PRINT December 1984


The Architecture of Death, The Great Cat Massacre, DV, Glen Baxter His Life, and Has Modernism Failed?

FOR CLARITY AND DEPTH of scholarship, for its unobtrusive erudition and the light it casts on what we have imagined to be the function of the cemetery for the quick and the dead, Richard Etlin’s book is a marvel. It stands as an example of the value and beauty of humanistic study and ranks among the highest works of interdisciplinary learning in the history of ideas.

Etlin fulfills his claim that “this book . . . is not a simple architectural or social history. It is an exploration of how a society fashions its physical world to support and sustain its most cherished convictions and deepest feelings.” Though seemingly narrow in its focus, exploring as it does the single image of the cemetery—including its design, landscaping, and architecture—the book weaves a riveting account of historical changes in perspectives on death and on the environment for the dead. In the early Middle Ages the status of the deceased was marked by the proximity of the grave to the church or within the church itself. After the French Revolution was born the notion of the egalitarian cemetery, where “no sumptuous mausoleums, so offensive to the principle of equality, would be permitted. . . .” Fascinatingly, the idea of the cemetery not as a place of dread, a reminder of our mortality, but as a “‘Field of Rest’ was officially born under the Terror.”

The book is lavishly illustrated and beautifully designed—with wide margins and gutters—giving the work a luxurious quality well beyond its actual cost. Etlin reaffirms the possibility that fineness of intelligence still has its place and can find its way in our culture. This is truly an inspiring and noble work.

Richard A. Etlin, The Architecture of Death: The Transformation of the Cemetery in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press), 441 pp., 268 black and white illustrations.


THERE ARE SEVERAL EXCELLENT essays in this book, each an attempt at a way into the study of 18th-century French culture—taken from a range of perspectives, including a study of peasants’ folk tales, a police spy’s reports on the emerging class of writers and intellectuals, and an account of a massacre of cats.

You would have to be a dead rock not to be taken by the cat-massacre history. It was a massacre effected by printers in revenge for their mistreatment by their employers—the protectors of the murdered cats, who in many cases had been better fed and cared for than the workers themselves.

Darnton looks beneath the apparent revenge story to reveal the misery of the world of craft workers and the particular nature of the symbology of the cat massacre itself. In doing this, Darnton studies the folklore about felines and the iconography of cats in the art of the period. The massacre, he concludes, functioned as a “witch hunt, a festival, a charivari, a mock trial, and a dirty joke.”

Darnton’s ease with material that is so rich and intriguing, and his ability to transmit that feeling of ease to a nonspecialist reader such as myself, makes me want to read his other book, The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (1982)

Robert Danton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, Inc.), 298 pp., 17 black and white illustrations.


THEY SAY THAT OSCAR WILDE’S conversation was even wittier than his writing. We’ve missed a lot, if that’s true. I know that Diana Vreeland’s ordinary daily conversation and her life are more fascinating than what is hinted at in this book. All the same, we do get the flavor of Vreeland’s amazing personality, and there is much to be grateful for in that.

Vreeland, presently the special consultant to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was for years fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar and later editor in chief at Vogue. She is a fabulist on a grand scale, a Marco Polo and Baron Munchausen of the upper crust: nothing in ordinary life is ordinary to her and nothing fabulous is extravagant enough. Her stories are infuriating and luscious and bizarre and, at the very bottom, touching. Especially her account of her childhood and of her elegant passion for her husband. She’s met everyone, knows everyone . . . but so does a talented bartender, or half a dozen trendy hairdressers. Her fascination does not lie there; others have recounted their meetings with the great and the divine with more precision and stagecraft. Her genius is in describing details about people—a diamond they wore, or the color of their sock—–and in describing major historical events as if they were glosses in her social calendar: in Paris, “After the war you were no longer fitted for nightgowns.”

I wish there were more of Vreeland’s books to come, at least one a year for the next 50 years. And with photos too, please.

Diana Vreeland, DV, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), 196 pp.


WITH STORY BY GLEN BAXTER, and drawings by Glen Baxter, and bibliography by Glen Baxter, this book is a great deadpan, comic Bildungsroman. The drollery of Baxter’s account of childhood trials staggers me, and his tales of his adolescent struggles with forces greater than himself—the imagery of undergarments, hot reminders of sexual longings, steamy, insistent, disturbing even—seem familiar. I must not fail to mention Baxter’s cast of characters, relatives and friends and adult models who helped to shape and mold and guide him. And yes, those mates along the way to manhood—Alan, the twine gnawer; young Stebbings, with his toothpick collection; and, of course, Brenda, teenage volcano, who tore through his heart like an icy grenade. This is a book every young adult will want, and it is a must for those of us whose memories of growing up still stir painful coals in the hearth of our hearts. It will also make a perfect gift for a dog training to become shaggy.

Glen Baxter His Life: The Years Of Struggle, illustrations and text by Glen Baxter (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), 176 pp.


This book does not explain why Modernism—whatever she means by that—has failed but rather why the author is upset by the critical and commercial success of artists she is not in favor of or who are in her favor. Suzi Gablik’s central thesis is that artists with the right stuff shun the vulgar marketplace and try to remain pure and spiritual. “We are not likely,” says Gablik, “to see another Albert Pinkham Ryder, a lonely, reclusive artist who lived one hundred years ago and cared nothing for money, social prestige, or comforts.”

So what? Except on the level of his biography it is irrelevant that Ryder lived as he did: we care for Ryder’s work. And his work is no more interesting because of how he lived. No more interesting, say, than the art of an artist who took considerable care in making and spending money and who enjoyed an active social life—went to parties, I mean: James McNeill Whistler.

Gablik longs for the artist to be the outsider, the moral conscience of a corrupt society. “What I have been trying to argue is that the artist has a basic choice as to whether or not he [sic] is to be an agent of moral transformation.”

Gablik’s spiritual cheerleading may temporarily purge us of impure esthetic thoughts and cultural backsliding, but even then the sermon is an address too tired to quicken us to fresher thoughts.

Suzi Gablik, Has Modernism Failed? (London and New York: Thames and Hudson), 133 pp.


Frederic Tuten is a fiction writer and director of the Graduate Program in Creative Writing at the City College of New York; he is the books editor of Artforum.