The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Pandora and the Naked Dead Woman


I have boxes I haven’t opened in years, and they’re starting to feel like Pandora’s. On a dating website, one of the questions I was asked and chose to answer was, “would someone going through your things after your death be surprised or shocked at what they found?” My first option for a response, “Who is going to bother?” wasn’t an option, so the next closest to what I think of as true would be, “yes.” Partially because I no longer have a clear idea of what’s in the boxes, and partially because I do. There are boxes of correspondence—you know, those things we used to send each other written with pen or pencil, flown on airplanes, hand delivered. Some of these date from my teens, or the 1970s, for those of you who don’t know my REAL age. I actually lie my age up a little bit usually so people will take pity on me, which feels exhilaratingly strange since a couple of years ago I was an angry young man. Well, not that angry. But very, very anxious. In any case, I will sometimes mutter my age plus five in mixed company to try and get served the first cocktail, that sort of thing, but I think I don’t generally overdo it.

I think this is the first time I’ve marked myself as “older” in an essay, and it makes a little queasy. As in I don’t want to be. That. But I’ve just turned fifty-nine so I need to play with my age as a way of loosening the grip of my sense of terror. All right, I think I’ve done that. Back to the letters.

I used to write them promiscuously, as I’m sure many of you did who matured before email. I even had a pen pal for decades. Decades! A slip of paper given to me in French class in eighth grade and letters and visits were exchanged, in London, New York, Paris, Saintes… but that should be an essay in itself. As might be the box of letters I have from my high school girlfriend, my first love. In our summer of love, not 1967, but 1974, her parents were so intent on creating some time and space between us that they took her to South America for a month. We were horrified at the idea of being apart for thirty days, in the way that only teenagers in love can be. To salve our panic, we each wrote thirty letters to each other, one for every day we were going to be apart, a letter a day to be opened… I still have that box of letters in a box of letters, can remember its color, the torn cardboard edges… It’s almost too dear for me to muse too long over now without feeling a kind of weight of distant sweetness, a burdened oxymoron of the past.

But I wrote letters to almost everyone I knew from my teens to the letter-killing email arrival in the 1990s: friends, lovers, parents, teachers… and they wrote back, and I’ve kept almost all the letters I received. What’s most disquieting, what would be and what was, the last time I peeked into a box of correspondence, are letters, passionate letters from women I no longer remember. Some refer to weekends, promising days ahead… and I’m just blank. Well, not completely, the names bring images up from a projector that’s been dropped from a third-story window. You blink and shake your head trying to catch the image, sure the image must be capturable, but give up realizing the equipment is too damaged; you’ll never see her again, unless you played with memory’s anachronism fire—went to the internet, to Facebook or something, and looked her up. What’s the fun in restoring a lost memory when you can rest in the consideration of the damage, the loss. We’ve lost all kinds of loss in our ability to find things with such immediacy. I want to encourage, to embrace myself a new reluctance towards our emotional prosthetics—memory for me being never neutral—and suggest we let some things go. Let’s call it a society of the Luddites of Loss.

I’m sure if I read through these letters there would be no end to surprises, all kinds of things about my younger selves I’d learn. I’m surprised that anyone could not be surprised by their younger selves! Is the society of changelings so select? Do people imagine themselves as so consistent in their narrative progression? No wonder everyone’s reading memoirs. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to read a letter from my twenty-year-old self and find depths of sincerity and wit that would make me seem churlish now! Who was that remarkable lad, I might say, since I’m apt to talk that way when I’m writing the kind of things I imagine myself saying. And what terrible things befell him that he became me! He seemed so sweetly inchoate, so wise-embryonic, that surely something I’ve forgotten must have thrown him off-track. A virus, perchance? A miasma?

But the letters are not the only thing in those boxes, the boxes under the stairs and in the furnace room, sitting precariously on the shelves in the laundry room. I don’t have a basement so I have boxes everywhere one can think to put a box. Sometimes I shed a tear and a tiny little box falls out of my eye with paper clips and ephemera spilling out of the top. I never manage to get it back in. I have two boxes of books sitting in my office from my last move seven years ago. I don’t have the bookshelf room for them. They sit there forlornly, daring me, every day, to open them, and see what I’ve imprisoned in the dark all all these years. Aldous Huxley, perhaps? I have noticed him gallivanting on the shelves. Or maybe Dorothy Richardson, her books slipping from a long nap to a deep coma.

But to return to my opening gambit, there is more than books and letters in the boxes. I have lots of these marvelous things called photographs. Photographs used to be printed pieces of paper with captured images of people or things, made with a machine called a camera, which really means a room, a chamber. Frequently these images were of people who we knew, even people we liked. Taking photographs of people we despised was always a tricky business. For one thing, they rarely responded when we said, “Smile, you little minx.” But these people we liked, even loved, relatives, friends, lovers, would indulge us while we eternalized their image, or at least captured it for as long as the material photograph lasted. This wasn’t perhaps much longer than the life of the photographer, frequently, since the value of the photograph wasn’t usually seen as aesthetic, but personal, even though, as a genre, the personal photograph certainly has its devices, its charms, its own accidental moments of genius. See Roland Barthes. See Marianne Hirsch. They’ll tell you lots of interesting things about the casual, the amateur, the family photograph.

I had boxes of these, yes, and these tended to be a little less lonely than many of the others, batches of photos occasionally grabbed to be viewed when I was in a chaotically sentimental mood. When I wanted to see glimpses of the past through the lens, as it were, of the images that had been produced by my lens. This was frequently a disconcerting experience, since I have never arranged my photographs, as I have noted elsewhere. I am predisposed to have my memorabilia echo my memory: fragmented, out of sequence, disjointed, lacking revelation. So I would grab handfuls of photos from a box and riff through them: a photograph of me age five in the Catskill mountains would be followed by my mother in a gold lamé evening dress descending the metal stairs of a row house garden scene; this in turn would have as a chaser the image of my friend, hair poofing out the sides of his head like a black Irish Afro, in Colorado, perhaps thirty-five years ago, looking all intense and young poety, as though he were accusing me of not taking his photo interestingly enough.

And so a kind of narrative emerges, though making sense of it is a bit like watching Krazy Kat, or early Max Fleisher cartoons.

And the next photograph, and the three after that, you find to your dismay, are pictures of a dead naked woman:

A woman who was then about thirty-five years old. I’ll tell you with some discretion what’s in the photographs and what I remember of the setting. They take place in my house in Ohio, when I was a young professor there. These are late night Polaroids—Polaroids! How recherché!—and this was clearly a night of some debauchery. Debauchery is a wonderful word, I think. It derives from the Middle French debaucher,” to entice from work,” and the Old French desbaucher, “to lead astray,” both of which suggest a pale sense of the dark carnival the work has always represented to me. Ironically, it is the older, more obscure etymological elements that come closer to the essence, I think. Bauch, or beam, is Frankish, if not all that frank, and has the literal meaning of making a beam by trimming wood, by stripping it away. It is that stripping away, and the trim, that lead me to the brink of the word’s sharp connotations, the exquisite sense of searching for some core version of your nastiest self. And yes, on that night, the woman in that photograph and I had stripped down considerably, literally and metaphorically, as we filled up capriciously and unjudiciously, probably with gin, on our way to, if memory serves me, a night of sex, accusations, and naked Polaroids. We debauched, which is my way of saying we had less fun than we actually wanted, and probably did more than we planned.

If memory serves me. Does memory serve me? How does memory serve me? When does memory serve me? When does memory fail me? Well, frequently, but I mean emotionally. But to return to the first question: if memory serves. Literally, we mean, if I remember correctly. A kind of poeticized hedge against memory’s inevitable faultiness. If. If as usual, memory is leading me down a garden path… If memory is toying with me for the sake of some subconscious masochistic motive that I’m not aware of… If memory is any anything at all other than something I started making up yesterday and I’m almost finished fabricating… If memory serves. Does memory serve? In Miltonic terms, I tend to think memory is non serviam. Which is to say, I suppose, I have a devilish time remembering whether memory’s floors have been cleaned lately, of all the dust and rubbish that have blown in and lain about while the house was not so slowly sliding into disrepair.

She sits in a high-backed wicker chair, wearing sheer black underwear, just bottoms, her eyes a bit glazed, though not unhappy, staring vaguely at the bay window. The woman in question, a former love, is dead, dead by her own hand two years ago now. I suppose if I had found the photos ten years ago, even the demi-glaze of the night in her eyes—mine of course only recorded in the ever so slight shake of the camera (or was that just desire) when the picture was recorded—would still have found when Pandora threw these photos up for my dark delectation some space for erotic contemplation (but did Pandora reveal the photographs, or are the photographs of Pandora herself?). That’s a complicated way of saying that even with the passage of time I would have been aroused, memory serving me a slice of juicy peach pie, of debauchery warmed over. But it’s difficult for me to feel the frisson of past arousal, of past frenetic escapading, with a dead woman. Not because it is impossible, in truth. But because it is accompanied with a storm of sorrow that estranges it into strangeness. Necrophiliac memory, you don’t serve me. Though others, I imagine, might not be tamed, so awed in erotic submission by something as petty as death, as suicide, alas, I am weak and too subject to the whims of my mortal imagination.

Thomas Browne is the first writer on record to use the word suicide, in Religio Medici, 1643. I never tire of Browne, his strange, morbid asides and meditations, peculiar, baroque, melancholy. He writes, in the “Fragment on Mummies,”

Death, that fatal necessity which so many would overlook, or blinkingly survey, the old Egyptians held continually before their eyes. Their embalmed ancestors they carried about at their banquets, holding them still a part of their families, and not thrusting them from their places at feasts. They wanted not likewise a sad preacher at their tables to admonish them daily of death, surely an unnecessary discourse while they banqueted in sepulchres. Whether this were not making too much of death, as tending to assuefaction, some reason there were to doubt, but certain it is that such practices would hardly be embraced by our modern gourmands who like not to look on faces of mortua or be elbowed by mummies.

Photographs are our mummies, I think, or were when they had material form, the dead wrapped up in silver nitrate or common fixer silver halide. It’s hard to embrace a digital mummy, or be elbowed by one. But just so, when my eyes embraced the sepulchral black lace of the naked dead woman, I was stunned by a wash of nausea that was the chemical assuefaction in my heart. I felt sick, heart sick.

As though she hadn’t caused enough trouble, Pandora next gave me a photograph of the woman standing completely naked now, next to a small table in the same room, which I used to call the breakfast nook. She had her legs crossed and her head cocked, lips pursed, a parody of the vamp, vamping nonetheless. She looks somewhere between graceful and strange.

Pandora’s box is and was not just about what was inside, what was let loose, like the confused erotic thanatology the photographs shake loose in me, but also the box itself, another kind of chamber, another camera. And seeing her in that chamber, I’m reminded of other kinds of magic, and one morning in particular. It was spring and I had woken very early, perhaps four a.m., before sunrise, though not that much before. It was an unusual time for me to be awake. I wandered down the hall from my bedroom to this small room, which overlooked my little front deck, and the oak tree whose branches covered it. When I walked into the little room with the big bay window I had an immediately strange sensation, something different, something sensual… not just strange, but estranging. I felt then as though I had a mote in the corner of my eye. And when I turned to the window, I could see, dimly, something large on the branch of the tree. I was very still because I felt I needed to be. When my eyes focused I could tell, because there was just enough light, that it was an owl sitting on the branch, a Barn Owl, Tyto alba (which curiously translates as White Owl in Latin). I sank slowly to my knees trying to will it not to move. It looked like a small haunting spirit, not surprising, since Barn Owls are also sometimes called Ghost Owls.

They are also in a category distinct from other owls, strictly nocturnal Tytonidae, from the Greek tuto, for owl. Those nocturnal Greeks. Most North American owls are Strigidae, typical. The Barn Owl’s face is heart shaped, though slightly elongated, as though the heart were being stretched. So we have a little winged heart-ghost, appearing only under cover of darkness. I wonder if the Barn Owl was the inspiration for Cupid?

But the Barn Owl also has associations with death. In an old favorite piece of music of mine, Janáček’s sequence for piano and small chamber orchestra, On an Overgrown Path, the composer mixes memories, some wistful, but others rather distraught, especially of his twenty-one-year-old daughter Olga’s sickness, with typhoid. The young woman died.

But she lingered on for awhile, and it was then that her parents clung to hope, Sýček neodletěl! This, the title of the most melancholy of the series, means, “The Barn Owl Has Not Yet Flown Away.” In Czech and other mythologies, the flying away of the Tyto alba is a harbinger of death, and if the owl sits, and does not fly, there is still hope.

But, as I said, the girl died.

I watched the heart ghost, the creature of what was left of the night for… I don’t know how long. It seemed outsized and mysterious to me. Despite my technical posture of supplicant (Because of it? What was I asking for?) I blinked and it flew swiftly into the black grass to kill something and fly and away, its extended wings like a warning to not breathe for a moment, both me and the prey. And then it was gone. The Barn Owl had flown away.

I haven’t named the dead woman here out of modesty, my sense of projected decorum for her. Though I can also imagine her saying, in her sugared accent, “Oh, honey, I couldn’t care less. Just don’t show it to Daddy.” Do you remember the myth of Pandora? There are several versions. In the most commonly cited, from Hesiod’s Works and Days, Zeus commands the Gods to create Pandora after Prometheus has stolen fire. They variously gave her gifts, attributes such as grace from Aphrodite, but also the painful complexities of language and shame, thanks to Hermes, and so on. And there was a container, a pithos, really more like a jar, but we call it a box and so it has formed in our mythos. In the jar was disease and burden, toil and pain, but strangely also hope, which, after Pandora had opened the box, was the one thing that stayed in the box. This has confused some people. Emily Dickinson writes that,

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—

Like an owl? Does hope stay in the box because of its feathers, because of what it might kill, or how it might leave? Must one keep it close-lidded? Hope, one supposes is the only thing that can kill hope—allowing the feeling out of the box, only to see it fall, its wings clipped. I’m thinking of the wonderful title of the book of prose by Woody Allen, Without Feathers, a witty take on Dickinson.

But what is in my boxes is not hope, or even the detritus of hope, but memory. And I think that’s what Pandora let loose upon the world, the myth a clear precedent for the Genesis story, as we bit into, open the top of, see what we’re told to stay away from: ourselves, and the shadows of our pasts, the recesses we shouldn’t linger in, think too much about. Bite that apple, open that jar at your own risk and see how your garden grows, how hopeful you remain. Paradise is, after all, blissful self-ignorance. Makes sense to me. Pandora, you wrecker of the complacent world.

Pandora is frequently painted as a lovely, naked or semi-naked young woman, in the paintings by Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Ernest Normand, Paul Césaire Gariot, Thomas Benjamin Kennington, John William Waterhouse, and many others. They’re onto, I think, Pandora’s melancholy allure. “For she was the muse. You never fuck the muse,” Gerald Stern writes in “Lillian Harvey.” “How old did she look? Was she like her photograph?” I did fuck the muse before she was the muse, but now I’m just left with a photograph of Pandora herself. Which the dead woman, who by the way loved me very much—I do have to say it—hopelessly—would have smiled about generously, ruefully, because she was very smart, before telling me to pour her another drink.

What does reaching in where we haven’t gone forever get us? Sometimes we see things we don’t expect. And we’re never quite the same again. We just hope against hope to keep a lid on both what we’ve lost and what we’ve found.

David Lazar was a Guggenheim Fellow in Nonfiction for 2015-16. His books include Who's Afraid of Helen of Troy, After Montaigne, Occasional Desire: Essays, The Body of Brooklyn, Truth in Nonfiction, Essaying the Essay, Powder Town, Michael Powell: Interviews, and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher. Forthcoming areI’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms, and Characters. Seven of his essays have been “Notable Essays of the Year” according to Best American Essays. Lazar is Professor of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago. He is founding editor of the literary magazine Hotel America, and series editor, with Patrick Madden, of 21st Century Essays. More from this author →