April 11, 2013
Even on the last day of Mariam’s life, I had no expectation of her death. As most of you know, by noon last Tuesday, the aortal valve was in place and all that had to be done was some “sewing.” Six hours later, and with a dozen doctors attempting to save her, she was lost to us. I am going to talk only briefly and personally about what Mariam has meant to me over 41 years of friendship. To begin with, she was my mentor, and then my partner in the work on women’s studies in the U.S. and internationally. Often, she led the way, in part because she had the financial power of the Ford Foundation behind her, in part because she had a vision and strategies she had learned through management education. By the 1990s, she became the head of my New York family of choice, the mother of us all, though she wasn’t old enough to be my mother. Still, she was eleven years older, as she reminded me from time to time during our friendship. And further, with her gone, I’m the mother. That’s hard to acknowledge.
We met in the spring of 1971, around a large oval table at the Ford Foundation. I never did understand why I was among the august body of feminists she had selected to advise her. I was also the only person in the room who did not understand that Mariam had called the meeting to discuss how she was to spend a new allocation specifically for collegiate women’s education. As one of the early people called on to speak, I blithely said that colleges didn’t need funding, since they had already begun to establish hundreds of women’s studies courses and even a few programs on their own, that funding should go to secondary schools. I added that my office had a list of collegiate women’s studies courses and programs. All those present politely ignored me as they made their own cases for supporting collegiate students and faculties. But Mariam had heard me say something very interesting to her, and at the end of the meeting she said she’d like to see me again. What she had heard was that I had information, data, as the economist in her would call it. And like me, she wanted more of it. She offered to fund a national survey of all colleges and universities, to be conducted by the Feminist Press, and so a year or two later we produced a volume called Who’s Who and Where in Women’s Studies. Mariam used that volume to decide where to invest other funds in building the research centers she began to fund in the mid-1970s. She had the vision to see that the academically strongest women’s studies programs might also become key research centers, theorizing that such research would feed back into teaching programs, and would allow for the development not only of B.A. programs, but Master’s and Doctorates as well.
In 1980, she appointed me a consultant to the Ford Foundation, and with the mantra “enough of women’s studies in the U.S.,” she took me with her to look at women’s studies in Oxford, London, Paris, and Rome. What it was like to be with Mariam then? What was she like?
She was beautiful, slim and elegant, in Chanel suits and Marimeko dresses. She was also powerful. With a stroke of a pen she could—and did—give me a fellowship that sent me into a dozen archives to research the history of women’s education, and to search for early foremothers of women’s studies among those in the first feminist movement. Again, I should note, she, like me, wanted information. And she was delighted when I discovered that two women—at Wellesley and the University of Washington in Seattle—who had taught courses on women in the work force were both economists.
In the nineteen-eighties, Mariam was sophisticated, accustomed to traveling comfortably. Her Armenian working class roots were invisible to me. For many years, until an incident on an airplane, I didn’t even know she could speak Armenian. We were traveling from Europe to the U.S., and some children were running up and down the aisle, when a small girl, perhaps five years old, stopped directly in front of Mariam in the aisle seat and spoke to her in a language totally unfamiliar to me. The child dashed off and, before I could speak to Mariam, quickly returned with her brother who was a few years older, and he and Mariam had another conversation. When they had both gone, Mariam explained that they were Armenian children being sent to Los Angeles to live with relatives, and that she had assured them, in response to their questions, that there were many Armenians in Los Angeles.
Recently we talked about the kinds of accents in our own childhood speech patterns, and Mariam remembered that she had felt comfortable speaking with a working class Boston accent at Radcliffe, since there were other “townie” students who spoke in that way. But when she began to work in Washington for the OSS, she said she was not pleased that other people there made fun of her speech, and so she simply rid herself of her working class Bostonian accent, just like that, without any fuss.
Mariam, who had traveled before for the Ford Foundation in Europe, was at home in European cities. And she could walk and walk and walk. Unprepared on that first trip with her, I wore out two pairs of shoes I had brought with me—clear through the soles, especially on Parisian cobblestones. And so she took me shopping for new shoes. She was fun and funny. And she ate well, laughed at my sometimes ordering spinach three times a day, and, unlike me, knew the wine list. She was a perfect traveling companion.
Then back in New York, we began to eat dinners together in the early 1980s two, sometimes three evenings a week, and sometimes these were working dinners, for I was still, if unofficially, consulting. Sometimes we were on our own and we might also go to a movie. Sundays, when she wasn’t department store shopping for some particular item—and shopping was serious work for Mariam, and her fun as well—she’d meet me near the Park and we’d wander through to the west side, go to Fairways for some particular thing, Zabar’s for something else, and then have lunch and walk back across to the east side. Yes, she was a good influence on me, and she seemed to be doing good things for her own health as well, though neither of us then knew anything about osteoporosis.
Through the next two decades, we traveled the world together, helping to support women’s studies, not only through the huge UN conferences in Copenhagen, Nairobi, and Beijing, but also through smaller international conferences in Dublin, Costa Rica, Uganda, among many other places, and in meetings in Oslo, Barbados, and Oxford of an international feminist economics organization she helped to found.
All changed in 2006, and Mariam wheelchair-bound became a different person. Perhaps none of us ever will understand what the loss of autonomous walking meant to this vibrant person. I just remembered that on 9/11, in the late afternoon, she was able to leave the NCRW office, and by chance caught a bus going to somewhere on 34th Street, but from there she walked home to Sutton Place South and 54th . She was an amazing walker.
Once in the wheelchair, Mariam changed some of her eating habits. We all joked about how little she ate, how she would not put butter on her bread. Was she dieting? I think now that she was. She was not going to be fat in a wheel chair. In the hospital she had to be weighed before surgery—and she was 100 pounds. Certainly, she had not gained weight.
And what of other habits, preferences, ways of living? I don’t have to describe these for those of you who are here. All changed. If she couldn’t shop for herself, she wouldn’t bother about what she was wearing. She told her caretakers to choose for her. Winter or summer, she would wear only long-sleeved cotton turtle necks and cotton exercise pants, the cotton socks I supplied her with and the unfashionable sturdy shoes I had to buy for her, on which she walked so rarely. She never looked again into the closets stuffed with the clothes, now probably vintage—and countless boxes of elegant shoes. She never inquired about them—they had become invisible. She wore only rarely some of the things I bought for her from Eileen Fisher, and those who saw her most often know how she fought me about a warm winter coat.
She read the New York Times
and the New Yorker
magazine and enjoyed talking with me about an article on women in corporate life, for example, or, as she put it, anything written by Louis Menand. From time to time, she’d ask me what I was working on, or what was going on at the Feminist Press. On rare occasions, she’d talk about her wish that the Feminist Press would collaborate with the National Council to publish more books focused on economic literacy, the subject she would have liked to continue working on.
In the early days of her injuries, she told me that when she awakened in the morning she sometimes imagined leaping out of bed and walking as usual. She did learn to walk with a walker, thanks to the valiant effort of two therapists, Melanie and Laurie, but she would never exercise this ability except in the apartment with someone standing by in the event of a fall. She never talked of walking; she never talked of the “old days.” She refused to go to the movies, and accepted the VCR I bought her and Liz’s subscription to Netflicks, insisting that she would watch one film a week, and only when Joan could set it up for her on a weekend evening. But why the rationing of such small pleasures?
I don’t suppose we’ll ever know, but for me, she was the strongest stoic I have ever known. She accepted her altered state without grousing about it, managing to maintain a public smile. Even to the few of us—particularly her caregivers, Thelma, Joan and Sahvi, and her therapists, Melanie and Laurie—she would never admit she was in pain, though she made soft whimpering sounds sometimes when she was being moved, or being asked to move. But never would she admit to being in bodily pain, much less could she talk about the deep pain for a life wrenched out of its active path into stasis.
So, yes, she allowed herself a few pleasures, but moderation ruled: there was chocolate, one or at most two pieces at a time. This was a rule she had learned from Neil, the ex-husband whom she never stopped loving. She credited him for her being slim. He had encouraged her to lose the ten or so extra pounds she had on her when they first met. Her other eating pleasures were macaroni and cheese, eggs benedict, many different cheeses, salty almonds, chocolate cake, and pizza—comfort foods rather than the steak I thought her body needed. She loved asking me, as we were going to her favorite local place, the Irish bar, Parnell’s, “What do you have a taste for?” And she was often thinking of something specific.
I’m glad we are going to Parnell’s this afternoon. She ate lunch or dinner there some three to six times a week over the past nearly seven years. She had probably tasted everything on their pub menu, and the waiters all knew her preference in white wine. She had her own table and her own seat at it, as she will always have at our tables and in our hearts.
April 4, 2013
For forty two years, exactly half of my lifetime, and almost half of hers, we were friends. At the beginning, we looked the same age, though we were eleven years apart. Beginning in 1980, on behalf of women’s studies, we traveled together to London, Paris, and Rome, and then to international conferences in Copenhagen, Nairobi, and China; to others in Dublin, Costa Rica, Barbados, Oslo, Oxford, Paris again, and Beijing. Today, a sunny April 3, 2013, I sit a kind of “shiva” for her, though both of us practiced no religion.
I think about her wrapped body in the hospital morgue, as I sit near some of her things the hospital attendants insisted I take away with me: a small bag containing the few pieces of clothing she had worn to the hospital along with the chest brace she had worn for the past seven years; a plastic bag stuffed with her black down jacket and the hat I had knitted for her; and her small black handbag containing her glasses, her magnifying glasses, her address book, the ten dollar watch I gave her as a joke, and some other things I can’t remember. I am still wearing the huge ring she gave me the night before the surgery, joking that, like her, I must not take it off, though is it large and heavy. And I remember that she began to wear this ring, bought in an airport, perhaps as a bittersweet reminder of all the traveling she used to enjoy.
Can one sit “shiva” at the computer or on the telephone?
Dear Mariam, your small family are planning to bury your body in a ceremony that will place you in the Bronx, where your most beloved friends will wish you well, and then you will once again be celebrated in my apartment. All of this, dear Mariam, within a week of your death.
I am pleased only about one small thing: I took a photo of you (talking on the phone to Liz) right after you had eaten what none of knew was to be your last dinner. There in bed, in room 303 at Mount Sinai, you ate—with some relish—chicken, mashed potatoes, ice cream, and coffee. (Yes, we had had hospital pizza for lunch, an addiction we shared.) And I thought then also of the lunch we had shared at Parnell’s on Easter Sunday: You wanted nothing but eggs benedict, appropriate for Easter. As usual, you asked why there were so few people in the restaurant. But not as usual, you drank an early glass of white wine and with it cleared your plate. And you said you had enjoyed all of it.
When we come to celebrate Mariam, our feminist hero, we will not talk about food, I expect. And perhaps we will not even talk of friendship. But you would not be surprised to know that the first thing I have written about you dead is really about how much you enjoyed eating. We had thousands of meals together, dear Mariam, one aspect of a long and durable feminist relationship.
March 15, 2013
I like odd numbers, and so 84 is not a favorite. Numbers interest me. I am fascinated by how often the number eleven seems to crop up in my life. It’s eerie that for more than 25 years I have sat in K111 at the ballet, and on planes I don’t have to ask for seat A11—I am often placed there. I once had a friend who taught me to add numbers, to note, for example, that eleven is also two and one hundred and eleven is also three. She also taught me to translate the letters of the alphabet into numbers and to continue adding numbers and letters so that eventually all addresses reduce to a single digit of 1 to 9. What does it all mean? I wish I knew. I played with all of it just to see if my brain could focus itself this way.
So, to return to 84: it reduces to 12, which in turn reduces to 3. So 84 becomes an odd finite number that can’t be reduced further. What does that mean? I don’t know the answer to that either. But my friend used to urge that I was a 5, not a 3 or anything else, not even my favorite 7. But I would say I love sevens, elevens, thirteens, seventeens, and versions of them. Again, a nonsense? Probably.
But nonsense is necessary especially when gloom is the alternative. And right now I need nonsense to divert me from life around me: two dear friends very ill, and the son of another dear friend. I am responsible for the care of one of these persons, and so anxiety rules my body, creating palpitations, odd pressures in my chest, tensions in my back and shoulders. I’ve always felt strain as palpably as I do now that I am an old lady.
In two days I will be 84—on the 17th of March, St. Patrick’s Day. I should have been named Patricia but for my mother’s insistence that Patricia wasn’t “a Jewish name.” She named me after a dead relative named Frieda, though because she didn’t like that name, she chose Florence instead. When I was twelve, I learned that Florence was a city in Italy, and came home to present that information to my mother. Her response was crisp and to her point, “There must be a lot of Jews living there,” she said.
It’s never been a name I liked, though I never thought to change it or shorten it. Only my brother called me “Florrie.” My father called me “Sissie.” No one called me “Flo” or “Flossie.” When, in the U.S. I’ve met someone named “Florence,” she is exactly my age. So something was happening in 1929, but what?
In the late 1990s I was in Uganda, trying to help a women’s studies committee plan an international conference to be held in Kampala. I introduced myself as “Florence,” said a few words about prior international conferences in the series, and waited for the others around the table to introduce themselves. The next five women who introduced themselves said, “My name is Florence.” Before the sixth woman could speak, I interrupted: “In 30 years of international meetings, the only Florence I have ever met is your women’s studies director. But how is it that five others of you here are also named Florence?” And then I was told that Florence was a very popular name in Uganda, and that they were surprised to hear me say that name, since they didn’t think it was American. A nonsense? Yes, probably, just like the numbers game. Also a distraction, necessary this evening, this weekend, given the circumstances.
January 29, 2013
Begun January 16, 2013, revised January 28, 2013
A dear friend I first met in 1980, when she was 37 and I was 50, is visiting from Latin America where she lives. Through the twenty years of the last century we worked together on United Nations conferences and policies with regard especially to women’s education and to other feminist issues. Though we were so different, from different patterns of life and culture, we were as one about women’s rights. I remember when we attended two different regional UN conferences, where we both inserted into a UN document the identical, precise language to describe women’s rights to a gender-balanced curriculum. “Access to education is not sufficient,” we each wrote separately: “All education itself has to be gender-balanced, nonsexist in all respects.”
My friend is visiting me in New York, in part, because she wants to talk with me about changing her life. She is now 70 and she is finding it physically more difficult to work her twelve to fifteen hours a day, often seven days a week. She feels tired. She would like to have a different life. She has begun to think about how to accomplish this financially, though here she has to solve other problems. What should she do?
We have had only one brief talk so far, but tomorrow, when there is time for just the two of us to relax, we will talk. What shall I tell her?
First, retirement is not a solution, certainly not the solution. Retirement
, I am finally certain, is the problem
. Perhaps it is not a problem for all people, but for me it has been, and I am guessing that for a certain kind of working woman, someone like my friend, it is also a problem.
Here is a brief summary of my own case. I am soon to be 84. In 2000, I retired at 70 as director/publisher of the Feminist Press at CUNY to work full-time on Women Writing Africa
, a multi-volume research and book project. In 2001, for example, I traveled for the project to Senegal in January; Uganda and Morocco in April, and then to Bellagio, Italy, in September and November to meet with the West Africans for four weeks. In addition, I traveled to China on another book project, and I am not mentioning the trips I also made to Paris for fun, or to California to see Tillie Olsen, who was failing, or to East Hampton and New Hampshire for summer holidays with friends—all the while editing the final texts of the Southern African volume.
Yes, I was not really “retired.” This schedule continued for the next four years, interrupted only because in 2005, the Feminist Press Board asked me to return as Interim Director. When Gloria Jacobs was hired in 2006, she asked me to stay on for two years as publisher. So I retired again in June 2008.
At that point, I was really “retired,” since I no longer arrived at an office each day, no longer was responsible for the book program, no longer attended staff meetings. I worked at home full-time, writing my memoir—the rest of 2008, all of 2009, even half of 2010, aiming at publication at the end of that year. To promote A Life in Motion
, I traveled, caught a serious bug, was ill and mended in the first half of 2011. Since then I have indeed been “retired,” sometime occupied, sometimes depressed enough to seek professional help.
What have I discovered? For people like me, “retirement” is a problem, not a solution.
I didn’t solve it creatively because I didn’t recognize its parameters or anticipate the symptoms it might rouse. I am a person who has worked hard all her life from age 13 forward. Clearly, I didn’t have to put a stop to working, since projects kept me going for more than eight years after I thought I was retiring. But I didn’t think ahead enough to arrange a non-retirement life, a kind of working life that I will recommend to my friend.
It’s now a week since she has gone home, and I can swiftly summarize the advice I gave her.
1. Do not leave your job; redefine it.
2. Cut your hours; cut your pay; keep a significant portion of control over the workplace or your work in it.
3. Take a vacation, even a month-long one, and return refreshed.
Perhaps this advice will be useful only for women who have founded start-ups, new programs, or who are in charge of work important enough to allow them to follow my suggestions. I’d like to hear from people who are wrestling with retirement, or who have solved its questions in quite different ways. (If you’d like to write to me privately, use my CUNY mail: Be the first to comment
December 17, 2012
Had I written this a month ago, or even a week ago, it might have been cheerful. But after still another murderously deranged young man, it’s hard to write even a sentence that does not contain a scream. What kind of society breeds, even fosters, such behavior?
What kind of world allows the mother of a 20-year-old who did the killing to own three or four guns, at least one of them an automatic capable of shooting a roomful of people multiple times without reloading? What kind of world allows that mother not to know that her troubled son will seize these guns, kill her, and then go to a school and kill 20 young schoolchildren, a school principal, a psychologist, and several other teachers? My letter will go to many of you in Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Latin America, and Asia. You don’t have this problem, though some of you, as in Israel for example, do have many civilian gun owners. I ask you, in some desperation, What is wrong here?
And can it ever be fixed?
I will stop and get to my news. I and many friends spent the better part of the year working for and worrying about the reelection of President Barack Obama, and we were much relieved to be rid of the possibility of a Romney victory. I am still moderately optimistic about what President Obama can do in the four years ahead of us, though we have enormous problems, given the money that still funds such reactionary anti-labor legislation as was recently passed in Michigan. And though I vowed to give only one paragraph to the murders above, can the President do anything to tighten gun registration laws, as well as to ban automatic weapons from civilian use?
Some of you know already that I had a worrisome medical problem that needed immediate surgery, and that was delayed by Hurricane Sandy. Though many victims of Sandy are still homeless, I was declared free of cancer, six weeks ago. During the next six weeks, I hope to return to the gym and the swimming that has kept me moderately fit.
Family news: Daughter Alice has moved to Topeka, Kansas for six months to care for Jack and Maben’s baby Mina, now nearly six months old and sister to Kennedy, now three. And Jack and Maben have moved into a new house. Granddaughter Doctor Florence moved to New York in July to work as a resident in radiology/oncology at Mount Sinai Hospital. Son David, now Washington Bureau Chief of the Los Angeles Times and daughter-in-law AnnJ have moved into their new home in Washington, D.C. Their daughter and my granddaughter Miriam will finish Yale in June and take up a lab job at NYU here in New York. Goddaughter Marietta, a tenured professor at Catholic University in D.C., is now on sabbatical and will be coming to live with me here in New York while she acts in a one-woman play being written for her. So, yes, I have a lot to be thankful for, including lots of company here in New York City. In the aftermath of Sandy and my surgery, Don Thomas, Jorge Cao, and Yoya, their Maltese, came to stay with me for four days, since they live in lower Manhattan where there was no electricity. For me, all joy and laughter, far better than pain killers.
|Kennedy, Alice, and Mira |
Travel news: In June, with daughter Alice, I took a Smith College trip to Turkey for two weeks, truly a holiday, though quite strenuous for me. And less than a month later, in July, I spoke at a fascinating conference of and on international women writers held in Taiwan. For 2013 I have few travel plans, but I continue to enjoy connecting people I know here in the U.S. with people in Vietnam, Kenya, or other places. I trust also that some of you will make your way to New York, and allow me the pleasure of a visit. Argentina’s Gloria Bonder will be here in January.
I thought I would end on a pleasant note, but it’s impossible for a news junkie like me to stop worrying about friends in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tel Aviv, as well as the fires burning in Syria and continuing to burn in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, not to mention areas of China including Tibet. What keeps me sane can be described briefly as history, especially of the last 60 years, since my memory is still sharply operative about what I thought in the 1960s and how my own ideas shifted. I remember when I first realized that laws alone were insufficient to make change, that education keen enough to change human consciousness was at least as essential. And how slowly does change occur? Yes, that’s what is so hard. I will be 84 next birthday. Will I live to see at least a year without multiple shootings like this one in Connecticut?
With affection to all of you from Florence
December 3, 2012
To you who read my blog, I apologize for the long silence. I cannot really explain why I never wrote even to say that my apartment was untouched by the storm, since so many friends elsewhere in the U.S. and from Europe, Asia, and Africa wrote to ask whether I, too, was homeless. No, that was not my problem. Yes, the large shrubs on the deck were damaged, some pots shattered, but they were mostly still alive. And then my dear friends, Don and Jorge, and their Maltese, Yoya, came to visit for three days until their electricity was restored, and so I had the wonderful company of beloved people who shopped and cooked and who repotted my damaged shrubs and even my house plants.
What I have left out is my own body, for I was scheduled for surgery on Tuesday, October 30, the day Sandy hit, and of course the surgery was cancelled.
For months I had been complaining to medical people about a strange pain, and ultimately assumed that I had done something silly in the gym, or in the swimming pool, where I had used large flippers one day. But the pain worsened, and a week before Sandy, when I could not reach my GP, I decided to call my gynecologist, Lissa Hirsch, just to talk with her. She was in and suggested I come over so that she could have a look at me. I was surprised, since it had never occurred to me that the pain could be gynecological, but I went to see her, and the rest is history.
She sent me off to NYU’s Emergency Clinic for a Cat-scan which made clear that I had two cysts on my ovaries whose potential for twisting could be giving me that pain. And the next day,
Lissa sent me to have still another test, met me there, and took me back to her office for a blood test and to discuss surgery and the naming of a surgeon. She chose someone she knew whose work she had seen and respected, and who was both a gynecological surgeon and an oncologist, since there was always the possibility of cancer. And so I had an appointment to meet Herbert Gretz and then a date for the surgery at Mt. Sinai, Tuesday, October 30. On Friday before the surgery, I had a series of pre-op tests by Allen Hauptman, my GP, who was, like Lissa, connected to NYU, where I had a chest x-ray.
I must note at once that I spent the weekend thinking about whether I would attend the Feminist Press Gala, scheduled at Bridgewater’s (on the East River), on Monday, October 29th, since the surgery was scheduled for Tuesday, October 30, probably in the afternoon. But Sandy’s landfall cancelled all plans.
Though I had to wait another week for the surgery to be rescheduled, I was among the fortunate, and suffered more anxiety than pain. On Monday, November 5, at 6 a.m., I was at Mt. Sinai for pre-op procedures. But at 8 a.m., when none of the pre-op tests I had had the week before could be found in my file at Mt. Sinai, Dr. Gretz said he would have to cancel the surgery. Since NYU had been closed down by the storm, I suggested that perhaps my GP had copies of the pre-op reports. And indeed though the fax seemed at first to be broken, within 15 minutes, the surgery could proceed.
I awoke to hear my smiling grand-daughter, Dr. Florence, say there was no cancer, and that I was going to be fine. And so I am, though the early days were uncomfortable, especially since the pain-killers made me feel worse than the pain. Eventually even half a pill was too much for me and I retreated to Tylenol.
It is now three weeks and four days since the surgery. And yes, I’m feeling better every day. I go out for walks, and for two weeks I had Yoya for company, while Don and Jorge were traveling. Her sense of play, her spunkiness, and her insistence on cuddling kept my depression to a minimum. It was also good for me that I got to walk her twice a day, even if only for 15 minutes. I am still walking, though now it’s about invented errands. Intensely, I miss the swimming pool and the movement through water. But I’m going to be back to normal by the end of the year.
Still, there is another nagging worry.
I am worried about Sandy’s effect on The Feminist Press, which has suffered the loss of its year’s work on the Gala at Bridgewater’s as well as the 800 books and materials, including expensive banners, all sent over in preparation along with items for the silent auction. You can help in one of several ways.
If you are a donor, you can increase your donation and send it right now. If you have never been a donor, but you might like to become one, then go to our website: www.feministpress.org
and make a donation right on line. Or if you’d rather send a check, the address is The Feminist Press at CUNY, 365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5406, New York, New York 10016. And if you’d also like to buy books as gifts this year, on the website you will find a great Holiday Sale.
October 22, 2012
Note to Iris Murdoch readers: This is the end of the essay I wrote nearly 50 years ago. I will be working on Doris Lessing for the next two months, but I will be glad to interrupt that work to respond to comments about this essay.
Within the “magic circle” of the binoculars’ view and in the center of Gaze is the beautiful but slightly soiled Hannah, the sinful, suffering, serene, sinister prisoner who, we are told, looks frequently into the mirrors that fill her room (and surround her person). She will remind readers of Miss Murdoch’s devotion to the family of female names that means “grace”: Anna, Annette, Nina, Nan, Ann, Nancy, and now both Hannah and Marian. She will remind readers as well of Miss Murdoch’s long line of golden Aphrodites, associated with the Miltonic “amorous net” that hearkens back to the classical one. The elusive, golden-voiced Ann of Under the Net is now the imprisoned, golden-haired Hannah who sips golden whisky until a song shatters her fragile peace and she moves to crack her own mold.
When the novel begins in summer sunshine, the inhabitants of Gaze are poised in perverted stasis—all, that is, but Denis who is simply there, virginal. Hannah, the prisoner at the center, loved by everyone but courted openly only by Effingham, loves unrequited the homosexual Gerald who has whipped Jamsie into submission to him. Violet, another homosexual, moving between Hannah and Marian, also suggests to Marian that Jamsie loves her. Marian, pulled fearfully toward each in turn, desires only Gerald. The scene, deceptively beautiful, the life-pattern seductively lazy, the net perversely attractive: seemingly all wait for the magical seven years to draw to a close. Marian tries action and is herself seduced by Gerald’s punitive kiss, Hannah’s and Violet’s hands In the second half of the novel, “the figures so strangely woven into the quiet tapestry” do “themselves jerk into unpredictable life.” The mirrors, the binoculars, crack.
Lightly, one might label the pattern of action that follows “sex and transfiguration,” for whatever motivation one settles on—and Miss Murdoch provides both possible and phony ones—the “fact” remains that Hannah chooses to submit to her long-intimated desire for the ironically unattainable Gerald, the symbol present of her hated husband. Hannah’s own move from captivity into another “amorous net” frees all the others. As if disenchanted, they spring into sexual positions: Effie with Alice; Marian with Dennis. But Iris Murdoch is not D.H. Lawrence; sex is never her answer. Her emphasis falls here and elsewhere on the brevity of the transfiguration, always ironically in contrast to the enchantment of worship and anticipation, and the pain and guilt of consummation and capture. In the action that follows, that grows increasingly more explicit and more violent, Effingham and Marian ironically play more and more roles of futility, frustration, or inaction and paralysis. Effie cannot move to fight Gerald when called upon; Marian cannot speak or act at the crucial moment when Hannah turns the doorknob. This novel moves with increasing swiftness toward a climax reminiscent of the flood in The Mill on the Floss or the storm in Lear or on Egdon Heath, for with the rain and the flood come a series of murders and suicides new to Miss Murdoch’s fiction.
But, you may ask, whatever happened to that wild, wicked, comic novelist, the inventor of farcical fantasy that rivaled the early Evelyn Waugh? Whatever happened to the creator of that disarming hypocrite, artfully named Martin-Lynch-Gibbon, who wanted and got that comically-named black demon, Honor Klein? Should Iris Murdoch’s unicorn not resemble Thurber’s gentle, lily-eating beast? The comic spirit, I hasten to say, is not wholly absent, but largely transmuted. A ludicrous name dropped into an otherwise somber scene, a ludicrous kidnapping, drunken scenes that verge on the ludicrous, a watery love scene that totters on the edge of hilarity, an ironic treatment of character, and an off-beat conclusion—all these are present. But they do not move toward guffaws, wild laughter, screamingly funny scenes, but rather toward the nightmare of fear or pain. She has deliberately, if with a backward glance of regret, abandoned the comic for the tragic mode. Happily, she has also abandoned the flaccid form and domestic interiors of An Unofficial Rose, her last novel, for an ascetic narrative structure and a setting that supports her predilection for fantasy, here turned toward Gothic terror, mingled allusively with such fairy tales as the Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast, with suggestions also of Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci” and of Alice’s stepping through the looking glass. At the center is the unicorn, the idea and image of which turn her toward the scenic, dramatic narrative in which character is action and theme and in which her painterly eye contributes to all.
The color of the golden horn dominates The Unicorn in striking contrast to the white day and the black night. Marian, who wears blue when she arrives, is slowly re-dressed in amber clothes and jewels selected for her by Hannah. As the black-haired, blue-eyed, guilt-laden Denis departs at the end of the novel, accompanied by a golden retriever, Marian sees their figures disappear “in the saffron–yellow haze near the skyline.” Miss Murdoch’s color sense, moreover, is especially tapestry-like when, in darkly bright interior scenes, lit only by oil lamps or fire-light, faces appear gilded or black. Dark exterior scenes are memorably lit with flickering flashlight or with “fairy fire.” The colors, brightest in scenes of Gaze’s golden parties, grow darker as fear and anxiety increasingly dominate the novel’s mood and tone until in the climactic scene in which Marian, paralyzed, watches Hanna’s doorknob move, a candle flares briefly and then goes out.
If Hannah is the unicorn, why does she, captured, move to Gerald to free herself? Why can Gerald say that he and Hannah understand each other? These questions puzzle especially Marian and Denis who see Hannah as angel in need of their protection. Violet, on the other hand, who calls Hannah an adulteress and a murderer, sees in Hannah’s actions merely a repetition of her former actions. The questions and the answers, of course, are not simple. In The Bell Miss Murdoch drops a sentence just before a juvenile climbs and drops over a forbidden wall: “Violence is an escape from oneself.” The sentence echoes through the novel as one character tries running away, another tries drowning, and a third succeeds in blowing out his brains. One can read The Unicorn as an elaborate intensification of The Bell, but one that focuses more directly on the relationship between violence and guilt. Hannah’s cage, itself a destructive net of guilt, opens not to the freedom of the Marvelous Mister Mars, but first to the violence of Gerald and then, that a failure, to the paradoxical freedom-through-violence of death. Marian’s error has been to imagine that she could “free” someone who is indeed so much a part of the pattern of guilt and suffering that she is the pattern: Hannah feeds on her captivity and cannot, in fact, live without it. For herein lies the unique quality of the unicorn symbol as Miss Murdoch has freely used it. Hannah, the suffering, powerless figure, is not separate from the enchanting powerful one. The unicorn provides with a singular economy a means of combining within one figure both ideas: the enchanted is the enchanter; the serene angel is the black demon; the beauty is evil; the suffering is power. The combinations revealed in action move Miss Murdoch’s novel toward tragedy.
As in other Murdoch novels, the circle has come full round. The image of the “magic circle” reemphasizes the consistency with which all eyes have been directed toward Hannah. Cunningly contributed are multiple views of Hannah, as angel, as bitch, as suffering martyr, as madwoman, as ideal love, as supreme egotist, as everywoman or everyman. The name of “Gaze” comments on the the truthlessness of vision, for along with its associates in the novel, “haze” and “daze,” the reader is reminded of Milton’s Samson—“Eyeless in Gaza”—himself another deluded victim of love who ends in captivity. Miss Murdoch’s preoccupation with the particular delusion of vision that is called projection suggests, moreover, an alternate reading of the novel. The two narrative eyes, Marian and Effingham, leave the ordinary human world for dream. They journey toward a circle of light—the faces encircled with golden hair, the view through binoculars, the face in the mirror, the unicorn in his cage—in the center of which they hope to find joy and bliss. Though they come seeking ideals, they find only dark lightnesses of themselves. But the tapestry reminds us that, within the beautiful beast and the lure of virginal beauty, erupts the volcano that terrifies and destroys. Marian’s growing identification with Hannah and Effie’s increasing rejection of her suggest either killing or abandoning, in horror or in selfishness, in awareness or unconsciousness, their other selves. They do return, separately and differently, to the everyday world from which they came.
But whether the story is Hannah’s or whether it belongs to the double projection of Effie and Marian, the puzzle of motivation remains. Like others in our muddled century, Miss Murdoch provides so many possible answers—in terms of observers’ opinions as well as in fluctuations of self-analyses—that causality becomes an insoluble or at best an academic question. Dora in The Bell, like Mars, does not need to know why. But Marian asks and in effect receives the only answer possible: that there is a relationship between suffering and knowledge is all that we do know. As Max says to the morally deaf, unheroic Effie, we can see beauty, we can assume its goodness, we can even fear its evil: but “We can see wisdom only darkly.”
Retyped October 17, 2012
Would I subscribe to this view, written 49 years ago? Frankly, it astounded me. I would go over the ground of the early novels, had I the time right now, and I’m not sure I’d come out where I did in my youth. Perhaps after I have written the Lessing essay—also built on reviews of Lessing I wrote in the 1960s—I will return to the questions raised in this early essay. In the meantime, I am eager to hear from Lessing people. What do you think?
October 15, 2012
[Note: When I wrote this in 1963, it was common to refer to a woman writer as “Miss, and to use the generic “man.” Sorry, but this is a “relic,” and for the moment at least, I’ve decided not to modernize it.]
Man’s freedom is never so simply and so hilariously accomplished. In The Bell
, Miss Murdoch’s fourth novel, Dora instinctively protects and then frees a red butterfly at the expense of losing her luggage, her husband’s best Spanish hat, and his scholar’s note-book. The reader finds the scene immediately amusing, but with ironic overtones, for Dora is unaware of her relationship to the red butterfly. (more…)
October 15, 2012
Those of you who have been looking for more on Murdoch may be disappointed that, though I’ve read two more novels (Henry and Cato
; Nuns and Soldiers
), and have only one more to go (The Word Child)
; and though I’ve found the essay I wrote in 1963 on The Unicorn
(and really on the first six novels that preceded it), I’m moving to Doris Lessing in order to contribute to a Canadian book being put together to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of The Golden Notebook
. So I am rereading relevant Lessing in October and will write the essay in November.
For those of you who would like to see the 1963 essay on The Unicorn
, I’ll begin typing it here right now, and if it’s appealing, let me know, and I’ll go on with it. (more…)
September 12, 2012
I am headed from the kitchen through the living room to the bedroom on a specific mission, but when I get there, I’ve forgotten why I came—just for a second—and then I remember that I want to pick up my iPhone which I had parked last night on its charger which rests atop a radio clock that stands on a table beside my bed. Is this occurrence ominous? (more…)
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