Monday, June 22, 2015

Lana Del Rey's Post-Pre-Raphaelite Hymn

I'm going to sit here, right now while you're watching, and see if I can figure out Lana del Rey's foray into high culture.

I've been thinking about this since shortly after the 2013 release of Baz Luhrman's version of The Great Gatsby with Del Rey singing the theme song, "Young and Beautiful," which she co-wrote with Rick Nowels.

(Some argue that Ms. Del Rey's lyrics as a whole, with their depiction of relationships that are both complex and mature, their advocacy of healthy life-style choices, and their championing of strong moral codes even among the young, make her a rare positive role model for our nation's youth; others assert she's already had facial work. These are issues beyond my limited expertise, but I can say I find her pictures enjoyable to look at.) 
Ms. Del Rey in her Pre-Raphaelite persona
Anyway, when we discussed Great Gatsby in class later that year, Danielle Torres, a very talented young woman, sang that song in class, and this stanza caught my ear:

Dear Lord, when I get to heaven
Please let me bring my man
When he comes tell me that you'll let him in
Father, tell me if you can
Oh, that grace, oh that body
Oh that face makes me wanna party
He's my sun, he makes me wanna shine like diamonds.

In Rossetti's work, a deceased young damsel who has earned a spot in heaven longs for her surviving sweetie (who occasionally gets to make parenthetical observations in the poem).
The damsel longs for her living lover.
This was vexing to the poem's 1850 readers. The blessed -- according to the Victorians -- do not envy the living. The blessed are spiritual, pure, immortal. The living are fleshly, fallen and mortal. As the narrator of John Fowles' French Lieutenant's Woman points out, the soul that, God willing, is eventually destined to reside in heaven is our only real self and during its time on earth is "reluctantly dragged along" above the "beast," i.e., the body, "like a white captive balloon behind a disgraceful and disobedient child."

The poem's readers would also have disapproved of the damsel's rather risque wardrobe in which "Her robe [is] ungirt from clasp to hem."

Rossetti's heavenly damsel was scandalous in other ways. She is so far above the earth -- presumably both literally and metaphorically -- "she could scarce see the sun," and while souls like flames are "mounting up to God" all around her, what is she doing? She's looking back "out of the circling charm; / Until her bosom must have made / The bar she leaned on warm."

Someone bring Ernestina the smelling salts! Celestial architecture is not to be heated by a pining woman's breast!

Also, the damsel is sad in heaven which isn't supposed to happen according to eyewitnesses like, for example, that one kid whose story got turned into a long-running best-selling book and a terrible movie before he had time to grow up and admit he was lying.

Del Rey's song looks forward to a similar incongruity. She would like to "bring [her] man" when she goes to heaven and not just in his conventionally imagined spiritual form. She wants not only the "grace," but "that body" and that "face [that] makes me wanna party."

Here, I agree with the majority of Del Rey scholars, particularly those trained in the theory of Bakhtin, Braudrillard, Bourdieu, Foucault, DeCerteau and Naomi Wolf, that "party," a metonymic euphemism, is the key word; placed as it is in the "empowered" slot of her syntactical structure, serving as a full-stop closure for her longing supplicant (or supplicant longer, for that matter).

Then Del Rey uses the sun, barely visible in Rossetti's original, as a metaphor for her lover, whose blinding light makes her "shine like diamonds."

So clearly Rossetti and his modern youthful protege Del Rey belong in the school of art dubbed "Fleshly" by the Victorian critic James Buchanan -- fleshly in that it linked too closely, nay, even equated spiritual and fleshly bliss. Some of the more dirty-minded Victorians, for example, were not convinced that Rossetti's Beata Beatrix depicts spiritual ecstasy:

How, then, does this serve as a musical backdrop for Fitzgerald's Great Gatsby or Lurhrman's 3D version of it? Where the hell is heaven in Gatsby? And, while the book is sick with bosom imagery, whose bosom warms the bar of heaven?

Fitzgerald's novel glimmers and twinkles like diamonds, and so does Gatsby and his eyes and his shirts. But take those shirts off and you'll ask, "What bloody man is this?" He has been compared to Icarus, but maybe he's another fallen angel. In one of the book's more annoying passages, Nick Carraway says Gatsby is "a son of God -- a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that."

After reading the novel about 30 times, I would agree with Nick, but only if he is referring to Cormac McCarthy's child of god (maybe you're one, too) from the novel of the same name. Yes, I think Gatsby could comfortably pal around with Lester Ballard. Anyway,we should always doubt the divinity of a man who lunches with someone who wears human molars as cuff links.

After realizing it is necessary to become wealthy to earn the Holy Grail (played by Daisy Fay), Gatsby uses a sort of combo scorched-earth, Manifest-Destiny, Macbethian strategy, to reach -- but not grasp -- his goal.

Maybe I'm missing something, but by the time he reunites with Daisy in Nick's little love shack, I believe he's standing on a huge pile of mutilated corpses. No heaven there!

There is, however, an intimation of heaven in the book's most dazzling passage, one that manages to be both Impressionistic and Pre-Raphaelitesque -- completely unfilmmable. I'm referring to the "Stairway to Heaven" scene, which is another one of Nick's many fantasies, in which he imagines Gatsby and Daisy's first kiss.

Before they kiss, out of the corner of his eye, Gatsby sees that "the sidewalk really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees -- he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder" (my emphasis).

According to Carraway, once Gatsby kisses her, he knows "his mind would never romp again like the mind of God," and the kiss -- awfully Keatsian in nature -- makes the "incarnation . . . complete."

So we do once more see the Del Revian, Pre-Raphaelite body-spirit contest, I guess, in which the spirit is willing to sacrifice itself for the body, the incarnation, the flesh, the material (girl), the empty Grail. It is Gatsby's bosom that warms the bar of heaven as he leans forward toward the seductive, Siren-like image of the American Dream -- just as the "fresh, green breast of the new world" seduces the Dutch sailors on the novel's last page. The sailors and Gatsby both lost their way. The breast, the pap, that gives the incomparable milk of wonder, is set aside for more vulgar gains.

And Tom's mistress Myrtle, a low-rent Pre-Raphaelite stunner herself, gets sucked into their dreams, our dreams, of pleasure and wealth and power, and falls beneath our grinding wheels, relinquishes her "untapped vitality" like a painful birth, her breast -- neither warming the bar of heaven nor giving milk of wonder, "swing[s] loose like a flap" as she is literally left in the dust.

So, yes, I think Lana Del Rey nailed it pretty well with her wistful longing for a body in heaven to party with. It harmonizes nicely with another tragic tale of the American Dream. Maybe she even agrees with George Carlin who said "It's called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it."
"God Bless Partying, God Bless Gatsby, and God Bless America!"

No comments:

Post a Comment