Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Lessons from the Fun House

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.  Ecclesiastes, 7:4.

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world".  That is the famous aphorism of Shelley from his Defense of Poetry, and once it was true, or might have been.  Certainly the greatest of moralists were novelists.  Read Tom Jones.  Read almost anything by Dickens.  Read Middlemarch or Vanity Fair.

This perception is perhaps relevant to our current national malaise, which might be characterized as an apprehension of severe economic difficulty transformed to existential crisis by moral confusion.  It is entirely unrealistic to expect that our politicians might address the situation coherently or comprehensively.  Even the few equipped to do so credibly dare not speak seriously, with moral vigor and nuance.  The politician must seek to please, and to do it quickly: in sixty seconds, with perhaps another thirty for “follow up”.   That is not the mode of the prophet—even though the prophets do have all the best short sound-bites, such as “You cannot serve God and Mammon.”  Of course stuff like that does tend to get you banished, stoned, imprisoned, beheaded, or crucified, all of which things are serious impediments to your election or reelection.  Maybe a novelist will rise to the occasion.

It is interesting that the popular image that is catching on is mathematical and statistical: the ninety-nine percent and the one percent.  When it comes to money, how much is enough?  Some clever people at Slate have created a Mitt-Meter, an online tool allowing you instantly to calculate how long it would take you, at your current rate of income, to match Mr. Romney’s 2010 haul.  I am an affluent retiree, so it would take me only the better part of two centuries.  Well, good for Mr. Romney.  He rightly refuses “to apologize for success”, and such concepts as Aristotelian moderation or grotesque excess are obviously subtleties beyond his ken.

            Subtlety was not beyond the ken, however, of our great writer Edith Wharton.  I hope you have read her magnificent novel The House of Mirth (1905), or seen its sumptuous costume-drama cinematic adaptation.  If you haven’t, the present moment of Downton-Abbey-mania would be the perfect time.  The House of Mirth is the tragic story of Lily Bart, a young, beautiful, but unsuccessful aspirant to the flaky upper crust of New York moneyed society, a society in which greed vies with vanity, and both are trumped by hypocrisy.

Edith Wharton (1861-1937): Noblesse oblige

               When it came to uppercrustness, Wharton knew whereof she spoke.  She was definitely Old Money, though fabulous sales of her book added a measurable influx of the New.  She was a top-drawer Episcopalian who hobnobbed with the Pierpont Morgans and hung out a good deal in the “cottages” in Newport.  But she happened also to be a deep thinker and a serious Christian, and those were the factors that chiefly inform her novel.  Concerning the broader issues raised in The House of Mirth she wrote as follows in response to a fan letter: “Social conditions as they are just now in our new world, where the sudden possession of money has come without inherited obligations, or any traditional sense of solidarity between the classes, is a vast and absorbing field for the novelist, and I wish a great master could arise to deal with it…”  That was in 1905.  Fast forward a century.  Our world is a little older, but it’s déjà vu all over again.

Wharton’s letter has been published more than once, and I had read it; only this week did I read the letter to which it was a response. Her pen-pal was the Rev. Dr. Morgan Dix, the priest who had officiated at her wedding.  Dix was for a lengthy period in the Gilded Age the rector of Trinity Church, Wall Street, one of Christendom’s more famous (and opulent) parish churches.  It turns out, as I learned last week in an accidental way, he was also an astute literary critic.*  Professor Donald Gerardi, known to me only indirectly as a friend of a friend, is an expert on American religious history, who is just now working on a biography of Morgan Dix. Dix’s letter to Wharton, to which I gained access through Prof. Gerardi, whets my appetite for the completed biography.

Morgan Dix (1827-1908) greets the dawn of photography

Here is a brief part of what Dix had written.  “Though you may demur to my conclusion, let me plainly express it.  I claim you as one of the preachers to this generation; as a preacher of righteousness and pure living, not directly, as we of the clergy preach them in fulfilling our appointed course, but indirectly, by showing what must come when righteousness, and faith, and reverence die out of the souls of men and women, and nothing is left but a mad desire for wealth and the pleasures it procures, and the vast conceit which arrogates to itself a primacy and a superiority based not on virtue, honour, intelligence, or character, but simply on the possession of money, well-invested, and ministering to the pride and lusts of its owner.”

Money well-invested!  That can buy a ticket to the Fun House all right.  One can sense perhaps that when it comes to social critics one is always likely to prefer a Chaucer to a Savonarola.   But one also sees where Edith Wharton was coming from.  “I am sure that you read your Bible as you did when a young girl…” Dix writes. “I know the verse in Ecclesiastes from which you took the name of your volume, those words which strike like a knell through the hollowness of a society devoted to selfish pleasure as the one and only object of pursuit…”  I have read several critiques of The House of Mirth written from the point of view of its “Jamesian techniques” and its “feminist sensibility”.  I’d like to see one now from its own point of view, that of the social teachings of the Anglo-Catholic revival.  That was for Morgan Dix the appropriate “critical perspective”; and far from demurring, Edith Wharton immediately invited him to dinner.

*I had heard of Dix only through an amusing episode of New York social history, in which he comes off as terminally humorless and stuffy, in W. A. Swanberg’s The Rector and the Rogue (1968).