Oh, Marilyn. How can we keep writing you over, how is it that you have become a palimpsest for our anxieties as we keep on moving from your time into ours? We love you for your apparent need for us to love you, we love you for everything we’ve been told to think of you. We write about you and think about you because we must still want you, your glamourous tragedy, your elegant stabs in the darkness of what it could mean to be ever a contradiction, an unknowable sadness and a tune that people keep humming, our lips always spreading in the direction of joy.
One of my friends paid me a nice compliment about the work I’ve done on this blog. He said that some of the photos brought to mind that famous picture of Monroe reading Ulysses, that some of the pictures I’ve posted of myself glamorized reading in a similar way. I still can’t quite accept the compliment; it seems so unreal to me that an image of me could ever activate neurons in proximity to those that have been lit up by pictures of the woman bearing the historical imprimatur of practically paranormal desirability.
I share this with you now not as an attempt to cast myself in her glowing light, nor to invite you to remind me that I’m no Marilyn (believe me, I know). I’m telling you this because she is more than a star, perhaps even more than an icon. Well, not her, but her image. Her image continues to captivate us. Why else would we always be searching for more of her, in endless nostalgic films and magazine spreads? We’re still looking so hard at her and for our idea of her that we will ourselves to find it everywhere, in ourselves and those around us. Even in book blogs, of all places.
I can’t say I wasn’t flattered, because I obviously was. Tremendously so. But I also wanted to assert some distance between my image and hers, to say “but I’m no Monroe.” Now I’ve even said it twice here. This distancing is a function of my not knowing how to be looked at, not knowing how to be distilled in this way, I think. But it’s also a function of a desire to preserve a magic in my understanding of Monroe, to deify her allure rather than humanize it. I assert that I am no Marilyn because I can’t bear even a fraction of the weight that the idea of her carries.
How then, did Lindsay Lohan do it? I’m no Lindsay, either, but we’re around the same age and she seems of this world in a way that I recognize, in a way that Marilyn never will again, if she ever did. Justin Wolfe works through these pains in a story of his that ran on The Awl last year, “Exquisite Corpse.” It’s about that strange photo-shoot she did for New York Mag, re-enacting the strangely playful final nude shoot Monroe did for playboy. Lohan mirrors Monroe, and we gorge on the morbid project, hungry for tragedies of the past and participating in a dark death wish for the future.
Wolfe’s story is framed, like the character herself, by the photo session. It takes place in a very close third person, and explores some of what she was feeling as she tries to be Monroe, even as she knows that to do so is a literal impossibility. She persuades herself in isolated moment that she can, she’s and actor after all, and the spell is repeatedly broken by the classless photographer, the vulgarity of our time compared with that which we imagine to be Marilyn‘s, and her own thoughts on jail, on rehab.
As you might expect from both the title and the content of this tricky little story, it’s kind of dark. Even more so in that it refers to the real world, it’s a fiction superimposed on a fact. There are pictures; this happened. One of the most technically inspired aspects of “Exquisite Corpse” is the way that Wolfe casts reality in a sort of fractured mental life, abandoning the photo-shoot mid paragraph to explore other experiences that Lohan can re-live, both in public because of who she is, and in private because who she is is still a human. Even as she tries to be Marilyn, to perform for the camera as an imagined Goddess refracted through time, the lens, and a collective misremembering, she still craves a little distance, still reflects on her mere humanness. She thinks of death, which is a fundamental impossibility for Marilyn even if she’s gone now. She lives on because we just can’t let her go.
You can read Justin Wolfe’s story here. I would also recommend this recent interview that Sheila Heti conducted with Marilyn Monroe.