From “The Leopard” to “Sword of Honour”: An essay in descents

From “The Leopard” to “Sword of Honour”: An essay in descents October 26, 2018

Hey all. Earlier in the year I tried to write a thing about what you might call novels of the vanished premodern world, or novels of the short twentieth century, or whatever–you can tell from this taxonomic confusion that I never quite found my footing in the piece. But I still liked it and I’m going to inflict it on all of you, in pieces, here. Various controversial claims ensue of which my favorite is the argument that The Glass Bead Game is really one of these novels, which I haven’t seen others claim.

Today you get the intro and part one, about The Leopard. On Monday I’ll post part two, on White Guard & The Radetzky March.


The political upheavals of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries bore all kinds of names, from the euphemistic “people’s republic” to the dystopian “total war.” It’s hard to name precisely what was born of these upheavals—“modernity” is too abstract, “the American century” too specific; “democracy” too depressing. But the difference between the world before and the world after is easily seen. Before, cavalry; after, nylons. Before, peasants; after, P.R. For a series of reactionary novels, published in the 1930s through the 1960s, the collapse of the previous order was not merely an economic and political transformation but an existential cataclysm which shattered men’s understanding of their place in the world. For these novels the death rattle of premodernity meant not merely revolution, but apocalypse.

Four of these novels are classics of revolt against the times: Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Russian Civil War novel White Guard, and Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. The fifth, Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, is an experimental science-fiction collage novel which at first seems to sit oddly among works otherwise set in some version of a real, historical world. Yet to read these books not in order of publication but in the order I’ve just named them—slotting Hesse in right before Waugh—is to watch the apocalypse in slow motion. The post-apocalyptic world is recognizably our own, as the vanished world is recognizably alien. By exploring these novels’ common ground, we can see what we’ve lost—and what we’ve forgotten.

The Leopard is the book set in the earliest period, and with the most feeling for the vanished world. (Its author bears the utterly twentieth-century title, “the last Prince of Lampedusa.”) Posthumously published in 1958, it concerns the social changes brought by Italian unification. Unlike the more purely nostalgic 1963 film from Luchino Visconti, Lampedusa’s work has a medieval cynicism—it is carnival and grotesque, loping and digressive. The Leopard has a romance novel’s heady bluntness, a submissiveness to the reader’s lower tastes: “Restless and domineering, the Princess dropped her rosary brusquely into her jet-fringed bag, while her fine crazy eyes glanced around at her slaves of children and her tyrant of a husband, over whom her diminutive body vainly yearned for loving dominion.”

One of the most consistent features of pre-apocalyptic characterization is the importance of clothing. When the bourgeois mayor turns up in an inappropriate tailcoat, some might laugh but Don Fabrizio the Prince “saw revolution in that white tie and two black tails moving at this moment up the stairs of his own home.” The Leopard also displays the full range of social classes. There are peasants here, and their opinions about what’s owed them matter to Don Fabrizio if not to his successors.The obligations which tie rich and poor together are already weakening, butstill mutual to a degree we will not see again in any of these novels.

These seemingly distinct issues of clothing and class are really the same issue. The older classes of The Leopard have duties proper to their station in life, which are represented by their costumes. Like Harlequin and Pierrot they tell you who they are by what they wear, and they fulfill these roles no matter how ridiculous they become in their own eyes. The new middle class has desire in place of duty, and they don’t have to care if their fashions make them ridiculous in the eyes of the fossilizing ladies whose “dresses would arrive from Naples in long black cases like coffins.” The Leopard hymns “that annihilation, however temporary, of one’s own personality without which there is no love.” This is the most feverish rendition of a tune almost all of these novels eventually play: Individualism, self-assertion, satisfaction and success are no match for the joys of devotion, subordination, and self-surrendering duty.

Many of these novels, rather than aiming for strict realism, have a hallucinatory quality. Mere realism would not allow readers to feel the way social and political revolutions have unsettled the nature of reality itself. The given truths of the old world become mere dreams and visions, as even the most conservative characters are subjected to their own subjectivities.The Leopard’s characters swelter under “the drugging sun,” but its most dreamlike sequence is Tancredi and Angelica’s spelunking through the shuttered wings of the vast palace at Donnafugata. The young lovers pass stray cats’ corpses and abandoned musical instruments, and find at last the two strangest rooms, both featuring a whip: one used for sadomasochistic pleasure, the other for ascetic penance, where “the Saint-Duke” of the seventeenth century had scourged himself “in sight of his God and his estates.” A rich man’s playground, and a rich man’s cell—two places where one could find release from boredom, from the comfort-ridden self. They’re strange hints of the extremes avoided by our diffident, ambivalent antihero, Don Fabrizio. This is the most blatant example of the way the novel’s August sensuality often lies alongside penance and renunciation, as if thirst and remorse are the only human emotions.

The Leopard’s most famous line is, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” This line starts out as a revolutionary’s promise—Yes, your world is reshaping itself, but what you care about most will be preserved. It’s remembered later with the less optimistic connotation of, Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. By the novel’s end the cynical interpretation has become, with the perversity which is the novel’s hallmark, the most hopeful possibility. The promise of preservation is discarded—the moth-eaten taxidermied dog flung out the window onto a trash heap, the prince’s daughters mummified within their virginity. The best that can be said for the new world is that it might be no worse than the old world, for there is nothing new under that narcotic sun.

What perseveres in Don Fabrizio’s Sicily is the Catholic Church. We’ll see her again in several of these novels: complicit, unhelpful, too clever by half and yet somehow convincing worldly men that she has the right to judge them. Don Fabrizio says plainly, “Holy Church has been granted an explicit promise of immortality; we, as a social class, have not.” Visconti’s Leopard ends sublimely, with a scene which takes place significantly earlier in the book: the Eucharistic procession and Don Fabrizio’s genuflection. Lampedusa’s Leopard ends with open conflict between Church and family, antisocial truth against the social peace of tradition. The Church wins; it’s only due to the novel’s own trust in the Church’s supernatural character that victory does not discredit her.

On to part two. Image via Wikipedia.

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