'FATHERS ARE LIKE BLOCKS OF MARBLE - GIANT CUBES, HIGHLY POLISHED, WITH VEINS AND SEAMS - PLACED SQUARELY IN YOUR PATH. THEY CANNOT BE CLIMBED OVER, NEITHER CAN THEY BE SLI THERED PAST. THEY ARE THE "PAST", AND VERY LIKELY THE SLITHER, IF THE SLITHER IS THOUGHT OF AS THAT ACCOMMODATING MANOEUVRE YOU MAKE TO ESCAPE NOTICE, OR GET BY UNSCATHED. IF YOU ATTEMPT TO GO AROUND ONE, YOU WILL FIND ANOTHER (WINKING AT THE FIRST) HAS MYSTERIOUSLY APPEARED ATHWART THE TRAIL. OR MAYBE IT IS THE SAME ONE, MOVING WITH THE SPEED OF PATERNITY. LOOK CLOSELY AT COLOUR AND TEXTURE. IS THIS GIANT SQUARE BLOCK OF MARBLE SIMILAR IN COLOUR AND TEXTURE TO A SLICE OF ROAST BEEF? YOUR VERY FATHER'S COMPLEXION!'
Donald Barthelme, A Manual for Sons (1980)
Fathers are a power elite. In the american writer Donald Barthelme's story A Manual for Sons , it's not so much their physical or financial primacy that puts them at the top of the family pile; nor is it their stone-hewn bodies, nor even the mandarin music made by the car keys clinking in their pockets. Rather, it is the fact that paternity begets paternity. The figure of the second, winking, father is important here. Who is he but the first father's son? Who is he but us, the reader, lassoed by parenthood's fatal logic? In Barthelme's landscape - its paths blocked by cubes of marble, their roast beef surfaces hinting at rot - there are only two options: to become a member of the parental élite or to remain a powerless child.
Barthelme's fathers are, it seems to me, themselves the offspring of Vilfredo Pareto, the Italian founder of 'élite theory' (and later a minister in Benito Mussolini's Cabinet), who in his book The Mind and Society (1916) proposed that élite groups, whether despotic or nominally democratic, would always govern the world, each one waxing and then waning as decadence, like old age, does its work. It's a model of power based on biology, with all the brutal essentialism that that implies. What it could not, or would not, encompass was élites that privilege aesthetic experience over political advantage, or even their own survival. Such groups (some fact, some fiction) fleck cultural history, from the first rumblings of the French Revolution to the fall-out of the protests in 1968 on the streets of Paris, Chicago and Prague. To pin the common properties of these élites down too firmly would be to play fast and loose with the specific stuff of time and place (and would bruise the wings that buoy them to flight), but they nevertheless share certain characteristics: a belief in brief, perfect beauty; frequent infighting; a suspicion of parental figures; the youth of their members; a number of orphans among their members; and (as if in a pathetic repudiation of the biological imperative) the occasional suicide.
Back, for a moment, to the business of fathers and sons. In Jacques-Louis David's painting The Oath of the Horatii (1785) we see the bearded Horatius hand three swords to his male children, the triplet champions of early Rome. Their mission - which they pledge to complete with steady, flat-palmed salutes - is to settle the war with the neighbouring city of Alba through combat with its best warriors, the Curiatii, their brothers and boyhood friends. Although the painting is best known, today, as an exemplar of the proto-republican ideals of self-sacrifice and patriotisme, its public face conceals traces of a more private bond. Painting The Horatii (with its architectonic heroes, all hard muscles and hard-eyed resolve), David enlisted the help of Jean-Germain Drouais, a fatherless student who joined his studio in 1782 at the age of 19 and swiftly became the brightest star of the 'Young Davidian' set. Drouais was to die - weakened by his near-theatrical abuse of his body in pursuit of his painting - in the winter of 1788, but his ghost, and the ghost of David's affection for him, was to haunt his successor to the post of premier Davidian, Anne-Louis Girodet.
Girodet, whose own father died when he was only 17, had a fractious, on-off relationship with the older painter. In a letter following the first public display of The Sleep of Endymion (1791) - the work that made his reputation - he wrote that 'what makes me most happy is that opinion is united that I in no way resemble M. David.' Looking at the painting today, it's hard to disagree.Endymion is all soft moonlight, soft flesh and fizzing languor. It has none of The Horatii's marbled hardness, preferring to depict repose rather than responsibility, the veiled forest rather than the front-lit stage of civic life. For all this, however, it's possible to identify a family likeness in the work of the two men. In his The Death of Joseph Bara (1794) David paints the 'martyrdom' (milked, by Robespierre, for every drop of its dubious political capital) of a fatherless, 13-year-old boy who, flanked by rebel troops, supposedly shouted 'Long Live the Republic!' and paid for his words with his life. Bathed in gilded sunlight, the girlish, naked, preternaturally pretty Bara is a blood relative of Girodet's Endymion. Their shared plasma, their very paint, is laced with republican sympathies, displaced (and dysfunctional) filial feelings and the belief that perfectibility, whether physical or metaphysical, may be embodied by the pale limbs of a prostrate, beautiful boy. The Death of Joseph Bara, perhaps more than any other work by David or the Davidians, attests to the private, highly emotional élitism that was at the hidden heart of Revolutionary France's visual culture.
On 25 November 1970 the 45-year-old Japanese writer and body-builder Kimitaka Hiraoka, better known by his nom de plume Yukio Mishima, journeyed by car to a Tokyo military base with four of his followers. On the way the party passed the school attended by Mishima's 11-year-old daughter. 'This', he joked, 'is the moment in a film where we would hear some sentimental music.' The followers giggled, then began to sing. On reaching the base, the five men apprehended the presiding general, and forced him to assemble the troops. Mishima addressed them from a balcony, asking 'Is it possible that you value life, given a world where the spirit is dead?' Not receiving much of an answer, he returned indoors and pierced his hard belly with his sword, disembowelling himself. Having committed seppuku, the ritual suicide of the samurai warrior, all that remained to be accomplished was Mishima's beheading. The man chosen for this job, however, lost his nerve, and so another member of the party picked up the blade, beheading both Mishima and, according to the dictates of bushido code, his refusenik follower. Thousands attended the writer's funeral.
If Mishima's suicide is a film script for the blackest of black comedies, his novels read like chronicles of a death foretold. Bleak, beautiful and bubbling with masochistic eroticism, their subject is often a vague, unobtainable 'glory'. In The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1965) Mishima tells a deceptively simple tale in which the widow Fusako falls in love with Ryuji, a sailor on shore leave, and persuades him to abandon his ship to become her husband and stepfather to her 13-year-old son Noboru. Unbeknown to Fusako, Noboru is a member of an élite band of savage boys who vilify the hypocrisies of the adult world and attempt - through everything from the dulling of their sexual desires to the torture of a kitten - to become heartless beacons of 'objectivity'. But, dictated by their ferocious 'chief' (who, in the inverted moral universe of Mishima's aesthetics, is described as 'too pretty'), their philosophy is based not on cold facts but on a fantasy in which the body frees itself from the shabby bounds of the Earth: 'To begin with, he maintained that their genitals were for copulating with the stars in the Milky Way. Their pubic hair, indigo roots buried deep beneath white skin and a few strands already strong and thickening, would grow out in order to tickle coy stardust when the rape occurred.'
Such grandiloquent daydreams are, for the gang, ballast against parental platitudes, the worst of which come from the figure of the father: 'a machine for dishing up lies to kids, and that isn't even the worst of it: secretly be believes he represents reality'. As The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea reaches its climax, we realize that it's this - 'reality', and the right to control it - that is the book's battleground. In the final few pages the gang murder Ryuji for giving up the sublime 'glory' of the sea and settling into banal domesticity. It is not an act through which they will accrue power, or wealth, or influence, but one that (and this, it seems, is key to adolescent élites of this type) allows them to correct a tiny corner of the cosmos. Like Mishima's own suicide it is, for all its violence, and for all its revolutionary promise, a primarily aesthetic event.
If Noboru's band uses the fantastic to critique adult mores, the protagonists of Jean Cocteau's novel Les Enfants Terribles (1929) - the orphaned teenaged siblings Paul and Elisabeth and their friends Agatha and Gerard - employ it as a mode of sybaritic escape. In the fetid phantasmagoria of their bedroom they live the life of childish invalids: bickering, eating ginger biscuits in bed and glorying in the intensity of their every feeling. They're an élite, yes, but they have not been elected, or even self-elected, to that position because they possess any superior quality. (Although they are beautiful, it is the beauty of sick, hothouse flowers.) Rather - bound by the rules of a role-playing game that's grown beyond their control and the almost sentient bedroom they inhabit - they resemble the 'elect of God', a group that some strange, ineffable force has deemed mystically significant. It is notable that, as the teenagers plunge deeper into their own, private imaginings, Cocteau's accompanying illustrations become sparer and sparer. By the end of the book, in the drawing depicting Paul's suicide, the protagonists have become scratchy, broken outlines, as though they are too precious, too delicate, to be depicted with anything so sharp or empirical as a pen.
In 1969 two British films were released that probed élitism in British public schools and, by extension, wider public life. The first, Lindsay Anderson's If..., featured Malcolm McDowell as Mick Travis, a schoolboy rebel negotiating a regime where he's caught between the rock of a 'progressive' headmaster (representing, perhaps, the lip-service paid to social liberalism by late 1960s politicians) and the hard place of a posse of sadistic prefects. His response to this situation, finally, is to take to the school roof on Founder's Day, and subject teachers, parents and prefects alike to a barrage of guerrilla gunfire.
While the strap-line for If... might happily have been, in a nod to the Situationists, 'Underneath the Schoolyard, the Beach!', Ronald Neame's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie demands something much darker. Adapted from Muriel Spark's 1961 novel, it starred Maggie Smith as Jean Brodie, a schoolmistress in mid-1930s Edinburgh. Dedicated to a small élite of female students, Brodie - an unconscious Jesuit - fills their heads with her own beliefs, principal among them that 'Safety does not come first. Goodness, truth, and beauty come first.' After instructing her pupils in the efficacy of Giotto, fascism and affairs with married men, she fatefully persuades the impressionable orphan Mary MacGregor to hop school and go to Spain to fight for Franco. Mary is killed in a senseless bombing before she sees action (or, indeed, finds out that her brother is fighting for the Republicans); Sandy, the shrewdest of the Brodie set, betrays her to her the school's headmistress; and Brodie's world - her 'Prime' - grows cold.
Whether aesthetic élites' breeziness about mortality is a moral problem is a moot point. (After all, if you can't feel that way when you're young, when can you?) Both If... and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie present élitism, whether it be the ruffled cool of schoolboy rebellion or the fine-boned sensuality of Brodie's 'crème de la crème', as, essentially, a fantasy position. But what sets Neame's film apart - both from If... and from the work of David, Girodet, Mishima and Cocteau - is that it refuses to transubstantiate death into something a lot like beauty. It is, as Miss Brodie said of her girls, 'more aware'.