lecture

Envoi.

1a. Cicero, On Invention 2.1-3. Translated by H. M. Hubbell.

The citizens of Croton, once upon a time, when they had abundant wealth and were numbered among the most prosperous in Italy, desired to enrich with distinguished paintings the temple of Juno, which they held in the deepest veneration. They, therefore, paid a large fee to Zeuxis of Heraclea who was considered at that time to excel all other artists, and secured his services for their project. He painted many panels, some of which have been preserved to the present by the sanctity of the shrine; he also said that he wished to paint a picture of Helen so that the portrait though silent and lifeless might embody the surpassing beauty of womanhood. This delighted the Crotoniats, who had often heard that he surpassed all others in the portrayal of women. For they thought that if he exerted himself in the genre in which he was supreme, he would leave an outstanding work of art in that temple. Nor were they mistaken in this opinion. For Zeuxis immediately asked them what girls they had of surpassing beauty.

They took him directly to the wrestling school and showed him many very handsome young men. For at one time the men of Croton excelled all in strength and beauty of body, and brought home the most glorious victories in athletic contests with the greatest distinction. As he was greatly admiring the handsome bodies, they said, “There are in our city the sisters of these men; you may get an idea of their beauty from these youths.” “Please send me then the most beautiful of these girls, while I am painting the picture that I have promised, so that the true beauty may be transferred from the living model to the mute likeness.” Then the citizens of Croton by a public decree assembled the girls in one place and allowed the painter to choose whom he wished. He selected five, whose names many poets recorded because they were approved by the judgement of him who must have been the supreme judge of beauty. He chose five because he did not think all the qualities which he sought to combine in a portrayal of beauty could be found in one person, because in no single case has nature made anything perfect and finished in every part. Therefore, as if she would have no bounty to lavish on the others if she gave everything to one, she bestows some advantage on one and some on another, but always joins with it some defect.

1b. François-André Vincent, Zeuxis et les filles de Crotone. 1789-91. François-André_Vincent_-_Zeuxis_Choosing_his_Models_for_the_Image_of_Helen_from_among_the_Girls_of_Croton_-_WGA25109.jpg

1c. Edwin Long, The Chosen Five. 1885.DOR_BRC_BORGM_01348.jpg

2a. Jia Tolentino, “Always Be Optimizing”, Trick Mirror (2019), pp63-64: 

“The ideal woman has always been generic. I bet you can picture the version of her that runs the show today. She’s of indeterminate age but resolutely youthful presentation. She’s got glossy hair and the clean, shameless expression of a person who believes she was made to be looked at. She is often luxuriating when you see her — on remote beaches, under stars in the desert, across a carefully styled table, surrounded by beautiful possessions or photogenic friends. Showcasing herself at leisure is either the bulk of her work or an essential part of it; in this, she is not unusual — for many people today, especially for women, packaging and broadcasting your image is a readily monetizable skill. She has a personal brand, and probably a boyfriend or husband: he is the physical realization of her constant, unseen audience, reaffirming her status as an interesting subject, a worthy object, a self-generating spectacle with a viewership attached. 

Can you see this woman yet? She looks like an Instagram — which is to say, an ordinary woman reproducing the lessons of the marketplace, which is how an ordinary woman evolves into an ideal. The process requires maximal obedience on the part of the woman in question, and — ideally — her genuine enthusiasm, too. This woman is sincerely interested in whatever the market [p64] demands of her (good looks, the impression of indefinitely extended youth, advanced skills in self-presentation and self-surveillance). She is equally interested in whatever the market offers her — in the tools that will allow her to look more appealing, to be even more endlessly presentable, to wring as much value out of her particular position as she can.”

2b. On the “Instagram Husband.” Cf. “The Instagram-Husband Revolution”, Taylor Lorenz (Jan. 11 2019), The Atlantic.

3. Jia Tolentino, “Pure Heroines”, Trick Mirror (2019), pp124-125:

“In 2015, in an interview with Vanity Fair, [Elena] Ferrante cited as inspiration the ‘old book’ Relating Narratives, by Adriana Cavarero: a dense and brilliant tract, translated into English in 2000, that argues for identity as ‘totally expositive and relational.’ Identity, according to Cavarero, is not something that we innately possess and reveal, but something we understand through narratives [p125] provided to us by others. She writes about a scene in the Odyssey where Ulysses sits incognito in the court of the Phaeacians, listening to a blind man sing about the Trojan War. Having never heard his own life articulated by another person, Ulysses stars to weep. Hannah Arendt called this moment, ‘poetically speaking,’ the beginning of history: Ulysses ‘has never wept before, and certainly not when what he is now hearing actually happened. Only when he hears the story does he become fully aware of his significance.’ Cavarero writes, ‘The story told by an ‘other’ finally revealed his own identity. And he, dressed in his magnificent purple tunic, breaks down and cries.’

Cavarero then expands the Ulysses story into a third dimension, in which the hero suddenly becomes aware not just of his own story but also of his own need to be narrated. ‘Between identity and narration…there is a tenacious relations of desire,’ she writes. Later in the book, she provides the real-life example of Emilia and Amalia, two members of the Milan Women’s Book-store Collective, a group that also powerfully influenced Ferrante. As part of the consciousness-raising process, Emili and Amalia told each other their life stories, but Emilia could not make hers sound coherent. So Amalia wrote her friend’s story down on paper. By that point, she’d memorized it, having heard it so many times. Emilia carried around the story in her handbag, reading it over and over — ‘overcome by emotion’ at the fact of understanding her life in story form.”

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