FEBRUARY 18, 2020
“I DO NOT THINK that there are any wrong reasons for liking a statue or a picture,” E. H. Gombrich writes in The Story of Art, a survey of art history first published in 1950 that was groundbreaking in its turn toward approachability in art criticism:
Someone may like a landscape painting because it reminds him of home, or a portrait because it reminds him of a friend. There is nothing wrong with that. All of us, when we see a painting, are bound to be reminded of a hundred-and-one things which influence our likes and dislikes. As long as these memories help us to enjoy what we see, we need not worry. It is only when some irrelevant memory makes us prejudiced, when we instinctively turn away from a magnificent picture of an alpine scene because we dislike climbing, that we should search our mind for the reason for the aversion which spoils a pleasure we might otherwise have had. There are wrong reasons for disliking a work of art.
Gombrich’s ideal observer is a person whose inclination to engage exceeds their impulse to critique, such as Vitória, the protagonist in Amina Cain’s new novel, Indelicacy. “I was always enthralled,” Vitória says. “I knew this about myself.” A sort of arthouse Cinderella story, Indelicacy begins as a novel about a cleaning woman at an art museum. “I wanted to write about paintings,” Vitória says, “but I wasn’t seen as someone who could say something interesting about art. I wasn’t seen as someone who could say anything at all and then publish it.” The background provided for Vitória is slim, yet each detail haunts with the way it solidly exists in the midst of a conjured dream world. “To be six, I could hardly picture it now. I had tried to block out a good bit of my childhood,” Vitória says. “The house where I had grown up was crowded with babies and yelling.”
We know Vitória comes from poverty and that, as the oldest child in her family, she had been a caretaker since a young age. We know in her current life that she conscientiously saves in order to buy something like a new dress. Within this modest existence, we have a protagonist who relinquishes herself to the experience of being pulled in by art. Living within an unembellished aesthetic tableau, Vitória is a character of sensory excess, inclined to spend her time at dance classes, libraries, the ballet, or, most often, simply thinking. In two story collections (including Creature, from the feminist press Dorothy), Cain has already demonstrated how deftly she locates the experience of wonder in every image and sound. Take the name of her first book, I Go to Some Hollow — its declarative exactness; also, its secrecy.
Indelicacy is stripped down like the chalk-lined set of the Lars von Trier movie Dogville. The landscape of Dogville contains bedframes, pans of baked bread, a dog bone with some meat still on it, as in the world of Indelicacy, there are dumplings, lettuces, and borscht. There are earthly materials yet there is also the all-enveloping and eerie sense that no other world exists outside of this snow globe. “All l see is a beautiful little town in the midst of magnificent mountains,” Nicole Kidman’s character says in one scene in Dogville, looking out at the short horizon surrounded by pitch blackness. These are difficult places to make a home in, yet in an unnerving manner this is what each protagonist does. Vitória says in Indelicacy: “I saw a city filled with people I didn’t know, would probably never know. It didn’t bother me; it’s the same for everyone. When people look at me, they also see a stranger.”
Cain’s writing feels otherworldly, yet she achieves an uncanny effect because she also perpetually roots it in a secular experience. Vitória says, “After dinner I sat down to write and saw an image in my mind: three women in long white dresses playing catch with a skull.” The conjured environment feels as though it appeared out of thin air, or that it is a shimmering dream between sleep and waking. In the early scene where Vitória first encounters her eventual husband, she notes Caravaggio and Goya on the wall, artists of dark grandeur. One of Caravaggio’s best-known works is the aptly titled Judith Beheading Holofernes, and many of Goya’s paintings are of witches and monsters. Gombrich writes of Goya’s paintings in The Story of Art, “Some are meant as accusations against the powers of stupidity and reaction, of human cruelty and oppression […] others seem just to give shape to the artist’s nightmares.” This is all in keeping with the world of Indelicacy, where wonder and fear vibrate alongside each other. “It’s strange my husband noticed me, but he came to the museum to see the paintings of Caravaggio and then of Goya, and then the third time I was mopping the floor of the coatroom when he came for his jacket and umbrella,” Cain writes. “We stood together near the coats for some time, talking, and then he walked me home.”
While Cain’s rendering of Vitória’s movement through somber spaces is singular in plenty of ways, it also participates in a long tradition of contemplative exile. David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, for example, features a protagonist who believes herself to be the last person on earth, and she spends her days meditating on art, theory, philosophy, music. “In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street,” Wittgenstein’s Mistress begins.
Somebody is living in the Louvre, certain of the messages would say. Or in the National Gallery. Naturally they could only say that when I was in Paris or in London. Somebody is living in the Metropolitan Museum being what they would say when I was still in New York. Nobody came, of course. Eventually I stopped leaving the messages.
María Gainza’s recent English-language debut, Optic Nerve (translated by Thomas Bunstead), is a novel centrally about the experience of bodily escape via art, kicking off with the epigraph, “Just going to take a look at the painting, said Liliana Maresca after her shot of morphine.” Gainza also quotes A. S. Byatt’s idea of “the kick galvanic,” of being spiritually transported by the electric effect of an individually moving piece of art. María Sonia Cristoff’s new English translation of Include Me Out (translated by Katherine Silver) features a woman who takes a vow of silence while working in a museum for a year. Cristoff writes, “On some days she manages to convince herself that she has learned to observe as if it were an act of simple confirmation. She sits in her museum guard chair and watches — silent, ecstatic, with no interruptions of any kind.”
A painting like a piece of literature like a movie like a pop song can carry a person to another channel, where transcendent thought, unshackled by the material burdens of the earth, can flourish. Vitória of Indelicacy loves to attend the theater, where the sensation of the performance lifts her above the tedium of the people around her. Vitória finally finds she likes going to the theater with her friend Dana, rather than her husband, who never pays attention, or the other young women with whom she was “supposed to be friends, who looked constantly around the theater to see who was in attendance, who only clapped or stood up when everyone else did.” Vitória says that she stands and claps whenever she wants.
The experience of transcendence often hinges on a composite of physical experiences that lift the mind out of the physical body, and it’s fitting that Cain spends a paragraph thanking her yoga instructors in her acknowledgments. These are practitioners at the intersection of the mind and body, motion and breathing, exertion and meditation. Cain writes, “I’ve learned so much from you, and sometimes parts of the novel came to me unexpectedly in your classes.” Vitória says in Indelicacy, “I became addicted to my trances. I went into them so easily.” Yoga, similar to writing, provides the material experience for sensory combustion that might amplify thought. “Writing is endless, what it allows you to consider,” Vitória says, finding mental spaces in which to contort and transform. “What is in paintings is endless too.”
But stillness and meditation are often transgressive acts in their break from the relentless imperatives of industry; think of Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” a Wall Street clerk continually declaring, “I would prefer not to.” That stillness is also often received as a threat. In Dogville, Kidman’s character is relentlessly vilified by people hungry to exploit her to their own material and emotional advantage. Or consider the character Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, married and carried from the Caribbean by Mr. Rochester then locked raving in an attic for the rest of her life. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys rewrites the story from the madwoman’s perspective and captures how she was driven to her seclusion by an oppressive patriarchal structure that stripped her of a national identity and confined her to prison. In both Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre, this character gets her revenge. So does Kidman’s character in Dogville.
Like these other withdrawn women, Vitória is eventually treated as a threat. Her husband tells her, “I’ll give you money, enough to live on. You won’t be rich, but it’s the least I can do. In exchange, we’ll tell people that you refused to have a child, that you’re unstable.” Vitória replies, “But I’m not unstable.” Her husband is not convinced.
As Virginia Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own:
Indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out [in his History of England], she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room.
But the assignment of madness is a form of exile that transports its subject to another plane of existence, where something like meditation is in some cases possible. Vitória says, “I turned to the suitcase I had already been packing and folded one of my blouses before placing it inside. I was getting everything I ever wanted.”
“Still in the process of becoming,” Vitória says, “the soul makes room.”