Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Beau Monde

"Ideally I would have been born in the Rococo Era":

James H. Johnson's prose reminds me of why I enjoy reading histories:

These were the years of sensibility in France, when to feel at all was to feel passionately, and to show it in public de rigueur. Tears, sanglots, crises, palpitations, bouleversements, convulsions and frissons of every sort agitated hearts in the 1770s (often with uncanny regularity, as with one acquaintance of Mme de Genlis who managed to have a fainting spell from an excess of sensibility twice weekly, just after guests had arrived for her salon). To open the soul to delicious sentiments was for these cultivated aristocrats the meaning of Rousseau's challenge to live simply and honestly, and Gluck more than any other composer encouraged precisely this.

(Listening in Paris, p. 65)

As for Johnson's argument (commenting on an argument as it unfolds is de rigueur–no, really!) he has shown that the sensibility of Parisian opera goers in the 1770's differed from the sensibility of Parisian opera goers in the 1740's, if indifference can be called a sensibility. This difference in sensibilities is a curious fact. What sort of phenomenon is a dominant sensibility that it can be so easily overthrown, without anybody losing their head? What is the power of social dominance in general? I've already indicated my feeling that with regard to music in particular a dominant taste never covers everything, never applies to everybody in every situtation. Johnson takes the position that before a way of hearing could be fully experienced (what is a less than full experience, btw?) it must be thinkable (p. 41). With that as a premise, and a sufficiently stringent definition of thought, one could blot out much of human history, or, conversely, break it down into narratable pieces. How much life takes place outside the beau monde? I feel that I have journeyed through many beaux mondes, so I am extremely hesitent to allow that the beau monde covers all of life. Have I ever been a place where the beau monde had absolutely no reach? Well, there are always memories of adolescence. Is a history of social dominance essentially adolescent? Perhaps aesthetics is predominantly adolescent. Adolescent as the subject of the beau monde may be, as with Coppola's Marie Antoinette, a terror waits on the horizon, and terror has its serious defenders. Just because one needn't lose one's head doesn't mean one won't. We'll see how Johnson navigates those waters in a later post.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 9:59 AM.


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