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Angelina Ward Grimké’s "A Mona Lisa" - A Kleinian Reading

Joseph Aimone

The following reading, while it will begin in territories of inquiry that may be common ground for many readers, also adventure into dark corners of psychoanalytic thought associated with Melanie Klein and the "object relations" school of such thought, which may be very foreign, and highly counterintuitive to many readers, even those well schooled in psychoanalytic reading. I make this forewarning not to demand that readers suddenly come to understand and accept the ideas involved, but rather to excuse them their revulsion. Kleinian thought is hard to take, though the case is made by better theorists than I am that her legacy is in fact a perfectly faithful and entirely clinically useful application of certain aspects of Freud’s own thought, with no substantial additions. That was Klein’s position on her relation to Freud, and it is often enough the position of anyone who makes use of her thought. Psychoanalytic thinkers who do not accept Klein’s view of her position vis a vis Freud often take issue in depth and at great length with the conclusions a Kleinian will draw. I do not propose to mount a defense against such disagreements in advance, though it may be fruitful to answer in a constructive dialogue after I have offered my interpretation of the poem. And I am confident that a fully elaborated Lacanian reading would greatly enlarge the scope of psychoanalytic reading of this poem, and that a general mutual accounting of Lacanian and Kleinian views, which many clinically based Kleinian psychoanalytic theorists (Thomas Ogden, for one) find not to be in significant conflict, would offer enriched possibilities for the interpretation of literary works and psychoanalytic topics of all sorts, including this poem. (One might imagine the importance of the visual elements of the poem as crucial starting points.) And of course there is more to theoretical reading than psychoanalysis and more to the reading of literature than theoretical reading. But, as Robert Frost put it, "You’ve got to start out with inadequate knowledge."

Is this a lesbian love poem? We can assume the beloved is female only because of the poem’s title, and we identify the speaker as female only by extra-textual knowledge. If we read the poem with the assumption that the speaker is male, no immediate inconsistencies arise, though, as we shall see, the nature of the erotic relation embodied in the portrayal, the human emotion it draws upon for its power, is a terrifying thing.

Is this love poem somehow especially African American? That is, does it talk about race? The answer will certainly be an affirmative, from the superficial evidence of the frequency of the word "brown" to the self-doubting and anxious racial identification of the speaker with "white bones" at the end, as Grimké’s father had married a white Bostonian and her upbringing was certainly tinged with "white."

The fact that the term "lesbian" is even still in circulation is somewhat remarkable, given that the more or less equivalently derived term (derived, that is, from Ancient Greek textual sources) "platonic," which has been at times code for "queer," has not. Angelina Ward Grimké is a lesbian poet, both in the less strict sense–being a poet who is a lesbian, who might thus be expected to have gender issues and identity politics associated with the female homosexual in a (very often) hostile culture–and in the sense of being like Sappho, the earliest textually recorded reported female poet of female homoerotic themes, a poet whose poetry appeals to the heterosexual male libido. And it appeals not just in the sense of a dependent imploring aid but in the common sense in which we reverse the power relation implied in the meaning of appeal, "asks," and find it referring instead to "moves" or "draws." Moreover, Grimké is a Sapphic poet in the sense that her poetry is admired for its beauty as much as for its other cultural achievements, whatever attitudes toward those achievements have been. Sappho’s poetry has been, through the centuries, admired often not mainly for how it embodies the specifically gendered desire it is clearly pregnant with, but for how it carries out an irresistible appeal to the assent of taste. Grimké’s, at its best, has that species, if not that rank, of power of that kind.

Yet her case is in certain ways profoundly more complicated than Sappho’s. That sheer beauty, which attempts to seduce any reader of poetry, is inseparable from both the lesbian lover’s purpose, to seduce the beloved, and the lesbian advocate’s agenda, to seduce the otherwise-than-lesbian-gendered reader into identification with the Sapphic lesbian and consequent tolerance for the lesbian to pursue her object. And Grimké is out to seduce the white reader as well, into a cross identification that claims equality for an African American poetry, even under the strain of the Sapphic burdens and her own personal conflicted racia background. Her mixed blood heritage, the particularly harsh circumstances of her father’s birth as the bastard sone of a slaveholder by a slave and the failed marriage of that father to a white man woman, all may add more weight to the racial agony of a divided, uncertain and often hypocritical nation felt as a personal condition, as well, as her poetry digests that circumstance. "A Mona Lisa" provides an excellent example of her work at her most artful and graceful bearing up under the triple load of being black, being a poet, and being a lesbian, in a way that seems effortless

Let us first take up the title. Why "Mona Lisa"? The Mona Lisa is a unique signature of the achievements of the Western heterosexual male art object to command attention, admiration, respect, and even love. And the Mona Lisa smile seems to hide the secret of Western Civilization, or the secret(s) all women keep or may keep from men (such as the answer to the questions "Who is really the father?" or "Are you ready?" or "Are you pregnant?" or even "Do you love me?"), or the secret the artist always withholds from the audience, or the principle of all secrets that makes them intrinsically provocative. (Admittedly, the secret may simply be that the model had bad teeth, and Da Vinci simply by accident or design, made that smile an emblem of so much possible speculation.) Further, the Mona Lisa is often regarded as a uniquely superb technical masterpiece in a particular Euro-centric patriarchal cultural legacy–it has no equal, in a tradition that has no equal, and it demonstrates that the tradition has no equal even were there no other evidence, the argument runs. So Grimké’s use of "the Mona Lisa" as a flattering commonplace to her beloved, a metaphor much in circulation, a way of saying, "This poem is about a woman as beautiful as the Mona Lisa," may not be all there is to the matter. Her choice may involve, conjure, all the subterranean resonant anxiety of the straight Euro-male’s expected reaction to Da Vinci’s mysteriously smiling dame. And as male readers have found Sappho’s eros an appealing moder for their own, so may male readers of Grimké’s poem, Grimké may have implicitly intended to claim. Furthremore, Grimké may be suggesting that she, Grimké, as an artist, is Da Vinci’s equal, in "painting Mona Lisa," a woman the equal of a man, and a black the equal of a white, a lesbian the equal of a heterosexual, a black lesbian the equal of the white man responsible for the greatest work of art in a certain male history, the Renaissance, in the cultural surround of Grimké’s own work, the Harlem Renaissance.

Thus framed, the poem, like the painting leads us to the diptych structure of the poem, its two parts. The upper half consists of a series of four statements of desire: "I should like..." The lower half consists of three questions: "Would I...? Or...? Would my...?" The poem is divided, like the human face, the face of the Mona Lisa, into unwavering eyes above and a lower half expressing the profoundest resonating doubts.

Human beings, unless conditioned to do otherwise, meet eye to eye rarely–it is an anxiety producing situation to stare back at a stare, usually, as we check surreptitiously as to whether the other person is in fact paying us attention we may want or need or not–to answer a question, to know if we have been understood, to find out if we are being watched, etc. Staring contests are contests of aggression, not just contests of concentration. But certain pairs of humans stare endlessly into each other’s eyes: mother and child, and lover and lover. Usually we study the lower half of the face for the attitude, the expression (raised or lowered eyebrows notwithstanding), the meaningful content of the face we encounter, (and, indeed, we study the lower half to recognize of the identity of the other person, for the lower half of the face is much more distinctive, given its role in expression, than the upper.) Of course, our ideas about what those expressions mean is inflected by our suppositions about how we are attended to, suppositions gained by looking at the eyes, whether or if so where they wander, how intent they seem, and so forth, just as the tone of voice is a constant contributor to the understanding of the spoken word. (Hence concealing either the eyes or the lower half of the face is usually sufficient disguise, at least as to individual identity, if not other presumptions we must say we regret we make as if reflex unless they are deliberately resisted.)

But certain pairs of humans stare nearly endlessly into each other’s eyes: mother and child, and lover and lover. (The possibility that the appeal of the Mona Lisa’s beauty may be matriclinous rather than sexual may seem at first a contrary indication, but a psychoanalytic view, especially a Kleinian, or "object relations" one, could easily explain their equivalence.) The Mona Lisa’s face, with its enigmatic lower half, that smile, drives the viewer to study the eyes, which, since the painting directs their gaze at the viewer, never waver, suggesting love or an irrepressible and unending aggressiveness, even a threat of death. Either one would be compelling: Love invites us to enjoy it, and so we would stare and stare, even to the edge of doom. But the threat of aggression provokes us to wariness, to continuing to watch the aggressor’s eyes, for to drop one’s eyes is to lose the advantage of surveillance, of knowing when the other has shifted attention and may be about to act aggressively or may have dropped guard enough to allow a successful assault. And the equivalence of the end, love to the end or death in the end for dropping eye contact or death itself so tempting as to appear to us as love, comes through clearly as we proceed through the sequence of assertions of desire.

That sequence of assertion all occur in the subjunctive, "I should..." There is an ambiguity here between several situations of desire. The hypothetical: "If I could, I would" is not an unidiomatic construction to place upon "I should." But the counterfactual, "I would, though I can’t," has a special poignancy for expressing a forbidden, that is, a desire forbidden in a hetero-archic anti-lesbian society, while it is an equally idiomatic construction to place upon "I should." Finally, the hortatory, "I ought to" is not only idiomatic, but carries with it the implication that the thing to be done is to be done out of conscience, a superego matter, thus always necessarily gaining its force in part from the death drive. This strikingly appropriate grammatical triple engine phrase drives the poem through the phases of desire.

In the first phase, the "I" is a tiny thing, a thing that creeps, a baby love or a (perhaps deadly, perhaps demonic) snake in the grass, as threatening in the beginning as it will be threatened in the end, moving slowly through the "long brown grasses." Now the hint in line three that these grasses are the lashes of the eye, as line seven will (perhaps) confirm, is what allows us to imagine that the I is something quite small, small enough to look into eyes as if they were pools past lashes large enough to be "long brown grasses" crept through. But there is a hint of death, or suffering at any rate, and an implication in race issues even here. The tiny "I" is lashed by the grasses, creeping through them. This is just the faintest suggestion of getting past the question of slavery, associated with the fearsome homonym "lashes," enough to make the "I" tremble.

That the "I" should not tremble but "poise" is then the obvious thing for the "I" to desire. It is not "pose," but "poise," a confident and even artful stance against the fear of eyes so large and deep as to have not just a "brink," but a "very brink," an edge of the edge, with precipitous possibilities of self-loss, a version of the infant fear of falling, which is one of the few human fears modern biologists regard as "instinctual" in the strict sense of the term, near it. And by line six, the color of the pools is now clear: "leaf brown," and "shadowed," suggesting both the struggle to find an affirmative descriptor for African American skin colors, for "leaf brown" is beautiful, as are "shadowed eyes," but also hinting at the death drive hiding inside the erotic compulsion drawing the "I" onward, for fallen, dead leaves are brown, and waters of that color would be quite fearful, suggesting decay beyond death itself, which may be the shadow that covers the attractive eyes, perhaps as attractive as they themselves are.

Having wanted to "creep," to approach unawares and thus gain advantage, and having wanted to be brave enough to "poise" before the entrancing but dangerous eyes, the I now "should like to cleave," to cut in two, to split. The vocabulary is violent and the topology is also correspondingly Kleinian, reflecting infant fears of part-objects in the schizoid phase, which involve ingestion, splitting, projection, and so forth. The "I" hear is facing the primal fear of death as the infant encounters it. But cleaving is, of course, done with a blade, also identifying the "I" then as phallic. The desire to identify with the phallic mother by being introjected by her seems clear, with telling details: the process is soundless, suggesting both the sharpness of the cleaving edge and the poise of the "I." Furthemore, the "unrippled," utterly undisturbed world of the pool is clearly a sign for the situation which that emobodies the "autistic-contiguous position" (see Thomas Ogden’s The Primitive Edge of Experience for a fair account of this concept) of the psyche, inside the womb. This is fantastic, pre-oedipal omnipotence: this magical, phallic, identificatory re-entering of the mother’s body, a body which appears in the form of the beloved’s eyes (and it should be noted that babies first recognize mothers eyes of all the facial features, understandably, as they signal the place of attention), metaphorized as pools, is summed up by the fact that though the waters "glimmer," emit light but only faintly, they remain "unrippled."

And were it not enough to have these hints of death and infant fears, extractable by way of placing the poem under the strain of a Kleinian psychoanalytic interrogation, the final stage of desire is much more explicitly self-destructive: "I should like to sink down / And down / And down..." One must note implication that the reiteration of the monotonous "and down" implied by the three periods is actually endless, for that is how one does not merely drown, but "deeply drown," drown in a way beyond the normal ken of drowning.

This Mona Lisa is a dangerous woman, or at least her eyes are, and at least for "I"’s like this. Her beauty, strangely grotesque at times, produces a series of stages of desire that resonate with the entire repertoire of schizoid fears of early infant life, of love in that terrible period before the "I" is an "I," but instead is a schwarmerei of part objects, nameless fears, and feelings with incomprehensible aims. And these stages, peeling the onion of the situation of visual entrancement, lead us to the empty core, the "I" that wishes to die more than death itself can allow, to "deeply drown," beyond all recovery.

As we view the Mona Lisa, our eyes stray from her eyes to her enigmatic smile, waiting below. Just so, the lower half of the poem offers us the sentential equivalent of a smile, over and over and over. Between the desire in the eyes that make up part I and the questions in part II that make up the smile, the poem itself has a kind of structural homology to a human face. Noting this homology reinforces our tendency, or opportunity at least, to say that in a sense, in writing this poem, Grimké has "painted a face" and perhaps even "painted a Mona Lisa."

Accepting that homology depends upon being able to recognize the resemblance between the "I"’s desires as they enter the eyes of the first half of the poem, and upon being able to recognize the resemblance between a question and a smile. The resemblance between a smile and a question is in the social structure of the situation in which they occur, and the events that follow. In the poem, "unrippled" water is repeatedly disturbed, from a bubble popping, to waves spreading outward on the surface to " the depths." The smile, the question, the waters, are all disturbed. The "I confronts the impossibility of that reunion with the seamless prenatal bliss of the autistic-contiguous experience, and as the "I" agonizes over the loss of self that the drive pushes it toward, the disturbances that will be present in the waters are successively stronger disturbance, greater in scope with regard to the metaphorical pool and greater in implication for the "I" in life.

First, consider smiles. Someone asks you a question. Are you not bound to respond? The question may be real, a plea or demand for information. Or the question may be rhetorical, one to which you know you are to supply mentally the expected response, whether you agree with it or not. (This operation is how rhetorical questions can function as if they were declarative sentences.) Or, finally, the question may be an open one, designed to provoke you to ponder it, perhaps ultimately to find its answer. In any case, the question, whatever the question is, incites a response. Similarly, a smile is always a gesture, not just an expression. That is to say, one does not smile unless one is smiling for someone to know about it. One smiles, as a baby smiles, in response to a smile (after about the age of one year). Experiment: try and stop yourself the next time someone innocently smiles at you, wanting only a smile in return. Or one smiles like that innocent who encounters you does, simply hoping for a smile in return. A smile measures a degree of presumed intimacy: an unwanted smile is the sign on the salesman’s face of the sales pitch, on the pick up artist’s face of the pick up line, on the boss’s face of the meaning of the little talk where one receives the pink slip and hits the street to look for work. We say such smiles are "forced," but they are no more forced than the silly faces we make at the baby: It is the fact that they are unwanted, intrusive, demanding, violent, defensive, that makes us notice their forcedness. Try smiling at someone you know well and have cordial relations with then next time you meet. Your forced smile can be (not necessarily has to be, though) received and appreciated, answered in some way. You may smile deliberately to enrage an enemy, to tease, to hurt. Or you may smile to yourself, finding yourself smiling. But the smile itself, even if you nor no one else ever noticed it, would have the structure of a provocation, just as a question does, even if it is written down on a scrap of paper, placed in a bottle and tossed into the sea. The mere fact that as long as the question exists, it has the structure of a demand, for information, for agreement or for speculation, is the way in which a smile is always a provocation by nature, whether anyone notices its existence or not.

What are the questions this Mona Lisa asks? How are they her smile? Again the poem proceeds in stages of desire, through the logical hierarchy of the ends of desire, or rather of the fear that seduces, the drive toward death. The point in the second section seems to be, in part, something like the repetition compulsion, standing midway between thanatos and eros, where a trauma is reproduced to provoke sufficient energy for cathexis, in a vain struggle between the life drive and the death drive, vain because the death drive always wins in the end but there must be another episode as it cannot complete its trajectory. And, small as the start is, "a bubble breaking," still, it a disturbance of the "unrippled waters"–and subsequent disturbances will increase in spread and depth. (What the trauma is may be a subject of speculation: the oppression of homosexuals, of African Americans, of women, of the thus triply belated artist who sets out to "paint a Mona Lisa," the fundamental injury that makes for the artistic temperament, or some more intimate detail of Grimké’s life.)

The scene is a further extension of the metaphorical pool that represents the eyes that are the dark end of desire in which the "I" wished to "deeply drown." Each stage will be end in a kind of death. This time the staging is ordered by the temporal scope of the end the drive seeks, from the immediate to the indefinitely deferred.

The first question is that of immediate achievement of the drive’s end: "the bubble breaking" is clearly what the "I" fears. But the question is "Would I be more?" than that instantaneous extinction that leaves behind no trace. In asking such a question of the Mona Lisa, who will only smile, we feel the force of the smile, as it answers a question only with its own silent question, which might be any of many: "What do you think? Why do you ask? What difference would it make? Why ask me?" and so on. But the I, faced with this unanswering answer, as "unrippled" as the "glimmering waters" with their faint mirroring of darkness in darkness.

But, because it wants to know "Would I be more?" the "I" is not satisfied with the easy destruction of its object, itself, and reels it back from "fort" to "da," to reconsider and yet only reiterate the question. Yet the form of the question shows a certain development of a capacity for deferral of the end, perhaps almost indefinitely, as "an ever-widening circle / ceasing at the marge," ending only at the very brink at which the "I" stood wanting poise and hoping from which to cleave cleanly to the bottom of the strangely attractive "leaf brown pools" of the beloved’s eyes. And even here there is the inescapable finitude, death, for unless the pools were boundless in extent, the last inch of the last ripple would eventually hit the furthest shore and die. The "I" is asking about something like a legacy, a remembrance of itself after death, as much as it is asking about an extension of the process of dying, an extension that would prolong life. This escalated recapitulation of problem of the disturbance in the waters made by the once presumed to be undisturbing "soundless cleav[ing]" of the waters is also then a failure, though a more ambitious one.

The third question is the longest question, and the most troublesome. The sequence of questions escalates not only in scale of implication but, quite simply and correspondingly, in length: the first is a single line of eight words; the second is two lines, but still only eight words, and that equivalence may signal the special way in which the third instance, the repetition of the repetition, is something more than just another repetition in a sequence that could go on forever with equally important questions. The third is four lines, made up of seventeen lines: twice as many lines, an one more word surplus to doubling the number of words. If words were all of equal weight in the freight of potential meaning they carry, the increase here would signal a categorical shift upward in scale, for it could not be accounted for even construing "repetition" as "repetition of all that came before," which would have yielded a quatrain of sixteen, not more, words.

The third question is more troublesome than the first two for several reasons. It finally unequivocally indicates a fear of death as such. If one could assume that "deeply drown" were mere hyperbole, there is no mistaking "my white bones" as a sign of imagined real physical death, rather than simply some feeling of being overwhelmed, such as lovers often enough feel. (To argue that that feeling of being overwhelmed is also exactly equivalent to imagining real physical death, an argument I would assent to, seems unnecessary here; and that argument would not entirely erase the difference between the indirection of "deeply drown" and the blatancy of "white bones" in any case.)

The "I" is concerned about fidelity, in two senses. The bones are "white bones" and "my white bones" at that. Now, if the whiteness of the bones is significant beyond the fact that bones denuded of their flesh may be exposed as at least pale and perhaps bleached full white by the water, the specific form of the question the "I" asks may be important. "I" wants to know if "my white bones / Be the only white bones." (The undertow toward dialect use of "to be" enriches my speculation here.)

First, consider "the only white bones": Every lover wonders about being the only one for the beloved. Cultural imperatives may construct upon and within us a tolerance for infidelity, but the basic form of bondage that love involves requires an anxiety about the partner’s fidelity. (As an evolutionary psychologist might explain it, your DNA does not want anyone else’s DNA getting its resources, whether you are a man jealous of a woman, fearing she may have intercourse with another man and leave you to invest your resources in someone else’s offspring, or a woman jealous of a man who may be committing himself and his resources to the upbringing of his offspring, or a homosexual man or woman experiencing equivalent emotions about commitment from a partner.) If this is a lesbian love poem, directed at a fatally attractive woman, the lover may wonder if she is the only lover.

Second, considering "the only white bones." The "I" is anxious about race positioning. Here it is worthwhile to reconsider the entire erotic narrative as an allegory of writing, of the artistic act, where the addressee is the work of art and the speaker is its creator. With that consideration forefront, the tinge of anxiety about being the only white artist to create the black masterpiece, to "paint a (black: "leaf brown...shadowed") Mona Lisa" is evident enough. But even if the poem is not an allegory of writing, but rather a lesbian love poem, directed at a fatally attractive black woman, who may by her fatal attractiveness be suspected of having brought many lovers to their "death" in her, or even literally to their death over her, the lover may wonder if she, the lover, is the only one with a reason to think of herself as white, having "white bones."

The bones have a chance to live on, in a sense, too, longer even than the slow end of the "ever-widening circle" which eventually must always exhaust itself "at the marge," but "wavering back and forth, back and forth." (They will of course, however, eventually dissolve, leaving no notable trace.) This wavering is a deepest disturbance of the "unrippled waters," for the disturbance goes down nearly as deep, or altogether as deep, as the bones themselves, left where the "I" will have "deeply drowned," depending on whether you attribute the wavering to the refraction of light through disturbed water or to the motion of the bones disturbed by the moving water. So while Grimké may have been drawn to "paint a Mona Lisa" as a black artist, Grimké may have wavered, or been aware of necessarily appearing to waver, in her sense that she could not be considered a black artist but one with "white bones."

Interpretations of poems may allow no certain conclusions about their meanings, just as some paintings allow no complete account of their subjects. The Mona Lisa is a case in point: Traditionally, art historians say that Francesco di Bartolommeo di Zanobi del Giocondo commissioned a portrait of his third wife, Lisa di Antonio Maria di Noldo Gherardini. But the tradition of the name M(ad)o(n)na Lisa de Gioconda is doubtful, as Da Vinci customarily kept the names of his models in his notebooks, and that name does not appear. Moreover, Leonardo kept the painting himself for several years after completing it–an unlikely event in the history of a commissioned portrait. Computer technology has even demonstrated that the Mona Lisa may be "morphed" into a perfect match with Da Vinci’s own self-portrait, leading some to some wild speculation that the artist crafted a deliberately disguised self-portrait, or a portrait of his narcissistic "ideal of beauty" in some conscious way. (See "The Morphing of Mona: a Computer Detective Solves the Mystery of the Identity of the ‘Real’ Mona Lisa," a seven and a half minute video produced by Lillian F. Schwartz at Bell Labs, 1990.) Another wild theory, based solely on the evidence that Da Vinci’s mother’s name was Lisa, claims the painting is an image in which the son flatters the mother with a portrait "as she must have been" in the lovely April of her prime. The concept of projective identification, however, may provide a more direct answer, and one that would account for both the idea that the painting is a self-portrait and a portrait of the mother, in suggesting that the self is always result of an introjection of the mother and that mother herself is subject to the projection of the self onto her; and that later, any lover’s object is in the same predicament; and that for the artist, the work of art is always a projection of the self, however complicated by the history of introjection and projection that self is; and that for the partisan of some group with which one identifies, such as women, African Americans, lesbians, artists, one is always in a precarious relationship of mutual self-projection with those groups; and that for the viewer of the painting, or the reader of the poem, one is in a related predicament, projecting one’s self-image and all its investments and received projections onto the object, which, as an artifact, a communicative event directed at least potentially at us, projects all its freighted projections upon us, subjecting us, though we go willingly, to its vision.

I want this poem to be a work of art, to be poetry. I want this poem to be an African American poem. I want this poem to be a lesbian love poem. I want this poem to be a poem worth all the attention I have given it. Is it no more than an image? Or only an unfolding of partial images confined within the words that hold it? Am I just reading into it no more than my own doubts, wavering over whether my own critical intrusion is what appears at bottom, through all this attention, over my privilege to discuss this poem’s race identification, over my own anxiety about the attraction of lesbian love poetry for the male libido, over my confidence in my aesthetic judgment as it tells me this is a beautiful poem?

Copyright © 2000 by Joe Aimone

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