Letter to the editor, The Wall Street Journal 24 January 2014:
Mr. Worthing, I confess I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to?
After you’ve done that, fill in the bibliography with this wardrobe analysis from The Decay of Lying.
Enjoy Nature! I am glad to say that I have entirely lost that faculty. People tell us that Art makes us love Nature more than we loved her before; that it reveals her secrets to us; and that after a careful study of Corot and Constable we see things in her that had escaped our observation. My own experience is that the more we study Art, the less we care for Nature. What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition. Nature has good intentions, of course, but, as Aristotle once said, she cannot carry them out. When I look at a landscape I cannot help seeing all its defects. It is fortunate for us, however, that Nature is so imperfect, as otherwise we should have no art at all. Art is our spirited protest, our gallant attempt to teach Nature her proper place.
Robert Doisneau’s two photographs of Paris during World War II show us the world capital of chic keeping up appearances beautifully. Look at the calligraphy and composition of a bakery’s explanation to its customers that there is no more bread because there is neither fuel nor flour. Its corners carefully trimmed, its margins as impeccable as snowy cuffs, the hunger text is volubly tasteful. Look, too, at the bicycle rickshaw, double-headed as it pounds through the snow in front of the Opéra. Click any image to enlarge it.
In Gertrude Stein’s twentieth-century America there was a whole pictorial genre of travel scenes like that second one, but on that side of the Atlantic the motive unit was a superhuman machine and the direction of movement was usually an advance to the front of the picture plane, not a retreat.
On either side of the ocean, however, Gertrude Stein experienced transport from a greater distance than this, and de haut en bas. “When I was in America [1934-35],” she wrote, “I for the first time travelled pretty much all the time in an airplane and when I looked at the earth I saw all the lines of cubism made at a time when not any painter had ever gone up in an airplane.” Remaining behind in France during the war, continuing to create chic out of her carefully rationed words, she was able both to supersede train and airplane and to rise above vitrine and pedicab. Herr Brecht once wrote her a song containing the line “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral,” but Mr. Gray offered her a beautiful portrait of himself for her permanent collection.
The term is an old one for what we now would call a soft drink. To Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest it brings back memories of an adventurous youth. “It seems to be mine,” she says of the handbag which holds the secret of Jack’s birth. “Yes, here is the injury it received through the upsetting of a Gower Street omnibus in younger and happier days. Here is the stain on the lining caused by the explosion of a temperance beverage, an incident that occurred at Leamington. And here, on the lock, are my initials. I had forgotten that in an extravagant mood I had had them placed there.” The suspense builds, teasing us with a language that is all polysyllables, with its verbs in the past perfect voice. It is a language which has descended all the way into temperateness and come out at the other end, like Dante at the center of hell.
During the presidential election of 2012, the Republican candidate was a man famously (at the time) temperate of speech. “Gosh,” he would say. Nevertheless, he lost — done in by what his fellow Republicans temperately called urban voters. In the spirit of temperance, therefore, let us offer a toast in memory of the rail-spanned America that might have come once more to be if only those urban people had been temperate.