Monday, January 12, 2009

The Light Behind the Curtains

The break of dawn is not always the end of the party, but it is usually the beginning of the end. If nothing else, the first rays of daylight are a warning that the spell is breaking and that the special quality of night as a period outside of the normal rules of daytime (work, school etc.) is fleeting. In the 1920s, Herman Hesse described a moment at a party when 'a feeling that it was morning fell upon us all. We saw the ashen light behind the curtains. It warned us of pleasure’s approaching end and gave us symptoms of the weariness to come'. For him this was a signal for a last joyful burst of energy 'we flung ourselves desperately into the dance once more'.
A more doleful image of a party's end occurs in great Sicilian novel The Leapoard by Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958):

'The ball went on for a long time still, until six in the morning; all were exhausted and wishing they had been in bed for at least three hours; but to leave early was like proclaiming the party a failure and offending the host and hostess who had taken such a lot of trouble, poor dears. The ladies' faces were livid, their dresses crushed, their breaths heavy. "Maria! How tired I am! Maria! How sleepy!" Above their disordered cravats the faces of the men were yellow and lined, their mouths stained with bitter saliva. Their visits to a disordered little room near the band alcove became more frequent; in it were disposed a row of twenty vast vats; by that time nearly all were brimful, some spilling over. Sensing that the dance was nearing its end, the sleepy servants were no longer changing the candles in chandeliers, and the short stubs diffused a different, smoky, ill-omened light. In the empty supper room were only dirty plates, glasses with dregs of wine which the servants, glancing around, would hurriedly drain; through the cracks in the shutters filtered a plebeian light of dawn. The party was crumbling away…'

This pessimistic perspective is in keeping with the theme of the novel. Its main character, Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, is dying and reflecting melancholically on the fading away not only of his own life but of a way of life as the Sicilian aristocracy decays in the face of Italian unification - the party is over in every respect. For him 'The crowd of dancers... seem unreal, made of the raw material of lapsed memories, more labile even than that of disturbing dreams'. A young couple dancing may be 'sweet and touching' but they too are mortal and doomed: 'his gloved right hand on her waist, their outspread arms interlaced, their eyes gazing into each other's. The black of his tail-coat, the pink of her interweaving dress, looked like some unusual jewel. They were the most moving sight there, two young people in love dancing together, blind to each other's defects, deaf to the warnings of fate, deluding themselves that the whole course of their lives would be as smooth as the ballroom floor, unknowing actors set to play the parts of Juliet and Romeo by a director who had concealed the fact that tomb and poison were already in the script'.

Still the end of the night doesn't have to signal despair. In Camera Obscura's great party song Let Me Go Home (a favourite floorfiller at How Does it Feel?), 'Daylight appears through the curtains and nobody cares, Supremes in our dreams, Do we quit bein' obscene on the stairs?'. Anyway, sometimes the end of the party holds out the promise of something more: 'Well the room goes boom to the sound of temptations and more, Twisting and turning that girl's looking good on the floor, Well the four walls they collide, Until the blue-eyed girl decides to let me go home'.


Anonymous said...

just wanted to say that i love your blog. it's a beautiful thing that you do. please keep it up!

gauteandersen said...

Excellent blog you have! I agree with Anonymous here.

I study musicology in Oslo, Norway, and you have definately shaped my outlook on the study of dance, music and dancemusic for the better.