Sunday 19 February 2017

Disengagement, Disillusionment, Ennui

Observer: So you've now finished the book, and you're a free woman?
Anita Brookner: Very boring.
Obs: You're bored?
AB: Oh terribly.

I'm getting bored with my characters – my character.'  That suggests you are getting bored with yourself.  'Completely.'  What, I ask, could anyone offer to stave off that boredom?  'But you have! Meaningful conversation. I've enjoyed this. It's been rigorous.' 
The afternoon light is fading – the moment of that 'slight failure of nerve'. And what will you do now, I ask, rising to leave.  'Make a cup of tea. Go and get an evening paper. Talk to the Indian newsagent. Come home. Have a bath. Watch Channel 4 News.' She gives a slight smile. 'You're getting the detail now. Then take a sleeping pill, then bed. What time? Oh, nine.'  And then tomorrow get up and do the same thing all over again?  'That's right.' 
Her eyes sparkle mischievously. 'Bored stiff! Well maybe not bored. Resigned, shall we say…'

Being bored, being subject to ennui, is a Brooknerian experience. But let me explore it in the context of Brookner's art criticism. Time and again she returns to Delacroix's painting of 1827, Death of Sardanapalus. Liberal-minded critics of the day saw it, she tells us, as 'a poem of destruction' ('Baudelaire', The Genius of the Future). It was Baudelaire who saw that it wasn't about destruction; it was 'about ennui, about spleen, about the inability to feel no matter how violent the impulse'. She quotes Baudelaire's sonnet, inspired by the picture:
Il n’a su réchauffer ce cadavre hébété  
Où coule au lieu de sang l’eau verte du Léthé.
(' vain he has tried to rekindle this benumbed corpse in which flows, not blood, but the green waters of Lethe.')
Sardanapalus 'represents the Silver Age of Romanticism, an age of disengagement, of ... disillusionment,' she writes in Romanticism and Its Discontents (Ch. 5).

All of which is very excessive, very extreme, and perhaps at odds with the rather more domestic boredom experienced by Brookner's fictional personages or indeed by Anita Brookner herself. But never be in any doubt that this is where she begins, that what appears at first blush merely domestic, even cosy, is in fact part of a longer, wider, harsher, and far from conventional spectrum.

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