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The Art of Janet Malcolm & Emily Dickinson

Janet Malcolm: The Emily Dickinson Series

an exhibition at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, New York City, January 9–February 8, 2014

Dickinson/Walser: Pencil Sketches

an exhibition at the Drawing Center, New York City, November 15, 2013–January 12, 2014
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Claire Gilman, with an essay by Josiah McElheny
The Drawing Center, 116 pp., $20.00 (paper)
benfey_1-022014.jpg
Janet Malcolm/Lori Bookstein Fine Art, New York/Étienne Frossard
Janet Malcolm: Common Sense, a collage from her ‘Emily Dickinson Series,’ 2013

1.

The twenty-six collages that make up Janet Malcolm’s arresting and faintly melancholy “Emily Dickinson Series,” the artist’s fifth solo exhibition at Lori Bookstein Fine Art in Chelsea, look on first view like leaves from some late Victorian archive, though the field of science or art to which they belong remains unclear. Certain motifs recur: vintage photographs of the 1874 transit of Venus, a rare astronomical event when the planet Venus passes directly between the sun and the earth, resembling a beauty spot traversing the face of the sun; a photograph of a bearded astronomer identified as David Todd (“the depressed astronomer,” as Malcolm came to think of him), who photographed the transit of 1882; gnomic passages by Emily Dickinson in typewritten transcriptions; and, finally, sheets of brownish transparent paper, of the kind once used to protect art books, variously folded and draped like veils across portions of the works.

Malcolm’s collages, an art form she adopted when writing a profile of the artist David Salle, are parsimonious with color—an exception is a Dickinson passage superimposed over a red study, cut from an illustration in The New York Times, from Josef Albers’s “Homage to the Square” series. They also eschew the Surrealist temptation—exploited by Max Ernst and Hannah Höch, and later by the West Coast collagist Jess—to elide disparate images in ways that create the illusion that they are linked in dreamlike ways. Again, there are exceptions: a telescope beside a parfait cup exudes a Surrealist frisson, like Lautréamont’s chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.

Malcolm prefers an art of juxtaposition, documents and photographs placed side by side as though for inspection. The collage titled Common Sense (see illustration on this page) combines, from left to right, an image of the 1874 transit, a Dickinson fragment that reads “Common Sense/is almost as om-/niscient as God—,” and an early-twentieth-century photograph of a woman wearing a flamboyant party dress designed for the Wiener Werkstätte. To the left of the dress, like an explanatory caption, is a tagline reading “Alfred Dreyfus” and the name of a photographer. No hint is provided of how we are meant to interpret these disparate materials, which convey, perhaps, a mild fin-de-siècle aura of Venus and Vienna, the planet of love intersecting with the city of Klimt, Freud, and anti-Semitism. (What is psychoanalysis, one might ask, if not a way of monitoring emotional transits of Venus?)

One collage perfectly expresses the aesthetic renunciation (that “piercing Virtue,” as Dickinson called it) on which Malcolm’s austere art is partly based. Entirely covered with a brown veil, it is titled, simply, “No.” It contains a portrait of David Todd, the astronomer whose wife Mabel edited Dickinson’s poems after she died. The portrait is placed over a well-known passage from a letter Dickinson is thought to have written to Judge Otis P. Lord, with whom she is presumed to have had a romantic relationship, around 1878:

Dont you know you
are happiest while
I withhold and
not confer—dont
you know that
“No” is the wildest
word we consign
to Language?
You do, for you
know all things—

The letter is thought to be Dickinson’s response to an invitation from Lord, though whether for marriage or sex (with “wildest No’s” substituted for the “Wild Nights” imagined in one of Dickinson’s love poems), or for some other thing, remains unclear. Malcolm says she came to associate Judge Lord with David Todd, whose melancholy might seem to stem from Dickinson’s “No.” This composite male figure, subjected to various transits of Venus, might be thought of as the protagonist of Malcolm’s series.

“The Emily Dickinson Series” would seem to intersect with at least five of Malcolm’s concerns as a writer: photography (as in her 1980 book Diana and Nikon and in many subsequent essays in this magazine), psychoanalytic practice (Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, 1981), biography (The Silent Woman, 1994, about Sylvia Plath and her biographers), and the sometimes contentious nature of archives (In the Freud Archives, 1984). But it would be a mistake to conflate Malcolm the writer with Malcolm the artist. She seems to have approached the Dickinson materials visually, with little interest in Dickinson’s poetry (which, she confessed at the opening reception, she didn’t much care for in her youth) or her life. Most extraordinary of all, in a text in the recent winter issue of Granta (and reproduced on the Lori Bookstein website), she claims to have been unaware, until after her Dickinson series was complete, that there was a biographical connection between Dickinson and David Todd, even though Mabel not only coedited Dickinson’s poems and letters after her death but had a prolonged affair with Dickinson’s brother, Austin.

The Todds themselves, whose sexual practices were anything but “Victorian,” have proved of considerable psychoanalytic interest. They are the subject of the first case study in the historian (and biographer of Freud) Peter Gay’s The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, Vol. 1: Education of the Senses (1984). Mabel Todd charted her own erotic life—each sexual encounter, orgasm, and menstrual cycle—with the same meticulous care that her husband accorded to the motions of planets. David Todd, returning from his nights in the Amherst College Observatory, would whistle a tune from the opera Martha to warn his wife and her lover of his arrival. Todd, for his part, was not, Mabel noted, “what might be called a monogamous animal.” According to Gay, he displayed a “suspect fondness for pubescent girls.” Late in life, when he was committed to an asylum for the insane, he forced himself on his horrified daughter “and thrust his tongue into my mouth with all the accompaniments”—a grotesque scene that recalls Freud’s “Seduction Theory,” the bone of contention in Malcolm’s book In the Freud Archives.

Peter Gay had first learned of the Todds from his wife, who assisted his Yale colleague Richard Sewall with the Todd family papers in the Sterling Library archives while Sewall was preparing his important biography of Emily Dickinson. Gay dismissively referred to Sewall’s book as “scholarly and exhaustive but genteel…he has omitted practically all the erotic material.” Malcolm had read Gay’s book when it first appeared, “years ago,” but had not made the connection between David Todd the randy husband of Mabel and David Todd the depressed astronomer.

2.

Malcolm had first encountered the Dickinson fragments she used in her collages in a book by Marta Werner, Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios: Scenes of Reading, Surfaces of Writing (1995), which a friend of Malcolm’s, the Dickinson scholar Sharon Cameron, had shown her. What caught Malcolm’s eye was the typed transcripts of forty late Dickinson drafts, known as the “Lord letters,” laid out in such a way as to demonstrate the line breaks in the original manuscripts. Werner argued that previous scholars had ignored these expressive breaks in Dickinson’s prose, so vivid in manuscript, such as the rather Plath-like “Dont you know you” and “You do, for you/know all things—” in the passage quoted above.

Marta Werner, a scholar who combines expertise in textual editing with a lyrical flare, also had doubts about the presumed provenance of these draft fragments, mutilated by an unknown hand, as though to protect Dickinson’s or someone else’s privacy. The claim, first advanced by Millicent Todd Bingham, that they were connected in some way with Judge Lord seemed suspect to Werner, who noted that “no evidence exists to confirm that these manuscripts were ever posted” to Lord or to anyone else. Bingham’s book, though subtitled “A Revelation,” seemed more like a smokescreen to Werner, a deliberate effort to draw attention away from the drafts as radical experiments in poetic prose, oracular and open-ended, and label them instead as conventional love letters.

Werner’s assertions were congruent with the claims of other scholars, such as Martha Nell Smith and the poet Susan Howe, that Dickinson’s editors had systematically “regularized” her poems, and ignored the ways in which, for example, the difference between what constitutes a letter and a poem is often elusive in Dickinson’s manuscripts. The transcriptions in Werner’s book were meant, she informed Malcolm in an e-mail message of September 27, 2012 (a transcript of their exchange is part of the Granta text), to “show and partly enact the conflict between the regularity of type (or typesetting) and the singularity of the hand; and break down distinctions between prose and verse by insisting on following Dickinson’s physical line breaks.”

Ironically, Malcolm seized on the visual interest of Werner’s typewritten transcriptions rather than Dickinson’s manuscripts, and immediately decided that she wanted to make use of them—cut directly from Werner’s book, a cut-up copy of which is on display at the Bookstein gallery—in collages. “I am curious about the transcriptions,” Malcolm wrote to Werner. “They look as if they were done on various old typewriters.” This turned out to be the case—“My grandfather had an amazing (if worthless!) collection of typewriters, which I commandeered for the occasion.” It was this typeface—meant to look nondescript in 1996 so as not to distract from Dickinson’s manuscripts, but already so antiquated twenty years later as to be redolent of archival records—that made its way into Malcolm’s collages. (There are other examples of transcriptions in the collages, including a record in Czech of a psychiatric session, a reminder that Malcolm was born in pre-war Prague into an assimilated Jewish family and that her father, perhaps not irrelevantly to the collage and to the Dickinson series generally, was a psychiatrist.)

Almost from the start of her Dickinson series, completed during the summer of 2013, Malcolm had another instinctive prompting, to juxtapose her cuttings from Werner’s book with astronomical charts. She wrote in a statement to accompany the series:

I had used astronomical images in previous collages—they have great graphic clout—but something in Dickinson’s words evoked the night sky. It seemed almost obligatory that images of stars and planets and moons accompany her gnomic utterances.

One book in which she found the graphic clout she wanted was about the transit of Venus. Then came the discovery, astonishing for Malcolm (and also, to some degree, for Werner, who wasn’t aware that David Todd had investigated the transits of Venus), that the association of Dickinson and the night sky had a biographical basis, a discovery that struck both of them as “uncanny” in Freud’s sense of the word. “That the pictures I cut out of The Transit of Venus could in any way be connected to Emily Dickinson’s biography never crossed my mind,” Malcolm remarks. “There does seem to be something occult going on here,” she wrote Werner, “and I don’t think I believe in the occult.”

3.

Another art exhibition inspired by the “graphic clout” of Emily Dickinson happened to be closing in lower Manhattan just as Malcolm’s show opened. “Dickinson/Walser: Pencil Sketches,” at the Drawing Center in SoHo, paired some of Dickinson’s most visually striking manuscripts with “microscripts” by the Swiss writer Robert Walser. (Written in a miniature hand on cast-off telegrams, envelopes, and other repurposed scraps, the microscripts, only recently deciphered as drafts of stories and poems, were long thought to be nonsense jottings, symptoms of Walser’s escalating insanity.) In order better to make the case that Dickinson and Walser were creating visual works of some kind, “pencil sketches” with an expressive power apart from their verbal content, the Drawing Center offered no transcriptions of these “hybrid works.”

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