The Nymphet and the Granny

Culture Wars, March 2008
      All right: Dolly Haze was a victim — orphaned, abducted, sexually abused for months on end and deprived of her adolescence. Most of all, though, she was a victim of bad timing, having lived, suffered and died before it was commonplace to cash in on personal ordeals with ghostwritten memoirs plugged by Oprah and resold to Hollywood. Being a fictional creation of Vladimir Nabokov wouldn’t have disqualified her. Publishers have learned from Holocaust survivors who aren’t Jews, gay teen hustlers who aren’t even male, that first-person narratives from non-existent characters are interchangeable with, and sometimes preferable to, true-life trauma.
       Yet fierce competition for the empathetic gasps of the credulous has brought about a kind of grade inflation for child molestees. Poor, unreal Lolita never had to be suckled by she-wolves or infected with AIDS, as is now de rigueur for aspiring victims. She only had to submit to a guilt and lust-crazed middle-aged academic who is a more interesting and sympathetic character than she could ever have grown up to be.
       It is the searing, self-serving voice of the victimiser that moves us, because what drives him is unquestionably a kind of love. Lolita’s memorable introductory riffs are the opening stanzas of a lyric only partly buried under the heaps of self-condemning excuses and justifications that serve as the poem’s commentaire de text. After all, Humbert was a lycée professor as well as a deeply deviant, duplicitous old-school perv, but his tears are the ‘hot, opalescent, thick tears that poets and lovers shed’.
       Ditto the tears of his real-life counterpart, the Romantic composer Héctor Berlioz. What, Berlioz a child molester! No, certainly not, but you could say he stopped just short of becoming a senior citizen molester. Both HH and HB were obsessively fixated on a childhood crush that never went away, ‘a petrified paroxysm of desire’ (Humbert calls it) for a girl child pure, incomparable, innocent. A few months later and she is dead of typhus, leaving behind the memory of ‘a perfection that must remain incomprehensible to the matter-of-fact, crude, standard-brained youngsters of today. Long after her death I felt her thoughts floating through mine. Long before we met, we had had the same dreams’.
     That doesn’t stop HH from using her as his preemptive expiation for the crimes he was to commit, of course.
     Now here is Berlioz in his sixties, writing in his Mémoires (as translated by David Cairns) about a visit to his grandfather’s house at Meylan, near Grenoble, when he was 12 years old. Enter the (yes, literally) girl next door.
      "The moment I beheld her I was conscious of an electric shock. I loved her. From then on I  lived   in a daze, I hoped for nothing, I knew nothing and yet my heart felt weighed down by an immense sadness. I lay awake whole nights disconsolate. By day I hid myself in the maize fields, in the secret corners of my grandfather’s orchard, like a wounded bird, mute, suffering."
      Who doesn’t know the feeling? Estelle Duboeuf was 18 and no doubt a quite nicely turned out piece of provincial young womanhood. If she noticed her pipsqueak admirer’s mooning, she would have been too well-bred to let on, too self-possessed to be more than momentarily taken aback by his ardour. Summer idylls end with the end of summer. Not for HB:
      "I was thirteen when I ceased to see her. I was thirty when I returned from Italy across the Alps and saw Saint-Eynard and the little white house and the old tower through a mist of tears. On reaching home, I learnt that she was married—and all that follows, and it did not cure me."
      Years go by. Berlioz composes his music; travels to Russia, Germany and Italy. From his box seat at the Odéon, he falls madly in love with Irish actress Harriet Smithson and externalises his fatal attraction in the Symphonie Fantastique. She can neither understand nor resist his gushes of amorous overkill. If her French had been better, someone might have taken her aside and informed her that Berlioz had already come close to shooting the first girl he actually slept with, the dauguerrotypically dishy but two-timing Camille Moke.
      After they marry, Harriet’s career tanks. They have a son, quarrel and separate; he has affairs; she drinks, becomes a reclusive invalid, keeps on drinking and finally dies. Still, Harriet gets a better posthumous write-up than the possessive, clinging Marie Recio, who was promoted from mistress to second wife on Harriet’s death - ‘it was my duty’ - but who is not even mentioned by name in the Mémoires.
      We all know what happened to Humbert, one of the silenoi, or silens, the pot-bellied, white-haired satyrs whose ‘comical and crude’ attempts to get it on with wood nymphs were a common motif on Greek pottery.
     "The haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honeydew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since—until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another."
      With Berlioz, it was closer to half a century, and how he would have snorted at the idea of love incarnated by a sexual stunt double! In 1864 he made his first epistolary approaches to the woman who had a long time since become Mme Fournier, the respectable widow of a provincial magistrate, and received a wary assent to his proposal to call on her. He was 61, she was 70. Two of her six children had died by then, and she was now a grandmother.
      A photograph of the elderly Estelle is reproduced in most editions of the Mémoires. We scrutinise the features of this big-bonneted old lady trying to spot the loveliness that time has not withered nor custom staled. 
      "God! How her face had changed—her complexion darkened, her hair growing grey. Yet my heart did not waver for an instant. My soul leapt out to its idol the moment I saw her, as if she had still been in the splendour of her beauty."
       When Humbert catches up with his Lo a mere three years after she escaped from him, he, too, takes due notes of time’s ravages and is just as quick in dismissing them.
       "No matter, even if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn -even then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice, my Lolita."
       Berlioz tries to finesse a second, unscheduled meeting and is not rebuffed; but it is a strain to keep a conversation going. He pleads by letter:"Think! For forty-nine years I have loved you. I have gone on loving you ever since I was a child, through all the ravages of a tempestuous life. The proof is the depth of my feelings today, they could never have revived now in these circumstances, if they had ceased to exist even for a day."
      Sensible Mme Fournier is touched and flattered, but knows when to put her foot down. ‘There are illusions, dreams one must learn to give up when grey hairs come’, she writes back, ‘and, with them, the end of all desire for new emotions, even for the emotions of friendship, for they can possess attraction only when they are born of a close and intimate acquaintance, and in the happy days of one’s youth. To my mind, the time to begin on a relationship is not when one already feels the weight of years and has had one’s fill of life’s disappointments’.
      In a letter of April 27, 1865, HB announces that the Mémoires are at the printer’s. His only purpose in getting his life’s story down on paper is so that she will come to know him better.
      At the very least, you will find it curious to follow the luminous traces that you have left in my existence…you, Stella, whom I adore on my knees, Stella the silent (forgive me for using the Latin translation of your lovely name) I have taken that liberty often in the book. I call you equally in Latin, Stella Montis (star of the mountain) or Italian (stella del monte). That is because for so many years you have been the star that shines in the forefront of my heaven.
      (Yes, and Lolita is Lolita to HH and no-one else, the creator executing his prerogative to name his creation.)
       HB and his Stella met perhaps half a dozen times, the last encounter taking place six months before Berlioz’s death in 1869. Who can blame her for welcoming, though never encouraging, the kind of external attention and affection that is not easy to come by when you are old and grey and full of sleep. The correspondence on the same note as it began: HB declaring his passionate devotion, Estelle reprimanding him gently: ’You are very young at heart. With me, it is not so’.
       Humbert also found that cold embers resist rekindling.
      "In her washed-out gray eyes, strangely spectacled, our poor romance was for a moment reflected, pondered upon, and dismissed like a dull party, like a rainy picnic to which only the dullest bores had come, like a humdrum exercise, like a bit of dry mud caking her childhood."
       Indispensible as both books are, they have quite another effect when read in parallel, the resonances from each forming interesting interference patterns inside the reader’s head. In their obsessive overlap, unavailing devotion appears almost lubricious, while greedy carnality is validated as a kind of love.


Photography: "Humanism in China"

Culture Wars,  2 March 2007
    After drawing favorable comment and respectable crowds in Frankfurt and Stuttgart, the first stopovers on an all-German roadshow now midway through its two-year run, this exhibition is on its way to Munich's Pinakothek der Moderne, where it will be back before the public eye as from mid-July.
'Humanism in China' seems an odd title to slap on a show that offers quantities of images as vast as its ambition to composite them all into a mosaic of ordinary people going about their business and living their lives. Remember The Family of Man? This time one-fifth of the human race is represented in 601 photographs, as they eat, yell, seek amusement, worship, interact with the opposite sex, work the land (still and for a long time to come, the default way of life in that part of the world), urinate, doze off, cry, build things, jaywalk, complain or wait around for something to happen.
Oh, right, got it: A Day in the Life of China. No, that's not exactly it, either. For one thing, in that series, journalists familiar with the terrain did extensive recon work to line up photogenic sites, situations and set-ups before the photographers -- mostly non-natives having no prior acquaintance with the country -- arrived to make the final determination of the right places and right times to be in them. Nowadays that would be considered exploitative, patronising, and (get ready for the Vulcan death grip of PC vituperation) inauthentic. Here, though, you will find photos taken of the Chinese people, by the Chinese people and for the Chinese people, who will keep them on permanent display at the Guangdong Museum of Art in Guangzhou when their current two-year tour of Germany wraps.
The good news is that they were not produced by any old Chinese people, but taken by one set of accomplished photographers and curated by another, so quality is high, apart from their documentary interest. Moreover, this is not simply a cascade of images wrung from a single moment in time, though all but a few were taken after 1979, that is, after China had put the Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forwards and Chairman Mao's 'thought' behind it, and something like ordinary life again became possible. The closer to the present, of course, the more photographs there are. But what's humanism got to do with it?
'In China, the fundamental question 'What is a human being?' can be posed in a manner entirely different from that of Western tradition,' a wall inscription informs us. 'The Unity of Heaven, Earth, the human being, all creatures and things is more important to the Chinese than the formation of a hierarchy among the elements. In this respect, the cultures differ.' You bet they differ, but that statement can mean anything you want it to, including nothing at all. However, it's clear that 'humanism' with its connotations of rationalism, democracy, and rule of law, is wide of the translator's mark.
It turns out the character signifying 'human being' or 'being human' overlaps differently-nuanced words in European languages relating to 'fundamentals, basics, capital, origins'. But the idea conveyed is that of human beings considered as individuals. Until not that long ago, individualism was a dirty word, the opposite of collectivism and the ultimate thought crime. Just by its title, this show appears to be making an implicit political statement: that it's definitely OK to be an individual, with a private life and money to spend, and what's more, individuals are now a valued resource of the state. In photographic language, the message is made explicit in terms of crusty old People's Army veterans whooping it up and showing off their decorations, or by a gaping hole over a gate where a Mao portrait has been removed.
 In one unforgettable image, an elderly man in Tiananmen Square holds up a picture of his wife, while far in the background, the face of Chairman Mao Zedong dangles complacently over the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Is the widowed husband on the big city trip that the couple always dreamed of making together? The implication might be that in the new China, Mao is still present, but has yielded the foreground to ordinary people and their personal affairs.
One of the most powerful photos in the show is the one by Liu Jun, of an elderly peasant circa 1985, who has just been savagely beaten by the local party official or cadre, sobbing on the ground as his fellow villagers cradle and comfort him. It's a remarkable composition, evoking Benjamin West's painting of 'The Death of Wolfe', and the expressions and gestures - especially the woman who can't resist looking up and into the camera - would not be out of place in a 'Descent from the Cross' by Mantegna or some other Renaissance master.
Now this, too, is political, but in a very specific way. The toxic levels of systemic corruption and abuse of power that are especially prevalent in the countryside are no secret. You can denounce abuses like this one, but not the system that allows them to take place. Feeling indignation and seeking redress is fine, though. A different sort of message is conveyed by the inclusion of photographs of Tibet, which China invaded and annexed. Sorry, folks, no shiny-head monks or prayer wheels. It's China you're seeing and you better not forget it. (Likewise, if you were looking for a well-known image of a lone, tiny figure standing in front of a row of lined-up tanks, you just needn't bother.)
Sociology as much as ideology writes the narrative of contemporary China, where millions say bye-bye to the boonies and migrate to the big cities hoping to find work in the factories that fill the shelves and bins of the world's Wal-Marts. The contrasts engendered by that Grapes of Wrath scenario and its potential for situations of pathos and ironic juxtaposition results in pictures like the slew of Santa Clauses marching through Beijing, or the two schoolgirls in pinafore uniforms staring innocently at a beggar girl just slightly older than they are, like she was an animal at the zoo.
No surprise that many photos evoke China's embrace of capitalism without irony, subtlety or even commentary. The one of the beaming fellow carrying an armful of money fresh from the mint made for a great poster, and scenes of investors' imminent anxiety attacks at the stock exchange give another glimpse at the 'new China'.
China's future depends on how it finesses the transition from a superpopulated, low-on-basics agrarian society to a superpopulated, superpolluted urban one. My feeling was that urban China was depicted more often and more positively than it possibly deserves. Not exactly sugar-coated, but the people with lampshades on their heads who stayed home to feed the oxen resonate more deeply with Walker Evans' sharecroppers than they do with their urban hustler cousins, despite their both being 100% Chinese. As you work your way through, the preachy subtext gets more explicit, as when every tolerated religious denomination gets its turn at bat, or street vendors of steamed sweet potatoes are identified as high school dropouts (now you get busy on your homework right now, junior!). Retinal fatigue may be to blame, but I can't recall seeing any with people gambling. I mean, c'mon, really - these are Chinese, right?
But that may just be beyond my ability to comprehend because I am not Chinese, and have to take someone else's word - it's there in the wall text - that only through pre-packaged vistas like this will I be vouchsafed 'deeper understanding of the Chinese culture and the mentality of its people'. But why should that be the case? When the show was at Frankfurt's Museum of Modern Art last year, some critics were dismayed that curators assembled a satellite exhibition of pictures taken on a 1985 visit to China by Barbara Klemm, a press photographer for the Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung. Ask around - she's one of the best in the business (you may recall a disconcerting shot of Soviet honcho Leonid Brezhnev French-kissing his East German counterpart, Erich Honecker).
Yet critics claim her photographs of China are inappropriate in this context because she's not Chinese. Haven't we been through this already, with Madame Bovary not being written by a woman, nor Moby Dick by a whale? Certainly there are differences. Klemm has a stronger sense of drama, of the story-telling potenial of her images. You have a fair idea not only of what is happening in them, but also what led up to it and what's probably going to happen next. They seem more densely packed with content. Look at her other photos from Soweto or Romania to see how they dovetail with the Chinese scenes. The vision and viewpoint are those of an outsider, but one who definitely knows how to take a picture. Dismiss them if you dare.
Maybe I'm a sucker for clichés, but I'd almost go so far as to say that six hundred authentically Chinese photographs make for a fine feast, but an hour later…. I said almost. Yes, by all means, go see this showfor a privileged inside view of a fascinating society. Sometimes, though, you get a truer view of things if you stay on the outside, peering through the keyhole to see what's really going on.