Dingy People

Madeleine Sherwood, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Dingy People

Conspicuous!!! Gasped
Mrs. Peniston. She bent
forward, lowering her voice
to mitigate her horror.
“What sort of things do
they say?”
—Edith Wharton,
The House of Mirth

The House of Mirth today is a sad snarky House of Pain and Sorrow—it seems like every Gilded Age goes thru the same thing. The Fall of the House of Usher—the Fall of Wall Street.

It had been a bad summer on Wall Street—where prices rose and fell in accordance with that peculiar law which proves stocks and oil prices to be more sensitive to the allotment of executive power—than many estimable citizens trained to all the advantages of self-government thought.

Even fortunes supposed to be independent of the market either betrayed a secret dependence on it, or suffered from a sympathetic affection—while Style and Fashion sulked in its Palm Springs villa, or came to the Big Apple incognito, the usual plays, operas and ballets discountenanced, snarky informality and quickies becoming the rule.

America amused itself for awhile—playing the dingy Cinderella role like they did during the Depression. But soon Society wearied of The House of Dinge—and welcomed the Fairy Godmother in the shape of a Magic Barracuda powerful enough to turn the shrunken Pumpkin back again into the Golden Coach.

The mere fact that many were growing richer at a time when most people were going bankrupt, losing their homes, paying indecent gas prices, seeing their retirement funds and investments shrinking was calculated to attract envious attention. And many today, like Bry and Rosedale in Wharton’s The House of Mirth, have found the secret of performing this miracle. Rosedale doubled his fortune, buying his newly-finished house from one of the victims of the crash. His stash of old masters and new masters—decorated his Fifth Avenue skyscraper.

New money was being made—while Old money was going down the tubes. The same now—many are prompt to perceive the general Snarkery of this Age. It affords them an unusual opportunity to shine—to set about with patient industry to form a background for a new growing Gilded Age of Glory and Splendor.

What would be a good name for this new age? The Age of Smirk? The Age of Scam? The Age of Snark? The Age of Dinge? Certainly not the Age of Innocence—Wharton’s follow-up novel to The House of Mirth. Some say The Age of Innocence is highly superior—to The House of Mirth. But The House of Mirth sold better than any of Wharton’s books—and the amount of secondaire literature and literary criticism generated by The House of Mirth staggers the imagination.

But nothing really, my dear, staggers the imagination of a Wharton or a James. Little things like getting lost while “motor-flighting” thru America or France or England—or trying to find the King’s Road. Well, that gets bothersome. But Wharton and James were experts about other things—like the characters in their novels. Dingy characters, for example. They don’t get better—they get worse…

Take Grace Stepney the dingy character in The House of Mirth, for example. She’s the epitome of dinge—she was born to be dingy. In Wharton’s novel, Grace Stepney is one of the chief purveyors of dinge—her mind was like a kind of sticky, skanky, gossipy, smarmy, snarky fly-paper. Just waiting to suck up—the latest National Enquirer dirt… When a bit of gossip came her way, Grace Stepney wasn’t very “graceful” about the way she snarked and “stepped” up the gossip to the next higher stage of Snarkdom and skuzzy Dinginess.

While Gerty Farish gushed over Lily—Grace Stepney was inspired—even had a fatal attraction for—anything charming or beautiful about her cousin Lily.

Why? Obviously to alienate Mrs. Peniston in her secluded watchtower above the fashionable torrents of Fifth Avenue traffic and wealthy mansions around Central Park.

Grace Stepney was what people called a “Snark Queen”—she snarked her way into the confidences of Mrs. Peniston—insinuating this and that. Grace was a real shark—when it came to Snark. Snark was a way of getting even—and a way of moving upscale in the Feeding Chain of Snarksville USA.

Grace lived in a dingy boarding house and envied Mrs. Peniston’s wealth and lovely drawing room. Grace was the ugly dingy niece—while Lily was the beautiful charming Cinderella. Grace was vain enough to think that Lily hated her—simple because she was ugly white trash.

But Lily could have cared less—about her dingy little ugly cousin. Lily had better things to do—like have a good time and marry a husband and enjoy the social milieu she was born into.

But Grace had a freckled nose and red swollen eyelids—she had a pinched pained look on her face like Madeleine Sherwood in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She was in a constant state of feeling offended by the world—especially beautiful people of the world like her cousin Lily.

Lily’s natural grace and charm were an insult to Grace’s dingy sensibility and dingy jealousy and dingy attitude toward life. Lily could easily fit into any tableaux vivant—whether Reynold’s Portrait of Mrs. Lloyd or Monte Carlo or Fifth Avenue or Paris. She was a natural actress—able to fit into any situation with style and finesse.

Amongst the Gilded Age nouveau riche—Lily was an amazing icon from a previous Age of Innocence. A haunting Art Nouveau flashback—to another world full of frisson and ancient synchronicity. When each act, deed and thought—was intertexted with the wonder of what was but never could be again.

Selden and Rosedale craved to posses her—to own her and use her and be her. So did the Gilded Age—the dowager queens and ambitious ladies on the way to the top. But Lily was elusive—she could only mimic the Age she was in, never be a part of it. Her flightiness made her vulnerable to the Furies—the skanky snarky dingy Furies that hate Beauty. That despises anything different—anything svelte, stylish and uncontaminated yet by the snarky greed that destroys the soul.

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