Thursday, January 25, 2007

D.V., by Diana Vreeland.


As you’ve probably gathered from my email, I still haven’t finished the book. Although I think I’ve over halfway through if everything I read from the beginning and near the end is counted. At any rate, I’m disappointed that this is the one book I’ve evidently dropped the ball with, because I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read and think that was a class discussion I would’ve been quite involved in.

Among the things I remember coming up frequently in that discussion was the observation that D.V. was "superficial." People ended up making arguments in favor of the book beginning, "she’s very superficial, but," and then there was a somewhat smaller group that was just saying "she’s very superficial." I disagree with both groups.

I like the word superficial... I use it a lot, including in this class. The word’s Latin history is very straightforward, super meaning above and ficial being a surface. The word, then, stripped of its pejorative connotations constrains the modified object to the surface or exterior (in whatever sense the context provides). At the same time the word reflexively implies an alternative to the surface; something that is not the surface. This other substance can either be present or absent, defined or undefined, and connected or disconnected from whatever lies beneath. The word is useful, then, because it easily allows a complexity that the alternative words "form" and "content" do not handle very well in practice. Superficial is useful for making distinctions, but it is not so easily trapped in false dichotomies.

Even though we didn’t discuss this in class, I do think that most of the references people made utilized the word superficial in this broad sense. By describing D.V. as superficial, one asserts that nothing is hidden in the text, that what we notice is what there is to examine about the text. Those arguing against the book on this basis would then make the argument that it is soulless. Those arguing in support of the book would say something to the effect that superficiality creates a complexity in omitted dialogue. For example, many people spoke of the loneliness and tragedy of the piece. In Vreeland’s energy, they would argue, there is a repudiation of decay and banality, but in her superficiality, this repudiation becomes a little desperate. This is the complexity of the piece.

I can get on board with much of the second argument. I sensed what I thought seemed to be a real reluctance to talk extensively about life’s horrors, and the decisiveness of the maitre d’s suicide near the end, or in a less melodramatic sense, the simple fact of leaving a place and a group of people forever did seem to result from a genuine reluctance to engage these subjects. At least to engage them in a published memoir.

What I disagree with, however, is the restrictiveness of the verdict. There is a huge difference between saying that "D.V. is superficial" and stating that "the superficial characteristics of D.V. suggest a denial." I think the first view, which almost everyone who spoke somewhat largely seems to result from a bias going into the book. I think that there’s a bias in favor of darkness – I think that most writers in our program (and perhaps in general) associate happiness as simplicity and lack of interest or rigor. I think that (certainly in prose, and very likely in poetry) there is also a preference for complexity, and this most frequently comes out in the form of thematic and interpersonal conflict; both sides of an issue will have to negotiate a compromised, less accessible position to get what they wish. I certainly think there’s a bias against the "fashion world," simply because we’re steeped in images of Hollywood aloofness, or anorexic models, or ridiculous extravagance, and so on. Finally, there might even be a bias against the style of writing. These images of the horses on the Upper East Side and trips to Wyoming and St. Petersburg are evocative, but they don’t linger. Vreeland frenetically changes subjects, and as soon as she’s evoked a detail, she shoos it off the page.

I’ve gotten a little theoretical here. To pull it back little to my main point, fashion as described in D.V. is elbow deep in all sorts of complex and pertinent issues. From the very beginning Vreeland is describing the changing class structures of the first half of the 20th century. She discusses these issues primarily from the perspective of fashion and high society. But she also incorporates her sense of history, politics, and technology. She talks about growing up, forming a sense of place, forming a sense of loyalty, first to people that maintain contact, even though setting changes. She goes on to extrapolate the importance of loyalty to concepts. When she describes her parting from Buffalo Bill she writes "I can still remember standing with my sister at the back of the train with tears pouring down out faces, waving…" (24). This moment cannot escape complexity held against her impressions of Paris and New York, and even Albany where "everyone was older than us," (33).

I agree that the style and purpose of D.V. suggests a loneliness or uncertainty that Vreeland is unwilling to wrestle with within the text itself. But I wouldn’t stop there. As a book with a prominent and extravagant surface, D.V. is sumptuously superficial. The surface, however, is only the beginning.



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