A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Mad Mannion

Lance Mannion's take on "Mad Men" here is provocative. But lots of works -- Shakespeare's romances, the plays of Chekhov and Beckett, the fiction of Kafka -- can be played or read as both comic and tragic. Criticizing "Mad Men" for not being played as a comedy seems to me to miss the point -- we do laugh at it. (Well, I do, anyway.) To assume that its creators intend it to be taken seriously because the actors are playing it straight is to miss the genius of the work. And to reduce Don Draper to just "a jerk" is to miss the devastating portrayal of the compartmentalized life.

What I'm Reading

Notes on The House of Mirth, Book One, Chapters X through XV:

As the novel nears its midpoint, Wharton becomes less Jane Austen (analysis of social mores) and more George Eliot (moral earnestness). She begins to indulge more in Eliotic commentary: "No insect hangs its nest on threads as frail as those which will sustain the weight of human vanity; and the sense of being of importance among the insignificant was enough to restore to Miss Bart the gratifying consciousness of power."

Now, I love both Austen and Eliot, but when forced to choose, I go for wit over gravitas, and prefer showing to telling. This is not to say that Wharton doesn't often mix wit into her commentary, e.g.: "It is less mortifying to believe one's self unpopular than insignificant, and vanity prefers to assume that indifference is a latent form of unfriendliness." That observation could have come from either Austen or Eliot.

Wharton also shares Eliot's mistrust of the beautiful. Lily resembles the fatally selfish Gwendolen Harleth of Daniel Deronda more than she does the icily destructive Rosamond Vincy of Middlemarch, but all three characters manipulate others with their beauty to no good end. Lily's beauty is apotheosized in the tableau vivant at the Wellington Brys, and it ensnares Lawrence Selden, who, we are told, has inherited "the Stoic's carelessness of material things, combined with the Epicurean's pleasure in them" -- a dangerous blend. He witnesses "the touch of poetry in her beauty that [he] always felt in her presence, yet lost the sense of when he was not with her. ... [H]e seemed to see before him the real Lily Bart, divested of the trivialities of her little world, and catching for a moment a note of that eternal harmony of which her beauty was a part."

But disharmony is to follow, in the form of Gus Trenor's proposition and Simon Rosedale's proposal, and Selden's fatal glimpse of Lily fleeing from the Trenors' town house. Having reached a pinnacle, Lily can only fall from it, becoming prey to her pursuers and to the viciousness of Society: "The winged Furies were now prowling gossips who dropped in on each other for tea." Lily has had a glimpse of the world that lies outside of Society, in Gerty Farish's charitable work, but its full reality has not thrust itself upon her: "She had always accepted with philosophic calm the fact that such existences as hers were pedestalled on foundations of obscure humanity. The dreary limbo of dinginess lay all around and beneath that little illuminated circle in which life reached its finest efflorescence, as the mud and sleet of a winter's night enclose a hot-house filled with tropical flowers." It's easy to sense here that Lily is about to find out what is beneath her pedestalled existence.

It's also easy to sense the threat that Lily poses not only to Selden, but also to Gerty, whose infatuation with Selden is dashed when he comes to her sitting room -- "where they fitted as snugly as bits in a puzzle" -- only to talk of nothing but Lily: "There had been a third at the feast she had spread for him, and that third had taken her own place." Selden's talk of Lily inspires Gerty to an unaccustomed bitterness: "When had Lily ever really felt, or pitied, or understood? All she wanted was the taste of new experiences: she seemed like some cruel creature experimenting in a laboratory." And yet Gerty swallows her resentment when Lily presents herself in distress on her doorstep.

Wharton shares one other thing with Eliot: a difficulty when it comes to writing about men. (Austen solved the problem by presenting men as her women saw them.) The key sexual confrontations -- between Lily and Trenor, and between Lily and Rosedale -- teeter precariously on the verge of melodrama, largely because Wharton is unable to bring either Trenor or Rosedale to life -- to make them as fully dimensional as Lily. (We can overlook the casual prejudice of her time in Wharton's references to Rosedale -- described by one character as "the little Jew who bought the Greiner house" -- as presenting "the instincts of his race," but they certainly don't add depth to him as character.) Trenor's proposition and Rosedale's proposal come from cardboard villains, not flesh-and-blood threats. Wharton's attempts to characterize them through the coarse slanginess of their language -- e.g., Trenor's "Gad, you go to men's houses fast enough in broad daylight -- strikes me you're not always so deuced careful of of appearances" and Rosedale's "But why ain't you straight with me -- why do you put up that kind of bluff?" -- come across as stagy.

And so a novel that had begun with such brightness grows dark. Is the tonal shift in The House of Mirth a bug or a feature? I'm not sure yet.