Monday, March 10, 2008

Lord Clark--Part IIClark's relentlessly aristocratic vantage point on all matters can occasionally wear on one whose background and mature intellect is not developed to such an exquisitely airtight degree. Particularly when he gets to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the population explosion, in his view, made the management and control of the resultant masses through huge bureaucracies, police forces, monolithic architecture and uniform, mass-produced goods and clothing (most of which unsavory developments he seemed to have managed to avoid in his immediate person however) civilisation's primary problem, one realized that the distance between reader and author had widened since the earlier chapters when both stood more or less side by side beside the desolate beach and stone church of Iona, or in the narrow lanes of Assisi. As the centuries pass and societies grow, and institutions, attitudes, and aesthetics develop, and new areas of work are formed, one finds that somewhere along the road he has not kept up, or at least become diverted, that life as seen by the other intelligence has suddenly taken on a very different and not easily perceived hue compared with that seen by his own.

One of the reasons I was surprised that I had not heard of Clark before was that he lived practically his whole life right in the heart of the circle of men who dominated most areas of British society, literature not least among them, from the 1930s through the 60s, a crew with whom I had thought myself pretty well acquainted. Among the writers I can name right off hand who knew each other dating all the way to school days at Eton or Oxford, and often both, are Clark, George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh (b.1903), Graham Greene (1904), Anthony Powell and Henry Green (1905), Betjeman (1906), and Auden (1907), as well as other people like Cyril Connolly and Malcolm Muggeridge who were prominent figures in the literary world of the 40s and 50s and often served as bridges between people like Orwell and Powell who otherwise might never have hung out together. Clark, who was the director of the National Gallery at the time, rather famously found a job for the hapless Betjeman, the poet of train stations and unattainable tennis-playing girls, in the civil service during World War II, which the wits of the day declared one of the more impressive achievements of the war government. Reading Clark and seeing him on the program (I have managed to procure the DVD set on a couple of occasions and have seen the first 4 episodes; I will comment on this below) it is easy to imagine him sliding right in as a character in one of the novels written by this set, especially Powell; indeed, something about Clark reminds me of Archie Gilbert, the guy who went to all the dances and was always impeccably dressed and polished on the dance floor in the early sections of Powell that were set in the 20s when these people were young, though Archie did not otherwise have much of a character. I don't remember that he had any formal connection to the art world or artistic interests that might indicate he was at all modeled on Clark, in the same way that the Erridge character is thought to be partly modeled on George Orwell, and various other characters on other well-known figures of the period.

When one considers Clark in the context of this group of peers, it is not hard to see where his attitudes come from. When most of the artistic and political leadership in one's society--and Britain still pulling proportionally more weight globally at that time much of this influence extended internationally as well with greater impact that would comparatively be felt today--have come out of the small circle in which one has moved one's whole life, with which one has gone to school from early years, which primarily resides in a geographically confined area, and congregates socially and culturally in a handful of locales, when the same basic set of people have held most of the leadership and organizational posts in a successful war against one of the gravest threats ever to menace the nation of which this group of men is the elite, it is not surprising that one would be quite satisfied he was near the center of everything interesting and worthwhile that might be going on anywhere in the world, or that any such news would make its way to him in acceptable time. The Davos men and other well-connected global titans of today are thought to have created a society somewhat similar to this, having gone to the same exclusive schools, formed institutions and clubs and annexed picturesque locales, etc, to pursue their mutual interests, but the intimacy of a real shared youth and shared culture like these old Brits had, which though most of them would have disparaged the notion of its having serious depth, nonetheless seems to have made deeper personal connections than what the brilliant and beautiful crowd has today, though doubtless there is a new Powell out there right now who belongs to this world (he or she is, alas, probably an Indian or a South American; that seems to be where the literary energy and talent is most widely distributed nowadays) and is distilling the experiences of it into delectable form for those of us haven't been able to make out yet what one would have to be like to flourish in it.

As I noted, I have watched the first four episodes of the series so far--I don't know when I will have time to get to the rest--and I think they are worth seeing, as much for the comparatively unspoiled and undeveloped beauty--fewer cars, fewer tourists, less harriedness, more simple elegance, etc--that still prevailed in the cities and Western Europe in the late 1960s as anything else. Clark is very much at home among the glories of Western man, as we would hope him to be--when he fondles a gold chalice or the carving of the prow of a Viking ship that no one but him would be allowed to touch you feel somehow he is doing it for all of us. Obviously many of the young people who are glimpsed in the background of these films are still around and leading very different sorts of lives today than what they probably imagined they would live in 1969, as I may be around and leading some life completely unfathomable to me now in another 30 or 40 years. Indeed, I am certain that when Kenneth Clark was a young man in 1923 or even when he was my age in 1941 he never imagined the greatest renown of his career would come through hosting a television documentary.

Here is the opening segment of the series. Here is the section on Montaigne, with whom Clark seems to have felt a strong affinity.

Here is a blog I like that seems sincerely to have been inspired by the spirit of Kenneth Clark. This guy has such exquisite taste in everything that my impression would have been that he would have thought Clark's condescensions to the PBS-watching, Provence and Tuscany-vacationing suburban cohort put him beyond the pale of aesthetic credibility, but he seems to think that no one has heard of him, unless--which I don't rule out--he is being subtly ironic in his championing of Clark so as to mock the rubes, which admittedly seems like a waste of an intelligent person's time but I never underestimate clever people's delight in tormenting those who cannot keep up with them. This guy's sensibility, for what it is, strikes me as pitch perfect. That is, nothing ever strikes one as out of place. I cannot begin to approach his pure, clean sense of the proper situation of objects, and even movements, in space, and even moreso the absence of improper ones. In the first place I have children, which it is pretty clear to me this writer does not. In the second I cannot help myself from being forever tripped up by and attracted to enough second rate or worse specimens of art, music, design, etc that ultimately coarsen my aura, intellect and character and exclude me from professional level, serious intellectual circles. (As an addendum to this, this writer's delectable taste in women, as based by the pictures he has on his site, suggest to me that he is probably gay; no straight man could pick such a line-up of incontestably superior women without one slip-up, one slightly boring or vaguely bland-looking or imperfectly sophisticated selection who struck his fancy for whatever reason at a given moment).

This same person has another worthwhile site, though it seems at the moment to be on extended hiatus. The site held my interest for some time though I have no especial interest in high-end European cycling culture. I did go on some bike trips in the countryside with the school where we worked when I lived in Prague, which at that time consisted of throwing on some Communist-issue athletic apparel, breakfasting on vodka shots and tins of meat and then riding from one village to another with a casual stop at each one's old church, if it had one, and its pub, which every one did. There were actually many interesting aspects about these trips, some of which I may have cause to introduce in later posts, such as, to name one, the experience of being in whole towns where the rules and culture of capitalism have scarcely any bearing; but as I said I will save these for another time. The Esthetecyclist has the wonderful ability, of which I am always envious, to do things like assert with real conviction that the industrial revolution produced but one worthwhile result as if that entire epoch of history were a personal imposition on his enjoyment of life, and to ridicule people who take pleasure in driving cars, or think driving has any meaningful aesthetic value. In this latter however I think he is not quite right. There are times when one is on an old and lonely road (Pennsylvania has a lot of these kinds of roads) in the dead of night when the towns one is passing through are full of darkened and sleeping old houses, and the lights of others come and go glittering on the sides of hills or in distant valleys, and the only radio stations you can pick up are call-in shows for the lonely or are playing forgotten hits of the 50s and 60s, and somewhere, maybe in the next town, there sits a diner or an old-style all night gas station where a dreamy girl, somehow lost in a forgotten town in the middle of coal country, is waiting behind the counter...I mean, that isn't something?

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