Icons: Intimacy & Ecstasy

Posted by on Mar 15, 2016 in Art History, Essays | No Comments

Catholic girls had a reputation I didn’t know much about until I graduated from an all girl, Episcopalian high school in Virginia. It was much more than the short plaid skirts and saddle shoes. The boys at our brother Episcopalian school used this cliché quite a bit. I didn’t hear heavier terms like Madonna Whore Complex until I took anthropology courses in college. It was the same time that Catholic boys from New Jersey and other northern states in the Union told me about Madonna’s on the Half-Shelf. I was a Catholic girl who had made boys her greatest research project from an early age. It wasn’t about the pants or shoes they wore. It was about how to get them to look you in the eye. There was a lot of chasing involved. One boy on my street—I think he was Irish and Catholic—stepped on some branches for me so that I could cross a sidewalk after a storm. There was a bunch of us trying to find another kid’s dog whose leash I had let go. The gesture was not unfamiliar to my 8-year-old fantasy world fueled by Disney films. The difference was he smiled and looked at me as he pushed the broken limbs down with his foot and a ridiculous sweep of his arm. After that we chased that dog side by side all afternoon. I never kissed him, but I remember his pale skin, blond hair and watery blue eyes.

Later that year, another kid on the street shared something with the rest of us. He had found it in a magazine. When my brother and I went home that night for dinner, we both felt sick. Our dad had a way of looking at us far more effective than that of any priest in a confessional. By the end of the salad, which was always the last course in our Italian house, he knew all about the centerfold picture of a woman in very low light and black shirt with no underwear. When he asked us what we saw that made us so worried, we both said, “I don’t know, it was very dark.” He laughed. It didn’t occur to either of us that we had gotten our first glimpse of pornography. I didn’t see any again until much later.

The boys I knew, however, probably looked at hundreds of images. What were they looking for, other than the obvious fuel for self-gratification? I knew there was good porn and bad porn, but what made an image powerful enough to sell a lot of magazines and make certain models more famous than others? It’s a small mystery that’s part of a much larger one between women and men. What we look for in the propagation of desire has much more to do with appeasement than actual beauty. The most powerful icons contain the promise of fulfillment with grace and economy. These easily reproduced gestures belie the complex performance required for contentment. In church we didn’t learn much about contentment, other than it was something kept at arms length for a long time. Apparently, the reward would be that much sweeter. As Catholics we coped by exploring how razor thin we could make the edge between desire and fulfillment. For a Catholic girl this meant taking it only so far with a boy. We walked a very fine line.

The central problem is wish fulfillment. Imagination only takes you so far. We’ve built a fascinating culture of images, literature and movies around this razor edge. A very illuminating work on this matter is Alessandro Baricco’s Emmaus. It is a short novel set within the very rigid, iconic present of Catholic Italy. The characters continually inscribe the outlines of their existence through monotonous daily ritual. Four boys– a teenage narrator with the hindsight of an adult, Luca, Bobby and the Saint are best friends. Their working, middle class parents cannot afford tragic destinies. Their grandfathers live forever, buying pastries every Sunday at the same shop. As their story unfolds, the routine of school, church, work and family meals is exposed as a carefully scripted performance. “In the distance, beyond the habitual, in a hyperspace [they] know almost nothing about, there are others, figures on the horizon.” These others are the rich and amoral—a girl named Andre’s people. Her attempted suicide, as well as her family’s tragic history, has transformed Andre into an icon above reproach. It has also enabled her to renounce the rules and restrictions of Catholicism for an alternate world that gravitates around Andre’s own bizarre and magnetic performance as sexual muse and martyr. When a carefully scripted Catholic world clashes with the improvised and amoral world, the four boys find that they cannot exist in either.

Bound by their faith, as much as their parents’ working class status, the boys emerge from innocence. Unaware of the hypocrisy of their own performances, as well as that of their carefully enacted home life, they’ve stumbled along with the promise that their right actions sustain what the narrator calls the Kingdom. With exposure to parental depression, attempted suicide, prostitution, and debauchery, the carefully inscribed parameters of their boyhood become warped. Emptying the urine bags of impoverished men they call “the larvae” in the local hospital; taking improvised hikes into the mountains without enough water or food; and playing anodyne music with their band at mass does not alleviate their increasing hopelessness. “So it’s not good action, [Bobby] said, it’s an action and that’s all. It has nothing to do with doing something good.” Feeling impotent with this realization, all the boys eventually give up their rituals of penitence. One by one the boys are awakened to this fallacy. They flirt like butterflies riding their bikes around the town whores and transvestites, eventually befriending them but never going all the way. They cannot reconcile their emerging adulthood with their increasingly small and unsuitable Catholic identities.

In the beginning of the book, outside of a bar in the city, the four boys watch as Andre gives a blowjob to a young man in a car parked along the street. Mostly concealed in a metal carapace, Andre’s head moves back and forth in a strange rhythm neither of the boys appears to understand. Laughing as he emerges from the car, the young man and Andre return to the bar. Andre’s abilities to satisfy all sorts of needs become more explicit as the world of the four boys melds with hers–wild parties, three ways, sex in movie theaters with anyone who will take her. There are some Polaroids around, which weve never seen, where she is the only woman. She doesnt care about being photographed, doesnt care that sometimes its the fathers, after the sons; she doesnt seem to care about anything. Every morning, again, she belongs to no one. As she walks back to the bar from her performance, Andre looks at one of them, as if she were trying to remember something. Caught between acts, she is momentarily off stage. This brief moment proves to be a gateway for all four boys into Andre’s unscripted existence. They are not prepared.

She never drinks, she doesnt smoke, she fucks lucidly, knowing what shes doing, and, its said, always in silence. With little more than her miraculous talent for dancing and sex, Andre spins a web through coincidental encounters that ensnares the narrator, Luca, Bobby and the Saint onto an alternate stage. Their small acts of debauchery, cavorting with whores, and heavy petting under blankets with virgin girlfriends, are all practice. With the task of coming home on time for dinner every night, the sin of intercourse, among many others, had been held at arms length. They had only walked along the edge of a world in which Andre had long been performing. With acts of piety and staying in school, the boys maintained a charade handed down for generations. They are not so different from Andre. They are all attempting to emerge completely from childhood, but she appears to be writing her own script. At the height of their entanglement with Andre, Bobby encourages the rest of the boys to come to Andre’s dance performance, as well as a party afterwards. He had been secretly playing his bass while she improvised a dance behind closed doors as preparation.

In the act of improvisation, Andre revealed to Bobby how beauty is an unnecessary bi-product of existence.

Given that theres no purpose, only me playing and her dancing, theres no real reason to do it, except that we want to, that we like doing it. We are the reason. In the end the world isnt better, we havent convinced anyone, we havent made anyone understand anythingin the end were us, as in the beginning, but true. (Baricco)

On stage Andre offers herself to the audience in hypnotic dance that culminates with her nudity and ends with her putting on a man’s suit.

So we looked at her and the point was that we got nothing sexual from it, nothing that had to do with desire, as if the gaze were detached from the rest of our body, and this seemed to me a kind of magic, that a body could pose like that, naked, as if it were a pure force, not a naked body. (Baricco)

The performance brings the boys together, assuaging some of their hopelessness. For Luca, the Saint and narrator there is more. Andre leads the three boys away from the party into a bedroom once drugs start circulating. As Andre alternately takes Luca and the narrator into her, the Saint watches. Looking intently into the eyes of each lover, she guides them through a surrender they had been working so hard to avoid as good Catholic boys.

While she held us, slowly, always silent and looking at us. She was the secret—this we had known for some time, and now the secret was there, and… [we] surrendered, because it was the first time [we] had had sex… Not even with our whores, never. (–Baricco)

Andre remains a mystery to them, however; even after Luca and the narrator lose their virginity. The ultimate act of intimacy, kissing Andre on the mouth, was never fulfilled. That was reserved for someone unknown. When the boys discover Andre may be pregnant with their baby, they feel a complete loss of control. Paralyzed by the impotence of shame, they can’t exist in Andre’s world, and they have become strangers in their small, iconic world of Catholic routine. This leaves them desperate. Then multiple tragedies strike—the death of Andre’s father, Luca’s suicide and the Saint’s implication in the murder of a local transvestite the boys had befriended. They are exiled in a landscape that wasnt [theirs], sucked into that vocation for tragedy that belonged to the wealthy [they] had pushed on too far, following Andre no longer capable of finding the way back. All the while, Andre remains unscathed, beautiful as ever, greeting everyone with a kiss on the cheek even in the wake of tremendous grief. In her gestures of love, as with her dancing, Andre flows above it all, like the water that closes over, heedless of the rock lying on the stream bed. How does she walk like a queen, straight and tall while all around her bend from grief?

The answer is revealed by the Saint. Its the page of a book, a big glossy art book. On one side theres just text, on the other the Madonnawith the Child. Its important to say that a single glance can take her in entirelya letter of the alphabet. The magic of this iconic painting, and all Madonna paintings, are the eyes. Able to absorb any tragedy while remaining perpetually empty, They are the blind heart of the world. The light touch of the virgin’s fingers under the open mouth of the Child, completes the image. The Madonna contains multitudes in one iconic gesture of appeasement—a symbol of infinity created by the tender touch between a mother and her child. As an icon she is perfect, unblemished, a spontaneous font of love and acceptance. But how does a woman become a mother without the act of sex?

The virginity of the mother of Jesus is a dogma, established by the Council of Constantinople in 553, so its a matter of faith. In particular, the Catholic Church, hence we, believe that the virginity of Mary is to be considered perpetualthat is, in effect before, during, and after the birth (Baricco)

To think that one could survive becoming the mother of the most famous martyr with her hymen, much less her sanity or sense of self, intact is one of the greatest mysteries of Catholicism. And yet, the faithful in Baricco’s Emmaus believe. The same blind faith grants the amnesty of a saint to Andre for her tragic history in spite of all that she does in the service of boys and men. This girl dances above horror, embracing everyone around her in an infinite performance of love. The narrator reconcile’s himself to this just after Luca’s death.

We existed in the same love, at that momentwe had been only that, for years. Her beauty, his tears, my strength, his steps, my prayingwe were in the same love The air in our faces, the cold in our hands, his forgetfulness, my certainty, Andres bodywe were in the same love. So we died togetherand until I die well live together. (Baricco)

The loss of innocence becomes a sacrament consecrated by sex. As the Virgin Mother eternally appeases her infant son, the martyrdom of Jesus ultimately consecrates the forgiveness of all sin. Although Andre appeared to exist outside the parameters of Catholic faith, her performance in fact reinscribes that faith. For four adolescent boys she becomes just as iconic as the Virgin, or even Jesus. The narrator, Bobby, Luca and the Saint had no idea their lives would reaffirm a basic tenant of their faith—martyrdom as the heroism of continued daily existence after tragedy. Andre is the queen in this particular kingdom, emerging each day free from everyone or the entanglements of the day before. The boys were as blind as the people of Emmaus who did not recognize Christ until he performed the ritual of breaking bread.

How can a heroine, or hero, be contained in one image? It’s not possible without the experience of performance. Why did Baricco make Andre a dancer? Why were all her interactions written as if she had carefully scripted them? Rebecca Solnit’s 2014 essay on Ana Teresa Fernandez’s series of paintings entitled Telaraña, explores the act of performance as revelation.

A woman is hanging out the laundry. Everything and nothing happens. Of her flesh we see only several fingers and a pair of strong brown calves and feet. The white sheet hangs in front of her, but the wind blows it against her body, revealing her contours. It is the most ordinary act, this putting out clothes to dry, though she wears black high heels, as though dressed for something other than domestic work, or as if this domestic work was already a kind of dancing. Her crossed legs look as though they are executing a dance step. The sun throws her shadow and the dark shadow of the white sheet onto the ground. The shadow looks like a long-legged dark bird, another species stretching out from her feet. The sheet flies in the wind, her shadow flies, and she does all this in a landscape so bare and stark and without scale that it’s as though you can see the curvature of the Earth on the horizon. It the most ordinary and extraordinary act, the hanging out of laundry–and painting. The latter does what the wordless can do, invoking everything and saying nothing, inviting meaning in without committing to any particular one, giving you an open question rather than answers. Here, in this painting by Ana Teresa Fernandez, a woman both exists and is obliterated. (–Solnit)

Unlike Fernandez’s painting, Andre becomes naked in her dance recital. Unlike a strip tease, this young woman reclaims her power by completing the dance in male apparel. She is not hidden. Rather, her strength is in the brave act of public nudity. She sublimates shame by emerging as the winged shadow of Fernandez’s painting in a black suit.

In contrast, darkness shrouds the boys of Emmaus, leaving them with faith as their only lamp light. Their blindness is pierced by their eventual merge into Andre’s world. It’s disorienting. And in the acrobatics of existing without coordinates there is a beauty, even a nobility, sometimes, that we dont recognizelike heroism that weve never thought of, the heroism of some truth. With this exposure to Andre’s truth, the path of penitence through right actions becomes a ruined fortress. In Solnit’s 2009 essay on Virginia Woolf, she contemplates the disorientation and potential of darkness.

Most people are afraid of the dark. Literally when it comes to children, while many adults fear, above all, the darkness that is the unknown, the unseeable, the obscure. And yet the night in which distinctions and definitions cannot be readily made is the same night in which love is made, in which things merge, change, become enchanted, aroused, impregnated, possessed, released, renewed. (–Solnit)

All along the narrator, Luca, Bobby and the Saint have been flirting with darkness. Walking the streets at night, knocking on the doors of transvestites and whores, they only emerge in the day. Craving the wholeness of faith, they perform their penitence on mountains and in hospitals, but they eventually fall into the chasm of lived existence. When these boys seek to suture their lived experience within their performance as faithful Catholics, tragedy occurs. It is impossible to shroud the enormity of what they discover in Andre’s arms with the paltry trappings of religion.

Unlike the boys, Andre resists being defined by the contours of Catholic society. She belongs to no one, not even to herself. In Woolf’s Street Haunting, another key to understanding Andre emerges:

Or is the true self neither this nor that, neither here nor there, but something so varied and wandering that it is only when we give rein to its wishes and let it take its way unimpeded that we are indeed ourselves? Circumstances compel unity; for convenience sake a man must be whole. The good citizen when he opens his door in the evening must be banker, golfer, husband, father; not a nomad wandering the desert, a mystic staring at the sky, a debaucher in the slums of San Francisco, a soldier heading a revolution, a pariah howling with skepticism and solitude. (-Woolf)

In her attempted suicide, Andre puts on layers of clothing. Ostensibly this is to absorb as much water as possible in the rain, so that her fall from the bridge would be decisive. She figuratively kills herself, yet reemerges as a constantly shifting being, more resilient than before. Appeasing her needs and others’ through sex and dance, she enacts the everlasting by living an unveiled, unabashed truth. Her constant appeasement is as the Madonna’s. The same mad unity of the Virgin Mother lies in the ecstasy of the martyrs, and in every apocalypse that is the beginning of time, and in the mystery of the demons, who were angels.

How do we reconcile the fall from faith of the boys? Death, addiction and imprisonment seem a high price to pay for their daring to fulfill a destiny. In the end, the narrator comes to terms with the apocalypse contained in living completely:

Yet I was brought up to an obstinate resistance, which considers life a noble obligation, to discharge in dignity and fullness. They gave me strength and character, for this, and the legacy of their every sadness, so that I would store it up. Thus it is clear to me that I will never dieexcept in fleeting acts and forgettable moments. Nor do I doubt that my going will be revealed as sharper than any fear. (Baricco)

 Fear is disarmed. Darkness holds no power. Mystery lies in every moment. Without guilt or shame, the beauty of all actions is reclaimed. There is no before and after, there is only present. Rather than a bottomless chasm, life is the black water that only almost swallowed Andre. The fluid potential of living is also realized by Woolf’s May Stevens in To the Lighthouse.

When life sank down for a moment, the range of experience seemed limitless Beneath it is all dark, it is all spreading, it is unfathomably deep; but now and again we rise to the surface and that is what you see us by. Her horizon seemed limitless to her. (-Woolf)

 In this way we are all perpetual, not just the mother of Jesus. It is the limitless horizon that lies in the empty eyes of the Virgin. Capable of absorbing all the sadness of living, she is like the water. And we must learn to swim.

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