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Edmund White is one of our most celebrated novelists. He is also a brilliant journalist and cultural commentator on the arts, contributing to publications as varied The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, the New York Times, the Washington Post, House and Garden, and the New York Review of Books. In Sacred Monsters, White collects more than twenty of his most recent writings on artists and authors, including John Cheever, Patti Smith, Henry James, Mary Cassatt, Paul Bowles, Andy Warhol, John Singer Sargent, Vladimir Nabokov, Auguste Rodin, Edith Wharton, Christopher Isherwood, Martin Amis, Allen Ginsberg, Marguerite Duras, John Rechy, Ford Maddox Ford, David Hockney, Reynolds Price, E.M. Forster, James Abbott McNeil Whistler, and Marcel Proust, among others.
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Edmund White is a 2010 National Book Critics Circle finalist for his memoir City Boy. He is also the author of many works, including the autobiographical novel A Boy's Own Story and a popular travel book titled Le Flaneur. He was a recipient of the Lambda Literary Foundation's 2009 Pioneer Award in recognition of his tremendous contributions to LGBT literature. White lives in New York City and chairs the creative writing department at Princeton University.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Rodin’s The Age of Bronze
When I was fifteen I fell in love with this statue not as an art fancier or potential collector or historian, but the way a lover would. Literally. I was a lonely gay kid living in the dorms at an all boys’ school where I would have been beat up if anyone had guessed my inclinations. I was quietly arty I listened to classical records over at the music building and on my own turntable during the two fifteen-minute periods when we were free to do what we wanted to. I read novels and by the time I had graduated I’d even written two of them (still unpublished).
My boy’s school was Cranbrook, outside Detroit, now long since co-ed but at that time strictly segregated from its sister school, Kingswood, and from the art academy, which was just across the street. The academy trained college-age students in all the arts, from silkscreening to sculpture. In our own small school library I discovered a big book on Rodin with black and white illustrations. I checked it out and took it to my room (we each lived in private rooms).
There I pored over the picture of the statue for weeks on end while I was supposed to be studying and by flashlight after bedtime and lights out. I had no friends, certainly no lovers, but the life-size statue of this 22-year-old Belgian soldier, whose name I learned was Auguste Neyt, became the center of all my fantasies. The statue, at least to the eyes of Rodin’s contemporaries, seemed so disturbingly lifelike that he’d been accused of casting it from life, of pressing the plaster moulds directly to the model’s flesh, as if he were a George Segal avant la lettre. Although Rodin had made a trip to Italy and looked at various Michelangelos while working on The Age of Bronze (the neutral, mysterious title he gave to the work when it was eventually cast in bronze and exhibited in Paris), nevertheless the figure is less heavily muscled than the sculpture of the Renaissance and modeled in such a way that it made the light falling on it shimmer.
There is something tragic about the statue and some of Rodin’s contemporaries thought it must show someone about to commit suicide. This and other interpretations were licensed because the sculpture, oddly for the period, had no visible pretext. The statue was completed after 18 months of work in 1877, when Rodin (a late bloomer) was already 37. The French had recently suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Prussians and perhaps this terrible reversal was in everyone’s minds at the time. For me the pose of the raised arm and the parted lips looked both melancholy and sensual, as did the impressionistic modeling of the body surface. The figure was obviously a fine specimen of maleness but the face expressed great vulnerability, and the combination made me think of the photos I’d seen of Nijinsky dancing the role of the Favorite Slave in Ssheherazade , pictures I’d devoured when I read his biography written by his wife, who was surprisingly frank about her husband’s affair with his impresario, Diaghilev.
Of course our formalist critics today teach us not to confuse art with life, but when I was an adolescent Rodin’s art this one sculpture had replaced life. I wanted somehow to marry him, to live with him the rest of my life. Since Auguste Neyt had already been dead for half a century, surely, my union with him was preposterous, impossible something that took me out of time and history and propelled me into an ideal world of timeless desire. That conundrum how to marry a man already dead for half a century when the statue was Rodin’s invention and not the soldier and marriage to any member of the same sex was unthinkable was my introduction to the ideal and excrutiatingly improbable realm of art.
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