Dare We Awaken the Prime Minister?

By: Rebecca Warburton Boylan  

Descending to war-time Earth, Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince encounters a cryptic talking fox: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” This paper imagines art finding truth in what society resists seeing. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) enacts post WWI London’s chaos as the titular character creates a party celebrating traditional authorities even as a plane buzzing over Regent’s Park strews Dada-esque letters refusing to spell visible meaning. As Clarissa parades her Prime Minister through her gala, no one sees the man ridiculously “all rigged up in gold lace” to hide his ordinariness. Cresting nationalist disruptions in “a silver-green mermaid’s dress,” Clarissa cavorts as a freak in her own home. Not until she awakens to WWI soldier Septimus’ shell-shocked suicide as his conscious choice to escape doctors’ “proportion and conversion” does Mrs. Dalloway decide to live in defiance of the P.M.’s sleeping hollowness. Almost a century after Woolf’s novel, Ian McEwan’s painting, poetry, and music-filled Saturday (2005) imagines one day in London on the eve of the Iraq War. A disquieted but resolute Tony Blair’s face cloned Warhol-style on multiple television screens in a store front interrupts neurosurgeon Henry Perowne in midst of creating a family party. Perowne, blinded by privilege like Clarissa, chooses life when his party is crashed by a societal misfit suffering a genetic brain disorder. We have transformed yesterday’s wars’ invisibilities into monsters we hide in border cages, prisons, and ill-paid labor. How does today’s art perceive essence in the invisible while letting sleeping power mongers lie?

War, Literature, Democratic Crisis, Civilian Reaction, Perception, The Arts
2020 Special Focus - Against the Grain: Arts and the Crisis of Democracy
Paper Presentation in a Themed Session

Rebecca Warburton Boylan

Georgetown University