Sunday, 20 September 2020

'Laocoön is the name of the figure'



Like millions of people around the world and across centuries I have always been awed by the Laocoön and his sons marble in the Vatican, attributed to Agesander, Athenodorus and Polydorus of ancient Rhodes. The agony of the two young sons attacked  by the serpent demons is palpable and Laocoön vain attempts to fight the serpents off only magnify his suffering. 

The myth is well known, recounted by Virgil in the Aeneid: Athena conjured up the serpents when Laocoön tried to persuade fellow Trojans to burn the horse left by the Greeks on the seashore. The Trojan priest utters his famous lines: "Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes" (I fear the Greeks even when they bring presents), a warning not to trust those who are notoriously untrustworthy (such as Odysseus, the most treacherous among the Greeks). In other versions, the serpents are sent off by Poseidon, whom Laocoön had deeply offended. 



Bust of Athena, copy of a bronze by Kresilas

 The myth can also be given a metaphorical meaning. The serpent demons are our own demons coming out and suffocating us. To me, the Laocoön has often been a signifier of my own inner landscape and the sense of choking always felt very real, just as it is so masterly depicted by the Rhodian sculptors.



The Trojan horse. Movieclip from Troy

Recently, I came across a beautiful reprise of the myth in a poem by the American  Marge Piercy , also known as a feminist novelist, as part of the collection Stone, Paper, Knife (1983) which is about the loss of an old love and the beginning of a new one, partly autobiographical (or at least drawing on the intensity of her experiences), articulating the emotional spectrum of a failed relationship in an original poetic voice, rich in imagery. 

The poem, first published in 1981 runs thus:

"That sweet sinewy green nymph /eddying in curves through the grasses: /she must stop and stare at him. Of all the savage secret creatures/ he imagines stealthy in the quivering night/, she must be made to approach, /she must be tamed to love him./ The power of his wanting will turn/ her from hostile dark wandering/ other beyond the circle of his/ campfire into his own, his flesh,/ his other wanting half. To keep her/ she must be filled with his baby/, weighted down./ 

Then suddenly /the horror of it: he awakens, /wrapped in the coils of the mother,/ the great old serpent hag, /the hungry ravening witch/ who gives birth and demands, and the lesser/ mouths of the grinning children /gobbling his substance. He/ must cut free. 

An epic battle /in courts and beds and offices, in barrooms and before the bar /and then free at last, he wanders. There on the grassy hill, how the body moves,/ her, the real one, /green/ as a Mayfly she hovers and he pounces." 

It is a  powerful reworking of Laocoön  as a  metaphor of the feminine and of the relationship between the sexes. 

"I think I pretty much exhaust much of my impulse toward autobiography in my poetry" says Piercy. And , as a piece of advice to would-be poets, she adds "Hold on to your politics and your identity. Don’t take critics seriously. They are always building their aesthetic on what has been done, not on what you want to do".

Even more to the point is what she writes in an article for the Poetry Society of America:
"Sometimes when students call me up or send me emails that ask, what does this poem mean? I despair. I say it means what it says, what it says in words, in sounds, in rhythms, in silences, in images. That's what it means".

This is precisely why a poem such as 'Laocoön is the name of the figure' immediately works. I read it, enjoy its  musicality and am able to superimpose the anguished image of the Vatican Laocoön onto Piercy's words. And I weep, as it resonates and touches me, the reader, to the core.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

The myth of Marilyn's size






I had a conversation this morning with R***, an old flame whom I did not realise I had deeply offended (well, conversation via text,  all of us don't seem to use the phone much these days, except my sister and I, who are constantly calling each other).
I have known this guy for so long, since the early 1990s, and have had epic fights with him, some of which have crept up in past blog posts, with me duly changing details (I am mindful of other people's privacy and right not to be recognised).
I take it for granted I can say to him anything that crosses my mind, especially now that we have long gone our separate ways.  To me, he is a friend. But obviously, I must have overdone it,  because for months he gave me the silent treatment and finally responded only today to a birthday wish message saying he had forgiven me after 382 days, which totally miffed me.
I asked for details - what did I do? -  and got no reply, so I sent him a quote from the one and only Marilyn, the one in which she said " I am selfish etc etc. but if you can't handle me at my worst, you do not deserve me at my best".   I am very fond of this quote and I occasionally send it to people, in fact, I sent it to someone else too, also recently -  and if YOU are reading this, do not be so vain, as Carly Simon allegedly sang of Warren Beatty, this post is not about you at all!



Anyway, the Marilyn quote elicited a response and we got involved in the silliest possible argument about her death, which my friend maintains was a murder, and I tend to believe was a suicide, as the official version goes, the desperate act of a troubled woman who took too many barbiturates. In those days doctors would prescribe them like sugar candies to everyone and anyway, a movie star of that calibre would not have trouble in getting them.  Said friend and I could not agree on this, so we ended the conversation (and hopefully I will not be given the silent treatment for another 382 days. I think this explains why we never managed to be together for longer than a few months, infatuation notwithstanding).
As a result, Marilyn was very much on my mind for the rest of the afternoon, so much so that I began to read about her.  Her impact on contemporary popular culture has been phenomenal and my take is that dying when she did and the way she did, magnified her and really turned her into the legend that she is. Much has been written about her, her struggle with depression, her sense of being unloved, her love affairs, her failed marriages, her discontent, her desire to be taken seriously. A recent biography by Charles Casillo puts her in context,  highlighting that she suffered from bipolar disorder, which was unknown as a condition at the time and the miscommunications that led to her tragic death. 
But I also came across a range of articles that discuss her size. These are most bizarre. It was comedian Rosanne Barr who began saying that Marilyn was a size 16 (today's size 16!) . You should not trust a comedian to tell it like it is!  Somehow it has stuck and it did not help that Liz Hurley said she'd rather kill herself if she had been as fat as Marilyn.  Liz Hurley never struck me as capable of saying anything remotely engaging, therefore I will not comment on her pronouncement.  But this idea that Marilyn was big is ludicrous. She was slim and well proportioned. Today's sizes are not those of the 1950s and today's bodies are definitely different. Marilyn had a 22-inch waist, without a girdle, which is incredibly small by today's standard (I am a  size 8 and my waist is 26 inches).  She had the perfect hourglass figure, with 35-inch hips and 35 bust. She had a bosom, definitely, it seems she had a 36 D cup. But she was not a size 16! She was also 5'5.5 in height, which is on the small/medium side by today's standards but was above average in the 1950s.


There are thousands of pictures of Marilyn, some of her naked and one can see she was not at all big.
I wonder why people have started this rumour. My take is that in an attempt to establish being large as normal and counter negative body image and weight-based discrimination, it may have been helpful to reclaim an icon of Marilyn's renown to breathe greater confidence in women (and men) who are trying to overcome the stigma of being chubby and corpulent.
At the end of the day, Marilyn was Marilyn. Immortalised in fashion, in art, in music she will always be as paradigmatic as Helen of Troy was in antiquity. Her size pales into insignificance, what stays is the image of this beautiful and troubled woman, whose wit and intelligence were never sufficiently recognised. It begs the question: would you want to be Marilyn Monroe?

Photo: Alfred Eisenstaedt




Saturday, 5 September 2020

The mysterious death of Adrienne Lecouvreur


Photo: Royal Opera House.

Today, while looking for something else, I chanced upon the copy of an old programme of the opera Adriana Lecouvreur by Francesco Cilea, which I saw in Paris in 2015 at the Opéra National (Opéra Bastille). It was a great performance by the soprano Angela Gheorgiu and I was delighted to have the opportunity to go, as a guest, to the opening night of this international co-production, involving the Royal Opera House, Opéra Bastille,  Gran Teatre Del Liceu and  Wiener Staatsoper.
I mentioned my personal encounter with the music of Adriana  Lecouvreur in a post I wrote at the time but I did not tell the whole story, I simply talked about the DVD which I bought when I returned. How did I end up in Paris on the opening night?
As I recall, I was engaged in some major spring-cleaning and decluttering, in preparation for my going away to  Indonesia a couple of months later, to research my book. I had decided to rent out my place while I was away.  I could not get a tenant without doing that thorough massive cleaning and I had to do it myself rather than hire someone to do it for me.  I have books everywhere and cannot bear other people touching them without due respect - my books are my best friends, I am dead serious when I say so.
While engaged in this less than glamorous activity,  I suddenly got a text message from my then ballet teacher - I used to go to Pineapple Studios for ballet classes, I had only just started sleeking and had not switched to it completely.  He was in Paris at the time to work on the choreography of the opera, which he had once danced himself. I had seen some images of him in Paris with the artistic team and liked them, the way people do on social media. I even said I loved opera (mildly, I should add)  - people say all sorts of things when commenting on social media, they like, love etc sometimes in a very overstated way.
Anyway, in that text, my ballet tutor said he had spare tickets for the opening night and since I liked opera,  would I consider travelling to Paris to attend? It seemed a waste not to use them, as the seats were right at the front.  It was a no brainer,  I said yes, thinking of the wonderful seats which I would not normally be able to afford, and me being me, I immediately started listening to the music on YouTube,while carrying on with my springcleaning,  just to get more familiar with the opera, which I had never seen and of which I knew so little.
I have friends in Paris, which helps, as I could crash out at theirs. I went for the day and spent the morning at Père Lachaise, where I felt the need to pay tribute to the divine Maria Callas, whose ashes are preserved there. Then in the evening, I made my way to the theatre. The seats were as good as could be, I was close to the stage and was able to enjoy the wonderful music and watch the action unfold - and loved the dancing!
At the end of the performance, I lingered on to meet a few people and had a glass of champagne, to celebrate the evening and then went back to my friends' as I would be leaving by Eurostar the following day.

Opéra Bastille
 The details of my personal encounter with the opera (thank you again, Adam, for your gift) now out of the way, let's talk a bit about Adriana Lecouvreur as this is a rather unusual story to set to music, inspired by a real-life person. Adriana (Adrienne) was a French actress of the Comédie Française who lived in the 17th/18th  century. Adored by the audience, praised by Voltaire, who fell in love with her,  and by Diderot, Adrienne had, apparently,  a stormy affair with Count Maurice of Saxony and a tug of war with the Princess de Bouillon for the Count's affection.  She was poisoned by the Princess, so the story goes,  and died very young,  but the murder was never proven and she may have just died of exhaustion.
Francesco Cilea, originally from Palmi, Reggio Calabria, in Southern Italy, set his opera to the libretto by Scribe and Legouvé, highlighting the mingling of tragedy and comedy,  the varied action and the passionate love of the protagonist for the Count.  Cilea's work is usually regarded as part of the 'verismo' opera but it has great sophistication and powerful élan. The music is very nuanced, pleasing, and soulful,  duly dramatic in all the right places.
Actresses of the Comédie had an official role to play within an organisation of international renown. They were powerful women, influential public figures, equal to men (and unusually so, in those misogynistic times) whose lives were constantly scrutinised - the most terrible accusation levelled at actresses was that of a loss of virtue, and their moral position constantly oscillated in people's opinion. Their task was to bring the theatre to the people and they were mandated to do so by the King. They did not adhere to the stereotypical views of the time of constrained femininity and they were active participants in public culture. As women, they had unusual agency.


The opera by Cilea is well-loved and it has been performed by great tenors and sopranos, internationally. The romantic twist makes it a favourite of audiences worldwide. It also has a soliloquy by Adriana which is powerfully delivered.
I particularly love the final scene: Adriana forgives her lover for his affair with the Princess, declines to marry him because she is wedded to the theatre and then dies in his arms.
Writing in 1957, Roland Barthes talked of 'la combustion de l'acteur', the actor's combustion, which Adrienne so aptly symbolises: "the actor gives himself over to the demon of the theatre, he sacrifices himself, allows himself to be eaten up from inside by his role".
I prefer seeing Adrienne in this light rather than going along with the story of romantic intrigue: to me, Adrienne is the actor who metaphorically dies for the art.

"Sans aucuns soins, sans étude, sans fard,
des passions vous fûtes l'interprete.
O de l'amour adorable sujette,
n'oubliez  pas le secret de votre art"
Voltaire