When I first read this biography, I thought that Claudel, the great sculptor of her generation, had been destroyed by the misogyny of the late nineteenth century that didn’t allow women to be great.
On second reading, it seems to me she was also destroyed by her inability to forgive herself for a crucial mistake, early in her career.
As August Rodin’s most gifted apprentice as well as his mistress, she mistook her early success as being independent of Rodin’s influence. She ended their affair because he refused to leave his wife, and, heartbroken, retaliated with what may be her most superb work, a three figure bronze called L’Age Mur (The Age of Maturity).
In that work she depicted herself as a beautiful naked young woman on her knees, stretching her arms beseeching toward a man who is being carried away by an ancient hag—clearly Rose, Rodin’s long-time companion.Although he had generously supported Claudel from the beginning, Rodin was affronted by her latest work and withdrew his support. As a result, she lost all her important connections, commissions and contacts and descended into a despair-induced eccentricity, usually called madness. Her family committed her to a mad house where she spent the last thirty years of her life.
She made a grievous professional mistake for which she was never able to forgive herself—if indeed she was able to view it as a mistake. A generous man, Rodin would certainly have accepted an apology although it would have meant removing the sculpture that offended him from the public eye.
But Claudel could never do that, and attempts to justify and embroider her action darkened her last years. She had not understood that her private life was to some degree the possession of her powerful lover, and that using it to create art, no matter how accomplished the result, meant ignoring the reality of her situation.
I’ve had a version of that experience, breaking up with people who could be helpful to me professionally because of heartbreak and bitterness. I’ve also suffered the results of writing about situations and relationships that I felt were rightly mine.
And rightly so. Artists use all the material our lives deliver to us. But the professional cost can be very high.
Apologizing for what we feel we have a right to use seems like an unfair difficulty that smells of hypocrisy. But even today, women will suffer for treading on the toes of important men.
Think what Mrs. Trump would face if she wrote about her husband!
First she would have to forgive herself for marrying him. Then she would have to acknowledge that no matter how right she might feel in using their personal lives, he has the ability to crush her.
Part of the always-secret marriage contract?
This thinking resulted from my not being able to forgive myself for spotting the suede sofa in a borrowed house with drops of melted butter…
P.S. However, the times they have been a changing for some time, and the progress we’ve made can be measured in Martha Gellhorn’s novel, A Stricken Field, reviewed Thursday in The New York Times. According to this review, Gelhorn’s commitment to her wartime reporting spared her from wanting to write about her short-term lover, Hemingway. What she was writing was more important than her feelings about him. This may have been what contributed to Claudel’s failure of judgement about Rodin: in the end her feelings mattered too much.