Eleanor, or, the Rejection of the Progress of Love by Anna Moschovakis: A Compass Forfeited
I first encountered Anna Moschovakis’s work through a piece, somewhere between a poem and flash-fiction, published on Black Sun Lit’s website. Love, Anti- (notes toward). A particular quote prompted me to seek out a review copy from Coffee House Press: “I recognize, from my western philosophical formation, the triad of eros, agapé, philia. I absorbed it as lust, altruism, friendship, often wondering in the intervening years how much damage that taxonomy, trivialized by time and lack of attention, has done.” She captured so perfectly the elusive thing that is lost in academic analysis of the parts of life that should be left uncategorized, for the living. I was hooked on Moschovakis--after finishing Eleanor, or, the Rejection of the Progress of Love, I immediately ordered a previously published collection of her poetry, They and We Will Get into Trouble for This, and then began re-reading the book I had just completed, feeling that surreal sensation that a book had been written just for me. Given Moschovakis’s poetic background, her prose is marvelously rich with meaning, conceptually dense and precise in phrasing. I puzzled for days how to pull together my thoughts on it, spitting thoughts out into a voice recorder and on paper, inhaling anything on the internet I could find pertaining to Moschovakis.
Eleanor, or, the Rejection of the Progress of Love is her first major foray into prose, an almost accidental foray; it is an expansion of a previously published 14 page-long short-story pamphlet entitled She Got Up which was published by The Physiocrats in 2013. Eleanor weaves together stories of a woman who is in the editing process of a book and the book she is writing about a woman named Eleanor who, after her laptop is stolen, becomes liberated by this loss of mechanization. Eleanor then begins to break down her routines and entrapments as they pertain to her place in late capitalism and her relationship to love and her past, following a haphazard and impulsive path loosely aligned by a reverence for the man who liberated her by denying her the accrued data of her past. Routines manifest in Eleanor’s life in a way that reduces opportunity for emotion and strips her into her most robotic form, a non-committal, no-strings life where even sex is made to be as efficient as possible. These routines seem to result from a “thing that happens”, an unnamed traumatic event which shaped her ability to act autonomously, and keeps her in a cycle of reenacting culpability, inhibiting her from moving forward. That the narrator (and Moschovakis) made the decision to keep the trauma unnamed I found to be interesting from a psychotherapy perspective. Often, in trauma therapy circles, one of the ground rules is often “do not name the trauma”-- do not specify what it was that put you in the circles, do not rehash the details and trap yourself in them. The goal of this intentional avoidance is to focus on the emotions surrounding the thing and its gruesome consequences, to work through the thing without placing yourself directly in it.
Pertaining to the idea of moving forward psychologically, the distinction between progress and progression must be explicated. A progression is little more than a sequence which is not necessarily held to a standard of positive or negative movement, but is simply sequential. To experience progress, however, implies that the movement is fitting with an existing standard, moving upward and onward in the direction assigned by a compass. Progress has a metric that progression lacks, yet who approves the metric of progress? The double-entendre title of the book is partially taken from a series of four paintings by Jean-Honoré Fragonard entitled The Progress of Love, which was commissioned by Louis XV’s mistress Madame du Barry for her salon. The paintings sequentially depicts various phases of love: The Pursuit, The Meeting, The Lover Crowned, and The Love Letters. A chubby cupid oversees the ordeal of courtship and love from a smug perch, choreographing the dance of idyllic love abounding with written communication and fruits. The series of gestures the paintings depict form a kind of prescribed, highly idealized notion of how things are to occur or what humans should aspire to. Early on in Eleanor, Moschovakis alludes to a particular dance from the film Pina, a tribute to choreographer Pina Bausch. In the dance, a man in a suit acts as a bleak cupid, directing a couple through a series of motions which culminates in a man holding a woman in his arms and dropping her. The director forces them to repeat their motions until a habit is formed, then walks away, leaving the woman to leap stupidly and boldly into the inevitable fall, frantically stuck in a programmed cycle. In the end, for whatever reason, Madame du Barry rejected the Fragonard paintings, and they are now housed at the Frick. An alternate path is forged, a new gate to new alternatives open, the world becomes bigger than the West and time ticks on. To "reject progress", in Moschovakis’s terms, is not necessarily to degress (although it may appear to be degression within the framework of progress), but to reject the framework of progress itself. As an alternative, Moschovakis proposes the notion of “getting up”, to become unstuck, to arise from the lethargy of entrapping habits.
Although its prose is palatable, Eleanor is a fairly cerebral text, often in the vein of the anti-social autofiction of late, which primarily concerns the human relationship to self and thought rather than people. Moschovakis does not shy away from contemplating the age-old question of the extent to which fiction is colored by imagination, and to what extent it is autobiographical. It is, at the end of the day, a book which is concerned with process as it pertains to reading and writing, art and understanding. As the narrator is in the process of editing her book, a critic named Aidan, who is going through something of a breakdown and latches onto the narrator and her book as a kind of anchor, suggests that the book the narrator is writing is autofiction. Moschovakis seems to ask her readers not to trust even that the first-person narrator in the midst of process is entirely autobiographical, that maybe the critic was correct, or possibly Moschovakis’s experiences are dispersed throughout her characters. For you, a life-changing experience in Ethiopia; for you, a crisis with aging; for you, stability; for you, instability.
The critic confides in the narrator that he may be a product of incest and the narrator extends a branch of “friendship”, albeit a mistaken notion of friendship as it largely consists of the critic monologuing and sending streams of disjointed fragments that evade any form of communication based on dialogue. Communication is big for Moschovakis. So is process. Moschovakis’s work is notoriously informed by Wittgenstein, in the sense of the topic of (mis)communication as well as a prose style that is integrated with process. On Wittgenstein, she said in a 2016 interview with Shane Barnes of Flavorwire, “...part of what to me, as a non-philosopher drew me to Wittgenstein, is the way in which revision of ideas and revisitation of formulations of ideas remain in the text, and so there are returns and revisions and it’s not like everything is edited down to a message which is then delivered whole. There’s something that feels like it’s left in there, of the process of thinking, and thinking is one of my subjects.” Incorporating the (alleged) editing process into the text achieves the effect of exposed HVAC in a restaurant, a scene in a movie that reveals the armor of a woman’s structural undergarments, or a computer with a transparent plastic cover that allows you to see into the circuitry. It serves the purpose of raising the question of how fiction reflects on reality, either in writing or interpretation, and how relationships may develop on a ground of misunderstanding or projected self. The aforementioned notion of progress and progression may also be applied to misunderstanding of the text. Reading the text critically, I become aware that I may be conjecturing about Moschovakis’s intent or making her out to be someone she is not, misinterpreting her intent. To shun progress is a reminder to shun expectations of accuracy and correctness, to conjecture in order to shape understanding, however skewed the result. Wittgenstein’s big ideas evade my understanding--it’s that paradox of communication philosophy being difficult to communicate and understand.
I compiled a substantial document, aggregating the mass of references to literature, art, and film Moschovakis makes throughout the text. The character Eleanor is a particularly avid reader, however, not more than a listing is granted to many texts she absorbs--I was somewhat afronted that one of my all-time favorite books, Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles, which I thought would tie in well to the themes of Eleanor, received this treatment. Some pieces are granted more attention--in particular, an Ashbery translation of a violent, druggy poem by Rimbaud, “Barbarian”, as well as to Rimbaud’s wild and wandering life trajectory. Impact is also given to Marina Abromovic’s performance art, the film Pina (or, that one particular dance in the film), as well as The Progress of Love. Moschovakis shared an anecdote in an artist statement for the Poetry Society of America: after having spent a month as an artist-in-residency in Ethiopia, where upon completion of a reading, someone confronted her saying, “You have all of these references to philosophy and private constraints and poetics in your work; what about the reader or listener who doesn't share these references?” In spite of this, or because of this, she bombards the reader with media they very likely have little knowledge of.
It is, however, less important to the text that Moschovakis alludes to particular pieces than that she explores the act of self-discovery through art, that Eleanor embarks on a trip toward meaning, has her own personal relationship to art, and arrives at conclusions of meaning that are not necessarily dictated by the external, but curates her own collection of symbols that guide her, as if constellations guiding a ship’s nighttime path toward unknown lands. These symbols have stories and context, imposed by artistic intent but interpreted as a source of direction and guidance by the viewer. I don’t know if I got Eleanor right, or if there is a right way to perceive Eleanor. I can, however, now recognize Eleanor in the sky.