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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

In Praise Of An Aristocratic Life–The Privilege of La Dolce Vita And The Responsibility Of Heritage

Much was made of Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita a number of decades back – a paean to a life of sensuality, sybaritic pleasure, and libertinage.  The movie was early enough (1960) to have at least anticipated the American sexual revolution, but in spirit was too European, too comprehensively sensuous, and too fey for America where sex and sexuality were purposeful.  Sexual freedom was part of a more generalized social and cultural revolution.  ‘Free love’ would have only been incidental had it not been for the parallel freedoms demanded by the forces of civil rights, secularization, and the distribution of wealth.  Hippies went off to the Muir Woods and the Idaho panhandle to make a statement – the rejection of American capitalism, Puritanism, and Victorian patriarchy. Hippies did not exactly like living in communal quarters, foraging, and tending to kitchen gardens. It was representative of a philosophical commitment to a new social and world order. 

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Drop City, a novel by T.C. Boyle chronicles the journeys of California hippies to the Northwest. The carefree lifestyle, readily available drugs, open sexuality and irresponsibility of this motley mix of nature-loving misfits come with a heavy cost. Bills have to be paid.  The squabbles of the intimate life of Boyle’s hippies were as bitchy, bitter, and mean as they were in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  Yet they persisted.  A life far removed and isolated from the corrosion and corruption of American life was worth it.  So what if their social communities were as divided and territorial as those of the outside world?  Their communities were simply better, more promising, and models for the future, whatever their birth pains might be.

Americans have always been reformers at heart.  The Utopian communities in New York state in the 19th century such as the Oneida Colony were no different than the hippie communes of Oregon.  They worked at social engineering, followed a scripted playbook, and were deliberate and committed to purpose – the remaking of America and readjusting its trajectory.  Tomorrow would indeed be a better day.

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Americans of that earlier era could never understand Europe, European social ease, epicureanism, and religious indifference.  How could Europe, home of the Vatican, the place of the Protestant Reformation and the divine right of kings have become so indolent and so unmoored from proper, righteous, and moral behavior?

Dodsworth, a novel by Sinclair Lewis tells the story of a good, principled, Middle American businessman and his socially ambitious, cultural ignorant wife and the tragedy that follows.  Lewis, critical of Fran Dodsworth’s petty pretentions, fanciful dalliances, and blindness to anything of substance or principle, sets much of the novel in Europe among the wealthy, aristocratic leisure class. He is critical only of the parvenu Fran and not the European culture to which she aspires.  There is worth in the old aristocratic, Old World traditions, he writes – a sense of permanence or longevity – and without the aristocracy the cultural history of France, Italy, and England would be lost and forgotten. It matters little to the Count von Obersdorf, one of the aspiring suitors of Fran Dodsworth and her millions, that he does ‘nothing’, that he builds nothing, that he creates nothing.  His job has been inherited and is sacrosanct.  No matter how many elegant affairs he attends, or trips to the Dolomites or the Riviera he takes; no matter how much of his diminishing wealth he spends, he cannot be criticized.  He not only lives in Europe, he is Europe, the cultural brother of Charles de Gaulle who said, ‘L’Etat, c’est moi’ -  I am the embodiment of the new, democratic, free France.  I am France!

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No wonder Fran Dodsworth is befuddled by Kurt Obersdorf’s apologia for European aristocratic values. She sees only titles, chateaux, worldliness, and sophistication, and he sees heritage, cultural responsibility, and historical nationalism. He says

The European, the aristocrat, feels that he is responsible to past generations to carry on the culture they have formed. He feels that graciousness, agreeable manners, loyalty to his own people, are more important than wealth; and he feels that to carry on his tradition, he must have knowledge – much knowledge…

That tradition helps keep us together, understanding each other, no matter how foolish we are and suicide with the Great Wars. However we may oppose it, we are all at heart pan-Europeans. We feel that the real continental Europe is the last refuge of individuality, leisure, privacy, quiet happiness. We think that good talk between intelligent friends in a café in Paris or Vienna or Warsaw is more pleasant and important than having septic tanks or electric dish-washing machines. ..But Europe, she believes that a Voltaire, a Beethoven, a Wagner, a Keats, a Leeuwenhoek, a Flaubert, give drama and meaning to life, and that they are worth preserving — they and the people who understand and admire them! Europe, the last refuge, in this Ford-ized world, of personal dignity.

While this all might be somewhat of an exaggeration, it is not far from the truth. European aristocrats do indeed feel an obligation to continue the storied tradition of their ancestors – to preserve, defend, and extend the greatness of European literature, art, and science; and to continue a tradition of elegance, manners, good taste, and sophistication.

While some aristocrats during the decline of the aristocracy have used their titles and heritage in defiance of the new popular democracies in Europe, many more defend their privilege and take pride in it. They are the core of Europe, the essential cultural center which will be attacked and derogated for its insularity and anti-democratic elitism, but which must remain.  A thousand years of empire, church, and cultural greatness cannot continue with no one to defend them.  Despite progressives’ demands to remove all monarchies and to dismantle the aristocracy by popular revolt and revolution, aristocrats aren’t budging.  They matter, and they know they matter.

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Dodsworth gets it, and his wife does not. She sees only the trappings of aristocratic privilege and not the substance behind it. The gulf between the two cultural traditions – that of America and Europe – is one thing, but the superficial, vapid, inconsequential life of Fran Dodsworth and the enduring aristocratic values of Kurt made marriage impossible.

Von Obersdorf defends his sybaritic lifestyle as a continuation of the best European social and intellectual traditions.  Yes, his life is one of elegant soirees, formal dinners, vernissages, hunting, and sojourns on the Riviera; but it is always high-toned, never crass, always intellectually stimulating, and above all a continuation of the grand courtly traditions of their ancestors.

As much as American progressives may consider the European aristocracy a corrupt, outdated, and historically irrelevant institution, they, like Fran Dodsworth, miss the point entirely.  It was the European elite, the wealthy, propertied, titled aristocracy who built and extended kingdoms, who brought Western culture and values to their colonies, who were inheritors and curators of Greek and Roman civilization, and who brought high art, science, literature, philosophy and intellectual sophistication to the world.

So hammering the von Obersdorfs for their sybaritic pleasures, snickering at the libertinage of Fellini’s Roman sophisticates, laughing at the viscounts, dukes, and their retinues skiing Gstaad or summering at St Tropez misses the point.  They are continuing a courtly tradition of privileged leisure and ‘sophisticated indolence’.

Dodsworth, his wife, and ordinary Americans can never hope to understand the underlying nature of European aristocracy, or of aristocracy in general – the royalty not only of Paris, London and St Petersburg, but the American royalty of Beacon Hill, Back Bay, Rittenhouse Square, and Park Avenue.  ‘Wealth hath its privileges’ but so do the well-to-do and highborn. It is a mistake to assume that noblesse oblige always applies, that the aristocracy always has a duty to perform.  Its duty is only to be, to continue its storied traditions no matter how diluted or even dissolute they become.

There is a point to la dolce vita – elevated purpose, commitment, and responsibility to others has no real existential meaning.  The past has been created, and those fortunate enough to be the beneficiaries of the best of it, have no concerns other than to live traditions. Both Dodsworths heard a lot from the Count von Obersdorf but only Sam was paying attention.  He finally took the apparently sybaritic but essentially historic behavior and life of the Count as acceptable and worthy.  His wife was the villain, the ignoramus, the succubus.

Every society needs a cultural center, and those of Europe and Asia insistently defend theirs.  America, with no such locus or cultural epicenter, looks at Europe enviously and and critically. While we may appreciate the contribution of French kings to world culture, we cannot abide the pleasure of their descendants.  Our problem, definitely not theirs.

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