Reading Marilyn: A Cultural Fetish

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?”

Birthday Tributes in the Blogosphere

Marilyn by Cecil Beaton, 1956

Over the next few posts I’m going to focus on the best fan tributes for Marilyn’s birthday. But firstly, here are a few selections from the blogosphere.

We’re all used to reading Marilyn’s own words online – though sadly, some of them are internet fakes – but Flavorwire has compiled a rather good list, 30 of Marilyn Monroe’s Smartest and Most Insightful Quotes.

Nearly all of these are genuine, in my opinion – meaning, they can be traced back to reputable biographies and interviews with MM herself. The only one I’m not sure about is the second one, regarding James Joyce’s Ulysses, which comes from the disputed Miner transcripts. (However, we do at least have Eve Arnold’s 1955 photo as evidence that Marilyn read the book – and, indeed, she later performed Molly Bloom’s closing soliloquy as an exercise for her dramatic coach, Lee Strasberg.) 

“Here is [James] Joyce writing what a woman thinks to herself. Can he, does he really know her innermost thoughts? But after I read the whole book, I could better understand that Joyce is an artist who could penetrate the souls of people, male or female. It really doesn’t matter that Joyce doesn’t have… or never felt a menstrual cramp. To me Leopold Bloom is a central character. He is the despised Irish Jew, married to an Irish Catholic woman. It is through them Joyce develops much of what he wants to say.”

Geeks of Doom posted this thoughtful tribute:

“While she didn’t have the cocksure winking swagger of a Mae West, or the sharp natural beauty of an Ava Gardner, she somehow fell somewhere in the middle of both of those ladies…In a strange way, she is old Hollywood and still remains fresh in new Hollywood.”

And finally, Kim Morgan reposts her wonderful Playboy tribute from last year over at her Sunset Gun blog.

“Because through it all, no matter what was happening in her life, Marilyn gave us that gift: pleasure. Pleasure in happiness and pleasure in pain and the pleasure of looking at her. And great artist that she was, looking at her provoked whatever you desired to interpret from her. Her beauty was transcendent. For that, we should do as Dylan instructs: ‘Bow down to her on Sunday, salute her when her birthday comes.'”