Blindness, from The Orchard, by Drusilla Modjeska (1994)

John Hull
John Hull

John Hull, an Australian theologian living in England, went blind in his forties. Black, black blind from detached retinas. His book describing the profound disorientation of self in blindness was the first I took up on my return to reading. It took some time to finish so closely did it echo my fears: the fear of the loss of self, of being cast from God’s light. The journey he recounts is as much of the passage of the soul through darkness as of the daily reality which came with a blindness so complete that he knew that he faced the sun only by the sensation of heat on his face. Even food, unseen, lost its appeal. He was no longer hungry. Life as well as sight dimmed within him.

While he struggled with the real limitations of a life without sight, treading his way with cautious steps to avoid the sudden slide when the ground slopes, or the path diverges, or obstacles block the way, he struggled also with the archetype of blindness within which he felt himself enclosed. At first the meanings he could give to the dark were as closed and as isolated as the world he inhabited even in the midst of a loving family. And indeed it is true that in many cultures, and certainly in ours, blindness has been crudely associated with a condition of unrelatedness: of being cast out, along, ignorant and confused. Because blindness disrupts the distinction between the known and the not-known that is regulated for the rest of us by sight, it represents, he says, dissolution, the borderline between being and not being. An alternative to death; as good as death.

Immersed in this archetype, unable to deny, or refuse it, yet not accepting it either, a glimmer of light flickered, a small beacon which took the form of a paradox, which as a theologian John Hull was quick to grasp, thought as a blind man slow to understand. For of course there is a paradox. For God, that transcendent being, as the blind psalmist sings, darkness and light are both alike to thee. It is for us with our dualistic either/or thinking that one is cast from the other, that one is held in opposition to the other. But a greater reality, and one we resist in our fearfulness and limitation, is that of light in darkness, and, more to the point, that of darkness in light. None of those who dwell so noisily in the realm of light wish to consider that light might contain its own darkness. And there is little in our culture to help those who inhabit the darkness grope their way to light.

Cover of first edition of "The Orchard"In Stravinsky’s Lunch, Drusilla Modjeska notes that, in her struggle to write the story of Australian painter Stella Bowen, she gave up at one point and, instead, wrote the “novel” The Orchard. I put novel in quotes because there are many essay-like passages, including a number related to Stella Bowen, that appear to be much more the thoughts of the author than of the nameless narrator in whose voice the story is told.

Modjeska attempted to weave her story around the old folk tale of “The Handless Maiden” (or “The Girl without Hands” or “The Girl with Silver Hands”). In the tale, a father cuts off his daughter’s hands in a bargain with the devil, and, many years later, her hands are restored through the love of the king who marries her. I say attempted because it’s only told at the end and, as far as I could tell, offered little to illuminate the story. The fictional element of the book is about several Australian women, united through their acquaintance with Effie, a woman in her eighties who has always pursued a very self-directed life, mostly tending to a garden seen by her friends as a haven.

Though I wasn’t persuaded by the fiction in the book, I found the narrator/Modjeska’s asides consistently interesting, and I read the book in one sitting, on a flight from Brussels to Dulles last month. Even if the novel per se wasn’t successful as such, it seems to have allowed her to work through thoughts that came together in the subsequent Stravinsky’s Lunch. Such as:

We live in a culture that daily encourages us to find our identity in that reflection of another, to experience ourselves as most real when we are in love. We live in a culture that encourages us to see ourselves as others see us. To become an object in the regard of others means that other become objects to us; and so too do we to ourselves. No wonder we are all in pursuit of control: to make sure that object is ours.

Considering that this was written before the Web exploded and social media and selfies became labels, there is a certain amount of prescience in this. Although I might argue that today, we are encouraged to think we are most real when we get a requisite number of “Likes” (in whatever form they might actually take).

[By the way, the Macmillan Australia hardcover edition I read has to have one of the most pleasant formats I’ve read in years. 7.5″ high by 4.5″ wide, it’s larger than a traditional paperback and smaller than a typical trade paperback or hardback, typeset in 11/13 Bembo. I would be happy to have a few hundred others like it — a perfect size for a myopic guy like me to travel with.]

The Orchard, by Drusilla Modjeska
Sydney: Macmillan Australia, 1994

Stravinsky’s Lunch, by Drusilla Modjeska (1999)

The Sisters, by Hugh Ramsay (1904)
The Sisters, by Hugh Ramsay (1904)
“Let us begin with two sisters dressed for a ball,” Drusilla Modjeska writes in her introduction to Stravinsky’s Lunch. “Whenever I look at this painting — which, as it is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, is quite often — I think they are waiting for the century to begin…. You can see from their faces that they are not the girls who went to balls in nineteenth-century novels; and you can see from their clothes that there is nothing of the modern woman about them.”

Cover of first US edition of "Stravinsky's Lunch"In Stravinsky’s Lunch, Modjeska looks at how two near-contemporaries of the two women in the painting (the painter’s sisters), Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington Smith — both Australians, both painters — took on the century they encountered and carved out lives and careers very different from the conventions of the Victorian world in which they were raised. Modjeska refers to the book as “a koan in my own practice as a woman and writer.” The choice of the term is apt, as Stravinsky’s Lunch is a book that raises many questions and finds few definitive answers to them.

Such as the story of Stravinsky’s lunch, which Modjeska first heard over a restaurant meal with other writers and artists. It’s not really a story, so much as the fact that when the composer Igor Stravinsky was working on a composition, he insisted that his family eat lunch in silence. “All artists are selfish,” wrote Robert Craft in Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship (1972), “they must be, to get their work done. And they sacrifice the people around them.” for Modjeska, Stravinsky’s selfishness raises larger questions: “What are we prepared to ask of ourselves and of those who love us, what value we put on love and what value we put on art; what compromises we will make; which gods we will appease.”

Stella Bowen offers an example of a woman who, at first, sacrificed herself willingly on the altars of love and art. She happily entered into a relationship with the writer Ford Madox Ford, taking on the many domestic burdens of their rustic, near-penniless existence, in return for the sake of his love and his company: “… to have the run of a mind of that calibre … was a privilege for which I am still trying to say ‘thank you,'” she wrote in her memoir, Drawn from Life. But she also sacrificed her own development as an artist, as tending to Ford’s needs left her with little time and energy for her own work:

Ford never understood why I found it so difficult to paint whilst I was with him. He thought I lacked the will to do it at all costs. That was true, but he did not realise that if I had had the will to do it at all costs, my life would have been oriented quite differently. I should not have been available to nurse him through the daily strain of his own work; to walk and talk with him whenever he wanted, and to stand between him and circumstances. Pursuing an art is not just a matter of finding the time — it is a matter of having a free spirit to bring to it.

When, after one too many affairs with other women on Ford’s part, Bowen broke off their relationship, he failed to understand what all the fuss was about. As Modjeska puts it, he didn’t realize “that the qualities that had drawn him to her in the first place — her courage, her intelligence, her engagement with life — were precisely those that would take her away from him.” And that courage and intelligence were also what allowed her to produce her best work when she herself was free to focus. Yet, as is clear from Drawn from Life, Bowen never looked upon her time with Ford with regret, certainly not when she thought of their daughter. “Was Love the one, in the end, that she chose?” Or did she even chose one or the other? “Is choosing what she did?”

When I first read the story of Grace Cossington Smith that makes up the second half of Stravinsky’s Lunch, I was quite disappointed. There was none of the drama of Stella Bowen’s life. “No husbands. No babies. No affairs. No scandals. No cafes in Paris…. In the prejudices of her time, she was, simply, a spinster.” Smith spent most of her life in the same house with her parents and two of her three sisters. Most days, she painted scenes and people she saw around her in Sydney and the nearby country and seaside, working in a small studio her father had built at the back of their yard. She was over sixty before she was accepted as a serious artist of her own generation, over seventy when she was finally recognized as one of the greatest Australian painters of her century.

"Trees," by Grace Cossington Smith (1926)

Much of Smith’s story is a matter of producing painting after painting, moving first towards a striking mix of realism and abstraction, as illustrated by her 1926 painting, Trees. Smith said she was trying to paint all sides of a tree at once. When it appeared in her first solo show, one newspaper critic condemned it as a “freak.” Modjeska sees the work as revealing Smith’s keen eye for the dual nature of her Australian world: “For this was a young woman who understood both the settled pleasures of a garden with its bloom of peach, and the hectic tangle of branch and leaf, the mysterious possibilities that lay beyond, in bush and gully.”

As she grew older, Smith turned from subjects such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge to her immediate surroundings, painting the rooms in her family home — always with at least one window or door opening out into the world, but always from the perspective of someone on the inside. She experimented with color, settling on yellow as her primary tone, offset with blue (which is why it’s surprising that Modjeska doesn’t quote the opening phrase from Drawn from Life: “The land where I was born is a blue and yellow country”).

Grace Cossington Smith with her father and sister Madge (1919)
Grace Cossington Smith with her father and sister Madge (1919)
But there is another story, which Modjeska brings out. Of Smith’s three sisters, one married early and another took on a lifetime profession as a nurse. But her sister Madge stayed at home and cared for their parents and Grace, and after their parents died, for Grace alone. It was Madge who cooked the meals and saw that the rooms were cleaned and laundry washed and ironed. Modjeska reprints a photo of Grace, Madge, and their father from 1919. It’s one of those family photos that, though accidentally and perhaps misleadingly, seems to betray a secret. “There is Grace with her strong, intelligent face lifted to the sun. Madge’s lowered head is shrouded in misery so intense it seems to burn the paper their images are printed on…. You can tell at a glance that there’d be no question of Grace taking over the kitchen.”

So, despite forging a career in art that was very much of her own shaping, deliberately enforcing her isolation so that she could focus on her work — focus to the point that her paintings from her last decades all depict scenes less than a few yards from her own home — Smith did, in her own way, insist on a form of Stravinsky’s lunch. No wonder that when Madge accompanied Grace on a trip to England in 1949, she found a widower in need of a wife and married him, leaving Grace to return to Australia alone.

Yet Modjeska admits that her attitude toward the story of Stravinsky’s lunch changed in the course of writing the book, and, in particular because of Smith’s example. The nature of the book as a koan is revealed in her realization that the story “not only buys into a way of thinking that would separate art from life, with art striding above and beyond, transcending the ordinary and humble, but it sets life against art, or art against life.” Smith never involved herself in artistic movements and stayed rooted to the home and family she knew. And as her energies diminished with age, she focused on the things she saw immediately around her: her bed, her table, her windows, her mirror.

Some reviewers objected to Modjeska’s interjection of herself, of her own reflections, into her accounts of the lives and careers of Bowen and Smith. But Stravinsky’s Lunch is not really a work of biography as much as an exercise in understanding — and as much Modjeska’s self-understanding as her understanding of the two women she portrays. In 1999, perhaps it was just slightly too early for critics to be comfortable with a work that did not fit neatly into the boundaries of one particular genre, but I think we are seeing now a proliferation of books that sweep across genre boundaries with never a second thought. I hope today’s readers will be ready to seek out a copy of Stravinsky’s Lunch and enjoy it as thoroughly as I did.

Stravinsky’s Lunch, by Drusilla Modjeska
New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1999