The Old Guard

(Note: This is a slightly different take on a Vanity Fair article and its photographs than that given by Bethanne Patrick– see Mme. Tussaud’s Literary Waxworks. Patrick called the photos– which I discuss below– “literary waxworks,” which may be true, but she missed their deeper significance.)

I have a sister who snail mails me clippings from old-style print magazines if she think they’ll interest me. Usually they’re about writers, artists, or moviemakers. Or about Detroit. In her latest mailing she included a May 2014 Vanity Fair article by Paul Elie, “A Fundamental Fight,” about Salman Rushdie and the 1989 Satanic Verses controversy.

The print version includes pages of glossy photographs of Rushdie’s defenders. The names and images exude literary power and money; a Who’s Who of traditional publishing: Martin Amis, Carol Blue, Bill Buford, Frances Coady, Nan Graham, Andrew Wylie. Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt. Ian McEwan, Caroline Michel, Gerald Marzorati. Rushdie himself.

All are expensively dressed. The glossy pages of the print version emphasize what computer images cannot– the subjects’ air of supreme confidence, security, and privilege. An imbued presumption of entitlement; part of their skins. These are top dogs– within their exclusive domain– and they know it.

The Paul Elie article celebrates a moment in their upper-crust lives when danger entered the door of success, and their sense of security left. They faced an uncommon threat with courage. Their old-fashioned world of letters and business took on genuine purpose.

Looking at the photos, I can’t help think that with the article, Paul Elie celebrates more than past controversy. He celebrates a passing world– an aging aristocracy soon to vanish.

The article’s photos carry a tone of nostalgic melancholy, a depiction of a generation unaware of what’s coming; a “Grande Illusion,” as if the elegant characters are in a Jean Renoir movie about World War One.

Today the literary aristocrats face a more relentless danger than confused mobs of low-rent Islamists. Outside the thick walls of legacy publishing hovers an amorphous yet fundamental force– one which threatens not just their glittering careers, but their entire system of business.

All will have to go in the face of a hurricane of change– they, their posh offices, padded salaries, and Manhattan-London lifestyles, including jet-set flights, and tony expense-account lunches at chic restaurants.

These artifacts belong to another era, one which is no longer economically viable. The inevitability of Amazon and what it represents is beginning to make itself felt. Already many establishment writers and editors scream in protest.

The print version of Vanity Fair is itself a relic, which adds to the melancholy. A faded flower– the decay is unstoppable, but regretful.

Meanwhile, the personages in the glossy photos are silent, frozen in time, within their beautifully obsolete milieu. Change is beyond their comprehension. Courage is no substitute for vision. You couldn’t move them with warning shots, or a hurricane siren.

I suppose I should save the article’s pages as a collector’s item.

Thank you to Vanity Fair and Washingtonian for the image.

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