Wednesday, October 08, 2003
The White Moth
Athens on the wall and the fall in Rome on the routes straight through Byzantium and crumbling cakes in Papal States.
But good faces evoke good artists - and conversely a decline of portraiture usually means a decline of the face, a theory which can now be illustrated by photographs in the daily papers.
Or, the force of something abject like worship.
The portal to the soul or the shivering, snivelling, snide shit hiding inside, the heretic and the hermit, the hoarder, also one not fooled by the trials and lies of heroism, which is paradoxically heroic, in open refutation of the remnants of courtly love and law. No, that's wrong, there's nothing left to refute, language slips into slang, jargon and profanity, meshwork, crossdialect, we'll say anything in front of anyone, break a sentence, start a paragraph at any point, say the worst, and then, what's worse, there is no sex, no violence, no symbol, simile or metaphor, there is just the block of code, and aimless contempt, or lack of thought, or the filtered remains, flaccid and multifunctional.
I don't want to have to break out of code to explain what I'm trying to say or, more to the point, I don't want to have to decode to make things clear, or if we are going to be clear, let's be crystal clear. Or: let us not be as clear as glass, unless you mean cut-glass or frosted glass.
Back into my cave, with my lovely tail, to learn to breath fire, to burn the sand, blacken my boring walls, condemn the elements, and scale the skies.
All damage, image and desire, wrecks and burnouts clung to, a burning beauty, incandescent, admired behind a double-glaze of glass, a dire detachment. As you lean towards this fused bulb, a blood-struck grey moth, you learn that love is illegitimate, the eminence of idols a fraud. You're not its victim: but the Object, it has lost control.
Barbara kept her cocaine in a golden casket on the grand piano; her opium was the finest grade Benares blend...She boasted of never wasting more than two hours on sleep a night - she had "better things to do." She did, indeed, have lovers by the dozens - "like roses" she said...The film titles of "Too Beautiful" Barbara read like a litany: Souls for Sale, Strangers of the Night, The White Moth. Her last incarnation as a femme fatale was in The Heart of a Siren. Her own heart was stopped soon after by a suicidal OD. The studio blamed her death on "too rigorous dieting".
Faith is usually flawed, but fear can be divine. Belief is a kind of brute force, certainty consolidated like a castle wall. But doubt is tender, understands the temporal, follows the seasons and climes, embarks on the nomadic quest, the search for rhythm in constant change. Both lay claim to instinct: one petrifies the most prominent instinct whatever the cost; the other teases apart and intertwines every instinct that arises, whether they compliment or contradict. The fickle fan knows more than the devout worshiper.
Early Hollywood studio stars, they're terrified little animals. Given everything including the knowledge that it's more delicate, even, than their own egos. And that they are on the receiving end of mass, inhuman adulation that can only remove them from the world, isolate them further inside or amongst themselves, on the Californian hills or in San Fran bolt-holes. Between each glittering party, each orgy or drug binge inside the splendor of black marble, black leather and tigerskin rooms, immersed in opulence and extravagance unrivaled (not unprecedented), between the high-profile trysts, beyond the wardrobe bill, the Kissel Convertible and canary-yellow Pierce Arrow, the vast yacht and the vintage cruiser, beyond this there is
there is always a failure, a suicide. Maybe as perfect as any film role. Certainly the New World aristocracy can never forget them. Like Gwili Andre, whose noble, sculpted beauty failed to launch a legend, public and critical indifference cut so deep that she burned herself to death on a pyre of her own press clippings. Or Peg Entwistle, diving to doom from the D of the Hollywood sign. These stars and starlets played the best roles in their real lives, in courtrooms, or on death beds. Someone escapes a former family life with all its duties and constraints, swaps identity, becomes a famous director, also lothario, and is then murdered. A silent movie actress does not survive the double disaster of talkies and the depression, ends her life in total obscurity, driving New York cabs.
Catherine Emmerich was no chemist of the spiritual being, like Teresa; she had nothing to do with our interior life; in her book she forgot herself, and left us on one side, for she saw only Jesus crucified, and wished only to show the stages of His agony, and to leave marked on her pages, as on the veil of Veronica, the imprint of the Holy Face.
At the Court of Urbino we learnt good manners. We refined a fluent placidity. No longer wild knights with a distinct and deranged chivalry, laying down our lives and sacrificing happiness for something impossible, absurd. Instead, propriety, grace, justice, ease, and learning. If there was an echo of the knight's romance, it would be tempered or transcended by a perfection and distance that relates more to Plato than the Gothic. There's little Raphael running between the courtier's noble legs! To become an individual - this jewel redisvovered - one must learn to behave correctly. According to a textbook that sets fluid laws (Castiglione's Courtier) as yet untrapped by a social corset, but inevitably leading, via Walter Pater and the Victorian moralists, to Wilde vs Victorianism itself (both implicated in each other, anyway, inseparable, and mutually undermining). Somewhere in the twilight potters and poses Huysmans, bitterly decrying his own era, struggling back to a Medieval apex before reason, before the Urbino whitewash, a convoluted journey into the depths of untouchable depravity (Gilles de Rais) and the Black Mass, and more dazzling ritual still, sacrifice, self-immolation and deification, the Catholic saints (Teresa, Bonaventure, Angela of Foligno, Catherine Emmerich). At the Court of Urbino we learnt good manners, the details of this specific origin somewhat obscured, or displaced, here we learnt to live out the heat in the cold placidity of marble and libraries, perfect rooms, so light and airy. The depository of order.
I did not weep, so much of stone had I become within.
Leonardo discovered a centenarian in a hospital in Florence, and waited gleefully for his demise so that he could examine his veins.
In the cave I feel the fierce heat of the flame I expel, with each exhalation it becomes stronger, I refine my own fire. In flashes I see walls for the first time, they are unpainted, and I was promised paintings. My forebears let me down, in a way lied. Or maybe it was me, I just misunderstood them. In all this effort towards perfection, so I could understand what was expected of me, I discover that the truth and the beauty I was taught to expect, in effect, does not exist. At least, not in the way I expected. So perhaps they intended a lesson beyond my expectations, something that says, do not rely on the glory we have attained, it is fleeting and will disappear. You must begin again, create yourself, and begin creating.
The light comes through always, and light becomes an obsession, eventually. For Vermeer, for Turner, the Impressionists, Descartes too, and Spinoza, the famous lensmaker, there is nothing but light. Light means that we exist; it is the only touchstone (stone! light!). For Vermeer this is something direct, a direct challenge to art, and expression. Like Descartes (refraction), Newton (corpuscular theory), and Huygens (wave theory), Vermeer studies light with precision and exactitude (it was rumored that he used a camera obscura for his compositions). Light floods, but means existence, articulates contours and angles. Light means: your face, in the right light. The very and only secret of beauty, now, as we understand it, a face in the right light. Cannot be touched, or spoiled. So, drowned in light, everything works! Actually, also, too, freeze, stop movement, and moments, yes, stop the movement of time. Then: everything is perfect. The projector feeds on light; the cheeks burst and the eyes bloom. All of life is illumination, but, when you understand the nature of light, you realise that colours don't exist.
Nature redoubled, never doubted, nature as concept and ideal, lasted too long, didn't outlast the face, projected on a vast screen. Left with something more than nature: immaculate capture, a cold image, the static mystery of beauty. Once more the terror of worship: tragedy, trauma, transcendence. As impersonal as love. I could never escape that scene, it would, will, always capture more than the event and the experience. Incredulity is the only real response to the creative muse, and should translate into popular reaction. And always, if successful, does. There we are, as we imagined, and dreamed, as we were, and could only be.
Hollywood killed me
And what strange saints these are, after all, with their confusion and calamity, set at a pitch that is, after all, funny, sad, tragic, immaculate. These cheap tarts and European benders, foxy hotties and Mr Kink of All Times. Clara Bow and her football team and her "Love Balm" Romance. The excised footage of Erich von Stronheim's real orgy scenes. The certain extravagance of Gloria Swanson, correctly accumulating luxury throughout the Great Depression. The addictions of Barbara La Marr, and delicate Alma Rubens - nobody expected that! - squandered, and on the junk. Wally Reid's dying arc, morphine-fixed, Studio fixed, dead in a padded cell, age 30. Renaissance gem and jewel Rudolph Valentino, in his Falcon Lair, with his lesbian wives. The M.G.M conspiracy that destroyed John Gilbert, patron saint of Silent Movie corpses. Louise Brooks behind a Macy's counter, Mae Murray (former millionairess, Princess Mdivani) picked up by New York cops on a Central Park bench and charged with vagrancy. Pola Negri in dramatic black, then lost. Clara Bow and Buster Keaton in "the sanitarium". Mary Astor's diaries, splashed over the papers, into adultery folklore: "Ah desert night - with George's body plunging into mine, naked under the stairs." 'In Like' Flynn. The hot shower of Mae West's hardcore mouth. Frances Farmer, on fire, the fight for freedom a route straight to insulin shock treatment and the State Asylum. Tarzan-fucker Lupe Velez's suicide, arranged in great detail, her eyes on the following day's headlines. Marilyn's dreamy, dreary spiral. Garbo's heroic isolation.
Somehow the immortal are very fragile. It's a race to the depths, then to be redeemed. Pitted against life, the pitiable, radiant extremes. Clinging to the promise of history. Mourn me, my face.
Hollywood Babylon Kenneth Anger
Civilisation Kenneth Clarke