1926. David Stanley Smith, a Yale Music Professor, dismisses Jazz as a serious art form and Jacques Émile Blanche, a french artist, criticizes it as a foreign import – a threat to the nationality of France.
It’s not just jazz that’s under attack. In the United States, Thomas Edison slams radio as a commercial failure and predicts the return of the phonograph and good music. He also claims that Americans prefer silent movies to talkies. In Ireland, the Committee on Evil Literature is formed to look into the censoring of Vogue, The Daily Mail, and anything to do with birth control. And in Austria, a pastoral letter read aloud in all the Catholic churches condemns the “cult of the body” in present-day gymnastics, and denounces mixed bathing, rhythmic dancing and immodest sports attire.
This is not the first time in history that the “establishment” has attempted to enforce “proper” social norms, and it won’t be the last. In the previous generation, it was modern conveniences, which were under attack, now it’s alcohol and entertainment; “but the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew“. Prohibition is what’s making Jazz music so popular, as something needs to be played in the speakeasies where alcohol can be purchased (see video below), and the attacks on Vogue are only increasing its demand. The only thing these types of attacks accomplish is to further empower the youth rebel against the very same traditions their forebears resisted when they were that age. This age-old struggle between the old against the new, and the establishment against they youth is one of the themes Hope Mirrlees explores in her magical novel, Lud-in-the-Mist.
Hope Mirrlees (1887-1978) was a British translator, poet and novelist, a friend of T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf. In her diary, Woolf describes Mirrlees as “a very self conscious, wilful, prickly & perverse young woman, rather conspicuously well dressed & pretty, with a view of her about books & style, an aristocratic & conservative tendency in opinion, & a corresponding taste for the beautiful & elaborate in literature.”
As a young adult, Mirrlees studied the classics under the famous scholar, Jane Ellen Harrison with whom she developed a close relationship. Harrison was Mirrlees’ tutor, close friend and collaborator, and they lived, traveled and studied together from 1913 until Harrison’s death in 1928. During this period, Mirrlees published a 600 line modernist poem “Paris: a poem”, and her fantasy masterpiece, one of Neil Gaiman’s top ten favorite books, Lud-in-the-Mist.
The book tells the story of the fictional town of Lud-in-the-Mist, the capital of the free state of Dorimare. Fairyland is Dorimare’s neighbor to the west, and it lies beyond the Debatable Hills. There are no relations between Dorimare and Fairyland. Contact was lost centuries ago. In fact, Fairyland and everything to do with it are considered obscene by the Ludites. This wasn’t always the case though. Many generations ago, when Dorimare was a duchy, fairy things were viewed with reverence and fairy fruit was an important part of the Ludite diet. However, a violent revolution by the merchant class has made them a taboo. Fairy fruit is now illegal and categorized as a prohibited form of silk (because the word “fairy” is too obscene to be uttered in polite society). Any hint of the obvious connections between Dorimare and Fairyland are now met with fury.
Despite the ban, fairy fruit was still smuggled across the border, and concerned parents and citizens are doing everything in their power to prevent it from reaching children and poisoning their souls. One such person is the mayor of “Lud-in-the-Mist”, Nathaniel Chanticleer, a man who hears hidden music, which he fears to acknowledge. He is worried about his son, Ranolph, a youth who seems to be marching to a tune that sets him apart from the rest of the Ludites. Circumstances force Chanticleer to embark on a quest of self-understanding. In the process he investigates an ancient mystery, rights an old wrong and reveal a hidden truth – all of which you’ll have to read in the book itself as I’m not giving any more spoilers.
I think this is possibly the best book I have read so far in the #seferhaomer series (and there is now a physical copy in my library). The writing is lyrical with breathtaking imagery and layers upon layers of meaning. It tells the story of ordinary people moved to do the extraordinary, and ordinary people being ordinary in a way that we can all identify with, almost a century after the book was written. Every chapter in this book is a gem, and it’s amazing how Mirrlees is able to say so much using just the right amount of words. I strongly recommend buying a physical copy of this book. It is one of those books you will find yourself rereading again and again on Shabbat or on the train.
Part of Bernard Sleigh’s Ancient Mappe of Fairyland
The Omer today is grandeur in eternity, and boy does this book justify these accolades. The breathtaking beauty of Lud-in-the-Mist is enough to make your heart melt, but it goes deeper than that. The book takes ordinary everyday objects and occurrences and makes you pause, take notice, and apply your imagination to see hidden deeper meanings. For example, the city of Lud-in-the-Mist has more than just houses. It has “flat brick houses – not the mere carapace of human beings, but ancient living creatures, renewing and modifying themselves with each generation under their changeless antique roofs.” This is the level of grandeur that Mirrlees achieves in her book, a grandeur that combines itself well with the eternal themes the book explores, themes that bring Dorimare’s past into our present for us to gift to future generations. Very few authors have managed to achieve such a level of immortality. Hope Mirrlees is one of them. Seriously. Buy the book!