Letter From An Unknown Frantic One

(Soundtrack: Pop Critical Radio–not nearly as good as Musique du Mouchette, but still a damned site [sick!] better than anything you’ll find on your radio dial)

Stanley Cavell describes “the melodrama of the unknown woman” (which he derives from Max Ophuls’ film Letter From An Unknown Woman, a paragon of the genre, no doubt, along with the author’s other favourites Stella Dallas, Gaslight, and Now, Voyager) as the negation of the “morally perfectionist” “comedies of remarriage”. They achieve this melancholy distinction by giving us protagonists who fail (usually through no fault of their own, it’s certainly not for lack of trying!) to reach the intersubjective plane which makes the philosophical adventure possible. For Cavell, there are many other types of adventure, and all of them are fuelled by irony (our only defense against “conformity”), but only moral perfectionism staves off the rot into cyncism by (almost magically) preventing the ironists in question from ironizing each other.

(I remain very skeptical about the applicability of this model to real life–and Cavell does acknowledge that it works far better on film, and that, even there, the relationships he prizes so highly are always on the verge of dissolution, or, perhaps more accurately, that the parties to it are continually turning toward and away from each other, as they also turn toward and away from the world–this is called “aversive thinking”) (yes, Aaron, these are the kind of questions philosophers ponder–and personally, I find them far from barren inquiries, even if–or perhaps because–they do not yield any specific answers…) As an(other) aside, I must also voice my bewilderment at the fact that Cavell persists in obliviousness to the works of William Dieterle–Portrait of Jennie is a finer instance of the genre in question than any of his pets…and so, for that matter, is Capra’s The Miracle Woman

Anyway, the quintessential/eponymous “melodrama of the unknown woman” revolves around the sending of a letter which, far from bringing its writer and reader together, actually heralds both of their deaths (and even causes one of them). These people die of miscommunication. Lisa has to die in order for Stefan remember/recognize her… Cavell makes a great case for interpreting Henry James’ “The Beast In the Jungle” in a similar fashion–the “beast” which John Marcher (and his enlisted lieutenant May Bartram) gird themselves to confront is, in fact, their anticipatory relationship itself! They miss every opportunity to declare themselves “present” to each other, preferring to think of “life” as something that they will confront together, rather than live through, and when the confrontation does come, it is over her dead body… Groundhog Day builds toward a similar climax–and then, magnificently, veers off into “comedy of remarriage” territory.

Now, I ask you: has the “marriage” between Marvel and its readers veered the other way, into “unknown territory”? There are no more letters pages. (besides, its been a long time since anyone at the “House of Ideas” understood how to respond to a letter in the key of Stan or Roy) In their place, we’ve got message boards. And we all know what a joke they are. As far as I can see, the only person working in superhero comics today capable of upholding the tradition of “serious fun” epitomized by the mid-sixities Marvels (“upholding” is not the same thing as “going retro”–in fact, the two are diametrically opposed to one another–nostalgia is the worst cynicism of all…), is Grant Morrison…which reminds me, We3 #1 is coming out on Wednesday! I’m ready!

Good night friends!


One comment

  1. Actually, at least some Marvel comics seem to still have letters pages. Rose and I have been getting New X-Men: Mutant Academy X, which has them. I have no idea if this book is the rule or the exception.
    If you have the chance, you might want to check out Scott Pilgrim some time. I think you may very well enjoy it.

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