In Bo Burnham’s Make Happy, he describes social media as “the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform.” So the market said, here, perform everything all the time for no reason. “It’s prison,” he says. In Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence the market is New York’s high society in the 1870s, and it’s fitting that the novel opens to a performance at an opera house because this is a story about people performing, and watching others perform, constantly.
The prison is society’s strict adherence to (arguably outdated) decorum: protocol, customs, etiquette, formalities, whatever you want to call them. This prison governs who people can marry, where and how they spend their time, what they wear, how they think, and whether or not their dreams are worth anything at all. These rules are strangling people, programming them, and as a result they live in a world where appearances are everything.
If they refuse to perform up to the claustrophobic norms of the day, they risk expulsion. No money from the patriarchy, no connections from the matriarchy, no respect whatsoever. Performance, then, becomes religion.
“Does no one want to know the truth here, Mr. Archer? The real loneliness is living among all these kind people who only ask one to pretend!”
Every time I read a classic I inevitably ask myself the same question: “Has this book finished saying what it has to say?” If it’s become out of touch then it isn’t a classic, because classics endure; they reinvent themselves. We continue to find value in classics well past their point of origin.
The Age of Innocence is a nearly 100-year-old book about a society of fake, self-centred, and anxious people in 19th century New York and all I can think about after reading it is Facebook. If that’s not the definition of a classic in 2018 I don’t know what is.