“I think, if she were to see a little girl who behaved in all respects like herself, it would be a continual horror and misery to her, and would ultimately drive her mad.”
–Nathanial Hawthorne on his daughter Una
It’s a brisk October morning. I’ve driven a half an hour outside the city to act in a student film. I’m to play a housewife and I’m to do it in a cornfield.
It’s a low-budget affair. No dialogue.
One of the actors wrote the music and someone’s girlfriend styles my hair like Kim Novak’s in Vertigo—a classic chignon, swirled not tucked, so the coil becomes an aperture at the back of my head.
The tray I’m told to carry on the director’s mark is filled with broken glass and a serving fork. I walk, my heels sunk in the dirt.
A young woman follows me at a distance.
And as the field reaches deep space, my figure becomes a dirigible by which I pull her into our mutual fable.
Wait—In a description of his after-hours living room, Nathaniel Hawthorne writes,
“[A]ll these details, so completely seen, are so spiritualized by the unusual light, that they seem to lose their actual substance, and become things of intellect. Nothing is too small...to undergo this change...A child’s shoe; the doll, seated in her little wicker carriage...Ghosts might enter here.”
It’s not unusual for the artist to make the usual strange. It’s not unusual for a film to be uncanny, or for family to become like a film.
This film I’m in, it’s called A Strange Dinner.
Hawthorne named his oldest daughter after a character in Spencer’s The Faerie Queen—Una, meaning truth-seeking, virtuous, the first.
But what he got was a child whose character was not unlike an eighteenth century lantern show.
I suppose what I mean is, we all begin as a desire to commune with the dead.
And that’s how movies began too.
Étienne-Gaspard Robert scared the hell out of late-eighteenth century Parisians. He’d usher his audiences into catacombs and abandoned churches (Catholicism was outlawed in post-revolutionary Paris), building suspense in the spirit of clandestine theatre and ancient ritual. These happenings were like the séances of the nineteenth century and the speakeasies of the twentieth; with literal smoke and mirrors he summoned drifting, moving spirits to the great amazement of the middle classes.
The Phantasmagoria show not only conjured the recently-dead heroes and villains of the Revolution, but it conjured even the yet-living. Napoleon arose with his laurel wreath. Lady Macbeth, who is never dead but lives eternally, arose with her red mark.
The trick was Robert’s magic lantern technology, what he renamed the Fantoscope—a magic lantern on wheels; by rolling it further or closer to the screen, the images appeared smaller or larger and, most importantly, they moved.
To the throng of thrill-seekers, Marat, Robespierre, Voltaire, and Rousseau, banshees and skulls, demons and cherubs, hovered and swooned like women in whalebone—as ephemeral, as easily devoured by the eye. Soon, people were asking for specific ghosts. Someone wanted Shakespeare. Someone else wanted Marie Antoinette. Now that, Robert said, is out of the question.
The trick was to envelop the senses. Think of the mass—the paintings, the incense, the singing, the bread-into-body, etc.; as such, the Phantasmagoria was an immersive experience:
Fantoscope // glass armonica // image // sound
In respect to sound, Ben Franklin invented a strange instrument a decade or two earlier when, after delighting in the hum of a wet finger on the rim of a wine glass, then a wet finger on a series of differently-sized wine glasses, he thought—I might turn those glasses on their sides and nest them inside each other and concoct a machine that would turn them automatically, then one could play them like a keyboard!
Mozart wrote music for what Franklin coined the “glass armonica,” but for our purposes, Robert used it specifically to mystify and terrorize his spectators.
It is a sound that poisoned its players, people said. It’s a sound that even killed a child practitioner who fell down dead due to that intoxicating, otherworldly tone. Perhaps the glass armonica ripped a hole in the veil and that child tumbled through.
A child’s development is as circuitous, strange, and as disputed as the development of film.
A child perhaps in fits and starts gains a selfhood—so much more lurching for a girl in particular toward what she is in contrast to what she should be.
British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott describes childhood play as a paradox—a “joy to be hidden, but a disaster not to be found.”
What if we applied Winnicott’s theory of the True and False Self to the work of play:
To hide the True Self can be pleasurable—as in Hide and Seek—but for the True Self never to be found is a recipe for disaster.
A self is forged in a paradox of seeking and waiting to be found.
A self is forged in the primary relationship between child and caregiver.
A self is forged in the illusion of omnipotence, and the disillusion of reality.
A self is forged once the mother is diminished
Self is forged once the mother is raised up.
“The baby quickly learns to make a forecast: ‘Just now it is safe to forget the mother’s mood and to be spontaneous, but any minute the mother’s face will become fixed or her mood will dominate, and my own personal needs must then be withdrawn otherwise my central self may suffer insult.’”
What happens, then, if the mother is depressed, damaged, out of reach, static, stiff as a photograph, and immovable? Winnicott, who had such a mother, says,
“The mother’s role is thus first to create illusion that allows early comfort and then to create disillusion that gradually introduces the child into the social world.”
My daughter looks in the mirror and says—mainly to herself—“I am beautiful,”
then she asks me, “Am I beautiful?”
“Of course!” I say.
She screws up her face and shakes her head, rifling through her hair with both hands so it frizzes, bristles, stands up, is wild.
“How about now?” she asks.
“Still beautiful,” I say.
She is disappointed.
Some say it was the magic lantern, the camera obscura, some say it happened inside Edison’s Black Maria, or with Muybridge’s trotting horse—in Paris or California or London or New Jersey, to whomever stopped to look first.
How does a person show? When do we know there’s a person in there?
Some say it’s a potential sense of humor, taste in food, preference for a particular toy, or when she discovers herself in the mirror. Some say it happens long before then, in the darkness of space onto which the illusion of movement is projected.
Some say we’re born marked, if we’re marked to be marked.
Some say we’re born creased and some say we’re born clean.
Men and women have died over hypotheses like these.
In “A Strange Dinner,” a woman wakes up barefoot in farmland, follows a maniacal version of herself (me) to a dining table tucked behind a copse of trees, and finds her husband, son, and daughter busily eating nails and pills and shattered china.
I play her False Self, lifting a roaster’s lid to reveal a live rabbit.
And as the music boils, she does too—finally overturning our chairs, knocking us all to the ground as a short-hand, filmic equivalent to a psychotherapeutic triumph.
The final sequence begins with a match cut from my tray laden down with its blood and screws and bolts and shards to hers with its pristine teacup.
Once the film is complete and we’ve gathered in our little art college’s auditorium to watch, I’m struck by how, in my late-thirties, I’m suddenly someone else’s bad trip.
The affable college president walks up to me after the lights come up, and slaps me on the back. “Nice work,” he says, and laughs.
The affable college president was an abstract painter. I hardly knew him, but I love his paintings, his diagnostic citations in biomorphic shapes. I love his whimsical view of cancer—as almost funny, bright in color, a weird, wall-sized valentine to an unclear future.
We went to see his last show at our college’s gallery just before he died, and a short film of him painting played in the screening room on a loop as people milled and chatted with their drinks.
In this documentary—made by a film professor, with help from students—the college president wears death in his face. His face is Death. It’s not a trick. And Death paints.
I think we all felt pained to see it. There was an audible suck-in of breath when he first came on the screen.
Some of us may have rifled through our mental catalogues of famous film-images to settle on Death on a beach playing chess in Bergman’s Seventh Seal, only in this case, Death paints. He paints and he paints. Sometimes, his paintings come alive and move around the canvases, breaking free of the canvases all together in a filmic feat of live-action and animation comingling—one of the oldest collaborations in cinema—see: Out of the Inkwell (1918) and The Alice Comedies (1920).
In a kind of meta-commentary, Death watches the painting begin to move. He says, “The thing kind of pulses and moves across the page and drops some babies...they’re full of life because we’re reproducing, you know.”
Encaustic is an old technique, Death tells us, using beeswax, pigment, and heat. It’s the medium of first century Egypt’s mummy portraits, a series of death masks art critic John Berger describes as painter and painted both “living at that moment, collaborat[ing] in a preparation for death, a preparation which would ensure survival.”
Death kept painting because painting is life and he’ll keep painting until he absolutely cannot, but the footage will continue, played on a loop in the gallery.
Death says, “It’s not about the cancer, but it’s certainly about the joy of being alive, and the playfulness and reverence I have for life.”
I remember only this snippet of a talk a famous old poet once gave in our university’s library—how he claimed film was a kind of Seventh Seal—by which I suppose he meant the grand finale, the final stage of our technological/spiritual development/deterioration that encompasses and surpasses all our other art forms—a Coming-of-the-Lord people saw pending for generations.
Think about it:
The elements in Shakespeare’s The Tempest appear at Prospero’s command. His is a cinematic magician adept at his own cosmic lantern show; Prospero, yes, was the first auteur.
Nathaniel Hawthorne surely knew this and knew what magician Étienne-Gaspard Robert was up to all those years ago when in his short story “The Birth Mark,” he describes the heights of distraction the scientist/husband goes to in order to simultaneously confuse/entertain his wife whom he is soon to poison:
“Airy figures, absolutely bodiless ideas, and forms of unsubstantial beauty came and danced before her, imprinting their momentary footsteps on beams of light...as if her thoughts were answered, the procession of external existence flitted across a screen. The scenery and figures of actual life were perfectly represented, but with that bewitching, yet indescribable difference which always makes a picture, an image, or a shadow so much more attractive than the original.”
The scientist is hell-bent on erasing his wife’s birthmark—the size and shape of a fairy’s hand on her cheek. The wife’s simple-minded former lovers thought the birthmark was a charm, a gift, so she did too. Nature isn’t perfect, the birthmark says, but imperfection is the mark of nature. The era, however, is a Romantic one; the wife’s fetishized birth mark is Ariel’s mark, the mark of the elements, and a gorgeously bad sign. No matter how obedient the wife is or wills herself to be, she’s touched by the sign of wildness and intractability, and with his magic he forces her into stasis a.k.a. perfection.
My husband has a strawberry-colored birth mark on the back on his thigh. He remembers, as a boy, how his parents drew it on a child’s outline on a piece of paper to be kept in a drawer at his school and at the police station, so if he was ever kidnapped, lost, found comatose or—worse—he’d be identifiable. They were the kind of people who put his name in every piece of clothing, on every toy: Return to sender. If found please call:
Thinking of that outline of a boy—like the taped shape of a crime victim—fills him with dread to this day—and the birthmark, the thing that will say he is himself, also exists outside himself, and is on file somewhere.
Death the Painter, a.k.a. the Affable College President, says,
“I’ve got this outline in my head of what I intend to do, but just an outline. This is an improvisational process...each painting influences the one that’s going to follow it.”
Birth // Mark.
There’s no mistaking Hawthorne’s space between the words, emphasizing both the birth and the mark.
When babies are born, people say they are perfect, that they are beautiful. But birth is awesome and disgusting; whether pushed or cut out, babies are marked by the experience—made red by it, squashed, angry, hurt, maybe even terrified; in this way, they are in communion with the woman who give birth to them.
My daughter was born perfect.
After some months, however, I noticed a little dark mole on the backside of her right knee. I remember staring at it, mesmerized, as if it were an aperture, a torn hole in her white fabric, a portal through which I might fall.
To ask where it came from is to ask how stars begin—I’ll never get it straight. Or how Ariel was born. Or who can claim to be progenitor of moving pictures.
The very first filmed production of Shakespeare was King John, in 1899 (a portion of an English stage-play), but the next was The Tempest—produced in 1908 and directed by Englishman Percy Stow—and it was wholly different, shot partially on location, dynamic and poetic, rife with magic, utterly silent.
We begin with Prospero’s escape/deposition with toddler Miranda to his island empire; we watch as he discovers Caliban (a hunched tramp) and rescues Ariel from her tree.
Yes, Ariel is a girl—pubescent, wild-eyed, wild-haired, dressed in rags. She skips everywhere she goes, barefoot. She’s the kind of girl we both long for and dread.
When her job is done and she’s finally unbound, she returns “to the elements,” untroubled and un-troubling. She is Miranda’s crazy potential mitigated, carefully put away, so Miranda may rejoin the “somber fabric of humanity,” as Hawthorne described it.
Someone called me up. Someone made me into this woman, stuck me in a cocktail dress and heels, and made me walk through a cornfield.
The woman in the film isn’t the me to whom this happened.
Do you see what I mean?
Every one of us is born with a double. Una Hawthorne may have been One, but she wasn’t. There was another Una too.
And to my daughter I say, there’s probably another you. I’ve even seen her from time-to-time, screaming to be unbuckled from the car seat, wearing pajamas to daycare.
Someone called me up, and I drove, pre-dawn, an hour outside the city in an obscure direction. It was a curly-headed, gender-fluid student from my Eco-poetics seminar who messaged me—“Hey, you wanna be in a movie?”
I’d just lost my first pregnancy the previous May. I was willing the next little spirit down, but nothing/no one came. And I was frayed—having trouble threading myself into the somber texture. “I used to act a little,” I said. “Back in the day. So yeah, sure.”
But I felt hysterical driving down that two-lane highway with a blue sateen fit-and-flare dress in the back of the car like a second body. The dark outside was so dark.
Finally, the sun came up or, rather, we all turned toward it, turning onto a gravel drive toward a farmhouse someone’s professor’s sister owned, the whole outfit already in gear, and the director—a lanky blonde student in an olive-green parka—looking over the shot schedule. “We’re taking the actors up to the location in an hour,” she said.
As the somebody-or-other’s girlfriend did my hair, she talked to the young guy who was to play my husband about sleep paralysis and backcombing and why she doesn’t smoke anymore. I still didn’t know what I was doing there.
Then we rode in the back of pickup up a hill to a stand of trees. At 37, I felt like a hick teen going cow-tipping.
“Hold this tray, please,” the director said, and her DP—a guy with a phenomenal mullet—got the shot cued-up.
Am I describing this right?
On the tray is broken glass and a serving fork.
“You’re going to beckon to yourself,” the director told me, “I mean U___ who’s basically you in real-life (she gestured toward a pretty twenty-something in a green velvet dress and bare feet), then you’re going to turn and slowly walk toward the trees. And she’s going to follow you. Ok?”
I would like to tell my daughter:
We will watch all the movies. Movies can sometimes feel more real than what’s real.
You’ll see, sometimes it takes what feels like a lifetime of watching movies to get at one truth, and even that truth is suspect.
There might be a way to exorcise a filmic body, only I haven’t found it yet. Think of a film as a person. Inside every film a myriad of spirits, and only some are good.
You’ll someday be born, grow up, and leave me. You’re the movie I’ve swallowed. You have all the words, all the pictures, all the sound, though you don’t know them yet, nor the story.
When Hawthorne took Una to Italy in 1858, she contracted “Roman fever”—another way of describing malaria + a resulting nervous disorder—after she lugged her pad and pencils around the city, sketching the Forum, the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain. She wanted to be a girl-artist but was marked instead for sickness, melancholia, spinsterhood, hysteria, the convent, and finally death at an early age. I have to wonder if Hawthorne inspected his infant Una for the signs, having named the fictional child in The Scarlet Letter Pearl as a sort of wish for his own imperfect daughter. He described her illness like this,
“...attended by fits of exceeding discomfort, occasional comatoseness, and even delirium to the extent of making the poor child talk in rhythmic measure, like a tragic heroine—as if the fever lifted her feet off the earth...”
so that in the throes of her fever, Una briefly becomes Shakespeare’s Ariel—spirit of the air—and sails her shadow across the screen.
Now, in the retroactive, Phantasmagoria show that is the Underworld’s art school, Una (the phantom, the moving image) is giving her artist’s talk, and she tells us, in response to a certain slide, that “This does not exist.”
We all look up and see a picture of the Via del Corso, except abstracted into blues, greens, violets—no discernable form except maybe a little red mark at center like a fairy’s hand.
She’d scrapped it, she says, to make room for what comes next—that is, wifedom, motherhood—and look where it got her?
After the next slide, she says nothing. And the one after that—nothing. Not every human gesture requires comment.
You can still find some production notes for A Strange Dinner online. The student set designer kept a blog where she toyed with the color palette, configured place settings for the dinner table, posted pictures of her travails at local thrift shops, mused around about her mood as influenced by the weather, her petty conflicts with advisors, and most poetically, “Notes to Self” that include:
“Ask Dad about roaster.
Ask Morgan about rabbit.”
What if we thought of parenthood this way, Hawthorne—as similar to the kind of collaboration we bring to bear in filmmaking—a collaboration between truth and illusion, and, most importantly, between people?
Hawthorne and his daughter Una collaborated on a letter for Sophia, Hawthorne’s wife. Here is Una’s quotient:
“All Rose’s side of the hawthorn is covered with buds, and my wild violets are rampant. I water hawthorn branches every morning, and as yet they have showed no signs of fading, though Papa, with his usual hopefulness, declares they will. We found today on the hill a lonely violet, the first of that sisterhood. Julian appears well and jolly, but yesterday we were all killed by eating newly-dug horse-radish, which was as pungent as a constellation of stars. Papa stamped and kicked, and melted into tears, and said he enjoyed it intensely, and I bore equal tortures more quietly; the impregnable Julian being entirely unaffected by it, laughed immoderately at us both. Papa wants me to leave a place for him, so goodbye.
Your loving daughter, Una Hawthorne”
The mirror = [Haw]thorn; wild violets
Sense of humor = “no signs of fading // Papa with his usual hopefulness declares they will”
Objective correlative = “lonely violet” // “first of that sisterhood”
Figurative language//Synesthesia = “as pungent as a constellation of stars”
Self-restraint = “I bore equal tortures more quietly”
Familial submission = “Papa wants me to leave a place for him”
In the 1908, silent The Tempest, Ariel frisks through a meadow and as Ferdinand tries to catch her, she slips through his hands in a cinematic disappearing trick we now call the cut. Laughing, she leads him to Miranda; in lieu of language, Miranda kisses him.
In The Strange Dinner, I end my screen-time in a heap of sateen in a meadow, shaken out of my chair by the young woman who is really me, though I am really her. She has triumphed over her own predilection for cruelty, I guess, by dumping me into the grass, disrupting the dreamy dinner party, letting the rabbit out of the roaster. Someday—though I didn’t know it then—my own daughter will do the same to me.
My daughter now has a pink, plastic-wrapped digital camera for kids, and there’s a video function, of course. I sometimes pick it up and look to see what she’s made, and she’s made, inadvertently, a movie of our floor, our walls, our staircase—the immovable—as her little brother, her father, and I, blur against them in a panic of impermanence.
Let me put it this way:
Once Miranda found Ariel sunbathing, slathered in sunblock and nearly eclipsed by her giant white sun hat and sunglasses too big for her face. She was reading a collection of Hawthorne’s letters.
She must have heard the backdoor glide on its track and with her strange, almost preternatural collection of senses, known it was Miranda. She said, without looking up, “I find necessary to come out of my cloud-region, and allow myself to be woven into the somber texture of humanity.”
“Ariel,” Miranda said, “Daddy wants to see you.”
Miranda, in her fevered recollection of those days on the island, often pictured Ariel sprawled on a towel by the tub of cat litter they kept just outside the backdoor, her skinny arms straining to hold up a cheap paperback edition of The Scarlet Letter, her face mostly hidden by her hat, her red mouth unsmiling. Everything that spirit did was calculated. That Ariel seemed to have come from nowhere, to be eternally eighteen, to have been fragile enough to pop like a bubble, strong enough to lift heavy weather with just a finger, eternally nonplussed, effortlessly odd, perpetually intellectual—struck Miranda as no-fair. To be like Ariel, to have Ariel’s access to Prospero’s mind—that was Miranda’s greatest wish.
Looking back at that particular moment, and at a beaded strand of moments just like it, Miranda at last understood. What came to mind was the vision of a nineteenth century writer, pants-legs rolled, astride a creek, plucking from its sucking mud a fossilized child’s shoe, as he says to himself, “Ah! Now there’s a tempest!
Lesley Jenike’s essays have appeared or will appear soon in The Kenyon Review, phoebe, The Cincinnati Review, The Bennington Review, Diode, Waxwing, and The Account. Her poems have appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Poetry, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Rattle, and many other journals. Her most recent collection is a chapbook of poems, Punctum:, published by the Kent State University Press in 2017. She teaches at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio, where she lives with her husband and two small children.