April 3, 2018

"'Will you wear a star in your hair at night ... or a little embroidered black veiling hat? ... Will you wear a close little choker of pearls or a medal on a long narrow velvet ribbon?"

"... Will you serve a lunch, in the garden, of prosciutto and melon and a wonderful green salad ... or sit in the St. Regis’ pale-pink roof and eat truite bleue?'... It is the 'Make Up Your Mind' issue: Vogue’s editresses are gently pressing the reader, in the vise of these velvet alternatives, to choose the looks that will 'add up' to her look, the thing that is hers alone. 'Will you make the point of your room a witty screen of drawings cadged from your artist friends ... or spend your all on a magnificent carpet of flowers that decorates and almost furnishes the room itself?' Twenty years ago, when Vogue was on the sewing-room table of nearly every respectable upper-middle-class American house, these sapphic overtures to the subscriber, this flattery, these shared securities of prosciutto and wonderful and witty had no place in fashion’s realm. Vogue, in those days before Mademoiselle and Glamour and Charm and Seventeen, was an almost forbidding monitor enforcing the discipline of Paris."

"Twenty years ago" was 88 years ago, because I'm reading a 1950 essay by Mary McCarthy "Up the Ladder from Charm to Vogue," found in the collection "On the Contrary: Articles of Belief." I just put that in my Kindle because I needed to search for something I knew was there, because the Oxford English Dictionary said it was there, even though Google books said it was not there.

No, it wasn't "sapphic." That word has been used to mean lesbian since 1766 — according to the OED — when it appeared in "Genuine Memoirs of the Celebrated Miss Maria Brown Exhibiting the Life of a Courtezan in the Most Fashionable Scenes of Dissipation Published by the Author of a Woman of Pleasure": "She whispered to me the plan of bliss which these extraordinary letchers had chalked out to themselves, and which they stiled the indulgence of the Sapphic passion."

I love the use of "sapphic" to describe the voice of Vogue seducing readers to the pleasures of long narrow velvet ribbon and prosciutto. But it's something else in that essay that I needed, something that relates to the third post of the day, "It's Orwellian the way it's always the other side that looks Orwellian." That Mary McCarthy essay contains the first appearance of the word "Orwellian." I mean, I am fascinated by the whole subject. Click on my "women's magazines" tag and you'll see. But I really wanted to see the context of this first use of "Orwellian" — the squib in the OED being merely "A leap into the Orwellian future." Let's read:
What has happened, in the course of twenty years, is that culture and even political liberalism have been converted by the mass-fashion mind.... The idea that it’s smart to be in step, to be liberal or avant-garde, is conveyed through the name-dropping of a Leo Lerman in Mademoiselle. To allude negligently to Kafka, Yeats, Proust, Stendhal, or St. John of the Cross in a tone of of-course-you-know-them is canonical procedure for Mademoiselle contributors, whatever the topic in hand, while the minor name here (Capote, Buechner, Tennessee Williams, Vidal) has the cachet of the little evening, the little hat, the little fur. The conception of a mass initiate involves an assembly-line production of minority objects of virtu, and is producing a new conformity altogether dominated by the mode, in which late Beethoven, boogie-woogie, the UN, Buechner, Capote, FEPC, and The Cocktail Party are all equally important names to be spent. Contrary to the practice in high society, the recherchĂ© is more prized than the known great, and Shakespeare is a virtually worthless counter, which Mrs. Astor never was.

The conspicuous mass display of the bibelots of a curio culture is the promotional secret of Flair, the new Cowles magazine, with its first-naming of the New Bohemians, “Carson,” “Truman,” and “Tennessee,” and its splashy collage of democrats and decadents—Margaret Mead and Salvador Dali, Simone de Beauvoir and Mme. Pompadour, Jean Genet and W. H. Auden, Thomas Jefferson and Angus Wilson, Barbara Ward and Franco Spain, Leonor Fini and the Middleburg Hunt, Cocteau and Mauriac. As an instrument of mass snobbery, this remarkable magazine, dedicated simply to the personal cult of its editress, to the fetichism of the flower (Fleur Cowles, Flair, a single rose), outdistances all its competitors in the audacity of its conception. It is a leap into the Orwellian future, a magazine without contest or point of view beyond its proclamation of itself, one hundred and twenty pages of sheer presentation, a journalistic mirage. The principle of the peep show or illusion utilized in the cutouts, where the eye is led inward to a false perspective of depth, is the trick of the entire enterprise. The articles, in fact, seem meant not to be read but inhaled like a whiff of scent from the mystic rose at the center (flair, through Old French, from fragrare, to emit an odor: an instinctive power of discriminating or discerning). Nobody, one imagines, has read them, not even their authors: grammatical sentences are arranged around a vanishing point of meaning. Yet already, in the very first, quite androgyne number, an ectoplasmic feminine you is materialized, to whom a fashion editor’s voice speaks in tones of assured divination: “Fashion is Personal. ... Seven silhouettes chosen from wide possibilities, not because they are extreme high fashion, but because they are silhouettes you might claim....”
Man, name-dropping used to be way more of a thing! And I can't believe the name W.H. Auden came up 2 days in a row on this blog. Well, at least we do still drop the name Orwell, but do we know what we are talking about. I mean, here we are in what was The Future in 1950 when Mary McCarthy wrote of "a leap into the Orwellian future," and this future (that is, our present) seems to be a place where we can't read writing like that anymore. It seems like such an abstruse problem: the plague of snobs in popular media? So there was this new magazine Flair. I'd never heard of it!

But here's an article in Vanity Fair from 2014, "5 Covers of Flair: The Most Beautiful Magazine You’ve Never Heard Of." And here, from Vanity Fair in 2009, is "A Flair for Living/Fleur Cowles, legendary American expatriate, editor, writer, painter, hostess, and philanthropist, is publishing her memoir and The Best of Flair, an opulent anthology of the dazzling, short-lived magazine that galvanized the literati in the early 1950s."

I guess some glitterati were galvanized, but it chapped Mary McCarthy's ass. I'm not really sure why. I've never read Mary McCarthy — but I hasten to say I've read Kafka, Yeats, Proust, and Stendhal, more or less. I am fascinated by McCarthy's style of writing, even though it seems just as pretentious to me as Flair seemed to her.



I'm going to take a closer look. But the point here is: "Orwellian" started with Mary McCarthy sniffing at Fleur's Flair and smelling a "quite androgyne number, an ectoplasmic feminine you."

24 comments:

tcrosse said...

S.J. Perelman had a lot of fun with this kind of stuff

traditionalguy said...

Way out in the Northwest Territories you are still admiring NYC's point of view. The New Yorkers discovered they are actually running the communications center of the earth from Madison Avenue. And thir views on what in culture/fashion dominates the earth continued until very recently.

Make New York City Great Again.

Sebastian said...

"It is a leap into the Orwellian future, a magazine without contest or point of view beyond its proclamation of itself, one hundred and twenty pages of sheer presentation, a journalistic mirage."

OMG. So the first use of the term was actually wrong?

"but I hasten to say I've read Kafka, Yeats, Proust, and Stendhal, more or less"

Ha, ha, sure you have, "more or less." The "hasten" is good, fitting in with the subtle attack on McCarthy's pretentious attack on magazinal pretension. But then we recall that one of Pierre Bayard's arguments is that reading "more" stifles the reader's legitimate creativity and distorts our literary vue d'ensemble. (Which I say non-sarcastically, honest.)

Fernandistien said...

1. Never eat anything you can't pronounce.
2. Using the word "Orwellian" was Kafkaesque.

n.n said...

Sappho from the Isle of Lesbos was a characteristically feminine female and a gender inclusive destination, respectively. Apparently, the former and latter experienced semantic transformation in the late 19th century and appropriation in the twentieth century. Perhaps because people liked to say sapphic and lesbian.

Rob said...

" . . . it chapped Mary McCarthy's ass" is as nice a turn of phrase as I've read today. Speaking of chapping Mary McCarthy's ass, Lillian Hellman certainly did. McCarthy said of her (on the TV show of that supreme narcissist Dick Cavett), "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'."

FullMoon said...

Poorly educated blue collar eyes kind of glazed over reading this until I came to this pretty insult;
As an instrument of mass snobbery, this remarkable magazine, dedicated simply to the personal cult of its editress, to the fetichism of the flower (Fleur Cowles, Flair, a single rose), outdistances all its competitors in the audacity of its conception.

Then it got even better, lol.

Angle-Dyne, Angelic Buzzard said...

"The principle of the peep show or illusion utilized in the cutouts, where the eye is led inward to a false perspective of depth, is the trick of the entire enterprise. The articles, in fact, seem meant not to be read but inhaled like a whiff of scent from the mystic rose at the center (flair, through Old French, from fragrare, to emit an odor: an instinctive power of discriminating or discerning). Nobody, one imagines, has read them, not even their authors: grammatical sentences are arranged around a vanishing point of meaning."

This prose is tail-chasingly reflexive: it reads like McCarthy is describing her own writing as she writes.

Ah, I see you had a vaguely similar reaction -

I am fascinated by McCarthy's style of writing, even though it seems just as pretentious to me as Flair seemed to her.

- though I can't say I was "fascinated".

FullMoon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ann Althouse said...

I'm reading the whole McCarthy essay and encounter this sentence: "Provincial women with moderate incomes poured over it to pick up “hints,” carried it with them to the family dressmaker, copied, approximated, with a sense, almost, of pilferage."

Amazing to see such haughtiness along with a blatant error like "poured over." (Should be: "pored over.")

tcrosse said...

McCarthy needed her pores tightened.

Mary Beth said...

Contrary to the practice in high society, the recherché is more prized than the known great

Hipsters, before it was cool.

readering said...

A little surprised that the academic Althouse has never read The Groves of Academe (1952), sometimes credited as the first "academic novel" (i.e. set in academe). Pretty good satire.

Leora said...

Wondering where this was originally published - The Nation?

Darrell said...

I invented "clitterati" in 1970 during my American Lit class. The teacher was incorporating feminist writers, going off the official script.

I didn't have any way of checking my claim at the time. Or enforcing it now.

Ann Althouse said...

Originally published in something called The Reporter.

Ann Althouse said...

Her brother was Kevin McCarthy, the star of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

tcrosse said...

The Groves of Academe (1952), sometimes credited as the first "academic novel" (i.e. set in academe).

Zuleika Dobson would be happy to hear it.

William said...

She was married to Edmund Wilson, the preeminent intellectual of her generation. He used to slap her around and gave her a black eye one time. The things you're remembered for.,......Well, if she was truly the first person to use the word Orwellian, that's a feather in her cap, but points deducted for using it incorrectly. What's the correct word to describe someone who's the first person to note that Orwellian is a word but then proceeds to use it cumsily. I don't think pretentious fits. I'd like to use Orwellian but that doesn't fit either. Post modern irony?

Daniel Jackson said...

Interesting. Orwell died in January of 1950 and McCarthy is appropriating Orwell to describe her circle of Trust Fund Kids. What will those White Girls think of next?

exiledonmainstreet said...

The best thing and perhaps the only good thing McCarthy ever said was about Lillian Hellman:

“I can’t stand her. I think every word she writes is false, including ‘and’ and ‘but.'"

McCarthy later repeated the quip on "The Dick Cavett Show," which angered the old Stalinist shitbag. Hellman sued her for $2.25 million. The case dragged through the courts for years, until Hellman died and her estate dropped the suit. Like Gore Vidal, Hellman enjoyed suing her enemies.

Ann Althouse said...

"Orwellian" should correspond to Dickensian and Kafkaesque — describing conditions/situations/characters who are like what the writer wrote about.

But Orwell wrote a lot of things. To say that "Orwellian" must mean a few particular things in "1984" — Newspeak, Big Brother, Memory Hole, Freedom is slavery, and a few other things is like saying that Dickensian must mean the poverty and work conditions seen in "David Copperfield," "Oliver Twist," and "Hard Times" and that Kafkaesque refers to what happens to the main character in "The Trial."

mandrewa said...

Mary McCarthy: As an instrument of mass snobbery, this remarkable magazine, dedicated simply to the personal cult of its editress, to the fetichism of the flower (Fleur Cowles, Flair, a single rose), outdistances all its competitors in the audacity of its conception. It is a leap into the Orwellian future, a magazine without contest or point of view beyond its proclamation of itself, one hundred and twenty pages of sheer presentation, a journalistic mirage.

When she says "Orwellian future", it's hard to understand what she could mean in this context. You say George Orwell, and people think Animal Farm, 1984 and maybe The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia. Not one of these seems to have anything to do with her description of the magazine. Her complaints about the magazine seem almost trivial in comparison.

In fact given when Mary McCarthy wrote this, Orwellian future seems likely to be a reference to 1984 given that 1984 had come out just shortly before, and if I'm not mistaken 1984 was the only text Orwell ever wrote imagining a dystopian future.

I'm imagining that this was a phrase that was in the air at the time. And that people that McCarthy knew were talking about the book.

Jon Ericson said...

mandrewa,
That's what I was thinking, but I am a very poor wordsmith, so thanks.