15 June 2009

My dear, it was too, too sick-making!

And here is where a sense of history comes in handy: I stayed up too late last night finishing D.J. Taylor's marvelous history Bright Young People, about the eponymous "set" that ruled Mayfair in the 20s, immortalized (to me, at least) in Evelyn Waugh's gloriously vicious and viciously glorious novel Vile Bodies. Reading about these indolent, pathologically pleasure-seeking personalities, fond of drink, pranks (they once mounted an exhibition of paintings by "Bruno Hat," a completely fictitious modernist painter) and fancy dress parties (the Circus Party, the Second Childhood Party, the Impersonation Party), happily mixing high and low culture, openly tolerant of homosexuality: well, they're terribly familiar, is what they are. They're ancestral hipsters. How different is the Zombie Prom I went to in February from the Mozart Party--my friends and I killing a bottle of champagne in the next doorway over from the club, taking pictures all the while; they, debouching from the fete in the wee hours, pausing for snapshots of their periwigged and flounced crowd posing with a nonplussed road crew fixing a pothole in Piccadilly. Their symbiotic relationship with the gossip columns smacks of Facebook's relentless self-promotion. Even their eventual mainstreaming echoes modern laments: "Like many a youth movement," Taylor writes, "they began unobtrusively, found themselves seized upon by a grateful media and were rapidly converted into a stylized and decadent version of their original form. Their great days were over by 1929: thereafter the stunts tended to be stage-managed, the entertainments pallid imitations of what had gone before, the territory colonized by younger acolytes."

There's a viewpoint which sees these commonalities and says, "See? You think you're being so original, but it's all been done." Me, I think it's great. I feel plugged into past subcultures in the same way that, baking a cake from scratch or knitting a sock, I'm part of an ancient feminine domestic tradition; or reading Homer I'm sharing a narrative experience with millenia of scholars and storytellers.

And Taylor taught me three new words! Epicene, androgynous; ukase, decree (from Russian, a pronouncement by the tsar that had the force of law); echt, from the German for genuine (which I should have remembered from that line from The Waste Land: "Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt Deutsch"). Great, great book.

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