Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sense of Self

The other evening my little sister Kira and I went to a cocktail party at MOMA for a new Andy Warhol installation. Attendees were invited to slip into a video booth and take their own Factory-esque Screen Tests. Almost all of the ST's were artsy types and in on the joke; they barely moved a muscle under the eyes of the video camera, which made their images legit, but honestly not all that interesting.

Their screen tests were then projected onto a big wall opposite for all the party goers to admire (read: judge). After a few minutes, we got bored and wandered upstairs to the permanent exhibits. Kira pointed out this hilarious caption on a Matisse painting:

"Matisse described the abstract zone at the right of this composition as containing "a person who has a palette in his hand and who is observing." Most likely it is the artist himself. The Surrealist poet Andre Breton said the painting, "I believe Matisse's genius is here...nowhere has Matisse put so much of himself as in this picture."*
Goldfish and Palette, Paris
Late November 1914-1915, oil on canvas

*Whichever museum intern is writing these things has absolutely got to step up his/her game. I mean, really.

Actually, I've been thinking a lot about authorial representation reading Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway.  When a writer puts his or herself into a thought, it always makes the text burn particularly bright. Thus far, the strongest parts of Mrs. Dalloway have been these strikingly personal moments that feel as if they've been extracted from Mrs. Woolf's quotidien rituals. Here Peter Walsh talking about Clarissa (Mrs. Dalloway):

"There was no bitterness in her; none of that sense of moral virtue which is so repulsive in good women. She enjoyed practically everything. If you walked with her in Hyde Park now it was a bed of tulips, now a child in a perambulator, now some absurd little drama she made up on the spur of the moment. She had a sense of comedy that was really exquisite, but she needed people, always people to bring it out, with the inevitable result that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant parties of hers, talking nonsense, saying things she didnt mean, blunting the edge of her mind, losing her discrimination." P78, Mrs. Dalloway.

The idea that you were 'frittering away time' discussing high minded ideals or pop-culture trivialities must have weighed heavily on the Bloomsbury Group, because here's EM Forster talking about the very same thing in the context of Helen and Margaret Schlegl, who I think must have been modeled on Virginia and her sister, Vanessa, no?

"But London thwarted her; in its atmosphere she could not concentrate. London only stimulates, it cannot sustain; and Margaret, hurrying over its surface for a house wihtout knowing what sort of a house she wanted, was paying for many a thrilling sensation in the past. She could not break loose from culture, and her time was wasted by concerts which it would be a sin to miss, and invitations which it would never do to refuse. At last she grew desperate; she resolved that she would go nowhere and be at home to no one until she found a house, and broke the resolution in half an hour." P157, Howards End.

Equally wonderful and poignant is the description of Septimus's depression. Virginia Woolf suffered a nervous breakdown when she was just 13 after her mother died; she had another much worse attack after her father died, and there after lived in fear of having a repeat episode. There's evidence that right before she killed herself by walking into the Ose river in 1941 she had felt another attack coming on. Weirdly, Woolf is at her funniest here, describing the quack pyschologist that Septimus's clueless wife Rezia hires.

"Human nature, in short, was on him-the repulsive brute, with the blood red nostrils. Holmes was on him. Dr. Holmes came quite regularly every day. Once you stumble, Septimus wrote on the back of a postcard, human nature is on you. Holmes is on you. Their only chance was to escape, without letting Holmes know; to Italy-anywhere, anywhere, away from from Dr. Holmes.
But Rezia could not understand him. Dr. Holmes was such a kind man. He was so interested in Septimus. He only wanted to help them, he said. He had four little children and he had asked her to tea, she told Septimus. So he was deserted. The whole world was clamouring: Kill yourself, kill yourself, for our sakes. But why should he kill himself for their sakes? " p92.

Remind you of another famous author who writes about suicide in a true and funny voice? Click here for the link.

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