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Polonius, His Muse
A Guest Piece from Sam Jennings / Henri-Antoine D’Aureville
As regular readers will recall, I issued a call for submissions to The Hinternet some months ago. Although I received several that were worthy in an absolute sense, only one seemed to fit with the spirit of this now three-year-old publication. It came from Sam Jennings, a writer and musician based in St. Louis, Missouri. Even here I was somewhat hesitant, given that the piece in question is a translation from the French. For one thing, I had expected only original submissions. For another, I was at first doubtful, in my prejudicial way, that a Midwesterner might have the chops to translate that language competently. But then I remembered to whom we owe the name of our translator’s fine city, and I recalled that my absolute all-time favorite pocket of global Francophony is found in that same state of the union, to wit, the dwindling community of speakers of so-called “Paw-Paw French”, distinguished from the speakers of “Muskrat French” to their North by such exquisite vocables as maringouin for “mosquito”, and chat-chouage, rather than the much more common raton laveur, for “raccoon”. All this is to say that upon further reflection it dawned on me that a French translation from the American Midwest is not only not an impossibility — it is indeed the most natural thing in the world. Sam has handled this text with delightful verve and with total mastery. I am looking forward to great work from him in the future. —JSR
Polonius, His Muse
By Henri-Antoine D’Aureville
Excerpted from Voyages : 97 heures, 20 minutes
The New Copernican, 1989
Trans. Samuel Jennings
The well-worn tale goes something like this.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, only eighteen yet already the pale young genius who haunts our imaginations, retired in the evening from conversation sometime in that sunless Genevan summer of 1816, as the skies blackened with ash from the other side of the world. Driven inside with her husband and their mutual friend, Lord Byron, as well as his friend, the physician John Palidori, they passed the long nights swapping ghost stories, taking turns making nightmares out of their boredom in the dark. And of course from one of these evenings sprang the first vision of Shelley’s greatest story. Obsessed with the image of a new scientific Lazarus, and with the possibility of a re-animation of human life, she began to write furiously. The work that resulted has by now arguably become even more famous than she herself ever was, which is to say that in some capacity, certainly as literature and perhaps also otherwise, the entire world knows Frankenstein.
Now there is little need to linger on the many similar tales from which the great works to follow grew. Images from their inception are often ubiquitous. Most of us will remember the famed scene of the poet and philosopher Terminus, months from his deathbed, discovering through his epistles to an anonymous friend the germ of what would become his own masterpiece, the Mathematica solitarius (120 CE). We recall, too, the story of the first scribblings of the Duchess Mary Chamberlain’s The Levelling of Sussex (1815), begun, so they say, on the underskirt of one of her more frivolous ladies-in-waiting, during a long evening at the notorious salon of Madame de Poincaré.
And surely all of us will remember the many wonderful tales of the long-since-vanished Galería Contemporáneo in Seville. Site of the city’s historic Cubist Exhibition of 1936, to this day still so often overshadowed not only by the famous showings at the Museum of Modern Art the same year, but by the Nationalist coup led by the fascista General Queipo de Llano, on the evening of July 17, the exhibition’s second and final day. And of course, the most sublime of these stories remains the most retold: how Federico Gonzalo Las Heras, on hearing the remarks of his lover, Pedro Junquera, concerning certain indiscernible colors most brilliantly used in the painting of a student in the workshop of Braque, began reciting to himself —spontaneously, he would later claim— those glorious first lines of his last novel, Mallorca: “In the spring, when the children came up the hill, singing to their grandfather, the world seemed as if suspended on a wing. Years later, Miguel Bermúdez could remember dozens of the rarest colors with which his ancestor had dyed the wool he sold from that shop on the hill. But try as he might, he could never remember their names…”
Understand, I mention these only to set a kind of mood. Because, just like them, and perhaps even more so, the book in question here has itself become inseparable from its own story of creative inception. The work is now practically synonymous with the context of its origins, a story told so loudly, and so often, I suspect it now falls on truly deaf ears. Still, I will attempt to enumerate it once more, if only because my readers are generally lazy and consistently demand such retellings of me.
The story, as it is usually told, situates itself in that paranoid interim between the 9th of August and the 1st of December, 1969 — dates belonging, respectively, to (1) the discovery made by the Los Angeles Police Department of the mutilated bodies of Sharon Tate, her unborn child, and her several houseguests; And (2) the subsequent announcement, four months later, of the arrest warrants for their suspected killers: Charles “Tex” Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Linda Kasabian. The horror that played out in the minds and on the television sets of Americans afterwards —along with all the subsequent scandals, both real and manufactured— is not of real concern to us here, though it may be useful to recall just how much the subject has gained from those circumstances, as it surely has from its elevation to the status of an undying cultural mythos.
Without doubt, we are nearly always left discussing the book in terms of this peculiar zeitgeist, one that often seems like nothing less than an exhausted moralistic parable of its own excesses: the death of the spirit of ‘68, the entire countercultural self-immolation, the revelation of clandestine governmental conspiracies, the rise of neoliberalism…
All this seems especially true when we consider that the book in question was —despite many current sentiments towards its origin— in fact penned prior to the full realization of this zeitgeist. Its true origin lay in that brief final moment of hope for America. Before Manson, before Altamont, before all the rest. Or, if you will permit me a little poetry: before those masses moving slowly towards Bethlehem discovered there was in fact no star-child to save them. The work in question was not so much a herald of the decline of a decadent epoch, as has often been proposed. Rather, I insist, it was a picture of the precise anxiety experienced by all persons present at any such zenith. It has all the character of the inevitable: the vertiginous mountaintop reached, the summit ascended, where one finds no new heights remaining to climb.
Our story usually begins on a dry evening in Topanga Canyon, at a cocktail party in the upscale home of a New Hollywood mogul, one George A. McManus, who had absconded earlier that year from MGM Studios with half his roster, apparently intent on forming his own small production company, turning exploitation financier-distributor à la Roger Corman. On this particular night, August 11th, McManus was hosting an unusually large soirée, which was however uncharacteristically muted. In the shadow of the Tate-LaBianca murders just the day before, and amid speculations of their connection to those at Cielo Drive, the topic of conversation among the partygoers (which, according to one historian, likely included a few dozen major celebrities, among them Steve McQueen, Anita Eckberg, and several of the Monkees), inevitably drifted to the dead bodies, the sadism of the murders, and the increasing paranoia of the rich and the famous.
And it is here we first encounter Rebecca Sayer, our author, a woman who had until recently been employed as a copywriter in New York. Now newly divorced, she had gone West, like so many millions, to escape a miserable life. And besides, Los Angeles was conveniently nearer to her daughter Grace, an intermittently suicidal case then studying at Berkeley. The day before, after visiting her daughter there, Sayer had attended the performance of a short-lived street theater troupe in San Francisco, at a temporary venue in the Haight. According to local histories, the performance was a fairly surrealistic, vaguely psychedelic setting of Hamlet. Naturally dubbed a “happening,” the show had been updated at the last minute to a setting crudely mimicking the Tate-Polanski residence: the dynastic squabbling of the court of Elsinore turned instead into the Beverly Hills mansion of a family of famous actors, and the play’s final bloodbath staged to echo the carnage seen that very day in the news. The performance, considered by many in attendance to be laughably unsubtle, yet possessed of a certain admirable immediacy, had naturally become the topic of conversation the very next evening for Sayer and her friends.
Throughout the evening, the group —all women of the same age and of the same petit bourgeois temperament typical of East Coast transplants in those days— had naturally turned from the dubious qualities of the troupe’s performance to the matter of the play itself. Driven by what they felt to be an obligation to approach the Great Works through the lens of contemporary feminist concerns, they evidently landed on a fervent critique of the overwrought Freudian interpretations du jour: Hamlet’s fraught relationship to his mother Gertrude, the clear misogyny of his treatment of Ophelia, and the all-too common invocation of the play in the course of excuse-making for the general mistrust of women. All Bardic genius aside, it seemed clear to them that the very centering of the play’s leading character as the locus of an exemplary Western, or at least Socratic, “exploratory/authorial consciousness,” was highly suspect. In the end, it might even be nothing more than a vestige of the quivering Male Ego which any of these women could oppose at the very least on the basis of their gender.
Yet it was here, too, that Sayer first began to reflect on the play’s strange relevance to her own life. Observing the part of Polonius —whom the troupe’s version made a shady lawyer on retainer to its Hollywood family—, she had, to her astonishment, recognized much of the figure of her own ex-husband, a successful New York defense attorney named Polonsky. As both husband and lawyer, this Polonsky had by all accounts adopted a strategy of hiding any real personality beneath a buffoonish exterior, not unlike Shakespeare’s own creation, and had become well-known, both inside and outside the courtroom, for his longwinded pronouncements and absolutely unflappable ego.
Following this eerie analogue even further, Sayer also recognized the sad, self-destructive personality of her own daughter, in the psychosis and suicide of poor Ophelia. After considering the remarkable synchronicity of the names Polonius/Polonsky (not to mention Polanski), she started to wonder just how she might explain this sudden relationship to the play, coinciding almost mystically with her own situation. After brooding on the experience for days afterwards, Sayer apparently concluded that her entire life was now intricately and irreversibly tied up with this work. It’s said she consulted the I-Ching, her astrologist, even a priest. Yet in the end she resigned herself to taking up residence within this terrible resonance between art and life.
The result of her attempt to understand this mystery is the very novel I have until now refrained from naming. Though the title should surprise no one. Since its first printing in 1971, Polonius, His Muse has become nothing less than a shorthand for the “Sayer-esque”, for the author’s perfecting of what may well have been the last wholly original genre of the contemporary novel. Yet never far from the work itself we find this apocryphal story, told and retold ad nauseam, of how Sayer first dreamed up the character for whom we have come to love and celebrate her. I am speaking of course of Josefine, the silent wife of Polonius.
Now, precisely what is so “Sayer-esque” about the book is just what writers and critics have run themselves in exhausted circles trying to pin down ever since. It is usually here that the most desperate latch onto dubious comparisons with tangentially related works, such as Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), or the manifold retellings of the play through the lenses of Ophelia, Claudius, the Ghost, even the Gravediggers. But these are in the end ignominious comparisons, for Sayer’s approach is truly unlike any other. In fact, the entire spirit of her masterpiece depends on the very paradox of its interpretation, an insight she must at least be credited for having had for perhaps the first time in the history of English-language literature.
It may be said, in fact, that Sayer alone saw that missing piece of the play, and did so precisely because it is where she, in all her personal conjunctions with the work, had seen herself. Or rather, where she herself ought to have been. Sayer’s own immortal creation —Lady Josefine, Madame Polonius— exists nowhere within the pages of the original Hamlet, despite Shakespeare’s potent dramatization of the rest of the family: father, daughter, and son Laertes. Can we imagine the turmoil that must have greeted Sayer at this terrible insight? The mother, wife, and woman of the family is, within the play, merely a vacant space, a persona conspicuously missing. And it remains remarkable how little critical discussion of this vacancy there has been since the play’s first performance centuries ago.
Now, any further consideration of Sayer’s labyrinthine narrative —which itself spans more than ten times the length of the play that inspired it— would be completely remiss were it to fail to note the defining, and essentially ascetic, virtue of its conception: that not once in the course of her exhaustive exploration of the family’s exploits does the Lady Josefine speak. Not a single utterance, throughout the entire book. Nor are we ever granted any sense of her thoughts.
There is, in the end, no subjective “I” to Josefine at all. There is only her action, or, perhaps better, her remove. And I will insist that this is what makes any discussion of the “Sayer-esque” so consistently elusive, and doubtless polarizing. It has been said that Sayer originally envisioned the character in almost theological terms, as a kind of “pregnant emptiness”, or a presence-via-absence. A Via negativa. The same empty space where Sayer herself might have been, had the play wholly corresponded to her situation, which in comparison to the play must have come to seem to her rather frail.
From the start, Sayer’s own invisibility —and thus the invisibility of her surrogate, Josefine— had to be composed so as to convey a constant sense of this incompleteness, which may have come to threaten her very life and existence. Beginning its narrative before the onset of the play and ending long after its dénouement, Polonius, His Muse recorded the comings and goings of that Shakespearean family, the sordid events of the drama, the family’s demise, and, subsequently the strange spectral wanderings of its heroine, all in the same quiet, eerie manner — entirely by way of the essentially periphrastic actions and inactions of its utterly voiceless, thoughtless protagonist.
Sayer seems to have resisted any easy explanation for her character’s muteness. And the silence of Josefine is truly enormous, like a death pall cast over all those centuries since Shakespeare. More than one critic has compared it to the enormity of the 20th century itself, to its litany of horrors, both mechanical and human. The character’s silence has been read by some as the very silence of God. Yet what is most mysterious, made subject over the years to hundreds of theories and dozens of books, is that the name Josefine does not once occur in the course of the novel. Not once. At this point, the name is practically a folk tale, an appellation handed down through the years. We can only hope it is the one Sayer first intended for her silent Lady, and the result is not unlike a precocious child’s reading of an ancient myth. Or, if you will allow me to be poetic once more: it is something like the initiation rite of a mystery cult, as conceived by an insane epigeneticist. We have inherited the name, none may know where from. All we can trace this knowledge back to are second-hand words, words themselves half-heard from some other person: a cosmic game of telephone, eventually vanishing into the past, murky as the lineage of the prehistoric hominids we believe to have birthed us.
Yet even so, surely it is not just the question of nominal origin which has made the book such a labyrinth for its audience and its critics. It is clear to anyone who reads Polonius, His Muse today that, just as the starting point of the story was seemingly chosen quite arbitrarily, so the rest of the work might have proceeded forward forever, towards any end at all. Implied at either extreme of the narrative is an understanding that it goes on infinitely in either direction, to the very beginning, or else the end, of time itself. And certainly, the window that the book provides us is a deeply self-conscious one, almost agonizingly aware of the limitations of perception, let alone of cosmology.
When we read Sayer, we find Shakespeare’s work transmuted — on the one hand, into a microscopically limited, yet on the other hand into a paradoxically limitless, chapter of one brief moment in the entire flow of time and space. And so Hamlet itself becomes recognized throughout the course of Sayer’s mother/daughter work as an almost psychedelic irruption of all that creative cosmology into the dramatist’s limited, treble dimension. In this way, Sayer’s more discursive Hamlet is, essentially, a kind of demiurge: human consciousness as a sort of quantum vessel, shuttling its energy across the boundaries of the space-time continuum. It is science-fiction, even if only by caveat.
And it must be said that the silence of Josefine is also a true horror, one in the spirit of Mary Shelley herself. Not only a referendum on the silence of women, when construed through traditional perceptions of history (the popular feminist reading of the text), or an allegory of alienation from society and history (the consistent Marxist-materialist view), but in many ways the plight of the human being in its entirety. It is the paradox of the Word, when it has been articulated to absurdity. I’m sure that for some of us, it has even spelled the final demise of language, or of canon. Indeed, as any contemporary writer can tell you, it has rendered our search for new stories so exhausting as to seem redundant. It may even be held responsible for the last two decades’ record lows in the publishing of fiction. Not for nothing did Viswanathan give the name Babel’s Last Jest to his landmark study of the novel. For as he so eloquently pointed out, Josefine’s muteness is perhaps best read as a truly cosmic refutation of each of us, of the human soul’s nearly pathological compulsion to speak in the face of a silent Nature, or to pray in the presence of a silent God. If Hamlet once stood as the foremost celebration of mankind’s creative power, then Polonius, His Muse has now risen as its shadow — a humbling representation of that wordless cosmic witness, that judgeless Nature extending eternally beneath us, and within us, and beyond us.
All of which leads me to the most difficult problem of all — there is simply no getting around it. It remains an unfathomable, yet perhaps inevitable, fact that every new reader of the work must confront: that the existence of any such Rebecca Sayer is utterly and entirely unaccounted for in the historical record. Those men and women still alive today, who were present at the McManus mansion that evening in August, have been queried exhaustively, stalked, even shot at. Yet not one remembers any person named Rebecca Sayer. Whole city libraries and police precincts have been scoured, their floorboards quite literally torn up. Yet nothing, no record of her whereabouts in L.A., or New York before that, remains.
And the mystery of the invisible record does not stop there. We know, due to recent journalistic and scholarly efforts, that there was indeed a Polonsky, confirmed by the Lawyers Association of New York, who appears to have vanished in 1971, following his unsuccessful defense of a prominent mafioso. Little is known beyond this. If he had a wife, her existence was not known. We have no marriage license, and no divorce papers.
The story grows stranger still: this man’s daughter was in fact named Grace. New York State records indicate as much, and her birth certificate indicates only the name of her father as guardian, with no mention of the mother. It has been confirmed that she was enrolled for two years at Berkeley. We have her poor academic transcripts and some assorted photos. Yet after her suicide, discovered dead in her dorm only a week before her father’s disappearance, no other family members appear to have survived them. We cannot query a single soul about the person called Rebecca Sayer, for whom no apparent trace of existence as wife, mother, woman, or author can be found.
What we have —and it is ultimately, only this— is the story: the tale of Sayer and the apparent inspiration for her mammoth undertaking. Though many scholars have tried, none have managed to determine the actual origins of any of these accounts. Each seems to come to us out of nothingness, sui generis. Just like the book’s subject. Just like its writer. And just like the book itself, at first: hand-printed, self-published, circulated in the countercultural milieux of Southern California in the dawning days of the Age of Aquarius. Though the search remains widespread, comprising today some hundreds of journalists, investigators, writers, amateur sleuths, historical hobbyists, and even entire wings of university study —history, applied linguistics, comparative literature, and a growing number of investigators of official U.S. historical record (many of whom have argued for the establishment of a California State Investigative Committee just to oversee the matter)— it is more likely with every passing year that we will simply never know the truth behind the tale, of the existence of Rebecca Sayer, of the writing of her extraordinary book.
So what else is there to say? Despite it all, I think we will continue to read it. As we still read Shelley, Shakespeare, and so many authors before and since. I believe we will continue to tell ourselves, again and again, the astonishing myth of its invention. But I suspect that as long as we do read it, Polonius, His Muse must remain what it so stubbornly, tragically is: an exhortation to God, a refutation of history, a silent eulogy for Nature. It is, and will always remain, our silent witness. Our muse.
Sam Jennings is a writer, poet, and musician living in St. Louis. At the moment he teaches music and works as the assistant editor of Midwest Art Quarterly. Learn more about Sam’s work here.