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Archive for August 16th, 2005

Marginal Revolution

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Is it only a coincidence that just as Britain had touched bottom and was about to emerge from the Great Depression (the first Great Depression, from 1873 ’till the mid-90s), Oscar Wilde would write his preface to Dorian Gray?

It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors…
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admiires it intensely…

A depression that taught the west the new rules of the game, the fact that from here on in economic crises would not arise from production failures, from lack, but rather from surplus, from a crisis of demand. *
This denigration of the useful, like society’s secret safety valve speaking through the artist here… In Wilde, the nineteenth century’s crisis of economic overproduction intersects its literary overproduction.
Think, for instance, of the extreme tediousness Chapter XI, when we go through Dorian’s belongings one by one by one by one:

And so he would now study perfumes and the secrets of their manufacture, distilling heavily scented oils and burning odorous gums from the East. He saw that there was no mood of the mind that had not its counterpart in the sensuous life, and set himself to discover their true relations, wondering what there was in frankincense that made one mystical, and in ambergris that stirred one’s passions, and in violets that woke the memory of dead romances, and in musk that troubled the brain, and in champak that stained the imagination; and seeking often to elaborate a real psychology of perfumes, and to estimate the several influences of sweet-smelling roots and scented, pollen-laden flowers; of aromatic balms and of dark and fragrant woods; of spikenard, that sickens; of hovenia, that makes men mad; and of aloes, that are said to be able to expel melancholy from the soul.
   At another time he devoted himself entirely to music, and in a long latticed room, with a vermilion-and-gold ceiling and walls of olive-green lacquer, he used to give curious concerts in which mad gipsies tore wild music from little zithers, or grave, yellow-shawled Tunisians plucked at the strained strings of monstrous lutes, while grinning Negroes beat monotonously upon copper drums and, crouching upon scarlet mats, slim turbaned Indians blew through long pipes of reed or brass and charmed…

And so on… The commodity and the tedium of the commodity, the failure of our desire to live up to the needs of the world…
What Wilde learned from Stephenson’s Jekyll and Hyde: We each need two selves nowadays just to keep up with the demand for demand…
* Of course, there is no such thing as a “crisis of demand,” any more than there are natural famines

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August 16, 2005 at 11:02 am

Posted in literature