The First Phone Call From Heaven
By Mitch Albom
The jury is still out on glamour. Some critics see it as the scourge of modern society, an illusory opiate doled out by a ruling elite to dazzle the masses into submission. For others glamour is a fragile and endangered species, the inspirational product of simpler times - before, say, a photograph of Scarlett Johansson tripping and falling could become, in the space of an hour, an Internet meme - as our tell-all society collapses the distance between us and our idols irrevocably.
In her new book, “The Power of Glamour,” Virginia Postrel lays out the case for glamour as a life-shaping force, whether for good or for ill. Neither a lament for a lost world nor - heaven forbid! - a mere encomium to glitz, Postrel’s cleareyed and exhaustive analysis looks not only at the history of glamour, but at how it works, developing a theory that explains, in her words, “how Jackie Kennedy is like the Chrysler Building or a sports car like a Moleskine notebook, or why some audiences might find glamour in nuns, wind turbines or 'Star Trek.' ”
That list gives readers some indication of the provocative range of Postrel’s inquiry, which stretches far beyond glamour’s traditional province of feminine luxury to examine such concepts as military glamour and the lure of Shanghai’s ultramodern skyline.
Glamour, she writes, should not be confused with style or beauty. It is not something people, objects or places possess, but rather something inherent in our perception. Mystery - one of its central components - distinguishes glamour from its close cousin, charisma, defined here as the personal magnetism that can inspire other people to follow a cause. But death puts an end to a person’s charisma, while it can magnify her glamour exponentially (think of Joan of Arc or Evita Perón). Most important, for Postrel, glamour is an illusion “known to be false but felt to be true” - a deceptive image of grace springing from an “emotionally authentic” longing, and capable of inspiring real-world effects, whether a ballet dancer’s leap or a jihadi terrorist’s bomb.
The word “glamour” (derived, I learned to my delight, from the same linguistic root as “grammar”) is not, as many people assume, French in origin, though since at least the 19th century, Paris has exerted a particular pull on the legions of glamour’s followers. (Emma Bovary’s sweeping desire “to die and to live in Paris” has resonated with the provincial despair of successive generations.) Rather, “glamour” is originally Scottish. Long ago it indicated a magic spell or enchantment, cast over the eyes of the person perceiving it.
Its modern usage coincides with the rise of the “society of the spectacle,” to borrow the French theorist Guy Debord’s term - the congregation of masses of people in urban centers, alongside a burgeoning news media spreading images and ideas, and a proliferation of luxury goods made possible by a newly industrial society. Postrel takes issue with the class-based (and, as she sees it, moralizing) approach of previous scholars, including two Englishmen - the influential art critic John Berger and (more recently) the cultural historian Stephen Gundle - who see glamour as the product of social envy (Berger) and as presenting an escapist fantasy of upward mobility (Gundle). Glamour is certainly escapist, she writes, but it doesn’t dull the senses, as would an escape into drug addiction, for example. Rather, for better or for worse, glamour intensifies longing, fosters hope and stokes ambition.
Postrel - a columnist for Bloomberg View who has contributed to The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, and the author of two previous volumes of social philosophy and cultural criticism - is the kind of public intellectual for whom the TED Talk seems to have been invented. She hammers home her points with workmanlike clarity and the aid of copious examples and illustrations. She also has a professional lecturer’s fondness for Venn diagrams, showing, say, the overlap between her own conception of glamour and the sociologist Colin Campbell’s “modern self-illusory hedonism.” (She lost me with a chart placing Leonardo da Vinci, together with the likes of Barack Obama and John Lennon, on the side of “Glamour,” while Raphael, with Bill Clinton and Janis Joplin, fell under the heading “Charisma.”)
Put more simply, “The Power of Glamour” is not a glamorous book - at least not in my perception. It is sometimes entertaining, especially in the sidebars on icons of glamour, from aviators to suntans to wireless technology, which are interspersed throughout and enliven Postrel’s more stringent analysis. But there is little here to set the readers of InStyle magazine dreaming.
And yet - reading this book made me look differently at the role glamour has played in my own life. Years ago, refusing to abandon my chosen metropolis, I left an academic career for which I was well trained but ill suited to toil as a cultural journalist and in the groves of glossy magazines. I have known the underside of glamour, sitting, bleary-eyed and jet-lagged, through 8 a.m. press screenings at the Cannes Film Festival or, more recently, squeezing my body (long past the bloom of youth) into the sample-size clothing the stylist brought along when one of those glossy magazines took my picture. Even as I write these words, a creature that is the very definition of a “glamour puss” - a Persian kitten, though grumpy and fur-matted - sleeps beside me.
Did my long-ago, childish longing for glamour help to create the existence I desired? Not entirely. But like Joan Crawford in “Possessed” (1931), I can say my mistakes are all my own. And I like to think, as I reach for my lipstick every morning, that I am reaching for a better life.
© The New York Times 2013See all Reviews from The New York Times