Are There Any Readers Left: “Les Goddesses” and Reading and Writing in Public Solitude

Moyra Davey’s “Darling”

There was an interesting piece on the New Yorker blog a few days ago about a new video performance piece by artist Moyra Davey, appearing in the Whitney Biennial. In the video, “Les Goddesses,”

she paces decisively around her home speaking into a microphone about subjects both scholastic and revealing—the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, her sister’s struggle with addiction—her tone even and remote.

I wish I could get to New York to see this before it’s gone. It sounds like a fascinating, if potentially flawed, meditation on reading and writing and influence, and the idea that we are all becoming memoirists with ever-shrinking audiences. This rings especially true for a writer, of course; it’s hard to shake the idea sometimes that we’re only reading to write. As the Jessica Weisberg, writes:

Everyone, it seems, has a memoir to write; one wonders if there are any readers left or if they’re all too busy blogging. “Les Goddesses,” however, is a kind of elliptical self-portrait, contructed from a catalogue of what Davey reads. In one of her books, “The Problem of Reading,” which, like her video, falls somewhere between a critical study and a personal essay, Davey poses that “the most gratifying reading is the one that also entails the risk of producing a text of one’s own.” She believes, as Virginia Woolf wrote, that “the time to read poetry is when we are almost able to write it.” By turns, Davey is comforted and horrified by the isolation inherent to reading and writing. Even while she embeds herself in her apartment, she seeks ways of converting these activities into a public act. In her book, Davey asks, “What does it mean to spend a good part of one’s life alone in front a book? And if that is our choice, how are we to go about it?”

The result, it seems, is a sort of meditation/memoir/diary into process and privacy, and it sounds like something that I’d love to watch. (You can watch a brief excerpt here or above.) Our desire to explore art or history only to draw parallels to our own or make sense of our own experiences is hardly new, or news. All our human experiences come down to this in some way or another. And yet technologies like Facebook and Twitter, our blogs and Tumblrs–they all seem to be accelerating our own solipsism, our own isolation even as we share the most intimate details of our life online. That’s why this video seems interesting, and important now–particularly for those of us who spend so much time alone with our own lives as fodder for stories. And Davey seems to provide an example of how to weave autobiography in with reading in a way that deliberately blurs the lines between the two. As Weisberg writes:

it’s hard to discern how well you know her. She provides these facts off-handedly and there’s a sense that she’s leaving out as much, if not more, than she includes. There’s a naturalism to this approach that makes “Les Goddesses” appealing in a way that tell-all memoirs are not. Memoirs so often beg the question, Why would you want to tell me all this? For Davey, the clear answer is that sharing, in a calibrated and restrained way, is productive. She enjoys reading most when paired with writing.

In a world obsessed with IS IT TRUE? HOW TRUE?, Davey’s video seems to provide a sort of indirect answer: Who cares as long as it’s important for you? Who cares as long as it makes sense of the world?

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