Friday, April 8, 2011

The Age of Innocence (and Anxiety)

"I just wasn't made for this world, but I wouldn't like to meet someone who was."
--Of Montreal

I'm always so shocked when I enjoy a "classic" novel. I guess I'm always expecting them to be unbearably dull. Admittedly, a lot of them are, especially when you're forced to read them in high school. But when I finished The Age of Innocence (Edith Wharton, 1920), I felt significant sadness. To me, this doesn't just mean the book was "good", but that the world-building was impeccable. When I finished the book and left its world, there was a sense of loss.

[Image: Daniel Day-Lewis played Newland Archer in the film adaptation. I would have done the casting very differently, going much younger with all the main characters. But meh.]

The Age of Innocence is about Newland Archer and his various First World Problems. He's a young man living in New York City's high society in the late 1800s. While he's engaged to a "respectable" girl, he falls in love with a "fallen woman", i.e., one who fled her abusive husband. Their love affair was barely an "affair" at all, consisting of just a few brief conversations and a lot of fantasy. But I was surprised by how intrigued I was with the social milieu. While it was hard to dredge up much sympathy for these people's problems, Wharton's descriptions intrigued me anyway. The people are stuffy and boring, but Wharton gets into their heads in a way I found really remarkable. The characters are the country's most privileged people, but they also seemed very fragile, existing in a permanent state of social anxiety. They exhibited extreme distress and paranoia over "trivial" matters like wearing the wrong dress or being uninvited to a dinner. It was oddly comforting to me. Maybe in 100 years, our own social concerns-- "How long do I wait to e-mail her?"..."Hmm, should I 'like' his 'I'm single' Facebook update?" will seem just as silly.

Had the Age of Innocence characters lived today, they might be diagnosed with a variety of conditions. Check out these traits of Victorian-era socialites, which map over Asperger's:
  • Rigid thinking
  • Obsession with a narrow range of topics
  • Focus on minute details
  • Adherence to arbitrary routines
  • Continuous need for structure
(I'm not sure where I'm going with this, aside from pointing out that it helps to demonstrate the futility of viewing autistic people as somehow apart from "us", whoever that is.) Newland and I share some of these traits, but also long for change (kind of like my theory of the Anglophile). Although I can pass as neurotypical, sometimes I feel like the stereotypical autistic, trapped inside my own mind. But isn't that where Newland was also trapped, more than just within his society? While he seems capable of imagining some sort of life outside his little world, he has no idea how to enact such a life, apart from strangely dramatic and sudden measures.

At its heart, the book seems to be about theoretical vs. actual opportunity, something that is timely for me. What dreams do we choose to pursue, and which do we let die? What is reality and what is truly fantasy? I don't know if today's culture, with all our additional freedoms, makes that question any easier. Apparently it's a dilemma that has been bothering Americans for some time now. Same exact theme, with a very different conclusion, set in the 20th century:

[Image: The novel Revolutionary Road]


Lynn said...

I still think I should read Age of Innocence and still refuse to do so because I resent Ethan Frome. I will admit you have piqued my curiosity though . . .

I found Nightingale Wood an interesting read for a similar reason. It's one of the only books from that era that I can think of that treats sex and relationships as just a thing that people can go through. It's not written to shock, but it's not prim either. Just . . . honest, I think.

However, the characters are pretty much all shits.

Ily said...

Hey Lynn! I haven't read Ethan Frome. I've read The House of Mirth, and while it had some redeeming qualities, it was very melodramatic. Age of Innocence was much more subtle, IMO. This is my first time hearing of Nightingale Wood...although someone on Amazon claims it's "rare in the US", so I don't feel as bad :)

Lynn said...

Nightingale Wood is by the lady who wrote Cold Comfort Farm. It's a later book of hers and isn't quite as light-hearted.

My mental leap wasn't totally relevant. Still I was just fascinated by the idea that someone was writing in the 30s about relationships in that way. I can't think of a lot of other examples of that.

Grace Mulligan said...

(Err, if my previous version of this comment went through, can you refuse to accept it? I'm definitely too shy even when manic to comment using my real name!) So I am usually too shy to comment on blogs, even though I really enjoy reading yours, but I'm manic this week, and so I just have to ask, since you used one of my favorite of Montreal quotations, are you another asexual of Montreal fan? If so, do you ever have the awkward experience of wanting desperately to go around singing "Plastis Wafers"? I'm sure that even most sexual people don't want to sing "Lover face, wanna make you ejaculate till its no longer fun" or "I want you to be my pleasure puss" in public, but it feels even more ironic when it's me!

Anonymous said...

I share your views on classics, sadly. I also share Mark Twain's view on many of them: "A classic is a book everyone wants to have read and on one wants to read."

Unfortunately, anything else I might say right now would be incoherent and unrelated to the book

Ily said...

@Grace: It's funny--I'll always hear one album from a band, love that album or a lot of the songs, and then it will take me years to get around to listening to their other stuff. Of Montreal is like that for me, it seems...I've heard "Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer" but maybe only one or two other songs from them. Good songs are good, sexual or not!
Sometimes I feel shy about posting, so yeah :) Thanks for the comment!

@Anon: Mark Twain was just so darn pithy, it kind of boggles my mind. Incoherence and randomness are always welcome.

Grace Mulligan said...

I strongly recommend listening to more of Montreal! "Erroneous Escape Into Eric Eckles" from Satanic Panic in the Attic has a line I've always related to the one from "The Past is a Grotesque Animal" in my head - "I can't relate to this world - I'm not bored enough!"

Ily said...

@Grace: I know, there's so much music to explore and so little time! That is indeed a great lyric.