Readings — From the August 2018 issue

Good Mother

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From Now, Now, Louison, a novel that will be published by Les Fugitives in the UK in September and by New Directions next March. Frémon is the president of Galerie Lelong in Paris and New York and has written novels, collections of poems, and essays on art. In this novel, he writes in the voice of artist Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010), who was famous for her enormous sculptures of spiders. Translated from the French by Cole Swensen.

Out of frustration, you make sculpture. Destroying, repairing, mending, patching together, there’s love in all of it. You have to take control of the situation. It’s a kind of equation—on one side, pain, anxiety, and frustration; on the other, wood, marble, bronze. The trick is to get them to infuse each other. With sculptures, you weave connections. Everything’s a matter of weaving. White thread, red thread, one for lies, one for truths . . .

And then you found the old, dilapidated sweatshop in Brooklyn for rent. . . . Finally, real space. For peanuts. You took it as is, what chaos! Sewing machines, mannequins, bolts of cloth, tables, shelves. Finally, you could breathe surrounded by your things. Chaos can be controlled. You had all the sculptures that had been hanging around in crates moved out there. You made a gorgeous mess of marbles, bronzes, wood, resins, composites, lairs, houses, Januses, so many things that you hadn’t seen in such a long time.

Every morning, Jerry brought the car, and you went over to Brooklyn, singing along the way, Allons à Brooklyn pêcher la sardine, Allons à Manhattan manger la banane. 

The Brooklyn years, a whole chapter. Brooklyn was a wasteland. You ate lunch at an awful pizzeria two blocks away. But finally you could think big, make spiders under which you could feel so small, so protected.

Spiders, spiders, you never tired of remaking them, bigger and bigger. More immoderately maternal.

 

Then one day I thought, you can always carve wood, mold clay, or polish marble better than anyone, but what good is it if you don’t tell your own story? Lovely sculptures, gratuitous, idiotic, vain, and useless if they don’t say what you have to say. Just ridiculous pretensions in marble and bronze with their angles and curves sparkling in the light. Your story. How can you hope to interest anyone in your obsessive carving and polishing and molding if it doesn’t tell a story that’s your own?

But be careful. Your story is not the one they’ve told you, the one they wanted to make you believe. We’re all layers of stories, the interwoven stories of others, of parents, of elders. They see themselves in what they tell you. We are what others say we are. Our name accumulates little by little from shards of being.

The story you’re telling, I know it, but only because I’ve heard it before, and I know it too well, but it’s not my story. You have to be absolutely precise—or say nothing at all. You can never be too precise. Your past belongs to you. Explode the ambient discourse; spit in their soup, which was already pretty murky. Weave your monologue, my dear—that’s what I told myself.

Humanity is divided between obsessives and hysterics, or so Father said.

 

You, you fell on the obsessional side. You obsessively collected the myriad facets of hysteria; hysteria fascinated you. You couldn’t get enough of the literature on the subject; you loved uncovering its tracks. In yourself as well as in others.

The ancients believed that a uterus that doesn’t get what it wants heats up and begins pacing the woman’s body like a caged animal, oppressing the other organs one by one, giving rise to hot flashes, sudden sweats, heart palpitations, a knotted throat, dry mouth, and spasms whose sole origin is the internal uproar of a starved organ. They tried to coax the disturbed thing back into its proper place with various tempting scents. They laid the sick woman on sheets dampened with myrrh. They tried to get the aromatic emanations to penetrate between her legs. A phallic object was placed on perfumed charcoal whose vapors were supposed to work their way into the vulva of the patient.

In a seizure, the body becomes a sculpture, the eyes popping out, the wrists twisted outward, the ankles angling in, a statue of excruciating pain.

I went to the museum of molds at the Salpêtrière, all sculptures from life, a wrist, a leg, a torso without a head, the exemplary cramp, or the entire arc, a body caught in complete seizure, a frozen moment of utter contortion.

I wonder if she’s coming. In the seizure. If the ghost lover makes her come. If she’s ecstatic. Ecstasy.

In cases of mystical ecstasy, it’s quite clear, and throughout the centuries, painters and sculptors have given themselves over entirely to the task of depicting it: Mary Magdalene with her head thrown back; Agatha, her breasts held out on a plate; Teresa, twisted into an arc of tortured marble; Caravaggio, Bernini, Lequeu. “We too, we will be mothers,” she said, unveiling the enormously rounded breasts beneath her veil. They pass in a cortege, the exalted, the hallucinatory, the languishing, the stigmatized, the beatified, the swooning, the sobbing, the agonized, the possessed, the dead for the love of God the Father, the brides of Christ-touch-me-not, they’re all coming, there’s no doubt about it—but from what? God only knows. Divine wisdom, wearing their hearts on their sleeves, life in the folds, and surplices with tears of milk.

In the nineteenth century, everything changed. No more lascivious saints. The great figure of religious sightings was no longer Jesus, the mystical spouse. He was supplanted by his mother, so good and so firm, a figure of remonstration, inspiring an ambient catechism, appearing to no one but uneducated children in caves and grottoes far from the incredulous crowds. In her queenly blue robe, the Good Mother takes over; the middle class becomes obsessed with family; faith enters a second childhood. But all that means nothing as long as she’s in ecstasy.

Questions. These are the questions you sculpt in wood, in iron, in marble. That’s what counts.

Is she ecstatic with her body arched over backward? The orgasm as an arc . . . eyes popping out, pupils dilated, they speak of the wild eyes, the buttocks tensed, the pubis raised, offered, a drooling mouth. Mimicking the lack of love. There is no more love, she says. There was never enough love. But is she ecstatic in her spasm? That’s what you’d like to know. Is her joy flowing? Precious liquid. There is no love, only the proof of it, says the other.

Long ago, you stopped waiting for a response. Lack, too, can be sublimated.

And whose hand is that coming out of the marble? Rising to make a sign. Of what person drowning in the ocean? Happy? In indifference, an ocean of stone. The indifference of marble. He’s “made of marble”; that’s what we say in French, while here it’s “poker face.” Dumb as a fish, deaf as a post. You like canned expressions. For ages, the world showed you a poker face. And then, little by little, you warmed up its marble by asking inconvenient questions.

So, ecstatic? Allow us to doubt. But doubt profits the accused. Jerry, who had given you everything of himself, also lent you his body for a mold. Life-size, arching over, his long, androgynous body. You cut off the head and patched up a few details. An aluminum cast was made from the plaster. You spent hours sanding the plaster with finer and finer sandpaper. It had to be exquisitely smooth. Perfection masks the confusion of feelings. The aluminum would be so highly polished that you could see yourself in it. A mirror. It’s there that the conversation begins. The sculpture is larger and therefore enlarges the reflections. The viewer is a part of it. It’s theater. The mirror of illusions. But wait—this again? Yeah, I cut his head off—so what? Can’t I do what I want? It’s my sculpture. They pay no attention, and yet they stop to say: You can’t do that! You can’t cut people’s heads off. Why not!? If I want my arching hysteric to be universal, I simply have to chop off Jerry’s head.

I’ll suspend the arching body by a cable attached to its navel and let it turn slowly around. Appeasement. Joy in eternal gyration. Head gone. Out of control. To each their own orgasm. It will make them think. A little regard, if you please, for the statue. For the poor enstatuated thing, hung by its belly button, turning on itself, offering itself to others whose inquiring gazes unveil its secret. You’ll never know if it was ecstatic.

But the question, once asked, remains. Find your reflection in the high polish of the headless, androgynous body of Jerry-Everyone, suspended by the navel in endless rotation, and ask it yourself.

Some species of the Cyclosa and Uloborus adorn their webs with a fake spider or two whipped up from their silk and the remains of their prey—the tough, stringy bits that don’t taste good. They sculpt doubles of themselves and place them on the web so that predators will attack this bait instead of them. Ah, that’s my favorite, the spider-sculptor . . . making its own decoys.

The survival of the fittest, said Darwin, of the best fit for a given niche. Whereas you’re interested in the survival of the unfit, in the strategies of the handicapped, in the victory of the tortoise over the hare.

In a book, you read the story of a man who played billiards by himself. Against himself. He called it a game of the able against the one-armed. The able made a normal shot, while the one who played against him used only one hand.

One day, the one-armed man won.

The man stayed drunk for three days straight and never played billiards again.

So, you have to work with it. With the lacks, the weaknesses. The fatal inabilities. Work the handicaps against their grain. Survival of the unfit. Prove Darwin wrong. We must go further. Fueled by despair. The strategy of the besieged. Have confidence in weakness.

There are artists who work off their gifts—they may use them, overdo them, or even obstruct them, but no matter what they do, they’re still gifted. Whether they accept their gifts or not makes no difference. And there are others who work off their inabilities, their incapacities, and their ineptitudes because they have no choice, though what they produce will never have the authority, the inevitability, or the definitive stature that is the mark of the gifted when they’re great.

The ungifted tend not to like themselves very much, and they often don’t like their work either. And so they work feverishly in an unconscious attempt to flee success when they glimpse it, unwittingly protecting their work. Their power to touch viewers, to say something, stays more alive by being constantly put off until later. And it’s precisely in this later that their force resides. Later may well never arrive, but it retains a potential that right now quickly exhausts.

Which is why some among the inept can look forward to the lovely potential for revenge. It’s always possible that the one-armed man might win. And when he does, it’s both touching and troubling because it’s the victory of fallibility.

You look at yourself in the mirror. You find yourself faded. You had a particular tenderness for Mother’s soft belly. You recognize it—your belly is just like Mother’s, which brought you into the world. You feel so small. If we didn’t fiercely squelch all memory of our first three years, we would be crushed by the recognition of how small we were. This smallness will always be an integral part of us. You are not crushed; you have nipped that crushing in the bud. At times you feel drunk with smallness, and you dream of nothing but abandoning yourself to a sea strong enough to carry you away.

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