Picturing Woman: Paintings of Jules Breton

Many painters have taken their inspiration from the female form, but Jules Breton is unique. Trained in the European classical tradition, or “grand style” as he called it, he returned home to rural Brittany to produce his masterpieces. His subjects were not grand dames or famous historical scenes as was usual for the period and style, but peasants, country festivals and domestic life. Eschewing hunting scenes and manly exploits, he preferred quieter moments, most often depicting women. He did not paint with a sexualized gaze, but with an honest regard and a desire to hint at feminine interior life. Breton’s talent is such that he can do so without even showing us the woman’s face.

Breton, The Cliff, 1874

La Falaise (The Cliff), 1874

Keenly observant, Breton uses body language and landscape to create an incredible range of mood; resilience, dreaminess, practicality and nobility are all part of his repertoire. Breton’s women are active and relatable. Les Amies is a particularly wonderful example. We aren’t sure what the woman in the center is being persuaded to believe or do, but her discomfort is obvious–arms folded protectively across her gut, wariness in her face–and we are acutely aware of the physical pressure being exerted by her friends who feel the need to lean in and put a hand on her. I’m not sure if they are offering support or asserting dominance. What, if anything, are we to make of the village church lurking in the background? Is there a man involved? Breton makes you want to be there so that you can answer all of those questions. He also paints wonderful feet!

Breton, Les Amies

Les Amies(Friends), 1873

Jules Adolphe Aimé Louis Breton was born on May 1, 1827 in the small village of Courrières, France, where his father managed land for a wealthy landowner. His mother died when he was four years old. Certainly his longing for her shaped the artist he would become and perhaps lay at the heart of his interest in rural femininity. Jules’ life changed when he met the Belgian painter Félix De Vigne. De Vigne saw potential and persuaded the Breton family to send the young man to Ghent to study with him at the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts in Belgium. Jules was fifteen years old when he left home for the big city in 1843. Studying with some of Europe’s finest academic painters, he would move to Antwerp in 1846 and Paris in 1847. He returned home to Courrières in 1854 and married Elodie de Vigne, the daughter of his former teacher and one of his favorite models, in 1858.

Breton, Calling in the Gleaners

Le Rappel des Ganeuses(Calling in the Gleaners), 1859

Jules Breton http://www.tuttartpitturasculturapoesiamusica.com

Les Bineuses(The Weeders), 1868

Breton, Evening in the Hamlet of Finistere

Soir dans le hameau de Finistère(Evening in the Hamlet of Finistère), 1887

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Jeunes Femmes allant à une Procession(Young Women Going to a Procession), 1890

Breton found great pleasure in painting real people and people found his art disarmingly real. This translated into a striking balance between artistic satisfaction and commercial success. His paintings were so popular that he frequently painted copies and had engravings made, all of which sold well. In 1880, Vincent van Gogh walked eighty-five miles to visit the important painter, only to get cold feet and turn around upon reaching the high wall around Breton’s property. By the time of his death in 1906, at the age of 79, Jules Breton was a famous international master, a member of the Institut de France and the Royal Academy of Art and a Commander of the Legion of Honor. He was also a published poet and writer.

Breton, Sur la Route en Hiver

Sur la Route en Hiver(On the Road in Winter), 1884

Breton, Fin du Travail, 1887

Fin du Travail(End of Work), 1884

Painters without experience often weaken the effect they wish to produce by a prodigality which multiplies uselessly the figures and accessories of a picture. It will not be long before they learn that, the greater the conciseness and simplicity with which a thought is interpreted, the more it gains in expressive force.

Breton, The Song of the Lark, 1884

Le Chant de l’Alouette(The Song of the Lark), 1884

Gaurdian of the Turkeys

Gardeuse de Dindons(The Guardian of the Turkeys), 1864

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Mère Nourrir son Bébé(Mother Nursing Her Baby), 1863

Breton, Last Flowers, 1890

Dernières Fleurs(Last Flowers), 1890

It is Breton’s conciseness and simplicity which imbue the rural woman’s mundane experience with value and honesty, even as his romantic light and the warmth and softness of his color elevate her to a level of nobility that approaches the sacred. This celebration of common humanity was extremely attractive at a time when kingdoms were being replaced by democracies and is still quite striking today. If we accept Marie Shear’s definition of feminism as “the radical notion that women are people,” Jules Breton can even be called a feminist painter. What a profound ally we can find in his great talent and meticulous attention!

 

 

 

 

Quote for Today: Clarissa Pinkola Estés

 

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Stories set the inner life into motion, and this is particularly important where the inner life is frightened, wedged, or cornered. Story greases the hoists and pulleys, it causes adrenaline to surge, shows us the way out, down, or up, and for our trouble, cuts for us fine wide doors in previously blank walls, openings that lead to the dreamland, that lead to love and learning, that lead us back to our own real lives as knowing wildish women.

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype

Image: Dye House Machinery by Glen Bledsoe with CCLicense

Quote for Today: Sylvia Plath

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But I must get back into the world of my creative mind: otherwise, in the world of pies & shin beef, I die. The great vampire cook extracts the nourishment & I grow fat on the corruption of matter, mere mindless matter. I must be lean & write & make worlds beside this to live in.
Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, Monday, March 4, 1957

Image: Woman in kitchen, 1939 © Seattle Municipal Archives with CCLicense

The Hidden Feminine: Examining the Female Image in Yemeni Art

Muslim women are frequently shortchanged by stereotypes. How do artists help to change minds and destroy prejudice?

I have selected the work of two female photographers, Boushra Almutawakel and Yumna Al-Arashi, and two male painters, Hakim Alakel and Mazher Nizar, to show us the face of Muslim women. All of these artists are of Yemeni blood and wrap up synkroniciti’s series on Yemen.

Recently I posted about the difficulty of being female in Yemen today and how current attitudes toward women do not square with the history of the nation, a place ruled in the past by Muslim Queens. You can read that post by clicking here. This post explores how those ultra conservative attitudes make their mark on the Yemeni soul and how they impact the way Yemeni artists, male and female, seek to portray the female form.

No exploration of the feminine in Yemen is complete without acknowledging and unpacking the hijab, the head covering worn by many, but not all, Muslim women around the world. The graphic below illustrates just a small portion of the diversity in female coverings in the Muslim world. There is a great deal of variety and opportunity for self-expression.

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Boushra Almutawakel

Boushra Almutawakel was born in 1969 in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. She earned a BSBA in International Business at American University in Washington, DC, where she also fell in love with photography and worked as a photojournalist for the university paper and yearbook. Returning to Yemen in 1994, she became an educational adviser, but kept taking pictures and participating in exhibitions until embarking on a career in photography in 1998. Professional female photographers were unheard of in Yemen at the time. She balances her own projects with photography for magazines, charitable and cultural organizations and has garnered an international reputation for her insightful work. Boushra served as a cultural advisor for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington and later worked at the Ministry for Human Rights in Sana’a, specializing in women’s rights. She moved to France with her husband and children in 2013.

Her Hijab Series employs feminine humor and dignity to take aim at prejudice against Muslim women in both Eastern and Western culture. You can see more of this series as well as other works on Boushra’s website.

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“True Self”

“I first started the series on the hijab/veil while attending photography school, where I attended a lecture by the Egyptian feminist writer Nawal Elsadawi. At that lecture she said that she felt that women who wore the hijab/veil or nigab were the same as women who wore makeup, in the sense that they all hid their true identities. I thought that was a fascinating perspective, and so decided to interpret this photographically.”

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“What if?”

“In this ongoing project on the hijab/veil I want to explore the many faces and facets of the veil based on my own personal experiences and observations: the convenience, freedom, strength, power, liberation, limitations, danger, humor, irony, variety, cultural, social, and religious aspects, as well as the beauty, mystery, and protection. The hijab/veil as a form of self-expression; the veil as not solely an Arab Middle Eastern phenomenon, the trends, the history and politics of the hijab/veil, as well as differing interpretations, and the fear in regards to the hijab/veil.”

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“Mother, Daughter, Doll”

“A lot of people think that covered women are oppressed, backwards and uneducated. That is far from the truth. But at the same time I can’t hear very well if I am veiled and I can’t see the lips of women wearing the niqab. The biggest problem I have is with children being covered—there is nothing Islamic about that. I prefer our traditional veils which are colourful and more open. The black we’ve imported from the Gulf and the Wahhabis—with gloves and the rest of it—is too much.”-Boushra Almutawakel

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“Sitara, Rada’a”

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“Eye Motion”

Hakim Alakel

Hakim Alakel was born in the artistic city of Ta’izz in 1965. He studied first in Yemen under the famous master artist Ali Hashim, following up at Moscow State Academy in Russia, where he graduated with a Master of Arts degree cum laude, specializing in frescoes, art history and conceptual art. There is a marked Art Nouveau influence in his lush and colorful paintings, which are on display all over the world. Learn more about Hakim and his paintings here. A large figure on the Yemeni cultural scene who has worked as a Professor of Art, a magazine contributor and critic, a consultant for the restoration of Yemeni architecture, a coordinator for children’s art and theater projects and much more, Hakim now lives in Jordan. The irony is that the elimination of his duties with the Yemeni Ministry of Culture, which is unable to operate in a country torn by war, has freed him to return to painting, imbued with a profound sense of nostalgia.

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Hakim’s paintings recall city life in Yemen before the civil war, when communities functioned and family life was not dogged by death and warfare. There is a palpable longing for the emotional stability and simplicity of that time. Sleeping or awake, pensive or free-spirited, regal or humorous, the women he paints have personalities which are only rivaled by his vivid use of color. He must have had great affection for the women in his life to render them with such humanity and honesty.

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“In my work, I depend on a range of aesthetic references, especially Yemeni ones, which form the basis of my artistic language. These include architecture, clothing, and other aspects of Yemen’s huge cultural inheritance, which goes back to 5000 B.C. and continues to the present day. This cultural heritage, especially its urban aspects, influences me greatly, and I feel that the Yemeni city lives inside me.”

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 “These cities, and their inhabitants, whether in Sana’a, the capital, or other cities, form a primary reference for my work… the clothing, the weather, the nature, and the environment. You’ll find the Yemeni women actually form the main inspiration for my art work. They are unique in their style, their vision, their dress… and there is also a certain kind of silence in their faces. I see these women as symbols and representations of the larger environment in which they live.”-Hakim Alakel

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Traditionally, Yemeni women have dressed in bright colors and patterns. Most favored a bright cotton hijab rather than the burka or niqab, but those days have faded in the cities, where women are arrested for being on the street without permission and bullied for not being “properly covered”. Women in smaller villages, such as those picturesque towns in the Haraz Mountains that I have spoken about in an earlier post, still tend to dress in this fashion. It is good to have artists remembering and witnessing to better times. Maybe one day those good things can be restored and even bettered.

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Mazher Nizar

Born of a Yemeni family in Mumbai, India in 1958, Mazher Nizar came home to Yemen in 1985 after receiving his Diploma in Graphic Art from the Government College of Art & Craft in Kolkata. He lives in Sana’a and is frequently inspired by the Old City. Mazher’s paintings hearken back to the Queen of Sheba, blending Arabic and Yemeni motifs and elements with a romantic Indian painting style. He has exhibited his work across Europe and Asia, as well as Canada. His decision to remain in Sana’a through the Civil War and share his art online through his Facebook account have inspired many Yemeni to hold on to hope. You can see more of his work on his website.

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The feminine “inspired me a lot because it was hidden, and something hidden creates imagination, and imagination is good for the artist to go on and on with.”

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“It was very good for me to paint on the Queen of Sheba, and I started painting ordinary woman as a Queen. It became fact that all my women became very spiritual and they were very out of this world. They are not portraits of any particular women, they are just women of my expressions, how I feel them.”

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Mazher is inspired by women and believes them to be more spiritual in nature than men. Rather than seeing the covered woman as a victim, he sees her as an exalted mystery. If she is not completely human it is because she is superhuman- a mythological force which nurtures hope, symbolized by flowers and birds- not because she is in any way inferior. Veiling her stokes her desirability and spirituality, heightening romance. This is lovely, although there is a certain loneliness in being mythical.

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Yumna Al-Arashi

Born in Washington, DC in 1988, the child of a diplomat, Yumna Al-Arashi was in middle school when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 struck. Overnight, she became subject to intense intimidation and bullying stemming from misguided hatred in the wake of tragedy. I recommend you read her moving experience here. Yumna holds a Bachelors Degree in International Politics with an emphasis on the Middle East from the New School in New York City and is now a documentary photographer who has lived and worked in many places around the world. She has worked with prestigious cultural organizations and magazines and has exhibited her own projects in the United States, the Middle East and London. You can see her credentials and more of her beautiful work on her website. Her work does a fantastic job of unifying the mythological feminine with the human.

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from Northern Yemen

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from Northern Yemen

“There’s this prevalent idea of a woman who is covering her hair or her body as totally oppressed, and that’s never a viewpoint I’ve agreed with,” explains Al-Arashi, who is Muslim and grew up in Washington, D.C. “My whole life I’ve been surrounded by Muslim women who cover themselves, and they’re such badasses and have such incredible depth—as much as any of the uncovered women I’ve met. As a Muslim woman, you’re often boxed into a single identity. I wanted to shift that stereotype.”
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from Northern Yemen

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“I wanted people to see that there is a Muslim woman that exists that can be comfortable with her body and who still supports other women who are covered, who thinks that’s okay.”
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from Portraits

“I believe that controlling sexuality is the root of controlling all power in a society. To be able to openly bring a woman’s sexuality to light is an incredibly important step in expressing a woman’s freedom and humanity. Discussions of sexuality shouldn’t be taboo, and my hope is to be able to open the forum for further thought on the issue.”-Yumna Al-Arashi
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from Water

 

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from Water

Deciphering the Dream: Robert Altman’s 3 Women

Dreams allow symbols, objects and personalities to form fluid associations. Can their suspension of reality help us understand our lives?

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Robert Altman was having a terrible day. He had argued with Warner Brothers executives over decisions about his next film project and things had been said that couldn’t be unsaid. Much worse, his wife had to be taken to the emergency room and admitted to the hospital. Doctors were unsure she would survive. In a few minutes of fitful sleep, Altman had a dream.

He was directing Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall in a film about identity theft set in the California desert. Upon waking, he jotted down a few notes and went back to sleep, eager for more details. Altman was convinced that his vision was important and wasted no time in getting approval for this new idea, as vivid as it was disjointed, from 20th Century Fox. He scouted locations in and around Palm Springs, California and signed Spacek and Duvall. Originally, he thought he would film without a screenplay, allowing the film to take an organic, dreamlike shape. That proved too daunting, so a screenplay was written before filming began, but it allowed for a great deal of improvisation, a technique to which Altman was no stranger. This would result in an eerie and disturbing masterpiece, his 1977 film 3 Women.

Initially, the plot seems deceptively simple, but the atonal musical score by Gerald Busby, Bodhi Wind’s murals, and Altman’s camera shots hint at a palpable anxiety trembling just below the surface. Pinky Rose is the new girl in town. She takes a job at the Desert Springs Rehabilitation and Geriatric Center, where she befriends Millie Lammoreaux, a trendy young woman who longs to be the center of attention. Pinky falls for Millie’s big talk, so mesmerized by this grown-up woman that she never realizes that the men Millie tries so desperately to impress can barely tolerate her. It is only after the two women become roommates that her idolization of Millie is shattered, resulting in Pinky’s attempt to commit suicide by jumping into the pool from the top floor of the apartment complex. After that incident, the reality of the dream begins to break down and the character’s personalities become increasingly fluid and unpredictable.

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Duvall proves adept at composing and delivering the long, rambling monologues of dating advice, unappetizing recipes and self aggrandizement that define Millie, a character both shallow and complex, annoying and compelling, while Spacek communicates Pinky’s youth and immaturity through impulsive action and body language, blowing bubbles in her Coca-Cola or downing an entire glass of beer in a matter of seconds, a feat which she follows up with some nasty belching. The camera loves Spacek’s naturalness, even when she isn’t saying anything. Janice Rule plays the third woman, Willie, a pregnant artist who owns much of the town, including the bar where the girls hang out and the Purple Sage Apartments where they live, alongside her ultra-macho husband Edgar, a washed-up Hollywood stunt double. She barely speaks, expressing herself in pointed and sullen glances and in the terrifying and grotesque murals she paints everywhere. In one of the most devastating images of the film, we see Willie lying in the bottom of a dry pool like an animal next to one of her murals. These tremendous paintings depict half-human figures engaged in angry abuse of each other. The more we see of these monstrous figures and of our three women and Edgar, the more we begin to understand that they are synonymous.

We can surmise that the three women are aspects of the same being: the child, the sexually awakened young woman and the mother. Their names are clues to this: Pinky is a childhood nickname, her name is Mildred, which is also Millie’s real name, and it doesn’t take much imagination to relate Willie to Millie. Let us consider also that this is Altman’s dream, rather than trying to envision it solely as the dream of one of the three women. Carl Jung spoke of the anima, or female personality within a male psyche, and the animus, or male personality within a female pysche. Here we have an anima that has split into three distinct personas, which are in conflict and competition with one another, but are later unified against an ultra masculine, misogynistic male figure.

Which brings us to Edgar, the flashy, yet faded, cowboy played by Robert Fortier. He is suitable neither as a love interest nor a father figure, an aging male who can’t find his place. He ignores his pregnant wife, a wife who is clearly feverish and unwell, in order to chase the skirts of younger women. Even when Willie is in labor he seeks out playmates, crying that his wife doesn’t need anyone and is perfectly able to take care of herself. He shoots, drinks, and rides motorcycles, but is ultimately a pathetic character. Whatever creative life he possessed is gone; he survives like a vampire sucking the life out of women desperate enough to fall for his ability to make them laugh. And yet he has power. When Millie threatens to call the cops on him he shrugs it off, saying that the cops are all his friends.

There is a profound distrust of authority figures in 3 Women. The female nurses all come across as masculine control freaks, varying shades of Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the doctors are more interested in their reputation or their libido than their patients. After coming home from the hospital, Pinky voices to Millie her fear that she might be pregnant because the doctor was always in her room. This same doctor flirted with Millie as Pinky lay near death in her hospital bed, so we can’t be sure she isn’t correct. It might be tempting to see this as Pinky trying to appear worldly before Millie, but it is no coincidence that neither the medical community nor the police are seen as helpful to our heroines. If these women desire balance and harmony they are going to have to create it themselves.

There is a scene in which Willie shoots bullet holes through two of her smaller paintings, then turns and fires shots through the head and heart of a practice “man”. Instead of marring her own creations, as she has been doing, she takes out her frustration on the male image. It is a satisfying moment for her and for us.

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What does all this mean?

Altman’s demands had not gone over well at Warner Brothers, and it is likely he was feeling guilty over his lack of concern, real or imagined, for his wife’s health, which had allowed her to become critically ill before he made the decision to take her to the hospital. His creative side, his artistic anima, may have manifested this dream as a sort of warning to his overly aggressive and self-absorbed ego.

Male or female, we all have internalized oppression, aggression which both drives and hampers us. Creative people are often the worst offenders, beating themselves up over things that most people would overlook. Our dreams can give these forces faces: crooked policemen, cruel nurses, unethical doctors, abusive fathers or husbands. Whatever we do we must fight the emergence of a world that mirrors our nightmares. When we find these monsters manifesting in our lives, we need to resist them, whether they come from within or without. The difficulty is that oppression can morph into new shapes more quickly than we can overcome it.

There are so many symbols and details here that I have barely scratched the surface, including many opposites: the desert and pools of water, youth and age, life and death, hot and cold. What do you see?

 

 

 

 

 

Lovingly Carried: The Enchantment of Božo Vrećo’s Lejlija

Our world seems increasingly fractured by mistrust and hate. Can music, especially that of the human voice, heal those fractures?

Sevdalinka or Sevdah music is a genre of folk music that flourishes in the Balkan region of southeastern Europe, including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. These elaborate and virtuosic songs are set in moderate or slow tempos and speak of love, loss and longing. Traditionally, these melodies have been unaccompanied by instruments, giving the singer complete control over rhythm and tempo and creating the potential for intensely emotional and spontaneous performances. Sevdah is related to Portuguese fado in subject matter and in origin, stemming from a synthesis of Asian, Greek and Sephardic sources.

Image © Petra Cvelbar used in accordance with CCLicense

Image © Petra Cvelbar used in accordance with Fair Use Policy

Božo Vrećo, lead singer for the band Halka, is a popular singer of Sevdalinka. He combines traditional elements with an extremely modern sense of identity and gender. His voice is virtuosic and tender, powerful and gentle. Moy Sevdah, or My Sevdah, is his first solo album, completely unaccompanied, and it is a stunning exploration of the genre.

Sevdah was originally sung by women and provided a place where the feminine spirit could pour out its frustration, desire and disappointment. Some songs speak unabashedly of physical desire and a few have comic or ironic elements. Men followed suit later with their own sevdalinka, exploring their psyches through music as well. Božo Vrećo embraces both masculine and feminine sevdah, employing his otherworldly high tenor in songs sung by both women and men. To farther emphasize this choice, his wardrobe is ambiguous, interchanging gowns and dresses for suits and long caftans that recall dervishes. Sometimes bearded, he wears eye makeup and posts pictures of himself online smiling with his long black hair in curlers.

bozo-vreco-6Despite all this, Božo Vrećo does not identify himself as transgender nor as a cross dresser, as some have labelled him. In his view, we all contain masculine and feminine elements and he is only being true to that which he is. In conservative Bosnia, where LGBTQ rights are not popularly accepted, he enjoys enormous popularity. This immense talent and sensitive persona wins hearts remarkably easily. I don’t know about you, but this gives me hope for the human race and awe at the power of music and expression.

This video, Lejlija, or Leila, is a short taste of the passionate beauty of Božo Vrećo’s art. It is a heartbreaking lament sung by a young girl who is dying, addressed to her mother. She will never be married and will never have the life that they hoped she would have. Tomorrow, when the village celebrates Eid, breaking bread as the daily fasting of Ramadan ends, she will no longer be on Earth. She clings to life, symbolized by bread, even as she knows she must leave it, and dances in a style reminiscent of the Sufi dervishes, who do so to abandon their own egos. Her intense sorrow is partnered and sweetened by the certainty that she is being lovingly carried to the next life, both by her fellow villagers and by the emissaries of God. The dark man, stern, yet loving and patient, is a portrait of the Angel of Death, Azrael, who serves God by collecting the souls of those who are departing this life.

The words and music of Lejlija were written by Božo Vrećo and are dedicated to his mother. Absolutely enchanting.

Video via Božo Vrećo on YouTube.

On the eve of Eid, she fell sick, mother’s only child Lejlija.
She suffered, grieved, wailed and said: My dear mother, if I die, clothe me in traditional clothing!
Unbraid my hair like golden wheat, let it fall down my face!
Let them carry me, the young men on both sides, and let them sing songs and not sleep at night while guarding me.
Like a new bride, bathe me with water from the pitcher for my long journey, mother, from hand to hand I’m lovingly carried, mother, lovingly carried.

Moy Sevdah is available on Amazon and iTunes. I wholeheartedly recommend the entire album, which includes seventeen songs, some of which are more virtuosic than Lejlija, which is somewhat subdued.

Unearthly Appetites: Italo Calvino’s The Distance of the Moon

Humanity crosses increasing distances searching for new territory to explore. Is the distance between and within us threatening our survival?

Italo Calvino published Cosmicomics, a book of fantastic short stories in 1965. Each story was inspired by an accepted scientific theory. The first and most well known story is entitled “The Distance of the Moon”. It springs from the theory put forth by George H. Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin– yes, the one who wrote The Origin of the Species– that the moon was once closer to the Earth and is continually receding. Science has confirmed that the Moon is in fact drifting away from us at a rate of 3.8 cm per year. This doesn’t actually have much to do with Calvino’s tale, a story of masterful and colorful magic realism that betrays sinister undertones.

You can read “The Distance of the Moon” here. This English translation, made by William Weaver, won the National Book Award for Translation in 1969.

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

Public Domain Image via Pixabay

What at first reads as an absurdist tale of people climbing up to the Moon from Earth to harvest Moon milk evolves quickly into a story that delves into the dangers of exploration and the interplay between masculinity and femininity. You could easily see it as a very perceptive allegory for a love affair, but there is more here than a warning of the dangers of sexual exploration. “The Distance of the Moon” speaks of how the human race is constantly pulled between a desire to explore what is other or unknown and the desire to settle down with that which is familiar. Either option can involve exploitation.

We are at first proud to meet Qfwfq’s deaf cousin, who is such an excellent jumper and so adept at harvesting the delicious, but actually quite disgusting, Moon milk (a particularly successful metaphor for the fruit of duplicitous sexuality). Without understanding him, we admire his skills and savor his success, but there seems to be something a bit inappropriate in the way he touches the Moon, something lascivious in his desire to be alone up there. His deafness, as it turns out, is an allegory for insensitivity, which keeps him from caring or bonding with anything, including the territory which he is exploring. He is a true psychopath, unable to make relationships. All he can manage are conquests.

This cousin troubles me. I see in him a kinship with an element of humanity that has explored the Earth for centuries and now turns its attention toward the stars, seeing only profit and a means to fill appetites. Not all explorers have such dark motivation, but there is an unchecked masculinity– I say masculinity rather than maleness, because I think we all contain elements of it, regardless of gender– that will never lend itself to nurturing life. Life viewed through these eyes is seen as disposable, lacking in value.

Earthrise on the Moon via Pixabay

Earthrise on the Moon
via Pixabay

Qfwfq has been up on the Moon as well, but he isn’t very proficient in the skills required. He frequently misfires, getting Moon milk in his eyes. It seems our friend is prone to that blindness we call “love” or, perhaps more precisely, infatuation. Unlike his cousin, he does form attachments, as we can see in his fixation on Mrs. Vhd Vhd, who could not really care less about him. There isn’t much attractive about Qfwfq. He’s randy, awkward and indecisive. When he is heroic, it’s for all the wrong reasons. But he is capable of some attachment and affection, which is more than anyone else shows in this tale.

We are given the background story of Xlthlx, a playful teenager who enjoys catching the small animals and plants floating towards the Moon. One day, she gets caught in the Moon’s pull and floats off with them. She saves herself by eating the small animals and plants until she gets heavy enough to fall out of the Moon’s attraction, although she is marked for life. This is a creative image for teen pregnancy, which compounded by social stigma, ends this young woman’s “moon” experiences and exploration.

After waffling around on the moon for a few trips, Qfwfq makes the decision to stay on the boat and put the moves on the Captain’s wife, an attractive woman who plays sweet and piercing songs on the harp, songs that no one wants to hear. Is it that her songs make the men feel guilty for all that time spent up on the Moon? He can tell by the way she’s looking at his cousin that she’s ripe for the picking, and he’s been fancying her for some time. He’s completely ready to settle for her, at least for the moment. She chooses the very same moment to exercise her freedom and go explore the surface of the Moon with his cousin. The cousin is either unaware of or uncomfortable with her pursuit and disappears into the darkest regions of the Moon alone.

Terraced Wall Crater on the Lunar Limb, NASA

Terraced Wall Crater on the Lunar Limb, NASA

Vhd Vhd is ecstatic to see his wife off to the Moon. Her infidelity and exploration free him to indulge in his own vices. He is bored with stability, tired of the respectability that has probably contributed to his station as Captain. But he also seems bored with adventure. Surely he has been up on the Moon exploring for himself, but now he lies back on the boat to feed more earthbound appetites.

Despite all this activity, it seems that the status quo will prevail, until the final actor makes her move. The Moon picks that very moment to change her orbit, drifting far from Earth and forcing everyone else to make the decision between the Earth and herself. Xlthlx and the Captain have already put distance between themselves and the Moon. Surprisingly, the deaf cousin races back to Earth as well. Perhaps he fears what will happen if the Moon becomes too familiar. Mrs. Vhd Vhd, unfamiliar with the leap back to Earth, is unable to make the transition and floats helplessly near the Moon. Qfwfq jumps out of the boat to save her, but his efforts do not bring her back to Earth, but drop them both on the Moon’s surface. At last, he has everything he wanted– unlimited time with his lover. And yet, all he can think of is home. It is no surprise that, at the next full moon, when their friends return with a long bamboo pole, he shimmies back down to Earth.

But what of Mrs. Vhd Vhd, alone on the Moon? She has no attachment to Qfwfq, nor to Earth. She has become one with the moonscape, indifferent, distant and free of masculine influence. All of his designs and efforts have only served to push her farther away.

Earth, Moon and Lunar Module, NASA

Earth, Moon and Lunar Module, NASA

This fable points at a crisis modern humanity is facing. Our longing for freedom and our longing for home have collided, and, unless we can learn to curb our exploitive nature, we may lose both.