Saturday, February 05, 2022



The part about parties

The party existed in the 19th century. Go to, say, the Chicago Tribune society page and read this, from 28 January 1877:
“A social event which will long be remembered by those who were so fortunate as to participate occurred Frida evening at the residence of Mrs. Whitman, no. 1777 Wabash avenue. The compliments and best wishes of the party were tendered to Mr. and Mrs. Ed Sturtevant, whose appreciation of the “surprise” was made manifest during an entire evening of unmingled entertainment.”
These social events were often “functions” based around some purpose, but as the Whitmans and the Sturtevants could testify, they often involved unexpected visitors, drinking and fiddle playing. As the gilded age got ever more gilded, among the New York millionaire set parties became essential monuments of conspicuous consumption, running rampant through show girls and ice sculptures.
But I would contend that it was technology – notably the phonograph and the radio – that really goosed the twentieth century party into existence. Its democratization, its youth, adventurousness, dancing,music and hip flasks really came together in the twenties, les années folles, any account of which must be an account, in part, of parties. The novels of the twenties bear ample witness: Tender is the Night, Vile Bodies, the Unpossessed, Party-Going, Mrs. Dalloway, and even Women in Love – set in the boho set that was all proto-twenties – require parties as organizing plot elements. They are as it were correlates of the plot itself. In Proust or Musil, on the other hand, the freewheeling party element is subordinate to the banquet or function principle. Here, conversation in the clubbish sense tracks the event. They lack the pot-luck aura of the Anglo-American scene. Once never has the sense that the Guermantes are ever going to jump up and jitterbug.
The other great party decade, I think, is the sixties, that cousin to the twenties. One of the social events of the decade was Truman Capote’s masked ball, an appropriately camp event that Delillo shrewdly used as an important symbol of Cold War culture – and its coming apart – in Underworld. Of course, Delillo had long been a party writer – parties are key to, say, Running Dog, at the center of which is a film of a mythical party/orgy in Hitler’s bunker – an apocalypse party.
Looking over the party-strewn sweep of my own existence in the 20th and 21st centuries, the patter is predictably middle class. Between the 20s up to the late 30s, parties were “adventures” in Georg Simmel’s sense, intersections between the real life and the dream life. – or nightmare life, depending on the depth of disaster into which the party descended. The parties I went to or, more rarely, gave were about dancing, drinking and taking drugs. Conversation was very un-Musil like, shouted over the music into ears. The development of a thought, in the party, was always in the service of a joke, a come-on, or a personal argument. These parties were often heralded by invites, but the invites were labored over to make them seem like parodies of invites. This was because the party mocked the ritual of a party, of the type that is so organized that people are invited to it. Most of the best parties definitely attracted a number of non-invitees, which, in certain of the most out of control ones, were people in trouble. These parties built up their multi-cellular, mutant structure without any center. Breakups and hookups were party phenomena. After the thirties, in my muddle passage, parties are no longer adventures, and are no longer meant to be. The Covid age has definitely been a giant blow to parties, and I have a vague sense of depressed youth around me – although I expect parties to become much wilder for the youth in the next coupla years. Out of self-defense, we have gone out to few parties lately. The ones we have gone to for the past several years are almost always adult afterparties of children’s parties or wedding receptions. The soundtrack of the former is all chatter – no music plays, even in the background. The latter are the last remnant of a vast archipelago, in my life, of dancing. I loved to dance when I was a younger man – it was an important part of growing up, emotionally, for me – but I am less tolerant, I suppose, of looking ridiculous. Apparently in the States, the 20 something bourgeoisie can no longer get married without first boarding a party bus in Nashville and leaving behind a trail of to-go cups with a little vodka in the bottom of them, in which a few cigarette butts float. I don’t know if this is a happy or sad thing, really.
The party novel has recently reappeared – to good examples are Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends and Rachel Kushner’s Flamethrowers, although in Kushner the parties are nostalgic curiosa from the 70s art scene. In my case, my parties have miniaturized themselveves into scattered bits of prose, full of cod-learning, such as one might hear from a bore at a party, shouted into your ear.

“‘Oh, Nina, what a lot of parties.’
(. . . Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris—all that succession and repetition of massed humanity. . . . Those vile bodies . . .)”

Thursday, February 03, 2022

Flirting and modernity


In the 18th century, English essayists expressed a lotta anxiety about female reading.  The “new” genre of the romance fiction already created its problems for the classically trained, who rightly suspected that the prevalence of literacy was having a massive, unpredictable effect.  

As Samuel Johnson wrote:

“In the romances formerly written, every transaction and sentiment was so remote from all that passes among men, that the reader was in very little danger of making any applications to himself; the virtues and crimes were equally beyond his sphere of activity; and he amused himself with heroes and with traitors, deliverers and persecutors, as with beings of another species, whose actions were regulated upon motives of their own, and who had neither faults nor excellencies in common with himself.

But when an adventurer is levelled with the rest of the world, and acts in such scenes of the universal drama, as may be the lot of any other man; young spectators fix their eyes upon him with closer attention, and hope, by observing his behaviour and success, to regulate their own practices, when they shall be engaged in the like part.”

When the adventurer is a bit of a scoundrel or a woman, the hypnotic effect upon the female displaced another bit of the hierarchy – which is why it was necessary to supervise female reading especially. There was a copious literature about just that necessity, which has been culled by many feminist literary historians.

But that scene of literacy and reading in Britain looked a bit differently to intellectuals from less developed lands. Georg Lichtenberg, an anglophile whose visit to England was, perhaps, the most dramatic adventure of his life, was one of them. For him, a woman reading a newspaper was the very image of civilization. And, he suspected, it was a scene lodged in the superstructure, underneath which there was a material infrastructure that was dissolving the old separation between private and public, a structure that held women prisoners of the household. Although you would never know it from today’s “war of civilization” Western press, in which the Moslem world’s veiling of women is a throwback to the stone age, in Europe up through the 19th century there were very strict rules that applied to women in public. They were not supposed to be there. The flaneur might be an outlier – the flaneuse was an outlaw. We imagine city streets in the nineteenth century in the image of 21st century costume dramas, but in reality, the streets were for men. The women who appeared on the street was subject to an initiation that had much to do with the assumption of her sexual availability. To be appropriately covered was a norm for women that was extremely hazardous to broach.

A French novelist, Pierre Senges, has recently written a novel that proposes to view Lichtenberg’s Suedelbucher – Waste books – as fragments of a novel. Lichtenberg himself was a reader of novels and a thinker about the genre. He wrote in a sort of proto-Kittler style about the connection between the novel, modernization, and women, using the English cityscape and mode of transportation as motives to novel-writing – taking up the challenge of the “levelling of adventure” that made the (female) reader a potential heroine and seeing in it a freedom from the old ways.  

Lichtenberg tutored English students in Gottingen, and first visited England in 1770. Those features that worried the Tory moralist as well as Whig feminists, like Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft wanted education and emancipation, but was not happy about thrusting women (the bourgeois female subject) into the public sphere:

“Females are not educated to become public speakers or players; though many young ladies are now led by fashion to exhibit their persons on a stage, sacrificing to mere vanity that diffidence and reserve which characterizes youth, and is the most graceful ornament of the sex. 

But if it be allowed to be a breach of modesty for a woman to obtrude her person or talents on the public when necessity does not justify and spur her on, yet to be able to read with propriety is certainly a very desirable attainment: to facilitate this task, and exercise the voice, many dialogues have been selected; but not always the most beautiful with respect to composition, as the taste should very gradually be formed.”

Lichtenberg, however, saw female publicness as the inevitable accompaniment of modernization. He observed in England that the house scheme was such as to individualize the residents, the family members. While in Germany children and adolescents doubled up in their rooms, and the communal air of the household extended to watchfulness about the comings and goings of all the members, especially the girls, in England the house plan allowed for individuals to “own” their rooms, and the houses were situated so as to give multiple access to the outside. In 1965, a demographer named John Hajnal proposed that the early modern period saw a splitting up of European marriage patterns, with the “West” – notably England and some of France – adhering to a new pattern of family residence.  He  called the Western pattern the simple household formation, in which one and only one married couple were at the center of the household; in the East, you had what he called a joint household formation, in which two or more related married couples formed the household. Hajnal claimed that in the sixteenth century, the Western type of household was new, and characterized by a demographic shift in which marriage occurred significantly later in life. For women, for instance, the average age moves from 20 to 25. Meanwhile, in the East, the marriage age remained very young, and so a married couple of, basically, teenagers remained in a household with an older couple, usually the husband’s family.

East and West, here, name Cold War entities that don’t fit Hajnal’s data. Spain and Italy south of Tuscany is “Eastern”, and Bohemia is Western. Nevertheless, if Hajnal’s theory is right, it says very important things about Early modernity – namely, that the discovery of youth – the extended time before marriage – and of “individualism” are entangled.

Lichtenberg definitely had something like that entaglement in line with his notion that novel reading was connected to such things as the greater chance for eye to eye contact between men and women that came about in a modernized carriage system – to which he attributed enormous adventurous, and thus novelistic, importance. The comparison with the “virtuous” German system of uncomfortable coaches, potholed roads, and subpar defence against the elements against the English system brushes back the moralist’s scolding tone: “Furthermore, the seed of episodes are laid in the all too good society of comfortable Post carriages in England, that are always full of well clothed women and where, a situation that Parliament shouldn’t tolerate, the passengers sit so that they look at each other face to face, from which can arise a dangerous confusion of eyes, and even more a highly scandalous confusion of legs, which leads to laughter and after that sometimes an indissoluble confusion of souls and thoughts, so that many an honorable young man traveling from London to Oxford will often be traveling to the devil. Something like this is, thank heaven, not possible with our Post Carriages…”

The mark of modernization: flirting. What Lichtenberg describes humorously and with sympathy is found to be slightly wrong even by such authorities, 120 years later, as Freud, who in some text decries American “flirtation”, which takes the seriousness out of the erotic.

Monday, January 31, 2022

here we are now - interchange us

This is a paragraph from an essay Musil wrote about Bela Belazs’s famous book about film, Visible Man:

The observations that I will add in the following concern these contact and luminal surfaces. The question of whether Film is an independent art or not, which is the entering point for Balazs’s effort to make it one, incites other questions that are common to all the arts. In fact film has become the folk art of our time. “Not in the sense, alas, that it arises from the spirit of the folk, but instead in the sense that the spirit of the folk arises from it,’ says Balazs. And as a matter of fact the churches and the cults of all the religions in their millennia have not covered the world with a net as thick as that accomplished by the movies, which did it in three decades.”

As is so often the case with these Viennese intellectuals, Musil is astonishingly sensitive to the changes being wrought by modernity – with the wisdom; of nemesis perched on the apocalyptic battlements. His reference is shrewdly to religion, rather than to other forms of art – that is, his reference is to the community of souls. The soul as Musil knew was dying out as an intelligible part of modern life. Modernism – or perhaps one should say the industrial system, under the twin aspects of the planned economy and capitalism – operated as a ruthless commissar in the great purge of interiority- and in that purge, killed, as a sort of byproduct, the humanist notion of art. In retrospect, the whole cult of art stood on the shakiest of foundations. What was really coming into being was something else – the entertainment complex. Film’s effect was not some technological accident, but a phenomenon in the social logic that was bringing us to where we are today, when the primary function of the subject is not to think – that antique cogito – but to be entertained. Here we are now, entertain us – Nirvana’s line should have a place of honor next to cogito ergo sum in the history of philosophy, I am entertained, or I am not entertained – these are the fundamental elements of subjectivity. God himself, within these parameters, is nothing other than the first entertainer, world without end. 

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...