June 2011

Elizabeth Bachner

features

June Again

The thing that gets to me the most in Who is Ana Mendieta? is a newspaper article. A doorman downstairs from the 34th floor apartment, before she fell to the street and died, heard a woman protesting: “No, no, no, no.” Pleading, “Don’t.” “It wasn’t very loud from where he was, but there was something about the voice that stuck in his mind, something hard to put into words, he said, but it wasn’t a scream of helplessness. There was some kind of self-confidence in the voice. A sharp “No!” then another and another and another. Then there was silence. He heard what he thought was an explosion, but it was a sound he’d never heard before, even though he’d heard a lot of mortar in Vietnam. The evidence that Ana Mendieta’s husband, Carl Andre, had murdered her was ignored. He was acquitted in 1988. In 1992, a group of protestors at the inaugural exhibition of the Guggenheim Soho held a banner: “Carl Andre is in the Guggenheim. Where is Ana Mendieta?” There was a book with that title, years ago, Where is Ana Mendieta? Who, where. Why. If Ana hadn’t “gone out the window” (as Carl Andre put it), the books about her would be different. We might see her work -- how she used her body, how she used Cuba, how she used rape -- in some different way.

I’ve gotten a little stranger inside. I’ve started having spring adventures -- Coney Island, where I try Totonno’s pizza for the first time with my friend, and watch the beginning or end of a ferret-and-parrot show, staring at the smiling macaw, the white cockatoo, the small ferret who seems both earnest and jaded. Acroyoga. A drugstore filled with prosthetic limbs, medical hosiery, books commemorating the forties and the seventies, and a life-sized stuffed standard poodle. I don’t know who or where I am, exactly. At the launch of a new journal, Imagine Africa, everyone seems to have traveled the world, protesting and exploring and trying to rescue dying languages. I keep rereading certain lines from the poems in that journal by Shailja Patel: “a body/is not a poem” from “Offerings,” or the second-to-last stanza of the villanelle “Jacaranda Time”: “And maybe this is love: hope wrapped in grime./Relinquish all the might-have-beens. Embrace/ each tiny possible, each less-than-perfect rhyme.” I’ve been reading Francoise Barbe-Gall’s How to Look at a Painting, where I learn that the diner scene in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks happened right on Greenwich Avenue, a street I walk down almost every day. There’s dust from dead people’s bones under my feet, there are living and dying bodies everywhere, meeting and not meeting. The city is so wild we might as well have made it up. I’ve been reading Brassai’s memoir about Henry Miller, and thinking about June again.

Henry Miller met his second wife June when she was twenty-one and he was thirty. She was a taxi dancer. I used to want to be like June Miller when I was a teenager, because she sounded so beautiful and so seductive and so dangerous. I’d read Sexus and Nexus and Plexus and Crazy Cock and Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, with their June-based characters. I’d read Anaïs Nin’s diaries, about her self-involved loved triangle with June and Henry. It’s interesting I didn’t want to be like Henry or Anaïs instead -- the writers. I wanted to be like someone who never wrote anything, although she talked about someday writing. She made up stories. After she left Henry Miller she married again. After that fell apart, she lived in a series of cheap hotels in New York City. She strayed into madness, maybe. She was put in a psychiatric institution -- like most of the women I admired when I was fifteen, like many of the ones I admire now -- and given shock treatments. She was never okay after that. Real life doesn’t have very good epilogues, I guess. Or it has great ones.

According to Brassai, “Psychiatrists like to class people in categories, depending on their character and temperament. What they cannot measure is the intensity and sheer voltage of someone’s life force. There are people who have ten times, sometimes a hundred times, more of it than others. Goethe called these supercharged creatures ‘demoniacs,’ by which he did not mean that they were possessed by the devil, but simply that they were creatures with a superabundance of life, ‘something which escapes analysis, reason, comprehension.’ Goethe felt this same surging power in himself. He also felt he needed to protect himself from it. June was consumed by the same devouring flame. Henry wrote that she loved excess in all things and believed in every kind of orgy -- sexual, conversational, sacrificial.”

Can one person have more life than someone else? Isn’t that one of the few ways we really are equal? Henry Miller told Brassai that he was always trying to regress instead of progress, “become more stupid with every day, as stupid as all the plants and animals. To get rid, once and for all, of the effects of five thousand years of history, gods, religions, books, great men… If I had the power, I would do away with schools, museums, I would burn all the libraries. I would even do away with history, that maker of war.” He was always happily contradicting himself. He had a giant copy of his astrological chart on his wall. He was a devourer of books of all kinds and on all themes -- psychoanalysis, Zen, yoga, philosophy and culture of the Far East, Orphism, tragedy, Greek homosexuality. Was June orgiastic, or did Henry just write her that way, out of what he was looking for and what he wanted her to be? Am I a supercharged demoniac? Am I dead inside, with an underabundance of intensity or voltage -- the opposite of June? Less alive, more alive, less of a creature, more of a creature than the other plants and animals, than the parrot-and-ferret man, than his parrot or his world-weary ferret, than the people walking down the boardwalk with their thick thighs and the cheap, glittering baubles they’ve bought? Part of what makes June, June is that we’ve never heard her story. Or, we’ve heard her story without her voice inside it, with someone else’s voice animating her instead, so in a way she’s demonically inhabited, she’s been body-snatched. A body is not a poem (“a body/ is not a poem/ to teach/ the language that you yearn for.”)      

Brassai quotes Henry Miller’s account of their final moments together:

“She said good-bye and she stood there on the stairs looking up at me with a strange, sorrowful smile. If I had made the least gesture I know she would have thrown the money out of the window and rushed back into my arms and stayed with me forever. I took a long look at her, walked slowly back to the door, and closed it. I went back to the kitchen table, sat there a few minutes looking at the empty glasses, and then I broke down and sobbed like a child."

I’m watching videos of Ana Mendieta. Young. Standing facing a wall, running her hands down it and leaving marks of blood. Walking out of the frame.

That Brassai book gets pretty florid about June. There’s almost nothing about her that isn’t said, between all of Miller’s June books, others who had met her, and Brassai himself: “Baudelaire, who loved the art and artifice of a woman’s face, would have swooned over this creature… and that voice!... She was sophisticated right down to her fingertips, but could also play the vamp, and with her eerie beauty, seductive charm, and undeniable power over both men and women, she had all the makings of a femme fatale.” Henry likes it that she’s cold, mysterious, unfaithful, unreachable. Otherwise he’d be turned off. Otherwise he’d be bored. She’s “a ‘live volcano,’ a ‘female Vesuvius,’ even her body was in constant metamorphosis. A born egomaniac and actress, June was slippery as an eel… She was like Helen or Juno. She was like Ayesha in H. Rider Haggard’s She, another unearthly creature of immortal beauty whose charm no mortal could resist… June was ‘a bottomless abyss, impenetrable’… June was like those Orientals whose art is predicated on the notion of concealment.” When Henry thinks about not seeing her again, “a great void opens up and I feel that I am falling, falling, falling into deep, black space.” In their relationship, “We came together in a dance of death and so quickly was I sucked down into the vortex that when I came to the surface again I could not recognize the world.” But then she starts to morph completely into love interests for his protagonists: “It came over me... that I wasn’t thinking of her anymore; I was thinking of the book which I am writing, and the book had become more important to me than her, than all that had happened to us.”

“If I had the power…I would even do away with history.” Of course he would. History is full of collisions between people, crazy and alarming collisions, collisions where you have to wonder what would have happened if they’d passed each other by. And sometimes they do.

“I have been stupid, I am stupid and I shall remain stupid all the days of life,” wrote Marie Curie to her sister Bronya, before she was Marie Curie. She was still a girl, scheduled to go to the Sorbonne, but she’d had her heart broken by Casimir Zorawski -- he was hot, smart, rich. His family disapproved of him marrying the “help.” He was too wimpy to defy them and be with her anyway, or maybe he didn’t love her enough. Marie was too depressed to want to do anything with the rest of her life. “I have never been, am not now, and shall never be lucky. I dreamed of Paris as a redemption but the hope of going there left me a long time ago and now that the possibility is offered me I don’t know what to do… I am exceptionally unhappy in this world.”

“Why are some women trapped in their environment while others escape, or circumvent, or ignore these obstacles? How did society and family affect their aspirations? Why do some women seek independence while others tread a prescribed path?” Asks Barbara Goldsmith in Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie. It’s a good question.

Marie Curie went to see Casimir Zorawski at a mountain resort. She broke up with him. She told him, “If you can’t see a way to clear up this situation it is not for me to teach it to you.” She wrote a friend that those years of suffering over Casimir Zorawski were moments “which I shall certainly count as the most cruel of my life… I feel everything very violently… with a physical violence and then I give myself a shaking, the vigor of my nature conquers and it seems to me that I am coming out of a nightmare… First principle: never to let oneself be beaten down by persons or by events.” She wrote her sister that she had changed her mind, and she was ready for the Sorbonne. Never to let oneself be beaten down by persons or by events. But what if Casimir Zorawski had been more heroic? What if he’d chosen her over everything? Probably she would not have gone to the Sorbonne, not have met Pierre Curie, not have lost Pierre Curie to a freak accident with a horse-cart, not have fallen in love with the married Paul Langevin. And physically, chemically, what would she have discovered or not discovered?

In every alternative history that never happened, there are babies that never got born, who grew up to do strange or wondrous things in the world. There are loves that worked out. There are whole countries where no one was exiled or murdered. That smiling macaw was left in the jungle, his wings unclipped. And those alternative scenarios are alive for all of us, we’ve all imagined them, those might-have beens. I see why Henry Miller would’ve wanted to take away history altogether, but then how would things work instead? And maybe something is right about ending up in Coney Island, with everything the way it is right now (“Embrace/each tiny possible.”) It’s interesting I ever wanted to be like June.

“My only reason for living,” June told Henry, “is to see you do what you want to do.” Or maybe she never said anything like that to him. Maybe that’s just how it got written. For someone who was so eerily beautiful and so all-powerful and so irresistible, June Miller sure got resisted a lot.  

Carl Andre broke up with Ana Mendieta in a fury when she refused to turn down the Prix de Rome in sculpture and its yearlong residency in 1983. They got back together when he came to visit her in Italy. When she “went out the window” in 1985, Carl Andre showed the police officer who came to the apartment a catalogue of his work. He said to the officer, “Maybe I was wrong. She wanted to go to bed. I wanted to watch TV… I don’t know, maybe I should have gone to bed with her, if that’s what she wanted. In that sense, maybe I did kill her.” No one had asked if he killed her. He said, “You see, I am a very successful artist and she wasn’t. Maybe that got to her, and in that case, maybe I did kill her.” Ana was thirty-six when she died. At twenty-four, she destroyed all her paintings because they didn’t feel real enough. She wanted more power, more magic. She started using her own body, and the earth, in a dialogue. She once wrote about her own work that it was made “not in an attempt to redeem the past, but rather in a confrontation with the void.” In the final two years of her life, she’d started making objects again. Objects, and some drawings. “Certain works,” writes Francoise Barbe-Gall in How to Look at a Painting, “have the power to root us to the spot.”

Instead of forever, sometimes there’s a void. Sometimes there’s the discovery of radium. Sometimes there’s a series of psych wards and shock treatments. Sometimes people get trapped in forever and other times trapped outside of it, sometimes there is very good, or very bad news. Sometimes there’s silence, an unmarked grave, sealed court records. (“Relinquish all the might-have-beens.”) June was always talking about planning to write an autobiography, but she didn’t. We don’t know the truth about her, her real name, her real age, her real thoughts. We don’t know exactly where her body is buried, although it’s probably somewhere in Arizona. In the end she wasn’t any vortex, or any demon, or any goddess, or any abyss. She was just a girl, standing there with a strange, sorrowful smile, waiting for the least gesture to bring her back.