We are not so fortunate here. As I’m discovering in writing about Doris Duke, her ring of fire is complete more than two decades after her death. All that matters, here, is that she was divorced twice and had love affairs with men who were not considered her social equals and who were sometimes dark-skinned. Her major gifts as a philanthropist and a collector fade in the burning light of her ring of fire.
Her genius may be harder to recognize than Piaf’s. And yet it is hard, at least for me, to discern from listening to Piaf’s recordings exactly what her genius was. It may be endemic to the French culture: a poor girl who makes it through grit, talent and good luck. Perhaps this character is too foreign for us to appreciate.
Nor do we appreciate the notion, professed by some French philosophers, that unusually talented people are free to live amoral lives. I’ve run across this concept recently when rereading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. His hero—or at least his central figure—commits a murder to prove the thesis that a genius can do anything he wants, then spends the rest of the novel tormented by guilt and fear of discovery.
His ring of fire is self-inflicted—the isolation following the committing of a great crime. That isolation may be the worst punishment this world can offer.
And the ring continues even after the death of the character it surrounded. In Doris’ case, the letters she consigned to her archive and which are the most reliable proofs of her life can’t be quoted. They belong to their long-dead writers. And so her fire-ringed isolation continues and will continue indefinitely.
What about our contemporary extraordinary women? Could anyone be more isolated by rumor and hearsay than Hillary Clinton? Did Gloria Steinem ever have the luxury of being known simply as a woman?