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The Neurotically Happy

the widow revisited
the widow revisited

In 1956, the photographer Bruce Davidson befriended and photographed Margaret Fauché in Paris and compiled the series The Widow of Montmartre. Margaret Fauché was 92 years old at the time (Davidson was 23) and she was living in a garret with huge windows overlooking the Moulin de la Galette, as one can see in The Widow of Montmartre #11, where the widow sits in darkness in her living room with her back turned to the view and the light outside.


It makes perfect sense: Loneliness, old age, moving like a ghost in a world that doesn’t include you anymore. But the perceived reality is also suspiciously familiar, in the way it confirms the generalized fears and presuppositions of a particular, vague as well as popular worldview that paints old age and death in grim colors.


Armed with Susan Sontag’s On Photography, I prepared to write an essay attacking stereotyping and media-induced conservatism, defending at the same time a woman defined in the viewer’s mind by the markers of age (old) and appointed role (widow).


She was 92, after all – an admirable age for anyone to reach – and quite independent. Her husband, the painter Léon Fauché, had died just five years before, in 1950, at the equally admirable age of 82. And she did own an attic in Montmartre – an enviable possession and a dream to many, although by no means a measure of satisfaction. The Bookkeeper (the imaginary being adding and subtracting our happy and sad moments in order to draw a conclusion regarding the quality of our lives) should be happy.


Margaret’s past was more private than her husband’s, so I researched Léon Fauché in order to piece together a happy life for them both. It shouldn’t have been bad at all: Impressionism was a revolution back in 1890, and they were quite progressive. Léon – who was twenty-two at the time, about the same age as Davidson when he shot the pictures of Mme Fauché –  had his circle and his style, his haunt and a substantial involvement in the movement, and Margaret, who was four years older, was herself quite extraordinary. I couldn’t find out much about their later life, although I wondered how they managed during the Wars, but it didn’t matter, as their brief moment of glory should have covered for any misfortune. The Bookkeeper would approve. Besides, I had another argument to follow through, namely the images themselves: The crude contrast and staged sentimentalism of couples kissing and children playing while the old, stooped figure walks away were enough evidence to overturn any platitude of late-life misery. After all, Mme Fauché was always spruce, and this was not due to a tragic sense of dignity.


The fury and decisiveness to prove it suggested a conflicting personal interest. It reminded me of someone I knew, who hit her work desk and shouted “it will be,” referring to the successful outcome of the upcoming holidays of another colleague, in an otherwise completely casual office conversation. She, just like me, wanted happiness first of all to exist and then to last forever, and would not take no for an answer. By the way, at the time of the incident, she had been recently divorced.


Happiness in middle-class, first-world settings, is usually a matter of choice. You decide you’ll be happy and channel your thoughts accordingly, with routine and discipline. You take an empty shell (the word ‘happiness’), fill it with substance (by repetition, until it gains in volume) and wear it like an intrinsic value. It is an act of rebellion, after all, to manage to be happy and conscious at the same time. So, in this manner, it is a choice. But when happiness is actually slipping away – perhaps because we’re horrible at both routine and discipline – it stops being a choice. In fact, it is the opposite, as you realize that you have no choice, but to be happy. It is a prerequisite to a life well-lived, and a hedonist would dare say that that’s the only life worth living. That’s when you desperately defend the Mme Fauché’s (it takes one to know one) and agreeable holiday goers of the world. You’d even hit the desk or analyze the whole human condition if you had to.

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Sunday, 29 April 2018 12:09
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