Acedia as a psychological condition was once prevalent among monks, nuns and other people in solitary professions. The creeping spiritual sickness was known as the noonday demon. By the early 20th century, it had spread to the cocktail set.
Acedia can be camp. There’s a manifestation in the film White Mischief (1987) when the jaded socialite Alice de Janzé looks at the sublime beauty of the setting sun and feels nothing: “Oh God, not another f******* beautiful day”.
Orson Welles’ Garbo is so beautiful, so poised, we don’t believe she has real, painful feelings. She comes over as spoilt, vain, and apathetic, not tragically depressed. In her inability to act being herself, she is a grand failure, a camp joke.
Susan Sontag identified “the haunting androgynous vacancy behind the perfect beauty of Greta Garbo” in Notes on ‘Camp’ (1964) as the essence of the actress’s iconic appeal. “Garbo’s incompetence (at the least, lack of depth) as an actress enhances her beauty. She’s always herself.”
“Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships?” (Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, 1592)
Are we lost in her beauty, or in admiration of the make-up artist and photographer’s skills?
Some myths are more contrived than others, less mystical than calculated, the result of careful collaboration, not individual genius.
None of the effects are accidental: every line, every irregularity, is thought through.
Garbo’s boredom with her own beauty disturbs our own protective surface. Nothing, her face tells us, not the adoration of millions, not even you looking at her now, brings true happiness. “Next?”, her experienced movie actress’s eyes and mouth say, wearily. We are all damned.
Roland Barthes meditated on the face that Garbo the actress presented to the world: “Garbo belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced. A few years earlier the face of Valentino was causing suicides; that of Garbo still partakes of the same rule of Courtly Love, where the flesh gives rise to mystical feelings of perdition.”
And if we don’t feel mystical about her, we can laugh at her: Orson Welles spins a tale about two incomparable beauties; Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo…truth or fiction? as retold on Beguiling Hollywood
If you can bear to see another goddess being turned into a joke, look at the declining career of Sarah Siddons in the early 19th century. At the height of her reputation, her acting was so persuasive that she aroused religious feelings in her audiences.
She didn’t cause suicides, but people sometimes fainted during her performances, overcome by pity and terror, and the shock of experiencing deeply buried emotions for the first time. They seem to have glimpsed the “absolute” evoked by Barthes, a state of being “which could be neither reached nor renounced”.
If you want to see the face of a murderess, look here:
Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset, studio of William Larkin, oil on panel, feigned oval, circa 1615.
Image: © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Was this the face that caused the murder of one man and the downfall of another? Its owner, Frances Howard, and her second husband, Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset, a favourite of James I, were imprisoned in the Tower for six years before being pardoned of poisoning Carr’s best friend, and, possibly, in his heart at least, lover, who had opposed their marriage. She was known to be trouble, and was married already.
It was a real-life Jacobean tragedy of sex, political intrigue and depravity at the heart of the Establishment, a history, not a myth, and yet more has always been made of the woman in the tale, her feminine wiles intensified by witchcraft, that old black magic, than of the sleazy politicians jockeying for power at a factional court.
Carr’s career and reputation, and chances of salvation, never recovered, for which his wife was blamed: “If he had not met with such a woman he might have been a good man.’ Really?
We all need a Frances Howard, then, to be our life-patsy, our personal witch on whom to heap blame for our failings.
The face of perdition is usually portrayed as that of a beautiful woman.
Good man or not, he was a fool to want her –
which is the segue for Billie Holiday singing her heart out for the other side.