Saturday, June 15, 2013

# 58 The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton

Ryder: a curious diagnosis
Carson: nostalgic through and through
Wharton: supremely objective? 
Kundera: the State lays claim to Memory
1993 was an eventful year in the life of Winona Ryder. She won a Golden Globe and was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as May Welland in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, an adaptation of Edith Wharton’s 1920 novel.  She was also troubled. The diagnosis was anticipatory nostalgia, “whatever that is,” the actress wondered to an interviewer years later.

Anticipatory nostalgia.  The paradoxical condition begs for a definition, so we turned to the retired psychologist and blogger, Ron Evans, who wrote: “[It] is a scientific sounding syndrome in which one thinks about the stuff that is fading away and might be looked back on as being cooler than it was.”

This folksy summary feels incomplete and overly rosy—even Ryder’s doctor had prescribed her sleeping pills, suggesting some sort of psychopathology and compelling us to ruminate. Isn’t a spell of warm nostalgia accompanied by the melancholic chill of mortality? When an old friend relives glory days that rang out years or decades ago, do you only laugh uproariously as you did then? Or do you also pause, even if long afterward and very briefly, to contemplate the ultimate passing of those times, you and us all?

Milan Kundera, the Czech writer, has spun many chapters on such, er, stuff.  He digested his thoughts for his interviewer, the Top 100 novelist Philip Roth:
“This is the great private problem of man: death as the loss of the self. But what is this self? It is the sum of everything we remember. Thus what terrifies us about death is not the loss of the past. Forgetting is a form of death ever present within life…But forgetting is also the great problem of politics. When a big power wants to deprive a small country of its national consciousness it uses the method of organized forgetting.”
Kundera looks through a European lens that emphasizes the communal and the sociopolitical: remembering, forgetting and nostalgia are tools of the state. Many Americans, we suspect, reject or remain ignorant of that perspective. We cherish our individuality and blithely or defiantly believe we are self-armed with memory; the damn government has nothing to do with it.

These conflicting worldviews may have discombobulated Daniel Day-Lewis, the Irish-English actor who played the hero Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence, and had five years before starred in the adaptation of the Kundera novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  The New York Times landed a rare interview with the acclaimed method actor as he prepared for the Scorsese film.
[Day-Lewis] had been studying books on 19th-century etiquette as background for his character, Newland Archer, in Edith Wharton's novel about beau-monde New York during the Gilded Age. Already, he sounded happy to be ‘drawn into the vortex’ of Archer's life – ‘his subtle hypocrisies, his realization of those hypocrisies, the self-detestation…’  As the conversation in the restaurant drifts back to "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," a film he finds too bleak to think about, it becomes apparent how deeply he inherits what he reads and acts. ‘He actually changed my way of looking at things,’ he says of Kundera. ‘For a long time afterward I was very disoriented. I wasn't strong enough to resist him.’"
In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton explored some of the differences in consciousness and manners between the Old and New Worlds. Archer’s love, Countess Olenska, disparages wealthy New Yorkers’ “blind conformity” to a European-inspired subculture, described as “rich and idle and ornamental.” In its emphasis on bloodlines, ceremony and manners, Newland Archer’s society smacks of Versailles; the New York upper crust is more crème brůlée than apple pie.  “It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country,” the countess opines. Her critique means more than simply tolerance of divorce: freedom matters, too.

US Magazine asked Michelle Pfeifer, who played the countess in Scorsese’s film, about her character’s bohemian individualism: 
Q: Countess Olenska likes to shatter conformity and convention. Is that true of you?
 A: I don’t know. Perhaps shattering things, yes. [She laughs.] I don’t know that I’ve ever consciously gone about doing that. I know that I’ve fought in my work against being pigeonholed… All actors are limited to a degree by the way they look. I think if you want to reach beyond the obvious roles that somebody might cast you in, you have to work for it.
The observation about an actress’s appearance sounds refreshingly candid. And the necessity of having to earn something beyond the expected seems like solid advice for thespians, theologians and theoretical physicists alike. The self-effacing Pfeiffer, when asked about one of her co-stars, the aforementioned Winona Ryder, replied, "She’s terribly sophisticated for her age. She’s a strange combination. I felt kind of maternal toward her."

The feeling makes sense: when The Age of Innocence was released, Pfeiffer was 35 and Ryder was 22. Daniel Day-Lewis was 36 and did seem more comfortable with his contemporary than with his junior in the dramatic love triangle.

In real life, Ryder’s relationship status was, to use a Facebook option, “complicated.” Her bout of anticipatory nostalgia was precipitated, at least in her own rear-view mirror, by the end of her engagement to Johnny Depp, not by a statist conspiracy à la Kundera.

This American sympathizer, still seeking to understand Ryder’s affliction, envisions a nine-month old cherub, the most adorable in the world, who is placed on all fours in front of what she wishes to play with most but, as soon as she budges, finds herself moving away in the opposite direction from the toy, which seems even more desirable as it becomes more unattainable. She has just learned to crawl—but only backward. If, beforehand, she had been anxiously aware that such unintentional repulsion would happen over and over to her, then we think we can grasp anticipatory nostalgia.

Newland Archer lived too early to benefit from the insight and chemistry that rescued Winona Ryder.  Left untreated, his symptoms were not so dissimilar from the actress’s; his longing for Countess Olenska is described in one instance as, 
“…an incessant, undefinable craving, like the sudden whim of a sick man for food and drink once tasted and long since forgotten… He simply felt that if he could carry away the vision of the spot of earth she walked on…the rest of the world might seem less empty.”
His anticipation is unhealthy.  Elsewhere, the narrator plainly calls Archer “a man sick with unsatisfied love.” In his serially thwarted affair, Archer is tortured by the cycle of temptation, failure and renewable expectation.

“Each time you happen to me all over again,” Archer tells the countess, who concurs, in the book’s only italicized sentence, the articulated essence of this romance. To readers who live and love, the sentiment strikes us as admirably honest and authentic. 

There is also a philosophical resonance that adds to the pleasure of re-reading or contemplating the scene.  Wharton in 1908 told a friend that she enjoyed Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche, according to Carol Shaffer-Koss. The author allowed that she had indulged in “a glance” at the German iconoclast’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, which offers the concept of the Eternal Return, or the Eternal Recurrence, according to your taste in repetition.

Eternal Recurrence is a thought experiment “...on a possible reality in which every action [people] had committed (all faults, setbacks, mistakes, and wrongdoings) was bound to be relived by them, an infinite amount of time.  Where they would be forced to endure their shame and grief over and over again, unable to change or improve on any past misdeeds, for all eternity.  And then to ask the question, “Would you be willing to bear such a reality?” 

Shaffer-Koss saw the theory applied in the Wharton short story, “Roman Fever” but, curiously, not in The Age of Innocence, in which Archer and Olenska are each willing to bear the reality of falling in love over and over again, though the recurrence brings joy and pain.  We might view Archer's line as the expression of Nietzsche's compelling, though controversial idea.  If Wharton didn't intend it as such, she may have at least smiled when it she pulled the German's arrow from her quiver and let it fly to the page.

Martin Scorsese, the expert dramatist, was drawn to the recurring conflict in Wharton’s tale. In making a costume drama of his native New York during the Gilded Age, he did not seek to lovingly recreate an era.  He had other ideas, as he told the critic, Roger Ebert
“What has always stuck in my head is the brutality under the manners. People hide what they mean under the surface of language. In the subculture I was around when I grew up in Little Italy, when somebody was killed, there was a finality to it. It was usually done by the hands of a friend. And in a funny way, it was almost like ritualistic slaughter, a sacrifice. But New York society in the 1870’s didn't have that. It was so cold-blooded. I don't know which is preferable."
Wharton, via Newland Archer, acknowledges the need for a good defense in considering the women of that time and their devotion to fashion: “It’s their armor…their defense against the unknown, and their defiance of it.” 

In an interview with Gavin Smith, Scorsese detailed his choices for virtually every aspect and shot of the film, from angle to number of takes, to lighting and camera movement.  The voluble director has throughout his career discussed his technique and work endlessly—making him the antithesis of his contemporary, Terrence Malick, who may not even speak—and for this reason the centathlete thinks of him as more artisan than artist.

In other words, Scorsese, by opening his kimono after every film, resembles a celebrity chef who strips off the apron and shares each recipe, its preparation and inspiration—with an air of agreeable promotion. In life, dining and cinema, the centathlete prefers ambiguity: more mystery and less history, if you please. How do you lean?

The master craftsman not only explained why he was drawn to The Age of Innocence, he revealed the take-away he sought. “What I wanted to do as much as possible was to recreate for a viewing audience the experience I had reading the book,” he said in a citation by Karli Lukas.

Some of us would argue that the goal should be to tell the story cinematically, rather than having it read to us with accompanying pictures… Any way, it’s not surprising that the film featured much narration (by Joanne Woodward), a bugbear for the centathlete, who prefers gesture to disembodied monologue. "Show, don’t tell" would seem to be a movie maker’s preferred credo.

Another practitioner of the visual arts has expressed admiration for Edith Wharton. Julian Fellowes, creator of the beloved TV series, Downton Abbey, in 2012 visited The Mount, Wharton’s estate in Lenox, Massachusetts. The Wharton Society’s chronicle of the occasion indicates there was no shortage of fawning.

"[Wharton] had the ability to judge the society from which she came from, but not condemn it," Fellowes intoned. "[Her work] is simply an examination of the strengths and weaknesses of society." Adam Poulisse of The Berkshire Eagle added in his report, “Fellowes was too modest to compare his writings to Wharton's, but it's hard to let the similarities and themes go unnoticed.”

Even the multitudinous, cultured admirers of Downton Abbey’s Crawleys and their ecosystem can acknowledge that Fellowes has oversimplified Wharton’s authorial perspective and simultaneously defended his own. In asserting objectivity, Fellowes in fact displays what the Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman, the chronicler of cognitive biases, has called “bias blind spot”, in which we assume we think more rationally than others.

In his teleplays and screenplays of big-house aristocracy, Fellowes also exhibits “confirmation bias,” in which we search for memories that affirm our preconceptions, and "status quo bias," which makes us dislike change.

In a statement that could fairly be called representative of Fellowes’ perspective, Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey says, “We all have different parts to play, Matthew, and we must all be allowed to play them.”

Freedom within a track might make some of us recoil: what if you don’t like the part you’ve been assigned or born into?  Fellowes, we gather, upholds the robust molecule and rejects atomic anarchy. His utopia is a big tent that accommodates, eventually, most performers.  He has Carson, the head butler, express an objective, mature perspective that will help one thrive downstairs: 
“To progress in your chosen career, William, you must remember that a good servant at all times retains a sense of pride and dignity that reflects the pride and dignity of the family he serves. And never make me remind you of it again.”
According to his background on a wiki for the series, Carson's dominant trait is that he is “nostalgic for the past." 

Much of the pleasure in Downton Abbey is aspirational; it makes us want to live in fabulous Highclere Castle, wear those clothes, and dine sumptuously as they did back in those days. That sense is not conveyed in The Age of Innocence. The innocence is not something to be recreated because it “...seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience.”

Wharton’s lovers cannot ever unite, even when offered a late encore in Paris. As the product of his “small, disciplined” society, Archer is fated to live in a melancholic limbo apart from true love—and without the capability to fully remember what might have been. His memory of his almost romance is sterile and “abstract.”

Another theme, a woman’s lack of freedom, suggests Wharton’s lack of nostalgia. Written some 45 years after the portrayed era, The Age of Innocence does not advocate a return to the days when a woman knew her place, which was substantially more conscribed. Incidentally, we suspect that the formula of reflecting on pre-feminist mores two generations ago will always hold a certain appeal.

A progressive analysis of nostalgia is very much a present occupation. In a May 19, 2013 column titled “Beware Social Nostalgia,” in The New York Times, the historian Stephanie Coontz wrote, “...nostalgia can distort our understanding of the world in dangerous ways, making us needlessly negative about our current situation.”

She also encouraged the cross-examination of even happy memories and finds those most sound who have carefully reflected on others’ sacrifices and deference so they “…could see that their own good experiences were in some ways dependent on unjust social arrangements, or on bad experiences for others.”

Neither Julian Fellowes nor his man Carson would find servile arrangements as unjust as does Coontz.

In April 2013, Winona Ryder once again described the phenomenon of distortedly looking back, albeit in her hazy fashion. She seems to have a broader perspective when she regards her salad days when she played the goth teenager in Beetlejuice, the 1988 Tim Burton movie. Or, when we read her words through a lens of wish fulfillment, should we see her as still afflicted by her originally diagnosed condition?

“I think there's a nostalgia going on for that era,” she told The Huffington Post, “or something.”