, but with the jitterbug. That was also our last lesson.

Mom told me that she’d had boyfriends other than Dad. Did any, I asked, ever propose to her? “About ten did,” she said. One of them, I now presume, must have been a guy named Seymour Pine.

Mom claimed to have gotten good grades in high school, saying the only reason she didn’t get into Vassar – the college of her dreams – was that she was Jewish. Those grades, in fact, were bad.

Dad first saw Mom, the girl of his dreams, she told me, as a cheerleader for Brooklyn College at some basketball game. She then, of course, performed that routine for me. I then, of course, felt the call to become, well, some kind of star myself.

Mom, said Dad, used to look like Lena Horne. Mom herself told me that some Southern bus driver once told her to move to the back of the bus. (Mom and Dad had just married; Dad then went south – to Florida – for basic training; Mom visited him there.) But the driver then saw that she was white and laughed. In my retellings of the story, he does not see this, and so she just moves to the back.

Mom never wore makeup – and nor, with such good skin, did she need to. This was because, she told me, she had once seen a very elegant old woman on the subway. This woman wore no makeup. Mom decided then and there to become just like her.

Mom, at five foot two, claimed to have been a very good basketball player. She claimed, moreover, to have, on various playgrounds, hustled men playing the game. Dad said it’s true.

During World War II, Dad was stationed in the Aleutian Islands. My oldest siblings – the twins Ricky and Micky (Eric and Maureen) – were born while he was out there. Upon returning home to the Bronx, he suggested they all move to Alaska. Mom said no. Who can blame her? But a pattern began, it seems to me, of Dad not getting what he needed. She would later say no to a proposed move from Queens to Scarsdale because there are no subways up there, to a move to Manhattan where of course there are subways, to a vacation home near Lake George because she’d rather camp up there and at any rate doesn’t want to take care of a second house, and to a boat to use there because, well, it might sink.

Mom liked to joke that, when pregnant with the twins, she was wider than she was tall. Even at five foot two, this is hard to picture. She must have meant wider around than she was tall.

Brother Bob, born three years later, soon developed meningitis. Upon recovery, some doctor advised Mom to now never say no to Bob. Otherwise, the kid might get mad at her and have a relapse. This doctor probably meant for Mom to now never say no to Bob for a period of weeks or maybe even months. She, though, understood him to mean never say no to Bob for the rest of his life.

When Steve was born, eleven years after Bob, it soon became clear – I was later told – that he never wanted to eat anything. This, I’d later joked, may have had something to do with Mom’s cooking. The only thing Steve would eat until he was about three were milk shakes that Dad made for him. And these would have eggs thrown in for extra protein. When Steve was twenty, he once complained to Mom about being only five foot eight. (Dad was over six feet tall, as are Ricky and Bob. I myself at the time was already five ten.) “Well,” she told him. “You would be taller if you’d ever had anything other than milk shakes!

I myself was born – when Mom was thirty-eight – just two years after Steve. He would eventually tell me that I had been an accident. When I reported this to Dad, he joked that we were all accidents. And when I reported Dad’s joke to Mom, she said that I, at least, had been had on purpose, “to keep Steve company.”

Mom spoke strangely, I noticed early on. She never really conversed with anyone; she had monologues. These monologues were stories about either her past life or her work now as a teacher of emotionally disturbed children at a school in Queens called the Lifeline Center for Child Development. (She had gotten a masters degree in psychology shortly before Steve was born. Dad, I later learned, had had to write Mom’s thesis for her. Those emotionally disturbed kids were either autistic or schizophrenic.) And most such stories were about either how someone allegedly evil – usually Dad’s mom – did something terrible to her or how Mom herself did something great for someone great, like sing for Mayor LaGuardia or dance for Mitzi Gaynor. Mom tended, too, to fracture speech, much like the character Mrs. Malaprop in the 1775 play The Rivals. (Mom once said in all seriousness, “Mothers are the necessity of invention.” She meant, of course, that necessity is the mother of invention.) Dad, in fact, used to call Mom “Mrs. Malaprop.”

The Lifeline Center was just a few miles from our house. Mom, therefore, preferred riding her bicycle to work over driving there – even throughout winters. And when she did have to drive somewhere, she would avoid highways by taking the service roads next to them whenever possible. Highway traffic frightened Mom.

One time, when I was about twelve, Mom was driving me alone to the Hebrew School at Jamaica Jewish Center – Steve, you see, had already been bar mitzvahed – when she suddenly said, “You may have noticed that you’ve begun to develop secondary sex characteristics.” I told her to knock it off, which she did. And then she never mentioned it again to me. But nor did Dad ever mention puberty – or even just sex – to me.

Mom used to swim at Jamaica Jewish Center. Technically, I suppose, she should not have, as she was its only lifeguard. But she swam very, very slowly – frequently the backstroke – so she could see pretty well what was happening around her while swimming. Each day she swam, she’d swim the exact same number of laps and then cross off the next box on these fifty-mile swim cards she used to carry.

Mom, in general, was a creature of habit. During summers, she’d drive us every weekend to the Bronx Zoo. During winters, she’d take us every weekend – by subway – to either the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the east side of Central Park or the Museum of Natural History on its west side. She’d also take us every weekend throughout the year to our local library.

Mom – and Dad – would also take us to concerts. At these, Mom would always be the very first to stand up and shout bravo, brava, or perhaps bravi – depending on the gender of the instrumentalist or singer, as well as on the number of them. She always seemed, to me, determined to demonstrate her mastery of those distinctions. She also seemed to consider cheering a competitive sport, like basketball.

Dad became very depressed when I was about fourteen, and so began seeing a psychoanalyst. This guy – Dr. Train – determined that analysis alone wasn’t working well enough, and that Dad should also have electroshock treatment. When, afterward, Mom visited Dad in the hospital, she told him – he later told me – that he would “have to get better soon” because she “can’t take this anymore.” He later told me, as well, that he found this very selfish of her.

They seemed, to me, to stop having sex after the electroshock. I once overheard an argument between Mom and Dad that confirmed this suspicion. But they were now arguing a lot, in general. One time, Dad was in his study and talking on the telephone when Mom tried to go in there and vacuum. He more or less pushed her out of the room and shut the door. She then opened the door and threw the vacuum cleaner at him. He then didn’t speak to her for a week. And so she more or less cried for a week. This made me very angry – only at Dad, whom I stupidly confronted about his silent treatment.

Dad arranged, when I was seventeen, for my very first summer job. (Other summers, I’d practiced the piano in a futile attempt to become, well, a concert pianist. This, said Dad, wasn’t work. It was just play.) I’d be a file clerk at some insurance company on Wall Street. As it happened, I got very sick – with shingles – just before the job began. I could barely move, and when I did move was in a lot of pain. So when, at five minutes to five on my very first day, the vice president of that company, whose name I forget, asked me – in what seemed to be a kind of test – to help him carry some enormous desk to the basement, I told him that it was now too late for any work and that at any rate I wasn’t being paid to move furniture. Dad was horrified when I reported this to him, saying I was being paid to do whatever that guy wanted me to do. Mom, though, was pleased. “Fuck ‘em,” she cheered. “Fuck ‘em all!

I came out as gay to Mom and Dad when I was eighteen. I had called them from my dorm room at Yale, senior year. They were both on the line. I had something important to tell them, I said. But I couldn’t say it. All I could do was cry. “Do you want us to guess?” asked Mom. Yes, I did. “Are you sick?” she asked. No, I wasn’t. “Are you failing some class?” she asked. No, of course I wasn’t. “Are you sexually attracted to men?” That was it! “Is that all?” she asked rhetorically. “That’s nothing to cry about. All your brothers went through this.” “Did Dad?” I asked. There was silence on the line. “Well, of course he did,” Mom finally said. Dad himself said nothing.

When Steve died at twenty-one, it seemed to all of us that he had killed himself. Both Mom and Dad – ashamed – said not to tell anyone this. I, of course, ignored this advice and told pretty much everyone. Years later, though, I learned that his death – much like my conception, allegedly – was an accident. I learned, too, that Steve too had in fact been gay; it was not just some phase he had “gone through.”

“Look,” Mom snapped, upon my later mentioning some little non-sexual problem I was having with a boyfriend. “I am not your friend, I’m not your therapist – and I don’t want to hear about it!” So much, then, for Mom’s “Is that all?” So much, then – one must confess – for my ever wanting anything more to do with the woman.

“You realize, don’t you,” Dad asked me soon after that little non-conversation, “that your mother is crazy?” He meant this, I knew, quite literally. He then proceeded to describe Mom’s craziness. Years later, I learned that it has a name. Two names, in fact. Mom had both a borderline personality disorder and a narcissistic one. (The borderline personality displays, among other things, extreme black-and-white thinking as well as instability in relationships, self-image, identity, and behavior. The narcissistic personality displays a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a need for admiration, and a lack of empathy.)

When Dad died – on July 4, 1993 – his last words, according to Mom, were “I don’t feel so good.” I sort of wish they were “I don’t feel so well.” I wish, too, that I had been there.

After Dad died, Mom started showing signs of dementia. She also started – at various weddings of grandchildren – competing in the bouquet toss. This, of course, was rather unseemly for a woman in her seventies and now eighties. Even more unseemly was that she not only tried to win, but often did win these contests, one time doing a victory lap around the dance floor, bouquet held high above her head as if the thing were a trophy, and then shaking it at some poor young loser. And so one time, to prevent such shenanigans, I literally twisted her arm behind her back to keep her off the playing field. I don’t think, though, that anyone saw me do this.

Mom also began dating Seymour Pine. The two had not seen each other since the Depression. He had been a wrestler back then, at Brooklyn College. He became a New York City police inspector after World War II. As such, he led the raid on the Stonewall Inn, inadvertently causing the so-called Stonewall Riots in 1969 that in turn caused the gay rights movement. Seymour – or “Sy” – now proposed to Mom … again. But she turned him down, again, not wanting to “have to take care of anyone anymore.” He then broke up with her, finally realizing that she was no longer the girl of – well, if not his dreams, then at least of his own memories.




The reader, the thinker, the loiterer, the flâneur, are types of illuminati just as much as the opium eater, the dreamer, the ecstatic. And more profane. Not to mention that most terrible drug – ourselves – which we take in solitude. (Benjamin, “Surrealism”)

I’ve begun to find the loneliness of cruising almost unbearable, my own loneliness as well as that of others. Strolling for sex, I now sense a terrifying solitude my potential partners share — or that I imagine they do. “Empathy,” according to Benjamin, “is the nature of the intoxication to which the flâneur abandons himself in the crowd” (“The Flâneur,” in Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn [London: New Left Books, 1973], 55). The flâneur, he writes, is the man who fills the empty space created in him by isolation “with the borrowed — and fictitious — isolations of strangers” (“Flâneur” 58). I also find electronic cruising unbearable, chat rooms equally empty spaces I appreciate Aaron Betsky having called, if not unbearable, “unreal” (Queer Space: Architecture and Same-Sex Desire [New York: William Morrow, 1997], 182). I’m that old.

So I’ve been considering an erotic space in which I’ve never felt lonely. I’ve been remembering episodes — real ones — involving New York City subways: the queerest, if not the cruisiest, space of my urban childhood, adolescence, and youth. Episode One (childhood): Broadway Local, evening rush hour, 1966. I crawl onto the lap of a black man and fall asleep. He pretends to be oblivious, according to my mother. Episode Two (adolescence): F train, evening rush hour, 1973. I’m molested on the way home from high school by a white man. I pretend to be oblivious. Episode Three (youth): Lexington Avenue Express, morning rush hour, 1986. I’m cruised by an Arab man on the way to work but don’t speak to him until we both get off at Grand Central.

I’ve also been remembering literary episodes, real as well as unreal. I’ve been considering subway episodes in The Motion of Light in Water, Samuel Delany’s 1988 autobiography, and in The Swimming-Pool Library, Alan Hollinghurst’s 1988 novel. (Hollinghurst and I are Ronald Firbank fans. Delany and I went to the same high school.) Delany thinks subways themselves stroll. He pictures them in adolescence at his own pedestrian pace:

July dawns you could still wander the small streets [and see] fires here and there beside one or another still-standing tenement wall. Off beyond the Jacob Riis Houses … the East River’s sluggish oils nudged the city’s granite embankments or bumped the pilings beneath the Williamsburg Bridge: girder, cable, and concrete rose from among … the movie marquees on Delancey Street to span the night waters — where cars and subways and after-dark cruisers took their delicate amble above the blue-black current banked with lights — before striking deep into Brooklyn’s glittering flank, above the Navy Yard. (The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village: 1960-1965 [New York: Richard Kasak, 1993], 19)

Delany also pictures subways as somewhere to ogle strangers and cultivate friends — the former no surprise to anyone who’s ever ridden one, the latter no surprise to anyone who’s attended a “special” public high school. (Kids at schools like ours — Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, Music and Art — use public transportation for up to several hours a day.) He can recall having looked “at hands on bus drivers, … on a friend in school, on subway conductors, [and] on strangers across from me on the train — black, white, and Hispanic — for years” (72). (The man is a hand fetishist.) And he can recall — with irony — having fictionalized an underground communion with Joey, a sexy pal also portrayed as an idle, isolated flâneur:

Not much happened to Erik Torrent as he made his way through the pages of [the novel] Lost Stars …. Mostly he wandered around the city, thinking about his problems with his mother …. I’d made him fifteen, rather than fourteen — who could possibly be interested in the adventures of a fourteen-year-old (my age — and Joey’s — when I began it)? Also there was no way to tell, from reading it, if Erik did or did not go to school. (Who could possibly be interested in reading about something as dull as school? Even a school like [Bronx] Science.) From time to time he sat in the subway station, having deep and intense conversations with his brilliant, witty, compassionate, but darkly troubled (and always nameless!) friend. (76)

Yet shortly after graduation — not to mention shortly after dropping out of college, not to mention after marrying Marilyn Hacker (another Scienceite) — young Delany begins to see subways as terrifying. He develops a “subway fixation” (374), a fear of either falling or throwing himself under one. The fixation, however, isn’t merely phobic. It’s a phobic attraction:

By the end of October ’64, while Marilyn went to work …, I was making one or two circuitous, ambling trips each day to the Second Avenue subway station at Houston Street …, where, finally, past the turnstile, I would sit at the top of the stairs from the underground concourse to track level, clutching the banister rails, feeling myself drawn to the platform, while some unlocatable force impelled me down, pushed me to throw myself before the next incoming train. When, below, I saw the first cars rush in roaring beside the platform, I’d hug my chest and face to the bars and hold my breath till I broke into a sweat. (I didn’t want to kill myself. Nothing in my life specifically dissatisfied me — making the compulsion even more unnerving!) I only realized how much I needed help one evening when a young policeman came up and pried me loose from the bars I was holding with his billy club to shoo me out of the station with the logical question that, in my obsession, I’d somehow never asked: “If you’re afraid of the subways, why do I see you come sit here every day?” (306-307)

Delany did get help, from a therapist named Dr. G. And he and Hacker did separate.

Delany never actually cruises the subway in this autobiography. Nor does Delany’s alter ego in the novel The Mad Man (1994), even though he cruises every other part of the city. It’s a failure — or success — that reminds me of Benjamin, who strolls into and out of, but never on, the Paris Métro. (“Is there anyone who has not been stunned, emerging from the Métro into the open air, to step into brilliant sunlight?” he writes in One-Way Street. “And yet the sun shone just as brightly a few minutes earlier, when he went down.” [Selected Writings, vol. 1, 1913-1926 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 484]) And while Will Beckwith, the aristocratic flâneur who narrates The Swimming-Pool Library, does cruise the London Underground with considerable success, those subway episodes are framed by ones that emphasize his isolation — in particular his isolation from the heteronormativity Delany finally transcends, ironically enough, by transfiguring the subway he’d found so frightening. (Beckwith would prefer to use a car, the vehicle Betsky calls “the ultimate icon of cruising” [148], but is driven undergound by having had his license suspended. “So I made the best of the Tube,” Beckwith writes, “and found it often sexy and strange, like a gigantic game of chance, in which one got jammed up against many queer kinds of person. Or it was a sort of Edward Burra scene, all hats and buttocks and seaside postcard lewdery. Whatever, one always had to try and see the potential in it.” [The Swimming-Pool Library (New York: Random House, 1988), 47] Dr. G. helps Delany by having him imagine the subway as transformative. “Think of what it does,” he says. “You’re walking through one part of the city. Now you suddenly go down steps, underground. You can’t see anything of the world above. Then, after a loud, racketing ride, you suddenly come upstairs, like a swimmer breaking through the surface. You walk out and everything is completely different — changed. You’re in a whole new place. Now you say you’ve been taking the subway here to the hospital every day. That’s very brave — maybe unnecessarily so. But the next time you come, as soon as you go down the steps, don’t let yourself get lost in where you are. Forget about being afraid or not being afraid …. Concentrate on your destination [instead].” [333]) True, Beckwith does make the best of it, ignoring an “older [white] admirer” who nearly molests him in between Bond Street and Notting Hill Gate on the Central Line (“one of the strap-hangers, a man whom I spotted eyeing the erection which even the shortest journey on tube or bus always gives me, inclined to swing or jolt towards me as the train lost or gained speed, and the pressure of his knee on mine, and of his eyes in my lap, irritated me” [93-94]), picking up a younger white admirer in between Notting Hill Gate and Holland Park (they don’t converse until they both get off), and otherwise abandoning himself to the intoxicating, if fictitious, isolations of strangers. “I was certainly not alone in this carriage in sliding my thoughts between the legs of other passengers,” he writes. “Desires, brutal or tender, silent but evolved, were in the shiftless air, and hung about each jaded traveller, whose life was not as good as it might have been.” (269) But the novel begins with a primal scene none of this activity eradicates — a scene in which an initial fantasy of the isolation of black men who actually work for a living is corrected by two others: a fantasy of their vocational communion, and a fantasy of their domestic communion with wives. (Beckwith prefers to remain idle; he also prefers black men.)

I came home on the last train. Opposite me sat a couple of London Transport maintenance men, one small, fifty, decrepit, the other a severely handsome black of about thirty-five. Heavy canvas bags were tilted against their boots, their overalls open above their vests in the stale heat of the Underground. They were about to start work! I looked at them with a kind of swimming, drunken wonder, amazed at the thought of their inverted lives, of how their occupation depended on our travel, but could only be pursued, I saw it now, when we were not traveling. As we went home and sank into unconsciousness gangs of these men, with lamps and blow-lamps, and long-handled ratchet spanners, freakishly functional, rolled slowly and clangorously forwards from sidings unknown to the commuter. Such lonely, invisible work must bring on strange thoughts; the men who walked through every tunnel of the labyrinth, tapping the rails, must feel such reassurance seeing the lights of others at last approaching, voices calling out their friendly, technical patter. The black was looking at his loosely cupped hands: he was very aloof, composed, with an air of massive, scarcely conscious competence — I felt more than respect, a kind of tenderness for him. I imagined his relief at getting home and taking his boots off and going to bed as the day brightened around the curtains and the noise of the streets built up outside. He turned his hands over and I saw the pale gold band of his wedding-ring. (1)

And the novel’s final subway reference involves a similar scene in which the black man’s erotic attention has turned from wife to child:

I told [James] of a thing that had happened on the train. It was while I was coming to see him and had taken place just in front of me, an ordinary thing and yet calmly beyond the turmoil of my own mood, in fact wonderfully self-sufficient and entire. Among the crowd that got on at Tottenham Court Road were a black couple with a baby: they took the two places against the glass partition, so that the man and I sat … knee to knee. Once he had looked at me politely as I shifted to make room for him he had no interest in me at all — and I hardly took notice of him. His wife held the impassive and very young child in her arms: despite the heat it was dressed in a quilted one-piece suit, but with the hood back. My thoughts were all elsewhere, though I saw the man, about thirty, I suppose, lean over the baby’s open flawless face, and smile down on it, out of pure pleasure and love. His fingertips moved from his own softly bearded lips and gently stroked and almost held within their span his child’s lolling wispy head. His other hand lay loosely in his lap, and it took me a while to see that he was hiding and coaxing — yes — a hard-on in his respectable grey slacks. I was not aroused by this; but did I dwindle, if only for a moment, in the fact of their glowing, fertile closeness? I felt perhaps I did. (279-80)

All these episodes — my own, Delany’s, Hollinghurst’s — suggest that although the subway isn’t the kind of space Betsky calls queer, and although it isn’t somewhere flâneurs stroll, it is, to be a bit obvious, unique, uniquely urban, and uniquely erotic. And to be less obvious, if rather optimistic (or nostalgic), the subway is a space, perhaps the only space, in which gay (or proto-gay) men can both discover their sexualities and discover that these sexualities involve (fictitious) forms of communion — of intimacy — that don’t, or needn’t, necessitate — or necessarily precipitate — the kind of sexual communion which can seem equally fictitious, if only afterward. (What about women? What about flâneuses? That’s not for me to say, and both Betsky and Benjamin imply that there’s nothing to say.) For Betsky, queer public space is a deformation of otherwise useless space, an appropriation for the perverse purpose of gay sex. It’s also, like queer private space, the domain of middle class white men. This doesn’t describe the subway, an otherwise useful space whites no longer dominate and in which one can’t have sex. For Benjamin, the flâneur, unlike the pedestrian who “wedges” himself into the crowd, “demand[s] elbow room and [is] unwilling to forego the life of a gentleman of leisure” (“Flâneur” 54). The flâneur, moreover, controls his locomotion. This does not describe the usual subway rider, a worker — or student — who either sits or stands, in no position (during rush hour) to demand elbow room, and at the mercy of a machine that does the strolling for him, only much too quickly and according to a predetermined course.

Who, then, can help us understand the subway, annotate the Underground, commemorate the Métro itself? De Certeau, perhaps, who writes about the “travelling incarceration” of the railroad (The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984], 111). (Benjamin, in a passage similarly informed by Baudelaire’s sense of “spleen,” calls the train station a “prison-world” [“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” trans. Harry Zohn, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1968), 236].) For de Certeau, railroad cars, like subway cars, enable erotic speculation: “the strange fables of our private stories” (112). But because they contain private toilets, railroad cars, unlike subway cars, also enable passengers to have sex: “Only the restrooms offer an escape from the closed system. They are a lovers’ [sic] phantasm.” (111) For de Certeau, railroad cars, like subway cars, enable fantasies of individual autonomy: “the Robinson Crusoe adventure of the travelling noble soul that [can] believe itself intact because it [is] surrounded by glass and iron” (114). (Beckwith’s impression of the “self-sufficient” integrity of the black family, as opposed his “dwinding” sense of self, is both anomalous, given that subway riders usually travel alone, and indicative of the author’s subliminal homophobia.) But because one sees cities, towns, and landscapes through that glass, railroad cars, unlike subway cars, are saddening: they proffer “the (‘melancholy’) pleasure of seeing what one is separated from” (114). Subway tunnels, of course, are dark (“You can’t see anything of the world above;” there are no “phantasmagorias of [protean] space” in which to abandon oneself, no crowded scenes in which “the city is now a landscape, now a room” [Benjamin, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” trans. Edmund Jephcott, Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed. Peter Demetz [New York: Schocken, 1978], 159, 156]), subway windows are reflective, other passengers one’s only prospect. In other words, subway riders see themselves alone, yet imagine themselves together. And they’re glad to do so.

A note on seeing. Benjamin wasn’t saddened by seeing what he was separated from while taking a “solitary ride” on a Moscow street car.

I was feeling quite contented with this forced, nearly pointless trip through a part of the city with which I was completely unfamiliar. For the first time I noticed the absolute similarity between certain parts of the outskirts and the harbor streets of Naples. I also saw the enormous Moscow radio transmitter, whose shape is different from any other I have seen. On the right side of the avenue that the streetcar was following there were occasional mansions, on the left side were scattered sheds or cottages, open field for the most. The village character of Moscow suddenly leaped out at you undisguisedly, evidently, unambiguously in the streets of its suburbs. There is probably no other city whose gigantic open spaces have such an amorphous, rural quality, as if their expanse were always being dissolved by bad weather, thawing snow, or rain. (Moscow Diary, trans. Richard Siebarth, ed. Gary Smith [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986], 112)

Nor was Benjamin gladdened by the subway-like experience of not seeing through a Moscow street car window. “Through the ice-covered windows you can never make out where the vehicle has just stopped. If you do find out, it is of little avail. The way to the exit is blocked by a human wedge.” (“Moscow,” trans. Edmund Jephcott, Reflections, 112) Two appropriate responses to these passages are that Benjamin and de Certeau needn’t agree with one another, and that riders always know where subways stop, because they see station signs along the platforms. (If Imagist, they see — and imagine — other signs as well. To quote “In a Station of the Metro,” by Pound: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.” ) But it’s also important to recognize that Benjamin prefers to see cities, or at least to eroticize city-dwellers, in fleeting glimpses — a preference we may not share, a visual pleasure we may wish to prolong. “The delight of the city-dweller,” he writes, “is not so much love at first sight as love at last sight” (“Flâneur” 45). And public transportation, as Benjamin himself acknowledged, tends to prolong the fleeting glimpse:

“Interpersonal relationships in big cities are distinguished by a marked preponderance of the activity of the eye over the activity of the ear. The main reason for this is the public means of transportation. Before the development of buses, railroads, and trams in the nineteenth century, people had never been in a position of having to look at one another for long minutes or even hours without speaking to one another.” This situation was … not a pleasant one. (“Flâneur” 38, quoting Georg Simmel)

A note on imagining. Although neither Benjamin nor de Certeau helps theorize Delany’s subway fixation, common sense — if not personal experience — does. Common sense (which Barthes denigrates as doxa) tells us that the subway — New York’s in particular — is an especially terrifying and potentially dangerous space, “haunted by the specter of disaster” (Rosalind Williams, Notes on the Undergound: An Essay on Technology, Society, and the Imagination [Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990], 187). Both criminal and technological catastrophe lurk at the back of the mind. Is he going to mug me? Is he going to murder me? Are we going to crash? Why are we stalled? What if there’s a track fire? What if there’s a bomb? It’s a long, almost unconscious litany. And so if the railroad, as de Certeau suggests, “combines dreams with technology” (113), the subway combines both dreams and nightmares with technology — a unique combination that must result in a wider range of fixations and fantasies, or phobic attractions, than Delany’s alone can represent. I, for one, along with other Science-ites, have always been fascinated by the infamous “third rail.” Touch it — just touch it — and you die.

Dreams and nightmares. We’re speaking metaphorically, of course. Even though, despite the litany, it’s easy to snooze there — a function of the narcotic quality of uncontrollable locomotion as well as of the fact that sleep enables us to fully ignore irritating invasions of personal space, and even though the tunnels are dark, subway cars are too bright — too fluorescent — to seem nocturnal. No flickering gaslight. No nineteenth-century noctambulisme (“Flâneur” 50). No rider appears other than he is. No one appears as you may envision him. And no one now emerging from the Métro is stunned to be stepping into brilliant sunlight. Seeing and imagining, in other words, remain distinct, nonphantasmagorical, because the use of a subway isn’t like the use of a back room. It’s not like the “descent” to la chambre noire where, according to Barthes, “I invariably expose my loneliness” (Incidents, [Paris: Seuil, 1977], 105).

I also keep remembering another episode — a recurrent one. A recurrent and rather prolonged dream. Episode Four (adolescence): F train, evening rush hour, 1973 through 1976. Two severely handsome young men, both in blue jeans and flannel shirts, both softly bearded (one’s a redhead, one’s a brunet), both white, I’m afraid — two young men always sit opposite me in between Roosevelt Avenue and 179th Street. Are they coworkers? Are they college students? Invariably, their knees touch. Do my thoughts slide between their legs? Not yet. I think they’re friends. I think they’re more than friends. I think — and it doesn’t occur to me that I’m being heteronormative, homophobic, or racist — I think they’re my future. No, not “think.” Hope.




What, if anything, is Gide doing in The Immoralist (1902/1921) that Michel alone couldn’t be were his a “true” confession? (Doing to us, primarily, but to himself as well.) What, that is, other than “stating a problem,” to cite the author’s somewhat disingenuous preface? Michel, ostensibly, is asking his friends for help, but doesn’t really seem to want it. (“Tear me away from this place now, give me some reason to live. I myself no longer know where to look. I may have liberated myself, but what does it matter? This useless freedom tortures me. It’s not – believe me, it’s not that I’m tired of my crime, if that’s what you want to call it; but I must prove to myself that I have not exceeded my rights.”) His friends want to help (in fact, they’re duty bound to do so), but also feel that Michel’s confession has “legitimized his actions,” turning them, the friends, into unwilling “accomplices,” and that they “simply [can’t] condemn him” for two transgressions moralists find reprehensible: fooling around with pretty boys and letting Marceline die. Ultimately, Nabokov – or Humbert Humbert, another pedophilic widower given to literary confession – can help us answer this question. But first, let’s review the “performative” nature of true confessions, as well as that of several other late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century literary ones.

“True” confessions are abject speech acts in which one assumes, or must assume, theologically, juridically, and psychoanalytically transgressive subject positions (sinner, criminal, pervert). They needn’t be read symptomatically, excepting the psychoanalytic context. They needn’t be public, excepting the Protestant one. They’re monological. They’re true, presumably – but for the fact that all such identity formation involves false consciousness. (Confessors necessarily “misrecognize” themselves as sinners, criminals, perverts.) And along with identity formation, true confessions – within these institutional contexts – compel condemnation, absolution, conviction, or cure. Within non-institutional contexts (nowadays, we also “confess” our love – or lust – for one another), these speech acts may compel analogous responses (condemnation, forgiveness, help), but also, and more clearly, require some sort of affect on the part of both interlocutors – love, pity, anger.

Literary confessions play with, and against, all these rules of discursive formation. However, they almost always require symptomatic reading. (The récit form, in particular, is essentially ironic; Michel, for example, doesn’t recognize, as we do, just why he finds boys so pretty, or enjoys watching them steal.) They may even demand such a reading. (Derrida, in Circumfession (1991), wonders “what I am looking for with this machine avowal, beyond institutions, including psychoanalysis, beyond knowledge and truth, which has nothing to do with it here.” Buddy, in Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction (1959), warns us that, “A confessional passage has probably never been written that didn’t stink a little bit of the writer’s pride in having given up his pride. The thing to listen for, every time, with a public confessor, is what he’s not confessing to.”) Literary confessions, moreover, are inherently public. (According to de Man, literary confessors – Rousseau in particular – seek “a stage on which to parade [their] disgrace.”) They’re dialogical. (Yourcenar’s anti-Gidean Alexis [1929] – a private, monological récit – is anomalous. Interestingly enough, Yourcenar couldn’t write its companion volume: a response by the forsaken wife asked for forgiveness by her secretly gay husband.) They problematize truth, as Derrida, of course, indicates. (According to Foucault, “We have passed from a pleasure to be recounted and heard … to a literature ordered according to the infinite task of extracting from the depths of oneself, in between the words, a truth which the very form of the confession holds out like a shimmering mirage.”) And they oppose institutional pressure. (According to Kristeva, “Power no longer belongs to the judge-God who preserves humanity from abjection while setting aside for himself alone the prerogative of violence … Power henceforth belongs to [confessional] discourse itself, or rather to the act of judgment expressed in speech.”) In other words, writers like Gide tend to be rebellious – and to either transform or transvalue transgression.

Take The Kreutzer Sonata (1889). Tolstoy’s wife murderer – a jealous cuckold – ultimately requests forgiveness of his listener, a traveling companion who transmits the murderer’s long, analytical confession to us. The listener seems to oblige, touching him with his hand (a gesture of absolution) and feeling both pity and sorrow. We, however, understand such forgiveness to be irrelevant. The true point – as Lawrence Kramer demonstrates in After the Lovedeath – is that male sexual violence is a product of patriarchy, and that patriarchy itself – not Pozdnyshev – is to blame. Which makes us angry – at patriarchy. Guilt-ridden Pozdnyshev doesn’t quite get this: he demands the narrator’s forgiveness both because the judicial system has failed to punish him and because he can’t forgive himself. Neither does the narrator seem to get it.

Is Gide’s point, then, that what we now call “heteronormativity” is to blame for Marceline’s death? Possibly, which may have been what made Yourcenar angry – at Gide.

Or take De Profundis (1897), a confession I refuse to consider “true.” Wilde (Ménalque of The Immoralist), in the guise of writing his own, manages to write the confession of Lord Alfred Douglas, a pretty boy who, to cite The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1989), “killed the thing he loved,” to (pretend to) forgive Douglas for having done so, and, understandably enough, to prevent us – now too angry at “Bosie” for any such generosity of spirit – from forgiving him as well. Wilde’s speech act, then, is doubly vicarious: the victim does the victimizer’s confessing for him (a move popularized by television talk shows); the reader does the writer’s feeling.

Is Gide’s point, then, to prevent us from forgiving Michel – or at least from becoming his accomplices too? Possibly. I’ve no doubt Yourcenar was angry at both Gide and Michel. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine Gide as angry at Michel. If he was secretly angry at any character, it would have been at his alter-ego’s wife – which would help explain both why he made Marceline so virtuous and why he lets her die.

Or take Confessions of Zeno (1923). Svevo’s anti-Freudian anti-hero isn’t exactly transgressive, although he does “betray” his wife. Nor is he much of a victim, although he thinks of himself as one. (We know better.) What Zeno really feels compelled to confess – by a forsaken psychoanalyst Zeno believes incapable of curing him, and who publishes the confession in order to “annoy” (i.e. punish) Zeno – is that he’s a failure. He’s a failure as a husband. He’s a failure as a lover. He’s a failure as a friend. He’s a failure as a son. And, most amusingly, he’s a failure at quitting cigarettes. But even though Zeno never manages not to smoke, he does succeed in life. Not, however, because the confession per se ever does any good. (For Svevo, there may never be anything – no “truth” – to confess; and even if there were, confessional writing, in and of itself, may never be therapeutic.) Not because Dr. S. ever does any good; in fact, no authority figure does. (For Svevo, there is never any cure within the work of psychoanalysis, only punishment. But what about within the work of art?) Ironically enough, Zeno succeeds because, without really trying, he eventually succeeds at business. (“It was my business that cured me, and I should like Dr. S. to know it.”) The irony, of course, is at the doctor’s expense; we now know to take Zeno at his word.

Is Gide’s point, then, that Michel’s friends couldn’t help him – as opposed to condemn him – even if they hadn’t become accomplices? Or that no one duty bound to help such a confessor (institution or no institution) can ever really help? (In other words, that no one socially positioned to do good is in a good position to do so.) Or that if help ever does come, it will not have been because Michel – even assuming he does want it – happened to have called for it? Possibly.

And take Lolita (1958), the most complicated literary confession of all. Humbert addresses both Lolita (admitting that although he did rob her of a childhood, he does love her) and the jury called upon to pronounce him guilty of murdering his own alter ego (admitting that although he did kill – or, rather, execute – Quilty, he must have been insane at the time). In addition, he tells the jury about Lolita, and Lolita about the murder. And he seems to want a wide range of self-contradictory performative responses from all these listeners (one of them, the jury, institutional and public; the other, Lolita, non-institutional and private): he wants conviction, acquittal, condemnation, forgiveness – and above all, understanding. As for affect, he wants their/her (especially her) anger, pity, and above all, love. (Needless to say, like Zeno, he also wants to amuse.) Nabokov also seems to want all these things from us. But what does he – Humbert – want from himself? What is he trying to do to himself? Like Svevo – or Zeno – he doesn’t consider confessional writing especially therapeutic – at least, not in the sense of curative. He considers it, at best, a work of art, which for him means – not “beauty plus pity,” that old chestnut – but something even more specific: “I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.” (So much for amusing himself.) “Palliative” – now that’s an interesting word. It means either an extenuating representation (think of the way Wilde excuses himself), or that which alleviates pain without eliminating disease (think of the temporary relief Pozdnyshev affords himself – no doubt, he’ll be telling his tale to other strangers on the train). In other words, that which performs something “true” confessions, according to the rules of discursive formation, aren’t really supposed to, but something even they often do. Something peri-performative, to cite Sedgwick.

I confess: I consider The Immoralist another such work of art – but for the fact that it isn’t amusing at all. Michel, too, and probably Gide as well, sees nothing for the treatment of his misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art, which is another reason – the main one – why he doesn’t really seem to want help. As such, the novel teaches us not only about homoeroticism at the turn of the last century, but about the performative – and peri-performative – nature of all confession – both true and untrue – excepting, perhaps, this one. But you, my attentive symptomatic listeners, my fellow ironists, would know better than I whether that last bit (“excepting, perhaps, this one”) is a bit of a lie.




As a lazy, juvenile reader of nineteenth-century fiction, three terms I’d never look up – lozenge, reticule, and ha-ha – confused me to the point of distraction. What were those enormous cough drops doing on carriage doors? What were those women always fiddling with? And what were those strollers always so surprised to discover – and worried about falling into? As a Bronx Zoo devotee, of course, I saw ha-has all the time; they used to prevent animals in the newer exhibits from killing me – and one another. But I never knew their name.

I now know, as you probably do, that the ha-ha, or dry trench, helped transform the eighteenth-century English garden from its traditional Continental formality into an irregular landscape; that it was widely employed both as a means to create visual continuity between a stately home and the surrounding parkland and as a practical device to keep the cows off the lawn; and that it gradually disappeared in the nineteenth century. I also know that its name derives from the supposedly pleasant surprise of finding one’s way into the park suddenly blocked by a heretofore invisible barrier – as opposed to, say, by an iron fence or box hedge. (I used to think, mistakenly picturing the ha-ha as a kind of booby trap, that people must have laughed their heads off at all the hapless individuals who fell in.)

I’m attracted to the ha-ha – even though, to be honest, I’ve never actually seen (or failed to see) one in a landscape garden – for two reasons. Like many of you, I imagine, I have a deconstructive mind, and so I’d be interested in any boundary-troubling, context-enlarging device to be found in the real world. But as an obsessively – and neurotically – neat person (or freak, perhaps), I’m also (still!) somewhat devoted to the no doubt spurious notion that a historically unprecedented, widespread demonization of obsessive order occurred in the early twentieth century – thanks in large part to Nietzsche (with his privileging of the Dionysian character) and also to Freud (with his pathologizing of the anal character). I’m devoted, too, to the notion that this new ideology first emerged here and there in the nineteenth century. (I’d call the shift epistemic, not paradigmatic; I don’t imagine, for example, that it merely represents one phase of the continuous yet irregularly paced “spiral movement” through classical and baroque styles which Heinrich Wölfflin writes about in his Principles of Art History.) And it isn’t so much the actual disappearance of the ha-ha I associate with that emergence – after all, the more ha-has, the messier the landscape (or should that be: the fewer, the messier?) – as it is the imaginary reconfiguration thereof.

In the eighteenth century, the ha-ha enabled what would come to be called organic form. Since the area bounded by the ha-ha (as at Stowe, Castle Howard, Claremont, and West Wycombe) was usually nonrectilinear in shape and asymmetrical in design, and since the device usually extended without perceptible break, it functioned to symbolize the classical ideal of form as a nonschematic, unarbitrary, and relatively unobtrusive compromise between what is included and what is excluded. Form, in this view, isn’t the consequence of content “poured into a Procrustean mold; it is rather the natural and logical expression of content justly stated and developed” (Tilden A. Russell, “On ‘looking over a ha-ha,’” The Musical Quarterly 71.1 [1985], 29). One’s attitude toward the ha-ha, moreover, was directly related to one’s attitude toward nature. For in this period there was a shift in aesthetics from the picturesque, exemplified by the mature landscape garden, to the sublime, exemplified by the natural landscape. So whereas Walpole delighted in the landscape garden because it brought the surrounding (sublime) countryside into an artistic relationship with the (picturesque) garden itself, for Schlegel the chief failing of the landscape garden as an art form was its naturalness. (“This inextricable mingling of nature and art could, it seems, only be so extraordinarily delightful in an age that does not acknowledge the necessity for strictly observing the eternal boundaries between them.”)

In Mansfield Park, written shortly after the turn of the nineteenth century, we find Jane Austen fiddling, not with her reticule, but with these conceptions, and suddenly finding everything either out of control (messy) or all too in control (neat) – and so not making a whole lot of sense. Fanny Price, Edmund Bertram, and Mary Crawford, touring Sotherton as part of a landscape improvement scheme and passing through a planted wood “laid out with too much regularity” (yet designated “the wilderness” with no irony I can detect), suddenly come across a ha-ha. (There were two ways a ha-ha could be, or seem to be, breached, and hence two ways organic form could be upset: [1] a garden path leads up to the ha-ha but doesn’t cross it; [2] a path leads across it, but a gate bars the exit. Austen invokes the latter.) Edmund, otherwise articulate, starts “blunder[ing] on the border of repartee.” Mary begins to exaggerate wildly – a form of “feminine lawlessness.” Fanny decides to stay and enjoy the view (she finds that “to sit in the shade on a fine day, and look upon verdure, is the most perfect refreshment”), but the view, for some reason, is less than sublime. (All we really know is that there’s a knoll with an oak grove on it out there – very picturesque.) Mary, however, claims – paradoxically – to be enervated (“Resting fatigues me. I have looked across the ha-ha till I am weary.”) and then leads Edmund back into the “wilderness.” (We later learn that they come upon an unlocked gate and, in a somewhat transgressive maneuver, explore the surrounding park, where they find the very avenue of oaks Fanny herself would very much like to see before Rushworth improves it into oblivion.) Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram come upon Fanny, decide to explore the park themselves, find the nearby gate locked (“That iron gate, that ha-ha,” Maria tells Henry, “give me a feeling of restraint and hardship.”), send Rushworth (Maria’s fiance) back for the key, find they can’t wait for him, and, despite Fanny’s fearful warning (“‘You will hurt yourself, Miss Bertram,’ she cried, ‘you will certainly hurt yourself against those spikes; you will tear your gown; you will be in danger of slipping into the ha-ha.’”), clamber around the gateposts – a thoroughly transgressive maneuver – and run off toward the grove. Julia Bertram arrives shortly thereafter and, as enamored of Henry as is her sister, does the same.

Many critics have discovered the difficulty – yet the necessity – of restraint here. The few who notice the ha-ha, the path leading up to it, and the locked gate comment on the “moral dilemma to the visitor when the world beyond beckons particularly strongly” (Russell 31). Or they comment on the “centrifugal force of directionality” versus “the centripetal force of containment” (Russell 33). What they don’t discover is the momentary – and, for Austen, uncharacteristic – privileging of disorder over (what would come to be called) “obsessive” order. For whereas the disorderly oak grove would appear no more attractive a goal than the orderly avenue, there is no other reason I can see for that wilderness to be too regular. (Too regular for a “wilderness,” to be sure; but surely no more regular than that avenue.) Nor do these critics stop to consider that Fanny’s fears seem rather irrational (Maria “will certainly hurt [her]self against those spikes” – and yet she doesn’t) – or if not irrrational, hysteric (Fanny “cries” the warning). Or if not hysteric, neurotic. For all we know, of course, Fanny’s never actually seen a ha-ha before (Austen, presumably, had), let alone anyone clamber over one – and so Austen appears both to be poking fun at the character’s ignorance of the relative safety of her cousin’s stunt and to be pointing out the price Fanny – that neat freak avant la lettre – pays for staying put, well within bounds. The girl never does get to see her beloved oaks all in a row. In other words, she never really lives – much, one is tempted to add, like Austen herself, although Austen (unlike Fanny) was compensated for this loss by having been a gifted – and, of course, orderly – writer.

To return, however, to the disappearance of the ha-ha (along with that of the sublime as an aesthetic – or epistemological – category): In Wood and Garden, a book published just before the turn of the twentieth century, landscape gardener Gertrude Jekyll writes that the most important thing a country house should have is a large unbroken lawn which “stretches away a good distance from the house, and is bounded on the south and west by fine trees; away beyond that is all wild wood.” Toward the southeast, the wood simply “pass into shrub plantations, and farther still into garden and wild orchard.” Nothing, it would appear, certainly no ha-ha, separates the countryside from any cultivated area. Now, you’re probably wondering, What about the cows? What’s keeping them off the lawn? (I don’t know; and if any of you do, or you know why cows no longer posed a problem, please tell me.) You may also be wondering about the untidiness of such a (lack of) separation. But since, as in Mansfield Park, Jekyll’s “wild wood” is nearly as picturesque as the “fine trees” and “shrub plantations” it contains, there’s little point to separating them. (“[A]ny quite wild stretch of forest land,” Jekyll writes, is a precious lesson “in the best way of tree and shrub planting. No artificial planting can ever equal that of nature, but one may learn from it the great lesson of the importance of moderation and reserve, of simplicity of intention, and directness of purpose, and the inestimable value of the quality called ‘breadth’ in painting. For planting is painting a landscape with living things; and as I hold that good gardening takes rank within the bounds of the fine arts, so I hold that to plant well needs an artist of no mean capacity. And his difficulties are not slight ones, for his living picture must be right from all points, and in all lights.”)

In other words, organic form is all, and obsessive (geometric) order anathema. Although Jekyll appreciates neatness in moderation and in its place – for example, she “always admire[s] the neatness with which [hoop-makers’] bundles are fastened up” – she frequently demonizes it with a vengeance. In a chapter aptly titled “The Worship of False Gods,” she rails against obsessive horticulture: “Then the poor pansies have single blooms laid flat on white papers, and are only approved [at flower shows] if they will lie quite flat and show an outline of a perfect circle.” Or again, and more hysterically: “What is prettier in a room than one of these [azaleas] in its little tree form, a true tree, with tiny trunk and wide-spreading branches, and its absurdly large and lovely flowers? Surely it is the most perfect room ornament that we can have in tree shape in a moderate-sized pot…. But the show decrees that all this is wrong, and that the tiny, brittle branches must be trained stiffly round till the shape of the plant shows as a sort of cylinder. Again I ask myself, What is this for? What does it teach? Can it be really to teach with deliberate intention that instead of displaying its natural and graceful tree form it should aim at a more desirable kind of beauty, such as that of the chimney-pot or drain-pipe, and that this is so important that it is right and laudable to devote to it much time and delicate workmanship?”

Jekyll’s jeremiad may remind you of Thomasina Coverly, the juvenile heroine of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a play published just before the turn of the twenty-first century. Thomasina, a mathematical genius (and chaos theorist avant la lettre) who lived in Austen’s day and age, is interested in discovering formulae for the shapes of actual flowers and trees. As she tells Septimus Hodge, her tutor: “Each week I plot your equations dot for dot, xs against ys in all manner of algebraical relation, and every week they draw themselves as commonplace geometry, as if the world of forms were nothing but arcs and angles. God’s truth, Septimus, if there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell, and if a bluebell, why not a rose? Do we believe nature is written in numbers?” Or again, and more hysterically, after Septimus has reminded her of Hobbes’s assurance that geometry is the only science God has been pleased to bestow on us: “Oh, pooh to Hobbes! Mountains are not pyramids and trees are not cones. God must love gunnery and architecture if Euclid is his only geometry.” Stoppard’s stance, moreover, may remind you of Austen’s: both of them are incredibly neat (tidy, orderly) writers paradoxically attracted to organic form and chaos. (On the other hand, even chaos theorists are really only interested in the order that either arises from or is hidden within chaos. Stoppard himself, for example, has the twentieth-century characters in Arcadia desperately trying to figure out what happened with the nineteenth-century ones.) But Stoppard’s overt demonization of neatness is far more sustained than Austen’s – and also more so than Jekyll’s. What did happen with those nineteenth-century characters, for example, is far more complicated than the neat little theories most of the twentieth-century ones – Bernard Nightingale in particular – come up with.

Bernard is one of us – an overly ambitious and rather sexist nineteenth-century specialist who thinks he knows all the answers – and as such is poked fun at throughout the play. This begins even before he enters, when he nearly drives his car into the ha-ha at Sidley. (The fact – if it is a fact – that it must be difficult to drive into a ha-ha, just as it must have been difficult for Maria to fall into one, seems to be part of the joke. But maybe another part of the joke is that order – and in particular concealed yet spurious order – can be dangerous.) And the fun continues when he first meets – and tries to charm – Hannah Jarvis, an independent feminist studying landscape improvements there.

HANNAH: I’ve been in the ha-ha, very squelchy.

BERNARD: Ha-hah!


BERNARD: A theory of mine. Ha-hah, not ha-ha. If you were strolling down the garden and all of a sudden the ground gave way at your feet [you can see where I got that booby trap idea], you’re not going to go “ha-ha”, you’re going to jump back and go “ha-hah!”, or more probably, “Bloody ‘ell!” … though personally I think old Murray was up the pole on that one – in France, you know, “ha-ha” is used to denote a strikingly ugly woman, a much more likely bet for something that keeps the cows off the lawn.

Hannah, however, has more interesting – or at least, academically respectable – reasons for hating the ha-ha. She’s studying the improvements (with special attention paid to a hermitage actually and eventually inhabited by Septimus) in order to write about Romanticism, and in particular, as she explains it, about:

HANNAH: The whole Romantic sham, Bernard! It’s what happened to the Enlightenment, isn’t it? A century of intellectual rigor turned in on itself. A mind in chaos suspected of genius. In a setting of cheap thrills and false emotion. The history of the garden says it all, beautifully. There’s an engraving of Sidley Park in 1730 that makes you want to weep. Paradise in the age of reason. By 1760 everything had gone – the topiary, pools and terraces, fountains, an avenue of limes – the whole sublime geometry was plowed under by Capability Brown. The grass went from the doorstep to the horizon and the best box hedge in Derbyshire was dug up for the ha-ha so that the fools could pretend they were living in God’s countryside.

Clearly, for Hannah if not for Stoppard himself, the “sublime” has nothing to do with Burke’s category. It doesn’t even have anything to do with the picturesque, because the character seems to be equating it with the beautiful. She would though: as we can tell from this and other passages that reflect her (now nostalgic) longing for classical (if not obsessive) order, she’s a neat freak, a character we’ve been taught to ridicule, if not despise.

But we’re not taught to do so by Stoppard – despite the demonization of neatness and valorization of chaos the play otherwise reflects. (One way it does so is purely visual: the set gets messier and messier as paraphernalia from both centuries accumulate. By the end, the table there “contains the geometrical solids, the computer, decanter, glasses, tea mug, Hannah’s research books, Septimus’s books, the two portfolios, Thomasina’s candlestick, the oil lamp, the dahlia, the Sunday papers …”) For it is Hannah alone who (secretly) figures out what happened with all the nineteenth-century characters, including that Septimus inhabited the hermitage. In other words, only the orderly comprehend chaos – an irony it may take a neat freak (like myself) to detect, and, I’d argue, a rather subversive message in this day and age.




I have wondered from time to time if Carmen’s first audience, in 1875, were at all bothered by smoke. In Act One, as you may know, somewhat slutty “cigarette girls” emerge on break from a factory to sing the praises of that vice as well as vocation, take more than a few work-related drags, and take in, perhaps, a couple of dragoons. Until recently, though, all I knew of this primal scene was that the women then in the role, unused to smoking anything, apparently choked their way through the chorus. I knew, too, that neither were they used to singing and strolling at once, and so they both choked and stumbled through it.

It is, I know, an odd thing to wonder: not important, nor even clearly interesting. Yet I’d always, like Nietzsche, loved opera, this one of Bizet’s – again, like Nietzsche – in particular. I’ve also always hated cigarettes – Kents in particular, the brand my father not only smoked but chain-smoked. He died of or rather was killed by them – much as Carmen herself no doubt would have been, had she not been stabbed to death beforehand, or had she been, even before that, a real person. In fiction, though, with the story by Prosper Mérimée upon which the Bizet is based, she was the first female character, whether femme fatale or not, to have ever both so sexily inhaled and then, ahhh, exhaled such a death-stick. In opera, then, she was also the first such character – along with those cigarières. But she was also – if only at the Opéra-Comique – the first female character, whether smoker or not, to have died onstage.

Unlike Nietzsche, though, I’ve never gotten to see Carmen on any stage or rather in any theater small enough … or rather I’ve never sat close enough anywhere to see or rather sense for myself if one could, or at least now can, not only see and hear the so-called “cigarette chorus” but also – presumably to one’s disgust – inhale the stinkin’ thing. My first live Carmen – apart from ones heard on radio – was at the enormous Metropolitan Opera House, in Manhattan, with Marilyn Horne in the title role and I believe Leonard Bernstein conducting. But we, my mom and I, sat way, way up – and back – in “family circle.” My most recent such Carmen was at the only somewhat less enormous Lyric Opera of Chicago, with Denyce Graves in that role. Our seats there – my husband’s and mine (Iowa, now, permits same-sex marriage) – were closer to the stage than before, but, well, no cigar.

And so, having some time on my hands but nothing more interesting or important to do with it, I determined to find an answer. Being a scholar – of Proust among others – and knowing, therefore, a bit of French, I began with early reviews. These, in fact, were interesting – but only insofar as they show just how smart you can be while writing something stupid. I’m talking here, about those hatchet jobs. There were, however – though the myth of Carmen along with that of Bizet’s death shortly after the premiere (a heart attack at thirty-six) ignore this – rave reviews as well. None, though, whether good or bad, mentioned the stench (or aroma, as the case, in fact, may have been). For the only remark at all close to doing so was:

Les choeurs sont en général tourmentés et ambitieux. Par ce seul fait, ils n’arrivent guère au but, et, sauf de petites phrases courtes, notamment dans le choeur des soldats au premier acte, ils n’ont pas été bien compris. Il y en a cependant un qui par sa couleur tranchée et originale mérite d’être cité: c’est celui des ouvrières fumant la cigarette et faisant l’éloge de la fumée; cette mélodie sent le tabac d’Orient, elle est distinguée et très-neuve d’effet.

I next figured that Nietzsche must have written or at least said something on the subject. His olfactory system, after all, was – one might argue, as Nietzsche himself almost did – the key to the man’s philosophy. “I was the first to sense – smell – the lie as a lie,” he writes in Ecce Homo. “My genius is in my nostrils.” Or to quote Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet: “Nietzsche put the scent back into sentimentality, and he did it by the same gesture with which he put the rank and the rancid back into rancor.” Plus Nietzsche himself admits, in The Case of [or rather Against] Wagner, that he’d gone to over twenty performances of the (after Wagner, now beloved) Bizet. These, as it happens, were in Italian theaters – Genoa, Turin – that were small enough for him, if possible, to have detected that cigarette smoke no matter where he sat.

Nietzsche did, turns out, write something on – and literally on – that chorus. For whereas The Case of Wagner has no as it were nose for the number, some handwritten comments by Nietzsche, made to a musical score of Carmen that he for some reason then sent to the composer Heinrich Köselitz, do have one. (The Case of Wagner, though, contains related bits. Nietzsche writes disparagingly there of this eponymous composer’s too “seductive force” – because, figuratively speaking, “smoke clouds of incense” so often surround Wagner that one needs “to open the windows a little. Air! More air!” He then lists, in a footnote, four things as “repugnant” to him as either snakes or poison – “tobacco smoke, bedbugs, garlic, and [Christianity].”) Those comments, at any rate, include, next to the “cigarette chorus,” an exclamation that it’s like a “breath of air from the garden of Epicurus – but what an idealization!” (“Dies Chorlied wie ein hauch aus den Gärten Epikurs. Erwägen Sie, was hier idealisirt ist!”) This, of course, sounds ironic – or maybe just sophomoric – of Nietzsche. To quote Frederick Love, though, a Nietzsche scholar, it may even – or also – reflect a certain supposedly sophisticated “condescension” to Bizet.

So much, then, I thought, for Nietzsche. What about Proust? That man, as a teenager, not only fell in love with classmate Jacques Bizet, son of the by then dead composer, he also later wrote, in À la recherche, as I myself could recall, on both cigarettes and also just about any odor you can imagine. A “cold and almost sooty smelling” public bathroom, for example, reminds teenage Marcel of his “Uncle Adolphe’s little sitting-room at Combray, which had indeed exhaled the same odor of humidity.” Yet when Odette, as the as yet unnamed “lady in pink,” had – earlier on – told Adolphe she liked only the cigarettes some Grand Duke gave her and then, after drawing one from a case “covered in gilt lettering in a foreign language,” smoked it right in front of both that man – or, to be honest, “John” – and his little nephew (all three of them were in a “smoking room,” as our narrator calls it, although Adolphe called it his “study”), old Marcel, that narrator, to my surprise, mentions no memory – unpleasant or otherwise – of any related odor. Odette, by the way, had been originally named “Carmen” by Proust. A few years later, then, Odette returned to Swann some cigarette case that he’d left at her place – having written along with it, in a “florid” hand in which “an affectation of British stiffness imposed an apparent discipline upon its shapeless characters, significant, perhaps, to less intimate eyes than his, of an untidiness of mind, a fragmentary education, a want of sincerity and decision” – “Why did you not forget your heart also? I should never have let you have that back.” Nor was any such mention – of cigarette-smoke odor – made there by her. Nor is there anything anywhere in this enormous novel – according to the index – on the odor of anyone’s cigarette smoke, let alone that of any such odor from Carmen. Nor is there anything here on such an odor in general. It’s a lacuna, I confess, that I don’t quite understand, and so about which I may – this is a threat, not promise – have to write yet another article. Or maybe even, like Proust himself, an entire book on it. (The Forgetting of Fags Past, I’d call it. Or maybe L’Air du temps.)

The only Bizet reference by Proust, by the way, can be found in “The Captive.” “Meanwhile Ski had sat down, uninvited, at the piano, and assuming – with a playful knitting of his brows, a distant gaze and a slight twist of his lips – what he imagined to be an artistic air, was insisting that Morel should play something by Bizet. ‘What, you don’t like it, that boyish side to Bizet’s music? Why, my dearr fellow,’ he said, with that rolling of the r which was one of his peculiarities, ‘it’s rravishing.’ Morel, who did not like Bizet, said so in exaggerated terms and (as he had the reputuation in the little clan of being, though it seems incredible, a wit) Ski, pretending to take the violinist’s diatribes as paradoxes, burst out laughing. His laugh was not, like M. Verdurin’s, the choking fit of a smoker. Ski first of all assumed a subtle air, then let out, as though in spite of himself, a single note of laughter, like the first clang from a belfry, followed by a silence in which the subtle look seemed to be judiciously examining the comic quality of what was said; then a second peal of laughter shook the air, followed presently by a merry angelus.”

So much, for now, for Proust. I then wrote – via e-mail – to an older Parisian singer, also named Marcel, whom I’d met years ago but hadn’t spoken to since:

You may remember me as Robert’s “little brother” – though I’m over fifty now! I’m contacting you because I have a question you may be able to answer: Were any audience members at the premiere of “Carmen” actually able to smell the cigarettes smoked on stage by those female chorus members? As I remember, with fondness, the private tour you gave me [in the eighties, back in my twenties] of the Opéra-Comique, backstage, I figure you probably know the place well enough to also know that answer. (Ironically, I learned today that the Opéra-Comique will again do Carmen very soon. If only I could get my own nose over there, which I can’t, I wouldn’t have to bother you now.)

I was almost undoubtedly wrong, as you’ll see, about that last assertion. Marcel, at any rate, quickly responded that the orchestra pit there was narrower then, in 1875, than nowadays. “Donc on devait sentir ces odeurs dans la salle!

Still, though, one wondered. And so I wrote my Parisian friend Michèle – an ex-smoker of, of course, Gitanes. Would she, I asked, attend that forthcoming Carmen, give it a good sniff, and report back to me? She would, she promised. She’d even take her own soon-to-be husband, Pierre-Paul – a soon-to-be ex-smoker of, of course, Gauloises. (Richard Klein, in his book Cigarettes are Sublime, provides a good analysis of what the Gitanes or “gypsy women” brand has to do with Carmen, and what the Gauloises has to do with such soldiers as her would-be husband hence stabber Don José.)

Meanwhile – it occurred to me that the year 1875 may have preceded, perhaps by as much as a decade, the introduction of electricity to theaters. So the Opéra-Comique, at the time of the Carmen premiere, probably still used gaslight. In fact, I learned, it did. In fact, I learned, that gas really reeks – more or less like ammonia. In fact, there were lots of (other?) horrible odors back then – wafting off the stage and into the auditorium, off seat- and floor-coverings there, off audience members themselves, or wafting in off streets and courtyards, or even, worst of all, up from drains below. Good ventilation, moreover, was as yet almost unheard of. To quote one near contemporaneous complaint, an 1898 report on theaters by some New York City Consulting Engineer for Sanitary Works:

One of the usual defects has reference to the site or location of a theatre, for the site frequently decides the location of the places from where the fresh air for the audience is taken. Many of the older theatres are located in the middle of a city block, with only one side fronting on the street. At the back or side of the building there is often a small, dark, ill-aired court, obstructed by rubbish and accumulation of disused stage scenery, and which is frequently used as the only available urinal accommodation for the stagehands. How can it be possible to provide suitable inlets for fresh air for the audience in such courts where the air must be of necessity foul? Quite often odors from neighboring restaurant kitchens or from stables, extend to this court, and rush up to the stage whenever a door is opened. Therefore, the isolation of the building, at least on three sides, is very desirable, not only for safety’s sake, but to provide efficient ventilation.

In the understage we often find other sources for bad odors, such as defective or leaky sewer pipes, untrapped floor cesspools, and abominable panclosets. The contaminated air will naturally rise to the stage, and rush into the auditorium whenever the curtain rises, or when the orchestra exit door to the understage is opened for a moment. I know of at least one theatre in Greater New York where each time the curtain rises a strong whiff of sewer air greets the audience.

The plan of a theatre building often is of necessity such that the auditorium has few, if any, windows to the outer air, which could be used for air-flushing when the house is not occupied. As a result of the shortcomings just mentioned, theatre audiences are obliged to breathe for several hours in succession a noxious compound of the products of combustion due to gas illumination, and of the respiration and perspiration of hundreds of people, some of them doubtless in need of a thorough washing, while many are clothed in ill-smelling and dirty underclothes.

During a performance the atmosphere thus becomes stuffy and oppressive beyond description. It is stated upon good authority that chemical analyses show the air in the dress circle and gallery of many a theatre to be in the evening more foul than the air of street sewers.

Behind the curtain, the worst forms of unsanitary conditions often exist. The stage floor is full of dust, which is but rarely thoroughly swept, and becomes stirred up by the constant shifting of scenery, by the rolling up of stage carpets, by the moving of furniture and set pieces, by the dancing, etc. In the auditorium the carpets, upholstery of the seats, and the box decorations and hangings become saturated with the vile odors, plausibly causing sore throats to persons in the audience susceptible to such ailments. Plush seats and floor carpets of public places are harbingers of dust and disease germs, such as those of tuberculosis.

Note the non-mention, here, of the odor of any tobacco smoke – from cigars, cigarettes, Tiparillos. But to quote, in full, one later complaint, a 1912 letter, to the Editor of the New York Times, from some “C.D.” of Bayonne, New Jersey:

I am glad to see that one of your correspondents has raised the question of the lack or ventilation in the [old] Metropolitan Opera House, especially in the upper galleries. The overheating is bad enough, the temperature being too high at all times, but the absolute lack of ventilation is much worse. The air in the family circle is foul and unfit to breathe, and the rear part of the balcony, just below, is still worse. On the occasion of Titta Ruffo’s debut last week all the corridors of the family circle were filled with tobacco smoke, not only from the toilet room and the outer lobbies, but by men smoking openly in the main lobby. It is a rare thing for a window or door to be opened anywhere, either during or between the acts.

Granted that the ventilating system of the Metropolitan Opera house is defective, and that to remedy it effectually might be too costly, there seems no reason why the existing facilities for ventilation, such as they are, should not be utilized to the fullest possible extent, a few thermometers being installed, and certain ushers detailed to maintain a reasonably low temperature and as full a supply as possible of fresh air. The enforcement of the rule against smoking not only in the main lobby and the elevators but in all rooms and halls opening directly into the main lobby would do much to keep the air more pure.

I’m not sure, nor can I discover, just how ushers were to have done that (“maintain a reasonably low temperature and as full a supply as possible of fresh air”): perhaps by a combination of opening windows (or “air-flushing”) and fanning fresh ice. Note, though, the non-mention here, by this time, of any odor other than that of tobacco smoke. I submit to you now, as a Foucault scholar, that there may have been an “epistemic shift” sometime between 1875, with Carmen, and 1912, with, among other things, the sinking of Titanic, a shift from a time when tobacco smoke of any kind, if sensed in both conjunction and contrast with a host of more clearly “foul” odors, as it would have been in theaters, probably smelled pretty good, to one when such smoke, if no longer sensed that way (due to a combination of improved ventilation, sanitation, and personal hygiene), probably smelled, as it has always done so to me, pretty bad.

Michèle, turns out, got tickets to the wrong Carmen. For along with the Bizet there’d also be something at the Opéra-Comique called Rouge Carmen. She, of course, was quite upset and embarrassed by this. Nor did – or could – she enjoy this (to her) surprise performance. Pierre-Paul, though, had the presence of mind to pose my question to some usherette. That woman’s answer: “Yes, monsieur, in the ‘real’ Carmen you do smell such smoke from the audience.” (This, though, as you yourselves now know, for now, is not to say you necessarily could have done so at the premiere, what with all that unrelated stench, as I now thought, possibly masking it.) But what had he, Pierre-Paul, thought of Rouge Carmen? “Il faut faire la part des choses; nous pensions voir un opéra et au dernier moment c’était … autre chose,” he wrote via e-mail. “Pas moyen d’annuler les billets le jour même, bien sûr, ni d’en prendre pour le ‘vrai’ spectacle; la location était ouverte depuis un an, la salle complète depuis trois mois.

Alors Carmen, Rouge, malgré ce mauvais départ ? Dispositif minimal. Une plateforme circulaire, couverte de sable, posée en légère oblique, entourée de quelques chaises. Sept personnages: Don José (morne, désabusé, assez cry baby); Carmen (pas le physique, pas le regard, pas rouge); Escamillo (drôle de torero chanteur de flamenco, plus très jeune, gras); et quatre contrebandiers/musiciens (tambour, trompettes pour la corrida, guitare pour l’Espagne) parfaits.

Surtout, c’était très plat. L’acteur figurant Don José – grand, très occupé à ne pas tomber – passait le plus clair de son temps à réciter des passages de la nouvelle, sans conviction. Entre les textes, quelques dialogues, un peu de musique et de chant, des roulements de hanches, des simulacres de corrida: Don José soudain viril, torse bombé, une main à la hanche et l’autre tenant une épée, couverte de la mantille de Carmen (pas le physique, pas le regard) …

Pas beaucoup d’émotion, pas de moments de bravoure. On s’est un peu ennuyés.

And what about that ouvreuse? “Elle était jeune, très brune, dans une modeste petite robe noire; pas de mantille, pas d’éventail, pas de castagnettes, pas de boucle d’oreille. Pour l’odeur, je n’étais pas assez près. Mais elle avait le physique, les yeux …

Ha, ha, ha. I now sent Pierre-Paul, as an attachment, a draft of this entry thus far. I wanted him to see his role, here, as comic hero – as opposed to that of the tragic anti-hero Don José. In response, I learned – though not of course for the first time – just how stupid I myself can be while writing something smart. For, as I should have inferred from “C.D.” but clearly needed a non-scholar like P.-P. to spell out for me, the Opéra-Comique, at the first Carmen, would have already been so full of the probably still pleasant smell of both cigars and cigarettes and maybe even pipes smoked by of course men alone in the audience, along, once again, with unrelated stench, that no one there – male or female – could possibly have sensed if any more such odor was now coming over the footlights. “En 1875,” il m’a dit, “les hommes non-fumeurs étaient l’exception.”

On fumait partout, y compris dans les théatres, et l’“odeur générale,” surtout dans des lieux publics bondés, était probablement beaucoup plus forte qu’aujourd’hui. Pas étonnant, donc, que personne n’ait mentionée – ou même remarqué – l’odeur de tabac, même en provenance de la scène. Et il était normal que des cigarières fument, à la pause, méme devant la porte de la fabrique, n’étant pas considérées commes des femmes très respectables.

The man added, as well, that he’d been a bit too hard, in that earlier message, on the derivative anti-hero he’d only both seen and heard. “J’ai été un peu dur pour – l’acteur – ‘figurant’ – Don José, car le personnage qu’il incarne est pitoyable, et il ne se débrouillait pas si mal (c’est plutôt la mise en scène qui était légère).




As in Shakespeare, there aren’t many mothers in opera. And most of them make Joan Crawford look like Mildred Pierce. Marcellina would marry Figaro, her own son. Norma would kill both her children. Azucena really does kill them. And the less said about the Queen of the Night the better.

Why so few? Probably because mothers are plot impediments. We couldn’t have the vicarious thrill of female abjection with Mom there to keep tragic heroines out of trouble. Why so evil? Probably because most operas are by men with issues. But I’m not really interested in exploring these reasons, except to say that some missing opera moms get daughters into trouble: Antonia’s has the girl sing herself to death; Isolde’s provides the fatal love potion.

I am interested in the few good mothers we do have. Take the Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten, a sunnier version of Mozart’s queen. (Hofmannsthal liked to think of Die Frau ohne Schatten as Die Zauberflöte, with Der Rosenkavalier as Figaro.) For this would-be mom, both compassion and reproduction – or shadow-casting – signify humanity. And according to Strauss in a letter to the librettist, her “first human cry [should be] rather like that of a mother in childbirth.” But it isn’t. It’s a high B-natural, sung on the word “help.” (“Only his eyes cry out for help!” [“Sein Auge nur schreit um Hilfe!”])

The all-too-human Sister Angelica doesn’t get to mother anyone either. Yet this Puccini heroine both lives and dies for an absent, illegitimate son. Her cry upon first mentioning the boy is, in fact, rather like that of a mother in childbirth. (She shouts “my son” [“mio figlio”]. The stage direction is gridato; the line: “I can’t promise to forget my son” [“Non posso offrire di scordare mio figlio”].) Her cry upon learning of his premature demise is even more so. (She shouts “Ah!” The direction is gridato lamentoso.) And when Angelica kills herself shortly thereafter, she’s forgiven by a woman called “the mother of all mothers” – the Virgin Mary. Madame Butterfly commits suicide too, of course, but it’s a relatively ambiguous, possibly unforgivable action. On the one hand, she’s making room for a stepmother through whom the boy called “Sorrow” can access his father. On the other hand, she’s traumatizing him.

The unnamed woman in L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, an opera presented from her unnamed son’s perspective, does get to mother him. But she’s not up to the disciplinary part of the job. The ones who are are various objects and animals he’s abused – a bat in particular, who complains of the boy’s having killed the mother of his children. And so, as in Die Frau ohne Schatten, we’re shown humanization through compassion – but as a parental function. (The woman’s parting injunction is: “Think about your naughtiness! Think about your homework! Above all, think how sad you’ve made Mama!” [“Songez, songez surtout au chagrin du Maman!”]) The other maternal function shown, and the part of the job done well, is that of absolution – as in Suor Angelica. For if neither Ravel nor Colette, his librettist, concern themselves with mothers’ cries – and how could they, given the infantile perspective – they are concerned with one that both signifies regret and solicits this absolution: the boy’s plaintive “Maman!” – set to a descending fourth – upon which the opera ends.

Don José’s mother isn’t any better at disciplining her bigger boy. With Carmen around, she can’t get him to settle for Micaëla. Nor – because the woman dies before the final act – can Maman offer absolution for his having killed the former, spurned the latter, and broken her own heart. (Micaëla reports the imminent demise by telling José, “your mother doesn’t want to die without having forgiven you” [“ta mère ne voudrait pas mourir sans t’avoir pardonne”]. He reacts by shouting “mother!” [“ma mère!”] on a high G-flat.) Nor does Bizet concern himself with maternal cries. In fact, we only ever hear from Mom through Micaëla. And of course the opera ends with Don José crying out neither to the girl who married dear old Dad nor to the girl just like her, but to one not like her.

Salome – Wilde’s heroine as well as that of Strauss – is somewhat Carmen-like. The two always get their man, and both get killed. Unlike Carmen, however, she’s also got a mother. To that woman’s credit, Herodias does shield Salome from Herod – he’s an uncle – at first by ordering the man not to look at the girl and then by ordering the girl not to dance. To no avail, of course – so here’s a mother who’s no plot impediment. The problem, in part, is the willfulness of a teenage temptress. But it’s the egocentrism of a middle-aged matron as well. Too self-centered – or perhaps projective – to shield Salome from Salome, or rather from her own desire, Herodias mistakenly assumes the daughter demands Jokanaan’s head in order to protect the mother’s interests when all she really wants is to fondle the thing. This is why Herodias demands the decapitation as well, precipitating Herod’s decision to have Salome crushed to death for taking that desire too far – as far, that is, as the horrible kiss. It’s a decision heterosexual Strauss, identifying with Herod throughout, seems to forgive. But so does homosexual Wilde, whose identifications with both women fall apart at this point. After all, it was the playwright, not the composer, who first devised the daughter’s execution. And it was he who has the mother – finally dumbstruck – not react at all.

In return for discipline, absolution, and protection, children should respect – or in Jacobean terms, “honor” – their father and mother. For fathers – or patriarchs – this usually means “obey.” “You hear how she answers me, this daughter of yours?” Herod snaps; “You see how you’ve raised her?” “My daughter and I come of a royal race,” Herodias snaps back; “As for you, your father was a camel driver!” (“Dein Vater was Kameeltreiber!”) Strauss may have had a corollary but calmer scene in mind when scoring this one. After Brünnhilde disobeys Wotan by shielding Sigmund, he and Erda have a little talk about punishment and, by implication, parenting. The father felt obliged to strip his favorite daughter of divinity, stick her on a mountain, put her to sleep, and expose her to Siegfried. (She’s an aunt.) The mother considers this somewhat harsh. She also considers it unfair, given both that Wotan had sent mixed signals and that he’s the one who encouraged willfulness in the first place. “Does he who taught defiance scourge defiance?” Erda asks. (“Der den Trotz lehrte straft den Trotz?”)

Tatiana – Pushkin’s heroine as well as that of Tchaikovsky – isn’t at all Carmen-like. She’s a combination of Micaëla and the Don José his mother would prefer: a good girl who falls for a bad boy and then settles for the man Madame Larina has in mind, Prince Gremin. In doing so, the girl replicates the woman’s own fate – an irony the novel mentions in passing and that the opera – Eugene Onegin – underscores. It opens with Larina chatting and Tatiana singing about the man who got away. And so this mother does keep her daughter out of trouble. After all, if Tatiana hadn’t married the Prince, she might elope with Onegin. But would that be so terrible, the composer seems to ask. (Heterosexual Pushkin identifies with Onegin, primarily; homosexual Tchaikovsky with Tatiana.) Isn’t the real tragedy that the heroine renounces the man she loves? (According to Wilde, “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.”) For that matter, wasn’t it her mother’s tragedy as well? Larina consoles herself by saying, “Habit is sent us from above, in place of happiness.” (“Privichka svishe nam dana, / Zamyena shchastiyu ona.”) She may even believe it. But I doubt we’re meant to.

If opera does touch upon the sorrows, if not the joys, of a few good mothers – what such women renounce to have children in the first place, what they renounce to raise them, what happens when children renounce, or, worse yet, predecease them – there’s another male-dominated art form that digs a bit deeper into both joy and sorrow: the Broadway musical. (Straight critics blame this relative profundity on American “momism.” Gay ones, like D.A. Miller in his book, Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical, are a bit subtler.) Consider, for example, Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!, Julie Jordan in Carousel, Anna Leonowens in The King and I, Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, or Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music. And yes, I do know that most of these are stepmothers. I know they’re all from Rodgers and Hammerstein. And I know the musical can be as keen to expose motherly evil as opera was. Consider Rose in Jule Styne’s Gypsy, a monster of egocentrism and projection. Or to quote Miller in that book:

Should Gypsy ever be judged to deserve its self-allegorizing subtitle as “a musical fable” – or rather, since it has been so judged, could all that this judgment entails ever be spelled out – we would at last understand that the Broadway musical is the unique genre of mass culture to be elaborated in the name of the mother: a name, however, that it dare not quite speak … except now and then, on the well-known principle of any closet, to curse it. (83)

This is hyperbolic, of course. Consider, once again, all those Hammerstein heroines. Consider, too, the least closeted musical of them all: Jerry Herman’s La Cage aux folles. (Yes, I know it’s about a drag queen: Albin. And I know it’s terrible – or to quote Miller, “undistinguished on every … score except, perhaps, the score itself” [131].) For not only is “mother” a name this show does speak, both approvingly and incessantly, it’s also another name for Albin – as opposed to her stepson’s biological but altogether absent one. (That mother made a brief appearance in the original French film, and reappears in the American remake.) Now as some of you know, the man who did the book for Herman – Harvey Fierstein – had made a similar case for Arnold, the drag queen in his play Torch Song Trilogy. You may also know that he’s played both Arnold and Edna Turnblad (mother of Tracy) in the musical version of Hairspray. (Another drag queen – Divine – played her in the John Waters film.) This raises three disturbing questions that neither Miller nor I care to address: Are we meant to see these queens as better at motherhood than certain women despite their (biological) masculinity? Are we meant to see them that way because of it? Or are they simply better – more natural – at phallic motherhood. (For some critics, of course, female vocalists are necessarily phallic, opera singers in particular.)

I would, however, care to address a more general and even more disturbing question: Is there really any such thing as a good mother within the world of musical theater? The Empress hasn’t any children; Sister Angelica doesn’t raise the one she does have; the mother in Ravel is bad at discipline; the mother in Bizet is both bad at discipline and manipulative; Erda spends most of her time in a cave; Herodias is an egoist; Rose is an egomaniac; Madame Larina’s a matchmaker; and although we’re told about Albin’s goodness by her partner Georges, the only father here other than Wotan, we’re never shown it. Then again, once again, there’s Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music, where Eller, Julie, and Anna make good single mothers, and Nellie and Maria good stepmothers. But maybe these Rodgers and Hammerstein exceptions – along with those nearly fatherless operas – really illustrate something many of us know from experience, that it’s almost impossible for biological mothers to parent well with biological fathers. In other words, the problem is domestic “normality.” And the only musical exception to this rule, or the only one I know of, is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, where both parents of the Prince, together, do just fine. (Neither Rossini nor Massenet, in La Cenerentola and Cendrillon, includes the mother.) Of course, that show’s another fable.


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