Reading Marilyn: A Cultural Fetish

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In her review of Reading Women, a new exhibit by multi-media artist Carrie Schneider at the Haggerty Museum in Marquette University, the Milwaukee Record‘s Marielle Allschwang references Eve Arnold’s endlessly analysed portrait of Marilyn reading Ulysses.  (Incidentally, Stefan Bollman’s 2009 book, Women Who Read Are Dangerous – which explores the same subject in art history – will be reissued in April.)

“Last week, I was shown a photograph of Marilyn Monroe reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. She is near the end, seemingly lost in Molly Bloom’s punctuation-less, sensual reverie, immersed in the flows and throes of memory and pleasure that finally submit to sleep. This is the famous soliloquy that transforms ‘no’ into ‘yes.’ It is the chapter of the ‘mountain flower,’ the ‘sea crimson,’ of ‘breasts all perfume yes and his heart going like mad.’ Those familiar with the passage may imagine it as a sort of mirror to Marilyn and the inscrutable world within her mythologized body. Others may find a mesmerizing dissonance. But there are more—many more—photographs of Marilyn Monroe reading. A Google search yields 1,490,000 results. She reads American classics, scripts, plays, magazines, newspapers, and a self-help book called How To Improve Your Thinking Ability.

There is a general thirst to know what and whether Marilyn Monroe read. Articles include, ‘The 430 Books in Marilyn Monroe’s Library: How Many Have You Read?’; ‘Marilyn Monroe’s Books: 13 Titles That Were On Her Shelf’; ‘What Was On Marilyn Monroe’s Reading List?’ They are littered with doubt and objectification: ‘Did she read them all? I don’t know. Have you read every single title on your shelves?’ ‘Nerds everywhere have drooled over photos of her thumbing through books…’

Does Schneider give us the opportunity to witness women creating, like [Susan] Sontag, the texts before them? Are we creating the women as we witness them? And if so, are we not left where we began, projecting what Marilyn is thinking?”

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