The Blazing World (2 page)

Two densely filled notebooks (M and N) treat the work of Margaret Cavendish, the Duchess of Newcastle (1623–1673), and the materialist organicism she developed as a thinker in her maturity. These two notebooks, however, also discuss the work of Descartes, Hobbes, More, and Gassendi. Burden links Cavendish to contemporary philosophers such as Suzanne Langer and David Chalmers, but also to the phenomenologist Dan Zahavi and the neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese, among others. After reading the passages in question, a colleague of mine in neurobiology, Stan Dickerson, who had never heard of either Burden or Cavendish, declared Burden’s argument “a bit wild but cogent and learned.”

Despite the fact that Cavendish lived in the seventeenth century, she served Harriet Burden as an alter ego. During her lifetime, the Duchess of Newcastle published poetry, fiction, and natural philosophy. Although a few people defended and admired her work at the time—most notably her husband, William Cavendish—the duchess felt brutally constricted by her sex and repeatedly articulated the hope that she would find readers and acclaim in posterity. Snubbed by many with whom she would have liked to engage in dialogue, Cavendish created a world of interlocutors in her writing. As with Cavendish, I believe that Burden cannot be understood unless the dialogical quality of her thought and art is taken into consideration. All of Burden’s notebooks may be read as forms of dialogue. She continually shifts from the first person into the second and then to the third. Some passages are written as arguments between two versions of herself. One voice makes a statement. Another disputes it. Her notebooks became the ground where her conflicted anger and divided intellect could do battle on the page.

Burden complains bitterly about sexism in the culture, the art world in particular, but she also laments her “intellectual loneliness.” She broods on her isolation and lashes out at her many perceived enemies. At the same time, her writing (like Cavendish’s) is colored by extravagance and grandiosity: “I am an Opera. A Riot. A Menace,” she writes in an entry that directly discusses her spiritual kinship to Cavendish. Like Cavendish, Burden’s desire for recognition in her lifetime was ultimately transmuted into a hope that her work would finally be noticed, if not while she was alive, then after her death.

Burden wrote so much and so broadly that my dilemma as an editor turned on the crucial question: What do I put in and what do I leave out? Some of the notebooks contain esoteric material unintelligible except to those well versed in the history of philosophy or science or art history. I found myself stumped by some of her references, and even after I had traced them, their meanings in the context of her writing often remained obscure to me. I have focused my attention on
and included only passages that directly or indirectly relate to the pseudonymous project. The first excerpts from Burden’s journals in this volume were taken from Notebook C (
? ), the memoir Burden began writing sometime in early 2002 after her sixty-second birthday, but which she appears to have abandoned to return to her other notebooks and a more fragmentary style.

Nevertheless, I found it expedient to try to construct a story of sorts out of the diverse material Burden left behind. Ethan Lord suggested I gather written or oral statements from people close to his mother to give additional perspectives to
, and I agreed. I then decided to solicit information from those who knew about or had somehow been involved in the pseudonymous project.

Since the Grace exhibition, interest in Harriet Burden’s work has grown exponentially, despite the fact that controversy still surrounds her “masks,” especially her involvement with the last and by far the most famous artist of the three, Rune. Although there is a consensus that Burden made Tish’s
History of Western Art
as well as Eldridge’s
Suffocation Rooms
, there is little agreement about what actually happened between her and Rune. There are those who believe Burden is not responsible for
or contributed very little to the installation, and others who are convinced that Burden created it without Rune. Still others argue that
was a collaborative effort. It may not be possible to determine absolutely who generated that work, although it is clear that Burden felt betrayed by Rune and turned against him. She also became convinced he had stolen four works from her studio, although no one can explain how the theft could have happened. The building was locked and protected by an alarm system.
, a series of twelve pieces, was sold as artwork by Rune. The dozen boxes resemble constructions made by Burden and it is at least possible that four of them were hers, not Rune’s.

Rune’s version of events could not be included in this anthology. His widely publicized death in 2004, which may or may not have been suicide, became a sensational media story. Rune’s career has been extensively documented. His work was widely reviewed, and there are also many critical articles and several books on him and his work available to anyone who is interested. Nevertheless, I wanted Rune’s view to be represented in this collection, and I asked Oswald Case, a journalist as well as a friend and biographer of Rune, to contribute to the volume. He graciously accepted. Other contributors include Bruno Kleinfeld; Maisie and Ethan Lord; Rachel Briefman, a close friend of Burden’s; Phineas Q. Eldridge, Burden’s second “mask”; Alan Dudek (also known as the Barometer), who lived with Burden; and Sweet Autumn Pinkney, who worked as an assistant on
The History of Western Art
and knew Anton Tish.

Despite Herculean efforts on my part, I was unable to contact Tish, whose account of his involvement with Burden would have been invaluable. A short interview with him, however, is part of this collection. In 2008, I wrote to Rune’s sister, Kirsten Larsen Smith, asking her for an interview about her brother’s involvement with Burden, but she demurred, saying that she was not able to talk about her brother because she was too distressed about his untimely death. Then, in March 2011, after I had compiled and edited all the materials for the book, Smith called me and explained that she had decided to accept my request for an interview. My conversation with her has now been added to the book. I am deeply grateful for her courage and honesty in speaking about her brother.

I have included a short essay by the art critic Rosemary Lerner, who is currently working on a book about Burden; interviews with two of the art dealers who showed Burden’s “masks”; and a couple of brief reviews that were published after the opening of
The Suffocation Rooms
, an exhibition that received far less attention than the other two shows that are part of the
trilogy. Timothy Hardwick’s article, published after Rune’s death, was added to the anthology because it addresses Rune’s views on artificial intelligence, a subject that interested Burden as well, although her notes on the subject suggest that the two of them were not in agreement.

I feel obliged to touch upon the question of mental illness. Although, in an essay on Burden in
Art Lights
, Alison Shaw called the artist “a paragon of sanity in an insanely biased world,” Alfred Tong, in an article for
Blank: A Magazine of the Arts
, takes the opposite position:

Harriet Burden was rich. She never had to work after she married the renowned art dealer and collector Felix Lord. When he died in 1995, she suffered a
mental breakdown and was treated by a psychiatrist. She remained in his care the rest of her life. By all accounts, Burden was eccentric, paranoid, belligerent, hysterical, and even violent. Several people watched her physically attack Rune in Red Hook near the water. One of the eyewitnesses told me personally that Rune left the scene bloody and bruised. I am hard pressed to understand why anyone would believe that she was even close to stable enough to produce
, a rigorous, complicated installation that may be Rune’s greatest work.

In the excerpts from the journals that follow, Burden writes about her suffering after her husband’s death, and she writes about Dr. Adam Fertig, to whom she felt indebted. Tong is right that she continued to see Fertig, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, for the eight remaining years of her life. She went to him for psychotherapy twice a week. It is also true that she punched Rune in front of a number of witnesses. The conclusions Tong draws from these facts, however, are largely unfounded. The author of the notebooks is sensitive, tormented, angry, and, like most of us, prone to neurotic blind spots. For example, Burden often seems to forget that it was
decision to leave the art world.
She exhibited her work behind at least two, if not three, male masks, but she refused to show the art she had amassed over many years to a single dealer, a fact that more than hints at self-sabotage.

My careful reading of the twenty-four notebooks, along with the texts and statements of those who knew her well, has provided me with a nuanced view of Harriet Burden, the artist and the woman; but while I worked on this book intermittently over the course of six years—interpreting her handwriting, doing my best to track down her references and cross-references, and trying to make sense of her multiple meanings—I confess I sometimes had the uncomfortable feeling that the ghost of Harriet Burden was laughing over my shoulder. She referred to herself several times in her journals as a “trickster,” and she seems to have delighted in all kinds of ruses and games. There are only two letters missing from Burden’s alphabet of notebooks: I and O. The letter
is, of course, the first-person pronoun in English, and I began to wonder how Burden could have resisted keeping a notebook under that letter and whether she hadn’t hidden it somewhere, if only to tease people like me, whom she had obviously hoped would eventually take notice of her and her work. There appear to be two parenthetical references to
, although she may have meant the number 1 instead. As for
, it is a number as well as a letter, a nullity, an opening, a void. Perhaps she purposely left that letter out of her alphabet. I don’t know. And Richard Brickman? There are hundreds of Richard Brickmans in the United States, but my guess is that Brickman was another of Burden’s pseudonyms. When Ethan told me his mother had published at least one critical work in 1986, using the preposterous name Roger Raison, I began to feel quite sure of my hypothesis, although I have no evidence to substantiate it whatsoever.

The best policy may be to let the reader of what follows judge for him- or herself exactly what Harriet Burden meant or didn’t mean and whether her account of herself can be trusted. The story that emerges from this anthology of voices is intimate, contradictory, and, I admit, rather strange. I have done my best to assemble the texts into a reasonable order and to provide notes for Burden’s writing when needed for clarification, but the words belong to the contributors, and I have let them stand with only minor editorial intervention.

Finally, I must add a few words about the title of this volume. In Notebook R (possibly for
, or
all three
words appear multiple times), after twenty pages on ghosts and dreaming, there is a blank space followed by the words
Monsters at Home
. This served as my working title until I had received all the texts, organized them into the present order, and read them through. I decided that the title Burden borrowed from Cavendish and gave to the last work of art she was able to complete before her death was better suited to the narrative as a whole:
The Blazing World

I. V. Hess


Just as this book was going to press, I was contacted by Maisie and Ethan Lord, who reported that they had just recovered another notebook: Notebook O. The entries in O provide further information on Harriet Burden’s relationship with Rune and reveal that Richard Brickman is, as I had guessed, a pseudonym for Burden herself. The most significant pages from that notebook have been added to this volume, but as they have not fundamentally altered my view of the artist, I have not revised my introduction. If at some point there is a second edition of this text, and if Notebook I (which I now feel certain exists) is discovered, I may well have to return to my text and change it accordingly.

(I. V. H.)

Harriet Burden

Notebook C (memoir fragment)

I started making them about a year after Felix died—totems, fetishes, signs, creatures like him and not so like him, odd bodies of all kinds that frightened the children, even though they were grown up and didn’t live with me anymore. They suspected a version of grief-gone-off-the-rails, especially after I decided that some of my carcasses had to be warm, so that when you put your arms around them you could feel the heat. Maisie told me to take it easy: Mom, it’s too much. You have to stop, Mom. You’re not young, you know. And Ethan, true to his Ethan self, expressed his disapproval by naming them “the maternal monsters,” “the Dad things,” and “pater horribilan.” Only Aven, wondrous grandbabe, approved of my beloved beasties. She was not yet two at the time and approached them soberly and with great delicacy. She loved to lay her cheek against a radiant belly and coo.

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