A Response to Boudicca Fox-Leonard, as well as
a Fortnightly Review of
by Camille Vivier
By CHRISTOPHER LANDRUM.
I HAVE NO complaint, critique nor retort regarding Boudicca Fox-Leonard’s declaration “Why I’m So Relieved I’m Not a French Woman” which appeared in The Telegraph last September. I do, however, have a few questions:
Is it so shameful to seek beauty? To seek it in books? In the human body? Or how the beauty of the body or of a book can reveal, whether intentionally or otherwise, some speck of the inner beauty of the mind and the greater ineffable beauty of the soul?
And books that start with the beauty of the human body—what do they offer? A double surprise in being a beautiful book as well as a book about beauty?
But what if the book was just about one particular beautiful body? Like you see with those large, sometimes heavy coffee-table books of Marilyn Monroe, Michelangelo’s David, or Bowie and Iman: what if instead of one beautiful body, the opening of the book meant encountering two versions of one body, very, very nearly alike (but not quite)?
Thus only four amino acids, coupled into two pairs, offer an almost unlimited prospect for variation.
—Jerome M. Levi
Some selves are more self than others
When Parisienne bodybuilder, model and mother, Sophie Roget teamed up with her twin sister Elodie (also a model and actress) as well as French photographer Camille Vivier, the results were transmuted into a collection of photographs across eighty folio-sized pages entitled Sophie (2019)—a set of visuals offering a radical juxtaposition of art deco style alongside the imagery of Continental avant garde from the 1920s–30s (perhaps with odes to Satie and Picasso’s 1924 surrealist ballet Mercure), all alongside an admixture of the early film-work of Bergman and Fellini from the 1950s—with perhaps, even a wink and nod to English actor Tim Curry’s role in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). The book is sometimes strange, sometimes sexy, but certainly a book of photography of some artistic merit on the subject of contemporary French feminine beauty—something quite afar from the kitsch chic of those oh-so-many Audrey Hepburn prints sold along the banks of the Seine.
Imagine the surprise of seeing one of these photographed bodies in a white dress with a blonde burst of hair—very much like Marilyn immediately before her skirt flies up in The Seven Year Itch (1955), a little bit of Dolly Parton in luminescence, a bit of the rosy-hue reminiscent of Enchantress Gilda of the Land of Oz—but beside that body in this particular book stands a shadow of the model, black-clad, hair hidden under a tight hood—very much like Death in Ingmar Berman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), but a femininized character of Death, one with equally foreboding charm and matching mystery as her white counterpart. The viewer must confront white queen and black queen—the book is their chessboard—at least a portion of the book is—each half a harlequin in a carnival of dichotomy.
In chess, the player intends to make his moves and to have some effect upon the system. In a language, on the contrary, there is no premeditation. Its pieces are moved, or rather modified, spontaneously and fortuitously.
—Ferdinand de Saussure
To see beauty twofold, nearly matching, nearly mirrored, completely twinning, but not in every exact feature and feeling, but certainly a sense of balance between them, the compassionate balance of Islamic ihsan, the balance inherent in the Dao, the balance of Emersonian compensation—the balance in the way one musical note completes a chord. “Of course, there had to be two,” the viewer-reader realizes, “It could not have been any other way,” like two sides to one page.
‘The life we lead in common’, the younger Simeuse said in a melancholy voice to Laurence, ‘is an abnormality; so is the love we bear one another and the love you have for us. Perhaps it’s because twins are an exception in nature that all those whose life-stories have come down to us have been unfortunate. As for us, see how inexorably destiny purses us.’
But suppose a viewer-reader looks too hard and burns their eyes, as children do with the sun, or their lips, as Isaiah did in the throne room, or those who saw the Gorgons and turned to stone. Yet some say a few adventurers were compelled to permanently behold Medusa not because her hideousness inspired terror, but because she was so magnificent to gaze upon that the gazers knew—with a terrifying purity—she or he might forever be both scarred and poisoned by her beauty, as if having been bitten by one of her snakes. A few wise listeners of the myth realized that the coils of her hair weren’t really serpents, but only twisted metaphors, for to never be able to set eyes upon such tremendous beauty was a realization as terrifying as being bitten by dozens of adders. So when it comes to Medusa, one must look only upon her reflection in the mirror, her twin, her other self beyond herself, though the mind and spirit of both remain mysterious, permanently distant from the viewer.
A woman is not beautiful when her ankle or arm wins compliments, but when her total appearance diverts admiration from the individual parts of her body.
There is a moment in this book when one encounters a picture of Sophie as Cleopatra (though with a leopard skin top by Christian Dior). Her flexing, and the lighting upon her, makes her, as said in America, “chiseled,” as if carved by Michelangelo out of marble—only with Cleopatra we must instead imagine the sandstone carvings of ancient Egypt. Traditional Cleopatras are often buxom, sometimes a little plump, even a bit butterbally (boule de suif), though it must be admitted that in the 1963 film Cleopatra, a thirty-one-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, especially in the bathing scenes (there are several), is found by many viewers to be neither petite nor “thick” (another Americanism). But almost all Cleopatras portray themselves solely by the fortune of their good looks. To have been born a beautiful princess is a pretty lucky draw when it comes to human history. But Sophie’s physically fit Cleopatra of the twenty-first century adds a new twist to the mythology: here viewers encounter beauty from lucky genetics (as they have with all the other Cleopatras) but from that emerges the additional calm, classic beauty that comes from one’s dedication to things athletic. Sophie’s bodybuilding Cleopatra has earned (a portion, but certainly not the entirety of) her charm in a way most other Cleopatras—who simply sit around in their baths with their nearby baskets full of snakes—have not.
Good looks are a possession of great value in human relations; they are the first means of establishing goodwill between men, and no one can be so barbarous or so surly as not to feel their attraction in some degree. The body enjoys a great share in our being, and has an eminent place in it. Its structure and composition, therefore, are worthy of proper consideration.
It is only natural that this exposé must now morph into the final metaphor of a butterfly: a balance of two-twice-over all united in a single vision, something between synchronicity and singularity. For the anterior side of a butterfly’s wings may display a gorgeous bouquet of dun beside swirls of ash gray, all intertwined with the golden hue of summer hay, while on the posterior side of the wings, one might see streams of silver on a blanket of indigo, interspersed with glimmers of crimson. That is to say the butterfly has two sides, both beautiful, balanced and diverse, yet undeniably individual. So the bottom-side of the butterfly may be brown, and the top-side blue, but the wings are matching no matter which way you look, wings perfectly proportioned for optimal flight—all united in a single spark of life—for yet there are ways to view it as two-things-in-one, or, perhaps, two-things-and-one. For what is any butterfly but the results of overcoming obstacles, going through tremendous changes, then, emerging as something completely new and now capable of (instead of crawling as one does in early life) flying in her prime to get where she needs to go in order to achieve her goals?
There is no secret to creation; but every creation has a secret.
Christopher Landrum lives in Austin, Texas. His work has previously appeared in The Berlin Review of Books, and Real Clear News of Chicago. An archive of his work in The Fortnightly Review is here. He writes about what he reads at Bookbread.com.
Honoré de Balzac, Une Ténébreuse Affaire (A Murky Business) (c. 1841), trans. Herbert J. Hunt, (New York: Penguin, 1972, 1985), “II. Corentin’s Revenge,” pp. 160–61; Albert Camus, Le Mythe de Sisyphe (The Myth of Sisyphus) (c. 1942), trans. Justin O’Brien, (New York: Vintage Books, 1959), p. 114; Jerome M. Levi, “Structuralism and Kabbalah: Sciences of Mysticism or Mystifications of Science?” Anthropological Quarterly 82 (Fall 2009): pp. 929–84 at p. 971; Michel de Montaigne, Essais (Essays), trans. J. M. Cohen, (New York: Penguin, 1958, 1988; Cohen’s numeration follows the Édition Municipale), (II, xvii) “On presumption,” p. 199; Ferdinand de Saussure, Cours de linguistique générale (Course in General Linguistics) (c. 1916), ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehays with Alberte Riedlinger, trans. Roy Harris (c. 1955), (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1983), pp. 87–89; Seneca, Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium (Letters from a Stoic), trans. Robin Campbell, (New York: Penguin Classics, 1969), Letter XXXIII, p. 79; Paul Valéry, Cahiers (Notebooks Vol. I), trans. Paul Gifford et al; ed. Brian Stimpson; based on the French Cahiers, ed. Judith Robinson-Valéry, (New York: P. Lang, 2000), (1912. G 12, IV, 672), p. 327.)