Towards the end of Sigmund Freud's essay "On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love", he suggests (and concedes that his readers may find his comment "strange") that "something in the nature of the sexual instinct itself is unfavourable to the realisation of complete satisfaction". This succinct remark does a great deal more for our understanding of Marilyn Monroe than the many pages of feminist historian Lois Banner's book, an account that includes a considerable amount of information about Monroe's life that should have remained entirely her own business, as well as any number of throwaway statements about the US, the 1950s, the film industry and Monroe's relationship to feminism. For example, Banner writes with complete conviction that in the 1950s "men in general felt confined by the cult of domesticity and the pressure to conform to corporate life" - which rather leaves out men outside the suburban middle class.
The view that Monroe was "only" a dumb blonde has always reflected far more on any author of that view than Monroe herself. In 1988, Graham McCann's Marilyn Monroe deftly, gently and convincingly demonstrated that the star was an uncomfortable figure for many people and many powerful interests. His book recognised the perpetual instability about sexual desire that Monroe's persona (on film and in person) represented and portrayed, and he also recognised the wish to "take complete possession of Monroe". Taking "complete possession" seems to be the underlying agenda of Banner's book, which traces in great detail Monroe's journey from Norma Jeane Mortenson to the film star Marilyn Monroe. That journey was not, by any measure, a happy one and there was certainly no blissful or trouble-free arrival. Yet Monroe did fulfil her childhood wish to be "recognised", and as an adult (and Jacqueline Rose has argued this with considerable elegance and acuity) she worked hard towards the understanding of herself and others.
What both McCann and Rose allow Monroe to be is herself, a form of understanding that does not look for final, definitive answers to the writing of a human history. Banner provides a good deal of material about the relative poverty of Monroe/Mortenson's early life, her early and subsequent years in Hollywood and her three marriages. But in these various narratives there is an underlying sense that there is a right and a wrong way for these things to be. Certainly, there is no "right" way for Hollywood studios to exploit their actors, but at the same time there is no "right" way to be a Hollywood star or to try to manage the expectations and the losses that accompany stardom. Monroe, on all the evidence that we have, tried hard to act with integrity; she tried hard to "do it right". Yet the burden that she carried with her was that of a punitive political and social culture that demanded a prescriptive clarity and certainty in individual behaviour. Individuals were ruthlessly policed, while the political world (and the powerful figures within it) was not.
Perhaps the most helpful reading of Monroe to come out of Banner's book is that we cannot know the star, however much information about her life we are presented with. That allows us to think about general questions regarding our attitudes to sexuality, to stardom and to morality, rather than assuming that through one individual we can ever find the "key to all mythologies", let alone account for and define the complications of an individual life.
Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox
By Lois Banner Bloomsbury, 528pp, £20.00 ISBN 9781408814109 Published 2 August 2012