ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
. . . I was always especially entranced, said Austerlitz, by the moment when the shadows of reality, so to speak, emerge out of nothing on the exposed paper, as memories do in the middle of the night, darkening again as you try to cling to them…
W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz
It is no news to say that we die in our shadows, those selves that seem to perpetually occupy the space next to us.
Stanley Plumley, “Night Pastorals”
Shadow. Shade. I’ve always been drawn to the penumbral, have always preferred it to sunshine. Perhaps because I’m fair-skinned, Ashkenazic, my grandparents from Lithuanian ghettoes where shadows were safer than sunshine. Or perhaps because I grew up in a subtropical town on the Indian Ocean seaboard of South Africa where the temperature never dropped below eighty and my private girls’ school required bottle-green uniforms buttoned to the neck, woolen blazers, and, in what passed for winter in our balmy clime, thick black stockings—because my school, founded in 1877 by British colonial officials and an Anglican clergyman, followed an English model. And that’s how girls dressed for school in England.
Perhaps my predilection for shadow has nothing to do with climate, pigmentation, or ancestral fear. Perhaps I am by nature inclined to the sombrous, to a moody lugubriousness, to sorrow, to the wearing of black, to preoccupation with death, to the archive, the remnant, the trace, the ghostly residue. In short, perhaps I am, by nature, melancholic.
Whatever the cause, I’ve always been drawn to shadow and shade. Perhaps that’s why I thrilled, late in my career as an art historian, to an essay I stumbled upon by Michael Ann Holly, “Patterns in the Shadows.” Impossible to resist such a title. I read with excitement, delighted to find, so many years after I first responded to the crepuscular galleries of the Louvre and the Rijksmuseum and the Uffizi (before galleries became bright and modern and almost Disney-like) that a prominent art historian had declared art history a “melancholy art.” At least, that’s how Holly characterizes it in “Patterns in the Shadows.” I have read that essay so many times I’ve lost count. Fifteen, twenty, twenty-five times? I love it so much that I included it, semester after semester, in my seminar: “The History of Art History and its Methodologies,” always holding it in reserve until the last class to send students into summer in sober mien—a little wobbly, uncomfortable, and, hopefully, thoughtful. At the start of class they resisted the idea that their major might be melancholic, preferring to speak of joy—a preference I attribute to the surf and flip-flop culture of San Diego and, more globally, to the future-orientation that has marked this country from its earliest (New Jerusalem) days. But by the end of that final session, after we’d had a chance to reflect on all that we’d read together and about what we, as art historians, do, most students seemed reconciled, even happy, with the proposal that art history is a discipline marked by the strange oxymoron of (in Holly’s words) “melancholic joy.”
I take it as axiomatic that all written histories are narratives of desire, full of both manifest and latent needs that exceed the professional mandate to find out what happened and when. And surely, given that the focus of our historical labors is always towards recovering what is lost, one of these primal desires must be labeled melancholic. (1)
Whence the “joy” in that oxymoronic characterization?
Here Holly turns to Walter Benjamin, that arch melancholic, who wrote elegiacally about ruins and fragments. Benjamin appreciated the transience of things—ruins, fragments, hybrids, supplements—finding consolation, even ecstatic joy, in confronting the lost “other” of the past, feeling an ethical obligation to preserve the traces of what is dead, or dying, working to enliven—even redeem—the past via the labor of present understanding and the search for new meanings.
Thirteen years after Holly published that essay on-line, she produced a longer, much expanded version, a book: The Melancholy Art, in which she takes a deep dive into what, she argues, is the melancholic ethos of art history. Had a professional lifetime devoted to art history deepened whatever tendency I’d emerged from my mother’s womb with, so that, even though I was not born under Saturn, I now had a considerable (perhaps pathological) excess of black bile? I wondered if art history had been a vehicle—a kind of displacement—to explore my own hauntings, melancholia, desires, absences, and losses without directly, and too painfully, having to explore my own history—as I am now doing by writing memoir.
What if art history and memoir turn out to be close relatives? They do, after all, share moods: melancholia and nostalgia, loss and desire, awareness of absence and presence. And common engagements, most obviously with the archive; less obviously, with allegory, which tends to the fragmentary, the incomplete, the imperfect, the ruin, hybridic form, and palimpsest.
Am I, now, writing memoir, practicing art history by another name?
A difference between art historians and memoirists is that art historians have, traditionally, written about objects or periods. Memoirists write about lives, but if we regard our life or experience as an artifact, we position ourselves as curators of that life or experience, holding it in our hands and examining it. In doing so, we take on a scholar’s detachment from our subject, weighing in with ourselves how best to represent it, how best to frame it. A crucial element in that framing is the singular first person of the narrator. How will the writer—who stands behind her text’s singular first person like a puppet master behind his puppets—present that singular first person, that protagonist, that “I” who tells the story? How to paint her as a character who serves the ends of the essay/memoir?
I—puppet master/author—self-consciously choose a melancholic persona for my protagonist, choose it because melancholia serves my narrative.
It is also likely that I am melancholic. Indeed, I think it likely that all of us born—not under Saturn, but under the rule of apartheid that tyrannized South Africa from 1948-1994—are predisposed to melancholia. Everything in that country was so acutely awry. Longing, grief, repression, guilt, anxiety, self-criticism were naturalized states—for everyone: white, black, and brown. Curiously, this is still the case even though apartheid is now over. Those same feelings prevail, but with an odd shift. That shift, as Thomas Blom Hansen, a professor of anthropology at Stanford University, argues, is a strange multilayered sense of loss, the loss of the obstacle that, we had thought, stood in the way of reaching our full potential. Hegel called this “the loss of the loss”—the removal of the blockage that serves to explain the problems of everyday life and seems to prevent true self-realization (16).
I had a fantasy of who I might become once I turned my back on South Africa and became a citizen of a country where apartheid was not tolerated—at least, not on the books. But as Aleksandar Hemon noted: “There is no way to leave history. There is no other place to go. As a diasporic person I’ve learned that it’s in fact really easy to leave your country. What is difficult is leaving its history, as it follows (or leads) you like a shadow. That kind of history is in your body” (83). And Deborah Tall: “…we are made of where we’ve come from…The experience of the place—its struggles, strife, and horrors—accrues….We are…its inevitable consequence” (288, 289).
And so I come to the three books that are the focus of this essay: Jenny Boully’s The Body, Paisley Rekdal’s Intimate, and Lauret Savoy’s Trace. In each, the author finds herself haunted by histories performed in her body and in her intimate self, histories that have marked her as deeply as erosive forces have marked the earth’s surface. Each text is an elegy filled with the presence of ruins and fragments. Each author strives to redeem the past by offering new meanings layered upon older ones. Each creates a richly textured palimpsest. All are profoundly melancholic.
Jo-Anne Berelowitz earned her MA in Art History from Stanford University, her PhD from the University of California at Los Angeles, and her MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis on nonfiction from the Rainier Writing Workshop. She was, for many years, senior art historian at San Diego State University. Her art history essays have appeared in Genders, Society and Space, The Oxford Art Journal, The Journal of Modern Jewish Studies, The Canadian Journal of Comparative Literature, and elsewhere. In 2018 she was awarded the Wabash Prize for Literary Nonfiction. She is at work on a book-length memoir about growing up in South Africa during apartheid. Her memoir examines the past through the lens of theories of perspective and art history. She lives in Austin, TX, with her husband and Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier, Max.