I saw the film Age of Innocence a while back and loved it. Controversial opinion alert! This is Scorsese’s best film.
I’ve been hoping to read the Edith Wharton novel on which the movie is based and finally got around to it this past week. It is a fantastic read and there is much to discuss, but what interests me the most is the way in which each of the two books making up the novel begin at the Opera.
In Wharton’s mind, 19th century New York City society is nothing more than an elaborate play. The setting may be a concert hall, but the real dramatic performance is taking place offstage where the upper class gaze at each other through binoculars as they act out vignettes in private boxes. Each person is not so much an authentic human being but, rather, a created character molded by societal expectations. The dictates of form and etiquette are faithfully observed, each small deviation speaking worlds of meaning. True opinion is tirelessly obscured and those who stumble in even the most minor way are excoriated.
Wharton herself was raised in such a society and has since made her escape. Clearly, she sees in her upbringing both good and ill. At times, societal pressure has a civilizing effect, forcing responsibility, for instance, on Newland Archer to honor his commitment to May as well as exerting the conditions by which he is enabled to subvert his own desires for the good of his children. And yet, Wharton herself escaped such conditions and sees many of the formal expectations as artificial and harmful. There are those, such as the Countess Olenska, for whom mercy and forgiveness (if indeed this is what should even be required for her situation) are out of the question. She is marginalized, pressured to resubmit herself to an abusive husband, and ultimately, firmly but oh so politely escorted out of New York for the continent never to return.
In his Poetics, Aristotle defines drama as mimesis, an imitation of nature. As practiced by human beings, imitation has a moral purpose and for this reason we understand that it is ordered to displaying either goodness or badness. Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type, it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse. The artist actually contributes to the shape of the narrative and has an independent, moral voice. This is to say that he is not filling the role of journalist. The moral instinct is distinctly human, and our drive to create drama (Aristotle calls it poetry) is written into human nature.
Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. Herein lies both the blessing and the curse. We are a mixture of goodness and badness. It follows that drama will highlight both aspects, what Aristotle calls Comedy and Tragedy. The blessing is the ability of the artist, like Wharton, to praise the good and question the bad. The curse is the ability of a skilled artist to confuse and invert the two.
Aristotle attempts to tame drama by insisting on formal elements. Here he departs from Plato, who sees not the potential but the danger. In Plato’s ideal republic, poets are treated with caution and many of them are not welcome. They are forced to justify their existence. Why? Artists have the power to sway men to false belief through an appeal to the emotions. A drama can distort reality through the skill of the writer and actors, clandestinely departing from nature and corrupting an unwitting audience. In the Republic, Socrates elaborates that a drama is dangerous because it, even though fiction, produces very real emotional reactions. It is capable of seducing us away from reality and thus, if it is to remain a part of culture, must prove that it is being honest. Wharton maintains that we view the formal structures of our societal interactions in a similar manner. These formalities are a kind of drama and must always seek the truth of things and thus be in service of the human being.
Another author who makes use of the dramatic arts as analogy is Jane Austen. In much of her work she is concerned to show the difference between superficial, false impressions and the often very different underlying reality. It’s right there in the titles: Pride and Prejudice, or Sense and Sensibility. Appearances are often false and the emotions misleading. This is no less the case in Mansfield Park, the heroine of which is the misunderstood Fanny Price. Fanny, it is said, is a character who appeals to precisely one person—Jane Austen. Everybody else hates her (I kind of like her, so now there are two of us). She is too…good. My theory is that we are all simply ashamed in comparison. The objections are elaborated by CS Lewis’s Screwtape, who says that Fanny is,
a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouselike, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss … A two-faced little cheat (I know the sort) …Filthy, insipid little prude!
Appearances are deceiving, though, and Fanny is no prude. Perhaps we think her so because we don’t understand her motivations (What I mean to say is that I am often primarily motivated by peer pressure and so find those who are not to be inscrutable). Rather, let us say that she is virtuous. When her cousins embark on an amateur production of a play, she disapproves not because she is an uptight puritan but because she knows it will upset her uncle Sir Thomas, for, “His sense of decorum is strict”. The play, based upon Lovers’ Vows, is an opportunity to go against the grain of reality. By the acting of it, the participants are able to make-believe romances and engage in illicit flirtation. It turns out that, in Mansfield Park, the play is a prophetic instrument. It seeps into the formal social structure of the group itself, imposes a false narrative, and causes lasting unhappiness. Fanny seems prudish and odd only because she resists the false narrative that is cast by the play. Instead, she stays true to reality and in the end is proven to have chosen the more felicitous path.
The play itself, we might note, is prophetic in the sense that it begins to bend reality around it like a black hole bends light. The play has little value of its own but is able to distort the outlook of those who participate. The lives of those around Fanny do not end happily, in part because the play has encouraged a false perspective of the moral life. Subsequently, happiness is sought in all the wrong places.
There is great power in art. The artist has the ability on the one hand to produce that which leads to true beauty and on the other to seduce the unwary. A robust culture will produce all manner of art: visual, song, poetry, drama…we need not shy away and eject them from our perfect republic as Plato would seem to have it, but beautiful art is always in service of humankind, an explication of goodness, and always maintaining an honest even if challenging moral perspective.
I suppose that as this essay winds down it is morphing into a sort of encouragement wrapped up in a warning to Catholic artists. You are needed. However, what we need is not a false aesthetic movement that mimics the distorted Lover’s Vows of our day. It seems to me that this is precisely the sort of stuff that both Wharton and Austen critique. We very much need to continue developing a true, challenging, beautiful, and living tradition of art in the Church. One that, even if at first glance is strange or unexpected, reveals itself to the inquisitive, thoughtful, wonderful, and ever opening up on the endless vistas that have been divinely stretched through all of creation, including most particularly within the human soul.