First things first: Wonderful, Wonderful Times is a deeply unpleasant book. Elfriede Jelinek’s 1980 novel (translated from the German by Michael Hulse) is a tour through the various depravities of 1950s Vienna: unmotivated crime, unenthused sex, unrepentant Nazism, and so forth. I do the vast majority of my reading on the bus these days, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so self-conscious about reading a book in public. Granted, I do have something of a moralistic streak that’s been bubbling up on me of late, but Wonderful, Wonderful Times is so unrelenting in its grime that it borders on the lurid.
To take just one example: there’s a scene in which one of the main characters allows (encourages?) a man on the tram to grope her so that her friends can filch his wallet. That about sums up the book’s moral universe: even the victims are perpetrators, and vice versa.
Despite all that, despite one’s natural revulsion at the novel’s content, I find myself agreeing with Richard Eder’s assessment in the Los Angeles Times, in which he detects in Jelinek’s work “a hint of delicacy and lyricism” and “a measure of perverted innocence.” I attribute a fair amount of this effect to Jelinek’s narration, which blends every character’s dialogue and inner thoughts into a single voice that almost tears itself apart from its own incoherence, but it’s more an artful melange than a morass of text. It takes a few sections that get used to it, yes, but there’s something mesmerizing in watching it unfold speaker by speaker. But even more than the prose style, it’s Jelinek’s character crafting that gives the novel its odd beauty.
Wonderful, Wonderful Times tells the sordid stories of four young adults in post-WWII Austria. At the novel’s center are Rainer and Anna Witkowski, a pair of twins from a middle class family with ties to the Nazi power structure that their abusive father remains proud of. Rainer is self-styled poet who builds his life around the philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, a young man who envisions himself as the leader of a revolution of thought as he paraphrases other people. Anna, by contrast, is a promising student and musician given to prolonged periods of absolute silence, when she’s not lashing out with absolute rage. Joining the Witkowski twins are Sophie Pachhofen, a rich athletic girl with tons of fight and nothing to actually fight for, and Hans Sepp, the son of a Communist activist who longs for Sophie’s sort of luxury. Together, these four have made it their job to terrorize the streets of Vienna, because what else is to be done?
The novel opens with the four in action, beating the living daylights out of a random passerby out for a late night stroll. The assault is already underway, which has given the narratorial voice enough time to start pontificating on the nature of violence. “Particular courage is required,” the voice informs us, “if you are to scratch a man’s face while he is looking full in your own (though he cannot see much since it is dark) or indeed try to scratch his eyes out. For the eyes are the mirror of the soul and ought to remain unscathed if possible. Otherwise people will suppose the soul is done for” (p. 7). The reader is forced to accept the nature of this novel from the first paragraph: its characters will aim for your eyes, will try to extinguish your soul and whatever hope you may have for it. In its sheer bluntness, the opening assault functions as an initiation rite, signalling what you’ve agreed to read.
For the first third of the novel, the prose and the luridness were enough to pull me along, past scenes where Herr Witkowski forces his wife to pose for pornographic photos and scenes where Anna initiates sex in a school bathroom with all the passion of ticket-taker. But while I had been initiated into the circle of these characters, I still felt like I was at more-than-arm’s distance from them. They were more intellectual constructs than people, more forms of pointless rebellion than rebels. The turning point for me happened at a different point of initiation, when Rainer decides it’s time to officially initiate Sophie into their little band of mischief. The four protagonists head out into the Vienna Woods to engage in some old-fashioned animal cruelty:
What distinguishes the group from other groups who are out and about dressed for a ramble is that they are not dressed for a ramble, but instead they are carrying a basket containing a sack tied shut. There’s an amount of scratching and whimpering going on inside the sack. This is because there is a cat in it. They caught the cat. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Age of Reason is a character who wants to drown his cats, and so today they are planning to drown this cat too, though this cat also has a right to live. Rainer says that he himself has an equal right to non-existence, just as this cat does, the cat which he is going to assist on its way to non-existence before it can count to three. The cat has its suspicions. Hence the brouhaha in the sack.
Wonderful, Wonderful Times, p. 88
Here is where I started to see that “perverted innocence” that Eder mentioned. Take out the part about trying to drown a cat, and what you’ve got is a scene about four young adults enjoying a nice day out in nature, looking to recreate something from a novel. They seem like overgrown children here, play-pretending with something that will, in fact, have consequences. More than anything, I’m reminded of Tom Sawyer’s role in the final chapters of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, cooking up an absurdly elaborate plan to rescue Jim from a shed inspired by all the adventure novels he’s read. Never mind that Jim is a human being and not an excuse for a quest; never mind that “this cat also has a right to live.” The perverted innocents will let nothing get in the way of their fun, for what is fun is serious business.
The cat-drowning attempt is also the point at which the romance elements of the novel begin to center themselves. Rainer is in love with the Sophie, Anna is in love with Hans, and because fate is cruel, this whole initiation is what drives Hans and Sophie into a romantic pairing. Throughout the scene, events highlight the divide between the Witkowskis and their friends. One example: whereas Sophie and Hans are at ease traipsing through the forest, Rainer and Anna “are not altogether in their element. Their lungs are rattling. They have none of that fitness and stamina” (p. 91). When the scene ends with Hans kissing a soaked and bleeding Sophie, the narrator bothers to point out the obvious: “This little scene leaves two people satisfied and two unsatisfied. It is always like that in life. Fifty-fifty. Which makes things fair” (p. 93).
The remainder of Wonderful, Wonderful Times, it often feels, tracks the fallout from this initiation scene, as Rainer and Anna struggle to win back the objects of their affection. What once appeared to be, to use the title of Eder’s review, a “cuckoo Clockwork Orange” turns into young adult novel. The characters’ concerns suddenly seem much more teenage: worrying about university, trying to escape parental influence, and of course how to resolve these overlapping love triangles. Several times, as some aspect of this heightened high school drama gave me pause, I had to remind myself of where this novel started, i.e., with our heroes engaged in a for-kicks beatdown.
Rather than lowering the stakes, though, the result is that Jelinek has a chance to give her characters greater depth, to turn grotesques into people. We see that Rainer’s penchant for philosophizing everything is a smokescreen for his cowardice and his self-doubt. We see that Hans, the one who has entered the working world, wants to define himself in opposition to his mother’s quixotic fight for social democracy is an increasingly consumerist Austria. Anna in particular comes alive in the homestretch, as she struggles with her personal demons and gets to experience one of the novel’s few moments of ecstasy before everything is taken away in an explosion of violence. There’s a possible world where she’s the relatable, troubled heroine of a contemporary young adult novel, and what I wouldn’t give to see what exactly that world looks like.
There’s a lot more in Wonderful, Wonderful Times that deserves scrutiny, particularly the character of Herr Witkowski and how he and what he represents factor into the moral rot that helped birth our protagonists. (Let’s just say that the line “After 1945 History decided to begin again from scratch and Innocence, after much hesitation, forced itself to take the same decision” [p. 94] is just dripping with evil.) But I think I’ll leave things there, and simply encourage you to seek this one out—at least those of you who can stomach this sort of novel.
Those are my thoughts, but what’s your take? Does a novel like Wonderful, Wonderful Times hold any appeal for you? Can you think of other works which explore this sort of “perverted innocence”? Let me know in the comments!
If you’d like to see what’s on the horizon for my Classics Club challenge, you can view the master list here. And if you’re interested in more general thoughts on the classics, I recently wrote about OCLC’s Library 100 list, which you can read here.
A few days ago OCLC, the organization that operates the WorldCat library cataloging system, unveiled The Library 100, their version of a most-popular-novels list. Rather than tallying sales, OCLC decided to rank novels based on how many libraries that register information with WorldCat hold at least one copy of a given book.
Just glancing at The Library 100, something becomes apparent almost immediately. Rather than featuring contemporary bestsellers, the list is dominated by “classics,” the marketing category that covers older, timeless literature and usually carries prestigious connotations. Classics are also my wheelhouse, so on a personal taste level I don’t really have any complaints. I’m more interested in talking about what sort of classics ended up on this list, because I get the sense that libraries have a more narrow conception of the term than I do.
As an exercise, I recorded the publication date of every novel on The Library 100 and sorted them into one of eight broad eras: pre–17th century, 1601–1700, 1701–1800, 1800–1850, 1851–1900, 1901–1950, 1951–2001, and 2001–present. I then counted the number of novels that fell into each period, to get a sense of which points in time libraries were especially fond of. The results are presented in the chart below:
Before going any further, I’ll note a few limitations to this approach. First, pinpointing exactly when some novels were published can take a bit of guesswork, especially for older works where the records may have been lost. Second, even if records are present and accurate, there may be multiple possible publication dates to choose from. For instance, many of the novels on The Library 100 were originally published in serial formats, and were subsequently compiled into a single book. In such cases, it’s not clear which date should be the “official” date of publication: when the first installment was published? the last installment? the completed and compiled book? It was because of such ambiguous cases that decided to just use broad periods rather than precise years.
Based on the above chart, we can see that the periods 1851–1900 and 1901–1950 make up a large portion of the list. Combined, this 100-year stretch accounts for 63 of the 100 novels. We then see a sharp drop off on either side of this combined stretch, with the periods on either extreme of the chart accounting for just 1 novel each. Why exactly is this the case?
A few reasons spring to mind immediately. First, a list that only includes novels, like The Library 100, will necessarily be biased towards the period of time when the novel was popular, i.e., from the 18th century onward. You can surely imagine that a list that included drama and poetry would at least feature the likes of Shakespeare and Homer. Second, a list based on library holdings will be biased towards works that have been around for long enough to end up in such collections, especially if the novel in question still has to be translated into other languages. And third, well, the classics are popular. It may not be reflected on the bestseller charts, but think of how many people read Pride and Prejudice or A Christmas Carol every year. Almost by definition, they have a proven, consistent fanbase, and that will convince libraries to keep those books on shelves.
But of course, there are other, more socially systemic reasons why one would expect classics to dominate this particular list, reasons that OCLC actually acknowledges in the FAQ section. They note that classics “are the novels most often translated, retold in different editions, taught and widely distributed in library collections,” and that as a result, “the list tends to reflect more dominant cultural views.” (They go on mention various efforts to diversify their holdings and encourage the reader to lend a hand in the effort.) It’s no surprise that white men are overly represented here, but something that did surprise me was how Anglophone the list was as well. You can see just how much English-language works dominate the list in the chart below:
Even though I tend to think of French and Russian as especially literary languages, combined they only account for 17 of the 100 books on the list. And that’s to say nothing of languages that are completely absent: no Arabic, no Japanese, no Mandarin, etc. English is especially over-represented in the top slots. While the #1 novel on the list was written in Spanish (Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes), the rest of the top 20 was all written in English. This might not be too shocking if WorldCat was only used in, say, the United States, where publishers have been historically reluctant to publish works in translation. But OCLC boasts that WorldCat is used in over 120 countries, so what gives?
My best hypothesis is based around the fact that the rise of the novel coincided with the height of the British Empire and the emergence of the United States as a world power. In addition to imposing economic, political, and social systems onto the rest of the world, both British and American empires could impose their cultural products onto it as well. This cultural imperialism could take a softer form, such as associating Anglophone literature with high class and prestige, or a harder form, such forcing Anglophone literature into classroom curricula at the expense of literature in the local language. Even in our slightly more conscious postcolonial world, the effects of that imperialism may still linger in the collective taste of libraries.
Combine the context of world and literary history and the dominance of Anglophone literature in general on the list, and it’s almost natural that Charles Dickens is the most-represented author here. Six of his novels made The Library 100, with 4 of them in the top 20. Dickens is the epitome of Victorian novelists, which in the somewhat conception of classics this list presents, makes him the epitome of literature. Which, hey, maybe he is, at least to some people! He’s never been to my taste, exactly, but what’s wonderful about libraries (in theory, at least) is that they don’t pander to any one group’s preferences. They’re not marketplaces that conflate popularity with quality, but repositories and archives that treat all entries as worthy of respect. (Libraries are in fact run by fallible humans who do face economic realities, but can’t we live the dream for a few more minutes?)
Libraries are a hodge-podge—meticulously organized, but a hodge-podge nonetheless. That’s what I love about them, and that’s what I tried to capture in my Classics Club reading list. As I wrote in December, I wanted “kitchen-sink Naturalism and spiritual science fiction, epic and lyrical poetry, literary theory and analytic philosophy, Renaissance and modernist drama.” But I also wanted works from people of different backgrounds, from different languages and vastly different time periods. I’m not trying to disparage the list per se, which seems like a perfectly fine piece of descriptive analysis of library holdings. I’ve just been trying to figure out why I, of all people, found it all just a little bit boring.
Not too boring, though. Otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered futzing with Excel to write about it.
Last Christmas, my brother gave me a copy of Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003), Andy Greenwald’s document of emo subculture right as it was reaching new heights of prominence in the mainstream. Nothing Feels Good has its share of problems (not least among them, it really could have used another round of copy editing), but on the whole I found it to be an engaging piece of popular music criticism. This comes despite the fact that I was familiar with almost none of the music that Greenwald discusses in the book.
It was fascinating, really: all this music is from the not-too-distant past, yet the only songs I recognized were Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” and the singles from Weezer’s first album. Why was so much of this book’s material foreign to me? Partly, it’s a simple matter of timing. In 2003, I was just entering middle school, which would have put me at the very youngest edge of the traditional emo fanbase. If hadn’t heard any songs by Dashboard Confessional or Thursday, it’s because I wasn’t in their target audience. It would still take a couple of years before I aged into that particular bracket, by which point a new crop of emo acts had come around and overtaken them.
At least, that theoretically might have happened. Truth is, when I was a teenager, I didn’t have any emo acts to call my own.
Okay, I know that sounds like bragging, given how the word “emo” is loaded with negative connotations, but that’s not what mean. Before we go any further, it’s probably wise to define our terms. Greenwald, rather than defining emo in terms of any essential musical components or any historical connections to the D.C. hardcore punk scene of the 1980s, takes a more functionalist, more audience-centered approach to the genre. What’s important is not what emo music is, but what it does. To quote at length from the introduction:
Emo isn’t a genre—it’s far too messy and contentious for that. What the term does signify is a particular relationship between a fan and a band. It’s the desire to turn a monologue into a dialogue, to be part of the art that affects you and to connect to it on every possible level—sentiments particularly relevant in an increasingly corporate, suburban, and diffuse culture such as ours. Emo is a specific sort of teenage longing, a romantic and ultimately self-centered need to understand the bigness of the world in relation to you. It takes its cues from the world-changing slap of community-oriented punk, the heart-swollen pomp of power ballads, and the gee-whiz nostalgia of guitar pop. Emo is as specific as adolescence and lasts about as long.
from “Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo,” pp. 4-5 (emphasis original)
What emo is supposed to do, in Greenwald’s telling, is to elicit certain emotions in the listener and to foster a connection between audience and artist. It’s a form of music that, moreso than other genres, is intensely personal and interpersonal. It’s why Greenwald spends less time analyzing the music itself and more time interviewing the teenagers who listen to it: that’s where the true nature of emo is to be found.
That functional approach to the genre seems fairly intuitive to me. It explains how Dashboard Confessional, originally the solo project of acoustic guitar–playing singer-songwriter Chris Carrabba, can be placed into what is ostensibly an offshoot of punk rock. The musicological features of their music don’t matter nearly as much as the fan communities surrounding them. Further, Greenwald’s approach allowed me to at least intellectually appreciate emo for what it is. Had he focused more on the music, had he encouraged the reader concentrate on aesthetics, well, based on the lyrics he quotes I’d have concluded that nothing of value had been forgotten fifteen years on.
One might object, however, to this functionalist approach to the genre. If emo is defined by what it does to the listener, by the personal connection that the listener has with the artist, then two people could disagree on whether a certain song or artist was “emo,” and there would be no objective criteria to determine who was correct. Greenwald, though, seems willing to bite the bullet on that. “In short,” he says after laying out the definition above, “everyone has their own emo” (p. 5). Now, I would concede that the term “emo” is too laden with associations at this point for Greenwald to expand the definition that radically, though of course I’m writing with the benefit of a decade-and-a-half of hindsight. Going forward, I shall substitute the phrase “angst music” to describe the sort of thing that Greenwald investigates in Nothing Feels Good. It’s not a perfect equivalent, I admit; “angst” is really a subset of the emotions that emo is supposed to elicit. But it’s good enough for rock ‘n’ roll.
Which brings me back to my initial point. I feel like I missed out on something when I was a teenager, because I didn’t have any good angst music.
II: “I Built a Time Machine”
When I was in high school, I was very disconnected from contemporary popular culture. I distinctly remember hearing some of my classmates in 11th grade health class talking about the Taylor Swift–Kanye West incident at the 2009 VMAs, and I had no clue what they were talking about. I don’t just mean that I didn’t know about the incident—I didn’t know who either of those people were. Nowadays, I’m still not all that knowledgeable about current popular tastes, but it’s not like I’ll respond to the name “Ariana Grande” with a confused squint.
It should come as no surprise, then, that most of the music I listened to back then came from the past. I picked up my love of Neil Young from my father, and I eventually started devouring Bob Dylan records, too. I loved both of those artists dearly, and would spend hours listening to their music, with something like the intensity that Greenwald sees in the teenagers he interviews in Nothing Feels Good. But there’s a key difference between my experience and theirs. They could relate to the music that they were listening to, and if I’m being honest, I could not.
On a surface level, Dylan and Young seem like good candidates for angst music—not for their whole discographies, perhaps, but for certain beloved and acclaimed albums. Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (1975) is a contender for the greatest break-up album of all time, and doesn’t heartache describe a good chunk of teenage angst music? Similarly, Young’s Tonight’s the Night (1975) is a naked and ramshackle outpouring of grief, which fits with the blunt and bombastic emotions that Greenwald emphasizes. And could appreciate all those emotions, but only on an abstract level. Dylan and Young sang about adult problems with adult complexities. Meanwhile, I was a sheltered, shut-in kid from the rural suburbs; I never had a decade-long marriage fall apart or lost multiple friends to drug overdoses. If I had quoted any of their lyrics on hypothetical message board posts, it would have looked like, and would have been, a pose.
(Okay, one exception: “I’ll find somewhere where they don’t care who I am,” from Young’s “Albuquerque”. That’s pretty easy for anyone to apply to themselves.)
Beyond my forays into classic rock, the other context in which I heard a lot of angst music was in sports video game soundtracks. My brother and I spent a lot of time playing ice hockey video games, like EA Sports’s NHL series and Midway’s NHL Hitz. Both series had a penchant for genres like pop-punk and nu-metal, classic angst music styles. And their selections were…not very good. The first thing I used to do after booting up NHL 06 was change the song playing on the menu screens, because the soundtrack always started off with Fall Out Boy’s “Our Lawyer Made Us Change the Name of This Song So We Wouldn’t Get Sued”. I just could not stand how smug, snotty, and self-satisfied Patrick Stump’s vocal delivery was, especially given Pete Wentz’s kinda-cute-but-not-actually-clever lyrics.
Not every song on those soundtracks was unbearable, though. I quite enjoyed Brand New’s “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows”, easily the best song on NHL 2004. The sweeps between quiet and loud on the track are pretty and even somewhat cathartic in a way I can’t quite figure out. Still, I could never manage to use it as angst music, largely because I couldn’t understand the lyrics. That’s both because they don’t enunciate clearly and because the situation is described with the exact wrong amount of concrete detail. It’s neither sketched-in enough to be a vivid scene nor vague enough to feel universal; it’s in the uncanny valley of description.
Best as I can figure, the closest thing I had to angst music as a teenager was, of all bands, Guster. I’ve talked about them before, when I analyzed the lyrics of their third album, Lost and Gone Forever (1999), but I didn’t get into the band until I heard the lead single to their fifth album, Ganging Up on the Sun (2006). That single, “One Man Wrecking Machine”, is a quintessential depiction of suburban teenage malaise. The speaker’s concerns are stereotypically high school: he wants to go to the Christmas dance with the homecoming queen (“Maybe now I’ll get in her pants”), “pass around a skinny joint” with his friends, and get out of his parents’ house already. These issues are small, but the title blows them up to an operatic scale: the speaker isn’t just angsty, he’s a one man wrecking machine. It’s a song that captures the visceral experience of being a teenager.
Except, not really. Angst music tends to be immediate: the problems it addresses are set in the here and now, and the emotions it elicits are felt in the here and now. To the extent that the genre allows for reflection on the past, it comes from the perspective of a teenager remembering childhood. The artist isn’t supposed to be reflecting back on being a teenager—that’s too distant a perspective for the assumed audience. But “One Man Wrecking Machine” is explicitly a retrospective song. The opening line, “I built a time machine,” places everything that happens in the speaker’s own distant past. He wants to “relive all [his] adolescent dreams,” which only makes sense if he’s moved well beyond them. I didn’t really notice that the first time I heard it, but after a while it became obvious: this is a song about having a midlife crisis.
It’s also not a song that is content to let the speaker indulge in his emotions. The last repetition of the chorus alters the lyrics slightly to highlight the futility of the song’s central gesture: “I tried to pull it apart and put it back together / No point in living in my adolescent dreams.” That’s a very earnest songwriting choice, but it’s earnest in a way that’s less reminiscent of punk rock than it is of country music. The guys in Guster are correct, of course, and perhaps those of us listening to angst music could use that little bit of perspective they throw in at the end. But if someone’s in the mood for angst music, I’m not sure that they want perspective; what they want is for their feelings to be validated. In that mindset, I couldn’t blame them if they took friendly advice as condescension.
At any rate, even if I wanted Guster to be my angst music, I would have found myself disappointed right quick. Sure, they had songs like “Demons” and “Happier” in their back catalog, but their next album, Easy Wonderful (2010), was as sugary as a pop-rock album can get. As it happens, Easy Wonderful was the album that really made me a fan, so that didn’t bother me none, but there’s a possible world where the sunshiny one-two punch of “Architects & Engineers” and “Do You Love Me?” broke my already-broken heart.
That more or less takes us up through my high school graduation, right past the peak listening years for angst music. It wouldn’t be until college that I discovered the band that filled a void in my past-self’s soul, a void that past-me didn’t even know existed. And that band was Frightened Rabbit.
III: “Not Deep Enough to Never Be Found”
It took me some time to come around to Frightened Rabbit. I first heard of the band in the comments section of The A.V. Club, under an article that mentioned former folk-rock superstars Mumford & Sons. The commenters at The A.V. Club hated Mumford & Sons, and often brought up Frightened Rabbit as the superior version of that sound. (I’m not sure why, actually; I don’t think the two bands sound anything alike.) I began to associate Frightened Rabbit with the self-impressed hipster set, and when I gave a listen to their then–most recent album, The Winter of Mixed Drinks (2010), I wasn’t too taken with it. Sure, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” was fun, but everything else just left me cold.
Maybe a year-and-a-half later, though, I was out on a late-afternoon walk around the campus of Carnegie Mellon, listening to WYEP, a local community radio station. The DJ introduced the next song as the latest single from Frightened Rabbit, entitled “State Hospital”. The track was hauntingly austere, with lonely guitar plucks overlapping with the percussion and Scott Hutchison’s vulnerable vocals taking center stage. He starts telling “the most threadbare tall story the country’s ever heard,” the story of a woman born into a life of poverty and abuse. Hearing the song for the first, I wanted to reject it as a piece of mawkish, manipulative sentimentality, as too many works on that subject are. But Hutchison’s lyrics proved too precise, too poetic to dismiss. By the time we got to the chorus, by the time the song went from sparse to anthemic, Hutchison sang that “[h]er heart beats like a breeze block thrown down the stairs,” and I was sold.
“State Hospital” is more empathetic than it is angsty—the third-person perspective doesn’t lend itself to the emotional release and connection that the first-person perspective does—but their next single, “The Woodpile,” is angst distilled and refined. The speaker of “The Woodpile” yearns for a human connection but his held back by crippling social anxiety. A man “bereft of all social charms” and “struck dumb by the hand of fear,” the speaker finds himself at a dance club and instinctively retreats from the action, “look[ing] for a fire door / An escape from the drums and barking,” and “fall[ing] into the corner’s arms.” Yet still he calls out for companionship, wishing that “you would brighten [his] corner / A lit torch to the woodpile.” That line, coupled with the blasting guitar in the instrumental bridge, elevates he speaker’s anxiety to heart-bursting levels. It’s perfect angst. And it was perfect angst for me: a song I could not only appreciate, but relate to.
“State Hospital” and “The Woodpile” set the stage for Frightened Rabbit’s fourth album, Pedestrian Verse (2013), which over the years has become one of my most listened-to albums. Each song is a jewel of self-doubt and self-loathing, sometimes backed with a spare, mournful arrangement, more often with electric rock energy. A great sense of worry pervades the album: the secrets in “Backyard Skulls” are “not deep enough to never be found,” the speaker in “Holy” is “too far gone for a telling,” and a title like “Dead Now” seems self-explanatory. Yet the tunes are always so alive and memorable. It’s like Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” played over 12 tracks, only I’m not embarrassed to sing along with the lyrics.
I loved Pedestrian Verse in the moment, of course, but even more I’m convinced that past-me would have worshiped it. The pain on Pedestrian Verse is almost entirely internal, the sort that comes from no apparent cause. Scott Hutchison doesn’t sound betrayed by an ex, and he certainly is not railing against overbearing parents. The speaker of a Frightened Rabbit song is miserable because he is miserable. That really was my sort of teenage angst, the feeling that I wanted validated. I would have especially loved “Holy”, though I probably would taken the religious metaphor more literally than I think it’s intended: “I can dip my head in the river, cleanse my soul / I’ll still have the stomach of sinner, face like an unholy ghost.”
Granted, there’s another reason I think Pedestrian Verse could have been my angst music had it come out earlier. There’s a certain amount of self-critique and irony to the album, an attitude that Greenwald would suggest is anathema to emo. That sort of music is supposed to be entirely, humiliatingly sincere. Pedestrian Verse, on the other hand, seems skeptical of itself. I mean, the album is called Pedestrian Verse, a self-deprecating assessment of the lyrical content. And the last two songs, “Nitrous Gas” and “The Oil Slick”, see Hutchison poke fun at his own histrionic tendencies. On the latter, he suggests that “only an idiot would swim through the shit [he] write[s]”: it’s so sad and self-serving, how can it appeal to anyone else? “Nitrous Gas” is even more extreme: he is “dying to be unhappy again,” “dying to bring you down with [him],” and more than willing to substitute happiness with the title chemical.
As an adult, I see those self-critical flashes as a necessary balance to some of the album’s more indulgent moments, like the phrase “knight in shitty armor” from the album opener “Acts of Man.” But as a teenager, those same flashes would have provided my ego with some plausible deniability. I wasn’t listening to angst music, I could have told myself, it’s a parody of angst music. That argument would not have held the slightest water, but whether it was true or not was irrelevant. Past-me would have needed that escape hatch to justify listening to something so straightforwardly emotional. I remember all those extended quotes from the teenagers Greenwald talks to in Nothing Feels Good, and while I may cringe at how what they say can get overblown and lose perspective, I still admire how open they are about it. I was incapable of such openness at their age.
So I’m totally down with angst music now, right? Well, not quite. There’s still one thing about it that troubles me.
IV: “A Particular Relationship”
If, like me, you watch a lot of video producers on “Left Tube” (or “Bread Tube” or whatever people are calling it now), you have probably come across the term “parasocial relationship,” which is the term for a one-sided relationship in which a person emotionally invests in someone who does not know that they exist. Think of how you might admire a particular television personality, or how you might root for a particular fictional character—those are classic examples of parasocial relationships.
I first heard the term “parasocial relationship” on an episode of the YouTube show NerdSync, which discussed the concept in the context of the comic book series Ms. Marvel. In the video, presenter Scott Niswander mentions how, although parasocial relationships “can be a relief from strained real-life relationships and act as a buffer against a loss of self esteem,” there’s always the risk that one will end up “project[ing] certain attributes onto the celebrity to fit their own wants and needs.” More recently, a YouTube series from Shannon Strucci, called Fake Friends, has been exploring the potential negative aspects of parasocial relationships, most notably in the second installment, “Parasocial Hell”.
Recall how Greenwald defines emo: “a particular relationship between a fan and a band,” “a desire to turn a monologue into a dialogue.” It’s a genre of music that invites parasocial relationships, to a greater extent than popular music naturally must. It invites devotion, however short-lived it tends to be in the genre. When we listen to angst music and conclude that the artist understands what we’re going through, it’s rather easy to make a leap as to what the word “understands” means in that sentence.
Frightened Rabbit means a lot to me, though I didn’t quite realize how much until Scott Hutchison’s death last May. I don’t wish to dwell on it for fear of exploiting it for personal use, so I’ll just say that I think I felt similar to how countless people felt after Chester Bennington’s death the year before that. I felt half-numb for few days afterwards, and wondered whether I needed to reevaluate my assumptions about Hutchison as a result.
Parasocial relationships set us up for disappointment, as the probability that an artist will wholly match our perceptions of them is close to zero. And that’s not even addressing the chance that an angst music artist proves to be terrible person. I mentioned Brand New earlier, and in the course of researching this piece I discovered that their lead singer, Jesse Lacey, has faced multiple allegations of grooming underage fans. Were I a fan of Brand New, had I formed a parasocial relationship with Lacey, would I be tempted to ignore or deny the allegations for the sake of preserving a particular mental construct—especially had that construct helped me through some difficult times? I can’t prove or disprove a counterfactual, but it’s not a comforting prospect.
In “Parasocial Hell,” Strucci criticizes the tendency for fans of celebrities to assert, without actual intimate knowledge, that so-and-so public figure is a “good person,” particularly after allegations of sexual misconduct. And if I have one reason to still find angst music distasteful, that might be it—no matter how much I may, in fact, derive from it.
Thank you for reading through this overly long post! I’ve had something like this kicking around in my mind for about as long as I’ve been keeping this blog, and the more I thought about it the more it started sprawling on me. I eventually realized that if I didn’t just write the damned thing already it would never get out of the conceptual stage. The result is what you’ve just read.
Anyhow, if you’re new to the blog, I’ve recently undertaken the Classics Club reading challenge, and I think my first write-up for it, on W. H. Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand, is representative of how I like to approach culture. Hope you enjoy it!
The Last Tycoon is a novel that resists coherent discussion, for one obvious reason: it was never finished. F. Scott Fitzgerald died well before he could complete his story of Hollywood romance and industry politics, or even finish conceptualizing it (the narrative point of view, for instance, is something of a mess). Fitzgerald did have extensive notes on how he envisioned the novel progressing beyond what was written, but because The Last Tycoon is still visibly a work-in-progress, I wouldn’t consider those notes to be authoritative.
Thus, when it comes to something like evaluating a character arc, the unfinished nature of the work presents some challenges for the reader. As an example, I’m going to look briefly at Episode 17, the latest section of the novel that Fitzgerald was able to write, and try to figure out where that leaves the novel’s protagonist, Monroe Stahr. As we’ll see, the fact that The Last Tycoon ends where it does may give the reader a much more sour impression of Stahr’s character than they may have gotten in the hypothetical completed version of the novel.
First, some context: It’s the Golden Age of Hollywood, where the young widower Monroe Stahr is a successful studio executive. One day, during an earthquake, he sees a woman on the studio lot who looks exactly like his deceased wife. He eventually meets the woman, Kathleen, and starts up a halting relationship with her. However, Kathleen is engaged to a man who will be arriving in town shortly. Stahr doesn’t believe that Kathleen truly loves her fiancé, and thinks he might have a chance with her. But at the very end of the penultimate (existing) episode, Stahr receives a telegram from Kathleen that reads: “I WAS MARRIED AT NOON TODAY GOODBYE” (p. 118).
Stahr thus begins Episode 17 heartbroken, which is not a great state of mind to be in for this particular scene. He has a meeting with two people: Brimmer, a man who wishes to organize a labor union at Stahr’s studio, and Cecelia, the daughter of Stahr’s business partner and the one who arranged the meeting between Stahr and Brimmer. (Cecelia is also the novel’s narrator, which makes her the Nick Carraway to Stahr’s Jay Gatsby, if Nick Carraway weren’t an objective observer and instead had a lifelong crush on his subject.) Emotions would be running high in this situation as is, but Kathleen’s telegram has just complicated matters further.
The meeting starts of tense but cordial, and even though the two men have drastically different views and goals, they seem to like each other. They laugh at each other’s quips, and are capable of recognizing each other’s strengths. But even if the meeting were to end with mutual understanding, it almost certainly could never end with an agreement. Stahr, as Cecelia says earlier in the novel, carries himself like an “oracle,” someone who “must be right always, not most of the time, but always—or the structure would melt down like gradual butter” (p. 56). If Stahr doesn’t want his studio to unionize, then as far he’s concerned, that’s that. As amiable as Stahr is, he is accustomed to getting his way, not just in business matters, but in personal matters as well.
This is why Kathleen’s telegram wounds Stahr so: he’s apparently misjudged the relationship between Kathleen and her fiancé. (Cecelia has a flash-forward in this section that suggests things were a little more complicated than they have may seemed, but Stahr never learns any of that.) He more or less played casting director is pursuing Kathleen in the first place: she was perfect in the role of his wife, in multiple senses. It must have look fantastic on paper. But it was all for naught. The telegram proves that he was wrong, and as a consequence he’s been denied the chance of romantic fulfillment. It’s the most direct challenge to his self-image that Stahr faces in the novel.
Stahr carries all that into the meeting, and while up to this point he’s kept that disappointment in check, it starts to burst forth once the three of them go to a restaurant for dinner and he starts drinking. Cecelia is particularly perceptive of this shift. Upon seeing Stahr down three cocktails in quick succession, she tells him, “‘Now I know you’ve been disappointed in love'” (p. 124). Stahr tries to deny he’s even been drinking, but it’s a rather ineffectual deflection. When he starts bragging to Brimmer about how friendly he used to be with the studios directors, Cecelia compares his spiel to “Edward the VII’s boast that he had moved in the best society in Europe” (p. 125). She doesn’t yet know the full story, but she can sense that Stahr is clinging to a rosier version of himself.
This is especially ironic, because the version of Stahr we see in Episode 17 is easily him at his most repugnant. He refers to Brimmer as a “soapbox son-of-a-bitch” and starts bashing the various directors he’s worked with over the years (p. 125). And the more that Stahr drinks, the worse it becomes:
Stahr ordered a whiskey and soda and, almost immediately, another. He ate nothing but a few spoonfuls of soup and he said all the awful things about everybody being lazy so-and-so’s and none of it mattered to him because he had lots of money—it was the kind of talk you heard whenever Father and his friends were together. I think Stahr realized that it sounded pretty ugly outside of the proper company—maybe he had never heard how it sounded before. Anyhow he shut up and drank off a cup of black coffee. I loved him and what he said didn’t change that but I hated Brimmer to carry off this impression. I wanted to see Stahr as sort of technological virtuoso and here Stahr had been playing the wicked overseer to a point he would have called trash if he had watched it on the screen.
“The Last Tycoon,” p. 126 (emphasis original)
The fact that Cecelia, who is as close to an unreliable observer-narrator as one can get, feels the need to reevaluate her perception of Stahr tells us how far he has strayed from his normal presentation. Granted, for as boisterous as Stahr has become, he’s still capable of self-reflection, as we see when he explains to Brimmer his relationship with screenwriters:
“I never thought,” he said, “—that I had more brains than a writer has. But I always thought that his brains belonged to me—because I knew how to use them. Like the Romans—I’ve heard that they never invented things but they knew what to do with them. Do you see? I don’t say it’s right. But it’s the way I’ve always felt—since I was a boy.”
“The Last Tycoon,” p. 126 (emphasis original)
Stahr understands, on some level, that a writer’s brains don’t in fact belong to him, that for all his power he cannot use to people to perfectly serve his ends at all times. But, alas, there is no epiphany or change in direction forthcoming. The group then heads over to Stahr’s house (but not before Stahr, to Cecelia’s disappointment, stops for another drink along the way), where Stahr decides to pick a fight with Brimmer. Brimmer backs away, but Cecelia realizes it’s not of fear: “There was an odd expression in his face and afterwards I thought it looked as if her were saying, ‘Is this all? This frail half sick person holding up the whole thing'” (p. 128, emphasis original). Stahr persists, though, and then Brimmer promptly kicks his ass.
That one, little question—”Is this all?”—captures Stahr’s collapse so completely. There’s a kind of revulsion in that question, a mixture of pity and contempt that speaks volumes to the gap between Stahr’s self-perception and reality. I had a similar feeling towards the end of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, when Augustus literally collapses trying to buy cigarettes at a gas station, or in D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, when Clifford stubbornly tries to power his motorized wheelchair through the muck. With all these characters, in watching them desperately try to do something that might not be worth doing, I felt some unease, some uncertainty as to how to process things. My sympathies had to battle my disgust, which is why, in the case of all those novels, those are the scenes that have lingered in my mind the longest.
Of course, neither Green nor Lawrence ends their novels with those scenes, and Fitzgerald almost certainly had further plans for Stahr. But that disastrous meeting is basically the last scene in the book as written. Augustus and Clifford get some sort of dénoument afterwards, even though neither of them is protagonist of their respective novels. But unforeseen circumstances robbed Stahr (and the reader) of any closure. His arc ends unnaturally, at its lowest point, and that’s what we must carry with us.
Please feel free to share your thoughts on The Last Tycoon in the comments below. I’d also be curious about what you all think of the sense of pity/disgust I’ve described feeling towards certain scenes. I’ve thought about those scenes from Green and Lawrence a lot of the past few years, but I’ve never been certain what to do with them.
If you’d like a preview of what’s to come in my Classics Club project, you can access my list of fifty books here. As of writing this post, the only other book I’ve tackled so far is W. H. Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand, which you can read more about here.
Tracy K. Smith is someone who should need no introduction, but seeing how even the superstars of contemporary poetry are relatively obscures, here goes: she is the current Poet Laureate of the United States, a professor at Princeton University, author of several books of poetry (including the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning Life on Mars [Graywolf, 2011]), and all-around inspiring figure in the literary world. Seriously, go read her.
I’m currently working my way through her most recent collection, Wade in the Water (Graywolf, 2018), and I was so struck by one of the pieces that I set aside everything else and started writing up an analysis of it. That’s how most of these blog posts start, really: something I read makes me think so rapidly that I have no choice but set everything down (and hopefully, set everything in order). The poem in question is called “Declaration”; you can read it on the Poetry Foundation website, where there’s also a recording of Smith reading the poem aloud.
The first thing to note about “Declaration” is that the words themselves are not of Tracy K. Smith’s creation. Instead, “Declaration” is an example of erasure poetry, a form of found poetry in which the poet takes a pre-existing text and removes (“erases”) some or most of the original words, such that the remaining words form a new composition, often one that comments on the original text. Though erasure poetry doesn’t really involve writing as we normally conceive of it, it still requires a kind of creative vision: the ability to see new contexts for old words, to find subversive potentials in someone else’s language.
In this case, Smith uses the United States Declaration of Independence as her source text, which is perhaps the most famous document I’ve seen a poet black-out. However, if you haven’t read the original document (and didn’t see Smith’s title), I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t realize what Smith was doing here. I think it may be helpful, then, to talk about the declaration for a bit.
When we think of the Declaration of Independence, we tend to think of the lofty rhetoric near the beginning: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” But such eternally quotable assertions about natural law and political philosophy are a small percentage of the document’s word count, because the Declaration of Independence was not written to be a treatise. It was a written in a specific context for a specific purpose: to state the intention of Britain’s North American colonies to break away from the mother country.
That context explains why most of the document is devoted to listing off the colonies’ grievances against George III. The history of “repeated injuries and usurpations” is the justification for the war for independence, for a course of action that would have been considered treasonous had Britain prevailed in the conflict. The list explains why, per the authors, the declaration is necessary. Yet because the content of the section is so tied to a particular moment in history, it’s the part whose present-day power would seem rather limited. I mean, we’re not exactly stirred to anger these days by hearing references to the Quartering Act, right?
At least, that’s what I used to think, until July 4, 2017. That was the day that NPR decided to adapt their Independence Day tradition of reading the declaration on-air for Twitter. In a series of over 100 tweets, NPR’s Twitter account relayed the entire text of the declaration, like a town crier with WiFi. Most people recognized the exercise as a simple patriotic observance, but a small number of people, mostly of a right-wing persuasion and likely seeing the tweets outside of their full context, assumed NPR was criticizing Donald Trump and even advocating for revolution.
Now, if you’re like me, your first impulse is some good old cathartic laughter: “Haha, the Make America Great Again people don’t recognize the Declaration of Independence!” These randos on Twitter saw a news organization commemorating Independence Day, and assumed it was an attack on their fearless leader. But by accident, the people outraged over this exercise revealed that the declaration remains a powerful document in its entirety. How can anyone reading the declaration from start to finish come upon a sentence like, “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler over a free people,” and not connect it to the present moment? And that’s with context. Now imagine seeing that sentence while idly scrolling through Twitter. Yes, these Trump supporters were off-base on the intention of the exercise, but if it were an institution less staid than NPR, I don’t think it would be that unreasonable an inference.
So, to summarize this long digression: the grievance section of the Declaration of Independence, even though it is the least-recognized and most-dated part of the document, is still a powerful piece of rhetoric, perhaps especially when the language is removed from the original context. And with all that in mind, we can now ask ourselves: What does Tracy K. Smith do with it?
The first thing I’ll note is that Smith leaves the rhetorical structure of the source material largely intact. The primary device used in the grievance section of the original document is syntactic parallelism, especially anaphora (repeating words at the beginning of consecutive phases, e.g., “He has refused to Assent to Laws . . . He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws . . . He has refused to pass other Laws . . . etc.”). Smith’s “Declaration” preserves that formal element, and if anything amplifies it by also using epistrophe (repeating words at the end of consecutive phrases). The result is something which condenses the grievance section down the sensation of listening to it:
He has plundered our—
destroyed the lives of our—
taking away our—
abolishing our most valuable—
and altering fundamentally the Forms of our— (lines 3-8)
Yet while Smith preserves the source material’s form, she seems to have eliminated, erased, its content. We have all these transitive verbs which are incomplete without grammatical objects, all these phrases which sound in need of closure. One might be tempted to say that what Smith has done is transform the Declaration of Independence into something close to theoretically pure rhetoric.
That, for the record, would be a perfectly fine approach for an erasure poem based on the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps it would reveal the emptiness behind the lofty ideals and philosophy which the document advocates for: all so much pleasant-sounding air. But Smith has something more specific in mind with this. After all, the passage quoted above is not free of content. Those verbs—”plundered,” “ravaged,” “destroyed,” “taking away,” “abolishing”—have charges, connotations, that pure sound would not have. And they start to call to mind a particular piece of context behind the source material, the inescapable contradiction at the heart of American history.
You probably know where we’re going with this, but to make it explicit: the country that extolled the equality and inalienable rights of “all men” permitted and was built on chattel slavery. The men who stuck their necks out in accusing George III of tyranny practiced their own tyranny upon the black slaves they and their fellow citizens owned as property. It is the unpardonable hypocrisy that has continued to haunt the United States from its inception to the present. One cannot in good conscience read the Declaration of Independence without mentally raising that objection to it.
Some might say, of course, that we can separate the admirable aspects of the declaration from the moral failings of the society that produced it, that we can discard the slavery and keep the inalienable rights. (One hears this a lot with regards to Enlightenment-era philosophy.) And that’s why I think Smith’s choice to make “Declaration” a found poem is so powerful: it suggests that such a separation is impossible. In the process of blacking-out the original text, her artistic vision knows to preserve such phrases as “the circumstances of our emigration / and settlement here” (13-14) and “taken Captive / on the high Seas / to bear” (15-17). She sees the sorts of grievances the declaration’s signers lobbed at the crown, and highlights how they were blind to the same faults in themselves.
Smith is not the first person to use the Declaration of Independence for critical purposes, of course. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted from it during his “I Have a Dream” speech, only to then call it a “promissory note” that has gone unfilled. Ho Chi Minh cited it, alongside France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, at the beginning of the Vietnamese Proclamation of Independence, then attacked the Western imperial powers for violating those cherished principles. But Smith’s poem feels even more scathing than those instances. MLK and Ho Chi Minh emphasized the ideals of the Declaration of Independence—ones that society has failed to live up to, yes, but ideals worth aspiring toward. But with “Declaration,” one senses that the ideals themselves have been tainted. For a poem that appears so halting on the page, that’s one hell of a strong theme.
That’s it from me. But what about you? What are your thoughts on “Declaration,” or on found poetry in general? Feel free to sound off in the comments! And if you’re looking for more thoughts on recontextualizing the classics, you may want to check out my piece on Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley’s short film In the Body of the Sturgeon, which rearranges Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha into a story about a submarine’s crew near the end of the Second World War.
The above image is an 1884 painting called The Breakfast Table. The artist is the American portraitist John Singer Sargent, and the subject is the artist’s youngest sister, Violet. In this painting, Sargent has captured his sister in an instant of the perfectly everyday: reading a book over breakfast.
It’s clearly a page-turner, given that she’s staring down at the text while peeling an orange, not even glancing back at the blade that she’s sliding under the skin. If you look closely, you’ll notice that she’s even got the book propped up on some more oranges, which is perhaps the most charming detail here. It’s a potentially chaotic moment in this otherwise composed setting: what if her hand slips? what if the oranges roll off? When one thinks on it perhaps too long, the scene seems to have the potential for slapstick. Yet, looking at Violet’s expression, I cannot believe that any such calamity could occur. She’s too studious in her reading, too steady with the knife she’s holding, for any ill to befall her. I know, intellectually, that she will need to turn the page at some point, but I can imagine her holding this position for hours on end, a model of concentration.
The fact that I can see both chaotic and controlled futures in the world of the painting perhaps explains why I’m uncertain how to categorize it. It’s easy to call The Breakfast Table a genre painting, that is, a painting that depicts a scene from everyday life. Genre paintings tend to be alive with action; in this case, it’s the tension surrounding the woman, the book, and the knife. But we also see the poise associated with traditional portraiture, and given how much physical space on the canvas is dedicated to the breakfast room’s furnishings, one could even call it an artificial landscape.
You might think that such labeling is merely academic, but the context in which one views a work of art is important, and genre is a massive piece of context. I first saw The Breakfast Table with the expectation of seeing a portrait, based on what I knew of the artist, and so I first focused on the features and demeanor of the one person in the frame. But were I instead told it was a genre painting ahead of time, I’d likely focus my attention on the subject’s actions, and if someone said it was a landscape, I’d give myself over to the gestalt sensation of the room. In each case, I’d still judge the painting by how compelling and truthful it is, but just what would constitute truth may vary depending on which frame of reference I employ. Would the warmth of a morning at the breakfast table, which I’d want to find in a landscape, necessarily be welcome in the expression of someone being portrayed deep in concentration? I think it unlikely.
The Breakfast Table is currently part of the collection of the Harvard University Arts Museums in Cambridge, Massachusetts; according to their website, one can view the painting in Room 2100 on the second floor, a gallery themed around “Centuries of Tradition, Changing Times: Art for an Uncertain Age” (perhaps I was onto something in the above section regarding all those tensions). As you have probably gathered from that last sentence, I have not seen The Breakfast Table in person. I was not even aware that Harvard had art museums, though that fact shouldn’t really surprise me.
Instead, I found The Breakfast Table through an art book, specifically, John Singer Sargent by Trevor Fairbrother (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994). The book, which was made in association with the Smithsonian, is more or less what you would expect, with scans of paintings from all stages of Sargent’s development as an artist and informative writing from Fairbrother to place those paintings in context. At least, that’s what I assume one would expect, as this is only the second art book that I’ve read.
I’m honestly not sure why I haven’t read more art books in the past. Art history represents a significant hole in my knowledge base; watching Jeopardy!, few categories fill me with as much dread as the fine arts ones. My ignorance is especially odd because I write so many ekphrastic poems. (The last poem I had published, for example, was inspired by Fernand Léger’s painting Animated Landscape.) Every time I sit down to write something on a painting or a sculpture or what have you, I rediscover that I can’t really place the poem in its full historical context. I may know, for example, that a given work was made during the Gilded Age, but what art was like during the Gilded Age, or how it differed from what came before or after, is beyond me. Art books seem like a perfect way to fill that gap, especially now that I live in the country, where there are far fewer art museums.
Granted, I find art books to be somewhat odd on a conceptual level. Let’s set aside that, to build on Walter Benjamin, such books cannot convey the “aura” that viewing the original in person does, and instead let’s focus on the nature of books and paintings. To read a book is a continuous process; you are always moving from one word to the next, turning the pages to pull the thread of the book along. This is different from how you view of a painting, where you linger over the brushstrokes and the play of light and so forth. If someone were to stop dead in their tracks and observe the same spot on a canvas for twenty minutes, we’d assume they that were deep in aesthetic appreciation; if someone did the same to the book they were reading, we’d assume that they had merely zoned out.
To read an art book, I’d say, is to negotiate the tension between two impulses. At least, that’s what I’m finding as I read Fairbrother’s book. To the extent that I’m reading a book, my instinct is to keep moving along, to read more about, for instance, the context in which Sargent painted The Breakfast Table (the scandal surrounding his Portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau at the Salon of 1883, his experiments in Impressionism, etc.). To the extent that I’m admiring a collection of paintings, though, my instinct is to slow down, to investigate each painting I come across, to scour The Breakfast Table for evidence of the claims Fairbrother makes. I simultaneously believe I am moving too quickly and too slowly, which is as good an approximation of life as any.
In describing how Sargent frames The Breakfast Table with furnishings cropped by the edge of the canvas, Fairbrother states that the artist wishes to “enhance the viewer’s sense of privileged intrusion into the scene” (p. 56). The word “privileged” there carries two connotations. The first sense, the one that Fairbrother certainly intends, is the connotation of intimacy. The subject, a woman reading to herself, is engaged in an inherently private activity. She is alone not only in her physical space, but in her mental one as well. To read is to temporarily seal oneself off from the surrounding environment by imagining a different one, and to view this painting is to breach that seal.
The second sense, the one that Fairbrother does not likely intend but is still fitting, is the connotation of wealth and status. In his caption to the painting, Fairbrother calls The Breakfast Table “an interior devoted to the charms and comforts of middle-class domesticity: silver, linen, and roses in an aura of tranquility and privacy” (p. 55). While the woman at the table is the focal point of the work, the great majority of the canvas is dedicated to depicting the fine and tasteful décor that surrounds her. In viewing the scene from this angle, the audience may have a chance to see how the other half lives.
I don’t think that the woman’s reading is incidental to this display of material privilege, either. Even with rising literacy rates and falling production costs over time, reading is still in some sense a luxury activity, or at least a luxurious one. There is obviously the monetary cost of acquiring new books, but let’s not forget the cost in time as well. Even the shortest of novels will take hours to read, and if a person must work to make a living, or must care for children or elderly family members, they will have far less time to enjoy literature than will the idle rich. (For an almost comical illustration: think how long it can take to linger over a monstrously sized art book, and then imagine someone trying to squeeze it into their commute on public transportation.)
More than anything else, that’s what The Breakfast Table has come to mean for me: a reminder that to read, to write poetry, to even consider running this blog on the side, are all products of relative privilege. There are invisible costs to every human activity, but we can become aware of them in oddest ways. I cannot imagine Sargent had anything like this in mind when he painted his sister reading in his family’s dining room. But a work of art is an opportunity for self-reflection, as much a mirror as it is a window.
Thank you for reading this most recent installment in my “Fragments” series. You would perhaps like to check out my previous efforts in the form: on the 2017 National Book Festival, on nothing, and on a photograph of Yankees game. And if you have any thoughts on John Singer Sargent’s The Breakfast Table, art books, or anything else on topic, let me know in the comments!
Marianne Moore wasn’t my favorite poet who I studied as part of my MFA, but she was one of my favorite characters. The way that Elizabeth Bishop describes in particular is just so charming: an almost comically old-fashioned woman who happened to have an experimental flair for poetry, an erudite thinker with popular appeal. I admired her in concept without loving her in fact. At least, that is, until I really stopped to analyze today’s poem, “No Swan So Fine.”
The poem, which you can read over at the Poetry Foundation website, is in many ways the perfect poem to start off the new year with. After all, a new year is a time of transition, a time to reflect upon the past and confront the uncertainty of the present moment. I’m hard-pressed to think of poems that quite capture that anxious attitude toward time like this one does.
We might as well begin with the quote that opens the poem: “No water so still as the / dead fountains of Versailles” (lines 1-2). If you’re not familiar with Marianne Moore’s style, your first question entering the poem may concern who is speaking there, and why we never hear from that person again. As it happens, the opening quote is not dialogue at all, but rather a line that Moore came across while reading the New York Times Magazine. This is one of Moore’s many trademark moves: incorporating material from mundane, non-poetic sources into her own work. If you’ve ever read her most famous piece, “Poetry,” you’ll recall that she did not think it “valid / to discriminate against ‘business documents and // school books’; all these phenomena are important” (17-19). For Moore, profound and fruitful material could be found everywhere.
In this case, the opening quote comes from an article that Percy Phillip wrote for the New York Times Magazine about the restoration of the Palace of Versailles, the grand home of the Bourbon dynasty for the century prior to the French Revolution. As the tone of the quoted material indicates, Phillip found that the restoration still left that symbol of the Ancien Régime feeling sterile, yet because the statement is framed as an absolute, there’s still a sort of grandeur to the setting. Little wonder, then, that Moore found the line inspiring, for it’s the exact sort of language that she extols in “Poetry.”
Where Moore places the line within the poem, however, is somewhat unusual for her work. Generally, these quotes from brochures and technical manuals and whatnot happen in the middle of her poems, occurring almost casually within the verse. In the case of “No Swan So Fine,” though, Moore uses the quote to open the poem, where it blurs the line between text and paratext; were it not for the visual presentation, one might mistake it for an epigraph. In fact, the line more or less functions as one, because the quote directly inspires the speaker’s reflections that comprise the poem.
From that line in the New York Times Magazine, the speaker makes an associative leap to an ornamental swan “[l]odged in the Louis Fifteenth / candelabrum-tree” (8-9). As Grace Shulman writes in Marianne Moore: The Poetry of Engagement (excerpt available on the University of Illinois website), the real-life piece Moore had in mind was a candelabra owned by former British Prime Minister Lord Balfour, which had recently been auctioned off. Both the palace and the swan are antiques of a declining aristocracy, pieces of history whose auras have faded through time.
The speaker’s feeling toward the swan seems ambivalent, to judge by the language used to describe it. To get a sense that ambivalence, let’s look at that first stanza in full:
"No water so still as the dead fountains of Versailles." No swan, with swart blind look askance and ambidextrous legs, so fine as the chintz china one with fawn- brown-eyes and toothed gold collar on to show whose bird it was. (1-7)
On the one hand, there is a regal quality to the verse here, which comes through strongly in the stanza form. As with many of Moore’s early poem, “No Swan So Fine” is built on what Lewis Turco would call quantitative syllabics: repeated stanzas with the same arbitrary pattern in the number of syllables per line. In this case, the stanza form is 7-8-6-8-8-5-9. (Granted, this requires one to use the archaic one-syllable pronunciation of “flowers” in line 14, but such archaisms are not exactly unwelcome given the subject.) Compared with other Moore poems in quantitative syllabics, which often juxtapose Whitman-esque line-lengths with Williams-esque ones, the line lengths of “No Swan So Fine” are relatively regular, with only the last two lines of each stanza differing all that much from the mean.
Further, Moore had a predilection for so-called light rhymes, which are so soft that read aloud they hardly register; one needs to read “The Fish” on the page, for instance, to realize that it rhymes “an” with “fan” and “the” with “sea.” There are no such light rhymes in “No Swan So Fine.” This first stanza’s sole rhyme, “swan” and “fawn,” hits so strongly, despite “fawn” coming as part of a hyphenated compound, that I’m tempted to call this poem Moore’s version of heroic couplets: composed, self-contained, and befitting high subject matter.
While the form of “No Swan So Fine” looks like how a modernist would mourn the decline of aristocratic society, the diction of the poem tends to knock down such nostalgia. While there is something majestic about this statue’s “swart blind look askance,” the speaker mentioning its “ambidextrous legs” only calls attention to the statue’s fundamental inability to move; at any rate, “ambidextrous” is far too functional and clinical a term to “properly” elevate its subject. (Moore would perhaps disagree, but imagine Dryden praising a bird in this fashion.) Or consider the “chintz china” material. While “chintz” can describe a floral pattern originally used in fabric, it also calls to mind the word “chintzy,” meaning gaudy or cheap. Add on that “toothed gold / collar,” and you can envision a statue that is really a grotesque parody of old-money opulence.
Yet just when the reader may start suspecting that Moore looks at the swan sculpture the way Phillip looks at Versailles, the second stanza pulls back on that “look askance,” as it were. Whereas the first stanza focuses on the man-made, artificial elements of the sculpture, the second stanza highlights the natural objects that the sculpture has replicated. The candelabrum is a mixture of “coxcomb- / tinted buttons, dahlias, / sea urchins and everlastings” (9-11), things whose mere mention brings to mind more vibrancy than anything described previously; it’s an almost excessive blooming of life, enough to overcome the knowledge that these, too, are as motionless and inert as the swan itself.
It’s at this point that “No Swan So Fine” appears as though it’s building to a revelatory climax, as though it’s about to uncover something previously unappreciated in the swan sculpture. Closing the above list with “everlastings” carries the suggestion of immortality, and then the speaker has the swan takes its proverbial throne: “it perches on the branching foam / of polished sculptured / flowers—at ease and tall” (12-14). These lines, with that archaic pronunciation of “flowers” I mentioned earlier, have a perfect iambic rhythm, in addition to the quantitative syllabic rhythm the poem is built around. The “polished sculptured / flowers” are the dignified counterpart to the “chintz china” of the first stanza. After that dash, the swan’s poise, how it perches “at ease and tall,” may as well promise a royal rebirth, a restoration.
And then, the punch: “The king is dead.” Four words, then full-stop.
This last sentence is so final, so sudden, that its impact—at least on me—takes a bit to fully sink in. First off, the line recalls those “dead fountains of Versailles” that inspired the poem in the first place, and why those fountains are now full of still water (namely, the execution of Louis XVI). But even stronger, Moore chooses to end the poem before the phrase is complete. After all, the saying goes, “The king is dead, love live the king!” There’s the promise, the guarantee, of continuity in the line of succession, a promise that the world of the poem cannot keep.
When that last line is taken as whole, we’re left with a very uneasy sentiment: the stability of “at ease and tall” vs. the earth-shattering “The king is dead.” There is no obvious way to resolve this tension; rather, it is best to accept is as an essential element of the poem. Schulman sees a “dialectical progress of the mind” in Moore’s poem, in how it oscillates between the two moods we’ve discussed, and if you ask me, no moment embodies that tendency more than this last line.
No poem less certain than the jewel crafted by Marianne Moore.
But I’ve gone on for long enough. What are your thoughts on “No Swan So Fine”? Are there any poems that you think capture a similar feeling to this one. Let me know in the comments!