Observations of a Jaundiced Eye

Observations of a Jaundiced Eye September 18, 2021


The Elms
A view of “The Elms,” in Newport, Rhode Island, from the rear.
(Wikimedia Commons public domain image)




One of the many unappetizing features of our unfortunate present age — a wonderful period of human history in so many ways, with remarkable technological advancements and unprecedented comfort and overall health, but riven with hostilities and dulled in far too many cases by despair, purposelessness, and anomie — is our haste to brand others as liars simply because they disagree with us or see things differently than we do.  This is a kind of social cancer.  And it’s remarkably widespread.


Several related ideas are worth noting here, at least briefly and in passing.  There is, for example, the so-called “principle of charity,” which, as Richard Feldman puts it in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “urges charitable interpretation, meaning interpretation that maximizes the truth or rationality of what others think and say.”  We should not assume that our interlocutor is stupid; we should not put the most boneheaded and obviously false interpretation on what he or she says or writes.  Sometimes, when an “opponent” has phrased something poorly or misspoken, it’s even the more ethical choice to try to improve what he or she has said before we set out to rebut it.


We should also not assume moral depravity or bad faith unless we have solid grounds for that assumption.  It is fundamentally important — and, in many places, it is expressly advised — that we assume good faith in other discussants unless we have very solid reason to assume otherwise.  This is difficult in some places in social media because there are unquestionably people out there who are merely pretending to post in good faith.  Sometimes it takes a while to detect the pretense, which hides behind anonymity.  The social media virtually invite poseurs, and some posters derive considerable gratification from cheap deceit and from fooling others.  Such, alas, is our fallen world.


A photograph by Carol M. Highsmith of the dining room at the Newport, Rhode Island, “summer cottage” known as Marble House

(Wikimedia Commons public domain photo from the Library of Congress)


Several women from our neighborhood arrived in Providence on Thursday evening.  My wife and I went out to pick some of them up and to help the others to get a second rental car.  Yesterday, Friday, was spent down in Newport again.  First, we visited Marble House, which was built between 1888 and 1892 as a summer cottage for Alva and William Kissam Vanderbilt.  (My wife and I had visited it once before, quite a few years ago.)  It is famously opulent, but also rather sad.  The marriage between Alva and William was not a good one, and they eventually divorced.  But not before (as she later frankly acknowledged) Alva had forced her daughter Consuelo into a loveless marriage with Charles Spencer-Churchill, the ninth Duke of Marlborough, who was based at Blenheim Palace and who was a cousin of Winston Churchill.  The Duke loved someone else, but he was deeply in debt and needed the Vanderbilts’ money to save his estate.  Consuelo, in her turn, was not only in love with someone else but secretly engaged to him.  But her mother deeply wanted a title in her family, and she eventually got a duchess.  Consuelo was forced to accept the Duke’s coerced proposal in the “Gothic Room” of Marble House, a place that, she later reflected, was perfectly appropriate to an act of human sacrifice.  In the end, Consuelo and the Duke also divorced.


This is a perfect and perfectly painful example of putting the things that matter most — in this instance, marriage and family relationships — at the mercy of things like possessions, financial interests, and dynastic ambitions that won’t matter at all in the eternities.


The Duchess of Marlborough, ca. 1903, by Paul César Helleu. Sir James Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan, is reputed to have said “I would wait all night in the rain, to see Consuelo Marlborough get into her carriage.”


After lunch, we spent some time at “The Elms,” which is one of the older of the famous mansions along Bellevue Avenue.  Again, remarkably grand, ostentatiously magnificent — and used for only about four to eight weeks each year (during “the Season”) as a “summer cottage.”


I was struck by the desire of some if not all of these mega-rich families in align themselves with the European and particularly English aristocracy.  Sometimes literally, as in the marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt to the ninth Duke of Marlborough.  Another way, though, is illustrated in their choice of art and furniture:  Almost everything in the three mansions that I visited — the women will visit at least one more, I think, but I’m homeward bound — came from Europe.  And the walls were adorned with imported European paintings, including numerous portraits of wholly unrelated members of the English nobility, among whom the portraits of the mansions’ owners were located as if among the peerage themselves.  This strikes me as profoundly un-American, and not merely in the relatively superficial political sense.  (Though, after all, we had just rather painfully and proudly separated ourselves from Mother England slightly more than a century before.)  It’s plain that some of the Dukes and Vanderbilts and Berwinds and Astors saw themselves as British-style aristocrats — ironically at a time when the British aristocracy itself was struggling, financially.


How to view this?  The American wannabe nobles had at least earned their money through trade, by making things (e.g., furs, tobacco products, energy, steel, shipping, railroads) that people wanted.  Earlier European nobles had flatly stolen what they wanted.  They were, in all too many cases, descendants of what were, in essence, early gang leaders.  To my way of thinking, the houses of Windsor and Tudor and Hapsburg and the like aren’t all that different, at their origins, from the Sharks and the Jets or the Crips and the Bloods, constantly in vicious turf wars with each other and extracting protection money from those who were just trying to till their fields and pursue their trades.  Read nineteenth-century British novels and you’ll often see expressions of disdain and contempt toward those who became wealthy through “trade” from social elites whose supposedly superior class and status rest on their derivation, at a few generations’ remove, from swashbucklers and criminals.


As for all of the stuffy portraits of overdressed dandies and super-elegant ladies and all of the uncomfortable museum-worthy furniture, well, give me Frank Lloyd Wright.  Fallingwater would do nicely.


Posted from Providence, Rhode Island



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