Walter Benjamin’s Allegory and Grey Gardens

In The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Walter Benjamin speaks of the ruin as a form of allegory, a ruin pointing beyond itself to ‘an other text’ or absent totality. The ruin is a structure comprising layers of texts or histories.

‘In allegorical structure, then, one text is read through another, however fragmentary, intermittent, or chaotic their relationship may be; the paradigm for the allegorical work is thus the palimpsest.’[1]

In this, both Grey Gardens, and its subjects’ lives, are allegorical ruins. Made by Albert and David Maysles in 1976, Grey Gardens is a fly on the wall documentary film about Edith (Edie) Bouvier Beale and her daughter, also Edie. The Edies are the estranged aunt and cousin of Jackie Onassis, and are filmed at their home, Grey Gardens, a 28-room mansion on Long Island. Or rather, in the two rooms of this derelict mansion that they occupy, surrounded by creepers. There is no voice-over offering exposition. Rather, as in an allegory, ‘the other text’ of the Edies’ lives is gradually revealed to us.

‘I find it hard to distinguish between past and present’, Little Edie, aged 59, confides in the camera. Throughout the film, she is heavily made-up and dressed in a number of curious outfits that simultaneously show retention of glamour and slippage into frumpy madness. In another scene, she admits to not having any clocks. Previously, Big Edie has wondered what the date is as she writes a cheque. Groceries are delivered to the house; the Edies do not leave their moribund island.

‘In the ruin, history has physically merged into the setting. And in this guise history does not assume the form of the process of an eternal life so much as that of irresistible decay.’[2]

Numerous cats and raccoons live in Grey Gardens – which we gather, from shots of newspaper reports, is flea-infested. Little Edie longs for the New York she had to leave in her twenties, having been summonsed home to be with her mother, whose marriage and a possible affair with her piano accompanist had failed. The Edies are both caught in the past (constantly referring to onetime acquaintances on this or that social register) and resigned to the ‘irresistible decay’[3] of the present. Big Edie encourages a cat to urinate behind her oil portrait, and both women eat ice cream straight from the tub, with any utensil to hand, drinking from jam jars. They call visits by public health authorities ‘raids’ to their ruined garden.

‘Allegory is consistently attracted to the fragmentary, the imperfect, the incomplete – an affinity which finds its most comprehensive expression in the ruin.’[4]

For her birthday, some friends visit Big Edie (and, poignantly, give her a contact book for a present). Together with Little Edie, they sit around a dining table on newspaper sheets to protect them from the accumulated grime. Big Edie wonders where her green goblets have gone, as they drink from paper cups. This is no Kantian ideal of a dinner party, being neither socially nor physically enjoyable, and partaken under the surveillance of a film crew. Indeed, since Grey Gardens was released, at least one of the birthday guests has published a book about it and the Edies.

Another guest to Grey Gardens is Jerry, their adolescent neighbour and handyman. Little Edie whispers her suspicion that he wants an affair with her. Jerry sprawls on one of their beds and eats chicken. Little Edie calls him The Marble Faun on account of his beauty. Indeed, The Marble Faun is an appropriate allusion considering the misty, rustic aesthetic that Grey Gardens has. One day, Jerry is in the garden talking to Little Edie, who is standing above him on a balcony like a sagging Juliet. The Marble Faun, written in 1860 on the eve of the American Civil War and set in a fantastical Italy, evokes the feeling of impending and accelerating decline alongside a wishful ignorance of it.

Gestures come to feel like ruins in Grey Gardens. Both Edies sing along to records from the Forties and Fifties, their eyelashes batting and mouths pouting. Their gestures and voices are stuck, like their records; it is as if they hope to reincarnate their heyday through incantation. Little Edie often dances hysterically, all alone, with imaginary partners in her arms. She is the Southern Belle of New England, a Blanche Dubois wreck of delusions. She searches horoscopes as if they too might return her to her heyday, or, perhaps more tragically still, be of use to her in her present ‘romantic life’. A Catholic preacher brings Big Edie close to tears, suggesting the extent of their struggle to remain motivated. Big Edie lets her hair grow – in resignation or in an attempt to re-grow her youthful locks, we do not know.

Big Edie

Grey Gardens contains no re-enactments, other than those we glimpse through masks of ageing, or through an equally aged set of photographs that are shown to the camera. There is

‘… an allegorical motive in photomontage, for it is the “common practice” of allegory to pile up fragments ceaselessly, without any strict idea of a goal.’[5]

The Edies have no goal – or rational one in any case. They bicker and yawl throughout the film, and rip a photograph in their competition to hold it. A photomontage of the women in their youth is created for us, each photo more heartbreakingly beautiful than the last. ‘Remember me?’ ask the photos, yet the answer is unclear. The Edies’ heydays are hard for them to forget on one hand, yet on the other, their fresh glamour has most certainly been forgotten or ruined. Now, all is hoarded groceries, creepers and old lipsticks. Little Edie threatens to leave her mother alone at Grey Gardens.

She never did.

Little Edie

[1] Owens, C (1992) ‘The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism’ in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power and Culture Berkeley: University of California Press
[2] Benjamin, W (1925) ‘Allegory and Trauerspiel’ in The Origin of German Tragic Drama
[3] Owens, C,  Op. cit.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.