Monday, November 12, 2012

Tom Wolfe's "Isle Joyeuse"

I have been having a lot of fun lately with Claude Debussy's "L'isle joyous," particularly after a student performance at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music inspired me to write an piece entitled "An encounter with Debussy at his most erotic." What struck me about this performance was that the student appreciated how this piece was inspired by Antoine Watteau’s L’Embarquement pour Cythère (whose image I had reproduced when I wrote about a less satisfying performance last May). What this student "got" was the significance of "L'Embarquement" in Watteau's title. The painting did not depict the "pleasure island" of Cythera itself but the anticipation of the travelers of what they would do when they got there (except, as I observed, for one couple in the painting who were already off to a running start).

I was reminded of this article while reading Nathaniel Rich's review of Tom Wolfe's latest novel, Back to Blood, in the latest issue of The New York Review. The novel is set primarily in Miami but also takes in one of the Florida Keys. Specifically, Wolfe invests his usual level of enthusiastic (typographically, as well as verbally) description on Elliott Key. Rich summarizes Wolfe's description (after quoting a bit of its outlandishness) as follows:
The idea is something like Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras, only on boats—thousands of boats, yachts, cigarette boats, dinghies, kayaks, clustered around the key like sharks around a bleeding seal.
In other words Elliot Key is just an Americanization of Cythera, and the anticipation depicted by Watteau has been heightened to such a fever pitch that none of the voyagers can wait to get off their respective boats!

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