Egocentrism before the Selfie Age

Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.”
Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband (1895)

“And you? When will you begin that long journey into yourself?”
Jalaluddin Rumi (1207 – 1273)

romneyrussell
George Romney, Portrait of Lady Barbara Anne Russell née Whitworth
holding her son, Sir Henry Russell, “on one of the pier tables, playing with the looking glass”
(quoted from Sir Henry Russell’s memoir about the commission of the painting)

Oil on canvas, 1786/87. Last exhibited in ‘On Reflection’ at the National Gallery in 1998.

That tragic, ruthless glance… is a question of his salvation…..
All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce
Kierkegaard (1813 -1855)

One of the mirrors in the house, an old pier glass inside a gilded oval frame that had lost its lustre a generation ago,
had cracked from too much self-reflection.
The more often they looked, the less clearly they saw themselves.

Noelle Mackay, All the Rest (2017)

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Facing the world (4) through Perdition

“I’m killin’ time, bein’ lazy”
(Listen to Marilyn being irresistibly lazy)

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.

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Facing the world (3) through Acedia

 “The blues are brewin” (sung by Billie Holiday)

Acedia is a form of depression that was identified by theologians of the early Christian Church with sloth, a spiritual fatigue caused by too much time to brood and day-dream, especially in monasteries and convents, where self-discipline and self-motivation were essential for mental health.

At least one blogger is feeling the same symptoms today.

In the early 5th century, the ascetic and mystic John Cassian described acedia as “weariness or distress of the heart…akin to dejection”. Some of his suggested cures were manual work, sympathizing and caring for other people with loving kindness, taking plenty of exercise.

Later, in secular society, the same feelings of boredom and hopelessness were caused by the dull repetition of tasks at work or at home, whichever you were chained to, and by excessive pleasures and luxury of choice among the leisured classes.

More recently, acedia has been linked to the rise of consumerism in the 20th century. I’d add the Lottery, and the misuse of the word “aspiration” to dress up acquisitiveness in angel’s clothing. Modern shopping for stuff isn’t quite what the socialist arts leaders had in mind when they called for cultural beauty to be accessible and affordable to all of us.

Acedia is a sickly leveller, affecting rich and poor, the haves and the have-nots.

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Facing the world (2) through Beguiling Hollywood

“I want to be alone; I just want to be alone.”
Line delivered by Greta Garbo in Grand Hotel, 1932

garbo-clarence-s-bull-1929-the-kissPortrait of Greta Garbo in The Kiss, 1929 by the great Hollywood stills photographer Clarence Sinclair Bull.
Image: Beguiling Hollywood © Vickie Lester 2014

Orson Welles spins a tale about two incomparable beauties; Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo…truth or fiction? retold in the wittiest, most sophisticated blog in the west – Vickie Lester’s Beguiling Hollywood.

Garbo was sitting on a raised platform in the middle of the living room, so that everybody had to stand and look up at her. I introduced them. I said, “Greta, it’s unbelievable that you two have never met—Greta, Marlene. Marlene, Greta.” Marlene started to gush, which was not like her at all. Looking up at Garbo, she said, “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, it’s such a pleasure to meet you, I’m humble in your presence,” and on and on. Garbo said, “Thank you very much. Next?” And turned away to somebody else. Marlene was crushed.

Read the full, illustrated story on Vickie Lester’s Beguiling Hollywood.

Orson Welles’ mischievous anecdote about a goddess so world-weary she is bored with being worshipped contains an allegory of acedia, the state of mind that drives people to retreat from responsibility to lonely indifference to their existence.

The shadows of facts and guesses about Welles, Marlene and Garbo loom over the tale, along with the suspicion that more than one of them was sending up the others.

Welles and Garbo both suffered from depression which has been diagnosed since as bipolar disorder; Marlene and Garbo are rumoured to have been lovers, many years before the party at which, according to Welles, he introduced them for the first time.

The affair might be a writer’s sexual fantasy turned into lucrative gossip, but it could also be an imagined consummation of an attraction between two powerful, androgynous rivals, an historical fiction with pyschological truth.

None of them corrected the received impressions of their private lives, or revealed their most desperate feelings, when they faced the world. The self needs protecting from exposure to other people if it is to stay true. You don’t know what they will do to it.

Orson Welles deflects all the latent sexual feelings, self-aggrandisement and fears of worthlessness into an amusing piece of apocrypha.

As Vickie Lester succinctly puts it, “truth or fiction?”, meaning, it doesn’t matter, art in the form of a funny story has been born.

Both are true; one reveals the outward parade of facts, the other what was going on inside people’s heads, their thoughts and passions, and secrets.

Myth and history interweave, informing each other, and it’s up to us to treat them as allies, not irreconciliable forces. We can’t understand one if we ignore the other.

It is a universal truth that could not have been illustrated without Vickie Lester, who has published her own beguiling Hollywood murder-mystery, It’s In His Kiss.

monkey lost

Part six of Nothing

Prince Rupert’s monkey was not supernatural, as the enemy claimed, but when it wasn’t being amusing, it must have been offensively annoying to its own side. There is no record (as far as I know) of what happened to the monkey, whether it survived the first civil war to go on Rupert’s further adventures as a soldier in Europe and pirate of the Caribbean, or if it died of natural causes in England.

Rupert didn’t become a pirate for fun – Royalist fortunes were at their lowest point in the early 1650s when England was doing very well as a republic for the only time in history – so far –  and his exiled cousin, Charles II, was desperately short of money.

Rupert lost something far more precious than the booty he gained on the expedition: Moritz, his closest brother and best friend, his second-in-command and comrade-in-arms was drowned. “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.”

KMSst461

Gijsbrechts, Trompe l’Oeil with Trumpet, Celestial Globe and Proclamation by Frederik III of Denmark, 1670, oil on canvas. Collection and image: SMK – Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen
The symbols of temporal political power and global commerce are piled up like forgotten booty, or modern window display of a luxury boutique for people who have everything, in front of Gijbrechts’ usual background of plain wood.

Rupert’s personality and exploits swept him away from historic battlefields into Stuart myth, biography, novels, and most dubiously of all, blogs, which, while romanticising him, have detracted from his tangible achievements.

There are two Ruperts, a figment of other people’s imagination, an object of desire or envy, and a real man who, when he settled in his adopted country of England after the Restoration, contributed in a very realistic, practical way to British artistic and scientific progress and overseas commercial exploration.

He is the sardonic action hero with brains and, when he was young, beauty, the darkly brooding antithesis to Rochester’s merry lord of misrule. Continue reading

In this world and the next: a tragedy of gender and celebrity

“Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.”
SARAH SIDDONS (1755 – 1831)

maria

The Gipsy Girl by Thomas Lawrence, oil on canvas, 1794
© Royal Academy of Arts, London
A disturbing piece of erotica by Lawrence, for which Maria Siddons, aged fifteen, has been suggested as the model. It is a plausible theory: the girl has the intense, dark-eyed and tousle-haired look of the Siddons family. If it is not Maria, it is representative of a physical type which fascinated Lawrence.

The RA website notes that the genre to which the picture belongs in art history is “fancy”, a sentimental objectification of rural life for rich people, but this wild, half-naked boyish girl with her flushed cheeks, parted lips and fierce gaze – “the frightful sort of beauty” that pierced her mother when she looked at her daughters – is inviting a far more sexually ambivalent response, such as what on earth Lawrence really wanted out of the Siddons sisters, let alone what she is doing with that chicken pressed to her bosom.

PART FIVE – Portrayal and Betrayal

At the beginning of Lawrence’s invasion of their peace, as Sally described it, Mrs Siddons was too blinded by her own affection for him to see the whirlpool into which he was pulling them; perhaps, unconsciously, she was enjoying one of the undercurrents too much, that his feelings were flowing towards her, not her daughters.

The fact so clear to us, that Lawrence was protesting his feelings for Sally too much because he was basically gay, explains but does not excuse his emotional abuse of the two sisters. It was probably just as apparent to Mrs Siddons, who was, after all, in the theatrical profession and not stupid. Eighteenth century and Regency perceptions of sexuality were more fluid than ours, even while the laws governing behaviour were barbarously repressive.

You were not defined in enlightened artistic and aristocratic circles by the sex of whom you slept with, so long as you didn’t make a scandal, or annoy the wrong people, who would use the law vindictively against you, as the “foul thing”, Lord Queensberry, did to Oscar Wilde in 1895. It is no wonder that the pressure of confused feelings and double lives, and often blackmail, drove so many to suicide.

Lawrence, as a self-made professional society portrait painter, dependent on respectable fee-paying clients for his livelihood, could not take the same risks as the aristocratic bisexual Lord Byron a generation later, and flee abroad to countries where the Napoleonic Penal Code had decriminalized homosexuality.

Intelligent women continued to fall in love with Lawrence for the rest of his life, just as they have loved and married sensitive, handsome gay men since. He made women look good and feel good about themselves. Like a lot of narcissistic people, he was probably a very skilled lover: he made love to women the way he would have liked to have been loved if he was a woman.

Like Byron, he used his sex-appeal to further his career. Sittings with Lawrence felt like seductions; sometimes they were seductions.

Marriage was the predominant career option for women without independent means, but the ones who could afford to love and live with each other openly were left relatively free of salacious and legal interference. Queen Charlotte got the Ladies of Llangollen a pension, which would never have been granted a male couple living together, because the concept of lesbianism as a sexual preference did not exist – while women who married conventionally lost their individual rights to their husbands. Defiance meant risking subsistence, reputation, children.

In 1849, Sarah Siddons’ niece, the actress, abolitionist and feminist Fanny Kemble, was one of the first women to challenge the divorce laws of the United States, but she still had to suffer the loss of custody of her daughters to her slave-owning, philandering husband.

NPG D21827; Cecilia Combe (nÈe Siddons); Sarah Siddons (nÈe Kemble); Charles Kemble; Maria Siddons by Richard James Lane, published by  Joseph Dickinson, after  Sir Thomas LawrenceSarah Siddons and members of her family by Richard James Lane, published by Joseph Dickinson, after Sir Thomas Lawrence, lithograph, published May 1830  © National Portrait Gallery, London.
The print has Lawrence’s sketch of Mrs Siddons as Sigismunda at its centre, a figure of brooding intensity with three of her children and one of her younger brothers revolving like satellites around her.
Clockwise: Cecilia Combe (née Siddons); Sarah Siddons (née Kemble); Sally Siddons (identified sometimes as Maria); George John Siddons; Charles Kemble (the actor)

Mrs Siddons had had a soft spot for Lawrence since their first meeting in Bath when he was a pretty nine year old boy earning a living as a portrait painter and she was establishing her reputation as a leading actress.

The adult Lawrence incited a heightened erotic self-consciousness in nearly every woman he met, regardless of age and type; flirting was his primary means of social interaction with both sexes; a friend who knew him very well called him a male coquet.

At the time he ruptured her daughters’ lives, Mrs Siddons was in her early forties, still slim and splendidly handsome, she was the most famous actress in the country, a conscientious, hard-working mother who needed assurance that she could still be loved as a woman, not just a national monument. Continue reading