In the spiritual suburbia whose probable attitudes to various emotional predicaments I imagine in these diaries, men tend to pride themselves on their rationalism and are much less interested in the alchemy of feeling than women, as shown by audience-share breakdowns of soap operas and by the proportion of romantic subject-matter in women’s magazines. “Love,” as the automobile tycoon Gianni Agnelli once put it between snorts of coke, “is something that fascinates housemaids.” By contrast, what I always thought fascinated housemaids was automobiles, though, of course, these are mostly driven by chauffeurs, who are men.
But again, it may be remembered that, however bleak and provincial was the London suburb of establishmentarian sentiment whose men and women came up for the evening to mill about in the pubs of Soho and the wine bars of Bloomsbury, it was as nothing compared to where the American metropolis was heading. It was heading for a future where love did not exist at all, not even in the conditional form analogous to a religious tradition, any more than did beauty, even in the conditional form of a Hollywood screen goddess.
Remember an actress called Lana Turner? Let me write the name again, this time in the monumental style of an ancient lapidary inscription, like this: LANA TURNER. Well, Miss Turner had a rather large nose—not by any means enormous, but a little too fleshy for her delicate face. Being a star, however, she managed, by the way she moved, dressed, spoke, and acted, to leave a lasting impress of her beauty on a generation as if she were a gem intaglio and they were sealing wax. Now, for her to have succeeded, people had to believe in her uniqueness, which could only be defined in the context of the culture which they had in common with her, a culture that was itself founded on belief: belief in the immortality of the soul, belief in the hierarchy of virtue, belief in inborn distinctions among individuals, belief that heaven is heaven and earth is earth.
They had to believe in her uniqueness, furthermore, at the expense of other people’s. Thinking that Lana Turner is special in her way, but so is everybody else special in one way or another, was not what thinking that Lana Turner is a star was all about. They had to look at Lana Turner and whisper, like a nun saying the rosary, credo there is beauty, credo there is salvation, credo there is nobody like her nor ever shall be, amen. Her nose was not, as it were, in the picture. Thus, while the Gospels have nothing to say about the physical appearance of Jesus, it would be unchristian to picture him as short, fat, and balding, or with a nose, Semitic or otherwise, out of harmony with every other feature of hagiographic perfection.
Without a culture broadly benevolent to belief, beauty is no longer a manifest idea, a votive image, a miraculous icon. When children grow up, they stop believing in Santa Claus, because, on the whole, the society of grown-ups does not support the belief in his existence. When Kirov was killed, Russians believed Stalin’s explanation that he had been shot by a ghost, but when Stalin died and there was an about-face, they changed their mind. Similarly, when Kennedy was assassinated, Americans accepted the tooth-fairy theory of the Warren Commission Report, though, in the absence of a political culture to sustain their belief with electric shocks to the testicles, by and by they came round to disbelieving it. Thus dominant cultures play yo-yo with the hearts of men, and, if the stoutest among them are told loudly enough that there is no such thing as a woman’s beauty, it does not always require the threat of physical pain to make them jump in agreement.
Love is likewise a cultural construct, a point Orwell drives home in the epigraph to Keep the Aspidistra Flying by travestying the famous verse from Corinthians: “Money suffereth long, and is kind.” Money is love by another, futurist name, and it is money, the love which a culture hostile to reality has renamed, reduced to a single dimension and rendered an abstraction, that now beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Even more symptomatically, his Edwardian childhood’s Sunday-school memory of “an extraordinary rigmarole about people with names like Shimei and Nebuchadnezzar and Ahithophel and Hashbadada” seems more real to the middle-aged protagonist of Coming Up for Air than a traffic jam in the Strand, as he realizes that “it was as though it was back in 1900 that I’d been breathing real air.”
In some ways, the future has long been more predictable than most prophets cared to admit. Thus, in his conquest of nature, for instance, man had been moving from sabre-toothed tigers to tigers, from windmills to electricity, from artillery shells to neutron bombs, from bacteria to viruses—in short, from the more visible or tangible to the less visible and concrete; which is to say, unambiguously toward abstraction. Political progress, from an aristocracy of the blood to a person or persons unknown; social progress, from gold florins to paper notes; and even artistic progress, from Renaissance verisimilitude to digital illusionism, had all followed in the same direction. It would seem that reality, in nature as in nurture, had been heading for the concentration camp for a long time.
Foolish to suppose, then, that beauty would escape transportation to the north, any more than those three conspicuously Chekhovian sisters from the First Epistle to the Corinthians would be left unnoticed on the station platform. They were useless or harmful anachronisms, old fuddy-duddies and musty rolls of ancient parchment, which the utopia did not wish to waste its energies metabolizing, either intellectually or socially. In particular, the only kind of faith taken au grand sérieux and bolstered by the culture of futurism was faith in the inevitable triumph of its utopia, a kind of green crescent flying over the ruins of Alexandria of the Ptolemies.
All that remained in the wake of destruction were the names, retaining some of their fragrance like wrinkled winter apples. LIBRARY. MIRACLE. LANA TURNER.