Monday, July 26, 2010

Bemelmans visits San Simeon

Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962) is one of our favorite writers. There is a joie de vivre about him mixed with a certain acceptance of things as they are that appeals to our absurdist sensibilities. On a recent plane trip we read To the One I Love the Best. In this book, there is a chapter called San Simeon. It reaches some fairly absurd conclusions and includes a cheerful insight into the pursuit of happiness.

Bemelmans once visited William Randolph Hearst at San Simeon sometime in the 1950s. Hearst’s home in San Simeon is known today as Hearst Castle. Back then Hearst called it the Enchanted Hill.

As Bemelmans describes it:

“It is a mixture of a cathedral and a Spanish hilltop city with a piece of California suburb placed at its feet… It has all the characteristics of monuments built by man to the glory of himself and God.”

Bemelmans spends some days there amidst all this grandeur. There is a living room half the size of Grand Central Station with a grand fireplace that reaches the sixty-foot ceilings. There are statues of marble, intricate woodwork, drapery and art work. In short, the place is spectacular and seems to have everything one could want.

However, after spending several days there, our correspondent has a revelation on his drive home. He finds Hearst’s world mostly sealed off from the rest of the world. He finds Hearst has shut himself off from genuine human contact and with life more broadly by building himself this bubble. As Bemelmans writes:

“During the long drive in the blue haze of morning I came upon a truth, which, like all revelations, is simple as stone and as heavy. I had met in Hearst the most lonesome man I have ever known, a man of vast intelligence, of ceaseless effort, and all he had done was to make of himself a scaffold in which a metronome ticked time away… The revelation is that you cannot protect yourself, you must take a chance on being hurt…”

It is easy to fall into a cliché here and say that the rich are miserable and, therefore, find some consolation in one’s relative poverty. That’s not what this is about. Bemelmans saw a man who invested his persona in things. Apparently, Hearst never sold any of his art or antiques or other things. He clung to them as if they gave him life. And indeed he may have thought so. Hearst was always building, adding to the castle. At one point, Bemelmans quotes an aid as saying: “As long as he builds, he thinks he won’t die.”

Bemelmans describes another encounter:

“I walked with Mr. Hearst and the architect along a two-mile stretch of trellised columns, fruit trees, and grape arbors. At one point Mr. Hearst stopped. “I want a terrace here,” he said.

It was a tough terrain, it would take a lot of underpinning and work, the architect explained, and he made the mistake of asking the King why he wanted a terrace there.

Mr. Hearst pointed to a scrubby tangerine tree growing across from where he stood and said in his high voice: “I might want to pick one of those tangerines.”

“I’ll never ask him again why he wants to do anything,” the architect said later.

In the end, Bemelmans finds the Hearst Castle an unhappy place. It’s a place where people do things to please Mr. Hearst, who seems cannot be pleased. He seems a hollowed-out human being, worn from the years, unsure what to do with his money, unsure of what makes him happy. A life of pursuit, of fruitless pursuit…

Bemelmans concludes, ending with a wonderful little bit of poetry that smacks of absurdity and the futility of the chase:

“The egotist loses everything. You cannot live for yourself. The pursuit of pleasure does not bring it [happiness]. But all this has been said, and better – for example, by Bert Brecht in the Three-penny Opera:

Ja, renn nur nach dem Gluck,
Da rennst Du nicht allein,
Sie renne alle nach dem Gluck,
Das Gluck rennt hinten drein.

[You, go – run after happiness!
You’re not alone, you’ll find.
They all run after happiness –
Which runs along behind.]"

1 comment:

  1. Minor note: Gluck should be Glück (luck/happiness).