Sunday, January 4, 2009

Letter to Mom (Or, On Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and Tanizaki’s Naomi)


Watching Martin Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence” (1993) last night I kept thinking of Tanizaki’s Naomi (1924), which can be read, I’m told, as a parody of works like Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920) that adhere to the following formula: a modern man of liberal persuasion must choose between a “marriage of love” (ren’ai kekkon) to a modern, “liberated” girl and a “political marriage” (seiryaku kekkon) to a conventional girl of society. The choice (now considered to be a false conundrum) is ultimately between the discovery of his “authentic self” and the passive acceptance of his “socially-determined self.”

In Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, the modern man is Newland Archer, who is so infatuated with the intelligent but disreputable Ellen Olenska that he nearly throws away his secured social position and future in order to be with her. Ultimately, however, Newland gives up his dreams of an “authentic” life with the free-spirited Ellen in favor of a pre-scripted one with the pretty but vapid May Wellen.

The story is told by a third-person narrator (presumably Wharton herself) who is so close to the perspective of Newland that we see things only through his filter. What we don’t know, for example, is a) what does Ellen really think of her relationship with Newland, and b) to what extent does the Ellen of Newland’s fantasies correspond to the real Ellen?

I suspect that Tanizaki (assuming he'd read the novel) would have been highly skeptical of the “authenticity” of Newland and Ellen’s supposed love and, more broadly, of the whole discourse surrounding notions of “progress,” “liberation,” “authentic self” and even “romantic love.” He would, I presume, have seen the Naomi-esque Ellen as a highly perceptive, promiscuous and sadistic temptress who gets her kicks from toying with men like Newland who, albeit subtly, reveal a penchant for masochism.

Yet this by no means implies a moral judgment of Ellen’s character: if anything, her ability to manipulate Newland by anticipating and acting out his narcissistic misreading of her shows that she is by far the more imaginative and complex figure. I suspect that the idea for Naomi began as a germ that grew out of such skeptical readings of novels like The Age of Innocence.

Perhaps such skepticism toward this formula is indicative of a more general tendency among the Japanese to see relationships in terms of their inherent power structure. Just think, when’s the last time a casual acquaintance in the U.S. asked if you were sadistically or masochistically inclined? Here it’s a perfectly normal conversation-starter.

Was Edith Wharton herself aware of this possible interpretation? Who knows. (Not me.) Didn’t Wimsatt and Beardsley warn us not to speculate about what the author intended? Still, one can’t help but suspect that Wharton— a writer keenly aware of the discrepancy between the “hieroglyphics” of social interaction and the stuff of inner experience— must have known that Newland and Ellen were an impossibility from the start, that their supposed “connection” was no more than a misperception on Newland’s part, and that Ellen, knowing this, simply decided to play along with it.

Your dutiful son,

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Something that might interest you:

Unfortunately, the article hasn't been made public, but you should be able to access it from your university library. It deals with some of the issues you discuss here.

-Jarvis 32