The Weaver Fails
What’s important to remember about Arachne is that she was born with no talent for weaving. No talent, that is, until Athena gave it to her—the first act of pity.
The second act was the spider.
But years before the spider, Athena saw only this incapable girl—poor with her hands, no strength in her fingers, and worse, the daughter of a clothing dyer, so there were certain filial expectations. Her father dyed with purple, that rare, expensive, and royal color, and the father, famous for his skill with cloth, would find his child before an empty loom eating olives. And he was furious, waving his discolored indigo arms, calling her worthless and unmarriable and leaving her there weeping. That’s how Athena found her, crying at the foot of an unwebbed loom. So the goddess touched the girl’s head, and Arachne felt the sizzle of something supernatural and she looked at the loom and it made sense—the warp and weft, the heddle, cords, the beams and studdles—they were as easy as language then, as easy as speaking. By the time the girl was a teenager, even the river nymphs were wearing her designs.
Penelope could use that witchcraft now.
Now, when Penelope leaves the loom-chamber, she feels all the eyes, all the questions, all these people in her house waiting. And they know something’s not right. They know she’s stalling. The suitors—one of whom she’ll marry, just as soon as the weaving is finished, which is to say never—they wait, they eat her food, they drink and watch. She wants to marry and get on with her life, finally, mercifully, and they’ve been waiting months, years, and their eyes are no longer adoring eyes. They judge. They see that she is all wrong inside. She is in a house that doesn’t love her, because in all this time she hasn’t woven even a single thread.
So Penelope spends her time in that upstairs chamber, in her private room, looking onto the courtyard. So much time alone that the servants are worried. They send Melantho, the fearless and nosy one, to knock on the door, and Penelope screams at her to go away. The door is locked. Penelope built the lock herself—that’s something she can do. She always had an aptitude for building. And for poetry, too, and history, mathematics, science. As a girl, she could name all the plants that grew on her island, perform feats of geometry, recite the epics of the gods. Her favorite was the one about Aglaia, one of the Graces, and how she married Hephaistos, the Limping God, doubly-lame, lame in both legs, who with shriveled feet, with heart broken by first wife Aphrodite, found this beauty to mend him. The story delighted her, and Penelope imagined the lame god, good with his hands but slow, at home with his young wife, where she’d caress his warped and bony legs and call him gorgeous and really mean it. They’d laugh at the folly of all the other gods, laugh at the struggles for power, laugh at nothing at all only because they were together, these two simple, satisfied beings.
Penelope wanted a boy like that—a humble boy, patient and slow, fulfilled and happy—but all she found were athletes. Horse-riders, arrow-shooters, sword-swingers. And when the biggest athlete—the future king Odysseus—wanted to be her husband, she couldn’t say no, but she tried to talk him out of it. I don’t weave, she said. I don’t weave worth spit. Shocking, I know, because that’s something that’s expected of me, demanded of me, but I don’t do it, and I never will.
But this big muscled boy surprised her. It will be our secret, he said.
So in public, her husband bragged about Penelope’s skills at the loom, meanwhile smuggling the best tapestries from Rhodes, Byzantium, and Troy. These he claimed were hers, and thus Penelope learned about politics.
There were so many secrets shared between them, in that bed he had carved from the olive tree. Her husband, king of Ithaca, fiercest of all warriors, got vertigo at great heights, worried about his hair, was afraid of spiders. When Penelope said his muscles were intimidating, he pushed out his belly to make himself seem fat. When angry, he moped and cut wood, said nothing’s wrong, I’m fine with that dumb kind of manly bravado. He was intimidated by her, too, he said, intimidated by all the poems she knew, all the stories, the math and theory, said he felt foolish that while she’d been reading he’d been sharpening knives. And for all his bulk, he was gentle in that olive tree bed, quiet, shy, embarrassed by his own needs. I’ll never tell anyone, Penelope said, and she never did.
But that was so long ago, before he sailed away with his weapons, his army, his twelve ships to the misery of Ilion. Now there is only Penelope waging her own war—her awful loom, the shreds of string thrown about the chamber, the proof of her enormous failure.
Athena could do this job. Athena could end this, could lend some Olympian rags and be done with it. Penelope thinks the goddess owes her at least that much. Athena, who called her husband to fight. Athena, who helped mortals invent the sail, the instrument of his departure, the tool by which men invade. Athena, the gray-eyed goddess, the perfect virgin, the unbending maiden, the flying bitch.
More Letters Between Artists, Paris, 1865
Something has gotten you sassed up! And mad! And you have always been sassy but never mad. You have also been always excellent with the imagery. (I cherish “drunk porcupine.”) Maybe this is why you are drawn to draw still-life?
Since there was no explaining yourself on why you are so sassed up or mad I will have to guess, and I will guess it is probably because of the hooker thing. Or courtesan, sorry. Yes I painted you as a hooker or courtesan and totally naked and waiting in the bed and maybe that is why?
Should I say I’m sorry?
I should not! I shouldn’t say I’m sorry because, excuse me, you are a hooker? Right? I only painted the truth? Or courtesan? And that is why it is so rebel! Totally naked nudes in the Salon are all lies and this is true every day of the week of every month! There is the baroque nymph. There is the rococo Athena. There is the romantic Eve with the leaf covering her beauty. And you know what I say to them? I say cliché! I say in your face! Beancounters!
They’re all lies except for one and that is you the hooker!
Maybe you are sassed up because of your total nakedness. And yes, you are very totally naked. But this is me to you: you could have been even more totally naked. I painted conservative. I covered you strategically. Did you notice I painted your hand so that you were covering your—
—what’s the right word?—
Pussy is so rude. Vagina sounds like a doctor’s office am I right? Maybe sex? I painted your hand so that you were covering your sex. So you are not all the way uncovered. You are somewhat covered. At least your very most important part is covered. And there is also the shoe, because you are wearing one. And a bracelet and a necklace so there.
And what is not covered is beautiful and rebel! You are stern or powerful! You are confident. You look at the viewer like C’mere you. You say at the viewer You want me. And you say Shame on you. And you say Come here and get it bad boy. You are honest, which is so shaking things up right now! Venus is a lie! Athena is a lie! You are totally naked in bed for a reason! This is real! Bona fide! (If you want to know what the reason is I will tell you, it is for fucking for money.)
And also you are like a rose, you are so beautiful. You are like a rose that I pick and put in my foyer and maybe even paint. Please do not be sassed up or mad.
You must stop putting words in my mouth. I am not saying you want me. I am not saying come here and get it bad boy. Have you forgotten who here mixed the paints? Who here held the brush? That look you dabbed onto my face, the placement of my hand—you didn’t paint it, but you suggested it—the thing the looker can own for a few extra francs.
You fucker, you whore.
It’s not that I mind the nakedness. It’s not that I mind, even, the pose. It’s not even that I mind the critics, who are calling me a gorilla.
What I mind is that stare. Confident, you called it. A confident stare.
You are a brutal thief, Édouard, and a sentimental folly—beautiful as a rose?
Consider what happens to the rose, Édouard, the one in your foyer, on your canvas. What happens to the rose if you decide not to pick it?