David Berger



It’s true I had no business being in the library, as I had other obligations. Nonetheless, there I was, lying on the floor. I was trying to read the book titles of the bottom shelf, in the dim filtered light. It was the psychology section, and I was searching for a book authored by a little known 19th-century psychologist who believed in the central place of art making for human development. No one could properly develop without such activities, the author argued. Everything was dusty, as if there had been a light snow. This area had evidently not been disturbed for some months or even years.

I couldn’t find the volume. Perhaps it had been mis-shelved, or stolen. But serendipity led me to pull out a small black volume. It was a woman’s diary, a facsimile edition written in French by MM. The penmanship was confident but flowery, even in places ornate.

At an early age she had married an impecunious artist in Paris who after several attempts had finally gotten into the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Now he was fighting with his former teacher, Gustave Moreau. She greatly encouraged him, being a wild person herself beneath a conventional exterior.

They had met in Corsica, where MM had conducted a spiritualist assembly to contact Napoleon Bonaparte’s mother. All participants had dressed in blue. MM believed in the mystical vibrational energy of color. Her husband absorbed this belief from her, and began to make a name for himself with bright, colorful paintings. MM thoroughly approved. He was something of a momma’s boy, MM noted, and his works never featured a man.

They traveled to Nice and Morocco for extended periods, and she organized a secure homelife around food and dependability. But according to the diary slowly a resentment began to build. It wasn’t that she was jealous, wrote MM, though her husband was off to America for exhibits, and was now looked upon as a great man, the felicitous results of her values absorbed. Not at all. It was, she wrote, a rather curious restlessness.

And so she began to plot. She had been introduced to Marcel DuChamp one evening in Paris. He had paid her no mind — he was playing chess with himself, preparing to answer a move he had received in the mail from Man Ray (this game they played on a board with two fewer squares on each side, with the missing pieces tagging in and out of the game). She intuitively understood that the young Marcel was cerebral, masculine, a trickster and dilettante who peered at life while her husband tended a garden. In short, the opposite of her husband. Oddly, she was attracted by his irreverence, his elevation of play, the apparent lack of order, his mythic resonance.

She conceived a plan. With calculated form she would awaken his truncated feminine side. This took place with blazing letters which she delivered furtively, tied to a rock. At first this was amazingly productive. It seemed to stir his creative energies. He took to preserving the shattered windows, turning them into gallery pieces. Eventually, he became confused and frustrated, and began scolding society’s sexual roles in his female alter ego identity, Rose Selavy. Finally he soured into skepticism that men and women could communicate, even in matters of the loins, and with a stellar jay’s laugh at the Western tradition, stopped making art altogether.

Only late in life did he recover his artistic balance. He spent years creating an odd but monumental work (now at the Philadelphia Art Museum) of a nude woman in a landscape. It was viewed by pressing one’s eyes against two holes in a rough, weather-beaten wooden door. MM believed the woman depicted was her, but still, she was not sure.

At this time MM surveyed her life with complete contentment. She saw herself as a Kali figure, creator and destroyer. She was an arch demon, an éminence grise of the 20th century, giving and taking with perfect proportion, feeding the two great, antithetical traditions of the century. But, in her widowhood, when DuChamp sought her out and proposed marriage, she was suddenly full of doubt. She sat down and drank several glasses of red wine. One could scarcely imagine a more shocking union of opposites, she thought; it was a devilish proposition. But she recognized the brilliance of it, and with that, she was no longer in control. Inspiration, hard work and exacting plans were swamped with ironic commentary. Was her life, at this late date, to be turned into an elegant prank?

The impetuousness of her youth reasserted itself. They married, secretly. In the diary, MM claimed her reason as a celebration of the ambiguities of art. As a wedding present she prepared and presented to DuChamp a handwritten account of her secret life.

By this time it was six o’clock — the university carillon was ringing out "Norwegian Wood" — and I could hardly read the script for the fading light. Mats of dust had attached themselves like patchy fur around my ears, back and arms. I slid the book back into its dark little hole, and set about going to dinner.

Copyright © 2003 David Berger.  All Rights Reserved.

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