Sunday, June 27, 2010

Book Selection of the Month: "Victorian Vista" by James Laver Book Selection of the Month (June 2010): Victorian Vista by James Laver

First: If you’re Victorian enough to dislike burlesque, please contact me immediately — per the Contact page in my front page right margin — and volunteer to be our anti-burlesque debater at Lolita Bar next week. In this town, alas, it’s easier to find intellectuals who actually do burlesque themselves — hard to avoid them, in fact — than to find one who denies burlesque is art, whether for moral, political, or aesthetic reasons.

Nonetheless: a Camille Paglia piece this weekend blamed Americans’ purportedly waning libidos on our cultural inheritance from the staid, bourgeois Victorians — and praised Southerners and 80s New Wave acts such as Belinda Carlisle as exceptions, while dismissing Lady Gaga. I agree with some of that, obviously. I would contend, though, that the Victorians actually achieved an impressive balance of happiness and self-restraint from which we can still learn (and, not coincidentally, they were culturally dominated by a combination of utilitarian Darwinians and evangelicals).

Luckily, I happen to be doing a summer of Victorian-themed reading (which will pay off in the form of a steampunk comic book script if all goes as planned), so I can learn from James Laver’s Victorian Vista (published in 1955). It’s an entertaining, scrapbook-like collection of telling little pieces of nineteenth-century British culture: menus, song lyrics, newspaper reports — the random things that remind you there was internal logic to that era (and that humanity has nonetheless always been nuts).

As my Book Selection last month detailed, the stereotypically “Victorian” middle third of the nineteenth century was preceded by a period that was both more decadent and more Tory-dominated, odd as that may sound to most moderns (except Helen). The very first page of the first chapter of Victorian Vista (this book mainly concerning the middle part of the century) contains this sentence summing up the earlier period: “Many of the grandes dames were openly promiscuous, and their husbands and lovers drank heavily, gambled prodigiously, and consorted with pugilists and jockeys.”

By contrast, intellectuals were already griping by 1864 that Brits were becoming a bunch of tacky tourists at the shore, with one of the pieces excerpted in Victorian Vista from that time describing a typical beachgoer (then a new phenomenon) thusly:

[H]e reclines upon the sands, and gazes lazily upon the ocean, [succumbing] to a state of the most helpless inactivity. The monotony wearies, yet fascinates him; and it is difficult to do otherwise than stare in a vacant manner at the moaning, foaming, sad waves. To fling pebbles, at deliberate intervals, into the sea, is an occupation perhaps the best suited to the situation, the effort to throw while one is in a sitting posture taxing to the utmost the physical energy, while the strain upon the attention required in aiming at a particular crest of an advancing wave is as much as the mind can conveniently bear under the circumstances.

Twentieth-century condescension toward the Victorians seemingly can’t match their own self-loathing when it peeks out between bouts of progressive triumphalism and imperialism. Speaking of military matters — and tourists — Laver wittily notes that there was unrest on the Continent but also an increasing tendency for the English tourist to head to the Continent for vacation. “He was therefore extremely annoyed when, in 1848, revolutions broke out all over Europe. For the first time for many years he was compelled, for political reasons, to ask himself the question, ‘Where can we go this year?’”

This collection is, by design, a bit fluffy at times, but still revealing. An excerpt from an etiquette book of 1855, for instance, teaches us that the breakdown of manners has been a concern for over a century and a half:

[I]t is now not only allowable, but even thought clever, to be loud, positive, and rapid; to come into the room like a whirlwind, carrying all before you; to look upon everyone else as inferiors, with the idea that it enforces that conviction; to have your own set of opinions and ideas, without the least reference to what others think; and to express them in terms that would have been far better comprehended in the stable than by a company of ladies and gentlemen some twenty years ago.

On a more serious note, we learn that the pre-Raphaelites, lofty as their artistic aspirations may seem now, were part of a larger and arguably lamentably-bourgeois tendency toward literalism and realism in painting. They just used more forest nymphs.

We learn that archery was considered suspect because of its tendency to be played by both sexes (it being less physical taxing for the increasingly liberated modern woman than would be, say, rugby). Archery clubs were everywhere, and rumors about them abounded (just like gender-equalizing croquet — but more about that in next month’s Book Selection, which is about my own home town, Norwich, CT).

The pretensions of the moderns were kept in check through satire, such as this Python-worthy 1877 poem from Punch mocking aesthetes (Wilde being among their targets):

Glad lady mine, that glitterest
In shimmah of summah athwart the lawn,
Canst tell me which is bitterest –
The glamour of Eve, or the glimmah of dawn,
To those whose hearts thou litterest
The field where they fall at thy feet to fawn?
As a buttahfly dost thou fluttah by!
How, whence, and oh! whither, art come and gone?

In short, I contend these Victorians were fairly self-aware, and, you know, I suspect some of them were darn sexy to boot (there are some cute women doing archery in one painting in the book, I must say). Contrary to Paglia’s take, maybe Americans’ libidos wouldn’t be waning — if something like that can even be accurately measured — if they still had the Victorian capacity for self-restraint and modesty instead of walking around with belligerent slogans written on the seat of their pants and gold jewelry worn instead of shirts on hot days.

And if you think likewise, again, please contact me and argue against burlesque next week. (I live in a city where even the religion correspondent of a major news network celebrates her birthday with a big “margarita party,” so I could really use a Mennonite or something here, but a garden-variety ballet snob or curmudgeon would also be appreciated.)


Noah Siegel said...

If you want to know what people in a given society were actually doing, it’s often to useful to look at what behaviors their government was trying to restrict.

That the Victorian era saw the passing of the Contagious Diseases Act and the closing of the brothels should give some indication of what people were actually getting up to. What it doesn’t tell us is that most people were the repressed curmudgeons Ms. Paglia seems to think they were. It does tell us that those in government thought it wise to control the private decisions of individuals – but of course, those in government often do.

Also, I look forward to the steampunk comic strip!

William O. B'Livion said...

I’ve spent a bit of time in strip joints, and I’ve got a degree in Fine Art. I also know a former Burlesque “dancer” turned fitness coach who still does “shows” of an overtly sexual nature when she can afford to take the loss.

However, unless you wish to pay my gas money from the mid-west and lost wages, I can’t make it.

Now you may want to sort of separate “Burlesque” from “Stripping”. Be prepared to argue how the Ramones and Johnny Thunder (or more like Green Day) isn’t Art while the NY Philharmonic is.

I’ll draw these distinctions:

1) Any place where dancers directly get tipped, where “private dances” are allowed, including lap dances and etc. are NOT doing “art”. These are displays of a purely commercial nature intended to directly generate a financial transaction. They are not done for aesthetics, nor as part of the creation, dissemination, or critique of cultural archetypes and icons.

2) Pole dancing is not “Art”. It is (or can be) an athletic exhibition along the lines of the uneven bars, parallel bars, or (for men) the rings in gymnastics, but the bump and grind of the drugged out part-time prostitute on a gritty, badly lit stage compares to the aforementioned exhibitions the way my bicycling compares to Lance Armstrong. Yeah, some of the same muscles are involved, but they just aren’t the same thing.

3) This should really be #1, but…I’m not going to get all “Art is for a higher purpose blah blah blah”, nor do I object to artists getting paid (even well paid) for their work. I fully approve of people engaging in artistic endeavors EXPLICITLY to make bank, but Art is about culture and society. Burlesque–at least the wink-wink-nudge-nudge aspects of it have nothing to do with creating a culture, sustaining the existing culture, or tying members of a culture together.

With the possible exception of the Vegas Style schlock, burlesque exists to get men excited. And women of certain tastes, but they are a very small segment of the market.

As such, while I wouldn’t attack burlesque, nor would I advocate the closing of most strip joints (case by case basis, some undoubtedly should be shut down, but not for the stripping. I take that back, I remember this one joint in IIRC Oklahoma where the dancers stopped moving a good minute before their abdomens. And they weren’t belly dancers (which is, in it’s cultural context art)) it is certainly the case that what is normally called Burlesque today is not Art.

But then I’m presuming a definition you haven’t established.

William O. B'Livion said...

To the meat of the post:

Paglia must have eyes in her uterus, because everything thing she sees is framed by her vagina. I have no idea where she gets the idea that that Americans are libidinously repressed, other than she’s getting on in years, and is wondering why she doesn’t feel like it as often, and since SHE doesn’t most other people don’t.

I’ve got a daughter in College, and I can assure you that the *drives* are still there, it’s just that these days Amazon will deliver the astroglide to your door, and doesn’t even charge. No need to go to the bar and get shot down by three decent looking broads only to go home with a double bagger. Just sit home and have whatever fetish you want.

Doesn’t mean the libido is down, just the interaction. Less chance of Herpes, children, or a date rape accusation that way.

And if there IS a drop in the libidos of certain segments of the population, it’s MUCH more likely to be diet driven There’s an enzyme found in your body fat called aromatase which converts testosterone to estrogen. Men with low testosterone/high estrogen aren’t as interested in porking fat chicks, which is what most women over 35 wind up being (and yes, most men over 35 are fat too. I got no interest in porking men. Your tastes certainly vary.

Which sort of leads back to Burlesque and/or strip joints.