Response to Bernard Hoepffner

Richard Lewis


Were this passage by an American, might Mary's psyche displace itself from the male antics into lanternslides from the history of European art? Can we imagine her replacing her companions with, say, Alice Neel's versions of them naked? --Maybe too direct for this author's purpose, for he seems to be combining fragments of this scene into tableaus vivants or masques: a psychic space in which image attaches to image, rather than to the conventionally-posited emotional "source." The rituals of the competitive social setting alienate Mary so fully that she need pay them no heed, and her detailed realizations of European paintings are not so much an escape as a complete retaliatory substitution. She goes her own way, in the highest of styles.

            From the outset, when she "was pushed aside by Ramsey," Mary experiences her surroundings as an outrage upon her senses, and "claws her palms" to strengthen herself against being "flayed" should she betray a hint of upset to Champers. Visual appraisals are expressed as violent physicality: sit and sizzle, chisel us out, run the gauntlet, until, "a distinctive aggressive tension of sinews showed through the skin of his neck, it opened to a double page of sepia drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci, a cry of rigor mortis or the anguish of a desperate scream directed to a deaf world; it carried with it the testiness of tetanus·."

            At that moment Mary begins her series of substitutions of images for her environs, and Hoepffner's wordplay ("testiness of tetanus") adds to our sense that the only relief from this social affliction is artifice, an artifice summoned without satire from within. "A cry of rigor mortis" isn't a literal possibility, but it works as an accurate hyperbole from an enervated sensibility like Mary's.

            We have rehearsed the reasons for alienation at least as much as necessary, and stories that lead to "discoveries" of the anxiety of meaninglessness might as well lead us down the block. The wonder of this passage is that it tells a now-old story with intelligent self-consciousness and learned world-weariness that create a vivid new story from the "old world."