Sometimes I wonder how I could have devoted so much time and energy to a project whose ultimate embodiment was a fairly standard film biography, Carole Landis: A Most Beautiful Girl. A recent experience sharpened my awareness of the lessons to be learned from this process.
In December I gave a lecture at Bar-Ilan University in Israel at the invitation of Roman Katsman. In the evening, Roman and his wife kindly invited Stacey and me to a performance of a modern ballet troupe, the Kamea Dance Company, in Tel Aviv. The performance comprised three separate episodes, the first of which we all agreed was the most successful. It opened with a well-proportioned, muscular male dancer, stripped to the waist, sitting alone on stage. After a few moments arrived a lovely blonde in a dress, high heels, and a gauzy white hat. She walked around the male dancer a few times, each following the other’s gaze. When they had sufficiently sized each other up, standing just before him, she took off her hat and let it fall; with a delightfully reverent gesture, he caught it just inches off the ground. Already at floor level, he proceeded to remove her high heels, whereupon she began to dance. The two danced in symmetry for a while, then other dancing couples arrived whose collaboration took various forms: mirror imaging, more gender-specific cooperation, eventually collective movements too complex to recall.
Finally, with the whole troupe fully engaged, the beautiful dancer, who had participated along with the others, left the group, walked over to a corner of the stage where her hat and heels had been inconspicuously maintained, put them on, and strode purposefully offstage; the others all followed, signaling the end of the performance.
This young woman combined the blonde purity of a young Catherine Deneuve with a womanly body trained to strenuous and exacting performance. I interpreted the dance sequence as an homage to (her) Beauty. The dance began when she let herself be worshipfully persuaded to join its universe and ended when she resumed her worldly costume and departed. The performance of the varied paradigms of desire, of sexual parity and difference, were all dependent on her participation, extensions of her beauty and grace. Although this dancer was also prominently featured in the other two segments, they did not privilege her in the dance narrative as had the first.
I could conclude with my personal vision of the evening’s experience. But to insist on my reaction to the dancer’s beauty would assimilate an esthetic experience to a fantasy, indulging the mensonge romantique of autonomous consonance between desire and its object. That such consonance is indeed felt cannot be denied; but the experience of “natural beauty” is not a self-contained whole. It lives only through its communication to others, the mode and utility of which is subject to challenge.
Thus I had been tempted to begin this Chronicle by telling the reader that—account being taken of my distance from the stage, for although the dancer’s manifestation of grace in open view is surely a more direct communication than an actress’s interruptible and retakeable activities on a movie set, the latter does allow a closer look at her face—this dancer was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. With this caveat in mind, the superlative may well be true; but at best any such conjunction between desire and reality (Eliot’s “objective correlative” divorced from art) remains more desired than real. Who knows with what accuracy we rank our memories? The central fact is that once it passes the threshold of significance, experience acquires for us a value that we ourselves wish to enhance for its effect on a real or virtual audience that includes ourselves.
Beauty, whether “natural” or created, is representation, and as such, neither its meaning nor the effect it produces is given objectively to the individual who experiences it. Nor is it a merely subjective phenomenon, dependent only on the experiencer’s will. It is the product of an never-completed negotiation between him and the virtual community within which he seeks to communicate it. It is inherent in the experience of beauty that one would convince others of it; this is the interactive reality of what Kant referred to as the universality of taste. Yet in the case of natural beauty, this need creates an impasse. The stereotypical differentiations of female beauty, blonde-brunette-redhead or Caucasian-African-Asian, are at best helpful in casting roles, dramatic or pornographic; they define differences of taste, not different realms of desire. To assert a woman’s superlative natural beauty is implicitly to claim that we must choose her over any other, if not as a sexual partner, then as a paragon to whom all others are compared. This structure inevitably puts one in competition with one’s interlocutor. As each selects his own “natural” object, the mimetic pull of others’ desires is counterbalanced by the agonic drive of each to define the ideal that would mediate these desires. (This phenomenon enters the Girardian paradigm only marginally, as the seductive maneuver of the coquette, who displays desire only for herself.) The medieval tournament whose duelists each bear their lady’s colors is a socially effective model of this battle for centrality, which in the absence of opportunity for contestation ends in an indecisive omnicentrism ultimately frustrating to all.
This is the lesson to be drawn from my experience with Carole Landis. On a superficial level, in conversation with other men, when I would claim her to be the greatest beauty, my interlocutor would have to choose between defending a favorite of his own or subordinating, graciously or resentfully, his esthetic judgment to mine. More profoundly, certain female admirers of Carole, sensitive to the least hint of desire in the position of the narrative subject, have reacted to my book and website with violent hostility. Although the book is respectful of Carole and in no way reduces her to a “sexual object,” it suffices to offend certain readers to make explicit the fact that her “natural” desirability was the basis of her success in Hollywood and consequently of the reader’s potential interest in her.
These are things I would not have understood had I not pursued the Landis project, the upshot of which, despite undoubted rewards, brought a large measure of disillusion. When I began the project in 2003, no other books about Carole had been written. Two years into my research, E. J. Fleming’s biography appeared; despite its flaws and inaccuracies, had it existed from the outset it is highly unlikely I would have begun a book of my own. I also soon discovered that if the world of Carole’s fans includes some wonderful people, it also attracts a significant number of highly possessive individuals (virtually all women) whose beliefs about Carole are not subject to empirical tests and who violently reject any material, whether factual or interpretive, that does not conform to these beliefs. The Eden of fandom contains plenty of snakes. These are lessons one might expect the Bronx Romantic to have learned before the age of sixty-seven.
In contrast with the celebration of natural beauty, to affirm that of the artwork does not arouse resentment. A work of art is the realization of an esthetic will such as the most artificially constructed persona cannot embody in the life-world. Even on stage, the marginal status of “performance art” attests to this will’s incapacity to reveal itself directly in the body of the esthetic subject. Performance art almost inevitably involves some form of self-mutilation because it can manifest the esthetic will only as an imposition on the body rather than an emanation of it.
As my experience with Carole shows, to praise the dancer would be to remain on the side of resentment; to take the side of love, one must praise only the dance. Although the sequence under discussion required that the woman, indeed, both members of the couple, serve as incarnations of a sexual ideal, unlike the claim of superlative natural beauty, to claim that the dance was a successful work of art does not ipso facto place it in competition with other works. No doubt among mortals any claim of significance sets up an implicit competition for our limited attention and time, but the appropriate model for this claim is not the mimetic agon but the ostensive grant of significance to the originary central object, its designation as possessing absolute and unique importance within the scene. In the scenic situation of the artwork, the natural beauty of the female dancer, beyond a certain point of minimal acceptability, is a gratuitous supplement to be enjoyed and even marveled at in a context blissfully devoid of rivalry.
The performance ends when Beauty (as we may now call her) redons her hat and shoes and walks proudly off the stage. The dance cannot persist in the absence of her whose presence it seeks to prolong and extend. The “catharsis” that signals the end of an artwork can take many forms; here the performance proper is framed by the entry and departure of its raison d’être; the “story” or rather stories with which Beauty, her admirer, and their acolytes/imitators/doubles are occupied throughout the performance do not themselves provide finality. I would have to see this number more than once to grasp its narrative movement more precisely, but I could understand at a single viewing that its point is not to integrate the heroine into a harmonious relationship, either with a lover or with the community as a whole. The various modes of symmetry and collaboration attempted by the troupe are attractive and convincing in themselves, but their development cannot provide a climax to the action because it cannot satisfactorily reveal the uniqueness of Beauty with whom the dance began. This might have been done, as in a Hollywood musical, by enforcing the choreographic subordination of the other dancers to Beauty as a demonstration of her central status. But in a musical, the heroine is already at the center of a full-fledged narrative; lacking this, no amount of beauty and skill could prevent her centralization from appearing arbitrary.
Thus Beauty can dance with us, can form temporary symmetries, momentary loves, as it were, but can reaffirm her worthiness of our transcendent admiration only by leaving these symmetries behind. It is miracle enough that she consent to embody herself in our world, as, in a very different way, Christians believe the Messiah has done. (Can only Jews conceive a wholly esthetic version of the Incarnation?)
Having learned my lesson with Carole, I shall leave the beautiful dancer unnamed. Surely there are few women on Earth so gifted by nature and art, but to admire her as a performer rather than an incarnate ideal is to leave unaroused the resentful desires that make up the gaseous envelope of stardom. We had best forbear to know the dancer from the dance.
Begun on Carole’s ninetieth birthday, January 2, 2009.