Thursday, December 16, 2010

House of Mirth

In Sister Carrie and The House of Mirth, Dreiser and Wharton created heroines that were the cosmopolitan equivalent of Emma Bovary. Self-hatred and aspiration—in short the desire to escape—were the driving forces behind characters like Lily Bart and Carrie Meeber. The seeds of the urban megalopolis had an effect on the romantic imagination that was equivalent to a drought feeding a brush fire. The industrial revolution, with its vast accumulations of wealth leading to both pleasure palaces and eventually to museums like the Morgan Library and the Frick, created a buffet of prospects that became the palette of self-invention. Decades later, in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, “Brazilian marching powder” would become the drug that fuels ascent, much the way the cocktail of power and money became the drug of choice for Tom Wolfe’s “masters of the universe” in Bonfire of the Vanities. Voyeurism is part of the life of the modern city. As in Rear Window, we all become material witnesses to both crimes and unattainable delights. We are all inadvertent spies as we awaken in the morning and go to sleep at night with views of huge high rises, their facades like little prosceniums in which we witness the despair and exultation of strangers. Ezra Pound famously said, “make it new,” and in a city like New York, the magnetism lies in the perverse notion that there is always something new under the sun that becomes more sought after the more ineluctable it is, and the more it holds the prospect of something that is in danger of being missed. That which doesn’t exist is always more appealing than those people and things whose parameters we know. Said more succinctly, familiarity breeds contempt—an emotion that Anna Karenina also knew something about.

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