Saturday, May 22, 2010

La Grande Jatte

At first sight, this seems to be a harmonious representation of leisure in late nineteenth-century France. Sun falls on people strolling and lazing on the river bank. The atmosphere is calm and still. However, when we look more closely, the work reveals Seurat’s concern about contemporary society.

George Seurat - La Grande Jatte (1885)

Figures seem stiffly poised and mechanically positioned, and there is no social interaction. Faces are generalized. The minute dots of which painting is comprised suggest an absence of feeling – technical accuracy, scientific precision, and skilled observation have combined to create a detached mood. Leisure pursuits are said to reveal society’s trust nature. Seurat presents a troubling glimpse of the new, depersonalized industrial world.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Political Brands

Brands serve a useful purpose. You know what you're getting if you buy a Big Mac, an iPod, or a copy of Microsoft Windows. Same goes for political brands: Democrat or Republican? John McCain or Barack Obama? Pepsi or Coke?

Consider how brands work. The central question that every consumer faces is, “How do I know I’m not getting ripped off?” How do you know that this bag of flour isn’t adulterated or that these new shoes won’t fall apart the minute you get home? Unless you’ve managed to follow the entire production process from start to finish, you don’t. You trust the flour isn’t full of sawdust because Robin Hood says so. You have faith the sneakers will withstand a running season or two because Nike has put its swoosh on them. Brands are one of the earliest and most effective forms of consumer protection, where trust in the brand (and the company behind it) substitutes for first-hand knowledge or expertise.

Political brands work the same way. In an election, the question every voter needs an answer to is, “How do I know what I’m buying into with my vote? How do I know I’m not getting snookered?” This is where political brands, better known as parties, come in. The role of the party is more or less to take the dense convolutions of modern governance and reduce them to a relatively simple brand proposition. Are you generally in favor of a strong central government that will build national social programs? Then vote Democrat (or, in Canada, Liberal). Would you prefer a more decentralized federation and limited state interference in your life and in the economy? Then the Republicans or Conservatives are the party for you.

The paradox of all branding is that the more complicated things get, the simpler the messaging has to be, which is why politics has become so intensely focused on the party leader’s character and image. It’s pretty remarkable that in an election in which American voters were being asked to decide who would control a budget of somewhere north of $3 trillion, they were essentially offered a choice between two brands: Barack Obama’s “Change” and John McCain’s “Honor.” But what is more surprising still is how well the system actually works. Most people don’t have the time or, frankly, the ability to properly digest budgets, policy documents, or drafts of new bills, and the distillation of the stupendous complexities of the modern state to a handful of simple but distinct brands is not just useful, but necessary. As in the consumer economy so in modern politics — both would grind to a halt without brands as a lubricant.

What of the worry that politics ends up being marketed like Big Macs, pitched to the lowest common denominator? The proper reply is to this is, So what? People always put the emphasis in that phrase on the word lowest, when it should be placed on the word common. The government wields a monopoly over the use of violence, among other things, and any party that wants to claim the right to use violence had darn well better make sure it has the lowest common denominator on its side or it is in big trouble. To adapt a line from the genius of twentieth-century advertising, David Ogilvy: the lowest common denominator is not a fool, she is your neighbor. In a democracy, every politician is in the business of selling electoral Big Macs, and anyone who thinks that’s not his job is either a born loser or a tyrant manqué.

We need to give voters a little more credit. People are no more bamboozled by a John McCain action figure into voting for John McCain than they are tricked into buying a PC because Jerry Seinfeld is in the ad. That just isn’t the way branding or human behavior works. Indeed, whether it’s Nike’s swoosh, or the ubiquitous Hope poster of Obama designed by Shep Fairey, or Stephen Harper’s blue sweater vest, no one ever admits to being a dupe of the marketing. The worry is always that other people — in particular, the people who support the other side — are being manipulated. And so throughout the Bush years, the left in America complained about the way Karl Rove and Dick Cheney were sowing fear and panic over terrorism and keeping the religious right all a-boil over fears about abortion and Mexican immigrants. Once Obama became president and the Democrats took control of both houses of Congress, the right immediately started complaining that the electorate had been duped by his pretty speechifying and his wispy promises about Hope and Change.

This is a slippery slope, and it is dangerous for anyone, no matter what their partisan allegiances, to have so much contempt for voters. Democracy is based on the premise that reasonable people can disagree over issues of fundamental importance from abortion and gay rights to the proper balance between freedom and security. When the mere fact that someone supports the other side becomes evidence that they have been brainwashed, then the truth is you no longer believe in democracy.

Monday, May 17, 2010


I once tried to sell a Monet to an Eastern potentate. He sat opposite me in the marbled splendour of his palace wearing an expression of intelligent perpiexity. Outside, the palm trees barely moved in the oppressive afternoon heat, and the sea beyond was a still, deep blue. Through the window I could see the golden dome of a vast, recently constructed mosque, and a skyscraper decorated with the insignia of an international bank and a neon advertisement for Coca-Cola. Here in this cavernous reception room where the air-conditioning spun its chill cocoon, I noticed that even the carpets were sprinkled with gold dust. The lift in which a flunkey had accompanied me up to these private quarters was walled in mink. What was I doing here, I asked myself? Through a geological freak — huge resources of oil being mineable beneath the barren surface of his country - this man was rich to a degree that set him apart from the rest of humanity. He had a fine face and impeccable manners. He treated me with enormous politeness.

Claude Monet - The Grand Canal, Venice (1908)

‘So’, he said, peering at the painting I had brought with me, ‘this will cost 7 million dollars at auction?’ He gave a quick, uncertain smile, as if he suspected he might be the victim of a practical joke but was determined to remain a good sport about it.

I told him it would, possibly even more. ‘But how can that be?’ ‘Because it’s by Claude Monet, one of the most famous of the Impressionist painters. It’s a very beautiful one.’

‘Please, explain to me something I do not understand.’ He rose from his chair and walked over to a painting that he already had hanging on his wall. ‘For this work by Jean-Leon Géróme I paid only 900,000 dollars.’

It showed a street market in Cairo. Each figure was minutely, photographically painted, with all the finish that distinguished the masters of French academic art in the second half of the nineteenth century ‘Surely’, insisted the owner, ‘this Gérôme is superior to the Monet. It is a masterpiece. It is real. It is how things look’.

Gérôme - The Baths at Bursa (1885)

How things look. His Royal Highness had touched upon the essence of what Impressionism was about. Nonetheless, I decided not to risk a theoretical debate and stuck to the financial certainties. ‘The Gérôme is a very good one, of course’, I reassured him. ‘But the Monet is more highly prized on the market.’

‘But this man Monet does not know how to paint, not as well as Gérôme. The colour is jarring. The figures are awkward. The strokes of the brush are too broad, they are not precise. There is no detail.’

I thought about quoting at him how Mallarmé explained Impressionism in 1876: ‘As to the detail of the picture, nothing should be absolutely fixed. The represented subject, being composed of a harmony of reflected and ever-changing lights, cannot be supposed always to look the same but palpitates with movement, light, and life....’ But I wasn’t confident it would do any good. My client came from a culture unfamiliar with the way western painting had developed over the past century and a quarter. He was groping towards an understanding of it. By instinct, however, he preferred the certainities of Gérôme to the suggestive imprecisions of the Impressionists. And it came to me then that this was how people – not just the philistines, but intelligent people, too – must have reacted when the Impressionists first exhibited in Paris is the early 1870s.

The enduring appeal of Impressionist painting has proved to be its capacity to uplift the spirits of the spectator, its mood-enhancing effect. Doctors and dentists around the world decorate their waiting rooms with reproductions of sunlit Monets and Renoirs. It is anxiety-therapy by dappled light. Even amid the initial hostility; this anti-depressant quality was identified surprisingly early on. The critic Armand Silvestre wrote in 1873: ‘what apparently should hasten the success of these newcomers is that their pictures are painted according to a singularly cheerful scale. A “blond” light floods them and everything in them is gaiety, clarity; spring festival...’, what the Impressionists chose to paint appears to the cynical eye of hindsight a deliberate exercise in customer manipulation, blatant exploitation of the feel-good factor. A list of what is characteristic Impressionist subject matter and what isn’t would run as follows:

Recreation, holidays
Picnics, gardens
Streets, restaurants, cafes
Race meetings
Theatres, concert halls
Sea views
Undulating countryside
Cornfields, sunlit snow scenes

Battle scenes
History morality
Death, disaster
Emotional profundity
Intellectual complexity
Precipitous landscape
Night scenes
Bad weather: storms, floods

Of course it would be an exaggeration to claim that the Impressionists never painted bad weather or its effects; but the reality of the present-day market is that subjects like floods are difficult to sell, precisely because they upset people’s expectations of what Impressionist painting should be all about.

Claude Monet - Gare Saint Lazare (1877)

Another important factor in the rise of Impressionism was the railway. Railways were emblematic of modern life, and thus ideal subject matter for artists who strove to be contemporary. Monet, Manet and Pissarro all featured trains, stations and railway lines in their work. Indeed Monet’s series of views of the Gare Saint-Lazare is one of the icons of Impressionism, the artist’s technique finding its perfect expression in the rendering of the evanescence of the steam billowing up from the engines. The invention of the railway was important to landscape painters of this generation in another way, too. It opened up the countryside to city-based artists in search of accessible rural subject matter. A day-return to Argenteuil could produce five or six paintings (one of the advantages of their method was that Monet and his school worked quickly). Then there was the enormous wealth that the late nineteenth-century railway expansion produced, a significant element in France’s economic boom of the early 1880s, which brought more money into the art market and in turn boosted demand for the Impressionists. Railway fortunes were even huger in the United States, and this new wealth also benefited the Impressionists: for instance Mary Cassatt’s brother Alexander, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, was an early collector. The age of mass travel had begun; and as coal yielded to oil as the fuel of preference, so yet more staggering wealth was created for oil producers. Hence, a hundred years on, my feeble attempts to sell this Monet in the shadow of the mosque.

Bye Bye Impressionism

Claude Monet - Poplars on the River Epte, Autumn (1891)

‘It was as if he had been struck with a subtle blindness that permitted images to give their colour to the eye but communicated nothing to the brain’, writes Edith Wharton describing a moment of crisis for Ralph Marvell in The Custom of the Country. Her imagery is taken from the theory of Impressionism. I tried it myself once: I let my gaze linger on one of Monet’s series paintings of poplars on the River Epte, in an attempt to achieve Ralph Marvell’s state of mind. I registered the pure visual sensation of the sinuous S-shape formed against the sky by the trees receding round the bends in the river, broken by the strong vertical lines of their trunks in the foreground. I congratulated myself. This was good, this was what Impressionism was all about: pure visual sensation, nature absorbed optically in a system of shapes of colour. Hadn’t Monet wished he could have been born blind, then suddenly regain his sight, so that he could begin to paint without knowing what the objects were that he saw before him? In the same way that Ralph Waldo Emerson pursued the idea of the ‘transparent eyeball’ that would exclude all personal interpretation from the direct experience of nature, so Monet sought what he called ‘the innocent eye’.

But here is the fallacy of Impressionism. Here are the seeds of its demise. There is no such thing as pure visual sensation. Because we have not been born blind, sensation and perception are inseparable. An artist cannot render objective truth. A painting reproducing nature will always be refracted through the personality of the artist, as Zola recognised: ‘Art is a bit of creation seen through a powerful temperament’, he wrote in 1867. Indeed that is what gives it its piquancy, what distinguishes it as a work of art. And as spectators, too, we know too much. We are interpretative beings. We will never be like Ralph Marvell seeing things simply as abstract patches of colour. The patches are inevitably significant, associative. So the S-shape means something. It is the foliage on a line of trees growing on the banks of a river curving into the distance. But because we know too much we can also interpret shapes in variant ways, not as the artist intended. As I stood in front of the painting, Monet’s poplars suddenly reformed themselves in front of my eyes as something quite different: the shimmering but unmistakable impression of a dollar sign.

Claude Monet - Poplars on the River Epte (1891)

By the end of the 1870s, artists in the Impressionist circle were beginning to recognise that it was time to move on. They had reached a kind of cul-de-sac. Just to register your impressions in front of nature, which the Impressionists were doing supremely well, had become limiting. Degas spoke of ‘the tyranny of nature’, declaring painters had made themselves ‘the slaves of chance circumstances of nature and light’. Renoir wrote in 1880: ‘While painting directly from nature, the artist reaches the point where he looks only for the effects of light, where he no longer composes, and he quickly descends to monotony’. The symbolist Odion Redon took the argument a step further. ‘Man is a thinking being’, he wrote the same year ‘Man will always be there. Whatever the role played by light, it won’t be able to turn him aside. On the contrary, the future belongs to a subjective world.’ Art was more than simply registering your optical impressions in front of nature. Art meant the interpretation of the objective world by the subjective experience. In 1893, Pissarro too was admitting in a letter to his son: ‘Everything (in nature) is beautiful, the whole secret lies in knowing how to interpret’. In Zola’s equation, a balance between nature (the thing depicted) and temperament (the artistic prism through which it is depicted), the scales now tipped in favour of the latter. The way was open for van Gogh and Gauguin, and the generation of the Post-Impressionists, to brandish their temperaments to such extraordinary effect.

The lack of intellectual and emotional content in Impressionism has worried people ever since. Impressionist art is the art of surfaces: its subsequent historians are sometimes guilty of ‘going very deeply into the surface of things’, and in their anxiety investing paintings with an emotional profundity which simply isn’t there.

Claude Monet - Winter on the Seine, Lavacourt (1880)

Here is a modern writer, Paul Hayes Tucker, struggling with Monet’s winter scenes of the early 1880s:

With its surface cluttered with huge slabs of ice from the once-frozen river, the views of the Seine in these paintings, indeed the scenes as a whole, are both sonorous and silent, energised and elegiac. The canvases appear to be filled with cries of pain and moments of wonderment, sighs of resignation and odes of hope. They suggest notions of the past cracking and splintering and concerns about whether the present was liberating or unnerving.

You can’t help suspecting that the pain, wonderment, resignation and hope exist more meaningfully in the mind of Professor Tucker than that of Claude Monet.

A debate was instigated in a Parisian literary journal in 1890 as to whether naturalism was now dead. The writer Paul Alexis was so exercised by the question that he telegraphed to the editor: ‘Naturalisme pas mort. Lettre suit’. But whatever the letter said, the tide had turned in both literature and art. The Impressionists were ‘taking orders from outside’, whereas Gauguin wanted to obey what came from within. ‘Don’t copy too much from nature’. he said to his disciple Schuffenecker. ‘Art is an abstraction. Derive it from nature by indulging in dreams in the presence of nature, and think more of creation than of the result.’ Van Gogh echoed him: ‘Instead of trying to reproduce exactly what I have before my eyes, I use colour more arbitrarily so as to express myself forcibly’. This was the beginning of modern art and the unshackling of the artist from the obligation to reproduce natural appearances. But it couldn’t have happened without the Impressionist revolution. The emancipation of light and colour achieved by the Impressionists destablised people’s expectations as to how a picture should look and opened the way to modernism. It was a catalyst to the development of Expressionism and non-representational art.

I wish I were a natural salesman. At heart I find selling people things embarrassing. It’s too personal, this insinuating imposition of your own will upon another human being. You are trying to persuade them into something they don’t necessarily want to do, to buy something they don’t actually need. Exactly, says my friend Jasper, it’s a bit like a seduction. Jasper is an art dealer with a brilliant eye, a persuasive tongue, and a very thick skin. As a result he is enviably successful at selling people pictures, and probably as a Casanova too.

What was I doing, I asked myself in the opulence of my Eastern client’s private drawing room, trying to get this man to buy a Monet? I realised I was only doing it because he was very rich. Because the Impressionist picture has become the conventional accoutrement of the rich, the symbol of his status: the poplar that turned into the dollar. Initially, impressionist paintings were things that buyers had to be persuaded they wanted; then, in the twentieth century, priceless things that the very rich had been persuaded they wanted very much indeed. Literally priceless, because they are of no definable intrinsic value. When did this change come about, I wondered? And why? And how was it that - despite my shortcomings as a salesman — my Eastern client ended up buying the Monet that at first so bemused him, for rather more than the $7 million it had been estimated to fetch at auction?

- Philip Hook

Thursday, May 13, 2010

On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness

The tusks which clashed in mighty brawls

Of mastodons, are billiard balls.

The sword of Charlemagne the Just

Is Ferric Oxide, known as rust.

The grizzly bear, whose potent hug,

Was feared by all, is now a rug.

Great Caesar's bust is on the shelf,

And I don't feel so well myself.

- Arthur Guiterman

Written on the Wall at Chang’s Hermitage

It is Spring in the mountains.
I come alone seeking you.
The sound of chopping wood echoes
Between the silent peaks.
The streams are still icy.
There is snow on the trail.
At sunset I reach your grove
In the stony mountain pass.
You want nothing, although at night
You can see the aura of gold
And silver ore all around you.
You have learned to be gentle
As the mountain deer you have tamed.
The way back forgotten, hidden
Away, I become like you,
An empty boat, floating, adrift.

- Tu Fu

The Latest Decalogue

Thou shalt have one God only; who
Would be at the expense of two?
No graven images may be
Worshipp'd, except the currency:
Swear not at all; for, for thy curse
Thine enemy is none the worse:
At church on Sunday to attend
Will serve to keep the world thy friend:
Honour thy parents; that is, all
From whom advancement may befall:
Thou shalt not kill; but need'st not strive
Officiously to keep alive:
Do not adultery commit;
Advantage rarely comes of it:
Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,
When it's so lucrative to cheat:
Bear not false witness; let the lie
Have time on its own wings to fly:
Thou shalt not covet; but tradition
Approves all forms of competition.

- Arthur Hugh Clough

The Latest Decalogue is a savage denunciation of the hypocrisy of this world and of the developing capitalist ethos (Clough wrote and lived at a time when revolutions in Europe, such as the 1848 Revolution in France were expanding the notions of freedom, developments from which Britain was largely insulated). It is written in quick-flowing iambic tetrameter with rhyming couplets, a good metre for humorous satire - Clough, as well as his philosophical individuality, was also a great experimenter with metre, often writing in styles hardly used in English, such as hexameter. This tetrameter forces streams of thought over two lines and the spread allows a sort of mid-rhyme to develop inside sentences, enhancing the comic effect.

There are slightly different versions of this poem: the one discussed here is the manuscript version held by Harvard University.

Thou shalt have one God only; who
Would tax himself to worship two?
God's image nowhere shalt thou see,
Save haply in the currency:

The irony of the word "tax" reinforces the political satire of this opening, and emphasises, from the very start, both the demands of organised religion - and its lack of credibility - and the love of Victorian society for money. A common refrain at this time was that England was "God's own country" and it is possible Clough is playing with that idea as well as the importance the country places on finance. The use of "haply" in the fourth line is particularly savage. It does not mean "happily", but "perhaps".

It was archaic even in Clough's time, and therefore hints at ancient honour, while impugning the selfish, destructive mores of his own day.

Swear not at all; since for thy curse
Thine enemy is not the worse:
At church on Sunday to attend
Will help to keep the world thy friend:

Here Clough notes the fact that religion in Britain is not spiritual, but has been deprived of whatever personal meaning it may have had, being replaced instead with societal approval and keeping up appearances. "At church on Sunday to attend" pointedly refers to a once a week attendance: sufficient to appear holy, without involving a genuine commitment. It has long been a view of the Church that it is against "the world": here it is shown to be an essential element of its fabric.

Honour thy parents; that is, all
From whom promotion may befall:
Thou shalt not kill; but needst not strive
Officiously to keep alive:

Family relationships are shown to be cynical in nature and the structure of preferment and ambition class-based and exclusive. The second couplet here is brutal in its dissection of simultaneous outward sanctimony and lack of concern or care for the poor and sick. Mid-Victorian England was becoming a country of slum cities, as families flocked to the new towns and cities looking for factory work. The Ten Commandments are here quoted in their King James version - the direct quotation sharpens the comparison with the selfish world the narrator lives in.

Adultery it is not fit
Or safe, for women, to commit:
Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,
When 'tis so lucrative to cheat:

Clough here reveals his modernity, highlighting the hypocrisy of Victorian sexual morality, which often turned a blind eye to male infidelity, but was harsh on women suspected of the same. "Safe" most likely refers to the treatment a woman would receive from her family, rather than the physical consequences of extra-martial sex. Think of the treatment of Tess in Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Clough also posits two sins against each other: stealing and cheating - while noting in passing that cheating is not in the Ten Commandments as such, he gives his view powerfully that people can make a good living from cheating people.

False witness not to bear be strict;
And cautious, ere you contradict.
Thou shalt not covet; but tradition
Sanctions the keenest competition.

In this conclusion, the reader is advised to lie carefully, in case you are caught. One thinks of Mark Twain's dictum that telling the truth means never having to remember anything! The subtle final couplet suggests that it may well be seen as wrong to want other people's goods; however, it is perfectly acceptable to fight tooth and nail to secure more goods for yourself. Selfishness is the theme of this poem and selfishness concludes it.

It might be a worthwhile exercise to analyse the rhyme choices in more depth - "strive" and "alive" make an excellent, mutually reinforcing pairing, for example, as does "attend" and "friend", which emphasises the public nature of Victorian morality.

Remember that this poem is not some twenty-first century stereotypical rehashing of all the things we hate about the Victorians: it was written by a man who was there, and who was, in some ways, a victim of it. The powerful, angry voice that emerges from this poem calls for a return to real values, though by conflating Biblical and selfish morality so closely, it does not recommend a return to the traditional European Christian values. The ones the narrator approves of can be seen simply by inverting his criticisms.

- Lawrence George

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

the Holy Bible

In the American South, where I live, Christianity is very much about the Bible. Most Christians come from churches that preach the Bible, teach the Bible, adhere (they claim) to the Bible. It is almost “common sense” among many Christians in this part of the world that if you don’t believe in the Bible you cannot be a Christian. Most Christians in other parts of the world—in fact, the vast majority of Christians throughout the history of the church—would find that common sense to be nonsense. For most Christians, Christian faith is about believing in Christ and worshipping God through him. It is not about belief in the Bible. When I tell people that in churches here I’m often met with firm disbelief—how could so many Christians, they wonder, get it so wrong. But it’s true. Just look at the Christian creeds that are still recited throughout the world today, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Not a word about the Bible. In traditional Christianity the Bible itself has never been an object of faith.

In the South, it is true, more people revere the Bible than read it. This became clear to me a few years ago when I started asking my undergraduate classes about their views of the Bible. I get the same response every year. The first day of class, with over three hundred students present, I ask: “How many of you would agree with the proposition that the Bible is the inspired Word of God?” Whoosh! Virtually everyone in the auditorium raises their hand. I then ask, “How many of you have read one or more of the Harry Potter books?” Whoosh! The whole auditorium. Then I ask, “And how many of you have read the entire Bible.” Scattered hands, a few students here and there.

I always laugh and say, “Okay, look. I’m not saying that I think God wrote the Bible. You’re telling me that you think God wrote the Bible. I can see why you might want to read a book by J. K. Rowling. But if God wrote a book . . . wouldn’t you want to see what he has to say?” For me it’s just one of the mysteries of the universe: how so many people can revere the Bible and think that in it is God’s inspired revelation to his people, and yet know so little about it.

Critique of Contemporary Art

La Vie Boheme

I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it.
I am.

- Henry Miller

The insecurity and relative deprivation of the artists’ lifestyle is often described as an advantage over the staid existence of buttoned-down professionals, and in this way artists signal the superiority of their existence over both the poor and the privileged. Says Shappy, a local performer:

I don’t think [yuppies] have any creative gumption. Yes they may take chances on a business deal or an ad campaign or something stupid. . . but they don’t have the balls to put it in play in their own personal lives. And when they see people living I think they’re jealous of the artist’s lifestyle, wishing they could feel like they could be free and live on macaroni and cheese and not have to worry about these accounts and their bills and their credit cards and their SUVs, and their blah, blah, blah. You know, I think a lot of people want to be more bohemian, but they don’t want to take the chance on actually living the life as a bohemian. They’re too insecure without their credit cards.

The allure of Bohemia is that it provides a concentrated set of practices that enable people to engage in specific kinds of expressive actions and social theatrics. Bohemian practices are devoted not primarily to achieving useful goals (like making money) or conforming to conventional social norms (like having a “good job”). Rather, they are concerned with cultivating and displaying a unique self, and enjoying the company of like-minded others. The theatricality of bohemian life revolves around mutual displays of transgressiveness. Its dramas promote styles of seeing and being seen that celebrate deviant, untraditional, unconventional, and oppositional culture. Épater la bourgeoisie.

- Daniel Silver

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Upper Class

I love this excerpt from Tom Wolfe's book Bonfire of the Vanities because it describes how a person who is obviously very well-off can feel financially poor and dependent. I don't think this is uncommon.

I’m already going broke on a million dollars a year! The appalling figures came popping up into his brain. Last year his income had been $980,000. But he had to pay out $21,000 a month for the $1.8 million loan he had taken out to buy the apartment. What was $21,000 a month to someone making a million a year? That was the way he had thought of it at the time—and in fact, it was merely a crushing, grinding burden—that was all! It came to $252,000 a year, none of it deductible, because it was a personal loan, not a mortgage. (The cooperative boards in Good Park Avenue Buildings like his didn’t allow you to take out a mortgage on your apartment.) So, considering the taxes, it required $420,000 in income to pay the $252,000. Of the $560,000 remaining of his income last year, $44,400 was required for the apartment’s monthly maintenance fees; $116,000 for the house on Old Drover’s Mooring Lane in Southampton ($84,000 for mortgage payment and interest, $18,000 for heat, utilities, insurance, and repairs, $6,000 for lawn and hedge cutting, $8,000 for taxes). Entertaining at home and in restaurants had come to $37,000. This was a modest sum compared to what other people spent; for example, Campbell’s birthday party in Southampton had had only one carnival ride (plus, of course, the obligatory ponies and the magician) and had cost less than $4,000. The Taliaferro School, including the bus service, cost $9,400 for the year. The tab for furniture and clothes had come to about $65,000; and there was little hope of reducing that, since Judy was, after all, a decorator and had to keep things up to par. The servants (Bonita, Miss Lyons, Lucille the cleaning woman, and Hobie the handyman in Southampton) came to $62,000 a year. That left only $226,200, or $18,850 a month, for additional taxes and this and that, including insurance payments (nearly a thousand a month, if averaged out), garage rent for two cars ($840 a month), household food ($1,500 a month), club dues (about $250 a month)—the abysmal truth was that he had spent more than $980,000 last year. Well, obviously he could cut down here and there—but not nearly enough—if the Worst happened! There was no getting out from under the $1.8 million loan, the crushing $21,000-a-month nut, without paying it off or selling the apartment and moving into one far smaller and more modest—an impossibility!

There was no turning back! Once you had lived in a $2.6 million apartment on Park Avenue-it was impossible to live in a $1 million apartment! Naturally, there was no way to explain this to a living soul. Unless you were a complete fool, you couldn’t even make the words come out of your mouth Nevertheless—it was so! It was . . . an impossibility! Why, his building was one of the great ones built just before the First World War! Back then it was still not entirely proper for a good family to live in an apartment (instead of a house). So the apartments were built like mansions, with eleven-, twelve-, thirteen-foot ceilings, vast entry galleries, staircases, servants’ wings, herringbone-parquet floors, interior walls a foot thick, exterior walls as thick as a fort’s, and fireplaces, fireplaces, fireplaces, even though the buildings were all built with central heating. A mansion!—except that you arrived at the front door via an elevator (opening upon your own private vestibule) instead of the street. That was what you got for $2.6 million, and anyone who put one foot in the entry gallery of the McCoy duplex on the tenth floor knew he was in…one of those fabled apartments that the world, le monde, died for! And what did a million get you today? At most, at most, at most: a three-bedroom apartment—no servants’ rooms, no guest rooms, let alone dressing rooms and a sunroom—in a white-brick high-rise built east of Park Avenue in the 1960s with 8½-foot ceilings, a dining room but no library, an entry gallery the size of a closet, no fireplace, skimpy lumberyard moldings, if any, plasterboard walls that transmit whispers, and no private elevator stop. Oh no; instead, a mean windowless elevator hall with at least five pathetically plain bile-beige metal-sheathed doors, each protected by two or more ugly drop locks, opening upon it, one of these morbid portals being yours. Patently . . . an impossibility!

He sat with his $600 New & Lingwood shoes pulled up against the cold white bowl of the toilet and the newspaper rustling in his trembling hands, envisioning Campbell, her eyes brimming with tears, leaving the marbled entry hail on the tenth floor for the last time, commencing her descent into the lower depths. Since I’ve foreseen it, God, you can’t let it happen, can you?

- Tom Wolfe


Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.

- Walt Whitman

Still I Rise

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?

Why are you beset with gloom?

'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells

Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops.

Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?

Don't you take it awful hard

'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines

Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?

Does it come as a surprise

That I dance like I've got diamonds

At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame

I rise

Up from a past that's rooted in pain

I rise

I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

- Maya Angelou