Marilyn Monroe

By: Peggy Nelson
June 1, 2010

Norma Jeane Mortenson (Baker) didn’t become MARILYN MONROE (1926-62) by changing her name. Strategic about her placement as a blonde bombshell, she modeled her look on Jean Harlow, deploying breathy voice and come-hither curves with a studied innocence that captured the gaze and held it, exactly as she intended. Monroe was not the first, and certainly not the last, of a string of silver screen sirens. Yet her song persists in its power to ensnare — almost fifty years after her death, she still represents the apotheosis of image. What propelled her from starlet to star, past icon and Andy Warhol, up into the stratosphere of symbol? It was, I suggest, her “scenius.” Coined by Brian Eno to describe the genius of an entire creative scene, scenius is the idea that truly compelling art and performance arises from its context at least as much as its comediennes. “Marilyn Monroe” was a collaboration between actress, camera, and audience, and grew to something greater than the sum of its parts, the elusive “it”: undeniable, irreducible, and luminous. But unlike real scenius, where “it,” if it arises, is available to all, cameras point in one direction; her own light never reached her. An increasingly desperate Monroe asked of the world, what do you see? But the world answered only, “more.” She became a ghost in the machine where her image still resides. As much ours as hers, it continues to feed us; flickering photosynthesis from a celluloid sun.

Also born on June 1: Christopher Lasch.

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What do you think?

  1. In the immortal words of Torquil Campbell: When there is nothing left to burn you have to set yourself on fire.

    Marilyn burned like a star: internally a violent explosion, a concentration of pure energy, but contained and distant so to the rest of us she appears distant, quiet, beautiful and flickering.

    In 50 years, light can travel 300 trillion miles, but it’s still freezing cold in space.

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