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Entries in alex carnevale (150)

Tuesday
Dec102013

In Which We Scratch And Claw At Edward Hopper To Get Away

The Female of the Species

by ALEX CARNEVALE

For the female of the species, it's a fatal thing for an artist to marry, her consciousness is too much disturbed. She can no longer live sufficiently within her self to produce. But it's hard to accept this.

Josephine Nivison, at the tender age of 30, occupied a one-room studio in the attic of an old house between the Plaza Hotel and the New York Athletic Club. She was still a virgin, and would remain one until long after her fortieth birthday.

self-portrait 1903

She drew as often as she could, publishing her sketches in the Evening Post and the New York Tribune. She loved to sketch artists at their work, patterning her portraits after her mentor at the New York School of Art, the painter Robert Henri. Her favorite subject was the dancer Isadora Duncan. Henri was quite taken with Josephine's repose, making her the subject of a large canvas:

Jo dabbled as an actress here and there. Getting paid for her work difficult in these fields, and the Depression would sour things further. Her teaching sustained her as she labored for various causes. She hoped one day soon to support the war effort. In the interim, she pitched in at the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, of which she wrote, "Altho I have worked among them, I a not a Hebrew. The Hebrews are too clever a people to discriminate against Gentiles when their service can be of value to them."

With recommendations from orphanages and newspapers alike, she was accepted as an occupational therapist by Red Cross, and was sent overseas to Brittany. In a flash, Jo Nivision came down with bronchitis and was forced to return home after a month or two. Back in New York, she lost her job, her boyfriend made off with another woman, her mother died and she was homeless.

With the rest of her life stripped away, there was hardly any point in not being an artist. Such work could hardly sustain her entirely, so she returned to her former profession of teaching at a hospital for contagious diseases on the Lower East Side. She caught diptheria almost at once.

She began to lie about her age shortly after her illness, reducing it by seven years at her most brave. Because she was quite small and her beauty was unchanged, she found it not very difficult to pull off this deceit. She constructed her studio at 37 West 9th Street. No one showed up to her first open studio except her cat Arthur, and a single critic, Margaret Bruening.

with Edward Hopper

Arthur was her sole focus of attention; she could not really boast any other. She suggested to others that Arthur "knew traffic cops, the maitre d'hotel at the Brevoort, people at the Jefferson Market Court." Wasting away, continually ignored, quite sad in general, Josephine Nivison come across one unexpected stroke of good luck: because of the illness she contracted in a city school, she was granted a lifetime disability pension of $1750 per year.

The money was godly to her then. She could take time away from New York, absconding to Provincetown where the Gingerbread Inn was willing to allow her cat the run of the place. She was working mainly in watercolor now, and to her considerable delight, her efforts began to attract attention from art dealers and critics. One art colony she had not sampled was in Gloucester, MA.

It was there she met up with an old acquaintance, Edward Hopper. A towering rail of a painter, he dwarfed the tiny Nivison. Gail Levin, in her marvelous investigation of the painter, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, records that the man seduced her in French, using Verlaine as if it were Neil Strauss' The Game. They painted boats and houses together. At this point in his career, he was only slighty more of a success than Jo, but she helped get his work into a show at the Brooklyn Museum.

That winter they went to the movies a lot. He wrote her little notes, promising to take her to Paris. (They never went.) When summer thawed the city, the couple wanted out. They were married on July 9th, 1924, and on the certificate Josephine kept up the pretense of lying about her age. In reality, she was forty-one years old.

The marriage had not been taken up in an idealistic fashion, and it would not proceed in one. Bumps in the pavement emerged quickly. His mother and sister disliked Jo quite intensely; Arthur could not quite get used to this spindly man being in his space. She kept her studio and the cat stayed there.

Hopper expected a wife to cook and clean, but Jo wasn't much in the kitchen; too focused on her painting to do anything else. He loathed her friends. 

There was the question of sex, now that she was a married woman. She wrote in her diary:

About the first week or so I realized always with amazement, but I knew so little about this basic concern, except to be appalled at prize hog proportions that the whole thing was entirely for him, his benefit. Upon realizing this - & with the world so new & all & I emerged in such vast ignorance - I declared that since that was the status quo of that - let him have it all. I withdrew all my interest - There was my body, let him take it - but I'd not consent to be hurt too much - only a certain amount - I'd not be the object of sheer sadism. I was forbidden to consult with other women over the mysteries. If he had drawn a lemon, I needn't advertise his misfortune.

In other ways, they were able to help one another. Jo took up her husband's correspondence; the impact on his career was immediately obvious. (He sort of ignored her work.) His modest watercolors began to sell, and his biggest supporter was Frank Rehn, who sold Hoppers out of his gallery like they were going out of style, which they were.

Edward and his wife planned a trip west. Shortly before their departure, Arthur vanished, never to be seen again.

caricaturing his desire for his wife to feed him

As Edward's career took off, their relationship began to crack further. The two quarrelled over Henri, Hopper's reclusiveness and their lack of intimacy. Josephine still lacked a studio, and although she admired her husband's efforts, it was pretty obvious to her and general hindsight that she was the superior artist. By now, his drawings were often a satirical commentary on how much he resented his wife.

She returned this view. "He can do all the chores, look after the stove, feed it oil, drag water, wash sheets even & string beans & think nothing of it. Go right back to work." The question of his that she loathed more than any other was, "How about a little something to eat?"

They moved to an apartment overlooking Washington Square Park. As before, they still shared a bathroom with another couple. They attempted to build a summer house together, but instead of bringing them closer together it separated the couple. Josephine complained of being "a kitchen slave," Hopper could barely paint in his new environs. As herself, she had attracted attention as a painter; as Edward Hopper's wife, his friends sneered at her work. Neither, when asked, could even think of a reason why they kept painting, other than that it was a means of survival.

Some time into their marriage, physical abuse entered the picture. At first it was purely as an accompaniment to Hopper's sadistic reviews of his wife's performance in the kitchen and bedroom. Once Edward held her down with his knee and bruised her thigh; she had to scratch and claw at him to get away.

Hopper at work

They fought often about the car; he consistently refused to let her drive. Josephine records Edward Hopper throwing his 55 year old wife out of a moving vehicle. Yet the verbal abuse was just as pernicious: "To exist at all, one must do battle. He sais insulting things about my mind, the impenetrable stupidy, the impossibility of me learning anything.... It would have been a terrible thing for him to have had a child."

Edward did offer Josephine something she must have craved. It is difficult to find the joy in their marriage, but if any was present, it could be characterized by the fact of always being there. Edward Hopper may have painted his wife as a crude caricature at times, vacillating between worship and horror at the intimacy they shared, but he did paint her.

Hopper's painting of a nude Jo

He was, Jo told a friend, "very beautiful in death, like an El Greco."

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about the death of Simone Weil. He tumbls here.

"The Water Is Wide" - Noon (mp3)

"Love Me Or Leave Me" - Noon (mp3)

The new album from Kasumi Nakamura is entitled Full Moon and it was released on November 20th.

 

Thursday
Nov212013

In Which Simone Weil Constitutes A Vague Threat To Us

Particles

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Simone Weil was a self-loathing Jew; these creatures were somewhat rarer in her time. Fleeing Hitler with elderly parents in tow, the Marechal Lyautey set down at a camp on the outskirts of Casablanca. Ms. Weil socialized little with her fellow passengers: she had to finish her writings on Pythagoras. For a certain type of Jew, anything outside of her own experience is a solace.

Her destination was New York, where she planned to safely deposit her aging progenitors. She had been to Germany and witnessed the nascent fascism gripping it. She knew far better than most what the result might be. The other refugees regarded her with understated curiosity, a wonder she ignored.

She had been born into a secular home like so many of us. A bout of appendicitis when she was three had rendered her susceptible to a litany of diseases and infections. For this reason and others, she held herself apart. The group stayed in the camp at Ain-Seba for seven days before boarding the Serpa Pinto. After a stop in Bermuda, they would arrive in New York.

She had to interact with passengers, given that amount of time on board. One young Jew, Jacques Kaplan, remembered speaking to her:

She was very pleasant, very protective, very sarcastic. What especially struck me was the astonishing contrast between her and normal people  or rather, ordinary people. She couldn't bear the cabin-class passengers, because they openly enjoyed comforts that those in steerage were deprived of. She took an interest in me because being a 'scout', I volunteered to take charge of the refugee children in the hold.

She did not simply distrust wealthy people, she loathed their vices with an intensity that astonished even her comrades. Simone de Beauvoir said of her that "her intelligence, her asceticism, her total commitment and her sheer courage, all these filled me with admiration, though I knew that had she met me, she would have been far from reciprocating my attitude. I could not absorb her into my universe, and this seemed to constitute a vague threat to me." This was so.

with her brother in her teens

It was July when she arrived in America for the first time in her life. (The voyage from Morocco had taken a month.) Once she had placed her parents in a Upper West Side apartment near Columbia, she planned to abscond to England, where she could support the war effort. She worried that trapped in New York, she would "die of chagrin."

Her next transatlantic voyage would not come so easily. Reduced to a sleeping bag on her elderly parents' floor, she despaired. She considering moving south to work with improverished blacks, but this was only an idle threat of sorts. Her oversized glasses were always foregrounded by a cigarette. She never ate enough, and her dress and general appearance was the least of her concerns. Completely out of familiar waters, she could not even really write.

She attended Mass with her only friend in New York, a stranded French woman whose name was also Simone. Her favorite church was a Baptist parish in Harlem, where she was the only white person in the vicinity. She missed France terribly, and perhaps envied the fervent nature of the worship she witnessed. Enlightenment had come to her once, and some trivial part of it could be reclaimed in such places.

She wandered Harlem incessantly, watching the children and families there. A friend wrote from England with encouraging news, giving Weil hope she would be near the continent again soon. She explained her desire to be in the thick of fighting to her friend Maurice Schumann in this way: "The suffering all over the world obsesses and overwhelms me to the point of annihilating my faculties and the only way I can revive them and release myself from the obsession is by getting for myself a large share of danger and hardship." There was no word in her native language for this, in German it is called schaudenfreude.

She resumed writing the notebooks she had begun in Marseilles, half-Pascal and half-Saint John. Throughout they were infected with an altogether startling degree of self-immolation. By November she had secured a berth on a Swedish boat. She did not really apologize to her parents on her departure, only saying, "If I had several lives, I would devote one to you, but I have only one life and I owe it elsewhere." Despite this, I do not think she was ungrateful.

returning from spain 1936

On the deck of the Vaaleran, passengers feared that clear skies could signal torpedoes. In a far better mood, Weil related myths and folk stories to her unlikely compatriots. She loved these little moralities because they tied up existence in a manner that could never really be approximated in life. They also reinforced her conviction in a philosophy of good and evil as a guiding principle. The Vaaleren docked in Liverpool and her friends filtered into the kingdom, while she was detained for three weeks as a result of her political past and present.

Once free, she wandered the streets as before, attending readings and performances wherever she found them. Having safely returned to Europe, she now desperately wanted to leave England and join the war in France. In the meantime, she lodged with a widowed mother of two, occupying an attic with a working stove. She wrote that the room was "very pretty with branches full of birds and, at night, of stars, just outside the window." Her harsh cough echoed through the house; when she was well enough she helped the boys with their schoolwork.

with her class at roanneWhen Jacques Kaplan met up with her in London, Weil's health had already begun its steep decline. She struggled to even communicate with him, or anyone. Mass was the only thing she felt she required now, and she attended it at a Jesuit church. After collapsing in her room, Weil entered Middlesex Hospital in April of 1943. Digestive problems prevented her from eating very much, and her health worsened considerably. In her last days, she still expected to leave the place, to see her parents again.

She is buried where the Catholic section meets the Jewish section in Ashford New Cemetery. The priest charged with officiating her funeral missed his train and never arrived. She was just 34.

In her essay 'On Human Personality' Weil writes:

To put into the mouth of the afflicted words from the vocabulary of middle values, such as democracy, rights, personality, is to offer them something which can bring them no good and will inevitably do them much harm. These notions do not dwell in heaven; they hang in the middle air, and for this very reason they cannot root themselves in earth.

It is the light falling continually from heaven which alone gives a tree the energy to send powerful roots deep into the earth. The tree is really rooted in the sky.

There is something so condescending in that, but also a terrible corrective as well. I do not know what living in Simone's world would have done to me, and I shudder to think of it. Are we the tree or the roots?

The more I learned of Simone and her ideas, the closer and farther from her I became. I was forced to realize that all the things I dislike most about her, or in anyone, are things I find in myself down to the molecular level. Finally, though, her way of thinking is a dead end, because any philosophy that makes life so dreadful must be discarded. We cannot accept Simone Weil fully, as she is, and so are reduced to taking only a small part of the whole. This cannot help but stand as a betrayal of a woman who had faith in the power of absolutes. No one could have been Simone Weil and survived.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

her class at roanne

"Of The Night" - Bastille (mp3)

"Of The Night (Icarus remix)" - Bastille (mp3)

at two years old with her brother From Simone Weil's Marseilles notebooks. Reprinted as the prologue to David McLellan's masterful biography of Simone, Utopian Pessimist: The Life And Thought of Simone Weil:

He entered my room and said: 'Poor creature, you who understand nothing, who know nothing. Come with me and I will teach you things which you do not suspect.' I followed him.

He took me into a church. It was new and ugly. He led me up to the altar and said, 'Kneel down.' I said 'I have not been baptized.' He said: 'Fall on your knees before this place, in love, as before the place where lies the truth.' I obeyed.

He brought me out and made me climb up to a garret. Through the open window one could see the whole city spread out, some wooden scaffoldings, and the river on which boats were being unloaded. The garret was empty, except for a table and two chairs. He bade me be seated.

We were alone. He spoke. From time to time someone would enter, mingle in the conversation, then leave again.

Winter had gone; spring had not yet come. The branches of the trees lay bare, without buds, in the cold air full of sunshine. The light of day would arise, shine forth in splendor, and fade away; then the moon and stars would enter through the window. And then once more the dawn would arrive.

At times he would fall silent, take some bread from a cupboard, and we would share it. This bread really had the taste of bread. I have never found that taste again.

He would pour out some wine for me, and some for himself wine which tasted of the sun and of the soil upon which this city was built.

Other times we would stretch ourselves out on the floor of the garret, and sweet sleep would enfold me. Then I would wake and drink in the light of the sun.

He had promised to teach me, but he did not teach me anything. We talked about all kinds of things, in a desultory way, as do old friends.

One day he said to me: 'Now go.' I fell down before him, I clasped his knees, I implored him not to drive me away. But he threw me out on the stairs. I went down unconscious of anything, my heart as it were in shreds. I wandered along the streets. Then I realized that I had no idea where this house lay.

I have never tried to find it again. I understood that he had come for me by mistake. My place is not in that garret. It can be anywhere in a prison cell, in one of those middle-class drawing rooms full of knick-knacks and red plush, in the waiting room of a station anywhere, except in that garret.

Sometimes I cannot help trying, fearfully and remorsefully, to repeat to myself a part of what he said to me. How am I to know if I remember rightly? He is not there to tell me.

I know well that he does not love me. How could he love me? And yet deep down within me something, a particle of myself, cannot help thinking, with fear and trembling, that perhaps, in spite of it all, he loves me.

1942

the cover of her 1941 notebook

Thursday
Nov142013

In Which We Consist Of So Many Different Types Of Love

by dave seeley

Until Dawn

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance
by Lois McMaster Bujold
422 pp

It is easy to imitate other writers. I once knew a man who wrote only like Stanley Elkin. He was fantastic at it. But to imitate someone not so great, but take whatever part of it was great and drop the rest? That is far more difficult, but also a lot more rewarding than writing another ironic story about a white man with a funny name.

Lois McMaster Bujold's central figure is Lord Miles Vorkosigan, a battered, dwarfish scion whose bones have, as of 1989 our time and god knows what year on Barrayar, been replaced largely with synthetics. Bujold's saga has spanned eighteen novels and a litany of other apocaphyra since it began in the mid-1980s.

Making a fictional character live and breathe is no small thing. Keeping him alive for four decades is, again, even more difficult. Fortunately science fiction has given Bujold an excuse for rebuilding, re-murdering and reanimating Miles Vorkosigan any number of times. Modeled after C.S. Forester's Horatio Hornblower series, Miles is currently in early middle age and retired from his first military career, deep within his second as an Imperial Auditor akin to The Wolf in Pulp Fiction. The underlying theme of all these novels, even the ones in which Miles has yet to be born, is the dignity of all living things, and the threat to this virtue by unsympathetic parties.

But that is a small way to describe Bujold's great, broad comedy of manners, a gift from writers like Georgette Heyer whose conventions she so brilliantly appropriates in the Vorkosigan saga. There are a million spinning pieces in the bifurcated planet of Barrayar, and the universe that surrounds it, far more than Bujold's progenitors even took up. Until 100 or so years ago, this society had been cloistered from wormhole travel. Then the universe opened to the stars.

Foreign elements, chief among them alien invaders set on them by their enemies in Komarr, descended upon Miles' planet. (He was not yet born.) They brought with them a host of genetic techniques unavailable on Barrayar: uterine replicators to replace natural childbirth, gene splicing and screening, cloning. Something remarkable happened after that: nothing very much.

young LoisMiles eventually met his own clone. (Of course, the clone, Mark, had been trained from birth to kill him.) This was immaterial to Miles: the only pertinent fact was that he had a brother. There are a million different types of love in Bujold's novels, so many concrete varieties, including those I had not heard of. Did you know that a man can be loved by a servant, even one who he does not really know?

Bujold's latest novel is Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, nominated for a Hugo this year. It is an insanely mirthful book, making you realize from the start how rare a good romance is in any medium. Over time, Bujold's ability to drop you so quickly into a situation you are invested in has become her distinguishing signature. She is the master of subtle tension, of something world-shattering hinging on the slightest word or glance.

Miles' cousin Ivan Vorpatril is a basically new protagonist for Bujold. He is an apparently easily manipulated captain stationed on Komarr when the novel begins, ordered to watch a girl by a spy he knows. Things become complicated almost immediately, and unraveling such multilayered situations is the great fun of Bujold's work. It is amazing the woman was never a diplomat. She surely should have been.

art by Esad T. Ribic Taken by himself in Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, Ivan Vorpatril can seem like a bit of a buffoon. Later in the novel, he proves he never was one, but for Bujold's loyal audience, Ivan's heroism was never in doubt. Instead of constantly recapping events for new readers, Bujold expertly writes her way around this problem, creating a contextual layer that is rewarding for those who know without overwhelming the momentum of the present.

Bujold's characters are so fully realized and multi-faceted that they support a variety of interpretations you know, like actual human beings. Besides China Mieville, she is the best in her field at taking the useful but trodden cliches of this genre and making them new. Cryosleep, genetic alterations, alien invaders, the collision of high and low tech: all are presented in a fashion slightly askew from their emergence in the science fiction stories that so rockily birthed a forward-looking genre.

photo by carol collins

While Mieville accomplishes this reinvention through superior style, Bujold uses more familiar tools. You know them already: character, plot and a talent for dialogue and banter that never gets old. These are scenarios and possibilities charted once before, by the mostly male generation that came before her, but not half as well.

Compared to the more sterile, even more conventional novels of her peers, reading Bujold's mannered and finely honed prose is like opening up a fresh window in a stale room. The most unexpected pleasures and sadnesses emerge from the Barrayaran social milieu; she fears nothing, not even the simplest satisfaction. There are as many different types of ways to show love as there are categories of the disease itself. We need only wait for Lois to reveal them.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

art by Esad T. Ribic

"Tonight Was A Disaster (live in Sydney)" - Casiotone for the Painfully Alone (mp3)

"Toby Take A Bow (live in Sydney)" - Casiotone for the Painfully Alone (mp3)

In Sydney is an album chronicling Owen Ashworth's 2009 concert in Australia. You can purchase it in full here.

art by Esad T. Ribic

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