Elatia Harris

Around last Newton’s Day, I began considering what to write about in this space once 2008 got underway. It was only natural to think of upcoming holidays that might also be headed for revaluation in the clear light of reason; if Newton had supplanted the Christ Child, then surely Marie Curie ought to elbow Mom, but I didn’t want to wait until May.  Riffling through a sexual Psy-Ops manual featuring leaflets distributed to combat soldiers during the wars of the 20th century — the image above is one such, a tasteful Japanese effort from WWII — I could not help recalling we had on the horizon a veritable festival of unreason: Valentine’s Day. 

Now what could that mean to us? Sure, pooh-pooh Valentine’s Day if you like, as nothing more than a tree-killing bonanza for greeting card manufacturers – but its roots go very deep. In 1969, St. Valentine, possibly a martyr of the 3rd Century, C.E., was let go by the Catholic Church as being just that little bit too nebulous for enforced feast day-keeping. But by then, the engraining in Western culture of this apocryphal saint as the patron of affianced couples was done, having been begun, many scholars argue, by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Parliament of Foules.


Twenty years after Chaucer, on Valentine’s Day, 1400, a High Court of Love was convened by noblewomen in Paris.  Nan Seuffert, writing about — among other things — women who kill, tells us in “Domestic Violence, Discourses of Romantic Love, and Complex Personhood in the Law,” an article for the Melbourne University Law Review, that this court was to have jurisdiction “over the rules of love, to hear disputes between lovers, and to hear appeals from other Courts of Love.” Organized in a non-hierarchical manner, the judges were chosen by women after reciting poetry, and judgments were made collectively. The Court of Love addressed “contracts of love, remedies for amorous betrayal, deceit and slander of lovers, responsibilities of separated lovers and punishment of violence against women. Further…the courts often considered disputes between women lovers and between male lovers. What we might today call transgendered identifications may also have been common.”

My, my, I was thinking: what a lot of fascinating stuff — eloquent relics of love gone sour enough to beg for the chat of well placed women — must have been produced in that High Court of Love, those 700 years ago in Paris.  But no such relic has come down to us, for these courts were more like salons or discussion groups than legal entities whose official evidence would survive to go on display as records of actual medieval jurisprudence.

The Museum of Broken Relationships


What about the present, then?  If one of us strode into a non-hierarchical High Court of Love, relics of our acute romantic distress in a special box tucked under an arm, what would those relics be? I found that two Croatian artists – former romantic partners – were on the very same wavelength, with their Museum of Broken Relationships, initiated in Zagreb in 2006.  As Kate Connolly, writing in The Guardian on October 29, 2007, observes, “Cutting the arms off his designer suits, putting her prized wine collection out on the street for passers-by, or burning the collection of love letters are just some of the ways in which jilted lovers are known to have exacted revenge at the end of relationships. But now there is another outlet for their pain – The Museum of Broken Relationships.” The MBR spent the fall and early winter of 2007 in Berlin, and has traveled to Skopje for a Macedonian spring. Plans for future travel include Stockholm, New York, L.A. and Buenos Aires.

There was no lack of media about the MBR, last fall especially, but it passed us by on 3QD, I’m afraid — are we too rational?  Some of us — still incomplete rationalists — are trying awfully hard to swear off the woo, and we may in that push be repressing altogether too enthusiastically even our vicariously Dionysian natures.

See that wedding dress in the photo above – and that hatchet? These are relics with fancy explanations, displayed in Tacheles, a 1930’s department store that’s since become an artists’ squat, where the MBR had its Berlin run.  At present, only a big roomful of the growing collection of artifacts can be installed at any one time, although the initiators of the project, Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic, hope that the MBR may one day find a permanent – and vast – home. Artifacts keep arriving, each with its story: the bike on which a wretched boy simply pedaled away from his unendurable love one hot summer day; the pricey coffeemaker that reminded its donor of too many attempts at a cozy connubial breakfast that somehow never took place; a pair of pink fur handcuffs, with keys; an evening gown which, its donor writes, “one New Year’s Eve was neglected to be put on.”

Boy/Girl, Boy/Boy and Girl/Girl Ruptures – and Their Traces


Since the MBR focuses on physical artifacts of failed romantic relationships, couples out for winter entertainment in Berlin found it a popular destination – fingers crossed inside their mittens, I presume.  Everyone reading this – and the very one writing it – has had some form of romantic disappointment of which there exists a relic — if only a memory artifact — of such symbolic power that it matters not at all that it no longer takes up three-dimensional space, if it ever did.  Perhaps the couple in the painting above left, A Difference of Opinion, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, will be stepping decorously wide of birdbaths forever after their kitschy tiff.   If I were one of the two unconscious women in Courbet’s Le Sommeil, top right, I might wake up mad, battling an urge to hurl that flower vase against a wall.  The scene here depicted has always appeared to me as one of those “it just happened” episodes, not a thing the principals made a habit of. The vase shards would do for a relic, as would the intact vase, if I ran off into the day with it.  Or just recalled it as a container of memories, without needing to own or destroy it. A musical instrument or a dried laurel wreath could be a manageable relic if things went South between the Greeks – one of whom is already pushing the other away — in the 6th century B.C.E. tomb painting, bottom right.  In either the virtual or the veridical Museum of Broken Relationships, literally anything in the surround of coupling can be the highly charged artifact of a failed romance.

But why be so literal-minded? A romance that fails need not be with a human. No, I’m not making an off-color observation, just stating a fact: some of our most torrid and keenly regretted romances are with ideas.

Cerebrally on Fire, to Crash More Cruelly Still

Lacordaire Taking care not to get too distracted by his Dominican garb, consider Fr. Dominique Lacordaire, painted in 1840 by Theodore Chasseriau.  The painting hangs in the Louvre, where it leaps out at you even among depictions of rabid 19th century fanaticism of many kinds. It is perhaps the most ardent face ever painted, as befits the personal history of Fr. Lacordaire, which I won’t go into here. When I first came upon it, I was not actually a grown-up, and it looked like every boy I’d ever seen in a University library who was so turned on by his reading that he could no longer stand it, and had to leave off to walk the aisles and stare lasciviously into carels full of girls.  This was a face that made me understand the willingness of Signor Settembrini and Fr. Naphta to duel to the death over an idea, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to do, in The Magic Mountain. It is still the face I see when I think of momentous first encounters with philosophy – the kind that truly carry you away, so that no one can bear you for upwards of a week.

Ideas of this sort have in common with romantic love the potential to let anyone beguiled by them down, most cruelly down. How horrible it was, when Nietzsche turned out not to be enough.  Being let down by Fritz is a torment even Fritz would have ranked high – Fritz, who was himself let down by Wagner. There is a twin quality of both religious and sexual dismay to it. And don’t try to tell me different, even if Nietzsche was not the one who did it to you. Because, if you’re reading this, you know what I mean — although you might choose to put it some other way.

It struck me that this kind of disappointment could be entirely characteristic of many 3QD readers. Not just those we know who are professors or grad students in math or philosophy, but readers and writers who are capable of being inspired to the limits of their being, and thrilled utterly, by the purely intellectual. Whoever has undergone this knows there are many possible aftermaths to it, some of them with artifacts worthy of inclusion in the Museum of Broken Relationships.

In Sorrow an Iron Door

As Tosca sings, I have lived for art, I have lived for love… What about those who have lived not just for but largely through art?  Whether as creators, or as non-artists compellingly subject to the experience of art who have, like artists, put art at the center of their lives?  I once knew the owner of a riding stable in Mid-coastal California who followed Dr. Boehm around the world, to wherever he was conducting Beethoven – Fidelio especially. Without attempting to meet him or to draw attention to herself in any way, she was in his audience as often as she could manage to be, and that was very often.  She had found the ideal interpreter, she felt, of the music that most ravished her – nothing could be allowed to come between her and the experience of it. Whether it ever let her down and broke her heart I never knew.  If it did, Rilke had words for the phenomenon, for the devastating failure of art at just the time one most needs to be borne up by it.  Words that sound even better in German: Das Kunst ist im Gluck eine Zier, im Ungluck ein eiserne Tur. (In happiness art is a jewel, in sorrow an iron door.)

When this happens, if you are an artist, you may have barely survived a horrendous rupture with your own source of inspiration. When, on the other hand, things are going well between you and your muse, it is as if all forces had joined for an inevitable work of art to occur, and you had channeled those forces so that the work bears your imprint yet came from someplace far beyond yourself. Poussin paints it in The Inspiration of the Poet, below. Eyes gazing upward, the poet is thronged with divine aid he does not see, an unearthly golden light shining from low on the left.  Apollo and the muse, their intent faces in shadow, look steadily not at the poet but at his notebook, to which the god also points.  In the moment of creation – not later, when the work may have found an audience, but in the moment of creation itself, when it really matters – putti are present with laurel crowns for the poet.  If, as an artist, you have had so much as one hour when you simply showed up for work and, lo… nobody could beat you, then you recognize what’s going on here.


But it’s not always like that, is it? Since I would very much like not to contribute to all the heartfelt prose there is about the failure of artistic inspiration, I won’t.  A related matter, however, is the plain parallel between the presence of the muse and the enchantment of sexual love, between the departure of the muse and the cold eye cast upon sexual love. And this is where the Museum of Broken Relationships might be justified in soliciting a few artifacts from poets, painters, architects and musicians, for the frequent overlap of muse and romantic partner suggests worlds within worlds of fairly glittering dismay.


Giorgio de Chirico has left us his own version of The Poet and His Muse, c. 1925.  And in it, so much is amiss. The poet slouches head down in an armchair, his materials nowhere in sight, an icon of giving up.  The muse at first glance appears to comfort rather than inspire, but her torso is filled with knobby, pointy objects, including a right triangle – there will be no crying at her breast. And her right arm, the one that would direct the poet’s efforts, is altogether missing. The featureless faces of both poet and muse encrypt forever the secrets of their disastrous union. They are but two messengers, come together to share their awful news – and there cannot be an artist who fails to recognize the impasse.


The Ukrainian academic painter Anna Bilinksa-Bohdanowicz must have understood the problem intimately, as she reveals in her Self-Portrait with Apron and Brushes, painted in 1887. Her tools at hand, leaning forward into the mirror, she seems to be showing us that inspiration isn’t strictly necessary, only uncompromising will and the readiness to work. Like many very well known Western European women artists of the same era who left self-portraits, Bilinksa-Bohdanowicz has painted herself tiny-waisted, in stays, entirely girded for the business of the day. She appears exhausted, though, anticipating only the kind of work that need not bring extraordinary rewards. Within several years of completing this self-portrait, she was dead at 36.

All Threads Lead to Rilke

The artists, writers, thinkers and lovers on the cusp of Modernism speak urgently to us now, all in their graves for three quarters of a century.  Like ourselves, they tended to think love and sex should coincide, although many of them lost decades trying to effect that coincidence. Our subject being the Valentine’s Day one month from now, and how we might — as a community — mark it, I believe it is more delicate to write of heroic longing, and the exigencies it brings, than of the other thing.  That special pre-Modern longing has no finer exemplar than Lou Andreas-Salome, a virgin – and enraged about it, too – until she was more than 30.  Today, reading Lou is rather difficult; for a horribly intelligent Russian girl who kept all the best company in Europe, she furnishes us with too little that is readable. One achingly lonely day in her late 20’s, however, she surpassed herself – just not in writing.  So great that day was her longing for Rilke, with whom she was in love, and corresponded, that she actually ate his letters.


Reading Rilke’s letters makes one quite see why.  Knowing, certainly, how astonishing they were, he was often traveling, making camp at a correspondence-necessitating remove from the people who most interested him. The great poet, the first to write of going barefoot, the first to look at the exposed interior walls of a bombed building as if they had a story to tell, was married for exactly one year to a German sculptor, and died at 51, from an infection contracted when, already ill with leukemia, he pricked his finger on the thorn of a rose.

The Love of Animals – Not Afterthought but Aftermath

Animal lovers might send in pet snapshots to the Museum of Broken Relationships, not because animals can make you deeply, deeply unhappy by doing anything but getting sick or lost, or by dying, but because some animal lovers have abandoned romantic hopes of other humans, so that the sheer relief and sweetness of having an animal companion instead of a boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse is, itself, an artifact of at least one failed human/human relationship, and the pet snapshot is the document of the artifact. On Valentine’s Day, I may come clean about this or I may not – but her name is Lucy, and she is a 12-lb. poodle.

My friend, neighbor and fellow animal lover Prof. David Mitten, who teaches classical archeology at Harvard, converted to Islam in Turkey in the 1960’s.  He tells me about a tradition I’ve not heard of elsewhere – that Muslims he knew in Turkey believed the love of animals prepared young children for the love of God. That is, through animals, a child learns of love entailing both duties to perform and perfect trust, which is how God means to be loved.

Who can quarrel with that wordless love which is yet a passionate and soulful attachment, which mingles tender care and emotional abandon?  The real nature of a beloved animal, including its sense of itself, is – like God – unknowable, so we project, imagine and endow it with power.  We are allowed to love our animals beyond reason because it’s “trivial, but not ungratifying,” as Nancy Mitford shrewdly remarked.

Frida Kahlo, in Me and My Parrots, 1941, paints herself amid birds that defend and counsel her, perching on her shoulders like Minerva’s owl, crowding her lap like toddlers.  Can they break her heart?   Probably not, but we know that Diego Rivera did – many, many times. La vida es un gran relajo, she used to say – life is a carnival.


Take the 3QD Valentine’s Day Challenge

Some readers, whose e-mail addresses I have been able to obtain, have already heard from me about the 3QD Valentine’s Day Challenge.  Put simply, it is thus: if you were asked to donate an artifact to the Museum of Broken Relationships, what would that artifact be? 

In today’s post, I wanted to amplify on the rather narrow meaning of romantic love hewed to by the founders of the MBR and its donors.  A poem, a puppy, a film, a painting, a building, a song, and perhaps above all an idea have the potential to incite us to soul-pounding love, to carry us literally away, and examining what is left after feelings of that kind have fallen away will, I believe, reveal the community of writers and readers here in all its creativity and diversity.  Some readers have written back that their emotional life is not a train wreck, and they cannot therefore imagine what to contribute; I hope today’s post may point them towards another reading of the challenge.

On Monday, February 11, when I post the material I shall have gathered, we shall see what there is to see. I’ve already got hold of some great stuff, but 3QD has many more readers than commenters, and I want to cast my net wide.

Please write to me – elatiaharris AT gmail DOT com. If you send visuals, lower their resolution and otherwise scale them to facilitate uploading, no wider than 600 pixels. If you prefer to anonymize yourself via a yahoo account, I promise I won’t analyze your prose style for identity clues, although my mother showed me how to do that, many years ago.  I hope to receive your contribution by February 8, the better to orchestrate it into a real conversation with all the others instead of merely listing contributions in the order they arrive.

Happy bittersweet musing, and — thanks for sending in those thoughts!