--2 Lee on Literature: The Black Swan
         
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Lee on Literature: The Black Swan

February 16, 2012, 4:00 am
By Lee Miller

This past week, actress Demi Moore entered a Utah rehabilitation center to treat substance abuse, an eating disorder and exhaustion, following the end of a six-year marriage to actor Ashton Kutcher (That 70’s Show, Two and a Half Men), who was fifteen years her junior.

The starlet, part of the 1980s “Brat Pack,” is best known for her rolls in the hit movies St. Elmo’s Fire, Ghost, A Few Good Men, Striptease and GI Jane and was the first female actor to be paid more that $10 million to work in a motion picture. Moore, who will be 50 this November, faces the same emotional turmoil as the main character, Rosalie, experienced in the Nobel Prize-winning author Thomas Mann’s 1954 classic novella, The Black Swan.

The Black Swan is the story of a female “mid-life crisis,” a counterpart to Mann’s famous male story on the same subject, Death in Venice. In The Black Swan, 50-year-old Rosalie begins menopause. She has been widowed for 10 years, after her husband died fighting in World War I. Rosalie lives with two children, a 29-year-old daughter named Anna and a son named Eduard. When an American in his 20s named Ken Keaton is hired to tutor her son Eduard, Rosalie’s life—physical, spiritual, sexual, mental and emotional—is turned on its head. She develops a tremendous crush on Ken, which has a profound effect. Friends and family notice that a glint returns to her eye and she appears to grow younger, glowing and vibrant, while her menstruation miraculously returns. Rosalie finally confides her not-so-secret crush to her daughter, Anna, and the two women discuss the situation behind closed doors. Like the tea that mother and daughter sip, talk soothes and stimulates at the same time.

Anna is a very rational thinker, a proponent of intellectualism. Around age 20, Anna’s first love left her to marry another woman. Anna believed it was because of her clubbed foot and never had confidence that such an attractive man would stay with her. She became a strict intellectual afterward, absorbed in abstract art and cubism. Anna is completely befuddled as to why her mother is drawn to a simpleton like Ken. Rosalie, in contrast, is a woman of emotion. She finds Ken’s broad shoulders to be exceedingly compelling and wishes that her daughter would paint a “beautiful floral still life, a fresh spray of lilac, so true to life that one smelt the ravishing perfume.” Through these two voices, Mann explores the relationship between the sexual and the rational, the physical and the mental, love and self-deception, nature and intellect, life and death. Mann points out that nature often causes disharmony between the rational mind and the emotional body; that the ingenuine playboy may have a more noble goal than the forthright intellectual who suppresses her true lust; that happiness is very closely aligned to suffering, as life is derived from death.

With Anna’s reserved blessing, Rosalie invites Ken on a family sightseeing trip to Holterhof Castle. Two symbolic events occur during this Sunday outing. First, Rosalie and Ken separate from the rest of their tour group and kiss in a secret chamber of the castle. Instead of excitement and vibrancy, the two experience a tomb-like smell of death. When Ken pulls some stale bread out of his vest to feed black swans on the castle grounds, Rosalie grabs the bread, warm from Ken’s body, and takes a bite. A black swan stretches its neck, beats its wings and hisses at Rosalie for taking food that belongs elsewhere. This misdirected communion, a symbolic body of Christ, is not meant for Rosalie.

Ken and Rosalie plan to secretly meet the next day, but Rosalie falls violently ill and cannot make the rendezvous. She grows rapidly worse in health, as doctors determine that her bleeding comes not from a rejuvenated menopause, but from a ravaging ovarian cancer. In and out of consciousness, Rosalie dreams of the hissing black swan once again, and dies. Her attempt at reviving youth was nothing but illusion, as the vicious force of nature tested her judgment. Rosalie’s realization came too late, but for Demi Moore, there is still time to find a harmony between her rational mind and an emotional body, to reconcile her relationship to nature.


Lee Miller is the author of the Bengali novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), the story of how Mrs. Sona Choudhury’s thwarted love as a teenager influences the raising of her own family later in life.

 

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