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Thursday, March 12, 2020

Love With An Eccentric Woman–A Tale Of Sexual Obsession, Opera, And Madame Bovary

In his creation of Emma Bovary Flaubert had anticipated Ibsen, Lawrence, Strindberg, and Freud in his creation of Emma.  She was as willful and determined as Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, Laura, or Hilde Wangel; as sexually aware as Connie Chatterley; as insistent on sexual resolution as Ursula or Gudrun; and as complexed equivocal about her femaleness and femininity as any patient of Freud.  Yet Emma, unlike these heroines, was no unidimensional figure.  Her fantasies were physically and emotionally transformative. Falling completely and desperately in love with Rodolphe, she is physically and emotionally changed.
Never had Madame Bovary been so beautiful as at this period; she had that indefinable beauty that results from joy…Her desires, her sorrows, the experience of pleasure and her ever-young illusions that had as soil and rain make flowers grow, gradually developed her and she at length blossomed forth in all the plenitude of nature…One would have thought than an artist apt in conception had arranged the curls of hair upon her neck…Her voice now took more mellow inflections, her figure also; something subtle and penetrating escaped even from the folds of her gown and from the line of her foot…
Image result for images cover madame bovary

There is no man reading Madame Bovary who is not be attracted by her romanticism, her desperately frustrated sexual desire, and her fantastical assumptions about class, society, men and women, marriage, and independence.  Many critics have looked critically at this character who, in her search for sexual and female perfection, left a trail of destruction behind,  husband and her daughter innocent victims of her willful selfishness.   To them Emma was a a pre-Victorian succubus who thought only of herself,  and the satisfaction of her own irrational and immature dreams.

Yet such moralism is misplaced.   Yes, Emma Bovary died badly leaving her naïve husband and innocent young daughter behind.  Yes, she should have seen through the male chicanery of Rodolphe and Leon, men who understood women’s irrevocable dependence on them and who used and discarded them because of it; and yes, she should have realized the restrictions of a conservative, censorious pre-Victorian society; but she did not.  She was selfish, conspiring, vindictive, and grasping to the time of her agonizing, unsuspected death by arsenic poisoning.  Her suicide was as fantastically romantic and impractical as any other choice or decision in her life.  She, like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra thought only of her melodramatic leaving of life, not the gruesome, horrific death that would attend it.

Cleopatra, who never really loved Antony, thought only of her image as she put the asp to her breast and lay on the catafalque.  She was dressed seductively and elegantly so that her body could be seen and admired by those whom she left behind; and by Antony whom she would join in the next life.

Image result for image liz taylor as cleopatra

It was Peter Avery’s good fortune to have loved his Emma, his misfortune to have become entangled in her twisted, compulsive, sexual demands.

Peter had met Rosalind in Ecuador at a Quito vernissage. She and her husband were longtime patrons of the arts and had been responsible for bringing noted South American artists to the capital to show their works.  Armando de Villiers Rodriguez had languished in an Argentinian bohemian quarter for years before Rosalind had discovered him.  His neo-realist portraits of Buenos Aires prostitutes – not quite Chuck Close, far from Sargent but inspired by his intimacy, not Mapplethorpe but imitative of his sexual consciousness – were an immediate success.

The reputation of Riviera Bosque de la Valliere, a Chilean sculptor whose creations had a sensuous, sensual quality not unlike Bernini but with an abstraction reminiscent of Maillol, was made and established by Rosalind. She was successful as an art patron because for her the creations of her proteges – abstractions, transformations, and re-conceptions – were more real than the life from which they were drawn.

Art and life co-mingled.  One was not derived from the other, each separate and judged independently but together and indistinct.  First one then the other, or the other way around; or mixed and reconfigured – Picasso, Braque, and the late Chagall.  Rosalind never appraised art on the basis of its derivation or origin in reality, but as a separate, distinct expression.

Which is the way she always was.  She had no permanent anchors, no taut moorings, no slips of her own.  Her imaginative fantasies – some derived from myth or from Freud, certainly, or from the Bible – were no less real than her house or her ancestry.  She could easily have been Esther, Delilah, Miriam, or Leah, or Salome; or Lucia di Lammermoor, Aida, or La Dame aux Camélias, operatic,, willful, deceitful, passionate, romantic, tragic women. 

Image result for images lucia di lammermoor opera diva

Cleopatra is a woman of complexity and intrigue.   In one of her final soliloquies she talks of greeting Antony happily in the afterlife; but she is more concerned about how he will view her ‘noble act’ than rejoining him in love.

Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me; now no more
The juice of Egypt’s grace shall moist this lip;
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call; i see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act; I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath; husband, i come;
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
i give to baser life. So, have you done?
Come then,m and take the last warmth of my lips,
Farewell, kind Charmian, Iras, long farewell.,
She hurries the asp because she does not want her minion Charmian to meet Antony before she does. All is done for Cleopatra, nothing for Antony or anyone else.

All of Shakespeare’s, Tennessee Williams’, and Edward Albee’s women are compelling - Tamora, the Gothic Queen who engineers the rape and mutilation of Coriolanus’s daughter; or Dionyza who is capable of unimaginable cruelty to assure the supremacy of her own daughter; or the imprecating, incessant demands of Margaret, Constance, or Joan of Arc.   The women of Shakespeare’s Comedies run rings around men, but most men would love to be in the same amorous arena as Rosalind or Beatrice.  Although some would willingly enter into a ‘traditional’ marriage, most would rather take their chances with Maggie. Blanche, or Cleopatra.

Image result for images tamora titus andronicus

Despite the desire to love Emmas, most marry calm, centered women.  They would be destroyed if left to Martha, Cleopatra, or Maggie.  Their marriages would last years not decades,and the scars would be more memorable than the sweet dreams.  And yet, who is in their wet dreams and daydreams?  These demanding, overtly sexual and psychically sensitive women.  Our wives put us to sleep, but it is a protective, mothering, consoling sleep.

Peter had known such demanding women before Rosalind but had no idea how to navigate their particularly unsettled waters.  Louisa was damaged, hurt, and disconsolate at his calling her out, calling her bluff, putting  his well-researched cards on the table. Was it absolutely necessary that he disrobe her illusions in public?  There really was no reason for Stanley to undress Blanche and expose all her weakness and unmoored fantasy.  Yes, she had been sarcastically critical of him, the bestial Polack, the unwashed, untutored, and unrefined brute; and he had more than enough reason to be cruel to her; but he could no more restrain himself or deny his primitive nature than she could.  Peter did not have to speak the truth.

At first Peter related to Rosalind as he had all other women – directly, respectfully, and honestly.  He showed that he was interested in them, told no tall tales, and wove no fanciful tales of his past.  Women loved his attention, his pursuit, and his confidence. He listened, he was interested, and he appreciated them for what they were.  And what  you got nine times out of ten was exactly what you saw – uncomplicated, practical, sensible, women who could see just over the next rise but no further; women who wanted no more than a man, God, and children.  Peter’s success with women was thanks to his permanence.  Women sensed that Peter would be no stray.  

Then he met Rosalind who cared little for his banalities – respect, honesty, security were a dime a dozen; tried, shopworn, seconds; retreads from unhappy marriages.  She never expressed nor knew what she wanted, only what she did not. What she did know was that the best of all possible sexual unions would have nothing to do with what works or doesn’t, how to fix it, and how to conciliate.

D.H. Lawrence believed in sexual epiphany – the perfect union of man and a woman with equally balanced wills; a union of dominance and submission, and a complete and willing accommodation to the other.  Lady Chatterley and Mellors achieved this perfect union, but were too trammeled by the constraints of Victorian English society to do anything with it.  The ultimate high of perfect sexual harmony has peaks which few lovers achieve.  The irony is that such perfect sexual moments can only be temporary, difficult to repeat, and almost impossible to translate.  Connie and Mellors think they will have a life together but each in turn realizes the impossibility of the fantasy.

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Loving Rosalind was to be himself unmoored, sailing without a compass.  There were no recognizable buoys or lighthouses nor stops on the way.  He was on his own, subject to demands which he couldn’t even understand let alone translate, drawn into impossibly inchoate scenarios.  She came and went without warning or suggestion.  Her moods shifted and swung like the Easterlies of the Southern Ocean.  He tried to relax with following winds, never to buck her headwinds, and to hope for gentle trades – a vain hope in such latitudes.

The fact that she left him for not one but three lovers, viscounts of Old Europe who must have been the few remaining with titles and castles, was easier to take than if she had ‘fallen in love’, preferred someone else to him.  Her indifference to sexual parity was a solace.  Better to be left on the curb by an opera diva than by a worn out wife of decades who wants someone ‘new’.

There are only a few men who are caught up in such operatic whirlwinds.  Most love affairs are as common as street lighting, disengaged from any romantic notions within months.  Most marriages are as passionless,, contracted for years, and with predictably uninteresting outcomes.

Peter Avery was one of the lucky ones and despite her indifference to him, her melodrama, her detachment from everything, and her unbowed selfishness, Rosalind was the only woman he loved.  After a long life, after many desultory affairs, and after a dismally long, tedious, practical marriage, he knew what, since Rosalind, had always been missing – nonsense.  Facts and the truth are not all they’re cracked up to be.  They are in fact, the lead sinkers that pull our lines to the bottom.  Better to live a life without rational tethers. 

Emma Bovary was certainly mad when she took her life, and so tangled were her last thoughts about Rodolphe, Leon, and the count that she had no room for her husband or her daughter.  Her death was painful, melodramatic, and worthy of Lucia di Lammermoor.

Peter wished that he could die in any other way than in the lawyered, contracted, accountant’s end that awaited him.  Dying with Lucia in his arms would be too much, but still, he deserved it.
Even at a much more advanced age Peter was still attracted to eccentric women, those with impossible stories of divorces, absent fathers, driven mothers, and adolescent escapades; women who love to dress up, to exaggerate, to go girly or bespectacled office assistant, to wear perfume, mascara, and eye shade; and to become desirable, indecipherable, and totally irresistible.

He attended the funeral ceremony of a former lover, and speaker after speaker told of her commitment, compassion, duty, and hard work.  She was the ideal co-worker and government employee. No one mentioned her sardonic dismissal of this life, her private unbridled sexual rapacity, and her lovers.  She barely managed to keep this double life in balance – the professional life which gave her public respectability; and this private life of brutal sexuality and emotional profession. Peter had oved her more for her willingness to totter on the line between the two, always fighting for balance, than for the unrestrained wildness of her desire.  She was his Blanche, his Emma.

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