LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2007 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 53, No 2 - Summer 2007
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Silent Resonance: Antanas Šileika’s Woman in Bronze
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the shadow
T.S. Eliot “The Hollow Men”
Antanas’ Šileika’s latest novel, Woman in Bronze, is a meta-artwork about the process of creation. It addresses the condition of a Lithuanian artist in exile during World War I while simultaneously and self-reflexively gesturing to the condition of displaced Lithuanian artists in the present. While reading the book, I noticed a series of voids, schisms, splits or absences that were integral to the meaning of the book. The recurring gaps emerge in a larger patterning of silent resonance. These silences are symptomatic of individuals who carry painful burdens of knowledge which increase in weight when they find no expression. Tomas Stumbras, the awkward and stumbling protagonist of this novel, struggles to give voice to his own burdens of knowledge, but succeeds only in part. The novel ends without a clear resolution and as such, the incomplete closure opens up to a space constituted by things that were never enunciated. Near the end of the novel, when Tomas completes his sculpture, “Woman and Child,” Valsuani, the chief artisan at the forge, encourages Tomas not only to view the sculpture, but to listen to it:
put your hand on her,” said Valsuani, and Tomas did as he was
told. Again, Valsuani struck “Woman with
Tomas could not only hear the dull sound but feel the vibrations in the
“She’s hollow,” said Valsuani. (351)
Resonances emerging from a silent core become a leit-motif of the novel. The characteristics of a sculpture are that it is mute, yet it can “speak” to the audience through different senses. Similarly, Šileika’s novel, Woman in Bronze includes a series of connected series of metonyms for silence at its core, and this series reverberates with numerous losses. The void within the sculpture, and the metonymic patterns of this novel gesture to a number of irresolvable absences. Lacan, after Freud, has identified this condition of absence as a manque à être or “lack” at the core of one’s being. This “lack” can be traced through a metonymic chain of signifiers which all point back to what is absent without directly naming it. Typically, what is fundamental to these un-named absences is an ungratified desire or deep-rooted anxiety, something ineffable that remains beyond the grasp. But the ineffable, conspicuous by its absence, can be recognized and even interpreted when this metonymic chain is traced. Significantly, both the sculpture “Woman with Child” and the novel Woman in Bronze address feminine subjects, yet, both are artistic expressions “created” by men as evocations of an absence. In one way, the sculpture and the novel can be understood as fetishes or substitutes for un-named objects of desire. They can never be fulfilled, for desire, by definition is that which is (forever) unattainable. Whether the evocation, or the fetishization, of the object of desire is in the form of bronze or letters on the page is of less consequence than the fact that the expression itself becomes the externalised locus of the Other. Both sculpture and novel as loci gesture directly to the “lack at the core of being” that resides within the artist’s unconscious. The working title to A Woman in Bronze was The Accomplice of Love and an excerpt was published in Rampike 14/1: (28-32). The notion of an accomplice to love is in keeping with the aforementioned notions of desire, and Stumbras labors both as an apprentice and accomplice aiming to seize the object of love or desire, or to capture a likeness of that object within a sculptural form. But the representation of a thing is clearly not the thing itself, das Ding an sich, as Kant put it.
On the narratological level of this novel, to apply Gérard Genette’s terminology, Šileika’s meta-artistic rhetoric is contextualized through the prologue and epilogue, which serve as paratexts, framing the novel’s narrative which, like the sculpture “Woman with Child,” contains a rhetoric of silence at its core. Contiguous to the paratexts are the sections titled “Acknowledgments” and “Selected Reading List” which offer self-reflexive and revealing histories on the creation of the novel itself. As a consequence of these latter two inclusions, which can be termed “peritexts” (as sub-catagories of the framing paratext), Šileika establishes a meta-textual relationship with the reader by offering self-reflexive commentary and discussion linking the body of the narrative to the means by which it was created. Significantly, by including these paratexts and peritexts, Šileika is offering a self-reference which gestures back to him, in what can be understood as an indirect “portrait of the artist” or self-portrait of the writer. If one reads from cover to cover, one sees not only the creative processes of the various Parisian artists depicted, but also the process of the author as he researched and generated this book. The novel depicts visual artists, and dancers such as the friends of Tomas (Sorrel, Estelle, and Alphonse), as well as known visual artists (Picasso, Desnos, and Josephine Baker), and fictionalized artists based partly on actual historical figures (Lipchitz, Jenny, and the cross-dressing dancer Barbette). Šileika also includes references to numerous established artists throughout the novel including Dürer, Rembrandt, Matisse, Utrillo, and the Group of Seven. The inclusion of visual artists, and depictions of the details of the various processes of creating art, generates a subtle but self-reflexive gesture to the creative process pursued by the author. Consequently, the book read in its entirety with peritexts included, offers an indirect self-portrait of Šileika as writer, which parallels Stumbras’ artistic struggles in Paris during the first quarter of the century. Fundamental to both discourses is a rhetoric of the “unspoken” generated through figures such as ellipses, apostrophe, allusion, question, parody, suspension, and other modes of indirect address.
With bronze, one may consider the contours, the textures, the rhythms and forms of the piece. With writing, one may consider the linguistic patterns, the rhetorical forms or the schemes of construction. Lacan speaks of the figures of speech that inform the patterning of language as it enunciates the unconscious:
Ellipsis and pleonasm, hyperbaton or syllepsis, regression, repetition, apposition – these are the syntactical displacements; metaphor, catachresis, autonomasis, allegory, metonymy, and synechdoche – these are the semantic condensations in which Freud teaches us to read the intentions – ostentatious or demonstrative, dissimulating or persuasive, retaliatory or seductive – out of which the subject modulates his oneiric discourse.1
The reference to “oneiric” discourse turns us to the unconscious realm of dreams, prophecy and divination. Stumbras’ grandmother divines the future using playing cards, and she crosses over to a magic-realist realm that includes petty demons residing in her bake-oven. Significantly, the “real” cause of her death is left unstated in the report which reads “Death by misadventure” (29). But the villagers of the rainy land know that the actual situation involved “death by demonic intervention” (28). One of the key and recurring literary figures in Woman in Bronze is ellipses, which emerges as the ineffable, characterized by suppression, evident in the numerous voids, and defined by the absences, gaps, and silences. The sense of the void is conveyed through the metonymic chain of signifiers that keep gesturing indirectly either to the missing objects of the desire, or the condensations around the objects of anxiety. On a larger structural level, a macro-cosmic form of syllepsis or zeugma is evident through the conceptual yoking of parallel stories, notably, the fictional biography of Tomas Stumbras (subject of the novel proper), and the biographical story of Antanas Šileika (which emerges through the paratexts and peritexts). Lacan has always maintained that the unconscious is structured like a language. Similarly, language is structured like the unconscious, and even when considered purely within the context of art, it reveals much through a close reading of rhetorical structures. Within the context of this novel, both visual art and language are used to portray the subject, who seeks to evoke the presence of an absent object of desire. The analogue between the book and the sculpture, the author and the sculptor, creates its own resonance. The novel is not only a portrait of an artist, but also a self-portrait of the author, gesturing to the process of creating art, and more importantly, that which is lost as one forms an enduring creative statement and it is this sense of what is lost that brings us to a realm of psychic and conceptual shadows.
The shadow of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” has multiple meanings but among them is a sense of doubleness. In one sense, the story of Stumbras’ artistic struggle is shadowed by that of Šileika’s creation of this book. However, the notion of the “shadow” goes further and can also be read in the Derridian sense as the “trace” or footprint of the mind which can be grasped through the author’s specific linguistic choices in constructing the novel. The notion of the “shadow” also includes Jungian and Freudian conceptions of the “id” or the archetypal “dark-side” of the self, which is characterized by primal emotions. And the “shadow” in its more simple meaning can also simply refer to a place of darkness. Within Stumbras’ sculpture there resides a hollow core which reverberates with an immanent meaning known only to the artist. The “shadow” in Šileika’s novel is the un-named “it,” which we can call the void or absence as manque à être constituting the “lack” at the core of one’s being. The undefined “it” is what makes the hollow men, hollow. Further, the linguistic “trace” offers patterns that permit “it” to be recognized and named.
In at least one sense the hollowness can be understood as resonating with the unresolved tension between the sacred and secular. A rhetorical study of these traces indicates that “it” is nothing less than the conception of immortality as it oscillates between these senses. It is the quest to generate an immortal artistic statement that characterizes the expressions of both Stumbras and Šileika. Stumbras begins as a carver of sacred figures and is called a “God maker” (13). But, in his quest to create an enduring work of art, Stumbras abandons the sacred for the secular, and while he does incorporate the religiously inspired stylistics of his earlier carvings, he abandons the larger religious pursuit. A peculiar inversion happens, almost unnoticeably. Eventually, it becomes apparent that Tomas retains his “God maker” function, but seeks to apply it to himself. He seeks to join the pantheon of “art-gods” that rule not only Paris of the first part of the 20th century, but those who have been canonized and have achieved reputations that ensure artistic immortality. Stumbras is a naïve, mis-directed, over-reacher, who is doomed to fail. One speculates whether the pursuit of secular art is predicated upon vanity, among other drives. Yet, Stumbras’ sculpture is also immanent with a humanist spirit, which renders it heroic. As an analogue structure, Šileika’s novel and the manner in which it was created establishes a dialogue with the artwork of Stumbras. As his paratexts and peritexts indicate, Šileika approaches his art with a cynical honesty that situates the role of the artist with reference to other artists, as well as a larger contextual frame that includes the often unpredictable and fickle world of audiences and critics. Šileika’s portrayal of Stumbras is at least partly sympathetic as he observes his growth following from a chain of errors committed by the young sculptor. The shadow world of the novel is indicative of the drives behind the creation of art itself.
Another shadowy and silent void that resonates throughout the novel is expressed by a metonymic reference to an absence, a desire, or an anxiety. In every case, the silences gesture to unconscious energies that can be situated on a sliding scale ranging from the noble to the ignoble. All are matters of importance that engage with human passions and beliefs; love, lust, petty misdeeds, social embarrassments, lethal accidents, suicides and murders. In every case, some conspiracy of silence is involved, and in every case, the unspoken emerges as physical manifestations within the actual world. Yet, these external manifestations inevitably gesture back to the unspoken core of one’s being. Significantly, in all cases, the silent voids are characterized by a profound immanence. The term immanence often refers to manifestations of God, or God’s presence in the world. Pantheism, for example, is one of the more extreme senses of immanence, in which the entire world is embodied with a spiritual presence. While this novel is rich in religious references and iconography, the theistic is not the only sense of immanence present. Rather, the tension between the sacred and the secular gestures to the often chaotic nature of the pursuit of art. There are hints of immanent, unexpressed and frequently unnoticed compulsions, which only become apparent during moments of crisis or when various conspiracies of silence become manifest. Examples of such external manifestations or embodiments of the unspoken are numerous and I will trace some of these briefly here. The novel begins with a pantheistic view of nature within Lithuania:
Time moved slowly in the rainy land, whose people had been the last in Europe to accept Christianity. They had done so cleverly, with a sort of peasant cunning, to throw off the invading crusaders who were intent on building a Northern Jerusalem. The inhabitants took on Catholicism and clutched it to their breasts like stolen treasure. But the Christian saints and martyrs joined, rather than displaced, the old gods of sun and thunder. The woods and fields remained full of demigods, and also full of devils. (4)
This section speaks of an unspoken “conspiracy” among the Balts and Lithuanians establishing an overlap between the Christian and the pagan. The “peasant cunning” sometimes inadvertently undermines itself or manifests itself in a sense of guilt. There is a sense of hidden subterfuge involved which extends throughout the novel, indicating dyads of silence and immanence, as well the various sins of omission and sins of commission. The key psychic and conceptual configuration involved in these dyadic patterns is similar to that of the Klein bottle. In other words, the differentiation is either blurred or eradicated between “internal” and “external” psychic space and the two appear to be connected. Early in the novel we see these sorts of connections and overlaps between Christian and pagan spiritualism through grandmother Kotryna’s acts of divining the future through her old deck of playing cards. During her card sessions she turns the protective Christian statues towards the wall so they won’t “see,” and she covers the crucifix with a white handkerchief (26). It is perhaps guilt over this conspiracy that inspires the appearance of the imp-demon in the bake-oven who apparently causes Kotryna’s death: “This was not Satan himself, but one of the many minor imps who populated the land. Their diminutive size made them seem harmless, even playful.” (9) It seems that Kotryna’s deah is caused when the imp tries to draw her into the oven and a connection between inner and outer psychic spaces is established. The signifying function of baking with its connotations of honest labour, and the “daily bread” of the Lord’s prayer, is combined with that of a small hell-fire complete with minor demon. A direct connection is established between the pagan and the Christian, between divining and divine retribution at the point of Kotryna’s death, which is punctuated by her act of placing one of her cards atop her Bible (27). While the townsfolk are reluctant to acknowledge demonic intervention, this is only the first of many conspiracies of silence that generate a rhetorical resonance in the book.
The conspiracies of silence extend into murder. During the opening days of the war, the Stumbras brothers become actively involved in the murders of the drunken Graf Momberg, as well as the Red Army militiamen, Liud and Byla (60-61). In the time that follows, the brothers find the burden of their murderous crimes almost too heavy to bear. In particular, Edvard, almost mad with guilt, finally feels relief when the family farm is burned to the ground by troops under the command of Momberg’s son.
Silence becomes a sub-text to the novel, indicating variegated psychic spaces that writhe with repressed or suppressed knowledge. Hence, the novel emerges as an extended analogue structure with core silences resonating with a “dull sound” and “vibrations” that are analogous to those that Tomas hears emerging from his sculpture “Woman and Child” (351). In all of these cases, there is an unspoken anxiety implicated by a 13 deep sense of guilt. Typically, the characters’ behaviors feature manifestations of deep-rooted and secret anxieties that resonate when the sacred and the secular come into the conflict. Conspiracies of silence are evident throughout and in each case there is a dynamic tension in social values. The death of Maria results from a botched abortion inspired by the paganistic vagabond orchard man (103). The death is indicative of an inner conflict between Tomas’ love for his intended bride and child and his unmitigated desire to pursue an artistic career “There was no question of staying where they were. They needed to get away. But if Maria gave birth, the child would hamper their new lives” (129-30). Similarly, in a parallel situation later in the novel, Tomas’ reaction to the death of Jenny and their child results in him internalizing the pain and irresolvable absence, “Digging through a drawer he at last found one of her fine woolen sweaters. He balled it up and held it in front of his face as he lay on her bed so he could inhale the last remnants of her scent.” (319).
However, not all of the key moments involve life and death situations. The silences also reveal petty desires or minor vices. Tomas is surreptitiously invited to the Folies Bergère, where he sneaks in and watches the show while he hides in the rafters (163). From the rafters or from other hiding places, he acts as a silent voyeur observing Josephine Baker, and later, Jenny during her performances: “It was delicious to look up at her while she was unaware that she was being watched” (185). Tomas’ unwillingness to share knowledge of his financial windfall granted in a moment of gratitude and generosity by Josephine Baker again reveals how he places self-interest against the interest of others: “Tomas sat down on the edge of Alphonse’s cot with every intention of waking him and telling him of his good fortune, but then decided against it.” (175). Later, Tomas experiences pangs of guilt and confesses to Sorrel and Alphonse that he has obtained a financial windfall and along with it a job with good pay. He feels guilty about his silence, and for not having shared the wealth with his friends. 14 In response, Sorrel adopts the attitude of a priest and permits Tomas to “confess”:
took Tomas’ joined boot strings and tied the burin to one
the other end he tied one of his paintbrushes. He put the string over
his neck so the burin and the paintbrush hung on either side of his
Alphonse and even Tomas began to laugh.
“I am the priest of the church of art. This is my stole, and I am now ready to hear your confession. Speak, my son.
” Smiling, Tomas beat his breast.
“Father, I have sinned.”
“Of course you have. You’re an artist. What else is possible?’
Tomas then goes on to confess and receives “absolution.” This parody of priesthood and the sacred process of confession again underscores the dynamic tension between the sacred and the secular and raises several key unspoken points. First and foremost is the statement, “Father, I have sinned.” Rhetorically speaking, the term “father” gestures not only to the absence of an actual priest, and the hollowness of the “confession” from a sacred perspective, but also serves as an apostrophe to a mixture of father figures, including Tomas’ absent father, as well as to the absence of God-the-Father, the Law in the Name-of-the-Father, the dead grandfathers of Tomas’ lineage, and the “fathers” of art. It is only by the direct address to the “father” that the conspicuous absence of “mother” emerges. Maternal figures in Tomas’ life, including his grand-mother who partly inspired his foray into art through her fortune-telling cards, Tomas’ aging mother, and the two dead mothers of Tomas’ still-born children, all lie as unstated presences at the core of Tomas’ parodic confession to Sorrel. Thus, even in “confession” the conspiracy of silence ensues. Moreover, the “confession” invests Sorrel with a parodic authority to which Tomas subjugates himself, but this authority is not that of the God of Tomas’ past, but the new and secular “god” of Art. Because Tomas’ more important crimes remain unmentioned here, Sorrel’s “absolution” resonates with irony. The crimes which resonate within the hollow core of Tomas’ being include the murders of 15 the Graf the and Red Army sympathizers, and the deaths of Maria, Jenny, and their two children. Tomas has sinned, but the sins of the past are not “named,” and remain hidden within a hollow psychic core.
The various deaths in the novel, often directly connected to Stumbras, serve as inverted and metonymic gestures to the desire for immortality at extreme costs. The sculpture “Woman with Child” becomes an evocation of absences not only of the women. Further, the artist is in a race with his own mortality, and seeks to overcome hurdles in order to achieve a monumental statement that will remain after his own physical demise. The drive for a form of artistic fame through artistic creation forms one of the key extended analogues in the work.
Having secured patronage from the established artist/dealer Lipchitz, Tomas is referred to the bronze casting specialist Valsuani. Following the casting process, Valsuani comments on the wax as it is melts away to make room for the bronze which will be poured in a following step:
“This is lost wax,” said Valsuani. “There she goes, your woman, melting into nothingness. We collect the wax and we use it again and again. I have seen this thing done hundreds, perhaps thousands, of times, my young artist, but I never really appreciated it until I reached my old age. Sometimes I think the woman was most real when she was wax. So mortal. What we are doing now is making her immortal. (349)
The wax creation is the only part of the sculpture that has been touched and truly shaped by the artist’s hands: the rest of the process is mechanical. The wax, like the artist, is lost to time. For the individual artist, the self can only extend its being into the realm of the immortals, through art. Vanity emerges as one of the key and unspoken forces driving Stumbras forward from his humble beginnings as a “God-maker” (13), to his attempts to gain entry into the Pantheon of art.
The other dominant feature in the text is the epistemological posture that emerges from the postmodern nature of the text and its condition as meta-art. As a meta-artwork, the novel focuses on the process of creation itself, and how different artists generate art in various media. The depictions of artistic creation do not mention but allude to the art of writing itself. One of the fundamental or absent ellipses in the novel proper is writing itself as an art-form. Conspicuously absent in this novel are references to other writers. Part of the novel is set in Paris during the first quarter of the 20th century, a time when a number of high-profile authors lived in, or visited Paris; e.g., Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and James Joyce. Yet all of these literary giants present in Paris at the time are absent in Woman in Bronze, even though Tomas is present in the city from 1926 onward. Josephine Baker, the exotic U.S. dancer, serves as a center-piece and her representation closely follows the actual life of Baker. The gap between fact and fiction is revealing, and the absence of any representation of authors constitutes yet another shadowy “hollow” or “silence” within the book. This “silence” resonates with meaning, but to decipher that meaning one must first consider the reasons for excluding the writers. Arguably, this novel has its focus on visual art, not writing. To address writing itself as an art-form would generate a self-reflexivity that is too direct. So, instead, Šileika’s focus on the visual arts results in a more subtle and all-encompassing comment on the creative process. By discussing art and artists in detail, this book indirectly gestures to its own (literary) creative process and as such emerges as a meta-art work. Significantly, by avoiding portrayals of the literary arts, the book as a whole generates a massive historical “gap” and this elliptic avoidance of the literary history of Paris can create the same result as the sculpture when it is struck to produce a resonance within its hollow core. The peculiar absence of writers serves to isolate Šileika, and set him apart from the literary world. Hence, the absence of literary figures in the novel, creates a resonance with Šileika’s own sense of being “apart” from while simultaneously being “a part” of the larger literary milieu.
Through the larger structural yoking of overt biography and understated autobiography, Šileika raises rhetorical questions about the cut-throat art-world of Paris during the 1920s, and the contemporary literary world. By now, Antanas Šileika (b. 1953) is an established author who has been published in Canadian, American and European literary journals.2 As such, he has had ample time to participate in the commercially and politically charged environment of the publishing trade complete with its intrigues, controversies, and scandals. He is one of the players in the publishing world, and yet has commented openly on his sense that he is of two worlds both within and without the Anglophone community of North American letters. Regardless of his many successes, as a displaced Lithuanian, and arguably, a writer in exile, Šileika’s situation is an extension of Stumbras’ in many ways, in that Šileika began where Stumbras left off. Yet, even with success, Šileika has still found himself to be simultaneously within and without the literary community, in that his Lithuanian roots always set him apart from other North American writers. In this sense, “exile” can be thought of as more a state of mind than a physical condition, and one can have lived within a particular community for the majority of one’s life, and still feel detached, alienated or not yet assimilated. And so, it is this sense of detachment, absence or incompletion that emerges from both the direct portrayal of Stumbras and indirect self-portrayal of Šileika. This absence finds its strongest analogue in the depiction of the casting process for Stumbras’ sculpture with its “lost” wax method and resulting hollow core. Hence, the meta-artistic features of the book extend to the artistic expressions of Stumbras and Šileika.
The meta-artistic aspect of A Woman in Bronze is especially apparent through the opening and closing texts of Prologue and Epilogue. The Prologue establishes the setting in Lithuania before there is a movement in plot involving the actions of the protagonist, Stumbras. The Epilogue, set in Canada, opens the door both to a sequel and gestures to Šileika’s own residence in Canada. Further, the book includes two important end-texts, most notably the Acknowledgments, which candidly discuss how the book was written, edited and published, thereby underscoring the creative process. This latter section also includes comments on the various characters in the book who are based on actual historical figures. There are references to how historical information was gathered and how Šileika learned about various artistic media, notably sculpture, so that he could portray the creation of these forms within the novel proper. Following the Acknowledgments is a section titled “Selected Reading List” which again identifies the research process that was an integral part of the creation of this book. As a consequence of these opening and closing texts, the novel, without openly stating it, posits itself as a literary creation and offers a sketched self-portrait of Šileika as writer. The macro-structural “yoking” or extended zeugma created by this double-text (biographical and autobiographical) succeeds not only in revealing the struggles of artists, past and present in dealing with war and resulting (post-)colonial conditions, but also establishes a post-modern format through the book’s yoked, self-reflexive and meta-artistic patterning.
Moreover, through its overt biographical and latent autobiographical drift, the novel establishes an epistemological 19 posture which emerges through a series of questions that move beyond the existential. By examining the lives of successful and failed artists, as well as their reception by audiences, critics and patrons, this book challenges the basic assumptions of our appreciation of art, including the process of social acceptance, canonization, as well as how these two processes relate to and define conditions of an unpredictable and often fickle marketplace.
As with most portraits of the artist, one gets the impression that there is more than a little self-reflection included in this work. This primary story is about self-sacrifice and the pursuit of art and in particular, sculpture, above all else. Bronze, of all art-forms, is one of the most enduring and hence monumental. One of the unstated principles of bronze sculpture is its gambit towards artistic immortality. But there are numerous personal losses one must endure to succeed within a highly competitive creative environment. The artist arrives at the notion that there are higher purposes, and that the pursuit of commercial artistic success is, after all, only vanity, and as such should be viewed with some skepticism. Hence, his vision and quest for artistic immortality is shaped by the deaths of his previous lovers and his colleagues, Alphonse and Sorrel. Eventually, Stumbras gains a bittersweet enlightenment inspired by suffering, injustice, and the unanswered question of whether art truly should be the primary goal in life. Still, the stumbling Stumbras stubbornly refuses to abandon his quest and he slowly shifts and changes in his outlook. His courage and indomitable spirit are admirable and indicative of those who dedicate themselves to artistic expression, who place it above all else, and who stand outside the norm, somehow heroically rising above all odds but with the nagging unanswered and ironic question as to whether the struggle ultimately has a meaningful purpose. The absence of such an answer ultimately becomes one of the points of Woman in Bronze, and puts into perspective a rhetorical question concerning the value of pursuing an artistic career in what has become an increasingly competitive and overly commercialized environment.
The shifting meaning of Stumbras’ identity is illuminating because it creates a growing analogue with the hollow core of his sculpture and simultaneously gestures to the erosion of his identity by the end of the book. Significantly, it is precisely at the moment when Tomas is forced into exile that he arrives at the greatest opportunity for renewal. On a distant ranch on the Canadian prairies, pregnant with the idea of a sculpture that continues to obsess him, Tomas is re-born and a paradoxical topology emerges. He is mother and father and child newborn, he is critic, creator and subject. He is lost and found and displaced, he is named and renamed and unnamed, and so ready to start anew. Figuratively speaking, some wax must be “lost” in the casting process in order to create an enduring artistic statement, and so, the wax in sculptural process is textured by the hand of the artist and the numerous lives lost during Stumbras’ quest, just as it is immanent with impending death and potential artistic immortality. It is ironic that upon the completion of his first fully realized sculptural work, Tomas must flee the country and abandon his creation. In a larger sense, Tomas’ achievement is returned to a hollow core. For Tomas Stumbras, the resolution to what is lacking at the core of being is not some thing, but a bridge to connect the inner core with the external world. Throughout his life, he struggles as an artist to bring forward the inner into the outer. He seeks to give birth to his conception. Woman in Bronze suggests that art can provide the bridge to connect the inner and the outer, the self and other, or the Innenwelt with the Umwelt, but only in an incomplete way, and always with difficulty and suffering.
Given the book’s double-textuality, the attack against the vanity, fickleness and immorality of the art-world of the 1920s can also be read as a more contemporary, yet unstated attack against the literary world of the present. Without a doubt, the highly commercialized world of literary prizes, critical nepotism, and often, ruthless literary milieus, provide a close analogue to the portrayals of the art world offered in the novel. And if the act of framing an artist for the murder of another artist (Estelle kills her friend Sorrel) can be read as an implicit but unstated desire for immortality, then, the desire for secular immortality is contrasted with the conventional Christian sense of spiritual immortality in the after-world. The tension between the sacred sense and secular/artistic senses of immortality (or enduring fame), drives the action in the novel and renders many of the portrayals as ironic. True to the book’s epistemological posture, the question of whether the pursuit of fame, or artistic immortality is a worthy or a sham, is never fully answered, and Tomas’ early blind devotion to carvings of sacred figures is in direct contrast with his headlong and perhaps pointless quest for commercial success as an artist. The lure of the art world is set against ruthlessness and hypocrisy, and so an ambivalence, characterized by the attraction and repulsion of the art world, becomes part of the portrayal.
A case in point is offered by Tomas’ cohort Alphonse and his fiasco d’amour in which numerous gaps or “voids” become evident in the resonating tensions. Alphonse becomes enchanted with the erotic dancer Barbette without realizing that Barbette is a man. Sorrel, and the local Parisian artists take pleasure in withholding Barbette’s sexual identity from the naïve Alphonse, and in confronting the confused Alphonse, Sorrel exclaims, “Let’s face it, anyone but a blind man could tell Barbette was a man right from the beginning. If you were attracted to him, it’s obvious that in your heart, you love men, not women (282). But a gap is evident between Sorrel’s apparently open honesty and his duplicitous dishonesty and his conspiracy of silence in tricking the gentle Alphonse. Later, the secretive manner in which Alphonse kills himself emphasizes the gap between the way he perceives himself and the way others perceive him. It is this gap that resonates with subliminal, heretofore unrecognized and unacknowledged desires which the young Alphonse is unprepared to face, partly because of his strict religious upbringing. The resonating tension between desires of the spirit and desires of the flesh inform Alphonse’s dilemma. When Tomas tries to comfort Alphonse by persuading him that the personal self is distinct from the artistic, another gap becomes evident. That is, that Alphonse cannot summon the strength or courage to bridge his public and private selves: “I am the laughingstock of the entire quarter, and all you talk about is my career. There’s more to life than a career. First I am a man, and after that I am an artist. The man has been humiliated.” (286). Just as Tomas discovers later in the novel, so Alphonse discovers that artistic success is only secondary to being true to one’s self. Alphonse serves to illustrate the price some artists have already paid, and that is the loss of self-integrity. Alphonse cannot sacrifice his inner self at the altar of Art nor can he find the courage to face his inner self. Alphonse’s dilemma is revealed through his comment connecting sexual repression and religious propriety: “Even Adam learned to be ashamed of his nakedness” (204). The condensation of original sin, church doctrine and sexual desire in this statement are indicative of an inability to successfully navigate the bridge between self and Other. The apparent split between “self” and “career” or, “man” and “artist” is synonymous with the void or gap between the self and the object of desire. The gap is unavoidable, unless one recognizes and transcends desire itself in order to face one’s true self. Neither Alphonse nor Tomas have learned to bridge the gap, although the end of the novel offers promise that Tomas may one day find this bridge. Through his portrayal of these unresolved gaps, Šileika advances his epistemological posture, by posing questions on the unresolved virtues and vanities of the art-world and the measures artists must take in order to surpass their competitors. Inherent in all of this epistemological questioning is an unspoken dialogue on the condition of the arts, not only in Paris in the 1920s but in the present. When Tomas’ lover, Jenny, speaks of extreme competitiveness to Estelle and Sorrel at the time of Alphonse’s debacle, she speaks of a universal condition that includes the present:
You’d sweep Tomas away in a second if he got in your way! Didn’t you always say you would do anything to succeed? One way to do it is to climb madly to the top of the heap. The other way is to get rid of everyone better than you. To eliminate the heap. (292)
Šileika is forwarding an implied social Darwinism in this discussion, and in his portrayal the Parisian art scene creates a resonant dialogue with the present. Whether one can refute Darwinian social models, is beside the point. What matters is that within and without the context of the novel, survival of the fittest is apparently the name of the artistic “game.” Šileika defines the superstructures of the art world, depicting artists, agents, brokers, galleries, museums, buyers, critics, and cynics, along with the general public. What he makes clear is the fact that notoriety is an essential feature of survival within the world of art, but notoriety itself soon faces and one must continually adapt and revise one’s artistic persona. Consumption of art takes on animalistic qualities. We learn that, “Paris was a maw that needed to be fed with novelty.” (295). Commercial success thus becomes a vicious circle that draws the individual into ever more impossible demands.
The void within Tomas, and within the sculpture during its brief existence, both resonate with the absences of Maria and Jenny, Tomas’ dead lovers, as well as the children who did not survive birth. Ironically, the monumental bronze sculpture has an almost ephemeral existence because it must be melted down to reclaim the bronze if it is not sold, and with Tomas’ hasty departure from Paris, the sale is assuredly cancelled. Tomas’ engagement with sacred forms of art early in his career informs the formation of his sculpture “Woman with Child,” but he has abandoned his religious beliefs and instead embraced the secular. Throughout the novel, Tomas abandons more and more of himself. But sculpture remains as the only bridge that can connect his inner and outer selves as well as his past self and his present self. The many deaths, including that of his own identity, are raised as questionable prices of fame in Tomas’ single-minded pursuit of art. To his credit, Stumbras never fully abandons his spiritual identity. Lipchitz makes an observation about Stumbras’ sculpture “Woman with Child,” stating that, “You have filled a secular subject with religious intensity” (277 ). If the book is understood in its total dyadic form as both autobiographical fiction (on Stumbras) and self-reflexive autobiographical sketch (on Šileika), then an immanent resonance can be sensed emanating not only from within Tomas Stumbras’ “Woman with Child,” but from the silent and ineffable core of ellipses in Šileika’s Woman in Bronze.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. M. Holquist & C. Emerson, trans. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
Barthes, Roland. Writing Degree Zero. Annette Lavers & Colin Smith, trans. New York: Hill and Wang: 1978.
Bergson, Henri. “Le Rire.” Revue de Paris (1900): 158-170.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, trans. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
Eliot, T.S. Selected Poems. London: Faber & Faber, 1970.
Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse. Jane E. Lewin, trans. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.
Lacan, Jacque. Écrits I (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1966), and Écrits II. (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1971); selections from Écrits trans. by Alan Sheridan as Écrits: A Selection (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1977 ).
Šileika, Antanas. “Devils – Fall, 1917” An excerpt from The Accomplice of Love (working title to A Woman in Bronze) Rampike 14/1: 28-32.