52 Weeks of Literature, Week Three: “Last Words from Montmartre” by Qiu Miaojin

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NB: Due to a library-related kerfuffle, I am substituting this text for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which I will review in three weeks.

Representative excerpt: “Dusk in the Latin Quarter was like a fairy tale or a love poem, like a Klimt mosaic, like glowing, rose-colored clouds reaching toward the heavens…a swath of gold ringed in a misty-blue halo, this was the Paris that most enchanted me. None of us had brought an umbrella, and the other three women hurried ahead while I nearly burst with glee, singing one song after another deep down in my throat in unintelligible (to them) Chinese. They turned back to make funny faces at me, glowering, scolding, smirking. Their golden, chestnut-brown hair dampened by the rain, glittered in the sunset. They were beautiful, Paris was beautiful, life was beautiful, and I and them, I and Paris, my life felt so dear. We were four children under heaven, without nationality or student credentials, far from home, each abandoned by her beloved.” (p. 63, trans. Ari Larissa Heinrich)

How does one approach, much less critique, a work of art that essentially serves as a suicide note? I’ve faced this dilemma before my time with Last Words from Montmartre; Sarah Kane’s theatrical monologue 4.48 Psychosis and Joy Division’s album Closer come to mind. These works and more are no doubt well informed by their authors’ despair. Their authority on the subject of depression—in clinical and other senses of that word—is beyond dispute; they are a valuable resource in that regard, at the very least. They would be radically different texts if they were not infused with the aura of their authors standing on the threshold of death, and that these are the thoughts that came to them in the precious moments before they chose to move on to whatever’s next only increases their allure. We must be careful not to exploit the circumstances of these texts’ composition for pulp appeal and publicity, nor to reduce them to the level of “narratives”—and to consume them with all the conveniences inherent in that label—when they are clearly not just stories from which we take away themes and lessons. All that can be read must be read in context; real life always impinges on art. My ultimate belief is that appreciating these deliberate swansongs as works of art could well stand as a show of esteem to their authors’ final wishes. Some call their suicides narcissistic, and some view their art as tainted by pathology, but both of those perspectives show disrespect to the genuine struggles of depression.

I could write that such texts have plenty of artistic merit solely in that they display a struggle with a suicidal wish to which the author happened to lose, because there are people who do tragically lose in that conflict with the self. But that would be disingenuous. Taiwanese émigré Qiu Miaojin’s Last Words are split into twenty letters—twenty-one, actually, since two are labeled “Letter Seventeen” in what I imagine to be evidence of hazy happenstance. By Letter Twelve, Miaojin has announced her intention to kill herself. The final letter is dated June 17 [1995]; eight days later, she was dead at age twenty-six. If there is conflict, it gives way to acceptance, catharsis, urgency, a will to bear the weight of pain—and those tones imbue the entire text, which makes me wonder if Miaojin ever did try to fight back. A disclaimer states that we may read the letters in any order, which has the effect of styling them as separate entities in their own indistinct, isolated white-envelope vacua. They are mainly in chronological order, and they do follow a narrative-like progression, but they are so packed with emoting and philosophizing that the concrete details hardly matter. (I read them in the order they were printed in; otherwise, I would have gotten lazy and procrastinated and saved the longer letters for last.) If the text is any indication, she had her heart broken by multiple partners, some of whom alternate sex and gender throughout the epistles. The distance between Paris and Taipei and the death of a pet rabbit add complications. Miaojin’s pining for her lost loves may be dismissed as obsessive, and one does wonder how the addressees reacted or would react to these confessions. But that isn’t fair. Is it so easy to get over heartbreak? Is it not appropriate to respond to and release heartbreak through art? Can it not exacerbate depression?

What is there that I can write about this book? The way my Aspergerian mind functions is: I think visually, and concrete visuals stick out in my mind best. I need more time to register abstract texts such as this one, not just so I can manifest their ideas in tangible (if super-complex) mental images but also so I can remember them more clearly and appreciate them more. There is some tremendous prose here on casual encounters and on places such as Marais and Clichy, and some terse but provocative analyses of works of art that Miaojin sought inspiration from. (She shares my total adoration of the films of Theo Angelopoulos. If only she had lived to see his Eternity and a Day, and to see him win the Palme d’Or for it!) But mostly, this is a document of volatile emotions, which are not easy to trace and not easy to know—in the sense that one feels language is not enough for Miaojin to express herself. Her words, pure and abundant as they are, cannot keep up with her constantly fluctuating feelings, and she and the reader become dislocated in time. Sequences of events running from A to B matter little. Suicide was her means of escape from Heidegger’s house of language, and also from time. Nonetheless—this is a book I need more time with than this fifty-books-a-year challenge may permit, since I’d like to discover more connections between the nuances of Miaojin’s diction and the assumptions I have just drawn. (Look at the repetitions, the unhooked clauses, and the fusillade of disjointed adjectives in the excerpt above.) What I can be certain of right now at this very raw hour is that Miaojin dealt with her despondency in destructive ways—such as suicide and other behaviors that may have concerned her addressees—yet she also did so in productive ways—such as writing these epistles. The two are distinct but linked and cannot be unlinked. They amount to a blunt report from a deep abyss, which is beyond my criticism. But take my word for it: you should read this.

Grade: No. I cannot sully this book by assigning it a grade.

Next week: Another text based on real life and dealing with the suicide of a writer: Carlos Fuentes’ The Old Gringo, a spin on the life of Ambrose Bierce.

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52 Weeks of Literature, Week Three: “Last Words from Montmartre” by Qiu Miaojin

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