John Opie, Mary Wollstonecraft, ca. 1797, oil on canvas, 30 1/4 x 25 1/4″. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
A young Englishwoman named Mary Wollstonecraft lived by her wits and her pen. At thirty-four, Mary did not expect to marry, but she soon met an American adventurer named Gilbert Imlay and believed she’d found her soul mate. In love, they moved to Paris where they had a daughter, named Fanny.
But Gilbert began to travel more and more, and soon it became apparent he had a wandering eye as well. Heartbroken over this desertion, Mary drank laudanum. She survived, but within a matter of months was despondent again and jumped from a bridge into the Thames.
Miraculously she was rescued and nursed back to health by William Godwin, like Mary a political radical, to whom she quickly developed a strong attachment. Later married and happy, they read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther aloud together the night before she went into labor. Tragically, Mary died a few days after giving birth to a second daughter, also named Mary, who would be raised, along with Fanny, by William Godwin, who would remarry.
His new wife had a young child of her own, Claire, and the three girls grew up as sisters; they became known as Les Goddesses. When Mary was seventeen, a famous poet named Percy Bysshe Shelley came courting: he first paid favors to Fanny but quickly fell for Mary and the two eloped to the Continent, taking Claire with them.
Fanny, crestfallen, stayed behind and, like her mother, drank laudanum. The real story concerning the lives of these extraordinary women is filled with many paradoxes, and without a doubt it is more fantastic than any fiction.
Gray to Green
Sitting on the floor in sunlight and reading through eight small notebooks going back to 1998, looking for a phrase about Goethe: The stars above, the plants below. The thought is connected to Goethe’s mother and what she taught him about the natural world; more generally, it is about how people lived in constant relation to nature.
I never found the reference; it was something I had stumbled across on the internet, but it led me to The Flight to Italy, Goethe’s diary (recommended by Kafka, in his diary), in which G. abruptly takes leave of a turgid existence in Weimar and travels incognito to Italy for the first time in his life. He is thirty-seven years old, and the trip is a revelation and a creative renewal of mammoth proportions. He draws plants, collects rock samples, and begins to dress like the locals so as to pass and be better able to observe their customs. G. reports on the weather patterns (sublime clouds and sunsets); he develops a theory of precipitation involving the curious concept of “elasticity.” He looks at architecture and writes of his worshipful love of Palladio; he has a deep appreciation for Italian painting but rails against the squandering of genius and talent on the “senseless … stupid subjects” of Christianity.
Because the diary is written quickly, informally, it feels uncannily contemporary. It is hard to believe this is a voice from the late eighteenth century. In addition to studying everything, G. takes a hard look at himself, and toward the end of the book there is a striking revelation: he confesses his “sickness and … foolishness,” his secret shame that he had never before made the trip to Italy to see firsthand its art and architecture, the objects of his lifelong fascination. Two days before arriving in Rome, he no longer takes off his clothes to sleep so as to hasten his arrival, and on October 26, 1786, he writes, “Next Sunday I’ll be sleeping in Rome after 30 years of wishing and hoping.”
The effusive diary abruptly goes silent: “I can say nothing now except I am here … Only now do I begin to live.” To his Weimar friends, he writes: “I’m here and at peace with myself, and, it seems, at peace with the whole of my life,” and to his lover, Charlotte von Stein: “I could spend years here without saying much.”
The Flight to Italy is filled with references to plants and crops; G. even has a theory of a “primal plant” form. The only star he mentions, though, is the sun.
Now it is a conflict between the idea of writing from the unknown versus working from notes and journals. Elsewhere, I have compared these different modes of writing to two genres in photography: the vérité approach of the street, seizing life and movement with little chance of reprise, and, in contrast, the controlled practice of the studio, where the artist is less exposed, the environment more forgiving, and time more malleable. And perhaps another iteration of this distinction between risk and control was intimated in something I heard a critic, quoting Godard, say on the radio when I lived in Paris in 2008: “Filmmakers who make installations instead of films are afraid of the real.”
In his six-hour documentary Phantom India, Louis Malle travels all over the subcontinent filming, and later, in voice-over, he analyzes and reflects on the intrusion and indiscretion of the camera. Malle will never get over this feeling of impropriety, but he will keep on shooting, hour after hour, pushing up against the act of documentary in an attempt to understand something about India and something about himself. Much of Phantom India is straight-up documentary, but there are moments of intense self-scrutiny and questioning, for instance when Malle describes his inability to be “present,” to experience the “real” of what is taking place before the camera.
He lives in his head, sometimes thinking of the past but mostly caught up in a work whose meaning will only be locked in at a future moment. To every new situation, his first instinct is to invoke memory and analysis: a scene on a beach at daybreak reminds him of another, twenty years earlier, when he was making his first film. “A tamer of time, a slave of time” is how Malle understands his predicament. At a certain point, he and his crew stop filming. Only then do they begin to experience the present tense, the slowness of time, and what Malle calls “the real.”
Another problem for me now is the welling up of the “Wet,” the insistent preoccupation with narrating certain aspects of the discredited past, things I may never be ready to tell.
Previously I have incited myself to write by beginning with the most pressing thing, but the problem now is that I can’t face writing about the Wet. I think about giving it a masquerade, or perhaps the Wet will duly give way to something else.
This document parallels another one written from notes collected in diaries. That one is accompanied by the uneasy feeling of cannibalizing myself. This document, though not a book, is trying to begin according to a principle described by Marguerite Duras: “To be without a subject for a book, without any idea of a book, is to find yourself in front of a book. An immense void. An eventual book. In front of writing, live and naked, something terrible to surmount.” I wanted to try, almost as an experiment, to write both ways, one alongside the other in tandem, but already I’ve begun to fold in notes from that other document …
Was Duras opening her veins? Yes and no. She was also opening the bottle. But she would go at it—writing and drinking—for days and nights. She had stamina, as Susan Sontag would say. And she was not afraid of the Wet.
Rainer Werner Fassbinder: “The more honestly you put yourself into the story, the more that story will concern others as well.”
Mary Wollstonecraft, born in 1759, ten years after Goethe and two hundred years before my sister Claire, was Wet and Dry. She was a brilliant star in her firmament, a passionate, early advocate of women’s, children’s, and human rights and an enlightened defender of truth and justice: a radical. She went to Paris to witness the revolution and lived to tell of the bloody Terror of 1793/94. A woman with enormous intellectual capabilities and savoir faire, she supported herself, and at various times one or more of her largely hapless six siblings, by writing.
But she also suffered from depression, and, brokenhearted over the rejection by Imlay, drank laudanum. In an attempt to revive her, he offered a mission of travel to Scandinavia to investigate a murky business affair of his. Mary accepted because she needed the money and hoped that this continued involvement with Imlay might ensure a positive romantic outcome.
In 1795, she set out on a dangerous ocean voyage with her infant daughter, Fanny, and a French maid. Like Goethe on his travels to Italy, Wollstonecraft wrote letters to Imlay chronicling her observations and emotional responses to the landscape and peoples of Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Her heartbreak is softly intimated in the letters, but mostly she reflects and reports with a journalist’s eye on the native customs: a featherbed so soft and deep it is like “sinking into the grave”; children swaddled in heavy, insalubrious layers of flannel; airless homes heated with stoves instead of fires—here, like Goethe, Mary invokes the odd concept of “elasticity” to talk about the air. Viewing the mummified remains of some nobles, she responds with characteristic indignation: “When I was shewn these human petrefactions, I shrunk back with disgust and horror. ‘Ashes to ashes!’ thought I—‘Dust to dust!’ ”
After her return home to England, Wollstonecraft composed the letters into an extremely well-received book titled Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. It was published in 1796, two hundred years before the birth of my son, Barney.
Soon after I arrived in Paris, shaky with jet lag and insomnia, I asked Alison, my oldest friend, if she’d help me brainstorm. Bless her, she is always willing, and she is a font of ideas and strategies. I was struggling and fearful, convinced I’d do nothing of value in this city: I took a pill and drank a glass of wine on a cold terrace on the rue de Rivoli, and told Alison this:
I came to Paris in 1976 just out of high school. I was lonely, depressed, bored, illiterate. I was thin, I was fat, with no control over any of it. I was a Francophile with a deep longing to be part of the culture, but I was clueless, infused with teenage ideas about ‘the Romantic.’ A French friend told me emphatically: ‘The Romantic is the nineteenth century. End of story.’ I met the two Quebecois artists in the Cité Internationale des Arts studios. They were friendly but aloof. Thirty years later, I am back in Paris with a husband, a son, a life. I have one of those studios. I am thin. I have money. I have MS.
Alison’s eyes light up: “That is the perfect story.” But I have no idea how to write a story. About telling certain episodes of your past, Norman Mailer said: “You must be ready.” I may never be ready. Some excised paragraphs, the original motivation for this project, now reside in a separate document labeled “Pathography.”
Why does everyone want to tell their story? Why do all of my students talk about “representing memory”? Why is Amy, in grad school, suddenly conscious of her working-class roots, destabilized, and obsessed with her childhood? Why is my sister Jane tormented by the past and asking Mom to talk to her shrink? Why did I spend so much time in Paris, agoraphobic, brooding, tunneling into realms of childhood where I found pockets of it illuminated with sudden, violent flashes?
Isak Dinesen: “The reward of storytelling is to be able to let go … All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them.”
At the end of my copy of Flight to Italy, there are short bios of all the principals in Goethe’s life. His mother, Katharina Elisabeth Goethe, is described as a very supportive woman, and there is a citation from Freud about G. having been his mother’s favorite and about how children singled out in this way retain a lifelong confidence and glow. This led me to Freud’s brief essay “A Childhood Recollection,” an analysis of an early memory G. recounts in his autobiography of throwing dishes out the window when he was a small child. The episode remained mysterious to Freud until, as is typical of his method, he began to hear similar stories from his patients and started to piece together a theory, namely that the throwing of objects out the window is typically linked to a child’s fury and jealousy in response to the arrival of a new baby. I strongly suspect I reacted just as violently or even more so to the births of my five younger siblings. A therapist explained this to me once and said I should practice self-forgiveness, but it took Freud’s words to cement the notion that my behavior was not a murderous aberration of childhood. A description of one of these cruel episodes of “acting out” has been excised and relegated to the “Pathography.”
Michael Haneke: “Artists don’t need shrinks because they can work it out in their work.”
But can we do without Freud?
Sharon & Gloria
I fell asleep in the afternoon and dreamed I was commiserating with Sharon Hayes about how a work, once finished, is “like a tombstone.” Gloria Naylor said this about her book The Women of Brewster Place: “I had gotten a bound copy of the book—which I really call a tombstone because that’s what it represents, at least for my part of the experience.”
The thing is only alive (and, by extension, I am only alive) while it is in process, and I’ve never quite figured out how to keep it ignited, moving. Some stubborn gene always threatens to flood the engine just at the crucial moment of shifting gears.
Mary and Mary
Like Goethe’s Flight, Wollstonecraft’s Letters, a narrative moderated by a journey, has a special, self-generating momentum: a trip, with its displacements in time and space, can be the perfect way to frame a story. Combine this with an epistolary address, and it would appear to be the most easeful of forms. Letters was the only happy outcome of the Scandinavian trip. Five months after her first suicide attempt, on confirmation that Imlay had a lover, Mary jumped from a bridge in rain-soaked clothing to hasten her descent. She was saved by a boatman and briefly consoled by Imlay, who shortly thereafter disappeared for good from the lives of Mary and Fanny. But M. W. was lucky to find a friend in the person of William Godwin, a sage man who, according to M. W. biographer Lyndall Gordon, counseled: “A disappointed woman should try to construct happiness ‘out of a set of materials within her reach.’ ”
A year later, in 1797, in love with Godwin, married, and pregnant, Mary read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther aloud with him. The following night, she went into labor and gave birth to a child who would grow up to be Mary Shelley, whom she would soon leave motherless. The delivery was botched: the placenta did not descend, and a doctor’s unwashed hands reached into the womb to tear it out. Sepsis set in, the mother’s milk became infected, and puppies were used to draw off lactation. Two hundred years later, in 1997, less than six months after giving birth, I flew across North America with an electric pump to suction the milk from my breasts. But I missed my connection and arrived at my destination twelve hours later, my breasts grotesquely engorged. I took a photo in the hotel room and some years later published it in LTTR, a minutely circulating queer-feminist journal. Now that photo is all over the internet, completely out of my control.
Part of the tragic irony of M. W.’s death in childbirth was her own enlightened advocacy of simple hygiene and nonintervention in the care of infants and mothers; suspicious of doctors, she was a believer in wholesomeness and common sense in an age of superstition and quackery.
Wollstonecraft and Goethe, both northerners from cold, rainy climates, enthuse repeatedly in their correspondences about the presence of sunshine. Goethe marveled to his friends about its perpetual abundance in Italy (“these skies, where all day long you don’t have to give a thought to your body”), and for Wollstonecraft in Scandinavia its effects are central to her evocation of the sublime, which she experiences in her travels along the rocky coast and mountainous landscapes of Sweden and Norway.
The warm reach of the sun was also surely a factor in granting each of them a measure of peace: for Goethe, when he arrives in Rome and no longer feels the need to double his life in writing (“I am here … Only now do I begin to live”), and for Wollstonecraft, during countless moments when nature impresses itself on her as the salve and renewal of an exhausted, disillusioned spirit. Waking on a ship one morning, she greets daybreak with these words: “I opened my bosom to the embraces of nature; and my soul rose to its author.” Two decades later, her daughter Mary Shelley would write from the banks of Lake Geneva: “When the sun bursts forth it is with a splendour and heat unknown in England.”
In 2004, in Needville, Texas, an asteroid was named for Mary Wollstonecraft (Minor Planet Center designation 90481 Wollstonecraft).
Aaron Burr, visiting England from America in 1812, bestowed this epithet on Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughters, Fanny and Mary, and their stepsister, Clara Mary Jane Clairmont, known then as Jane and later as Claire. Two years later, Mary, age seventeen, and Percy Bysshe Shelley eloped to France with Jane in tow; Fanny—with disastrous results—was not invited to join them. Lord Byron eventually formed part of the group, and together they lived an idyll of poetry, song, travel, and love, surviving on whatever money they could squeeze from Shelley’s father. On foot, atop a donkey, and by boat, they journeyed through parts of France, Switzerland, and Germany, keeping a collective diary subsequently published under the title History of a Six Weeks’ Tour. Nearly two hundred years later, I procured a facsimile edition of this book printed in New Delhi, no doubt downloaded from Google Books: the insides are a distant cousin of the original typeset, but the cover is a bright red design adorned with Islamic patterning. It is an utterly charming object, as is the prose it contains.
Eventually the Shelleys settled in Italy, where they wrote; read the classics, Rousseau, and Goethe; and Jane, in particular, studied music and languages. About Rome, Mary proclaimed: “[It] has such an effect on me that my past life before I saw it appears a blank & now I begin to live.” They existed like this for eight years, short of money, outcasts living in defiance of the rigid matrimonial conventions of the early nineteenth century. The ménage was not without its tensions and jealousies: Mary, pregnant and ill for much of the time, quickly began to find Jane (now Claire) an irritant. Claire was vivacious and talented, and though she could sometimes be dispatched, she would remain a resolute fixture of the Shelley circle. Mary began to use a little sun symbol in her diary to indicate Claire’s presence on any given day.
Mary Wollstonecraft’s parents, John Edward and Elizabeth, were married in 1756; their union produced seven children. Two hundred years later, my parents, James and Patricia, met in England and married in 1956. They also had seven children—six girls and one boy—beginning with Jane Elisabeth in 1957.
Prompted by a stay in rehab, my sister decided to write a memoir of her childhood and addiction. In an email, she told me: “I am in the process of teasing out an ending, but I’m now edging up to a very respectable 60,000 words, plenty to qualify for a book. Now, of course that the deed is nearing completion and I have set down once and for all a true record of what has happened (sorta, kinda), I am feeling somewhat uncertain.”
M. W. wrote of “the healing balm of sympathy [as the] medicine of life,” a concept Jane, an uncommonly sensitive and empathic person—always, since childhood—and now an amateur homeopath, would undoubtedly agree with. Jane reminds me of M. W. in some ways. A nurturing mother of three daughters, she is a strong and caring woman who, like M.W. at times, both keeps her distance from doctors and their drugs and is emotionally fragile, prone to depression and occasional rash behavior.
Fanny, to whom Percy Shelley had first shown affection, was excluded from the Summer of Love. She had inherited her mother’s melancholic streak, and though she tried to combat the depressive feelings she was dogged by what she called: “Spleen. Indolence. Torpor. Ill-humour.” Fannykin, of whom Mary Wollstonecraft wrote in the Scandinavian Letters when her child was a babe, “I dread lest she should be forced to sacrifice her heart to her principles, or her principles to her heart,” succumbed to exactly that predicament of the nineteenth-century woman without means. Fearful of becoming a burden, Fanny drank laudanum as her mother had done, but unlike Mary, she was successful.
Young Mary’s bliss with Shelley was short-lived, as death began to intrude with frightening regularity. Of her four pregnancies, only one child, Percy Florence, survived. Claire’s daughter by Byron, Allegra, whom Byron callously separated from her mother, died at age five, alone in an Italian convent. Just prior, Claire had written heartbreakingly in her journal that recovering Allegra would be like “com[ing] back to the warm ease of life after the coldness and stiffness of the grave.” Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, in an advanced state of pregnancy, drowned herself in 1816, and, eight years into his relationship with Mary, Shelley himself drowned in a boating accident on the Gulf of La Spezia off the coast of Pisa with their close friend Edward Williams. Byron, who’d committed himself to a war of independence in Greece, died two years later in Missolonghi of fever.
James and Patricia
In 1975, my father, James, age forty-five, fell from the roof of our house one Saturday morning in August and never regained consciousness. I had just turned seventeen, the same age as Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin when she eloped to France with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Jane Clairmont. My mother, Patricia, retreated to the top of our big box of a house and all hell broke loose below. The Davey girls were not writing poetry, studying Greek and Latin, and procreating; we were listening to David Bowie, Roxy Music, and the Clash, and ingesting too many drugs. Interviewed by a journalist friend about our active sex lives at the time, my mother responded ruefully: “I’d mind less if I thought they enjoyed it more.” It was a different time and different kind of rebellion; nonetheless, many thought of us as a female force—goddesses, no, but “Amazonian,” yes, to be reckoned with. And that is what I tried to show in a series of portraits I took in Ottawa and Montreal beginning around 1980. “Les jeunes filles en fleur” was another expression used by the same journalist friend to describe some of us, but that came later, after we’d settled down a bit.
Claire and Kate
Claire Davey, small and taut, and the only one among us who did not regularly swell and shrink, never succumbed to intoxicants or liquor. And she never threw herself at men, as did some of her sisters, as did Claire Clairmont with Byron. Temperate, she traveled, she studied; now she teaches philosophy and yoga to high school students in Toronto. Kate, born a year and a half after Claire, in 1961, two hundred years after Mary’s brother Henry Wollstonecraft, was the fearless party girl, drinking and inhaling pills until she passed out. Kate never “recovered” into anything resembling normalcy. Multiple stays in rehab would eventually lead to a lifetime of AA, NA, OA. Intelligent, sensitive, she opted out. She read every novel on my mother’s bookshelves and filled the house with rescued animals. Some of the original five cats and four dogs have passed on, but the smells linger to remind us of nineteen-year-old, blind, incontinent Candy and gentle, gormless, clubfooted Duke, found on a reservation.
Of the Shelley entourage, only Mary, her son Percy, and Claire Clairmont lived beyond their thirties. At the dissolution of their circle, Claire joined her brother in Vienna and began to work as a teacher, but she was hounded out of this employment by the lingering scandal of her youth and forced to migrate as far as Moscow, where she became a governess. Her journal, a penetrating literary document, was published a century later; an old woman, she eventually settled in Florence with her niece Paola and became the model for Henry James’s story “The Aspern Papers.”
Mary and Percy
Widowed, Mary Shelley was at the mercy of her tyrannical and conservative father-in-law, a man who had never accepted his son’s poetic gift, nor his marriage to Mary. After editing a posthumous collection of Shelley’s work in 1824, Mary was forbidden by the patriarch from publishing any more of Shelley’s poetry or even writing about him, lest it shame the family, thus forcing her into a conventional lifestyle for the sake of her son and his inheritance, small sums of which were parsed out to them while Shelley senior lived on and on, defying all expectations of his demise.
According to Muriel Spark, Percy Florence inherited none of his parents’ literary or artistic talent and refused to visit art museums with his mother when they traveled in Europe. Although he was a disappointment to Mary, she later grew to appreciate what Spark termed his “phlegmatic qualities.” Percy was “to remain loyally and negatively by [Mary’s] side to sustain her old age.” He married Jane Gibson, a sympathetic woman who became Mary’s friend and caretaker during her final illness at age fifty-three. Percy and Jane did not have children.
Age thirteen, Barney does not like art museums either—he says they instantly make him feel sleepy. He told me, “An ideal way to spend the day would be to drive to an airport and watch the planes take off and land.”
I learned the meaning of this from Baudelaire via Barthes: “I take H [hashish] in order to be free. But in order to take H I must already be free.” And from Alejandra Pizarnik: “To not eat I must be happy. And I cannot be happy if I am fat.” This comes close to summing up my adolescence.
In November 2010, on the recommendation of my sister Jane, I traveled to Montreal to visit Dr. Saine, a famous homeopath, a man who, like his father before him, had treated thousands of people with MS. I sat with him in his Dickensian study, surrounded by stacks of paper and books, some framing white busts—no doubt Dr. Saine’s predecessors, the discoverers of this strange and mystical science. He interviewed me for three and a half hours about symptoms, cravings, fears, and dreams.
He felt my frozen feet and lit a fire, burning a cube of oak. “How do you feel when you see a poor person? On a scale of one to ten, how much do you fear poverty? Cancer? Death?” “How do you feel when you are with your son and your husband enters the room?” And on and on. “Is there anything you haven’t told me about yourself?” I told as much as I could, including some of the bad and shameful memories from the “Pathography” (because you have to), but the long interview was tiring, and my fragmented story came out rather flat and monotone. He received it all without judgment, indeed, with a high degree of curiosity, almost excitement.
He said my case was unusual—perhaps my parental influences were too strong, too dominant, neither one giving way—and this left him torn between two antidotes. I departed with two tiny glass vials, coincidently each substance related to photography: sepia, which is a dye used to tone photographic prints, and lycopodium, the spores of club mosses that were ground into combustible powder and ignited in the era before flashbulbs.
“To do without people is for photography the most impossible of renunciations,” wrote Walter Benjamin. Yet that abandonment is precisely what would begin to take place in my photographs over the next ten years, beginning in 1984, until my subjects constituted little more than the dust on my bookshelves or the view under the bed. The burden of image theft, as Louis Malle put it, had something to do with my retreat, but also a gradual seeping in of a kind of biographical reticence, perhaps connected to my present reservations around telling my story (“Pathography”).
I, too, ingested excessive substances in decades two and three, and one result is that I can barely keep track of the analogies I’ve posited, from Duras’s “immense void” and the unscripted of vérité, between rehearsed writing (from journals) and photographic mise-en-scène. And what is meant by “the real” in the pronouncements of Malle and Godard (“Filmmakers who make installations instead of films are afraid of the real”)? For Godard, the real is about confrontation and risk in time-based media, the old-fashioned way, no props allowed. Malle uses the term to describe a state of “being” to which he accedes when he finally stops filming in India; it is about experiencing a kind of existential peace, a freedom from the need to be making something. But he can only enjoy the feeling because he has worked very hard for it.
The Green and the Wet
Over the years, I’ve brushed up against a peculiar sensation of “being,” usually in green places where water infuses the air: in a marshy field in England crisscrossed by canals; on the tiny, narrow peninsula of pine-choked soil that is Provincetown, in fall or winter. Something about the “elasticity” of the air infuses “the elasticity of my spirits” and allows me to enter an unusual state of weightlessness, an intense and rare feeling of well-being.
Displacement in space, and the attendant fatigue of travel, must be contributing factors to this febrile state, not unrelated to Stendhal syndrome, which had its origins in Florence in 1817. Stendhal noted this phenomenon in Italy just one year before Claire Clairmont and the Shelley party found themselves climbing the ruins of the Colosseum on their nightly walks through Rome. Goethe, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the Shelleys were all weary travelers—M. W. had recently given birth, and Mary Shelley, her daughter, was more or less pregnant for five years. They both had very young children in tow; they were exhausted. In early 1997, sleep-deprived, I walked through the snow-covered woods of Provincetown with infant Barney strapped to my chest. I needed to move at all costs; I craved something mind-altering.
Mary Shelley died in 1851 and Claire Clairmont in 1879, but no photographs of them seem to exist, at least on the web; there is a photographic oval of Percy Florence Shelley as an older man—he looks a bit like Freud.
In his essay “A Little History of Photography,” Walter Benjamin cites Goethe, apropos of August Sander: “There is a delicate empiricism which so intimately involves itself with the object that it becomes true theory.” Mary Wollstonecraft and Goethe were just pre-photography, Goethe by only seven years. Their travel writings have the vividness and spontaneity of snapshots, and Goethe’s phrases and sketches, in particular, feel startlingly modern. It is not a stretch to imagine that Goethe, with his scientific mind, might have anticipated the nascent technology: it was “in the air,” after all, long before 1839.
The close observation that Goethe championed and was his means to knowledge, to “true theory,” was precisely the promise held out for photography for many, many decades, perhaps a hundred thirty years if we count up through the late 1970s. And that is when I started taking pictures, at the very moment when the truth claims of the photograph were being dismantled by theory. That moment of the “Discourse of Others” has passed or shifted, but it marked me, changed for good the way I work.
When I wrote about “being” four years ago, it was under the tapering effect of steroids. Now I take drugs that make me sleep. But this morning I woke early with precisely the idea of writing these lines and taking a picture of the rising sun reflected off the giant apartment building in the distance. Up at seven for the first time in … ? Photograph gleaming building—my old habit from when I’d wake with the sun.
On the subway downtown to the New York Public Library in search of Mary Shelley’s diaries, I began to notice subway riders absorbed in writing of their own: a woman paying her bills, another marking pages on which the word draft is stamped in large letters. Some are standing, precariously balancing pads and pens on crowded trains; others look off into space, lost in concentration. There is a man folded over his crossword, whom I captured in the same pose on more than one day, and children doing their homework. A woman wearing orange velvet gloves clutches a small yellow pencil.
Just when I’d been writing about the disappearance of the figure from my photographs, I found myself taking street pictures again in the dim green light of the Manhattan subway. I experienced the same unease and doubt I’ve always had in taking pictures on the street, and I kept expecting to be asked what I was doing. But the writers themselves, eyes downcast, were unaware of my camera, and those looking on, over my own shoulder even, seem only mildly surprised by the small point-and-shoot, a note taker itself, recording the underground writers as we ride.
Moyra Davey was born in Toronto in 1958. She has had solo exhibitions at Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts (2008); Kunsthalle Basel, Switzerland (2010); Tate Liverpool (2013); Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (2014); and Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, Vienna (2014), among other venues. Davey lives and works in New York.
From Index Cards, by Moyra Davey © New Directions.
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