The devourer and the devoured
April 29, 2014 8:07 AM   Subscribe

"Nobody would believe how difficult it is to be the mother of a Wunderkind. Everything I do is wrong; everything the child does is “for effect”; everything we say is utterly untrue. If Vivien runs up to me and kisses me, I hear it murmured that she is trained to do so. (“Whipped to be affectionate in public!”) So I tell her never to do it again. Immediately people remark how cold I am to the child; how the poor little creature evidently fears me and prefers Fräulein Muller. We take her with her hoop and skipping-rope to play in the park? It is said we make her pretend to be infantine, force her to act the “happy child” when people are looking on! So we take her toys from her and conduct her for prim walks between us. “Poor little unnatural creature!” say our friends: “she has no child-life at all.” The Devourer and the Devoured is a long essay by Emily Hogstad about the intertwined lives of the novelist Annie Vivanti and her daughter Vivien Chartres, a world-famous violin prodigy, at the beginning of the twentieth century.
posted by escabeche (16 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Lady's friends sound like assholes. She should stop listening to them.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:02 AM on April 29, 2014 [8 favorites]

Drive-by parenting has always been a thing, apparently.
posted by emjaybee at 9:13 AM on April 29, 2014 [7 favorites]

Haters gonna hate.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:50 AM on April 29, 2014

This situation is not specific to the parents of prodigies. It happens to all of us.
posted by DWRoelands at 9:57 AM on April 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

If Vivien runs up to me and kisses me, I hear it murmured that she is trained to do so.

That was about half of the recent balloon/science thread's comments I feel like.
posted by inigo2 at 10:21 AM on April 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

Something – maybe everything – was fabricated.

As is often the case with people who try to force a "better-than-thou" narrative on a gullible public looking for a "story" -- this reeks of the "gifted" hyperbole in spades. Lamenting how the "little people" just don't get you; how "different" you are from the commoners, and how society cannot accommodate the self-described "chosen ones."

I hear this from people who try to re-imagine their mediocre children as better than what they really are -- yes, forcing anyone to practice twenty hours a day will give them competency above those with normal and functional lives, but it isn't "gifted". And when your parent pushes you and wears down people to open doors for you, that saves the alleged prodigy bunches of legwork.

There is no special gifts; just good old-fashioned smoke and mirrors coupled with abnormal delusions and self-entitlements that pay big dividends.

There wasn't anyone to call this woman on the carpet back then -- if she tried to pull this stunt these days, the results would be different.

She expressed a constant impatience with all things, as many gifted children are apt to do.

And average kids and every kid who ever lived. Children have attention spans of gnats.

Find the right way to frame your game and people will not question your obnoxiousness for decades...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 10:26 AM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

This was a great essay - thank you for linking it! I'm especially interested in serious amateur scholarship like this. And the writing style was, I thought, very good - fluid and distinctive without being affected or cloying.
posted by Frowner at 10:34 AM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Maybe (probably) it's because I'm bitter from my own slightly fucked up childhood but anything that has a whiff of "this is not your problem, dear, this is MOMMY'S problem. See how much more mommy suffers!" just creeps me out a bit.
posted by quincunx at 12:56 PM on April 29, 2014

Maybe (probably) it's because I'm bitter from my own slightly fucked up childhood but anything that has a whiff of "this is not your problem, dear, this is MOMMY'S problem. See how much more mommy suffers!" just creeps me out a bit.

I think it's worth reading the essay - the point of the essay isn't "look how difficult the mother had it" at all. It's an attempt to establish what kinds of evidence exist for the entwinement of the lives of the mother and daughter, paying particular attention to the novel written by the mother. I'd say it is more about the mother than the daughter, but that's because it's mostly about the novel and the question of why it was written as it was. I'd say, in fact, that this is the kind of essay that you don't see as often on the internet - it's an accessible essay by a woman I presume to be an amateur scholar and it is an attempt to research and lay out an interesting topic, rather than use a particular book as a springboard for polemic.

Now, I'm all about polemic, but I think there's room for both the Toast-style "look at this Olde Worlde booke with its fucked up assumptions; how fucked up is that; feminism" essay and "here is what is in this book, what can we notice about it and what is its context?"
posted by Frowner at 1:28 PM on April 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

anything that has a whiff of "this is not your problem, dear, this is MOMMY'S problem. See how much more mommy suffers!" just creeps me out a bit.

The essay did not seem to convey this in the least.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:42 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I admit that I didn't read the entire essay but I read enough to get to this section, which sounds a little but mommy dearest to me:

“The Paganini Concerto,” I said, on the spur of the moment. “And on that day the Fairy Spirit will wake up and shake out her beautiful wings and come forth from the violin to do the little girl’s bidding.” I read in Vivien’s face that she was going to say, ‘What is bidding?’ so I went on quickly. “She will obey the little girl and fulfil all her wishes. She will turn the violin-bow into a magic wand, and the little girl will work charms with it: make bad people good, and sad people happy, and poor people rich – ”

“And order pony-carriages at once? And make Fräulein Muller vanish away?” cried Vivien, intensely excited.

“Everything!” I replied, in order not to spoil the effect of the story. Vivien had already flown to the case, and now she held the fiddle up and turned it in every direction, peering into the sound-holes with anxious eyes. I improved the occasion. “And the more you practise, the sooner will she be visible. Every hour you play loosens a little the bonds that tie her. Scales especially have a very loosening effect,” I added.

I confess to feeling some twinges of remorse the next morning, when I heard her practising scales all by herself for a long time. At the end of every scale she looked into the fiddle; and before lunch she came and whispered in my ear, “I think I heard her move!”

I do agree though that studies of mother-daughter relationships are too rare and this is refreshing in that sense. But women are definitely not immune to the same kind of fucked up parent-child relationships fathers and sons have, either, maybe especially in the arts or professionally. (I am reminded of many unhealthy mother-daughter duos in, for instance, ballet dance)
posted by quincunx at 1:48 PM on April 29, 2014

It doesn't sound at all Mommy Dearest to me, but we'll have to agree to disagree there.

Anyway, more broadly, in the entire history of MetaFilter, I cannot think of a thread in which we agreed any woman was doing a good job parenting. I am slightly taken aback that we are "other mothering" someone who was parenting 100 years ago, but that's probably a personal failing on my part.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:19 PM on April 29, 2014 [6 favorites]

Sigh. Let me try again.

I'm glad people liked the article. I'm glad mother-daughter relationships, especially of famous women in the arts, are being studied and read about by people. None of that offends or bothers me in the least.

I do disagree that women and mothers need to be "pedestalled", or that we cannot like some parts of this article and dislike others. I disagree that complicated, imperfect relationships between women involving their admitted human failings are not interesting or are sexist. (One of my favorite films is Heavenly Creatures, about teenage murderesses- definitely not women/girls I wish to emulate.) I disagree that criticizing the way another women parents in any way kicks you out of the feminist club, or is necessarily always motivated by sexism.

I sympathize with her cry that she can't win. "I'm never good enough! The neighbors always blame me!" Well, yeah. That's called being human. I don't think she's completely perfect or a martyr either, though, and there are two sides to every story.

And she IS getting a lot out of being the mother to this gifted child. She's getting attention, she's writing a book, she's getting artistic inspiration, etc. (was, is- yes I realize this is 100 years in the past. So what? The point is that it's relevant to our lives now in some way, no?)

Anyway. It is just 2 cents, not much to bank on.
posted by quincunx at 4:42 PM on April 29, 2014

This is an excellent essay, pitching biographical point against autobiographical and yet fictional counterpoint, and achieving a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.
Otakar Ševčík was a giant of nineteenth century pedagogy. Born in 1852, this shy, thoughtful, generous man was one of the great instructors of the late Victorian era. His students included some of the greatest violinists of the age: Marie Hall, Jan Kubelík, Erika Morini, and Efram Zimbalist, among others. He had a punishing professional regime: he usually began to teach at seven in the morning, took a break in the afternoon, and then worked late into the night. He expected his select students to be just as committed to their education as he was, and he advised them to practice no less than eight hours a day.

After her audition, Vivien Chartres became one of those select few.
I've wondered whether, in educating such great talents as rigorously, exactingly, and narrowly as we so often do, rather than letting their bearers forge their own paths to the fulfillment of their potentials, we are inadvertently populating our world with great players where we could have had, in some cases, great composers instead.

And Otakar Ševčík's fictional counterpart, at least, and of course Vivien's mother the author, grasp the nature and consequences of the distinction perhaps too well:
No one spoke for a moment; then the Professor went close to the child and said:

“Why did you say, ‘I remember’ when I told you about the trumpet notes?”

“I don’t know,” said Anne-Marie, with the vague look she always had after she had played.

“What did you mean?”

“I meant that I understood,” said Anne-Marie.

The Professor frowned at her, while his lips worked.

“You said, ‘I remember.’ And I believe you remember. I believe you are not learning anything new. You are remembering something you have known before.”

Fräulein intervened excitedly. “Ach! Herr Professor! I assure you the child has never seen that piece! I have been with her since the first day she überhaupt had the violin, and – ”

The Professor waved an impatient hand. He was still looking at Anne-Marie. “Who is it?” and he shook his grey head tremulously. “Whom have we here? Is it Paganini? Or Mozart? I hope it is Mozart.”
posted by jamjam at 6:45 PM on April 29, 2014

I'm fascinated by the mysterious Fräulein Muller, presumably a kind of nanny, who appears in the piece just twice. She represents Vivanti's anxiety about not being a "real mother" (" the poor little creature evidently fears me and prefers Fräulein Muller") and then in the story of the fairy, where Vivien expresses a wish that the fairy would "make Fräulein Muller vanish away." Of course, this story is being told by Vivanti -- what we are seeing is the wish that Vivanti wishes Vivien to have, a fantasy of a fantasy!
posted by escabeche at 7:14 PM on April 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

“I don’t know that I do,” said Nancy. “She is a great artist now. If she degenerates” – and Nancy smiled – “into merely a happy woman, she will have had more than her share of luck.”

posted by viggorlijah at 7:36 PM on April 29, 2014

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