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What Humans Want

Cleopatra's Nose: 39 Varieties of DesireCleopatra's Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire by Judith Thurman

Reviewed by Brigitte Frase
Minneapolis Star Tribune

Judith Thurman's book of essays possesses the three cardinal virtues of nonfiction: Its prose is stylish and often witty; it delves into various topics with hungry curiosity, and it is very, very intelligent. Thurman takes her subjects seriously, giving the same respect and in-depth analysis to "Hump the Grinder's Hair Wars" as she does to the novels of Gustave Flaubert.

All but one of the pieces were first published in the New Yorker magazine over the past 20 years. They begin as reviews -- of books, art, fashion -- and then ripen and deepen into psychologically astute essays. As the biographer of two complex, often maddening women -- Isak Dinesen and Colette -- Thurman became a wily and resourceful spy in the domain of desire: our hungers for sex and love, of course, but also for attention, power, danger, catharsis, degradation, self-erasure, for new sensations, for beauty or perfection, and also for the despoilment of beauty and perfection, without which there can be no eroticism.

Her chosen subjects, a majority of them women, do not traipse lightly through the world. They are furies, fearless explorers of human frontiers, inventors of theatrical selves. Take Diane Arbus, the subject of "Exposure Time." She was greedy for experiences of the uncanny. Her photographs of misfits, whether handicapped, loony, hideous or merely sad, have the power to profoundly trouble and implicate the viewer; we can't help staring. Why did they consent to pose? "Everyone with a true and false self secretly knows the answer. The yearning for love is, in part, a desire to become visible as one really is to the Other, though every time one dares to let oneself be seen, one risks being seen through."

As portrayed in "Angels and Instincts," the pioneering Julia Margaret Cameron, who took up photography in middle age in 1864, is a sublimely -- or is it monstrously -- gifted bundle of contradictions. Her pictures of children are eroticized. They exude "the glamour that a carnal, even predatory, appetite imparts." On the other hand, her portraits of great men and women in English letters are iconic. She shrouded her subjects in black velvet from the neck down, intuiting that "dress is the perishable flesh in a photograph, emotion its bones, and her greatest portraits have thus been preserved from the rot of quaintness." Thurman has a knack for this kind of aphoristic summing-up of a complicated topic.

Her psychological insights, loosely Freudian, penetrate her thorny subjects with an exemplary economy, swooping down on them with lightning speed. About Leni Riefenstahl, who created her own legend, she observes that "narcissism is often a kind of trance that insulates its subjects from feelings of worthlessness."

Many essays are about fashion, treating it not as a trivial pursuit of the chic and moneyed, but as the preeminent domain of beauty and its transgressions, of disguise and invention, of the making and remaking of identity. Her subjects include Madame de Pompadour, Marie Antoinette, Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli, Bill Blass and Ralph Lauren.

What especially interests her are the experimental designers who change the way we inhabit and see our bodies. Chanel gave women a uniform that sheathes fragility and insecurity and signals efficiency and competence. But in liberating "the natural line of the body," she also ushered in a "new form of tyranny -- the oppressive maintenance of a svelte, toned silhouette." She made elegant, ascetically beautiful clothes. The same cannot be said of "guerrilla" designer Rei Kawakubo (the Misfit), whose clothes have been called "brutal." She hides the body and warps its silhouette, sometimes giving a jacket three arms or none, of different lengths. She "ennobled poor materials and humbled rich ones, which were sent off to be reeducated in the same work camp with elasticated synthetics and bonded polyester."

The one clunky essay in this collection is "The Candidate's Wife," a carefully neutral profile of Teresa Heinz Kerry that is boiler-plate, on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand journalism. I suspect that Thurman found her less interesting than the rest of her charismatic and glamorous cast, from Cleopatra to Jackie Kennedy, whom she dissects and/or celebrates as emblematic players in the human comedy.

Brigitte Frase of Minneapolis also reviews books for the Los Angeles Times.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Cleopatra's Nose: 39 Varieties of Desire Used Hardcover $4.95

One Response to "What Humans Want"

    Mark Brandfass January 23rd, 2008 at 7:35 am

    Well done. The first three paragraphs
    caught my attention, a glimpse of lace
    beneath the dress. The sentence on the essential connection between eros and destruction sold this review for me. I will buy this book.

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