Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
My very first experiment in the deconstruction and interpretation of sexual imagery took place when I found my way to a book called “California and the West.” Among the scenic photographs by Edward Weston was the image of a beautiful young woman who sits against a rock and stares into the camera with a beguiling expression on her face. Still only a child, I recognized immediately that something powerful and even disturbing was being depicted in that photograph, and I fell in love with it. Today, framed prints of the same photograph hang on the wall of my law office and my writing room at home.
The woman in the photograph is fully clothed. Indeed, her head is wrapped in a kind of nun-like wimple, and every inch of her torso is primly covered by shirt, pants and hiking boots. But her knees are spread wide open — a position that is called an “offering attitude” by art historians and is understood to indicate sexual availability — and her hands are delicately crossed over her crotch in a mannered and provocative gesture.
That woman is Charis Wilson, and the photograph is titled “Charis, Lake Ediza, 1937.” She was Weston’s lover, later his wife, and always his muse and favorite model — he photographed her naked body many times, although her face is averted and her figure is somehow desexualized in the nude shots. Indeed, Weston had a way of photographing vegetables to look like naked women and photographing naked women to look like vegetables, and Charis was no exception.
But “Charis, Lake Ediza, 1937” is something unique in Weston’s body of work. As a child, I could not have articulated the reasons why the image is so erotic, but I did not fail to perceive it. Later, as I studied the iconography of religious art while doing research for books of my own, I came to understand that the image expresses both the sexuality and the fecundity of the female form. But it is also an expression of a woman’s power over her own body—- the open knees and the crossed hands seem to suggest a tantalizing invitation and, at the same time, a firm refusal.
Wilson herself debunked the efforts of overheated iconographers, amateur and professional alike. At the moment when Weston snapped the shutter, her face showed exhaustion rather than sensuality, she insisted in her own memoir, “Through Another Lens,” and the curious head-covering was her improvised effort to keep away the annoying mosquitoes. But she was powerless to change the way we perceive the photograph itself, which helps to explain why it is such an enduring and unsettling work of art.
Charis Wilson died in Santa Cruz, California, on November 20, 2009, at the age of 95. She told her own story in “Through Another Lens: My Years With Edward Weston” (co-written with Wendy Madar), and she figures importantly in various biographies of Edward Weston, including Ben Maddow’s “Edward Weston: His Life.” But the book that remains my favorite is “California and the West,” which features Weston’s photographs and Wilson’s prose, and not only because it includes the enchanting photo that he took at Lake Ediza. The dog-eared copy that I scrutinized in childhood is still on my bookshelf, a relic of childhood and a source of pleasure and inspiration to this day. In that sense, Charis herself has survived her mortal death and survives as that enchanting young woman whose image was fixed on film more than 70 years ago.
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal and author of “King David: The Real Life of the Man Who Ruled Israel,” will give a talk on the scandalous life story of King David as preserved in the Book of Samuel at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, on Wednesday, December 2, 2009. The program opens at 7:00 p.m. with an historical overview by Rabbi Ed Feinstein, and Kirsch’s talk begins at 8:00 p.m. Go to http://www.vbs.org/flyers/VBSCollegeJewish09-10.pdf for more information about the lecture series, “Cover to Cover…Opening Up the Hebrew Bible,” a presentation of the VBS College of Jewish Studies.
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November 2, 2009 | 12:56 pm
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
History and fantasy are the stock-in-trade of Michael Chabon. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which won a Pulitzer, is set in the shadow of the Holocaust and World War II and focuses a pair of Jewish cousins who team up to create a comic-book superhero. Last year’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, yet another of Chabon’s many best-sellers, imagines an alternate world in which the Jewish homeland is established in Alaska rather than Palestine.
Now we have an opportunity to explore the mundane side of Michael Chabon’s life in the newly-published Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father and Son (Harper: $25.99, 306 pps.). These short pieces, previously published in Details, Vogue, the New York Times Magazine, and other publications, represent the kind of journalism once practiced in the pages of the Los Angeles Times by Jack Smith and Al Martinez and by their fellow columnists in other newspapers across America.
Still, now and then, Chabon brings a certain sly humor to his musings about the life of a modern American male in Manhood for Amateurs. Where else, after all, will you read the theological rant of a young father on the occasion of his son’s bris?
“The stated reason for this minutely savage custom is that God – the God of Abraham – commanded it,” Chabon writes in an essay titled “The Cut.” “That is not an argument that ought to hold a lot of water with me. I have confused ideas of deity, heavily influenced by mind-altering years of reading science fiction, that do not often trouble me, but one thing I know for certain, and I have known since the age of five or six, is that I really can’t stand the God of Abraham. In fact, I consider Him to constitute the pattern to which every true asshole I have ever known in my life has pretty well conformed.”
Such revelations, as it turns out, are rare in Manhood for Amateurs. More often, Chabon explores the awkward and embarrassing moments in family life —- how he answered his young daughter’s uncomfortable question about what it feels like to get stoned, why he objects in principle to pink Lego blocks, why he carries a purse (or, as he puts it, a “murse”), and the unsettling experience of witnessing his adolescent daughter’s coming of age.
“I don’t care to give sex any more credit than it deserves, nor do I necessarily prefer it at any given moment of the day to drugs, rock and roll, watching The Wire, or the sight of a paper packet filled with well-salted pommes frites still hissing with oil from the fryer,” he declares in “A Textbook Father.” “I don’t begrudge sex or its indisputable pleasures to anyone in any variation that consenting partners can safely attempt or devise – not even to my children, when the times come and they are of age, well informed, and emotionally ready.”
Not every reader of Chabon’s best-sellers will be charmed by these essays, but it’s one of the perks of solild literary success to take a break from the heavy lifting and put together a book like this one. Aside from the occasional flashes of insight and humor, however, it struck me as an item of nostalgia precisely because the newspapers where these kinds of stories once flourished are dead or dying. In that sense, of course, it’s exactly the kind of exercise that we ought to expect from a master of nostalgia like Michael Chabon.
Remembrance of Things Past: Not long ago, I blogged about a demonstration at the offices of the Los Angeles Times that featured the dumping of a load of manure. As I recalled it, the demonstrators were aggrieved poets who objected to the newly-announced policy of not reviewing poetry books in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Jack Miles, who was serving as Times book editor at the time of the poet’s demo, remembers it differently: “You have conflated two demonstrations on First Street,” he writes. “The poets did demonstrate, and one sign said ‘Miles to Go.’ But the manure was in response to something else.” Neither of us, however, can recall what prompted the manure-dumping even after I spent some time online in search of the answer.
Jonathan Kirsch is the book editor of The Jewish Journal.