mercoledì 15 dicembre 2010

Edwardians on display

From The Times Literary Supplement

Matthew Reynolds “Sargent is in black mourning crêpe”, wrote Claude Monet from London soon after the death of Queen Victoria; and so was everyone else. On the day of the funeral the two artists joined the watching masses. Monet enjoyed the procession; but “best of all” (“le comble”) was the sight of “this immense crowd”. Costumed and expressive, the crowd were not only watchers of the spectacle but a part of it. The same had happened at Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 and would again at Edward VII’s Coronation in 1902. The public’s performance on these occasions was reviewed in the papers: their actions were summarized and their “great good humour” praised.

Of course there is potential in many places, and at many times, for observers to become the observed. But in Britain in the early years of the twentieth century the oscillation seems to have been especially cultivated and thought about. The essays in The Edwardian Sense have many points of focus, from Elgar’s processes of composition to the way people held their top hats. The ambiguity of the title (Sense in what sense, exactly?) is uncoiled and entangled by the successive contributors, and the result is an exemplary investigation of the complexity of a culture, each particular element resisting generalization while gaining salience from being seen in its moment.

Through all this variety, the interplay of spectating and performing recurs. As one cluster of essays makes clear, its main cause was the spread of visual media: illustrated magazines proliferated and life – including the royal processions – could now be filmed. The behaviour of a watching crowd mattered because it might itself be watched by other crowds across the country and the empire. Thanks to the new magic of film, audiences on the other side of the world could not only witness an occasion but feel that they, too, were taking part. An advert for a movie show in Australia announced “her Majesty the Queen actually bowing and acknowledging the plaudits of the people of Perth”.

The separation of audience from performers was again bridged by a vogue for heritage pageants. Citizens from Dudley to Dover dressed up to enact glorious scenes from local history; then stepped back to watch their neighbours do the same. These events were avowedly apolitical: the history of Chelsea started with the Romans but was allowed to go no further than the Royal Fête of 1749 to avoid any risk of controversy. Nevertheless, it seems that the mere act of participation brought with it a frisson of new possibility. Deborah Sugg Ryan points out that the great suffragette demonstrations from 1908 to 1911 drew on the look of the heritage pageants, jumping their tranquillized representation of history into the present and giving it point.

Mass entertainments such as the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908 relied on crowds to form part of the spectacle. The “swan-shaped gondolas” and “‘Rialto-like’ bridges” were more fun to look at when loaded with people. And at the London Olympics the same year – David Gilbert argues – what mattered was not only whether the public could see but how they were displayed. Huge crowds had been assembling at football matches since the last decades of the nineteenth century: Glasgow’s Ibrox Park had a capacity of 80,000 when it collapsed in 1902. Some spectators of these spectators were not impressed by their performance. In Scouting for Boys, Robert Baden-Powell slated football fans for “learning to be hysterical as they groan and cheer in panic in unison with their neighbours”. Evidently he did not see any hysteria in his own reaction. For the Olympics at White City, a stadium was built to be not only stronger than Ibrox Park, but better ordered. Different degrees of seating and standing room were demarcated by price. Arrayed in “splendid rising lines”, the crowd was lauded in architectural journals for presenting “a magnificent spectacle of humanity”.

Even private interiors were felt to have something of the stage about them, as essays by Christopher Reed and Christopher Breward explain. A million houses were built in the first decade of the century. Then (as now) guidance on decoration could be had from illustrated magazines and the Ideal Home Exhibition (first held in 1908); and furniture could be picked out in department stores. In choosing from such plenitude you could feel you were expressing your personality; but would that commodified performance of self meet the standards of the design gurus – and, if it did, would it really be you? The trend towards this particular unease had been growing through the previous decades. West End productions in the 1890s had doubled as shop windows for tailors and decorators, and as far back as the 1870s Oscar Wilde had complained of the difficulty of living up to his blue China. By the Edwardian period, the drama of the interior had become a familiar and perhaps rather wearisome theme.

Certainly, this is the feeling suggested by William Nicholson’s “The Conder Room” (1910), a painting which three essays in The Edwardian Sense explore. The elderly designer and connoisseur Pickford Waller sits in white tie, foreground left, looking out of the picture to the right. A pace or two back from him stands his daughter Sybil, also formally dressed, with her face averted. The space feels cramped, for a wall is pushed right up against her, crowding her with a dresser and ornate bench, while thrusting forward is the large watercolour on silk by Charles Conder that gives the room its name. Much of the Conder is whited out by light from a window which must be somewhere off to the left: in this nebulous space of the imagination a shadowy third figure can be discerned.

Perhaps this startling composition registers tensions in the Waller family. But the work is also (as Imogen Hart puts it) “about the experience of being in the Conder room” – an experience which evidently includes some awkwardness. Conder had been an archetypal 1890s figure, painting scenes of flowery idleness, in Paris, with a bottle of absinthe, by night. The shadowy reflected figure perhaps holds out the possibility of stepping back (like Alice through the looking-glass) into that now somewhat faded dream-world. But the Waller father and daughter, so physically present in their awkward poses, seem determinedly to be ignoring its allure. Posed in a room that is designed to be entrancing, they are embedded in their ordinary lives.

It is this feeling of alienation from the interior, and from the 1890s, that marks “The Conder Room” as belonging to an Edwardian moment. For there was nothing new about representing the experience of being in a room. John Singer Sargent had been doing so for decades, inspired by Velázquez’s “Las Meninas”; and Nicholson relies on his example. In Sargent’s “Mrs Carl Meyer and Her Children” (1896) the ten- and eleven-year-old kids are stuck behind an ornate sofa, not wholly at ease in the drawing room: their elaborately dressed mother reaches out both to reassure them and to keep them in their place. In “Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife” (1885), the writer paces an empty corner of a room, with an open door and staircase behind, while his wife slumps in the only chair, half out of frame, shrouded in a gleamingly metallic shawl (“it looks dam queer as a whole”, Stevenson wrote, admiringly). But it is “The Daughters of Edward D. Boit” (1882) that most underpins “The Conder Room”. Sargent shows four girls posed at odd distances from each other in a high, chill room, one of them leaning in profile, her face shadowed, against an enormous, ideal and estranging oriental vase; and all of them receding into darkness where only the reflection of a window gleams.

Volume Five of the ongoing Yale Complete Paintings of Sargent includes none of these pictures since its remit is Figures and Landscapes, 1883–1899. But the interest of this other work of Sargent’s, less lucrative for him than his portrait practice, and still less well known, is asserted by the good reproductions and by Richard Ormond’s and Elaine Kilmurray’s expert commentary. Half the book is taken up by sketches made in the 1890s as preparation for murals on “Jewish and Christian religious history” that had been commissioned by Boston Public Library. Sargent travelled through Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Spain and Morocco, recording architectural details, mosaics and notable faces. These visual mnemonics are lively and sharp-eyed, but what is most striking about them is the blunt orientalist fact that Sargent felt obliged to go out and make them: so many thousand miles of overseas experience to justify filling a few square metres of an American wall.

The paintings in the first half of the book range less widely but are more truly exploratory: they possess a tension that recalls the portrait interiors. Most of them were done in the English countryside – Sargent had left Paris in 1885 after a scandalously perceptive portrait, “Madame Gautreau”, had damaged his prospects there. But France came with him via the overbearing influence of Monet. Sargent copied his friend’s methods, working en plein air and sometimes in a bateau atelier; he imitated his tonalities and adopted some of his subjects and points of view. But there are also gestures of resistance. “A Morning Walk” (1888) is almost a negative of Monet’s studies of a “Femme à l’ombrelle” from two years before. Monet’s model stands atop a grassy bank against the sky, her face in the shadow of her parasol, her white-dressed body evanescing into light. Sargent’s model similarly wears white and carries a parasol but she is seen from slightly above. Most of her body is against a sky-reflecting stream, while her face, brightly lit, has a heavy grass bank for background. The composition stresses the massiness of her body and the earth, setting them in opposition to the surrounding play of light. The same emphasis recurs in several studies of women awkwardly recumbent in punts. Light and colour shimmer beautifully, but something refuses to join in their harmony.

The tustle with Monet continues in the most brilliant – and also best-known – painting represented in this volume, “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”. The work aimed to capture the quality of light on flowers at a particular moment in the late summer evening. But it is also an English genre painting, for it is dominated by two children, aged about ten, lighting Chinese lanterns. Ormond and Kilmurray recount the practical difficulties caused by this combination of Victorian subject and Impressionist mode. The light was only right for twenty minutes at a time, so on many successive evenings the children had to be stopped from playing, posed and bribed with sweets. Sargent had started too late in the summer: soon jerseys were having to be worn under the smocks and artificial flowers pinned to the bare rosebushes. Then the whole thing was abandoned until the following year.

Yet the picture’s conflictedness is also the source of its power. The children are charged with the resources of Pre-Raphaelite symbolism. Two figures in a garden, they recall Adam and Eve. One with arm raised, the other with eyes lowered, they suggest an annunciation (the more so because of the lilies). Holding lanterns, they recall Holman Hunt’s “The Light of the World”. They are playing with fire, yet they are also innocently at one with the garden around them, their white smocks and pink cheeks linking to the flowers in decorative play. The question asked by the painting is how much the ominous narrative voltage that has built up in them can be dissipated by that tonal harmony, how much comfort the beautiful colours can bring. The painting buzzes with fiercely contradictory implications, and yet also offers itself as a light work of great charm. This surface prettiness is, finally, the eeriest thing about it, smiling brightly as the darkness presses in.

Morna O’Neill and Michael Hart, editors
Art design and performance in Britain, 1901–1910
328pp. Yale University Press. £45 (US $65).
978 0 300 16335 3

Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray
Volume Five: Figures and Landscapes, 1883–1899 392pp.
Yale University Press. £50 (US $75).
978 0 300 16111 3

Matthew Reynolds’s books include Designs for a Happy Home: A novel in ten interiors, which appeared last year. His The Poetry of Translation: From Chaucer and Petrarch to Homer and Logue, is due to be published next year

sabato 4 dicembre 2010

Romain Gary, l'homme aux multiples visages


Les grands écrivains ont toujours une conscience aiguë de leur oeuvre et Romain Gary n'échappe pas à la règle. "Ce manuscrit de mon premier roman écrit à 17 ans ne doit pas être publié. Il peut être ouvert." C'est seulement le 16 décembre 1979, soit un peu moins d'un an avant son suicide, qu'il trace ces quelques lignes à l'encre noire sur une étiquette qu'il colle sur le cahier de La Geste grimaçante, écrit en 1934. On imagine l'écrivain, en robe de chambre, fatigué, au seuil de ses double, triple, voire quadruple vies (la mystification Ajar n'est pas encore révélée), qui classe ses manuscrits conservés depuis l'adolescence, faisant le tri entre ceux qui doivent passer à la postérité et ceux qu'il entend laisser dans l'ombre...

Romain Gary s'est suicidé il y a trente ans, le 2 décembre 1980, en se tirant une balle de pistolet dans la bouche. L'actrice Jean Seberg, avec laquelle il avait eu un fils, Diego, s'était, elle aussi, suicidée, quatorze mois plus tôt.

Le texte de La Geste grimaçante est pour la première fois exposé au Musée des lettres et manuscrits (MLM), à Paris. Il est l'un des nombreux manuscrits (plus de vingt) du romancier présentés dans le cadre de l'exposition "Romain Gary, des "Racines du ciel" à "La Vie devant soi"", la première à lui être entièrement consacrée. Diego Gary, fils de l'écrivain, a passé un accord avec Gérard Lhéritier, mécène et président du MLM, qui gardera les manuscrits en dépôt, après l'exposition. Sont aussi présentés ceux du Charlatan (inédit), de Chien blanc, de Gros-Câlin, de La Vie devant soi, de Clair de femme, de La nuit sera calme, etc. On constate que l'écrivain affectionnait particulièrement les cahiers noirs cartonnés à 32 lignes, de la marque Dauphin.

Au fil du temps, mais parfois à une seule année de distance, l'écriture de Romain Gary varie énormément. De manière troublante, elle prend parfois des allures féminines. Sa manière de travailler est aussi montrée, grâce à des extraits de sa documentation, des articles de journaux, des pièces manuscrites ou photocopiées, disposés à côté des textes originaux. Dans une vitrine, sont ainsi exposées les neuf versions du premier chapitre des Enchanteurs.

Par un singulier hasard, la première exposition consacrée à Romain Gary et à ses écrits se tient à deux pas de sa dernière résidence parisienne. Dans un supplément de 12 pages du Point, Jean-Paul Enthoven raconte que Romain Gary avait acheté une robe de chambre "Aux laines écossaises", une boutique qui existe toujours sur le boulevard Saint-Germain. Il l'avait choisie rouge pour que les taches de sang liées à son suicide effraient le moins possible ceux qui seraient amenés à découvrir sa dépouille mortelle. Un geste d'une élégance typiquement "garyenne".

Des laines écossaises, on passe forcément au caméléon, un animal totem pour Romain Gary, l'homme aux multiples visages. Ne dit-on pas que, pour rendre fou un caméléon, il suffit de le placer sur un plaid écossais ? Dans le cas de Romain Kacew, juif lituanien, né en 1914 à Vilnius et naturalisé français en 1935, cette parenté tient juste au fait que l'écrivain affectionnait les masques. Dans toutes ses vies (aviateur, diplomate, réalisateur de cinéma...), il a en effet usé de nombreux pseudonymes : Romain Gary, Fosco Sinibaldi, Shatan Bogat, Emile Ajar. Dans La Promesse de l'aube, son roman le plus célèbre, il regrette même de ne pas avoir trouvé "de Gaulle" - dont il fut le compagnon à Londres en 1940 -, mais avec un seul "l", bien sûr. Il écrit aussi en plusieurs langues, en français et en anglais, tout en sachant parler le russe, le polonais, le lituanien.

Pour accompagner cette exposition qui célèbre le 30e anniversaire de la disparition de Romain Gary, deux beaux livres : l'un qui en est le catalogue, mais qui est aussi une relecture de l'oeuvre par douze écrivains parmi lesquels Paul Audi, Pierre Bayard, Nancy Huston, Jean-Marie Rouart, etc. ; l'autre est un livre album, intitulé Romain Gary, l'enchanteur. Publié chez Textuel, dans la collection "Passion", ce deuxième ouvrage est réalisé par Myriam Annissimov, la spécialiste incontestée de Romain Gary, auteur de la biographie de référence Romain Gary, le caméléon (Denoël, 2004), qui est toujours disponible.

Exposition "Romain Gary, des "Racines du ciel" à "La Vie devant soi"", 3 décembre-20 février 2011, Musée des lettres et manuscrits, 222, bd Saint-Germain, Paris 7e. De 10 heures à 19 heures, nocturne le jeudi jusqu'à 21 h 30, fermé le lundi. Entrée 7 €, tarif réduit 5 €. Tél. : 01-42-22-48-48. Sur le Web :
Publications :
Lectures de Romain Gary, Gallimard/Musée des lettres et manuscrits/le Magazine littéraire, 288 p., 35 €, en vente le 5 janvier.
Romain Gary, l'enchanteur, de Myriam Anissimov, Textuel, 192 p., 49 €.

Les principaux titres de Romain Gary sont disponibles en "folio". Signalons aussi Romain Gary, à la traversée des frontières, de Jean-François Hangouët (Gallimard, "Découvertes") 128 p., 14,30 € ; Romain Gary-Emile Ajar, Légendes du je. Récits, romans (Gallimard, "Quarto") 1 428 p., 29,90 €, ainsi que huit carnets, de La Crête de la vague à A bout de souffle, aux éditions de l'Herne (de 8,50 € à 10,50 €).

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Claude Levi Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory
by Patrick Wilcken

David Lan welcomes a biography of the man once hailed as the world's most famous academic

It had been pouring with rain. The hard, red soil of the Zambezi valley had turned to mud. All around me people were hurrying to their fields, taking advantage of this deluge to cut trenches with their hoes to prepare for the sowing of next season's crop. And suddenly I understood everything that had been puzzling me about the origin myth of these people among whom, as a student anthropologist, I'd been doing fieldwork for the past year.

The mythological "first man" was said to have come from the south, from where that day's rain clouds were also riding. His name was Mutota, which means "the wet one". The contradiction I had to account for was this: when local people answer the question "who brings the rain?", they always say that it's under the control of the ancestral spirits of the people who lived in this territory before Mutota, their ancestor, arrived and conquered it. And yet, at the same time, it's an uncontested fact that "Mutota brings the rain".

If you're not tantalised by this paradox, Patrick Wilcken's biography of Claude Lévi-Strauss – the first in English – is probably not for you. But for me, and for thousands of students of social anthropology in the 1970s and 80s, Strauss, Lévi and Claude were the most intoxicating words in any language.

And this despite the fact that very few of us, I'd bet, actually read his books. We whizzed through introductions and maybe an early chapter or two, but his major works – the four-volume Mythologiques and The Elementary Structures of Kinship – are not for the faint-hearted.

Yet he was telling us something important: that all societies are as complex, as sophisticated, as rule-bound and as interesting as our own. The conventional comparative indicators of success were (are) wealth accumulation and levels of technology. Lévi-Strauss cracked open the seemingly secondary worlds of marriage, mythology, linguistics and social and existential identity, showing how each is an intricate system of exchange between individuals and between groups – and that the same sorts of systems operate in the Ardèche as in the Amazon.

Lévi-Strauss's credo is related by Wilcken thus: "Working their own systems, many cultures had succeeded where the west had failed. Inuits and the Bedouin had excelled at life in inhospitable climates; other cultures were thousands of years ahead of the west in terms of integrating the physical and the mental with yoga and Chinese 'breathe-techniques'. Australian Aborigines, traditionally seen as at the bottom of the evolutionary ladder, had one of the most sophisticated kinship systems in existence."

The methodology Lévi-Strauss fashioned to allow him to display these hidden complexities was structuralism – for decades the most resonant word across the humanities, its imprecision a part of its power. Its premise is that nothing can be understood in itself but only in relation to other, similar things – and, further, that this relationship can only be understood in terms of the relationships these other things have with yet other, similar things.

The questions that follow are: in each case, in what does this "similarity" lie, and from what perspective do these "similarities" appear? For Lévi-Strauss, all apparent reality is a map to be deciphered, revealing the map of a reality below which in turn leads to the map of the surface below that, and so on. But at the lowest point – what? Is there a lowest point? Or does it just keep going round and round?

From his middle years, Lévi-Strauss was the most famous academic in the world. He had his picture on the cover of Time magazine. His more tactfully written books, such as The Savage Mind and, especially, his marvellously affecting Amazon memoir Tristes Tropiques, sold widely and were, I'm sure, read with pleasure, if not always from cover to cover. His only rival as a public intellectual in France was Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom he fell out on the question unanswered above: what's underneath? What's the driving force? Sartre said: "History". Lévi-Strauss told the Washington Post: "The Sartre disciples said that nothing can be known without history: I had to dissent. But it is not that I don't believe in history. I just feel that there is no privilege for it."

And that did for him. As Tony Judt puts it in Postwar: "As an interpretation of human experience, any theory dependent on an arrangement of structures from which human choice has been eliminated was hobbled by its own assumptions. Intellectually subversive, structuralism was politically passive." The structuralist ship had extremely wide sails – but in the end, the wind went out of them.

The Poet in the Laboratory doesn't quite catch the fireworks that had me and my best undergraduate friend weekend after weekend tearing Andean kinship systems apart, desperate to find out exactly why the father's sister's daughter couldn't marry the mother's brother's son, or whoever. But it lays out the life with clarity, efficiency, readability and occasionally dissent – from the youth's first liaison with his three "mistresses", Freud, Marx and geology, to the hyper-distinguished old fellow tottering into the Académie Française, the first of his tribe to be let in. A superbly thrilling life it was – and one well worth reliving at second hand.

David Lan is artistic director of the Young Vic Theatre and author of Guns and Rain: Guerrillas and Spirit Mediums in Zimbabwe.

Killing the Gods


What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity
By Tom Payne
274 pp. Picador.

Never famous in her lifetime, Emily Dickinson had some astute things to say about fame as a phenomenon: “Fame is a fickle food,” for instance, and “Fame is a bee.” But perhaps most evocative is:

Fame is the one that does not stay —
Its occupant must die
Or out of sight of estimate
Ascend incessantly —
Or be that most insolvent thing
A Lightning in the Germ —
Electrical the embryo
But we demand the Flame.

Unlike other luminaries to have weighed in on the subject (from Francis Bacon to David Bowie), Dickinson does not take aim at celebrity’s supposed lack of substance. Rather, she insists that it be taken seriously, identifying two qualities that imbue it with a specific, and dangerous, substance: the impossible, intrinsically destructive pressures it places on the famous (“Its occupant must die”) and the impossible, intrinsically destructive appetites it exposes in the fans (“We demand the Flame”).

In his trenchant, unsettling, darkly hilarious “Fame,” Tom Payne also examines the murky pact that binds stars to their public. For him, this relationship stands to reveal “grim truths about humanity that we would struggle to express otherwise — those desires so unspeakable that we have to evolve a kind of code.” But where Dickinson uses the language of sparks and fire to rewrite this code, Payne, a former deputy literary editor for The Daily Telegraph in England, works to decipher it, uncovering clues in the foundational texts of Western culture. Moving seamlessly between yesterday’s great literature — Greek, Roman, early Christian, Enlightenment and Romantic — and today’s trashy tabloids, Payne advances a persuasive, if disturbing, definition of what fame is now, and what it has ever been. Above all else, it is “a systematic cycle of celebration, consecration and sacrifice,” in which cultures create gods and goddesses in order to kill them.

This may sound like heavy stuff, but Payne wears his erudition lightly, alternating between the highbrow and the low in a way that invests the classics with surprising accessibility and relevance. And he endows modern celebrity gossip with unexpected cultural import. A prime example is his chapter “A Certain Sacrifice: What Was Britney Telling Us When She Cut Her Own Hair?” As anyone who was conscious in 2007 inevitably knows, this question refers to one of that year’s most notorious celebrity news stories: the night when Britney Spears marched into a hair salon and, in full view of photographers, shaved her head. Payne finds this episode noteworthy for its resonance with the ritual shearing of a young woman’s hair that commonly figured in the ancient ritual of virgin sacrifice, of which classical literature offers one particularly well-known example: the sacrifice of Iphigenia to the gods on the eve of the Trojan War. In Euripides’ telling, Iphigenia is lured to the altar with the promise of marrying Achilles. At first, she protests but eventually sees that her death will smooth her father’s, her betrothed’s and her other compatriots’ path to glory. Even more important, she discovers that by sacrificing her life for her countrymen, she will achieve renown in her own right: “And for this,” the Greek chorus tells her, “immortal fame, / Virgin, shall attend thy name.”

In Spears’s case, the “virgin” part of the “immortal fame” equation is markedly more ambiguous than it was for Iphigenia (who indeed got the ax instead of a wedding night). As a teenager, Spears repeatedly said she was saving herself for marriage, all the while starring in sexually provocative music videos, and at one point wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed, “I’m a virgin, but this is an old shirt.” Yet the implied loss of her virginity, like the publicly staged chopping of her locks, clearly partakes of the logic of sacrifice as articulated by Euripides. Spears herself, in fact, appears to see the matter in this way, singing in “Piece of Me”: “I’m Mrs. Lifestyles of the rich and famous (You want a piece of me) / I’m Mrs. Oh My God That Britney’s Shameless/(You want a piece of me).” Like Iphigenia, Spears is prepared to give of herself in order to secure some measure of celebrity for herself. As an ABC News correspondent said of the sacrificial victim du jour: “By going bald, Spears may be seeking a rebirth.” And by Payne’s lights, she found it, if only insofar as “her offering has become part of our folk memory. . . . Britney is sacred; ‘ordinary people’ have made her so.”

So fame is a dialectical interplay of adulation and destruction in which “the crowd wants something, and an individual is prepared to give it to them.” But what is that “something”? What is in it for those “ordinary people” who chase down and photograph and write about — or those who consume stories about and formulate strong opinions of — stars in distress? Why does anyone care about Lindsay Lohan’s drug use or Angelina Jolie’s love life? According to Payne, these narratives belong in the same category as fox-hunting and bullfights and, again, ritual sacrifices: all of them cultural practices that redirect human beings’ inborn aggression away from one another and onto designated victims, thereby strengthening the bonds of the community as a whole. “In the bloodshed and the howls,” of a human or animal sacrifice, he writes, “congregants would have experienced the shock and thrill of death” safely and collectively. “The effect was to bond people closer together. Feelings of guilt would have been attenuated; a feeling of togetherness, of complicity, would have taken their place.” The sacrificial object dies so that the community might live on, its members defined by the fact that they were not the ones singled out for death — and that they did not turn against one another. It is this same dynamic that structures our current obsession with self-destructive celebs: “If people feel bad about seeing Amy Winehouse on TMZ after a night of putting syringes between her toes, at least they have the consolation that it really isn’t just them.” Together we elevate our sacrificial object and together we tear her down. Alone she falls while together we stand, simultaneously colluding in and protected from the carnage.

Recasting this phenomenon in funnier terms, Payne considers today’s celebrity perfume industry:“Have you ever given someone Intimately Beckham for Her? Did you ever receive Lovely, by Sarah Jessica Parker? If so, how did you feel? Were we tempted by Donald Trump, the Fragrance?. . . What was the allure of Mystique de Michael Jackson or Only, Only Crazy, redolent of Julio Iglesias?”

Such fragrances seem to promise an intimate connection between the famous whose names they bear, and the not-­famous who buy them, for as an ad for the Mariah Carey scent M emphasizes, perfume lies “like a second skin on the wearer.” Yet a second skin, Payne points out, “is you, and also isn’t you”: by putting it on (rather, he adds, like ancient Aztecs who used to don the flayed, bloody hides of their human-sacrifice victims), the buyer succeeds in showing “an affinity to the star, as if joining her fan club; but being Mariah Carey has always been Mariah Carey’s business alone.” Fundamentally, such gestures “divide the world into two sorts of people: those who are Mariah Carey and those who are not.” The public — armed with perfumes and glossy magazines and juicy gossip — basks in the secondhand glow of the culture’s shining stars; but the celebrities, like their astronomical counterparts, are in fact dead already. Their light is extinguished in the very process of reaching us, precisely because “we demand the Flame.”

Caroline Weber is a biographer of Marie-Antoinette and a frequent contributor to the Book Review.

Analyzing Literature by Words and Numbers

FROM The New York Times


Victorians were enamored of the new science of statistics, so it seems fitting that these pioneering data hounds are now the subject of an unusual experiment in statistical analysis. The titles of every British book published in English in and around the 19th century — 1,681,161, to be exact — are being electronically scoured for key words and phrases that might offer fresh insight into the minds of the Victorians.

Jon Orwant of Google says scholars will have free use of the new tools.
This research, which has only recently become possible, thanks to a new generation of powerful digital tools and databases, represents one of the many ways that technology is transforming the study of literature, philosophy and other humanistic fields that haven’t necessarily embraced large-scale quantitative analysis.

Dan Cohen and Fred Gibbs, the two historians of science at George Mason University who have created the project, have so far charted how frequently more than two dozen words — among them “God,” “love,” “work,” “science” and “industrial” — appear in British book titles from the French Revolution in 1789 to the beginning of World War I in 1914. To Mr. Cohen, the sharply jagged lines that dance across his graphs can be used to test some of the most deeply entrenched beliefs about the Victorians, like their faith in progress and science: “We can finally and truly test these and other fundamental claims that have been at the heart of Victorian studies for generations.”

Mr. Cohen said that he and Mr. Gibbs hoped that their work could serve as a model for how scholars might use the shopping cart of new digital tools to challenge longstanding assumptions and interpretations across the humanities.

Some of their colleagues are clearly intrigued by the possibilities.

“My own reaction was sheer exhilaration,” said Alice Jenkins, a professor of Victorian literature and culture at the University of Glasgow, who saw Mr. Cohen present his preliminary results at a recent conference on the Victorians.

There is also anxiety, however, about the potential of electronic tools to reduce literature and history to a series of numbers, squeezing out important subjects that cannot be easily quantified.

“I was excited and terrified,” said Matthew Bevis, a lecturer at the University of York in Britain, who was at the same conference. “This is not just a tool; this is actually shaping the kind of questions someone in literature might even ask.”

“It should come in a box marked ‘Handle With Care,’ ” he added.

Such concerns didn’t stop Mr. Bevis or other academics in the audience from asking Mr. Cohen to run a few electronic searches of particular words pertinent to their own work. Meredith Martin, an assistant professor of English at Princeton who is studying the history of poetic form, was interested in the terms “prosody,” “meter” and “verse.”

“I actually sent him an e-mail as he was talking,” Ms. Martin said. She figured he would be inundated with requests, and “I wanted to be first in line.”

Mr. Cohen and Mr. Gibbs’s “Reframing the Victorians” study is one of 12 university projects to win a new digital humanities award created by Google that provides money along with access to the company’s powerful computers and databases.

Some scholars are wary of the control an enterprise like Google can exert over digital information. Google’s plan to create a voluminous online library and store has raised alarms about a potential monopoly over digital books and the hefty pricing that might follow.

But Jon Orwant, the engineering manager for Google Books, Magazines and Patents, said the plan was to make collections and searching tools available to libraries and scholars free. “That’s something we absolutely will do, and no, it’s not going to cost anything,” he said.

One criterion in choosing projects to finance, he added, was whether they were going to create new data sets and computer codes that other researchers would find useful.

Mr. Gibbs and Mr. Cohen’s searches of book titles represent only an initial swipe at the data. Step 2 is canvassing the full texts. The professors will also have the ability to zero in on details, specific titles and passages.

Their starting point was an earlier work that focused on the written word as an entry point into the era: Walter E. Houghton’s “Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870,” a landmark book published in 1957 that has shaped generations of scholarship, even as its conclusions have been challenged. Mr. Houghton sought to capture what he called a “general sense” of how middle- and upper-class Victorians thought, partly by closely reading scores of texts written during the era and methodically counting how many times certain words appeared. The increasing use of “hope,” “light” and “sunlight,” for instance, was interpreted as a sign of the Victorians’ increasing optimism.

Mr. Houghton’s reading list was monumental, yet his methodology raised questions about the validity of extrapolating the attitudes of millions of people from a couple of hundred texts.

The kind of comprehensiveness that digital research offers quells such complaints. “All history is anecdotal,” Mr. Cohen said. “You could read three books and say the Victorians were really obsessed with evil, or you could read 30 books, or 300 books; but you didn’t read 10,000 books.”

But now, he explained, vast digital libraries present “for the first time the possibility that we can conduct a comprehensive survey of Victorian writing — not just the well-known Mills and Carlyles, but tens of thousands of lesser-known or even forgotten authors.”

The preliminary graphs he displayed at the conference mostly confirm what we already know, Mr. Cohen said. A decline in references to “God,” “Christian” and “universal” is consonant with the conventional view that the 19th century was a time of rising secularism and skepticism.

Yet large searches can also challenge some pet theories of close reading, he said: for example, that the Victorians were obsessed with the nature and origins of evil. As it turns out, books with the word “evil” in the title bumped along near the bottom of the graph, accounting for less than 0.1 percent — a thousandth — of those published during the Victorian era.

As Mr. Cohen is quick to acknowledge, the meaning of those numbers is anything but clear. Perhaps authors didn’t like to use the word “evil” in the title; perhaps there were other, more common synonyms; perhaps the context points to another subject altogether.

Ms. Martin at Princeton knows firsthand how electronic searches can unearth both obscure texts and dead ends. She has spent the last 10 years compiling a list of books, newspaper and journal articles about the technical aspects of poetry.

She recalled finding a sudden explosion of the words “syntax” and “prosody” in 1832, suggesting a spirited debate about poetic structure. But it turned out that Dr. Syntax and Prosody were the names of two racehorses.

“You find 200 titles with ‘Syntax,’ and you think there must be a big grammar debate that year,” Ms. Martin said, “but it was just that Syntax was winning.”

Scholars should also remember that the past contains more than the written record, Mr. Bevis said in an interview. Fewer references to a subject do not necessarily mean that it has disappeared from the culture, but rather that it has become such a part of the fabric of life that it no longer arouses discussion. He quoted Emily Dickinson: “Is it oblivion or absorption when things pass from our mind?”

Of more concern, Mr. Bevis said, is the fear that statistical measures could overshadow meaning and interpretation.

Not to worry, say those who embrace the new methods. There is no need to pit computation against interpretation. If anything, Ms. Jenkins argues, large-scale, quantitative research is likely to highlight “the importance and the value of close reading; the detailed, imaginative, heightened engagement with words, paragraphs and lines of verse.

“Close reading,” she continued, “will become even more crucial in a world in which we can, potentially, read every word of Victorian writing ever published.”