A Dream in an Art Gallery from Lewis Lapham

From Lapham’s essential Money and Class in America: Notes from our Civil Religion. The players have changed slightly, the roles and setting have not:

Under the terms of a success that entails the minting of the human personality into the coin of celebrity, the bargain has a Faustian component. Wittingly or unwittingly, the chosen individual becomes available to the public feast. The celebrity receives the gifts of wealth and applause; in return the gossip columnists and the writers of high-minded editorials can do what they like with the carcass of his humanity. Over the years of living in New York I gradually came to dread the vanguard of the golden horde (known to the press as “the jet set” and “the beautiful people”) who inevitably showed up on opening nights, at benefits and charity balls, at the exquisite little dinners for Katharine Graham or Swifty Lazar*. They were the people who had to know everybody and go everywhere, their eyes glittering with the stare of the hunter and the hunted. So urgent was their hunger, so desperate their fear of the void, that it was pointless to speak to them of a feeling or an idea. With a single trite phrase they could leech the meaning out of a book, a love affair, a death in the family. They seized upon the artifacts of the human intelligence as if they were tasting the shrimp, turning the thing briefly on the tongue of money or publicity. Most of the time they couldn’t remember what it was that they were seeing or eating. Last year’s play is like this year’s play because what matters is not the meaning of the play but its value as a comestible. The same people make the same round of the same parties not with the hope of human discovery but with the hunger of wolves.

Toward the end of the 1960’s, in a dream that still comes vividly to mind, I discovered myself in the gallery of a museum much like the Museum of Modern Art. In the midst of an enormous empty space the entire repertory company had assembled for what clearly was an important event. Dressed in evening clothes, the beau monde talked to itself in its customary way, filling the silence with urgent gossip and gazing disinterestedly on the elaborate hors d’oeuvres being handed around on silver trays. Three of the four walls served as giant movie screens, each of them showing a sequence of full-length films; the fourth wall opened through an arch into what looked like a dark closet.

Early in the dream it became clear to me that the guests could wander in and out of the films at will. The films were in various genres: Hollywood epics, pornography, foreign films, historical dramas, situation comedies. Once within the world of the film the guests acquired appropriate roles, costumes and lines of dialogue. They could stay as long as they liked, playing courtiers in Elizabethan England, gangsters in the Havana of the 1940`s, cowboys or Indians on the old American frontier, James Bond or the heroine in The Devil in Miss Jones. Between appearances they could return to the party and pick up the lines of meaningless talk, remarking on the weather in Calais or Fort Laramie.

In the middle passages of the dream I understood that these excursions weren’t merely idle. Everybody at the party was playing a macabre game. All the guests were looking for an answer to a question that never had been asked. They were allowed only one chance to whisper the answer into the ear of the master of the revels, a man dressed in a ballet dancer’s black sweater and tights. If they were wrong, the penalty was severe – just how severe gradually becoming clear as the ranks of the celebrated host began to thin and diminish.

The arch opening through the fourth wall led into a surgical amphitheater where gaily costumed homosexuals stripped the flesh from those guests who had failed the quiz. The victims were strung up on bars covered in red velvet. Their remains, cut into modish squares and triangles, were served, on toast or encroûté, to the surviving guests. What was terrifying about the dream was the insouciance of the ladies and gentlemen who continued to eat. They pretended not to notice that anything was amiss. Their talk was as bright and as empty as before, as if their absent friends simply had gone on to another party. For several months after waking from the dream I could still see in my mind’s eye three well-known New York hostesses conversing about the season’s new literary masterpiece while delicately choosing an hors d’oeuvre from a tray decorated with the flesh of the author in whom they professed to notice the stirrings of genius.

* The New York repertory company has remained remarkably stable over the last quarter of a century, largely because the members of the company, like the actors in the Italian commedia dell’ arte, wear the masks of easily recognized personae – the famous novelist, the rising politician, this year’s richest Greek (or Arab, Japanese, or Californian), the season’s bravest director, the current suffragette or enfant terrible, the most enlightened swami, the ingenue, the young and happy couple blessed by fortune. The troupe divides the calendar into the sequences appropriate to children, and during the summer and winter holidays it pitches its tents in the resorts familiar to the readers of Town & Country. Although some of its members practice professions (usually as actors, dress designers or politicians) the company consists for the most part of people merely rich enough to pay for the son et lumière.

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