Friday, April 22, 2011

when nothing is beautiful anymore (except edith wharton)

There exists an apocryphal tale: the day Charles Ives stopped composing was the day he announced, "nothing sounds good anymore."

Although dubious in its origins and accuracy, this anecdote has remained with me since first I heard it. The disparity and hopelessness that, ostensibly, motivates such a statement is staggering. Ives's supposed utterance is indeed spurious, however the idea that one can become so saturated with sameness that the dichotomy of good and bad no longer exists articulates so perfectly one facet of the post-modern aesthetic. Or could it be that Ives, so inundated by post-war angst and early twentieth century sonic detritus, could no longer conceive a cogent expression? Who is to say, really. What is more thought provoking is 1) the lack of contrast that results from the saturation of imagery (this part of Greenberg's kitsch, by the way) and 2) the effect that an increase--and yes, an inundation--of stimuli has on the artistic psyche. Maybe I'm being a little dramatic, but in the wake of re-reading The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (and you know, all that time I spent ruminating on Baudrillard) I couldn't help but think of Ives as a victim of twentieth century saturation/stimulation/commodity fetishization/etc.

This time around, Benjamin really got to me. Like most of us, I've had the "we're going to hell" conversation many times: nothing is beautiful, presented with every possibility, we are left in a turbid ether disengaged, disembodied, and cognitively disemboweled. You know, that conversation. Revisiting Benjamin, what seemed a knee-jerk fear-inspired attitude now appeared prophetic; an apparition marked by ineffable veracity.  We are disembodied by technology, daily--what was once reserved for the film star has proliferated into the banal and mundane. Divorced from carnal experience, we exist in virtual multiplicity. Benjamin identified and predicted this crisis in the 30s, and here we are: nothing sounds good anymore.

On a more positive note, I picked up a copy of The Age of Innocence yesterday (a purchase inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates) and, I would be lying if the word-smithing above was not inspired by Wharton's command of her craft. Behold:

Then the house had been boldly planned with a ball-room, so that, instead of squeezing through a narrow passage to get to it (as at the Chiverses') one marched solemnly down a vista of enfiladed drawing-rooms (the sea-green, the crimson and the bouton d'or)...

And my favorite part:

seeing from afar the many-candled lustres reflected in the polished parquetry, and beyond that the depths of a conservatory where camellias and tree-ferns arched their costly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo.

Okay, one more:

The immense accretion of flesh which had descended on her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon. She had accepted this submergence as philosophically as all her other trials, and now, in extreme old age, was rewarded by presenting to her mirror and almost unwrinkled expanse of firm pink and white flesh, in the centre of which the traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation. A flight of smooth double chins led down to the dizzy depths of a still-snowy bosom veiled in snowy muslins that were held in place by a miniature portrait of the lat Mr. Mingott; and around and below, wave after wave of black silk surged away over the edges of a capacious armchair, with two tiny white hands poised like gulls on the surface of the billows.

That, my friends, is virtuosity. "...traces of a small face survived as if awaiting excavation." Gen-ius. Last one, I promise:

She always, indeed, struck Newland Archer as having been rather gruesomely preserved in the airless atmosphere of a perfectly irreproachable existence, as bodies caught in glaciers keep for years a rosy life-in-death.

I'm going to go read now. Sigh.

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