She’s always been in my drawings, in the form of a spider. People don’t usually like spiders – they’re afraid of them. Women leap onto stools and scream, and men step on them with the self-satisfaction of having done a good deed.
But you, you love spiders. They’re beautiful, they’re clean, and they manage to be simultaneously both quick and calm. They wait, motionless, in corners, never flustered, never obsessive, never hysterical; they’re serene beings, holding themselves apart, watching. With an animal patience. And they destroy various things that make life unbearable, such as flies and mosquitoes. Ah! the mosquitoes in Easton! How we could have used a good herd of spiders! And it must be said that they take good care of their young. You watch them, in the garden, in the attic, on the stairway, in the basement. They’re not all the same. You identify them and describe their varied behavior. Once on a trip to Paris, you found an encyclopedia of the spiders of the world at Boubée & Co. and brought it back. You have your favorites – more on that later – you don’t need it all at once; have a little patience, dears.
Molly, the woman who comes in twice a week to try to restore a little order, just doesn’t understand. She’s not allowed to touch a thing, and above all, not the spiders or the spiderwebs. She pushes the vacuum cleaner vaguely around in the center of the rooms, avoiding the corners. ‘Raising spiders – good Lord – that’s not Christian. If spiders aren’t the Devil himself, they’re at least his ambassadors,’ she declares. In the large house where you now live alone, they spread out, proliferating from the cellar to the attic. You think of Mother watching over her brood. There she is; you see her in the corner, watchful, on the lookout, ready for sacrifice. You never get tired of drawing her; you’re drawing Mother.
Mother was also a kind of weaver. She was in charge of repairing the tapestries that Father bought on his routine visits to castles in the vicinity. ‘Visits’ was the term he used; it seemed apt – and each time, a new affair. Once the tapestries were restored, he sold them in New York, Boston, or Philadelphia. All the while, Mother was hunched over her work, wielding her needle. Petit point. How you admired her patience, her application.
In the Metamorphoses, Ovid tells us how jealous Minerva was of Arachne, the Lydian, so famed for her skill at weaving. But Jupiter’s daughter didn’t punish Arachne for her talent as much as for her insolence in so accurately depicting the turpitudes of the Olympian gods. Jupiter, Neptune, Phoebus, Saturn, the great, the beautiful, the strong, the wise, the super-duper, all quite happy to disguise or transform themselves into bird or snake in order to take advantage of the first nymph who came along. Suddenly, the spotlight was focused on their mischief and duplicity.
It was to defend the family honor that Minerva destroyed Arachne’s work. And the latter, humiliated, tried to hang herself by one of her threads, when Minerva, suddenly magnanimous, saved her, but, because every debt must be repaid, she condemned her to stay suspended at the end of her thread, then sprayed her with a poison, specially got up by Hecate, that ate away at her little by little, shrinking her until she was no more than a belly with eight scrawny legs, which she nonetheless kept working in order to weave the web that would be her refuge from then on.
The web, a marvel of design. You loved the logarithmic spiral obliquely intersecting the vectors radiating out from the center, getting ever closer to it without ever reaching it, endlessly circling in, tighter and tighter, barely discernible. Glory to the universal geometer. And in the morning, with the dew on it, what light . . .
Mother, the weaving princess – I see her diadem. And the frolicking Olympian gods, if I know them . . . At the beginning of the century, the tastes of the New England upper class who bought Father’s tapestries for their neo-gothic apartments on Park Avenue (with paneling imported directly from the Périgord) were rather puritan. Love was OK, but sex, no. So, from all the bacchanals in the forests and on Olympus, the corpus delicti – the genitals – had to be removed. Mother cut them out, excising them, censuring them. And, as they discovered that you were gifted at drawing, it fell to you to draw the leaves, fruits, and branches that would replace the sexual organs of satyrs and lovers. Mother kept the woolen sexes she had so artfully removed in a cookie tin, the lid of which was printed with a fête galante à la Fragonard, hinting with delicious euphemism at the censored details that had replaced the original cookies. It was your job to create the appropriate foliage and then to arrange it to fit the resulting gap. Mother would then weave it into place.
Father lit his pipe, tucked his thumb into his watch-pocket, and verified that the substitution had worked; the crime had been masked over, and his sale was secure. ‘Well done, Louison,’ was the usual compliment. Terse with compliments; profuse with mockery.
The photographer Nadar wrote a short story titled ‘The Spider’. A friend brought me a copy from Paris. In it, we see the narrator going out in the middle of the night, candle in hand, to a shed at the bottom of an old garden. As he walks in, he sees an entire nest of spiders scurry away. One alone, enormous, stays where it is, on the wall, and stares at him defiantly. The man raises his candle and lights the spider on fire, and as the glistening body writhes and sizzles on the ground, Nadar hears the spirit of the myriapod – is it a myriapod? I’m afraid not, eight legs, that’s not enough – say to him, ‘I ask nothing of you, I cost you nothing, and I serve you like one of your closest friends for nothing, and you hate me, you iniquitous man!’
‘I have taken it upon myself to deliver you from flies and their relatives, which would eat you alive if it weren’t for me; I do whatever I can to make your summer nights peaceful and your warm evenings lovely, and I even at time thwart the horrible bacteria that are about to kill your best-loved child. But you find me ugly, and to reward me for my services, you murder me with impunity – and it’s fully within your rights, you being the stronger. Murderer! Coward! Ingrate! Imbecile!!!’
Thursday, September 14, 1932, an Olympian god, a murderer, a coward, being ungrateful, imbecilic, or merely jealous, struck Mother with his decree.
You find her again in spiders that you draw and those that you observe. You keep a catalogue of spiders, a catalogue of mothers. You use your finest handwriting to copy out passages from the Boubée encyclopedia. Copying out the description of a species of spider has become a kind of ritual; it’s a little like tending your mother’s grave. You live by proxy among the spiders.
Copied from the Boubée encyclopedia:
The male Diadem spider signals to the female by rhythmically vibrating one of the strands that anchor his web. This string serenade seems to diminish the female’s dangerous tendency to devour anything it sees. She freezes, as if hypnotized, bewitched, and then the musical male gingerly makes his approach . . . and honors his spouse. The act completed, he beats a hasty retreat and is never heard from again, while Madame seems to wake up from her dream and, little by little, get back to hunting.
At the stationers on 7th Avenue, you bought a notebook, a lined one like children use in school, and on the cover, you wrote The Spider Book. In it, you noted your observations and copied out passages from J. H. Fabre, adding a few ideas and drawings. You could have called it The Book of My Mother, but that already existed, so this one had to be The Book of the Spider, or The Spider Book. Burying yourself in it after a long day’s work gave you the same sense of well-being that a child gets from a stamp collection.
Your parents had made you leave school as a teenager, so that you could spend more time drawing for the tapestry restorations. The business was going marvelously; this was before the crash. Father brought back more and more tapestries from his travels, and they all had to be dealt with. Mother was now too weak to weave, so Father hired seamstresses. You watched them work, explaining the drawings to them from time to time. You called them the spinning sisters. They did nothing but spin. Master’s orders.
One evening, Mother asked you to sit down on the edge of her bed and made you promise to go back to school. You must have a skill, she said; go to the Sorbonne. If you learn mathematics, you won’t have to depend on men. Meanwhile, Father was planning to marry you off to a dandy with a fancy convertible who’d taken to hanging around, the son of a business associate that he just couldn’t say enough about. Oh, please!
Beastly creature, it bit me! Under the armpit, a pustule swollen with venom. But it was only defending itself. How long has it been since you set foot in this room, Robert’s study? You sat down where he had always sat when he worked, and you moved a pile of old folders, a work in progress that his death had left in place. The spider couldn’t have chosen a better spot for raising her little family than a stack of abandoned papers, untouched for ages. How can you blame her? Why did you go and disturb her? Could there be anywhere in the world more ideal, more propitious for raising a passel of petite progeny, than an old file full of the beginnings of a general theory of civilizations according to their magical-aesthetic manifestations? What could be more comforting than the thought that a pile of slowly ripening crackpot ideas determined to finally shed light on the basis of the human soul would end up giving birth to a generation of one of the most ancient species on the planet, going back long before humanity and probably destined to exist long after. Your dermatologist probably didn’t consider that. There aren’t many spiders on the forty-second floor of a building on Park Avenue whose windows don’t open. She gave you a salve and told you it would take a month to heal. She presumed you were a witch.
Parturient spider at the bottom of the garden. You watch, fascinated, careful not to disturb her at her business. Alternating stripes of yellow, silver, and black cross a belly almost as big as a hazelnut. And around this opulent abdomen, her eight legs radiate, ringed in beige and brown. In the business of maternity, garden spiders are pros. The silky sac in which she keeps her eggs is a marvel. The pear-shaped opening is trimmed with lace that extends into lines that anchor the nest to nearby twigs. The oval body, hanging straight down, is stabilized by a few more strands. The top is hollowed out into a felted cavern, and the envelope as a whole is a thick, dense, opaque white.
You’ll give her eggs made of marble. Three of them. They’ll be clearly visible through a kind of lattice beneath her. She’ll be huge, imposing, monumental, and fragile; you’ll be able to walk between her legs, long iron pieces that narrow, ending at times in a hook. You will make a family of them. Your family.
The above is an excerpt from Now, Now, Louison, published by Les Fugitives. The original published by Éditions P.O.L., Paris, France, 2016
Photograph of ‘Maman’ by Louise Bourgeois © Javier Díaz Barrera