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Into the heart of things: passion and perception in Susan Daitch's 'The Colorist.'

With L. C, Susan Daitch established herself among the more gifted novelists of her generation, and in The Colorist - actually an elaboration of a novella that preceded L.C. - she again marshaled impressive erudition to the service of a considerable writerly talent. The speaker of this clipped, hip, urban narrative ruminates at the nexus of passion and perception, and maintains that ground by addressing the former wholly in terms of the latter. I shall say a few words about the effect of this orientation, how it is achieved, and the feminist worldview it illustrates and reinforces.

Alienation defines the tone of many "serious" first-person narratives in modern literature, just as piety had defined the tone of so many premodern first-person narratives. Modernist first-person fictions and confessions have been notes from underground, and indeed there have been few such works deemed serious that have not expressed an orthodox, if you will, alienation. What is "serious" then in modernist terms equates with what in a previous era's paradigm had been appropriately serious, that is, pious. Perhaps in this regard an important, indeed defining ideological feature of modernity is that alienation, especially in first-person discourses - the most fundamental rhetorical condition of prayer - became the new piety.

That this modernist piety, this alienation, has been a male province is true to the extent that the resulting status of the anti-hero may only be understood in the context of a male tradition that is powerfully anti-female. Aeschylus's problematic sounds through the ages: Clytemnestra and her Furies are emblems of female power and who must in their turn be murdered and domesticated. Butch Athena as judicator participates in the suppression of matriarchal authority. The problematic, of course, is that females may only act in their own interests in a "masculine" sense; yet when they do, unless they have burst from the brow of God Himself, they are destroyed or, like the Furies, stuck in the ground and demoted to wimpy goddesses of the hearth.

The Colorist, in the modernist tradition of Nightwood and Mrs. Dalloway, explores female interiority in a predominantly male fictive context, that is, relative to humanist assumptions of a heroic ideal defining the rhetorical parameters of subjectivity. In addition, though, Daitch hits all the right keys in the postmodernist scale, and tips her (cinema!) hat often to such heavyweights of postmodern theory as Foucault and Althusser; yet it is the extent to which her second novel seems an old-fashioned modernist allegory of alienation that I find most interesting, especially as it touches on the Aeschylean problematic of female power necessarily working Athena-like against its own gender interests. Whereas, say, the Joycean or even Dostoyevskian anti-hero's is (in Auden's phrase) a "self-observed, observing mind," and this self-reflexivity colors perception with a libidinal passion turned grotesquely upon itself, in Daitch's fiction, as in that of her modernist female precursors Woolf and Barnes, libidinal passion seems channeled into the act of perception, and the orthodoxy of self-reflexive alienation/piety is thereby reconfigured within the larger male/heroic tradition. In The Colorist to a greater extent than in the works of Woolf and Barnes there is an allegorical dimension reinforcing what is otherwise a function of dramatic situation and voice.

Julie, Daitch's narrator, "had a job coloring empty frames for a serial comic called Electra" (10), which might have been a source of wry humor regarding the absurdities of specialization in the mass-market workplace if playing it straight, so to speak, over the course of the fiction did not produce such an attractively odd tonal effect. The colorist does not lack self-irony, and certainly does not glorify the importance of her role in a production mode the end result of which is a relatively unpopular popular-art commodity. Indeed, like a typical wage-earner, she contrives reasons to avoid her tedious tasks, sometimes going on "color searches" that are "often a ruse ... for leaving work" (11). Yet throughout she otherwise exhibits a professionalism suggested by attention to detail, sensitivity to nuance, and general appreciation of colleageal interaction on particular projects that determine her social identity. Julie is a colorist, and this gets highlighted when she is let go from her job because of Electra's diminished popularity, and for a good deal of the story is no less an unemployed colorist than the victims of Detroit plant closings bear long after their job terminations the identities of unemployed auto-workers.

The colorist's exploration of identity is set primarily against that of her beleaguered comic-book heroine whom she reappropriates to eventual sad effect, and that of her conspicuously passionless primary love interest, a peripatetic photographer originally from Ireland who is "no longer an immigrant but not yet a citizen," a man who "sometimes made a profession out of the role of displaced person" (9-10). There is much conceptual play throughout regarding aesthetic, philosophical, and ideological distinctions between modes of imaging to artistic ends; and indeed questions centered on artistic modes of production are explored with tantalizing suggestiveness and a light touch. But it is the power relation of the male seeker/ adventurer to the female narrator's own fixed circumstances that resonates most memorably, and it is this aspect of the dramatic situation that supplies impetus for an allegorical reading of the fiction and that reinforces the Aeschylean problematic played out by the comic-book character Electra (temperamentally similar to Aeschylus's own mournful and conflicted character of the same name), and by the colorist herself in the activity of covertly reauthoring Electra's "adventures."

The colorist's alienation is implicit in the circumstances of her life as detailed in the narrative, not in a pervasive tone; indeed, her tone throughout is colorless. Her agony within the Aeschylean problematic seems at first flush a paradoxically dispassionate one, yet this small trick of tone speaks proverbial volumes - volumes of male-produced first-person narratives expressing a hysterical nostalgia for access to discourses of heroism and to the pious tones in which they were always couched. "Heroism" is of course the paradigm of the Western subject, a phenomenon that, as Althusser among others posits, exists only in ideologies as sources of initiative tethered to imaginary identities. The colorist's own identity gets configured relative to two males, her aforementioned occasional housemate Eamonn, who "had been in countries where he risked his life just getting off the plane carrying a camera" (83), and Martin, a dreamy co-worker with whom she has a brief flirtation, a comic-book letterer and aspiring screenwriter who "made up foreign-sounding scenarios while foreignness lay outside his window" (90). Both the man of action who captures images of experience the other is compelled to imagine imperfectly, and the teller of tales who poorly imagines life in extremis rather than acknowledging its imminence and close proximity are in fact agents of the same ideological apparatuses, the same institutional apotheosis of phallocentric authority, the same heroic ideal.

Julie's friend and colleague Laurel is even more dour than the colorist and considerably more assertive, more the woman of action. Early on Laurel participates in the reappropriation of Electra, an activity both women engage in at first with humor and irony, but with increasing desperation, especially as the colorist continues the project more or less alone. Because they must proceed from where Electra was terminated, much of their project entails wrenching the character's voluptuous-outer-space-vixen identity from the male imaginations that had spawned it (the Electra text had been written by a pathetic little man) and then consumed it (adolescent males were the target audience). If Eamonn "lent himself well to comics" it was because "he knew how to act heroically," and Laurel, actually more heroic by nature than Electra, matches Eamonn's willfulness. Electra, by contrast, seems always the victim of circumstances, forced into a heroic role to which she is not temperamentally suited. Of course, being male-imagined for the imaginations of young males, she must hold out the possibility of relenting to a male will, of giving in, finally, to her male nemesis in space, or any pimple-faced kid on Earth, or even to a man like Martin who, if "incorporated into the strip ... might be that wrong man, the one met accidentally, the disaster who leaves Electra obsessed with the most trivial memories. Or he might be the one who straightens her out, marries her, teaches her the meaning of money, instructs her in the idiomatic twists and turns of the English language, and this would turn into another kind of domination" (177).

It is a commonplace that the chief project of the, postmoderns is the dismantling and irretrievable scattering of the humanist (heroic) subject. It is hardly surprising, then, that The Colorist's allegorical drift has Laurel securing a position with Jack Ladder, "a man who made reproductions for the Metropolitan Museum," and eventually arranging a position for the narrator due to the "great demand for Egyptian hieroglyphics" (188). This seems appropriate because the popular subject from the Pyramid Texts on which they work at home, copying onto fake papyrus, is "Osiris, god of the underworld," who "was often placed standing between his wife, Isis (who was also his sister), and her sister, Nephthys," both of whom "were in love with him" (189). The narrator notes that the three deities were often portrayed together: "each woman had one wing, and Osiris stood between them, as if they were some kind of moth" (189). This god of the underworld thus becomes by ancient reckoning a figure suggestive of the postmodern subject, the latter so semiotically problematized as to seem more shattered than scattered over creation. But it is not Isis's search for the pieces, particularly the phallus, of the subterranean god that transfixes Julie's imagination. It is rather the fixed image of the three figures that troubles her, the heroic god flanked by single-winged female deities:

In every picture we copied, they appeared, the three of them, bound together with no hint of tension. They were symbolic, all tied together, but of what I didn't know. The picture hadn't arrived yet which showed Isis beaning Osiris with a frying pan or a brick. If I were Isis, I'd find it difficult not ever being able to get away from the other two. There was a preponderance of serenity in the pictures. I was instructed to take a heavy hand with the green oxide and Nile blue. Remember, it's the underworld, Laurel said. The greens and blues you think symbolized serenity might have actually implied passivity, boredom, or sleep. No one is supposed to have a good time, and the three of them are stuck with each other. Blues and greens can be deceiving. (190-91)

Emblems of feeling determine the aesthetic nature of any mimetic system, whether primitive or sophisticated. Even the most abstract, non-representational system is negatively defined by traditional assumptions of mimetic efficacy. That these systems are not unitary and archetypal, but highly relative, even unto themselves unstable, is the bane of a humanism that in its aesthetic dimension must suffer to conceal the enormous contradiction that the feeling subject, self-consciousness aspiring to heroism, acts upon but more importantly feels within an overdetermined system that, once scrutinized, admits neither feeling nor action. The transcendent passion implicit in heroic willfulness is itself an aesthetic construct, whether regarded in terms of action or expression. Blues and greens can indeed be deceiving, and Julie's lack of passion is an absence signifying (as Eamonn's merciless black-and-white photos signify by their lack of color) a surfeit of those passions ("blues and greens") associated with color-not a repression, but a compulsion, indeed a passion for noting the nuances of perception.

Delacroix had a passion for two colors which are the most condemned, lemon yellow and Prussian blue.... I bought colors to lay out side by side, looking for clues to a passion or an obsession generated by this impossible combination. I anticipated a hostile reaction between the two which would have been spontaneous, like the splitting of an atom. Perhaps he hadn't meant they were condemned in whatever separate state they might be found. I rarely did see them together. Like paint itself, color experiments seem to lose their stability over time. (225)

The colorist's phenomenology of passion should be understood in the context of a feminist allegory of empowerment of a woman refusing to play either Isis-in-search or Electra-in-mourning, or any "heroic" role necessarily in male drag. Heroic piety (ranging from the self-aggrandizement of the man of action to the condescending humility of the supplicant) and anti-heroic alienation (ranging from the unrelenting self-examination of the self-loathing ironist to the dyspeptic musings of the sexually repressed misanthrope), two sides of the same humanist coin of subjectivity, get revealed as such and dismissed as options for the narrator's own passage. She wears, metaphorically, a "cinema hat," that is, a "box-shaped object" the inside of which "looks like a small movie theater.... Your life as it happens, that's the film. You are the leading actor and the audience at the same time" (4), but one is also outside a "fixed story" and outside the strictures of mimesis, the codes within which and by which images and their values get reproduced. If we cannot feel ourselves to be anything other than overdetermined "subjects," we may at least peer into the mechanisms by which feeling gets constituted. The result is a kind of fresh perspective on the self-as-construct, but not in the psychoanalytical sense of self-revelation. Psychoanalysis is the final blossoming of the heroic tradition, and as such largely defines anti-heroic self-absorption. The colorist does not seek a cure but a perspective:

As I walked to his studio, I was stopped by a man with a walkie-talkie. He was part of a film crew, and from the east side of the avenue I watched a movie being shot. I had no idea what the story was about. Production assistants would tell you where to stand but would say nothing about the script. You could spot the actors from a mile away almost. As I walked back and forth during the course of the day, buying paint, picking up more fake papyrus from Jack Ladder, I walked in and out of what the movie version of my life might look like.... The movie was full of clean strangers wearing the wrong clothes and too much orange make-up. Extras playing homeless men and women were covered in paint that was supposed to look like dirt.... I stepped in and out of the movie.... I prefer the cinema hat. (227)

The colorist's own passions, her sense of loss and betrayal, her sexual fantasies, her desire and terror as such are not expressed, though the narrative remains entirely within her point of view. This first-person narrative does not impart a revelation of feeling but a feeling of revelation, the powerful sense of a woman gazing into the heart of things.
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Author:Katrovas, Richard
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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