Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Price of Art?

I am going to open this posting--every new one holds, at the beginning at least, the promise of attaining its aims, which are, tritely, liveliness, interest, and a suggestion of timelessness--with a very short excerpt I have read recently. The story, fictitious as far as I know, though perhaps it was based on a similar 'real' legend, regards the history of a piece of fine art, a spectacular ebony statuette of a turbanned, muscular moorish slave:

"Two hundred years ago (note--the time intended would have been circa the 1460s) there was a Venetian lady--very beautiful, as all ladies in legends are--and she owned a gigantic black slave whom her husband imagined to be a eunuch. But he was not and when the lady bore his black child she had the infant killed and a white one put in its place. The midwife, from some motive of jealousy or revenge, told the husband of his wife's infidelity and he killed the slave before her eyes. She had the ebony statue made, secretly of course, in her lover's memory."

This passage occurs about three-quarters of the way into Kathleen Winsor's scandalous 972 page 1944 novel, Forever Amber, a Gone With the Wind-style blockbuster set in the first decade of Restoration England which was my bathroom/poolside reading for much of the summer. This was from my "B" reading list, which consists of things I take up that have piqued my interest for whatever reason and which I do not feel compelled to read all the way through if I don't want to. Sometimes I write about these books here, though usually I do not. Forever Amber is not quite refined and penetrating enough in its perceptions to be literature, I suspect, but there is nonetheless some skill and vision in it that approach to being enviable. It is not a book that I would always pick up eagerly, but I did find often upon getting started that it was easy to become absorbed in the frequently outrageous story and be carried for 20 or 30 pages at a stretch without being conscious of keeping up an effort either to follow the author's genius or endure her banality. I suspect that Kathleen Winsor, a 28-year housewife, and evidently a rather boisterous one, at the time of the book's publication, was plenty bright; as a normally adjusted middle, probably professional class, midwestern American of her time, subtlety and the inclination to experience life as something which primarily took place in one's own head were perhaps not overly developed in her. As can be seen below, she was quite conventionally attractive, and by most accounts enjoyed, and was capable of having, a good time in the conventional sense of parties, drinking, dancing, flirting with men and so forth. This book is almost certainly most famous for all of the sex in it, almost all of which occurs in a very direct, matter of fact manner, that is much in accordance with the probable way most men, and to judge by the sales of the book, apparently many women as well, dream that their own sex lives were like, though far contrary to the way they usually actually are. To cite some statistics, the attorney general of Massachusetts, in banning the book, noted 70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, and 7 abortions (as well as 10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men). It seemed like there were a lot more than 70 instances of the Grand Act that to so many people is for the most part something not quite real. Sex in this book is bluntly understood to be for men a token of and duty paid to their personal power, and for the women a currency through which to obtain resources and position. Such people as do develop tender feelings for particular individuals are quickly made to suffer for them, frequently onto the point of death. Amber is supposed to be "in love" with Carlton, but it seems more that she is obsessed with the glamour he represents that, by the end of the book practically alone, she can never have. It's not surprising that such themes resonated deeply with the mass American public.

Kathleen Winsor appears to have had an even more extreme than usual hunger for what are known in contemporary parlance as alpha males, in her case the highest of the high, as well as a complementary eagle eye and searing contempt for male weakness or inferiority in any form, and delight in its exposure. She would have fit in well at Duke or Southern California or any of our other contemporary universities where the social competition is especially noted for its ruthlessness and lack of pity towards losers. Bruce Carlton of course is the ultimate male of this story--the recent civic disturbances in Britain would have been very short-lived if men like Lord Carlton and his pals still predominated in the upper ranks of that nation. He is a noble born cavalier, he recoups his fortune privateering, he is the greatest swordsman in England, and probably the world, he has rock hard abs and a gorgeous dark complexion. He does not come on to a single woman, that I remember, in the book; they beg him to ravish them, heedless of all possible consequences. He promises them nothing and openly goes to bed with whomever he wants, and the women remain powerless to do anything but nurture irrational hopes that somehow he will be moved one day to commit to them more or less exclusively while expending their fury on the rivals with whom they share his love. When he does get married it is to the most beautiful and purest virgin of the noblest birth imaginable, who lives for nothing but to serve her husband's happiness. The other main alpha males in the story are the "sexually driven" (as the book's introduction, written by a woman, approvingly puts it) King Charles II, who gets to pretty much order up whomever he takes a fancy to to his bedchamber, though those receiving an invitation are invariably delighted with the honor, unless they're supposed to be getting it on with Lord Carlton that same night; and the sadistic, brilliant and impeccably, for social purposes, educated and bred Lord Buckingham, who also has his way with pretty much whomever he wants, sexually and otherwise, and makes them feel his domination of them to the innermost core of their psyche. These are thus our role models of what a man should be.

The great book I suppose for getting a sense of what English society, and particularly London, was like during this period, is Pepys' Diary, which I have not however read to this point. Forever Amber attempts to paint an idea of this world within a fairly wide, if not deep, scope, and I think it is handled pretty well. The different aspects, of nature, of social classes, of historical events and personages, of amusements, of the idea that the various characters and customs in the book constitute a single people or nation, do not hold together at all times in the reader's mind, as complex ideas are supposed to be able to do in superior works of literature, and often are temporarily forgotten about or neglected all together, which is doubtless a flaw in the composition. Still, I was reminded at many instances in the book of the flow of history, and of the rise and decline of peoples and generations and institutions and beloved customs, set against a background, in some cases more or less permament than others, but all at least longer lasting than a single generation or even three, of nature, climate, geography (including human settlements, roads, etc), language and human lineage. Perhaps the picture produced was an especially superficial and inaccurate one, but the effect at least was produced.

I have strayed a bit from the opening question, as it were, of the post, which was essentially whether the capability of producing great art, clear thought, and an overall high level of culture required long centuries of hard and dispassionate action with severe and frequently deadly consequences for weakness and failure as the working ethos of a society. This idea was very popular in the 1940s--it is redolent of Orson Welles's famous cuckoo-clock speech in The Third Man--and can be found as well in numerous 20th century works chronicling (sympathetically) the passing of the old aristocratic Europe. This was doubtless a result of some insecurity on the part of the more sensitive and astute representatives of the New Order, with the comfortable and self-consciously 'nice' masses of America leading the way, both with regard to the desire to live up to the cultural achievements of their predecessors, as well as justification for the brutality of the wars and harshness of other political and economic policies they had undertaken to maintain and expand their newfound power. The main problem with modern culture, America perhaps especially, is not that they are too nice and naive to produce art, but that at the mass level there are too many nice and naive people who want to produce art, without having any idea what they are about. There are people at the heart of the culture who know exactly what is going on and what being a human being in present day society really means, and some of them doubtless are expressing this artistically and beautifully, but is there a substantial and coherent enough audience for this work to make it influential in any social milieux?

Linda Darnell as Amber in the 1947 Film Version of FA.

The movie of Forever Amber is not supposed to very good, and I regret to report that this is an accurate assessment. Given my usual affinity for the period and the fact that Linda Darnell, whom I wrote about positively in these pages for her role in the Letter to Three Wives ('49), was starring, I thought it was worth a try. In the first place, the length of the book necessitated cutting out 80-90% of the story right off the bat, and otherwise often combining two or more episodes into one scene. Various characters make a single 60-second appearance whom, if you had not read the book, you would have no idea who they were.The sex also had to be toned down quite a lot, though not to the extent that it was not still more than a little tawdry; the effect that was needed however was that of total and unrelenting moral dissipation, which is not achieved. The prolific and ubiquitous (not in a good way; rather in the way girls who were tired of seeing me at beer parties in my youth used to say that I was ubiquitous) Otto Preminger was given the assignment to direct the movie by 20th Century Fox--this is getting scary, I am finally starting to pay attention, in the old movies anyway, to which studio was behind each project, like a real film scholar--which was envisioning a possible Gone With the Wind-like success. Preminger apparently hated the book and called the movie the worst one he ever made, but compared to the greats and very goods I have been concentrating on these last few years, the clunkiness of the direction really stands out. The material is not perhaps ideal, but no one involved with the movie seemed to have much of a feel for it. It seems that someone could have wrung some spirit or magic out of it, but it is for the most part just dead on the screen.

Bruce and Amber Seeking Refuge in London During the Plague of 1665

Unlike, apparently, most people with a pulse, I did not feel much emotion with regard to the 10th anniversary commemorations that were everywhere in the media this past week, and wherever I found them I usually skipped over them or changed the station. I do not handle talking about that kind of thing well, and neither, quite frankly, does almost anyone else. That said, the event for whatever reason does not seem to have had the same impact on me as it has on other people. Of course I did not personally know anyone who died, nor am I a New Yorker or a fireman or any of the other people who felt the impact of this in a personal way which is hard for me to understand. To me the whole episode felt extremely random and impersonal, and perpetrated by people who knew very little about either America or New York City. While at the moment the event was certainly terrible and shocking, I did not find it surprising that such an event should ever have happened, as evidently most people did, and still do. I was surprised by the form, bordering at times on hysteria it seemed to me, which the emotion aroused by the event took. I had not recognized it as such a predominant character in the American people up to that time. I suspect a good number of my countrymen would take great issue with my fairly blase response to these phenomena and would feel compelled to question what was so horribly neglected in my upbringing, education, and so forth, to leave me so devoid of ordinary human feeling and instinct, and I do feel a lack in this area which does bother me; which is why I felt compelled to write anything about the matter at all.

Some good searches found their way to the site this week. My favorite was "females being taught to surrender sexually", a subject on which I thought there would be more expert information than that which I offer here, though "what did they wear for clothing in norway in the early 1900s" a subject which to my knowledge I have never addressed here or anywhere else, was also inspired.

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