Conjunctions:18 Fables, Yarns, Fairy Tales

Madame Realism: A Fairy Tale
Lynne Tillman
Illustrations by Silvia Kolbowski
     “It makes letters! It makes words!” Bruno whispered as he clung, half-frightened, to Sylvie. “Only I ca’n’t make them out! Read them, Sylvie!”
     “I’ll try,” Sylvie gravely replied. “Wait a minute—if only I could see that word—”
     “I should be very ill!” a discordant voice yelled in our ears.

     “‘Were I to swallow this,’” he said, “‘I should be very ill!’”
Lewis Carroll, Sylvie and Bruno

In the winter the days end suddenly and with such ferocious indifference that Madame Realism felt at a loss. Day after short day she was caught short, surprised. I’m still capable of surprise, she told herself. When it’s dark, one expects surprises, Madame Realism reflected as she looked out the window. Anyone could imagine anything. The evening sky covered the ordinary street. Upon a night screen we can project wildly but usually we don’t, she reassured herself, most of the time people fill in the spaces with the familiar. Madame Realism closed the curtains and wondered if she had disappeared. Even if she were visible, and viewable, she wouldn’t necessarily be any better known. Recognized perhaps, but not known. Madame Realism didn’t subscribe to the wisdom that what you see is what you get.
     That night, after watching television and reading Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno, Madame Realism couldn’t fall asleep. She tossed and turned, much like a ship at sea during a storm, much like a well-used phrase. Finally, exhausted, she fell into a deep, undisturbed sleep. She dreamed that she entered a museum which was a labyrinth. She didn’t know what to look for or where to look. She stumbled about, searching for clues. A friend guided her through a cavernous space and pointed out a word or letter from an alphabet Madame Realism didn’t know. These shapes appeared on walls and suggested answers. At the end of the dream—do dreams have ends?—Gertrude Stein’s response to her own deathbed query, “What is the answer?” flashed on an unfinished wall: “Then what is the question?”
     The next morning Madame Realism awakened slowly, perplexed by the question as an answer. Taken comprehensively, Stein’s deathbed statement could require that each day become an investigation, if not an invention. What a struggle, Madame Realism thought, to invent each day. She tried to lift the blankets off her and swing her legs over the side of the bed as she did every morning. But she couldn’t move. She could barely open her eyes. It was as if a veil had been placed over them.
     “Gradually, however, the conviction came upon me that I could, by a certain concentration of thought, think the veil away …
     After a while Madame Realism was able to pry her eyelids open. And instantly she apprehended a change in herself. It was nothing short of fantastic. Madame Realism was enfolded between stiff cardboard covers, on creamy white paper, stuffed with references and descriptions, and illustrated with photographs, charts and drawings. There were numbers and letters next to some of her paragraphs which referred to artwork that might hang on walls or sit inside plastic boxes on platforms. Madame Realism had turned into a catalogue.
     It was frightening and oddly pleasurable. Uncanny. Uncategorizable. But Madame Realism was at home with ambivalence. Her metamorphosis, not that dissimilar from Gregor Samsa’s into a cockroach, could be liberating, she told herself as she smoothed her pages and admired her typeface. (She had once been a menu but not for long. The restaurant had closed. It was possible that now she might accompany a permanent installation. She didn’t know.)
     Ordinarily Madame Realism existed as, or in, a story or essay. No matter—she soothed herself by thinking—I am always fiction. And now, she remarked aloud, reviewing herself, I do not have to pretend to be a tabula rasa, to pretend that I don’t have a past, that I don’t have a history. She turned herself to another page, imagining that she was “taking a page from this book.” She reconsidered: I am a page from this book. As she studied herself Madame Realism mused, I am a compendium, a list, a detailed enumeration, a register. I can provide a provenance. Haughtily and awkwardly she whirled about and sang: I am a woman with a past, a danger to the community.
     “How convenient it would be,” Lady Muriel laughingly remarked … “if cups of tea had no weight at all! Then perhaps ladies would sometimes be permitted to carry them for short distances!”
     Perhaps I’m dreaming, Madame Realism told herself, maybe I haven’t actually awakened. Didn’t the Tibetan Book of the Dead insist that one could not know one was alive? Consequently one might be dead. As if an idea had blown in from the chilly outdoors and seized her, Madame Realism seized upon the notion that she might have become the catalogue to the exhibition she hadn’t found in her dream. Her immaterial dream world might have a life of its own. And Madame Realism could merely be the key to it. (She struggled between proposing herself as its analogue or homologue.) It made a strange kind of sense, that she was a catalogue to herself more than to anything else, and to her unconscious rather than the other way around. What she perceived and apprehended was necessarily and always in some way constitutive of herself. This wasn’t exactly reassuring. But Madame Realism expected to view herself with alarm. She suspected some would grow complacent in her place.
     In this new guise, Madame Realism could be a Beatrice or Virgil to any Dante in need of Faith or Reason. She was meant to enlighten and educate. She could be taken off the shelf, opened up, browsed through and absorbed; she could become well thumbed and might even become well regarded. Madame Realism pushed aside some of her words, set in Times Roman, to enter in spidery marks, traces of her enduring skepticism. How seriously should she be taken? It was hard to think, as she had already been thought.
     “That’s just what Sylvie says,” Bruno rejoined. “She says I wo’n’t learn my lessons. And I tells her, over and over, I ca’n’t learn ‘em. And what does oo think she says? She says ‘It isn’t ca’n’t, it’s wo’n’t!”
     Focus, Madame Realism demanded of herself, concentrate. She couldn’t find her reading glasses. Sometimes she misplaced things just to be able to find them again. She spent a certain amount of time every day searching for what she knew was there. Yet relief always arrived at the end of her search—her glasses, book, bag were precisely where she had left them. Still it bored her, going over and over the same territory. Perhaps I am looking for something else, she theorized, and by misplacing things I am actually displacing things, displacing what I think I know, the familiar. The way art does. She wrote invisibly in her margin: if art has a purpose, is it to point to the absence of invention?
     But now she was a museum catalogue and the very territory she went over and over was her. In this form she would always be “something that couldn’t find its glasses.” To others this would be a necessary part of Madame Realism’s constitution. Where was her ambiguity to reside? Between her lines, or in her margins, which some might not even notice? To some, margins were nothing more than a frame for the center.
     “One needn’t be a Doctor,” I said, “to take an interest in medical books. There’s another class of readers, who are yet more deeply interested—” “You mean the Patients?” she interrupted …
     She couldn’t get her own measure; it was a matter of scale. From one point of view, she was small. From another, she was big. I am insignificant as well as important. Like Saint Peter, she was the rock upon which the Church was built but she was also ephemera. Many would throw her out. Some would save her. She could no longer adequately describe herself. She had been put in her place and had been transformed into a place. As a reference she was undeniably self-referential.
     Madame Realism was puzzled (probably she was a puzzle). As she fretted, she knew her pages would become frayed. That too, she feared, would be part of her forever. But she didn’t know. There were so many things she didn’t know and which remained incomprehensible to her. Even as a guide to herself, if that’s what she was, she couldn’t offer certainty. She could only suspend comprehension long enough to allow questions to rise to the surface, like cream on milk. For instance, was she a source or a resource?
     At this Madame Realism’s paragraphs shifted. Precis, dates, places and names jiggled about as if an acrobat were upsetting and resetting her type and throwing it into the air. Her pages fell out of order, and like Humpty Dumpty she didn’t know whether she’d ever get back together again. It dawned on Madame Realism—in fact it was impressed on her—that explanations were as complex as what they were meant to explain. Elementary, my dear Madame Realism, she exclaimed, laughing. She became optimistic. She could overflow with questions. She could be difficult. She could be not easy to follow. She could appear to be transparent and turn out to be opaque. She could even admit her influences—Lewis Carroll, for one. No one would doubt she was a construction. The exhibition in her dream—the art—could be herself. Wasn’t she sometimes given to exhibitionism?
     “So, either I’ve been dreaming about Sylvie,” I said to myself, “and this is the reality. Or else I’ve   really been with Sylvie, and this is a dream! Is Life itself a dream, I wonder?”
     Dreams are wishes, dreams are wishes. This must be a wish, Madame Realism realized as she woke again. Was this the beginning of a new day, one she had to invent? I must want to be an ordinary catalogue. Part of me must have desires in that direction. I want to be cited, to be secure, helpful and clear. Yet I also don’t want to be, since I am a continuation of many ideas including, what is the question? who asks? where is it? who decides? am I it? Madame Realism leaped out of bed.
     Though alone in her apartment, with just the sound of steam rising through the pipes and radiators, Madame Realism glanced over her shoulder. Would History, or Fate, be standing there, ready to shake her to her very foundations? She felt weighed down by the past and the present. Madame Realism wished she could rise above her concerns, but more and more she knew she was her concerns. She didn’t want to be buried beneath her own inchoate and unachievable hopes, like the desire for immortality. It was probably there, though, embarrassed and absurd, mocked and made irrelevant by death.
     No longer a catalogue, if she had ever been one, Madame Realism walked to the window and opened the curtain. The sun was shining. She really wasn’t sure what she was anymore. She hoped others would have a few ideas. To some extent, a work or text relied on the intelligence, the kindness, of strangers. Madame Realism smiled to herself and stared out the window. She was transfixed by the street’s plenty, its wonderful ordinariness.
     “Ah, well!” the Gardener said with a kind of groan. “Things change so, here. Whenever I look again it’s sure to be something else.”

All quotes are from Sylvie and Bruno in Lewis Carroll: The Complete Works with Tenniel’s Drawings (London: The Nonesuch Press, 1966). Illustrations are taken from Enlarged from the Catalogue: The United States of America, a publication that was a component of an installation of the same name by Silvia Kolbowski, 1988.

Lynne Tillman is the writer of the story collection Someday This Will Be Funny and the essay collection What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (Red Lemon Press).
Sylvia Kolbowski is a conceptual artist and writer who works from New York.