The Joker’s Riled

a-riled-beckman.jpg“La chair est triste, helas, et j’ai lu tous les livres.”

When I was younger, those lines of Mallarmé used to haunt me. This was back when I could tolerate Mallarmé’s deliberate obfuscations. These days I take my whisky straight, and prefer the direct approach of AE Housman.

But recently that line resurfaced in my mind, and while I’m quite sure my flesh is sad, I began to wonder if I really had read all the books.

Sure, I tear through non-fiction, and there’s the constant speed-reading of magazines and websites, but I can’t remember the last novel to capture me the way they did in my twenties, when the world was new and each tome seemed to offer greater insight into myself and my path in life.

Finding a suitable work of literature became an exercise in dandyish discrimination in which nothing suited my taste.

Last summer I made it through a few short stories by Fitzgerald, which inspired me to sample 20th-century WASP literature. But I abandoned several stories of John O’Hara after the first page, and while I got further with Louis Auchincloss, I eventually figured that if I wanted to be sedated by gentility, I might as well read Henry James.

Was I really destined, as I alluded to recently in the forum, to simply reread Stendhal’s “Red and the Black,” Balzac’s “Lost Illusions,” and Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education” over and over for the rest of my life?

Then The Los Angeles Opera began its production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” and in preparation I picked up my collegiate copy of Thomas Mann stories, intending to reread a story called “Tristan.” Sure enough, after two pages I came down with an instant case of dandy ennui.

I was going to put the book away, but noticed there was a story in the collection called “The Joker” that I’d never read. As I delved in, it became clear why I’ve been so blasé about reading for the last 10 years:

I’d strayed away from dandy lit.

Yes, “The Joker,” written in 1897, was a hit. So allow me, faithful myrmidons, to tell you a dandy bedtime story.

Our unnamed first-person narrator (let’s call him J) is a young, idle dilettante. After receiving a small inheritance, he embarks on a life of leisure, “doing exactly as I pleased: reading good, elegantly written novels, going to the theater, playing the piano a little.” J admits he is “an absolutely useless individual.” He is also a chronic overspender, who takes an elaborate pleasure in furnishing his apartment, where he plans to live in “carefree independence” and “untroubled, contemplative leisure.”

Since he’s not rich, J spends as little as possible on daily necessities in order to afford aesthetic indulgences, such as opera tickets.

His sense of natural superiority grows as he sees nothing but mediocrity around him:

I liked playing the charmer, though instinctively I was beginning to despise all these prosaic unimaginative people.

… my eyes sparkling with high-spirited mockery and an air of benevolent superiority to everyone.

As presented in Dandyism.net’s definitive guide to the dandy personality, “Anatomy of the Dandy,” sartorial elegance must be part of the formula, and sure enough J is a leader of fashion:

“I wore the best clothes, and even when I was younger and still at school I had noticed how my poorer and shabbiily dressed contemporaries habitually deferred to me and to others like me, treating us with a kind of flattering diffidence which indicated their willing aceptance of us as lords and leaders of fashion.”

Here’s my favorite part about J: He’s classless. As a dandy outcast, J doesn’t fit in any readily formed social sphere. Though educated and a man of leisure, he has no prominent social connections. As for literary cafe society, J says, “I wear clean linen and a decent suit, am I supposed to enjoy sitting with unkempt young men around tables sticky with absinthe, discussing anarchism?”

Simply being a dandy is enough of a tragic flaw, but J’s is more specific. He says at one point, “It was very gratifying to live as a rather alien, effortlessly superior figure among these acquaintances and relations of mine whose limited outlook I found so amusing, but to whom, because I liked to be liked, I behaved with adroit charm.” Herein, no doubt, lies J’s fatal flaw: There is no room in Dandyland for needing to be liked.

And when J becomes infatuated with a young lady, her more appealing suitor throws J’s ordered existence into chaos.

Mann was fond of doppelganger figures, and J’s rival is a shadowy reflection of himself. Dr. Witznagel is a more polished and handsome version of J, at the center of society rather than aloof from it, and possessing “the most incomparable shirtfront I have ever in my life been privileged to see.”

It is dandy-as-reclusive aesthete versus dandy-as-society lion.

Witznagel moves with an air of assurance. When conversation lags, “he would relapse into profound contemplation of both points of his moustache.” When conversation rekindles, Witznagel would “smile a shade patronizingly down at his young neighbor. There could be no doubt that this gentleman rejoiced in a wonderfully happy conceit of himself.”

J. appreciates this in the man, and calls the nonchalance of Witznagel’s movements “a trifle daring.” J writes:

Here clearly was a man who, while perhaps lacking any particular distinction, had irreproachably made his way, and would pursue it to clear and profitable ends; who sheltered in the shade of agreement with all men, and basked in the sunshine of their general approval.

Compared to such a truly superior being, J feels pitiful. And when marriage is announced between Witznagel and J’s secret crush, J feels “doomed.”

I leave you to savor the denouement on your own. But I must caution you that dandy bedtime stories, as in life, usually end with the hero living unhappily ever after.

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11 Responses to “The Joker’s Riled”

  1. scott Says:

    Nice post.
    Much better than yesterday’s offensive post taking low blows at those who speak english as a second (possibly third?) language. ;) low.
    But I like this.

  2. Laguna Beach Trad Says:

    Christian, many thanks for the recommendation. I’ll have to look into it. You and your readers might be interested in the life and works of Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841), a Russian poet and novelist of the Romantic school. ‘A Hero of Our Time’ is perhaps his most famous work. Two of my favourite quotes from that book:

    “I admit that I’m greatly prejudiced against all the blind, squint-eyed, deaf, mute, legless, armless, hunch-backed and so on. I’ve observed that there’s always some strange relationship between the external appearance of a man and his soul, as if with the loss of a limb the soul too has lost some faculty of sensation.”

    “And now, here in this dreary fort, as my mind dwells on the past, I frequently ask myself: why did I not wish to tread the path fate held open to me with a promise of tranquil joys and peace of mind? No, I could never have reconciled myself to such a fate. I am like a mariner born and bred on board a buccaneer brig whose soul has become so used to storm and strife that, if cast ashore, he would weary and fade away, no matter how alluring the shady groves and how bright the gentle sun. All day long he walks up and down the sandy beach, listening to the monotonous roar of the breakers and looking into the hazy distance to catch, in the pale strip dividing the blue deep from the gray clouds, the flash of the long-awaited sail that at first is like the wing of a seagull and then gradually stands out from the white of the spray, as it steadily makes for its lonely anchorage…”

    Dramatic stuff best enjoyed with a tumbler of Scotch, or three.

  3. Christian Says:

    Lermontov is listed in the Canon. I studied it in college and have read it several times since. I like how the Russians combined dandyism with Byronism, in characters like Pechorin and Onegin.

  4. The Nouveau Edwardian Says:

    L.B.T., Mikhail Lermontov is a good choice and someone I also read in college. A wonderful read from a writer who died far too young and who died in some mad Russian duel in which the combatants shoot it out on the edge of a precipice, so if one was shoot, but wounded, he would still die from falling down the cliff. The Russians are a creative bunch of that there is little doubt.

    Christian, why not put one of the new Junta members to work on your recommendation for the Canon?

  5. Miguel Antonio Says:

    I finished reading Stendhal’s ‘Red and the Black’ and I found it offensive and passionate, thus I think it’s not appropiate for an authentic dandy.

  6. Christian Says:

    I finished reading your comment and found being offended by a book not appropriate for an authentic dandy.

  7. Miguel Antonio Says:

    I think psychological descriptions can get very ugly, like Freud’s theories. And Stendhal is very offensive in that respect. So it makes me doubt such bad taste equates with dandyism.

  8. the new edwardian Says:

    Some of the world’s greatest literary achievements are “offensive” and “passionate.” That is one the factors which makes them great. I suppose if you don’t like it then you could join Savonarola over at the Bonfire of the Vanities.

  9. Miguel Antonio Says:

    I think I’m not the only one offended (and bored) by Stendhal’s “Red and The Black”. It also seems very out-dated to be the first modern novel.

  10. Laguna Beach Trad Says:

    I thought Cervantes wrote the ‘first modern novel.’ Christian…?

    BTW, did anyone catch Sebastian ‘Seb’ Horsley’s review of the new Herge (Tintin) bio last December in The Spectator? I just saw it leafing through a back copy and it is excellent.

  11. Miguel Antonio Says:

    Christian, I mean no offense. ‘The Canon’, I find impressive and comprehensive, and I was inclined to buy one of those many options. My choice failed to please me, yet it was very enlightening. I’m looking forward to read some more, maybe I will find something I can identify with.

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