ONE OF THE unconfessed fascinations within some consumers of art is the artist’s high-wire act. A great American newsman once said he watched a prominent colleague of his with fascination: not for his news-delivery, but rather expecting the day the colleague would suddenly blow into "the amazing exploding newsman" - so tightly wound was he.
Similarly, the unadmitted major premise of some classical musical critics was sharply revealed a few years ago when the latter career of a much-praised pianist - Joyce Hatto, just deceased in 2006 - was revealed to have been a manufactured scam: the enormous recorded corpus of her life’s last decades was a pastiche of manipulated recordings from other artists, passed off as her own made under most poignant circumstances: fighting terminal cancer. In some cases, critics who’d denigrated the actual performances found the resurrected versions, framed in a heart-rent tale, luminous and revelatory.
This would have come as no surprise to the Romantic era, which honestly exalted the individual performer and would have found perplexing our idea that art - high or otherwise - should be impersonal and abstract: as if it’d come from nowhere and no one and should be apprehended thus, to carry the perceiver into an affine depersonalized state. They’d not have gotten themselves into such a fix. We find it impossible that an inner state or a consciousness could be of high art, yet we exalt our artist-superstars - the cooler they are, the more heated the response.
Preceding art-eras, particularly the Romantic, cannot be understood through a lens of modern depersonalizing. It will inevitably invert, reverse, and fun-house-mirror the object it attempts to render. Which defeats the precision and sharpness, the unveiling, the refusal to fall for illusions and dreams, on which we plume ourselves as moderns, even more as post-moderns. The Romantic era brooked no hard split between art, artist, personality, passion, and percipient. If one actually enters into Romanticism, spidery-spun modernism - seen from without, with a more passionate mood in oneself - is suddenly known as unfulfilling to the whole person.
Yet modernism didn’t come from nowhere. Like preceding eras, the Romantics painted themselves into a corner - in their case, by spewing ever-stronger sensation in ever-thicker layers. The editor has listened to Wagner and thought, "Where could it’ve gone from here? Ninety-hour operas, twice as loud? And after that? Where’s the exit?" Wagner made Strauss a necessity, if an ugly one. The reaction was inevitable, and has left us dry if not high.
In this setting of conflicting era-tongues, the recent rediscovery of Mary MacLane rises up from the stage-floor like a magician’s chef d’oeuvre. Mac-Lane - more Romantic than the Romantics, more post-modern than we’ve been able yet to complicate ourselves into - defeats, fulfills, transcends, and thumbs her nose at the genres simultaneously. They fall off her sides, unable to apply, because there’s no hook: MacLane was a deeply original consciousness, in circumstances of mixed inspiration, exasperation, and desperation, who mastered a body of literature both classic and popular, extracted from it a vast range of expressive devices and moods, and set to the great artistic work: making something new at the interface of internal and external life. For, to alter Hume, there’s no internal tale that doesn’t refer to outside - even by metaphor - and no external telling without mark of the consciousness who made it. And so comes MacLane as one of the great reorienters. "Oh!" she would exclaim to a newspaper reporter amid the great success her first book occasioned, "don’t think that I approve of what I say in my book. I don’t - of much of it. I don’t approve of myself." But, she said, it had been true. And that was her aim: to be true.
Long excavation of not only her written legacy but the traces of her unwritten life leads the editor to say that MacLane is first and foremost a structure of moods, a world (like a good music-composition) of her own, communicated - by stylistic means that at times seem near magic - directly to our consciousness. That’s all. She has no fixed doctrine. In a 1917 article on marriage she comes closest to describing her path, with the words "absolute freedom" - in full knowledge it’ll bring things undesired and unwished. No utopian: beginning with herself. She finds irreducible pairs of complementaries at every life-point, and in her final book attempts their direct voicing.
But our concern is the 1902 debut that began the phenomenal career. Au courant New York publisher Melville House played a central role in the MacLane rediscovery by a 2013 reprint, together with an e-book of her third and last volume. (Her quieter middle book, 1903’s My Friend Annabel Lee, is left to fend for itself.) The discovery spread abroad with Mary MacLanes fortælling from Denmark’s Forlaget Basilisk in 2013 and, announced for January 2015, an edition for Spain - Deseo que venga el Diablo - from Barcelona’s prominent Seix Barral.
Melville’s and Seix Barral’s return to the original manuscript’s title is a signal service to MacLane’s original intent. The 1902 publisher’s mild drop-in title, The Story of Mary MacLane, destroyed the text’s rhythmic gestural referrings to Devil-waiting: a repeated glance horizonward, a steadying influence on a seeming ramble, onomatopoeic repetition of waiting ... waiting ... for he for whom one’s never supposed to wait very long when one is ready.
Many other original goods were denied. For all the controversial elements allowed out, the MS. was edited - and many edits compromised MacLane’s conception and execution. A reader of the so-often-reproduced text may find striking her systematic affirmation of her body - her "calm, beautiful stomach," her liver, lungs, "two good legs" - but never know she’d gone to her intestine, "vibrating with conscious life." Nor have seen the punctuation system she’d developed that made possible a surprising variety of musical hesitations and extensions. Any who thought her incapable of humor, or meta-criticism, never saw the entry of February 19; in its entirety: "Am I not intolerably conceited?"
Concealed too was the arc from the removed dedication, through all the waiting, to a concluding direct address to - as the author might have said - the sure readers of earth: a trajectory that precapitulates MacLane’s career to its climax seventeen years later.
It was for these hidden pleasures the editor thought it imperative, when publishing Tender Darkness - the first MacLane anthology - in 1993 to remove the egregious alterations of 1902 and show the invariable superiority of the original. He has done so again in a 600-page MacLane collection of the past month: Human Days: A Mary MacLane Reader.
But the book has a stature, and the imperativity remains: for all the reprints use the edited. Following, then, is the original, with the changes removed, that what this author was able to bring out of herself may be seen for what - and all that - it is. Her book is an enduring testament to the power of individual consciousness turned with complete absorption to a task that rises out of its own depths, with intensity turned all the way up, Devil take the hindmost!
The discussions are ongoing, as they rightly ought, on how to classify her, on the nature of her influence, on how much of the self-centricity was real, how much theatrical or performative, and all the other takings-apart we of these times enjoy in our cooler-temperature way.
Let us not lose sight of the original creators, who are clearly more than mere mannequins to hang our word-nets upon. MacLane and the rest are great fun to dissect, but we forget that dissection implies a living body - which implies a life.
Here, in the form intended for it, is Mary MacLane’s most alive book.
Michael R. Brown
Butte County, California