Wednesday, July 16, 2008

"A thoroughly nasty piece of work" or, Parties and some lessons in the glories of cattiness

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I apologize in advance for the vulgarity of this first scene, but it was too good to pass up. It comes from Gary Indiana's Do Everything in the Dark (2003):
From a fat manila envelope bursting at the seams, Jesse fishes snapshots of Millie Ferguson. He remembers her green eye shadow, glassy Mylar dresses, high wiry whore-blond hair, the array of indelible expressions that wacky woman wore instead of jewelry. Millie exuded an air of hoarding astounding secrets and spiriting special people into dark corners to examine her pussy (which Jesse'd always imagined the lair of rare African snakes or fantastic Amazonian orchids) or to snuffle up an Everest of cocaine. The dope addict rictus, the born sneak's irresistible smirk, the stolid Teutonic jawline that slackened like rubber after two a.m. Millie Ferguson got ambushed by mirrors, stuck to them like a pinned butterfly, and who wouldn't if they looked like her? People wanted either to be Millie or to fuck her, or both.
Such sterling cattiness Indiana pulls off there, reaching heights only scaleable with the aid of real longing and undeniable praise. It's nearly worthy of the master, Proust, whose way with a cutting comment is so easy that he doesn't even have to save them all for Marcel, instead distributing them freely to all manner of characters, worthy and unworthy alike. Here, for example, is Madame de Guermantes, taking her oily leave of a party, in Sodom and Gomorrah:
"Goodbye, I've hardly spoken to you, that's how it is in society, we don't meet, we don't say the things we'd like to say to one another; anyway it's the same everywhere in life. Let's hope it'll be better organized after we're dead. At least we won't always have to wear low-cut dresses. Yet who knows? Perhaps we shall show off our bones and our worms on big occasions. Why note? I say, look at old mother Rampillon, d'you see any great difference between that and a skeleton in an open dress? It's true she has every right, she's at least a hundred years old. She was already one of those sacred monsters I refused to curtsy to when i was starting out in society. I thought she'd died long since; which would as it happens be the one explanation for the spectacle she's offering us. It's impressive and liturgical."
Or this, which he gives to Madame de Gallardon, spurned cousin of the Duchesse de Guermantes:
"I'm not in the least anxious to see her," she had replied. "I caught sight of her just now, in any case, she's beginning to age; it seems she can't come to terms with it. Basin himself says so. And I can well understand that, because, since she's not intelligent, is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and has a bad way with her, she certainly feels that, once she's no longer beautiful, she'll have nothing left at all."
It is one of Proust's greatest achievements to reveal the emptiness and ridiculousness of society life while simultaneously making us very glad that he took us along to these parties. We love being there because, unlike all the guests Proust depicts, we can simply relax and enjoy the spectacle through his eyes, without worrying about the figure we cut or the connections we make. Which makes Proust's eye for the ridiculous and the silly all the more fun. Here he offers us the words of the frivolous and self-regarding Madam de Citri, at the same party:
"Do you like listening to that, music? Good Lord, it depends on the moment. But it can be so very tedious! I mean, Beethoven, la barbe!" With Wagner, then with Franck, and Debussy, she did not even trouble to say 'la barbe' but was content to pass her hand across her face, like a barber. Soon, what was tedious was everything. "Beautiful things, they're so tedious! Paintings, they're enough to drive you mad . . . How right you are, it's so tedious, writing letters!" In the end it was life itself that she declared to us was a bore, without one quite knowing from where she was taking her term of comparison.
Which puts me in the mind of that great apostle of both cattiness and list-making, Sei Shonagon. Here she combines her two strengths, with a list of "Things That Have Lost Their Power" from her Pillow Book, which itself is definitely belongs on a list of life's pleasing things:
A large boat which is high and dry in a creek at ebb-tide.

A woman who has taken off her false locks to comb the short hair that remains.

A large tree that has been blown down in a gale and lies on its side with its roots in the air.

The retreating figure of a sumo wrestler who has been defeated in a match.

A man of no importance reprimanding an attendant.

An old man who removes his hat, uncovering his scanty topknot.

A woman, who is angry with her husband about some trifling manner, leaves home and goes somewhere to hide. She is certain that he will rush about looking for her; but he does nothing of the kind and shows the most infuriating indifference. Since she cannot stay away forever, she swallows her pride and returns.
Or, for a more straightforward baring of her teeth, how about this:
Masahiro really is a laughing-stock. I wonder what it is like for his parents and friends. If people see him with a decent-looking servant, they always call for the fellow and laughingly ask how he can wait upon such a master and what he thinks of him. There are skilled dyers and weavers in Masahiro's household, and when it comes to dress, whether it be the colour of his under-robe or the style of his cloak, he is more elegant than most men; yet the only effect of his elegance is to make people say, "What a shame someone else isn't wearing thse things!"
Ouch. And double ouch when you remember that Sei Shonagan surely smiled to Masahiro's face as she composed these lines in her head. Then there's this, from a list of "Hateful Things":
A man who has nothing in particular to recommend him discusses all sorts of subjects at random as though he knew everything.
There's enough of an implicit warning in that to make me close this post; I'll wrap up by including a video for one of my favorite songs of last year, the languid, scandalously unimpressed Pierces singing "Boring." Enjoy . . . or, as the mood strikes you, be bored:

No comments:

Post a Comment