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Joseph Cornell's Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters and Files.

Ideologies and teleologies hide in a life's thickets, but ultimately an existence doesn't fall prey to reasons; one doesn't survive in order to amass evidence for a cause. Rather, life sputters along, clumsy and driven. Joseph Cornell's life certainly didn't have a linear argument; as it unfolds in this selection from his diaries, correspondence, and files, his career happily refuses to be assimilated to a movement or an idea. No sect--not Surrealism, not estheticism--can explain him. He aimed to prove nothing. Fugitive whims assailed him, and it was his lifelong devotional practice to ignore the adamantly legislated difference between reality and imagination.

Even with the diaries to assist us, we shouldn't think we understand Cornell. To understand is to pathologize. Let's not place a value, a prescriptive term on him--because it will necessarily be the brand of the nostalgic eccentric. Let's consider him, instead, a harbinger, a wily assembler whose radicalism we haven't caught up with yet, even if he now seems domesticated, a mini-titan of a bygone moment.

"Bulging files," according to editor Mary Ann Caws, stand behind the Cornell dream boxes. Devotees of his work have long awaited the publication of these files, which mustn't be considered merely the prolegomenon to the artwork. They have their own integrity: they are prose poems, laid out with the antic scrupulousness of a Gertrude Stein or a James Schuyler. Caws has reproduced Cornell's lineation, retained his Dickinsonian dashes, and included the asterisks he used to announce epiphanic instants ("temoignages"). He becomes a far more unsettling (and conceptual?) artist if we allow a continuity between private diary and public artifact, between verbal notation and visual object.

Cornell quotes an aphorism: "Life can have significance even if it appears to be a series of failures." Cornell transvalued failure: in one of his films he cast the actress Rose Hobart, whom Caws describes as "rejected from a Los Angeles home for destitute stars as insufficiently famous." So, too, must we transvalue confinement and myopia when considering him. Marianne Moore wrote to Cornell, "Do not make me a criminal"; though not, like Jean Genet, an actual criminal and prisoner, he oscillated between incarcerating, "shut-in" fantasy (at home in Flushing, New York) and liberation (trips to the city to browse, cruise, loiter, eat, and shop). Like Emily Dickinson, Cornell was an artist both of agoraphobia and of the agora: he liked staying beside his kitchen stove ("headquarters"), but he also liked treks in the city streets.

To Cornell, the journals reveal, secondhand and variety shops like Woolworth's weren't mere dross to be transformed into respectable art; they were already sites of transcendence ("* in the teeth of winter the flowering often of Woolworth local"). Just as we must respect his love for five-and-dime stores, so we must respect the fact that his most important relations were with his mother and his brother, Robert, with whom he lived until their deaths. Cornell didn't couple; like Dickinson, he rejected the repressive fictions of futurity and maturation. He wrote letters to his mother after her death, bought a Robbe-Grillet paper-back for Robert four years after his. There is scant room in contemporary critical schemes for the coexistence of piety and perversion: perhaps the most perverse facts of Cornell's constitution were his love of young girls and his faith in Christian Science, which fed his more conventionally avant-garde engagements, particularly his identification as a fan, a quasi-religious passion as thoroughgoing and intellectually rigorous as Andy Warhol's.

No aspect of Cornell's diaries is more inspiring than the record of his devotion to a range of female cultural figures of varied eras and echelons, including Mylene Demongeot, Susan Sontag, Patty Duke, Hedy Lamarr, Maria Malibran, Barbara Feldon, Eva Marie Saint, and Fanny Cerrito, whom Caws describes as "Cornell's favorite nineteenth-century dancer, partly because he thought her undervalued." He believed her to be the great-great-grandmother of Jean-Paul Belmondo. Two sample moments of tribute: "in the evening Patty Duke was here via Mahler #3." And "Dear Miss Sontag--After wanderlusting around in 'Interpretation' into the small hours, especially in the Leiris section, I felt that you were the one to have the enclosed, hoping not to presume on your recherche shelves." It makes sense that Cornell appreciated Michel Leiris, for both were engaged in a systematic, archaeological plumbing of obsession, disobeying civilization's punitive command, "Grow up!" Cornell didn't explain or demystify his preoccupations; he pursued them as a spiritual practice. He dove into sentimentality as if into a taboo pond whose mirrored surface enticed him ("transcendental sometimes passed off as overemotional").

Cornell's appetites were irregular, even "decadent." He loved shopgirls (the younger the better), whom he called les fees. He loved shopping: he notes "an urge to splurge--irrational repetitive buying." And he loved starches and sweets: "Shaved and bathed around one--had lunch of donuts, caramel pudding, two cups Dutch process cocoa all milk, wholewheat bread, peanut butter, peach jam (wolfed milky way bar after breakfast). Bought Robert eclair (chocolate) for lunch and baker's assortment Mrs. Wagner's Peach Pie 6 cents, 1/2 dozen icing cakes Bay West." He valued the sweet and the immediately satisfying over the healthy and the nourishing. Cornell reminds us: pursue desire for its own sake. Need we label desire progressive or hygienic to condone it? Isn't it part of Cornell's radicalism to avoid such categories altogether? No certainties of progress undergird his consumption--only appetite, unbridled and unrationalized.

The appetites Cornell celebrated still occupy a low rung on our ladders of value. It remains an insult to call someone's art "masturbatory," but Cornell's jottings, defenses of solitary--hence obscene--pleasure, are profoundly, nourishingly masturbatory. Relentless self-examination and self-stimulation are not activities that this culture fully accepts, despite its sometime lip service to sexual diversity. These days, some homosexualities are considered halfway decent. But what if sex itself isn't decent? What if desire is a destabilizing force? Appetite didn't land Cornell a clear identity, didn't lead him toward maturity, didn't draw him closer to other people. He had more in common with the demonized pedophile than with the heroically lonely artist or the egalitarian sexual radical. Cornell built no communities. Morose hedonist, he only cared for his own titillation, his own melancholy. His aim in the diaries isn't to communicate: it's to "get off." That's why they seem so fresh.

In conversation, Cornell could be a bore; his droning monologues sometimes extended for hours. The curator Diane Waldman was so exhausted by his ramblings on the telephone that she dropped under her desk during one conversation. The diaries too can be trying, even in drastically edited form, and even with Caws' illuminating and amusing notes. Cornell's work, like Stein's, exceeds any possible containment within book or museum; the diaries and dossiers will probably never be published in their entirety.

Therefore one must be grateful for this selection. Finally, what I admire in these writings is Cornell's offbeat attention to vicariousness--his awestruck patience with the never enacted. He once copied down a quotation about Dickinson, an observation that her most precious relationships were "so one-sided as to be hallucinatory." The same must have been true of Cornell. His daft apercus--"Smell of night on handkerchief"--seem acts of conscientious objection to an increasingly dismal world.

Wayne Koestenbaum's books include The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire (Vintage, 1993). A new collection of poems, Rhapsodies of a Repeat Offender, is just out from Persea.
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Author:Koestenbaum, Wayne
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
Words:1230
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