As one of the first artists to re-introduce autobiography to the art world during the late 1960s, Eleanor Antin created an imaginary theatre interweaving personal and political narratives.
Her coming of age memoir “Conversations with Stalin” is true to that genre. Jewish history, personal narrative and contemporary themes all collide with the memories of a little girl growing up in New York City in the 40’s. Last week, in a series of performances called “Bubbe Meises,” the 77-year old artist read her book aloud to audiences all over the city. The idea of readings arose while she was losing patience with “timid publishers,” and even though the book will be out in a few months, she still likes the performative aspect.
“There’s no book yet so it’s not marketing, I like talking with people,” she explains.
Young Eleanor lived in a volatile, dysfunctional family of thwarted dreamers. Her mother, beautiful enough to be invited into first class from steerage during her passage to America, remained a staunch Stalinist all her life. Her father showed mathematical genius as a boy but “chalk fell out of his trembling hand” when he was called to the blackboard. Eleanor intuits that all her father ever wanted was for his wife “to think he was the greatest thing in pajamas,” while her mom dismisses him as “a short, sweet, unrealized man.”
Throughout there is a theme of staunch ideology, missed connections and great gifts left to languish. While Eleanor and her mom are strivers, her younger sister, “a magician and a perfectly plausible Mozart,” refuses to develop her musical gift. Instead she remains for hours on a window ledge, contemplating the end.
Comrade Stalin remains Eleanor’s secret confidante. She finds him under a broad sky in Central Park, where, even though he never buys her a hot dog, they were “very good friends.” She turns to him to make sense of all the emotional turmoil. Only mildly sympathetic, the father figure in the sky cautions against too many “doubts and bourgeois fantasies.”
I smile as I often do when learning of the lives of so-called red diaper babies whose upbringing was supposedly the polar opposite of my own orthodox childhood. There is always a place where extremes meet. To this day, Eleanor feels anxious any time she feels herself “blaspheming” her mother’s unrepentant faith in Stalin. Her conversations with the invisible but ubiquitous Stalin in the sky resemble my own childhood inquiries of an invisible God. We share a reluctance to admit of the father figure’s fallibility even as it becomes increasingly clear.
Ideology breaks down, as does Antin, when she sobs over her now-departed sister’s refusal to use her gifts. Her tears flow, for the mystery that is each of us even as we commune with ghosts and struggle with social history. Yet hers, like all good Jewish stories, is told and retold under an ever-inscrutable sky.
Susan Reimer Torn, a writer who lives in New York City, blogs at susanrtorn.wordpress.com