The deception of perfection

One of the great pleasures of my life lies in teaching some astonishing works of literature. I make it a point to re-read every work I teach for each class, meaning I’ve read some pieces a couple of dozen times over the years. There is one work that never fails to bring some new insight or pause on each fresh reading: the Princesse de Clèves, published in 1678 and generally regarded as the first real psychological novel. The story of a young sixteenth-century aristocrat who is married off to someone she doesn’t love -the norm in early modern Europe until relatively recently- she falls in love with the court’s proverbial bad boy, a general rake but the most handsome and alluring man of his peers, the Duc de Nemours. Despite her passion for Nemours, she resists succumbing to temptation even when, following her husband’s death (admittedly he dies of a broken heart, convinced she has been unfaithful to him), she is free to marry him.

The tragedy of her situation is a common one, perhaps explaining the novel’s popularity. Her husband is a virtuous, lovely man, yet she does not and cannot force herself to love him. Nemours, on the other hand, is utterly unworthy of her. In a pivotal scene at the novel’s end when she has a final meeting with Nemours, a heart to heart in which she resolutely and definitively rejects him then cuts herself off from the world, she thanks him for having entered her life. Notwithstanding his baseness, his morally ambiguous actions, and his shady past, it all does not matter, for, without their having met each other, she explains, she would have never known love, that package deal that brings out the most selfless -and, sadly, selfish- crevices of our beings. In her last few words before she leaves, never to see him again, she says: “Ayez cependant le plaisir de vous être fait aimer d’une personne qui n’aurait rien aimé, si elle ne vous avait jamais vu ; croyez que les sentiments que j’ai pour vous seront éternels, et qu’ils subsisteront également, quoi que je fasse.” [“Know, however, that you have the comfort of being loved by someone who would have loved no one or nothing if she had never set eyes on you; you must know that the feelings I have for you are eternal ones, and they shall endure no matter what happens in my life” – my loose translation]. It is a passage that I am incapable of discussing without tearing up. This story is made all the more poignant by the fact that its author, Madame de La Fayette -a distant ancestor of the general who fought for American independence a century later- penned it with the assistance of the Duc de La Rochefoucauld, a poet with whom she almost certainly was in love and a man who wasn’t her husband.

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A striking episode in the story occurs when the princess, who has recently married, first meets Nemours. It is at a ball to celebrate a royal engagement and Nemours returns after an absence from the court, so the princess has never met him, though the preceding pages have built up his reputation both to her and to the reader. There is a commotion on his arrival with people greeting him, the volume of which rises above the music. Their eyes meet. To get to her, he has to climb over some chairs, a very delicious metaphor for the barriers which will always impede the consummation of their love. They find themselves in front of each other and they immediately dance. They dance so well together, they dance so elegantly, that there is a murmur among the crowd of people expressing their admiration and, no doubt, jealousy as only a beautifully matched couple can inspire. The astonishing thing about this dance is that it is public. In baroque dancing, only one couple dances in the centre of the other spectators at one time, the central couple rotating every so often. The other striking element to this physicality between the two is that they have never met nor been formally introduced, a grave breach of the court’s social code of etiquette. This magical account of the very first meeting of the couple, the manifestation of love at first sight, is the ball scene that has inspired every subsequent ball scene in western literature, be it in fairy tales, novels, or film.

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I’ve always endeavoured to incorporate art, film, and music into my literature classes, to provide a broader snapshot of genres and periods, and there is one particular dance that I talk about and show in connection to the first extraordinary dance of the princess and Nemours. It is the landmark 1962 production of the 1841 ballet Giselle with Dame Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev playing the two leads. Nureyev (1938-1993) was twenty-three years old and had recently defected from the Soviet Union. He was one of the most accomplished dancers of the twentieth century, with a stage presence that exuded a monumental talent. He was also equipped with an absolutely remarkable feline beauty, as seen in the painting above. Dame Margot (1919-1991) was almost twice his age, making it a very unlikely pairing. She was considered to be at the very tail end of her career and about to retire from professional dancing. Endowed with incredible grace and poise, Fonteyn was, and still is, considered to be one of the greatest classical dancers of all time. She was also the chancellor of my alma mater, Durham University, during the last years of her life.

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Giselle is an arch-romantic Romantic tale about a prince, Albrecht (played by Nureyev), who disguises himself as a peasant in order to court the eponymous Giselle. She dies of a broken heart when she discovers he is a noble and already betrothed. He goes to her grave to mourn and while female spirits try to punish him by cursing him to dance himself to death, the strength of Giselle’s love metaphorically and literally saves him from this fate. It is a particular favourite among dancers, since it is a meta-homage to dance, though the 1962 production brought two unlikely characters together to play these roles. Fonteyn had first played the role before Nureyev was born. And then something happened at that first performance and at every subsequent production in which the pair danced together. We are extremely fortunate to have a recording of one of the early 1962 performances of Giselle since the BBC filmed it. There is a clip here, and please go to 2’00 onwards to see the harmony of two superb artists dancing together as one. It is staggering to behold and one critic at that first performance recalls the total silence of the audience during the performance, the utter awe in front of beholding artistic perfection on stage. The silence was broken by uproarious applause after the curtains went down and there were twenty-seven encores lasting for over forty minutes, during which Nureyev fell to his knees in a spontaneous gesture of respect to the partner who had generated this electrifying performance from him. Dame Ninette de Valois describes the two dancers coming together: “Emotionally, technically, physically, in every way, they were just meant to meet on this earth and dance together. The ideal partnership.” Despite the differences in age, culture, and sexuality (Nureyev was gay), they had an intimate and enduring emotional and professional relationship, one which began with the surprising and palpable chemistry that existed between them.

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At the same time, there is a certain melancholy to be had in seeing the best possible achievement of a work of art or a sporting feat, since we also possess the knowledge that this is a peak that cannot be bettered. This is the price of perfection, but, like love, it is a price that costs much and is worth paying. There are, in fact, relatively few performances that are unequivocally benchmark ones. An example that stands out in the theatre would be Dame Edith Evans’s role as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest, first on the stage then in the 1952 film version, a clip of her role to be found here. Dame Edith’s magisterial, shrill utterance of the line “A handbag?”, a four-second clip of which is here. Inevitably, every performance of the play is compared with the definitive mid-century one and these two words are so associated with Dame Edith’s interpretation of them that Patricia Routledge resorted to mouthing the exclamation in a 2001 stage production, to preempt any unfavourable comparisons.

Personally, I don’t believe that our encounters with perfection are necessarily maudlin. They can fill us with a sense of what humans can achieve and, in this, represent a glimpse of the divine. In many ways, our glimpses of perfection reminds me of the great Greek poet C. P. Cavafy’s poem, “The Mirror in the Front Hall”:

The luxurious house had a huge mirror
in the front hall, a very old mirror,
bought at least eighty years ago.

A very handsome boy, a tailor’s assistant
(on Sundays an amateur athlete),
stood there with a package. He gave it
to one of the household who took it in
to get the receipt. The tailor’s assistant
was left alone, waiting there.
He went up to the mirror, looked at himself,
and adjusted his tie. Five minutes later
they brought him the receipt. He took it and went away.

But the old mirror that had seen so much
during a life of many years—
thousands of objects and faces—
the old mirror was all joy now,
proud to have embraced
total beauty for a few moments.

Perfection is perhaps not as uncommon as we’d like to believe. We all have the quest for perfection, the sheer yearning for it. It is visceral and we cry out for it because our tainted nature demands nothing less.

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Today’s cufflinks are of two dolphins entwined as one. Delphine symbolism is one of the most evident; these amazing creatures symbolize harmony and accord. They are hypnotic animals to watch in the wild, swimming and jumping together in uncanny synchronization, and having a playful curiosity towards human commerce. This particular pair is made out of gilded brass and dates from the late 1970s, being made by the Metropolitan Museum of Art from an art-nouveau design. They’re incredibly striking links and were inspired as a purchase by my partner, with whom I have danced as one since our very first, unlikely, meeting.

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