Everything Is Callous

or: Art is Callous because Life is

Elegant variation shades into ironical euphemism, which shades into dandaical detachment. Flaubert, in despair at the Franco- Prussian war, and trying to maintain the primacy of art, commented that in the long run, perhaps the only function of such carnage was to provide writers with a few fine scenes. So here, the function of the octogenarian Breton woman who hangs herself, or the 75-year-old man who dies of a stroke on the bowling lawn (‘While his ball was still rolling he was no more’), or the 70-year-old who drops dead of sunstroke (‘Quickly his dog Fido ate his head’) is to provide a sophisticated Parisian with a witty paragraph. [...] [A] bomb became a ‘delightful kettle’ and the manner in which it killed six people showed ‘intimate charm’ (we are not far from
Stockhausen’s quickly retracted description of the World Trade Center attacks as ‘the greatest artwork ever made’).

Julian Barnes, LRB 4 October

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