08 December 2015

Tess and Amy: A Tale of Two Women, One Fictional One Real, Who Both Lived Tragic Lives


“Never in her life – she could swear it from the bottom of her soul – had she ever intended to do wrong; yet these hard judgments had come. Whatever her sins, they were not sins of intention, but of inadvertence, and why should she have been punished so persistently?” From Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.

Goddamn but Tess was dealt a lousy hand. She was like a female Job, but her ill fortunes did not come courtesy of a deity but from the actions of men, one in particular. Tess endures much of the kind of suffering that has been visited on women throughout history -- sexual, societal, patriarchal. Tess is beautiful she is vulnerable she is stubborn she is taciturn yet passionate. She is undone in part by her own moral code, one that demands that she be completely honest with her one true love to the point of revealing to him the ill use she suffered at the hands of another man and her consequent pregnancy (the child died as an infant). Tess could have lived happily ever after by keeping her mouth shut. Simple. Yet for her impossible.

It would be easy enough to declare Tess the culprit in her own demise. But she was the victim of an older man's aggression and it was her loving groom who could not stand the truth about her, as innocent as she may have been in the matter.

Of course Tess came from most humble beginnings and despite having a pathetic father and enabling mother, she may have gone on to happy a life, even with the added burden of being the oldest of a brood of six children. But fate intervened when her father found out he has noble blood. He sent Tess to "claim kin" with a rich woman who shared the family's original last name of d'Urbervilles (a name that her family purchased). It goes all wrong from there as instead of the woman, Tess meets her sophisticated, swarthy son, Alec.

No matter what happens to Tess she plods on. Literally. She is forever walking great distances and taking on whatever job presents itself. Tess falls for the interestingly named Angel Claire at a dairy farm and an ill fated romance ensues. Eventually abandoned by Angel (during their honeymoon) after reveling her past, Tess perseveres and initially and quite proudly rejects Alec's offers of help. But yield she does as her family's destitute state in the wake of father's death is too great a cross to bear. The price for financial salvation is giving herself body (though not soul) to Alec. When Angel finally comes to his senses and tries to reclaim his Tess the final tragedy unfolds.

It's impossible to blame Tess for anything that happens to her, however great the temptation. Yes she is stubborn and proud but these are hardly sins worth the defilement, rejection, poverty and abuse that visit the poor girl.

I recently read the Thomas Hardy novel for the first time then viewed Roman Polanski's film adaptation for the fourth time. Both are, in my estimation, masterpieces. They evoke the beauty of late 19th century England rural life, as well as the hardships and the cruelty. Both book and film are masterfully told by artists who were at the top of their respective fields. In the hands of less accomplished creators Tess the book or film could have been merely a tear jerkers, maudlin and weepy. Instead we have have a compelling story, a tragedy in the grand tradition of Shakespeare.

"If I could give it all back and walk down that street with no hassle, I would...." - Amy Winehouse.

Among the great jazz singers, Tony Bennett ranked Amy Winehouse right up there with Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald. Of course the world got far too small of sample of Winehouse’s great talent as she died at 27 from the effects of alcohol abuse, drugs and bulimia. The brilliant documentary Amy, just released last week on DVD, chronicles her amazing rise to stardom, her troubled times at the top and her predictable end.

Amy Winehouse loved music and she loved to sing and she was passionate and hugely talented. But she was overly influenced by rotten men who used and abused her. She was also an addict. While it is true that you are either an addict or not, there are degrees within the addiction community. I've heard from people who usage went beyond even mine (which is saying a lot). For some too much is never enough and for others too much is just a starting point. Amy Winehouse was clearly in the latter category, but with the right kind of guidance she could have gotten and stayed clean. While its true that a person is only successful in recovery if they want to be, it is also true that an addict can get helpful pushes and corresponding affection and support from those around her. We face our struggles with addiction both very much alone and within a community and support group of those fellow travelers and those who love us. Life is full of contradictions.

Addiction is difficult enough to conquer but when it is accompanied by a fame, well that I can't imagine. Worse still is sudden fame. From humble beginnings one is suddenly recognized and hounded everywhere. This is made clear in the documentary as we see dozens of camera flashes over and over as Amy emerges from a nightclub or hospital or car or her apartment. These flashes are accompanied by the ubiquitous shouted questions. The documentary served to redouble my hatred for the paparazzi.

Fame seems the ultimate double edged sword. Yes it confirms that one's art is appreciated worldwide and thus success has been achieved on a mass scale, but it also means a total loss of privacy. The ability to walk down a street alone is forfeited and details of a person's private life can be spread all over the tabloids, internet and TV. If, like Ms. Winehouse, there are ongoing personal struggles that are common knowledge, it would seem too great a cross to bear.

Was Amy Winehouse responsible for her own sad demise? Sure whatever happens to us is ultimately on us but the only break she ever got was enormous talent. Yes that sounds like a lot but it can't make up for not having a loving family or healthy relationships or freedom from addiction.

I did not discover Amy Winehouse's music until just after her death. I immediately bought all her albums and I've not tired of them yet. To me she is one of the greatest and most original musical artists of all time. Like two other greats, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, she died at 27 and the world is a poorer place for their early departures.

One can only hope that the documentary and the story of Ms. Winehouse's life will serve as a cautionary tale for others, be they headed for great fame or not.


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