ENOUGH: Clara, Too

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ENOUGH is a Rumpus series devoted to creating a dedicated space for essays, poetry, fiction, comics, and artwork by women and non-binary people that engage with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence.

The series will run every Tuesday afternoon. Each week we will highlight different voices and stories.

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Clara, Too
DeMisty D. Bellinger

As on most mornings, I awake before the alarm. I lay and wait to hear Laura’s voice, or whatever piece she is playing on the local classical stream. Today, it is one of my favorite piano concertos by Robert Schumann. It’s the first movement and we’ve rolled on from those few measures of the chordy run down the keyboard and the clarinet solo, after the river-like theme is played by the pianist and the rest of the orchestra. I wake up to the march-like section where the tympani announce themselves, contrasting the melodic rush that is typical of Schumann and the Romantic era. I love this piece so much that I get teary near the credenza; I’m a little ridiculous.

If you haven’t listened to it before, do go to YouTube and search for it: “Schumann Piano Concerto in A minor.” Listen to a few interpretations. I have some favorites. And while you listen, if you know of Schumann’s life, you may find yourself thinking about Schumann, too.

 

Here are a few things about Schumann that are absolutely wild: he tried to kill himself numerous times and finally succeeded, but before succumbing to death, he suffered for months in an asylum; he married his piano teacher’s daughter without his piano teacher’s blessing; when he fell in love with his wife—Clara Schumann, herself a talented musician and composer—he was a young man and she was a young child; he ruined his hands by receiving this strange surgery that promised to give him more stretch on the keyboard.

All of that is crazy, but what sticks out the most is Clara Schumann. When they met, she was nine, he was in his late teens. When they were first madly in love, Clara was sixteen and Robert was twenty-six. Maybe it was the age difference that set Friedrich Wieck, Clara’s father, against the two getting married. Or maybe Wieck saw that Robert was a little off. I mean, he was an aspiring pianist who ruined his hands with some weird stint!

While listening to his piano concerto, I thought of Schumann’s life, as I do whenever I listen to Schumann.

 

In 2014, Dylan Farrow published an open letter regarding the abuse she said she sustained from Woody Allen. “What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?” the letter starts. She continues, “Before you answer, you should know: when I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house.” When I read that, my stomach turned. I thought about every Woody Allen movie I loved, especially Mighty Aphrodite and Deconstructing Harry. I thought that Deconstructing Harry was a painful admission from Allen about his own transgressions against Mia Farrow and his family. I thought that was his redemption song. What I didn’t know is that he may have done something much worse than marrying his adopted daughter.

Since Dylan Farrow’s letter, I’ve tried watching Woody Allen films but each time, I think about Dylan Farrow’s letter. I gave up on him soon after, not even watching the old stuff. And when Mira Sorvino recently came out with an apology to Dylan Farrow, my disgust for Woody Allen was renewed.

 

I don’t watch a lot of television or movies, so it was very easy to avoid the stars who came crashing down after Harvey Weinstein. The list grew (and grows) long and, increasingly, more depressing for me. The rare times I’ve had to watch something on Netflix or Hulu since then, I avoided Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari, and others. Every show became suspect; everything was Seinfeld. Remember when Michael Richards said that people who looked like him used to hang people who look like me from trees? Remember how often he said the word “nigger” in less than, what, three minutes? Yeah, I don’t watch Seinfeld anymore. Fuck Michael Richards: I can’t divide the reality of that man from that television show.

 

I prefer to read than watching television any day. Some of my writer friends, though, started asking, “When is the literary ‘me too’ going to come?” A literary #metoo moment did come to the black poetry world not long ago: Thomas Sayers Ellis. A prominent black poet took advantage of the little power he had to exploit emerging poets. In 2016, a whisper network of women poets of color decided to yell loudly about what happened. I felt empowered by these women’s testimonies. I knew even then that there were some other writers who behaved like Thomas Sayers Ellis and I wondered whether we’d hear more women writers expose other male writers with power.

But that was March, 2016. The election got in the way and unfortunately, I forgot about the whole incident. I remembered, though, when I started seeing Sherman Alexie’s name mentioned in the same sentence as #metoo. Oh, I shuddered.

A day or so after I heard Schumann’s concerto on the radio and after I listened to it a few more times on YouTube, I begin learning more about Sherman Alexie’s abuse of his power little-by-little. The news of his behavior and actions came slowly. I read it slower, allowing only tiny bits of information in at a time. Then the article came out in Seattle Times and I reluctantly read it. His apology was getting there, but he messed it up by discrediting a woman who he slept with. At this point, the much-anticipated NPR story on these allegations is not out yet, but Joy Harjo has spoken, as well as many other prominent writers in the Native American community. I wondered what one writer, who I’ve met once at a conference and who is also a Native American writer, thought. I checked her Facebook page. In a post near the top of her page, she wrote honestly about the beauty of poetry, about how she is concerned for women poets who are vulnerable to predatory teachers and mentors in the field. She did not mention Alexie’s name, but she didn’t have to.

 

You see: I love Alexie’s writing. I’ve read and reread his work, I’ve taught it, I’ve rewritten lines and pinned them on my corkboard, I shared and re-shared stories. “What You Pawn I Will Redeem” is nearly fucking perfect! Then I had a horrible thought.

Yesterday, a colleague grabbed me into her office as I walked down the hall. “Hey,” she said, “do you listen to the New Yorker Radio Hour?” she asked. “I heard this great short story that we can add to our class.” She and I are developing a queer lit course because as of yet, there is none at our university. I was excited and sat down. She then told me that the story was by Sherman Alexie.

Will I stop reading Alexie? Really? I sat there half listening to her and half remembering every time I was moved to near tears by Alexie’s words. His stories are that good!

That stupid question we so often ask ourselves lately: can we separate the artist from the art. It’s stupid to me because there is no one answer. Pablo Picasso fell in kind of a love with Marie-Thérèse Walter. He was forty-five and married. She was sixteen. He already had mistresses. Picasso was an asshole. Jack London was kind of racist. Gertrude Stein included the word nigger in her vocabulary. Miles Davis and Ray Charles were womanizers. Plato may have slept with young boys. We revere these people’s work. They are our geniuses.

 

But all those people, like Robert Schumann, are long dead. Some are longer dead than others, of course, but we celebrate them all the same.

When my colleague and friend stopped telling me about the Alexie story she heard on the radio, I said, “You know, he’s the latest ‘me too,’ but I’ll probably still teach him.”

My stomach turned. My head, which was already aching from a bad cold, ached more. Was that true? Was I really going to teach Alexie to students again? If I did, how would I go about doing that? I would have to contextualize him. I would have to tell my students what this man did before talking about his work. So, how would they look at his short stories or novels? And what would that make me: a hypocrite? A feminist only when it’s convenient? A follower of new criticism? Then I had that horrible hope again: what if he was long dead? I’d happily teach him without a problem. I will tell my students about his life and say, “He was an asshole, but man, couldn’t he write a good story?”

I listen to Robert Schumann and his music sounds tense. All of it. My feet feel like I was working out when I listen to him: there’s this tingling and my toes stretch forward. You’re on YouTube: just search for his name and listen to one of his pieces. Maybe you’ll feel it, too; something is going to happen, something kind of wrong. You should be worried. But isn’t this concern lovely? Isn’t it exhilarating to be afraid this way?

The last act of suicide was Schumann plunging into the Rhine. Maybe it was the syphilis or maybe the mercury that coursed through his hands from that horrible experience which ruined his potential concert career, but something made him hear voices that called him into the rushing waters in February, of all months. That time of year was dismal enough on its own—voices or not. By then, Johannes Brahms was already in the picture and maybe, some glimmer of insight allowed Robert to see the spark between Clara Schumann and the young virtuoso. Sadly, Robert will not survive long enough to see that Clara and Johannes’s love for each other will never be realized. In fact, he won’t see Clara for two years at doctors’ orders. The two do finally meet again, but Robert dies soon after.

I leave my university’s campus after speaking to my colleague about Alexie and #metoo and apologies. My headache has grown unbearable and I can hardly see. I am tired and disheartened. I am guilty for caring more about the art than the artists and, I’d argue, about the people he’s hurt. I don’t know them. I haven’t read their work. But as I go into my house and to rest, I more admit than realize that I can’t know them or their work because of Sherman Alexie’s actions. It’s not a good day.

 

In our own lives, people have hurt us, and the apology doesn’t help. We’re happy that they’ve apologized, but we still hurt. Time helps. Even if we remember how we’re hurt, time after the incident does matter. Of course, I don’t wish one of my favorite writers died fifty years ago. I want him to live in this moment and redeem himself. I am not sure how he can do that, but that is something he is going to have to figure out.

When one of our kids hurt the other one, we demanded apologies, but I found that it wasn’t enough. Often, the apologies weren’t sincere. So, we taught them to ask, “Are you okay? How can I help you?” and really think about what they’ve done wrong and work on not doing wrong in the future.

The #metoo moment (and I hope this moment lasts for the rest of our lives) for those who are hurt should somehow turn into a #metoo moment for the abusers: I have hurt someone, too. How do I make this better? How can I help? And that helping may be for the abusers to step back and let those who were exploited and bound speak now, to create without harassment. Louis C.K. said in his apology, “I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want. I will now step back and take a long time to listen.” I had some problems with his response, but I appreciated this stepping back, this “long time to listen.” I hope he listens well and really learns something from what he’s done.

This is all to say that I cannot really separate the art from the artist. I can’t listen to Robert Schumann without thinking about his life.

And Clara? She is Schumann’s wife who also played piano and who also composed. I know what pieces to go to when I want to hear Robert Schumann, but I don’t know where to begin if I want to listen to Clara Schumann. She was prevented from succeeding as much as her husband because she had lots of children, because she had to support her husband’s career (and sometimes, she was the only one who was making the money). In her memory, I think of all the Native American women writers that I am not reading because of Sherman Alexie.

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Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.

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ENOUGH is a Rumpus original series devoted to creating a dedicated space for work by women and non-binary people that engages with rape culture, sexual assault, and domestic violence. We believe that while this subject matter is especially timely now, it is also timeless. We want to make sure that this conversation doesn’t stop—not until our laws and societal norms reflect real change. You can submit to ENOUGH here.

Many names appearing in these stories have been changed.

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