Life Imitates Art

In the Gregorian calendar, today is Thursday, September 29, 2022. In the Christian liturgical calendar, today is Michaelmas, the feast day for the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Rafael (and sometimes Uriel, but that’s another topic for another day). On my calendar, today is Pride and Prejudice Day.

I’m referring, naturally, to Jane Austen’s classic novel. It opens on a late summer day at the turn of the 19th century in the parlor of the Bennet family home in Hertfordshire, England. If you haven’t read this novel to the point of being able to recite it to unsuspecting passersby, I’ll get straight to the point. At some time around Michaelmas, Jane Austen’s Mr. Bingley and his five thousand pounds a year (give or take a grand) took possession of an estate next door to Mr. and Mrs. Bennet and their five unmarried daughters. You can imagine the scheming that such a real estate transaction could incite.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

The Bennet family

So begins Mrs. Bennet’s assault on her long-suffering husband with the news of Mr. Bingley’s impending arrival in the neighborhood and her intent for him to marry one of their daughters. It is the defining point of the novel. If Mr. Bingley had never let Netherfield at Michaelmas, the world would have been deprived of the pithy, prickly, and prejudiced courtship of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Thank heaven for small mercies. I’m certain Jane would be in equal measure bemused and appalled to know that when I awake each September 29th, I declare that Netherfield Park has been let at last.

I’m not alone. I don’t mean that there’s a cult of Austen that gathers on Michaelmas to celebrate the letting of Netherfield Park. I just think it’s true that everyone has been influenced by something someone else has created that they hold dear; dear enough that it becomes a part of them. The subject from a favorite painting, a line from an oft-read book, a catchphrase from a famous film, the lyric from a chart-busting song can all be used to inspire one’s own being as well as to connect with others. We all know that we can’t talk about Fight Club. Van Gogh would be fascinated that his enigmatic painting The Starry Night is on everything from coffee mugs to bed sheets. If you try to tell me that you’ve never looked at someone and uttered, ‘here’s looking at you, kid” then we all know you’re a liar.

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca

The reason I’d be so bold as to call you out on that score is because that very phrase, spoken to Ingrid Bergman by Humphrey Bogart in the iconic film Casablanca, isn’t original. True story. That expression had been used in writing and film since the 1880’s. It wasn’t uncommon. What made it special was who said it and how it was spoken. It became an extension of Humphrey Bogart even though he, nor the screenwriter who used it in the dialog, had invented it. It began its life in another work of art and was employed by more and more people until it hit its pinnacle in Hollywood in 1942.

Right about now, I can almost hear Oscar Wilde cheering from the beyond. I know, I know. First Jane Austen, then Humphrey Bogart, now Oscar Wilde. Even Van Gogh had a cameo. Your plaintive cry of “are we there yet?” rising from the back seat of the blog is not falling on deaf ears. Let’s get out here in Ancient Greece and stretch our legs while we briefly catch up with another, really old, friend.

Long before there was Austen, Wilde, and Bogart, Aristotle did some pretty heavy thinking in Greece. In particular, he thought about how mimicry was a part of human nature. It’s how we learn. It’s also how we live. Aristotle believed that the process of mimicry, mimesis in Greek, was how humans represented the real world in art, literature, and music. The credo that was borne of this philosophy is “Art Imitates Life”. Monkey see, monkey do. Makes sense, right? Well, maybe not.

Marty and Doc go Back to the Future

Now we’re going to hop back into the DeLorean (see what I did there) and set the date for 1889. Oscar Wilde’s provocative essay The Decay of Lying has just floated the concept that “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”. Also known as anti-mimesis. No, it doesn’t mean you’re against mimes, although that is a perfectly acceptable position to take up.

Wilde argued that things exist in reality, but their beauty isn’t revealed until an artist translates that reality into art. He used the example of London’s famous fog. Everyone can see it, but its reputation for ethereal beauty and mysterious foreboding only came about through its being depicted that way by artists and described that way by poets. Otherwise, fog is simply a ground-level cloud that makes it easy to trip over stuff.

Art, according to Wilde, is the act of telling beautiful lies. Artists transform something that is mundane, and is perhaps even an ugly truth, into a thing of beauty and pleasure. Again, we wouldn’t necessarily have thought of fog as a romantic or menacing force if it hadn’t been made apparent to us by an artist. He argued that artists who strive for realism in their work are a threat to imagination and creativity thus contributing to “the decay of lying”. And that realism in art is, in itself, unattractive.

That leaves us wondering who’s right? Is it Aristotle who thought that we mimic the beautiful things we see and hear? Or is it Oscar Wilde who said we see the beauty through another’s interpretation?

Every September 29th, when I wake up declaring that Netherfield park is under new management, I ally myself with Oscar Wilde. The influence that Jane Austen’s art has had on me allows me to color my world in a way that I wouldn’t necessarily have done on my own. She has taken September 29th out of the ordinary and lent the feast of Michaelmas an element of whimsy (other than the inclusion or exclusion of Uriel) that she could not have foreseen.

All in all, it seems to be a Chicken vs. The Egg conundrum. It depends on whether you like Buffalo wings or omelets. For me, it’s a feast day and a Thursday; I’m going to grab some buffalo wings and watch some Thursday Night Football on the canvas that is the gridiron.

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