To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Eleanor Antin: from “Conversations with Stalin”


I was what was called in the days of the old left, a red diaper baby. My mother was a Stalinist and though I had a father nobody ever listened to him because he was just a socialist and everybody knew they were wimps. It was hard in those days, senator McCarthy was putting people in jail, people were losing their jobs. but we were strong because we always knew what was right. Comrade Stalin told us. Or he would have told us if he wasn't so far away. But there were always other comrades one could turn to. Important comrades who wrote for his newspapers and were bigwigs in the party. Sometimes they would travel to the Soviet Union and they always came back with glowing reports. The workers were dancing in the streets. There was a chicken in every pot. Everybody had a job. Not like here, they spat. No breadlines. No prejudice against colored people. Unions flourished. Jews danced and sang in their own special state in Birobidzhan. A paradise set apart for the jews so they could sing Jewish songs and dance horas and till the land and grow big and strong. I had a cousin who was a psychiatrist who was invited to visit Soviet hospitals. He was amazed at the fine treatment the sick at heart received. Not like America where his poor patients had to pay him thousands of dollars a year to ease the pain of their unfortunate lives. But I also knew an artist who had spent a long life, he was already an old man, doing political cartoons for the Stalinist magazine "New Masses". One night, his best friend, a Yiddish poet, just back from a visit to the Soviet Union, told him in an agonized whisper, that all the beloved Russian Yiddish writers they loved so well had either been killed by Stalin or sent to the gulag to die. The old man went home quietly, didn't say a word to his family, went into his bedroom, had a heart attack and died. He seemed like his usual self that night everybody said, except that instead of taking the subway home as he always did, he took a cab. Now he was a very frugal man of the old fashioned sort. If he ever took cabs at all, it would only be for a very special occasion like a wedding or a funeral.

Through the years, I too lost Stalin. It wasn't easy. Even when I knew better, it was difficult. I would look guiltily over my shoulder when I said something bad about the Soviet Union. As if my mother were listening. How could she be, she had Alzheimers. She didn't know Comrade Stalin any more, she didn’t even know me



I fall in love with ancient Greece.

I play hookey from school and get to the museum early so I'm the only one in the Greek rooms. Except for the guard, of course. The guard's a killjoy. But when he isn't looking I can go up to a youth on a pedestal and stroke his cool white thigh, if I can reach it. I'm pretty short for my age. But I can peek under his tunic. I wish I could slip my hand under there and feel his balls but I'm chicken. I can't tell if he's attracted to me. He looks down at me with blind eyes. Ancient Greeks don't have eyeballs. I pull my hand away before the guard sees me and gets all uptight. But my heart breaks at the loneliness of marble. The poor thing has only one arm, the other one must be on a pedestal in London or in a bank vault in Japan. Cripples every one of them. They're cemented together, you can see the seams. Some don't have heads and only half of their chests. I want to comfort them, even though I know that some of them aren't Greeks. They're Romans, Romans aren't as good as Greeks. But what the hell! They're all in the same boat now. Sometimes the guard catches me feeling them up and throws me out of the museum. But I change my hair style and sneak back.

One day, Comrade Stalin says the ancient Greeks were bad. They didn't let everybody vote and they looked down their noses at foreigners. "They were stuck up, little Elly. Aristocrats. Their slaves ploughed the fields and baked the bread and sewed those sheets together to cover their naked flesh. Without slaves they would never have invented philosophy." I think of those great blank eyes staring down at me. It's clear now what they're thinking. Send her around to the back. She's a foreigner, a daughter of Abraham. Out! I'm heartbroken. Tears burn my eyes. "So the museum is off limits, comrade?" "Of course not, little Elly. Culture elevates the soul and makes it sing. Consider the ancient Egyptians. They were working people. Their artists carved bakeries and factories and warehouses and granaries and markets. They valued the labour of the common man."

So I did, but it wasn't the same. Knowledge is hard and strewn with bodies. The next time I played hookey I went to the movies



I am into petitions. Every week I have a new one. That's because every week they are electrocuting a different black man in Mississippi or Georgia or Carolina. Sometimes several black men in one night. Rape is a big thing in those states. I feel so sorry for the electrocuted men that I have no sympathy for the women. They're always white, those women. Their little rodent faces look nervously out from the grainy black and white pictures in the newspapers. They're always escorted by big sheriffs in dark sun glasses. I look at them scornfully. Such floozies. Who would rape them? And if they were raped it must have been by somebody else. What if the sheriff did it and he's covering his tracks. I read "The Scarlet Letter", I know perfidy when I see it. 'course I have no proof. It 's just that electrocuting 7 black men in Martinsville, Georgia for the rape of one white woman is kind of overkill. I take my new petition for the Martinsville seven around school. The same few people who always sign my petitions sign this one too. I try to sneak past Pat Pimboy in the cafeteria but she sees me and pokes her friends. "Who are you saving today, Missy?" she calls out. "The guy who cut up Susan Dengan and shoved her pieces into a garbage can?" Her friends look superior and laugh. They smirk at my clothes. So I don't wear pleated skirts and angora sweaters. So my mother isn't rich. So she gets up at 5 oclock in the morning to open the restaurant for breakfast. She's a manager isn't she? That's better than a waitress. Just because their mothers sit around and play mah jong all day, doesn't make them so swell. I'd be embarrassed to have such a useless mother, anyway. What do they care about the rights of man? That gets me going, again. Who the hell do those bitches think they are with their parasite mothers? " No," I answer in a fake sweet voice. "I don't carry petitions for murderers." That stops me for a minute. What if a guy murders somebody in self defense? What if the sheriff of Martinsville is just about to electrocute the prisoners when progressive forces attack the jail and the sheriff is killed by accident? Actually, that's what I hope will happen. But it never does. "There's murder and murder," I say in a hoity toity voice, "the world isn't black and white. Its filled with shades of grey." But it is black and white. That's what my petition is about. "So the world is a mess of ambiguities," I finish lamely. "So there!"

A week later the Martinsville sheriff electrocutes the 7 men. One after the other. I sit at the kitchen table in the west Bronx nursing a glass of chocolate milk but I'm really far away in Martinsville. At 7 oclock he comes for the first one. Which one was that? The papers never distinguished them. They were never single people like Ray or Bob. They were always 7. Like the 7 dwarfs. Who can remember the names of the 7 dwarfs? I did'nt know how long it took to electrocute somebody but I figured it for a few minutes. Later it turned out that it took longer. People don't die so fast.

It took Ethel Rosenberg almost 20 minutes. They kept pulling their switches and she jerked around and wouldn't die. Lucky for me I didn't know about this until I saw the papers the next day. It was bad enouph as it was. It was a warm summer night and I was in Dr. Honig's car going upstate to mother's hotel. I sat by myself in the back seat imagining the Rosenbergs dying. For his last meal, he ordered flanken and potato pancakes but she was higher class and asked for filet mignon with asparagus. I heard their tender farewells,. "Courage," she whispers. "our time will come. We will be vindicated. We shall have the last laugh." "You're braver than I am, Ethel," he moans. He went first, I learned later they hoped she would give in and confess to save him. I got so agitated I had to vomit and Dr. Honig stopped the car so I could walk it off. He sympathized with me but he still laughed and chatted with his wife in Hungarian. She was very pretty but not too smart. Before she caught him, I used to give her culture lessons for 2 bucks an hour so when they went to a concert together she knew who Shostakovitch was. I told her funny stories about Mozart to regale him in the intermissions. He admired her for those stories. He had never heard them before. Naturally. I made them up. They must have worked because they got married. My mother glared at my father and said Dr. Honig was a good husband. But I think she was a good wife too. But I didn't tell my mother that. She knew justice didn't exist.

Later I told Comrade Stalin about my petitions. How I never saved anyone.

"And until they pulled the switch, I kept on hoping," I confessed. "Until the last minute, I dreamed that the rescuers disguised themselves as undertakers. They knocked out the sheriff and stuffed him into a coffin. They had plenty of room for all his deputies. There were 7 coffins. It was harder to disguise the prisoners. They had dark faces. But they gave them black suits and they cried and wailed and acted like relatives of the deceased. And they all walked out of that place and nobody knew what hit them until everybody asked where the prisoners were. The electric chair was juiced up and there were no prisoners. It was in all the papers. They only found one prisoner, that was years later, and only because he came back from Barbados to visit his mother on her death bed. But by then, the case was dismissed. It had been a rigged jury. People were bribed." I buried my face in Comrade Stalin's warm, strong shoulder. "But Robin Hood never came, Papa Stalin. There were no merry men. It wasn't Nottingham. It was only a nasty, little town in Georgia with a lot of heartless goyim."

He said that was because I was barking up a wrong tree. An experienced revolutionary takes on only those fights he knows he can win. "Then you will never lose," he explains. "You will be invincible. People will follow you wherever you go."

"But causes are like measles. They pop up all over ."

"So don't scratch. Turn the other cheek. Keep your eye on the future. That is where we must lead. We must not be distracted by lost causes. As a rival said once, "He who has shall be given and he who has not, even that little bit shall be taken away."

So I tore up my petitions and became Pat Pimboy's campaign manager in her race for school president. I wrote her great speeches and much to my chagrin she won.

[Widely acclaimed as a performance artist, filmmaker, photographer & installation artist, Eleanor Antin is also a writer of many years standing, whose verbal compositions show a range of ironies & self-creations not unlike those in her visual workings. Her previous books include Being Antinova, Eleanora Antinova Plays, 100 Boots, Man Without a World: a Screenplay, & Historical Takes (her three-part series of quasi-historical photoworks: Roman Allegories, Last Days of Pompeii, & Helen’s Odyssey).]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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