Coco Chanel had no precedent in fashion. Her forerunners were the saints who denounced society and attacked the flesh. In her unrelenting seriousness, her allergy to frivolity, her “puritanical blacks” (as she called them), we recognize the Calvin who conquered Paris. The most precious relics this dubious saint left behind are handbags, dresses, and jewelry. More affordable—and only slightly less compelling—is Paul Morand’s The Allure of Chanel. Based on notes of conversations he had with Chanel in 1946, Morand gives us Chanel's observations on friends and rivals like Picasso (“He destroyed, but then he constructed”), Misia Sert (“Misia is to Paris what Kali is to the Hindu pantheon), Diaghalev (“he traveled through Europe in the role of a penniless patron”), Stravinsky (“‘You’re married, Igor,’ I told him . . . and he, very Russian: “She knows I love you. To who else, if not to her, could I confide something so important?”). Here gossip becomes a high art.
In the end, though, this book is tiring. Chanel’s ceaseless vituperation, her need to harangue (“I am never satisfied with myself, so why should I be with others? Besides, I like preaching.”) her pride in her “great sense of modesty,” her insistence that we all don sackcloth, preferably after shaving our heads (like a novice, she marked her arrival in Paris by bobbing her hair) remind me of no one as much as Pope Francis. His ostentatious simplifications, his love of insult, his desire at once to tear down and build up, are all pure Chanel. If his immense popularity finds a precedent in hers, the lesson may be that every decadent society secretly craves reproach . . . especially if it comes from those who make it more comfortable.
Called to Love: Approaching John Paul II's Theology of the Body by Carl Anderson and Jose Granados is an engaging introduction to the Pope's thought on the spiritual and marital meaning of the human body. It insists throughout that the body is a gift from God that opens us up to wonder, both in the natural world and in other human persons—and, ultimately, in God Himself. I'm grateful to them for guiding readers through a worldview in which the body is a blessing from our Creator, not (to list a few potential bodily heresies) a disposable shell, an ineluctable ball-and-chain, or raw material for our ascendant will.
The authors' references throughout to a particular piece of John Paul II's writing were tantalizing enough to lead me to track it down. The Jeweler's Shop is a play written when the future Pope was a young churchman named Karol Wojtyla. It is written in a style he learned from the Rhapsodic Theater, a company that he worked with in the underground theater scene of Nazi-occupied Krakow. Absorbing the minimalist stylings of those secret performances, The Jeweler's Shop takes the form of free verse monologues around the theme of marriage, each act focusing on a different couple. Here is one of the passages Anderson and Granados quoted in Called to Love that made me realize I needed to read this play. In it, a woman named Anna, who is unhappy in marriage, tries to return her ring to the jeweler, claiming her husband is dead. Anna recounts what happened:
The jeweler examined the workmanship, weighed the ring
for a long time in his fingers and looked
into my eyes. For a while he was reading
the date of our wedding
engraved inside the ring.
Again he looked into my eyes, put the ring on the scales . . .
then said, “This ring does not weigh anything,
the needle does not move from zero
and I cannot make it show
even a milligram.
Your husband must be alive—
in which case neither of your rings, taken separately,
will weigh anything—only both together will register.
My jeweler's scales
have this peculiarity
that they weigh not the metal
but man's entire being and fate.”
Ashamed, I took the ring back
and left the shop without a word.
In December I finished a month-long marathon read of Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson. For Caro, Johnson represents a shift that began under Franklin Roosevelt, toward a new populism in American politics, driven by a combination of emerging Texas oil and natural gas tycoons, billionaire government contractors, and the high-tech political campaigns they were able to fund. Johnson was one of the the first to harness these forces for the advancement of the Democratic Party on a national scale.
Caro's view of Johnson is cynical in the extreme (he comes across mostly as a kind of monomaniacal sociopath), but over the course of four volumes and several thousand pages I found myself almost admiring the man, as an icon of the strengths and weaknesses of Humean political philosophy. “Power is where power goes,” Johnson liked to say, and in a republic this means that men who wish to attract the power of the electorate and its representatives need to work the hardest to chart a path around the fears and interests of the multitude. Johnson shines in this role, especially in his Senate years, when he became the broker of the first substantive compromise on Civil Rights since the end of Reconstruction in the 1870s.
Ironically, his rise also sounded the death knell for an earlier era in America, in which statesmanship and republican values could still sometimes compete with the cynical ambition of demagogues. Johnson fulfills Hume's prediction that constitutional democracies could harness private interests in service of the common good, but Caro also shows us the devastation, both public and private, which is wreaked by wicked men as they struggle for power. One is left amazed that the political system directed Johnson's energies toward good works, but also wary of the legacy he left, in which American politics would be dominated more than ever by publicists, soundbytes, and vast sums of money.
What makes the books so gripping is not primarily their treatment of power politics, but the way Caro saturates them with anecdotes from Johnson's life. He was fortunate that LBJ died so soon after leaving office, making it possible for the men and women who participated in his rise to power to speak frankly about his habits while the memory of their years with him was still fresh. Caro's storytelling has a Homeric flair to it—he sprinkles each volume with little epithets and repeated stories that hammer major themes of Johnson's life into the reader's memory, making the process of reading almost participatory. After two or three thousand pages of Caro's highly oral writing, one finds oneself chanting along as he repeats the classic anecdotes and mottos, and yearning, in the end, for the fifth and final volume, which will complete this epic chronicle of a 20th century political genius.
I have been reading a book of Kay Ryan's new and selected poems called The Best of It. Kay Ryan was the United States Poet Laureate from 2008-2010 and the book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Certainly there's a lot that I don't care for—when misdirected, I would say that the strength of her poetry, its directness and urgency and economy, leaves one asking, “So what?”—but when she's on, she's on. She's certainly doing something new in poetry. Here are two examples:
Say it Straight:
What we would
and what we can say
stray as in a dream;
a certain mad rectitude
creeps in, by which
something simple as an apple
can never be determined
The crisp act is deferred,
the object blurred by scruples.
The more we cherish clarity
in principle, the more it is
impossible. Will enamel
ever strike the fruit?
Will Eve grow wild and forgivable?
For it's unlovable
to talk too long with snakes,
whose reasons fork
the more the more
Stars of Bethlehems:
Throughout the sky
there are cinders
black as the night.
These are unborn stars
awaiting their source of light.
The night is gritty
with things to hit,
go on in a city
or the outskirts of it.
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