Girlie Show: The Solitude of the Self

Girlie Show: Edward Hopper (1882-1967)

Like most eminent artists, Edward Hopper’s paintings portray not only an image of the world, he also communicates a frame of mind.  In Hopper’s case, that state of mind is the sense that each of us is ultimately and unconditionally alone in an indifferent universe.  Nevertheless, middle-class decorum is always preserved by the people in his paintings; there are no Edvard Munch-like screams of spiritual angst in Hopper’s paintings and prints.

People are never smiling in Hopper’s paintings; in fact, they show no emotion at all. In Edward Hopper’s world, everyone is lost in an unending rut of work overtime, rattling El trains, cheap fluorescent diners, and bad dates.  Everything has fallen tensely quiet, and this anxious, disquieting mood haunts even the urban landscapes, in which the only person around is you, the viewer.   Here every man is an island. Hopper has become perhaps the most famous and beloved American artist of the past century by picturing the disquieting film noir isolation lurking within the glass-and-steel heart of our modern metropolises, the frustrating paradoxical feeling so completely alone when we’re so together.

Lonely men in shirt sleeves sit on the curb outside vacant stores and peer down at cracks in the pavement.  Or they prop themselves upright in lawn chairs, beside deserted highways and stare vacantly into the empty distance.   Are they coming close to the limit of what they can tolerate?  Or are they still looking for something out of life, something that has already passed them by, unseen?   It’s impossible to tell, for Hopper paintings tantalize, raise questions and leave us speculating about the meaning of their mute dramas.

Women are also nearly always isolated, cut off from human contact; they often appear to be just waiting.  Dressed up in what seems her best outfit, a 1920s twenty-something sips coffee alone at night in a brightly lit diner.  She has taken the table closest to the door, kept on her hat and coat, and only removed the glove from the hand that lifts her cup.  There is no one else around. Has she been stood up by her date, or is she, in the old phrase, all dressed up with no place to go?

The figures in Hopper’s paintings simply cannot connect, make connections or emotionally relate to each other.  Hopper painted the feeling that is familiar to most of us, the state of melancholy sadness embedded in existence, in our intimate knowledge of the solitude of the self.  In one picture, a young husband is hunched over his newspaper, while his wife who looks elegantly dressed for a night out on the town, distractedly looks away, fingering the keys of an upright piano.

In Hopper, even the strutting burlesque club stripper of Girlie Show (1941), garishly festooned with pasties, G-string, and heavily rouged cheeks, looks vacantly into the air rather than at the faces of her unseen clientele.

Michael Dirda has written a more extensive piece about Hopper’s work in The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription).

Interested readers can look through The Edward Hooper Scrapbook, compiled by the Smithsonian American Art museum.

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On Listening, Paying Attention, Recognition and Loving Relationships

Thoughts on Recognition and Loving Relationships

Edward Hopper: Summer Evening

Recently, I pointed out an article that Peggy Noonan had published in The Wall Street Journal.  She noted that, “Barack Obama has a great thinking look.  I mean the look he gets on his face when he’s thinking, not the look he presents in debate, where they all control their faces knowing they may be in the reaction shot and fearing they’ll look shrewd and clever, as opposed to open and strong.  I mean the look he gets in an interview or conversation when he’s listening and not conscious of his expression.  It’s a very present look.  He seems more in the moment than handling the moment.  I’ve noticed this the past few months, since he entered the national stage.

While Noonan was talking about her observations within the context of a political perspective, for me her comments resonated with the more personal issue of developing a loving, mutually reciprocal relationship.  Noonan pointed out a capacity to listen, to hear the other, to pay attention to the other.  The process of paying real attention to the other involves having the experience with/of the other perceived as outside the self, as well as an experience with/of my subjective conceptualization or impression of the other.

But beyond attention, we have both a need for recognition by the other, as well as wishes to be able to recognize the other in return, to experience a cherished other and have a co-constructed personal involvement that is distinctively characterized by a sense of nourishing, mutual recognition.  However there is an inevitable tension between connection and separation, the self’s wish for absolute independence conflicts with the self’s need for recognition.  In trying to establish itself as an independent entity, the self must yet recognize the other as a subject like itself in order to be recognized by it.  This immediately compromises the self’s absoluteness and poses the problem that the other could be equally absolute and independent.

Each self wants to be recognized and yet to maintain its absolute identity: The self says, “I want to affect you, but I want nothing you do or say to affect me, I am who I am.”  In its encounter with the other, the self wishes to affirm its absolute independence, even though its need for the other and the other’s similar wish give the lie to it.

This confrontation with the other’s subjectivity and the limits of one’s self-assertion is a difficult one to mediate.  The need for recognition leads to a fundamental paradox; in the very moment of realizing our own independent will, we are dependent on another to recognize it.  At the very moment we come to understanding the meaning of I, myself, we are forced to see the limitations of that self.  At the moment when we understand that separate minds can share similar feelings, we begin to find out that these minds can also disagree.

The ideal resolution of the paradox of recognition is for it to continue as a constant tension between recognizing the other and asserting the self.  It is for this purpose that carrying on a co-constructed, mutually reciprocal loving relationship with another necessarily entails ongoing practice in the sustaining of contradiction.  The latter is an ability that is enhanced to the degree that we are willing to appreciate, preferably embrace, the uncertainty that is inherent to our involvement in everyday life, to the choices that we make and to what might possibly emerge from those choices.

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