(Far out in the ocean the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower, and as clear as the purest glass.)
The man and his mermaid stand in a recording booth in California. Fingers of light stretch from a hooded bulb affixed to a thin metal stand, the kind used for reading sheet music. There’s a glow across the bottom of her chin, carving out a trembling throat and twists of brown hair at the nape of her neck. She is conscious of her hands, but not careful with them, or the way they gesture about in a kind of over-the-top performance, the kind he doesn’t quite care for here. So when he calls to a stop yet another take, she knows she’s disappointed him again.
They go over the scene once more, and this time he wants her to think about the way desire moves, not feels, because the moving is the feeling. He says, “It’s about all that emotion, and then, not letting it out.” He says, it’s the way that fear—what’s the word?—burns.
It is the ninth day of August in 1988. This is the third or the thirtieth recording of a track that will lose the bid for a 1990 Oscar nomination for Best Song, because two others from the same film will be nominated instead, and one will win. It’s the last film he’ll live to finish, but even after, he’ll win Oscars. His words are just that good.
This is also the one song that almost doesn’t make it. Sometime after their recording session, a preliminary cut of the film is shown to a group of schoolchildren. One child, bored during this particular scene, upturns a box of popcorn and distracts the audience. The company’s impatient CEO blames the music for failing to keep the attention of single-digit-year-olds and, to the devastation of its lyricist, wants the song axed from the final version. At the last minute he is persuaded otherwise by the film’s key animator, whose naturally mild-mannered demeanor takes a beastly turn when faced with the potential loss of years of painstaking hand drawn work. The song stays, and when the movie is released, advanced reviews heap glowing praise on the show-stealer of a tune. The CEO laughs about it now, but every time history remembers the popcorn child, it shudders at what might have been.
(But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore she suffers so much more.)
On the land, an old colonial land, is a different woman. A mother. She is not an actress, but she knows what it means to be a disappointment. It is easy to fail at mothering; there are many ways to do it, and she has done them all.
There’s the time that the school calls to say her daughter has caught a fever and she must come to remove her from the classroom. You don’t want your daughter to infect all the other schoolchildren, do you? No one in the family has a car, and it will take her fifty-five minutes and two buses and eleven blocks to get there. She scrapes together the last of the change and borrows the rest to hire a cab that reaches the school ten minutes too late. They tell her she should have learned how to drive when she got to this country.
There’s the time that she’s carrying her daughter down the stairs of this new house, an expansive, sprawling building of modest means far from everything she knows and everyone who understands her. She’s trying to slip away quickly, so that when she steps across the cold veranda and turns a little too quickly at the sound of someone coming up behind her, down they tumble, child-first, the infant’s head striking the tiled floor like a baby rattle.
And there’s the worst one, when, in 1990, the same year the mermaid first speaks that unspeakable desire for freedom, this mother leaves her motherland. For the rest of that year, she won’t let herself be anything but failed. If there’s music to that first step on foreign soil, she cannot stop to hear it. It is not a song she sings. She does not sing that year.
(Can’t I do anything at all to win an immortal soul?)
It is February 1836 and he’s terrified of losing his voice. Fairy tales are too often dismissed from the canon of serious literature, a belief he will deny he ever held himself (he did), but still he needs to write them. He knows that coming alive is to pour himself into the shapes in his head, the ones that breathe an extraordinary desire for what they can never know. This, too, is the refrain of his own life.
By June he will have sold out all copies of his second novel, but he knows he has no more than “four or six years left in which to write well,” and he knows there is no other way to live but in words. With a frantic eye towards immortality, he spends the summer between friends’ homes putting the mermaid to paper, a task that will take nearly a year to complete. The struggle hinges on what, truly, the mermaid desires and how she will obtain this. His main inspiration is the elsewhere published Undine, where mermaids want nothing more than a soul, and they can win it only through the love of men. He cannot bear this thought. Give her a soul only through another? No—emphatic—“I won’t accept that sort of thing in this world.”
His mermaid will win her soul through a self-sacrifice of her own making, just as he has. His mermaid will love without receiving the pleasure of knowing its touch, just as he has. His mermaid will know what it is to see her prince marry another more whole than she could ever be, just as he has. Her mermaid forever will be split in two, outcast and misfit, unbelonging, the way people will say he was, too.
They’re the same, his mermaid and he. They will strive their whole lives to win an immortal soul, because why should life be lived without earning it, and how can life be earned without bleeding for it.
(He would give you a soul and yet keep his own.)
It is 1941 in Burbank, California, and the men are worried. The last two films were commercial disappointments, and the looming war is limiting both production and profit. Ideas to salvage the franchise feature a few politely loyal adaptations of some favorite family fairy tales, including the one about that underwater half-girl who wants a soul and that whole-boy who gets in the way. Development stalls until mid-April, when four of these men meet to figure out how to give Andersen’s dead story a little touch of Walt.
The most important man in the room is also the most stubborn; that’s how you know he’s important. He doesn’t understand why the prince must be so lousy of a character. The way he sees it, if the prince knows someone saved him enough to be searching for her for the rest of the story, wouldn’t that mean he must have seen her, glimpsed her, however briefly, during said rescue? Wouldn’t he remember her enough to recognize her, even a little?
No, say the others, all animators with considerable experience at selling sentiment in Technicolor. He doesn’t know her, he never saw her, and he can’t remember her. “That’s the tragedy of it,” says the one who killed Bambi’s mother.
Still, the importantly stubborn man is not quite sure. There’s something wrong about wiping the prince’s memories clean like that, like they were only dreams instead. Without his voice and his story, how else are we supposed to trust that the mermaid is even real?
Months later, the project is shelved.
In 1985, it’s taken off the shelf. Some digging into company archives reveal these original plans to tell the mermaid story, and the new crew find themselves agreeing with the stubbornly important man. They aren’t going to tell a tragedy this time, and nobody’s mothers are going to be hunted down on screen. Instead, theirs will be another spin on romance-go-round, and the prince is going to have a memory of the mermaid that will guide him back to her. To make that happen, of course, will require a few trademark liberties. For one, “the ‘immortal soul’ idea,” while cute, is clearly “less important” than “what you have to go through for love.” Suffering is the new anthem. Suffering has never made a hero so female.
They also get rid of some of the other more tedious story elements. She can suffer without the shoes that pierce like glass or the cut up tongue. There’s no reason that losing her voice has to be that literal. It’s a children’s movie, for Christ’s sake.
(But if you take my voice, said the little mermaid, what will be left of me?)
The self-presence of speaking is the thing that counts. Or, better, the self is counted through speech. Thus, he without speech is he without self, and—
He without self? No, he is always a self. He is first a self. He has speech.
She without speech is without self?
Then whose speech is hers?
She is without speech. Her speech is his speech first.
He allows her speech?
He allows the when and the how.
Then she with speech is she with a speech that is not hers but his.
Then is she ever with her speech?
To think of her speech is to think without his. That thought cannot be.
But she can be, and she is. Does she not think, not wish, not dream?
Oh, but who can know her thoughts?
She who can speak them.
But she cannot speak without self, and she without speech is without self.
She without speech is without self.
Say it again.
The self-presence of speaking is the thing that counts. Or, better, the self is counted through speech. Thus, she without speech is she without self, and she without self is not counted through speech.
(Her eternal life must depend upon a power outside herself.)
It’s May 1991. The plane will land on the eighth or ninth; she is too nervous to remember exactly. The plane is bringing her daughter to her; it is carrying her soul. She has been without her soul since the thirty-first of the last time it was May (about that date, she is very sure). Will her soul recognize her? Will it come when she calls for it?
In the old story, the mermaid waited three hundred years for her soul. It was won through a love of the unrequited kind, the kind not for man, not truly, but for the pleasure of suffering, of living mortally, of living the way that desire moves, like fire that only drowning can save.
It’s May 1991. The lyricist’s memorial service was two or three days earlier. For the last time in his presence, the mermaid will sing him the words he gave her, but, missing the first cue, asks the pianist to begin again. Everything she does for him, everything, will always require more than one take.
Anni Pullagura is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Brown University. She writes on moral philosophy and visual culture.