On the Passing of Gilbert Adair   Leave a comment

Although Gilbert Adair passed away on December 8, 2011, I only learned about his death today, and the belated news got me thinking. You see, I read his novel The Holy Innocents (1988) – better known these days by its cinematic title The Dreamers – at what might be termed a crucial time in my life.

Growing up in a rigorously Protestant family, in my youth I was perhaps more sensitive than most people to novels about sensuality and decadence. I remember, for instance, reading Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912) at the age of sixteen and being strangely aroused by it. It wasn’t just the eroticism of the book – although that obviously played a part – it was also the sense of deep subversion that touched something profound in me. Here was another way of living, something exciting, dangerous, edgy – a way of living in which risk and radical honesty were not merely performed, but were demanded.

When I read The Holy Innocents in 1994, at the age of 19, I hadn’t yet had my Road to Damascus moment, but it was imminent, coming at the beginning of the next year, when I discovered critical theory and postmodernism. Crucial seeds were being sown in my French classes, where we studied Albert Camus, the Theater of the Absurd, and the upheavals of mai 68, that revolutionary time in world history which has left such a mark (positive and negative) on French intellectual life. It was in this climate that I encountered The Holy Innocents, a book that, like Death in Venice (a story, perhaps not coincidentally, that Adair himself rewrote as his 1990 novel Love and Death on Long Island) and The Story of the Eye, lingers as a formative work not just because it changed my sexual perception of the world, but because it rang an existential chord in me. Here, it seemed to say, is a new and dramatic way of existing.

What about this novel seduced me? Most crucially, it was its affirmation of aesthetics over politics, of beauty over the ugliness of reality, of the fleeting moment of pleasure over the calculating tedium of the long term investment. In short, this was a reformulated romanticism for the postmodern era. It was nihilism at its most beautiful, the perfect trap for a nineteen-year-old on the cusp of intellectual discovery. I identified with Matthew in the same way that, at sixteen, I identified perversely with the aging, decadent Aschenbach, for being overcome by the sublime power of beauty. How could one not feel eliminated, reduced to nothingness, by the power of the aesthetic?

A year or two later I read Adair’s The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice (1992), a collection of his critical essays, and the first hints of disillusionment with certain aspects of postmodernism began. After his death, Adair’s criticism was praised as his greatest contribution to letters, but for all its cultural mastery, I found The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice to be narcissistic, arrogant, the proclamations of a privileged bully who belongs to smug little clique of fellow intellectuals. Adair pales in comparison to Roland Barthes, the critic he clearly aspired to emulate. My formerly ardent admiration faltered – I read no more.

It wasn’t until I saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003), an adaptation of The Holy Innocents, that I thought about Adair again. If The Holy Innocents was darkly romantic, then The Dreamers was downright sentimental – and I began to realize then just how much of a blind fool my younger self had been. And yet, and yet – despite its flaws, The Holy Innocents remains a book that I will continue to love and cherish, for its flaws, for all its nihilism. Its sense of irresistible folly, after all, is precisely what is so utterly seductive about it.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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Posted January 23, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Article

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