This Great Misfortune
by Nancy Brokaw
With her kind permission, I've reposted this piece written by Nancy Brokaw, senior lecturer in photography at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and an independent arts writer. Brokaw served as a senior contributing editor on The Photo Review, has written for a variety of other arts publications, and currently blogs at Image World. This Great Misfortune first appeared September 3rd on her blog, where she writes regularly about visual art.
Back when I was young, I didn’t get Edgar Allan Poe. My first inkling of appreciation came with The Man of the Crowd, the story that Walter Benjamin called an X-ray of a detective story that gives us only the pursuer and pursued, with no crime in sight.
Reading the story, I began to see that virtually all of Poe’s short pieces are less fright fests than fever dreams, with no crime, no grand moral, no neat redemptive ending—just the endless pursuit after the guilty mystery of oneself. The urban setting notwithstanding Man of the Crowd is every bit as claustrophobic as Poe’s explicitly interior dramas like The Black Cat and The Tell-Tale Heart. And all of these hallucinatory tales lead their protagonist into an underworld where Poe’s central character comes face to face with his own fouled soul.
Frank Rodick’s I live there now brought Poe to mind. Taken as he was closing down his parents’ home after his father’s death, the images in this triptych depict the inevitable decay of the soul. In the first image, the darkened room signifies loss: the end of the life of the mind. With each successive image, though, the scene collapses, and the abandoned desk, the mildewed walls, the decaying books and pictures combine to create the perfect image of rot. That these objects—the writer’s desk, the scholar’s library—have for centuries signified civilization underscore the tell-tale corruption at the heart of the human enterprise. In another setting the light that shines dimly on the desktop might promise illumination, might be read as the light shining in the darkness, but here it is swamped by a scene that seems entirely underwater.
With their air of cultured decay, the three images that make up I live there now serve as an elegy to the dream of an enlightened world. And more: like Poe’s short fictions, they lay bare the wreckage of a psyche: the interior (room) as a projection of the interior (soul). Tracing the decay of his father’s library, Rodick exposes the lie we tell ourselves about the edifice of civilization.
In choosing ce grand malheur, de ne pouvoir etre seul—this great misfortune, the inability to be alone—as the epigraph for Man of the Crowd, Poe hinted at the question that lies at the heart of his tales of horror: what do we find when we find ourselves alone with our selves? For Rodick, as for Poe, the answer isn’t pretty.
And I live there now is only the beginning.
The Divided Soul
In his next line of investigation, Rodick dug even deeper into his parents’ lives. The study in I live there now was his father’s, but his next series drew on an even more intimate part of his patrimony, the hoard of hundreds of photographs of his mother made by his father over the course of their long marriage. Reformulating these portraits, the son presents a soulscape as painful as anything Poe ever imagined.
In one series of stacked diptychs, the two panels are locked in a mortal argument without end. The defining, centerline between the bottom panel and the top describes the line between vital flesh and dead body. Where the bottom panels speak of the sensuous world of the living, making a lover’s study of the fleshy lips and the dip into the neck and breastbone, the top panels present variously a succubus, a vampire, a corpse.
But more than simple meditations on the line between life and death, these images are nightmares that reveal the human psyche as eternally divided against itself: life and death, yes, but also, like Poe’s man of the crowd, pursuer and pursued, hunter and hunted. In Frances (time), the figure is her own double: with her appraising eye shrouded in shadow and her lips parted as for a lover, she simultaneously withholds herself and offers herself up. The woman depicted in Sex is even more riven. With her eye staring blankly out at the world, she is at once vampire and, with her exposed neck, vampire’s prey—both criminal and victim.
I described these pictures as nightmares but they are something more as well. For just as the woman depicted is a divided soul—the predator and the prey—the image-maker is caught in the same existential trap. Torn between desire and revulsion, compassion and bitterness, Rodick offers up a curse and a blessing at one and the same time.
Where hope lies
Like one of Poe’s narrators turning his home into a prison, the occupant of the study in I live there now—Rodick’s father—has projected the torment of his being outward into the very room he inhabits. Likewise, his wife, Rodick’s mother, is swamped by an anguish so deep that she cannot help but turn it on the world.
Or such is the tale—a horror story—told by their only son.
For what we cannot ignore in these pictures—what makes them especially harrowing, especially discomforting—is that the subjects are Rodick’s own parents. How many of us could paint such a desiccated picture of our father? And how many would delve so relentlessly into our mother’s psyche? What stays the hand is not simply the guilt—although guilt certainly plays its part—but rather the dawning understanding that what is truly revealed is the state of one’s own soul.
Once again, Poe is instructive: for my long-ago bewilderment with him, my suspicion that his tales were nothing more than the product of an adolescent boy’s delight in creep shows, has long since been replaced by a sneaking conviction that, at their best, his are some of the most effective tales we have to describe our tragic double nature. Full of horror and, yes, a kind of beauty, they hold up a mirror and show to us the fragile bargain of the self as it struggles to be fully itself even while yearning for and finally effecting its own downfall.
Seen from that perspective, these images, despite their grotesqueries—perhaps because of their grotesqueries—display a stripped-to-the-bone empathy, devoid of sentiment and even pity. Far from shying away from the grotesque—as I would most certainly be inclined to do with my own blood relations—Rodick embraces it, amplifies it, as if to remind us that we are all compromised in life and we are all ineffectual before death. I live there now reveals the inevitable decay of all we hold dear, and theimages of Frances Rodick, the battle we all wage against the demon of our self.
Elsewhere, writing about another suite of images about his mother, Rodick has said, “Maybe these pictures of Frances are a kind of biography—of her, of me, of her and me stitched together in that sad and harrowing way we never stopped being. If they are, they’re a kind of hallucinatory biography, because, in the end, one hazards only a tremulous guess at knowing other people, including oneself and—especially—one’s parents. But if they are hallucinations, maybe they’re the kind Louis-Ferdinand Céline talked about: those fictions—some shining, some terrible—those fictions that are more real than everyday life itself. Sometimes that’s how it feels to me, and, as I think about it, that may even be where the remains of my hopes lie.”
© Nancy Brokaw, 2013. To see the original posting, click here.