Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Mothers of famous artists are often ignored in the mythmaking process but in THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES, a mother's mythic origins inspire great art

The mothers of famous artists  are often ignored in a myth-making process that assumes artists are completely self-invented creatures. Probably Freud's theories contributed to the infamy of mothers, yet there's evidence women transmit the gene for intelligence to their sons (for daughters it's a split gene). In THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES, Alice Hoffman shows how a son's genius arose from his mother's transformative journey. It is late in this mythic story, when you realize Camille Pissarro is the son most like Rachel, his mother.

She's an old lady in 1807 in Paris, when she begins her narrative about her life on the island of St. Thomas. Her family came to the island, as did their small Jewish community, because the King of Denmark proclaimed freedom of religion for all on St, Thomas and gave Jews civil rights. After 300 years of his family's expulsions from countries, her father finally found a haven. The story Rachel learned, was that he owed his life to his Black servant, now an invaluable employee, who carried him to the dock in a wicker basket. The servant, who became his best friend, was freed by Rachel's father for having saved his life.

Interestingly, the Danish king had also proclaimed no "new" slaves. Of course, the Jews, like other Europeans, existed apart from the native Black communities. Former slaves lived with Europeans as paid servants and sometimes secret mistresses. But no questions were asked, unless the unthinkable happened and they married, and became outcasts. Yet separatism was another myth, since in actuality the lives of  Blacks were completely entwined with Whites.

Rachel's inseparable best friend, the same age, was Jestine, their cook's daughter. They shared the desire to go to Paris, books, dreams and adventure in the wild. Their natural world was magical. They befriended feral donkeys, beautiful orange parrots, salamanders, even the sultry air and tumultuous ocean. Every year, on a special night, they lay on the beach to watch hordes of turtles leave the water to lay eggs on the beach.

In her notebooks, Rachel captured all the old stories; the sadness of the turtle girl, who wanted to be completely human, the werewolf descendants of the old Danish slave-owning families, who prowled the night. Memory and folklore merged, when Rachel's hands sparked in the presence of spirits, three blackbirds prefigured three deaths and the native "haint blue"warded off ill luck. There was also the surprising smell of molasses permeating buildings, especially her father's store and the synagogue.

Though Rachel largely does what she wants and enjoys her father's love and respect for her "head for figures," she can never escape her mother's disapproval. Her mother dislikes Rachel, educated over her objections in a time when women couldn't inherit or run a family business. She criticized her willful, outspoken personality. She pointed out that her plainness, combined with those traits, made  her unmarriagable. Rachel was fine with that but wished Jestine's kind patient mother, a source of treats and wisdom, was her own.

Though others might disapprove of the girls 'close friendship, what mattered to Rachel's father was less convention than what he thought right. He appreciated that Rachel could keep his books. Though her mother accepted that women were entirely at the will of husbands and fathers, Rachel's father wanted her to be independent. So Rachel grew up with a mother who didn't like her and a father who treated her like a son. She was very surprised, when Adelle told her fortune, that she would raise many children. When that suddenly came to pass at age 20, when Rachel is married in a business arrangement to a man her father's age with young children, she bowed to his necessity. The marriage would stabilize business. Yet, Rachel yearned for love and Adelle delivered. Eventually, she was to recognize a great love.

Her independent life was lost to the management of a household and children. But Rachel found help in the graveyard from the spirit of her husband's first wife. Rachel's fate seemed as unlikely as that of Jestine, the most beautiful girl on the island. Rachel's handsome cousin had been in love with Jestine since their childhood, a union that seemed destined in the stars. But this interracial union was thwarted and Jestine had a child and lived without love.

In the THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES, the natural world and mythic reality clash with society's man-made rules, tradition and history. Yet myth has its own primal logic. Though Rachel had to conform to society, she also had to defy it to unite with her destined lover. Because of a legal technicality, he and Rachel lived as outcast with their children for years, before her marriage was accepted by her community, Her family's suffering made her appreciate the value of conforming to society. By the time Camille came along, the willful girl, keeper of the fantastic stories of her beautiful island, was submerged in the respectable mother.

Like many myths, there is also a curse. The witch, Rachel's mother, said that she should experience the sorrow of a child's willfulness.Though Rachel raised many children, Camille, the most like her,was the most difficult. When Camille was an infant and would not sleep, Rachel took him to the old herb man, who said the boy could not help what he saw. So dazzled and excited was Camille by the world, he didn't want to shut his eyes. He gave her a potion. Camille slept but never lost that sight. As he grew older, Rachel feared for her wayward son. He could not stop drawing or painting the white light and vivid colors of his island. Camille could not work in school or the business Rachel's efforts to force and direct him came to no good.

Parallel to Rachel's story was that of Jestine, whose daughter by Rachel's cousin is abducted. She mourned for twenty years. When Camille was finally sent to Paris to study art, he found Jestine's daughter for her, which brought the friendship into the next generation. Later, after his father's death,he returned to the island and tried to conform to help his mother. But Rachel had a revelation of the rightness of Camille going his way, as she had once desired. When she accepted nature's law of change, a solution offered itself.

As an old lady, Rachel thought of her notebooks and the time, before modernization, when the veil between spirits and humans was thin. Her hands no longer sparked but she respected the two worlds. Though in the physical one, she still had trouble accepting Camille's wife. Opposites were married in Rachel's life. Magical and historical reality, youth and age, art and commerce merged in this fantastic novel.

I found this novel transformative. The reader travels from youth's rebellion and inspiration to maturity's illusion of security. There's the bittersweet experience of old age, when time brings change that can sweep away what's familiar--what was once believed to be true. At its core, THE MARRIAGE OF OPPOSITES is a love story to the island of old St. Thomas, created anew in an artist's eye and the heart of his mother.