02 February 2014


My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

Throughout The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton slips in frequent asides about New York and the changing face of the metropolis in the late nineteenth century. Hers was a New York characterized by a certain xenophobia and an old-world disinclination to change or alter tradition, clothed as it was in the faux-embrace of a newly emergent modern and multicultural sensibility. Wharton writes in cutting, incisive prose: “In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.” 

Our cities are much like Wharton’s New York. In a world that overtly celebrates difference and curiosity, otherness continues to produce isolation with almost immediate effect. Our cultural core does not vary very much across generations; discourse is welcome, but actual change is troublesome. Back to Wharton: “[…] what was or was not ‘the thing’ played a part as important in Newland Archer’s New York as the inscrutable totem terrors that had ruled the destinies of his forefathers thousands of years ago.”

If Wharton’s intent was to capture a certain place in a certain moment, she certainly accomplished this. But her portrait of the city has far-reaching import that she may never have dreamed of. It quickly and deftly    rounds up all the troubles that collar every city in every moment of time: the ignominy of expectation, the ungovernable hypocrisy of peerage, the simulation of respectability, pre-defined and established, in all manner of things. For Wharton, there existed in New York a very specific moral crisis that was wedded closely to the problem of appearances: “It was the old New York way of taking life ‘without effusion of blood’: the way of people who dreaded scandal more than disease, who placed decency above courage, and who considered that nothing was more ill-bred than ‘scenes,’ except the behaviour of those who gave rise to them.” But this is also the very notion that drives the rhetoric of every spatially defined cultural milieu – the urban metropolis, friendly society, the workplace, family, even the internet.

Within each unique subculture, there is a dangerous predication that defines itself as good taste and good behavior and even sheer goodness. These notions are perilous because they have the potential to morph into homogeneity, which is hazardous to identity at its very worst and frightfully boring at its best. It gives itself to days minutely and beautifully choreographed, conversations eloquently scripted, costumes intricately designed, settings that are methodically laid out, all disappearing into a finely crafted and closely regulated bubble of uniformity and equilibrium.

The Age of Innocence, though, flirts provocatively with otherness. This is a novel of manners unlike any other, for it holds within its pages characters who are struggling to get out, who are rejected by the society that created them, but who do not particularly seem to object very much to the rejection. Our cities simmer with codes to be followed, with rules of engagement, statutes for negotiation. And if these codes are not followed or, in some cases, not even deciphered, these are cities fully capable of swallowing one up whole, masticating one’s errant ways and spitting them out into its periphery, which crawls, already, with the merry band of misfits who have found their chewed selves edged out into this very space. This redeems our world quickly enough, its largeness means that one is never wholly alone, never the only one lost.

The miserable thing, though, is how easy it is to fall into these patterns and nestle comfortably into the warm-hearted shoulder of acceptance. All that needs to be done is fall in line, and it isn’t that hard or even that problematic, really, so why not do it. At one point in Wharton’s marvelous book, Ellen Olenska softly says, “The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!” 

Wharton’s Ellen – like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Fowles’ Sarah Woodruff or Kundera’s Sabine or Yates’ April Wheeler – rejects society even as society rejects her. Her early concerns of fitting in are rooted out swiftly. Cleverly, Wharton sidesteps these moments and shows us, instead, Newland Archer’s world, the easier world, neatly arranged, a polite family portrait, a tableau of contentment, almost as if to say, here you are, look how easy, but daring us, at the same time, to step across the line and see what could have been.

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