"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Sex, Drugs, And Rock 'n' Roll - La Dolce Vita In Sight Of Doomsday

Life might not be a bowl of cherries. Dickens and the whole Dickensian thing - the poverty, the misery, the cold - were only outliers in the good life.  The nasty world of Fagin, Uriah Heep and the maggots of the East End are only sidebars to Bond Street and the City, carriages, and silk.  

Balzac's La Condition Humaine is a series of morbid tales.  French poets wrote of  la nostalgie de la boue, Orwell wrote Down and Out in Paris and London, and Dreiser, Lewis, and Dos Passos continued the dirge for a long train of miserable, unhappy lives.


Such were the reflections of Alden Jones, fed up with the cant of the day - the poor black man, still under the yoke of slavery, still tilling bottom land for the Massa; the gay man, too long consigned to anonymous sex in bathhouses; the Walmart greeter, the grease monkey, the car wash finisher- when he only wanted to 'celebrate' his privilege. 

Why was life supposed to be such a tedious bore?  Out of which poem in A Child's Garden of Verses or out of which of Grimm's fairy tales did these notions come?


Alden had grown up as a child of wealthy Boston brahmins, proud of their Northumberland roots, heirs to the storied history and fortune of the victors of the War of the Roses, Anglo-Saxon first-comers to the New World who made a fortune from the Three-Cornered Trade and its slave ships that sailed to Africa, Barbados, and Newport; and then as Wall Street investors who had made millions from the industrial revolution, advisors to Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt.  Their homes were Chippendale, Rockford, and Baccarat, the paintings on the wall priceless, and the silver tea service Revere. 

Yet it was not the rectitude of the Lodges, Porters, and Booths that held his interest, but the edges of the empire that had somehow filtered into Beacon Hill. One or another of his forbears had been a resident of Italy, a Thomas Mann figure who had not only fallen in love with his Tadzio but with the whole country for which The Decameron was the Bible, The Thousand and One Nights the epic poem. 

No one ever asked about the Italianate sconces over the Ferrara marble fireplace, a decorative excess absent from most patrician homes more accustomed to Townsend chairs, linen and lace; but they got the young Alden to thinking about a world beyond the stern brow of his  family.  

The Joneses had been members of the Massachusetts Bay colony but had moved to Salem and then to New Haven and New Jersey in search of a more classic Puritanism with no infiltration of Mediterranean heresy; and so Alden's interest in la dolce vita was surprising. 


Little by little Alden lost sight of his patrimony.  Although he never forgot his manners, he drifted far South.  Life might be short, nasty, and brutish for most, but not for all; and an epicurean approach to one's short life on earth trumped all else.

Which led him not surprisingly to the marvelous life of Thomas Jefferson who, despite his commitment to the new republic, built Monticello and fathered children with a beautiful mulatto slave.  There wasn't a drop of sanctimony, faux rectitude, or idealistic fantasy in the man.

Alden’s thoughts turned inevitably to the West, to rugged individualism, and the cattle rustling entrepreneurship of Nineteenth Century America, a time of industrialists and ranchers, rotgut whisky, whorehouses, and poker.  There were no victims, only people who got in the way.  The West was won thanks to Robber Barons and gunfighters . 


On one visit to Beacon Hill, in the sitting room of the family hotel de ville Alden's father asked what he had he made of himself, how he had supported his family and given back to the nation. 

Neither, answered the young man.  He was still a Jones of Northumberland and Boston, he told his father, but the times were too febrile and off-putting to put all of one's eggs in one patrician basket. 

How and why should anyone count on the Dickensian nobility of the poor? The only basket worth carrying was that of Little Red Riding Hood who rudely learned the law of fang and claw, survival of the fittest.

Pressured as he was to drop his suspicious notions, he never once considered the idea.  Not only would he always be heir to the kings, queens and courtiers of Europe but a legatee of Persepolis.  He had nothing in common with Ghana, Gao, or Dahomey - footnotes to history.

And so it was that Alden Jones gave himself entirely to sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, an unapologetic love of the good life, la dolce vita, and the unconcerned life of pleasure.  No one had ever made the case for commitment.  

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