This is a rant:
I first became aware of my nemesis, the Amazing Girl, around the age of fifteen. Well, of one in particular: Anne Weinstock. An ethereal creature who wore scarves on her head and layers of shabby sweaters over her slender frame, Anne worked in clay, made vague, emotional statements of feeling in class, wept, and – perhaps her defining characteristic --referred to many, many things as "amazing."
Then there was her other defining characteristic. From the moment she transferred to our high school, boys worshipped her, and she moved from boyfriend to boyfriend with callousness obliviousness, cleaving to the next one with the same sensitive rapture that she'd shown the last.
Her appeal was, I could see, elemental. It was horribly depressing.
Once I started looking for them, I could see that Amazing Girls were everywhere.
Backpacking through South America, smoking hash with locals; reading Sylvia Plath in the park; earnestly worshipping Frida Kahlo in museums; dancing barefoot in the rain everywhere. While many are hippies, they are not all, by any means. They come in all nationalities, all shapes and sizes, from earth mother to ethereal. Some are insipid, others lively, some bisexual and others not, some vegan and some merely vegetarian.
But to them all there is a certain underlying sameness. All are vaguely creative, all sort of political, all sweet and kind and sympathetic and all lacking in any critical judgment whatsoever. Indeed, a lack of harsh judgment might be called the central tenet of their sisterhood, and perhaps a key to their particular magic.
To girls like me – sharp, mean, opinionated, decidedly lacking in mystery – they are a despair. Normal women cannot compete with Amazing Girls. We lack the mystique, the ready sympathy, the soul. They're twice as threatening as any bombshell, for they promise great depth. Supportive and uncritical in a way no one with any judgment can be, they also offer a famed flexibility towards traditional commitment, and the promise of utter sexual abandon. "Vice, Virtue. It's best not to be too moral." declares the definitive old Amazing Girl, Maude of Harold and fame – a favorite of every Amazing Girl. "You cheat yourself out of too much life. Aim above morality. If you apply that to life, then you're bound to live life fully." Indeed.
"Above all," wrote Joan Didion of Ur-Amazing Girl Joan Baez," she is the girl who "feels" things, who has hung onto the freshness and pain of adolescence, the girl ever wounded, ever young."
Sinclair Lewis captures it perfectly in Main Street’s description of the 1920s varietal: “Every cell of her body was alive – thin wrists, quince-blossom skin, black hair…a fragile child who must be cloaked with understanding kindness. “Psychic,” the girls whispered, and “spiritual.” Yet so radioactive were her nerves, so adventurous her trust in rather vaguely constructed sweetness and light. A girl on a hilltop…credulous, plastic, young; drinking the air as she longed to drink life. The eternal aching comedy of expectant youth!”
I began to keep lists of famous Amazing Girls: Joan Baez and Judy Collins, of course, but also Anais Nin, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Miranda July, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Edie Sedgwick, Caroline Blackwood,Vanessa Bell --to say nothing of Rima.( “So vivid was the image left on my brain that she still seemed to be actually before my eyes; and she was not there, nor had been, for she was a dream, an illusion, and no such being existed, or could exist, in this gross world: and at the same time I know that she had been there – that imagination was powerless to conjure up a form so exquisite.” )
Then one day, while staring at Vermeer's “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher” on an excursion to the Met, I had a horrible revelation: an amazing girl! And not just her, either! I thought of all the youthful poets and composers I knew, swooning after the vacant-eyed waifs who sat, chin on knees, gazing up at them at parties, nodding understandingly, breathing "amazing...” then leaping up to dance, abandoned, when someone's band started to play. Surely Raphael had been just as susceptible. The Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, the Nude Descending Staircase, the subject of every famous painting, poem, and piece of music -- they had all been Amazing Girls. I was as sure of it as I'd ever been of anything in my life -- Amazing Girls are and always have been the world's muses.
The career of an English major at a liberal arts college is littered with Amazing Girls in all their incarnations. Of course, college is their natural breeding ground. It is where they bloom and flourish, come into their own, staring up adoringly at professors and entrancing earnest young poets. They perform modern dances and read their original short stories. They hold forth in class, presuming emotion and feeling a more than worthy substitute for the harshness of fact.
It was infuriating to behold. The most attractive boys, otherwise rational creatures, worshipped them. Worse still, because Amazing Girls, by doing nothing but look sensitive, fit everyone’s idea of an artist, they were treated as such for doing nothing but sleeping with them! How had groupie-ism become such a talent?
“Primarily you belong to a special type, a special race of women,” D.H. Lawrence wrote to the mediocre muse, Ottoline Morrell. “Like Cassandra, and some of the great women saints. They were the great media of truth, of the deepest truth: through them…the truth came – as through a fissure from the depths and the burning darkness that lies out of the depth of time.”
“Like a wild and wise animal," rhapsodized Max Eastman of Isadora Duncan, “she fled from those who sought to capture the essence of her — which was motion — by making her stand still.”
Meanwhile, the promiscuous Edna St. Vincent Millay was, “a spokesman for the human spirit....with an intoxicating effect on people," according to Edmund Wilson, who further observed that this particular charm led many a man “to feel…he had found his mate.”
The world, women-wise, being divided into two camps, my friends – mostly of the wise-cracking girl-Friday school -- recognized the phenomenon immediately, and seized upon it with rage and excitement.
"The girls who hug all the time," said one friend eagerly.
"My yoga instructor," added another.
"Greg's new girlfriend," sighed a third sadly, referring to her ex-boyfriend, a struggling musician ripe for AG picking.
My male friends, of course, had no idea. To humor me, they’d pretend to despise them, and then likely as not show up a week later with Amazing Girls on their arms.
While the 1960s were a golden age for the Amazing Girl, it seems clear to me, after much consideration, that the 18th century provided one important model: the Romantics' ideal of the pure and naturally innocent woman, a creature morally inferior to men but capable of spiritual perfection -- in short, a childlike vessel for the projection of masculine ideals. Wordsworth’s Lucy, dying in romantic perfection; Byron’s muse walking in beauty, like the night –
“And on that cheek, and o'er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!”
Goethe is a particular offender in this regard, draping the unremarkable Charlotte in laurels such that, “... - When I have been with her for two or three hours, entranced by her ways and the divine expressiveness of her words, and my senses gradually become excited, my sight grows dim.”
Of course, the poets of our own age are just as bad – from Bob Dylan’s vacant muses, wearing their sparkling Egyptian rings and breaking just like little girls, to the free spirits who masquerade as “ruby-throated sparrows” and go around dancing in the sand.
Mystery is the Amazing Girl’s musical hallmark. “She would never say where she came from …who can pin a name on you?” warble the entranced Rolling Stones.
“Who can know the thoughts of Mary Jane?” wonders Nick Drake.
Literature gives us Murakami’s mysteriously vanishing muses, empty vessel Griet of the pearl earring, and the particularly infuriating Theodore Roethke poem: “I knew a woman, lovely in her bones.”
Of course, they’re movie staples, Amazing Girls -- changing people’s lives, teaching the uptight to live, spreading sunshine. Penny Lane, Almost Famous’s luminous groupie; Natasha Wagner’s wide-eyed rock critic in High Fidelity, or Natalie Portman’s grotesquely adorable “Sam” in Garden State (“This song will change your life, I swear.”)
By the time the latter film made its appearance, Amazing Girls had become an obsession with me. I was not sure how, but I was certain the Amazing Girl was a very important cultural phenomenon. I talked about it endlessly. I discussed it in my thesis (title: “Amazing Girls: Or, on the frustrations of not being a muse.”) When asked to contribute a short story to a friend’s literary magazine, I discussed Joyce Carol Oates’s (admittedly speculative) hatred of Amazing Girls. (“ What she had termed ‘Amazing Girls’ had become something of an obsession with her. In her organized fashion, she had long since started a file on them. Oh, how she hated those blank-eyed children!”) The story was deemed autobiographical.
After a few years, there was some feeling that my interest had gotten out of hand. Fewer and fewer of my friends were willing to share in my indignation, to attend my film festivals, to discuss the Amazing Girl’s cultural significance in the Renaissance. I made a conscious effort to talk about it less, to avoid Young Woman with a Pitcher, to sit though Harold and Maude with a placid smile and keep my mouth shut when my brother showed up one Thanksgiving with Sascha, an ethereal vegan from San Francisco.
Then, not long ago, at the Whole Foods in Union Square, I ran into the original Amazing Girl, Anne Weinstock. She looked just the same – scarf on hair, several layers of ragged sweaters, a faraway look in her eye. She was, she told me vaguely, “an artist.” She was living with a sculptor. She pronounced the mediocre specifics of my own life “amazing” and hugged me before we parted.
Watching her walk away, I felt suffused with guilt. She was so nice, so sincere, so nonjudgmental! I had spent so many years resenting someone completely innocuous. I made a spontaneous resolve to change my ways – to approach my life with the openness and enthusiasm of an Amazing Girl. Then, as Anne’s slender frame disappeared down the Grains aisle, I saw several young men look after her yearningly. My heart hardened. I held a film festival that night.