Monday, March 17, 2014

When Marilyn met Molly

Ill read and study all I can find or learn a bit off by heart if I knew who he likes so he wont think me stupid
(Molly Bloom)

The photograph above and the ones below came to me by way of How to Be a Retronaut, which published them – in typical fashion – without a shred of context, save for the name of the photographer (and the year, which is wrong). This is how we snack on history now, unremorsefully. Nonetheless, I was intrigued. Did the famously uneducated Marilyn Monroe really read Ulysses? And if she did, or if she didn’t, what were those photographs of her reading Ulysses supposed to mean? Where they part of the careful (re)construction of her public image, or was the hardback copy of Joyce’s novel merely a random prop? Was it her idea? Was it a joke at her expense?

Decades later, the photographer explained the circumstances of that shoot, so there is an official version out there. But it’s fun to speculate, to pretend that there really was no context and that the famous pictures had really been found in a digital capsule, undated, belonging nowhere. In such circumstances, one would have to situate the pictures judging only by Monroe’s appearance, thus somewhere between Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and Some Like It Hot (1959), but likely closer to the former. This was the time between Monroe’s modelling career, including the famous naked spread for Playboy, and the burgeoning of her film career. A time when she made deliberate efforts to abandon her image of oversexed ingénue in favour of a more nuanced public persona. It’s not just that she wanted to be taken more seriously and land a greater range of roles. It’s also that, as she matured as an artist, she learned how to be in control of her extraordinary beauty and sex-appeal.

The images appear to belong to this period, and tempt us to read them as a simple, direct statement: ‘I’m not a dumb blonde’. Were this the case, however, it would be laboured in a way that belies the grace of the composition. The well-worn copy of the novel, signifying a book not only read, but intimately known and loved. The fact that Monroe is conspicuously reading from the very end of the book, indicating that she conquered the literary mountain. The detail is overbearing.

But then, it’s possible to read the pictures differently. Maybe Monroe really knew her Ulysses, and chose to read from the novel’s final chapter in order to signal an allegiance with Molly Bloom, to whom that chapter belongs. Molly, who worried that people may think her stupid; who was defined by her sexuality and by her fidelity (or lack thereof); who fantasised about a world run by women but only thought of men; who was, in the final instance, written by a man. And perhaps Monroe, reading Ulysses subversively (therefore how it’s meant to be read), further wanted to signal that she felt trapped in a character written by men. Like Molly. Like the Homeric Penelope. Perhaps even that she wanted her final word to be something other than the obsessively repeated, acquiescent ‘yes’ that Joyce picked for Molly.

It needn’t be far-fetched. And what a nice counterpoint it would be to the paternalistic praise from first-time directors of Monroe who claimed to be surprised by her intelligence. But then I’d be yet another guy writing this story. The authors of the shoot were two women, Monroe and Eve Arnold, and Arnold, who died in 2012, gave scholar Richard Brown her account of the events.
We worked on a beach on Long Island. She was visiting Norman Rosten the poet. As far as I remember (it was some thirty years ago) I asked her what she was reading when I went to pick her up (I was trying to get an idea of how she spent her time). She said she kept Ulysses in her car and had been reading it for a long time. She said she loved the sound of it and would read it aloud to herself to try to make sense of it–but she found it hard going. She couldn’t read it consecutively. When we stopped at a local playground to photograph she got out the book and started to read while I loaded the film. So, of course, I photographed her. It was always a collaborative effort of photographer and subject where she was concerned – but almost more her input.
I like this version, even as it leaves open the possibility that Monroe might have been trying to impress Arnold, or that she was taking steps to craft her own image, or both. There is no definitive truth available to us. But I like this version. I like that she read from the book aloud, picking her favourite passages, and that she admitted to finding it hard-going. I like that she really opened the book at end, that she read from Molly’s chapter. Above all, I like that she co-wrote this little, perfect story about herself.

Speaking of photography, last week's post was picked up by Capture and features therefore some lovely reader contributions.


Sarah Jane Barnett said...

Beautiful, Giovanni. I've been thinking a lot about the idea, as you put it, that "there is no definitive truth available to us." A science scholar friend of mine commented that they didn't understand how literary criticism could work because it, unlike science, couldn't come to a definitive truth (with all the negative implications that held for the relevance of my PhD; I did restrain myself from bringing up the debate about the subjectivity of scientific investigation or language!).

Anyway, it got me thinking about the different goals that different types of investigations have (e.g. sciences versus the humanities), and how a "definitive truth" can almost be irrelevant. It is, at the least, not very interesting. In terms of literary criticism, or social criticism as you're doing here, I feel that the goal is to - as you've done - cast light on the different ways we can view works of society, and what those readings mean about us, society etc. It's about dialogue rather than a definitive answer (although knowing the photographers account certainly opens up the photographs and provides great pleasure).

As always, thanks.

Giovanni Tiso said...

The internet realises that early postmodern vision of texts decoupled from the circumstances of their production, waiting to be given meaning to by readers. In its Retronaut version, it's a vision that seems to me to be distinctly dystopic. But yes, your point stands, there is no truth above this or any other text that could be established if only we could query the authors.

(And thank you.)

Dougal said...

"My work is the only ground I've ever had to stand on" - it's striking too how Monroe realised what she was being framed within, and worked against it so consciously, as it was happening around her.

I remember reading this tribute from Abbie Bakan in an old issue of International Socialism years ago and finding it affecting:

Sarah Jane Barnett said...

"But yes, your point stands, there is no truth above this or any other text that could be established if only we could query the authors."

In terms of truth, in my thesis I used a performative theory that suggests meaning arises from the performance between reader and poem (and sometimes from the performance of the poem investigating itself) rather than the usual idea that meaning arises from the relationship between word and physical reality. This meant that every performance was a form of truth. So that's one way to look at the idea of truth. But still, like all things intellectual, they are the most interesting when coupled with a human element, such as knowing that Marilyn kept that book in her car.

Giovanni Tiso said...

"I remember reading this tribute from Abbie Bakan in an old issue of International Socialism years ago and finding it affecting"

Thank you, that's superb.

Ben Wilson said...

I find Monroe's story quite plausible. Ulysses is hard going, but it's also beautiful in a particularly lyrical way. Even if she was a dumb blonde, the idea of her soldiering on with it isn't crazy, just as many uneducated people will tough out the Bible, a similarly difficult read, just because.

It's the kind of book that can easily become an obsession, a bedside trove, on account of the episodic nature, and dreamlike text. Alexander the Great did much the same thing with Homer, even though he was accounted a very indifferent student.

That's my fantasy, anyway. That Monroe really did just chip away at this book for years, possibly improving her verbal fluency for her acting career by reading aloud the tricky passages. It's a sexy fantasy, IMHO, the idea that one could have spent time with her, discussing Ulysses.

It's also unrealistic for me. I haven't got far into it at all. 80-odd pages. Arabian Nights still lies between, and the soporific power of that is tremendous. It's been way more than 1001 nights.