This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.
Lily Bart is the protagonist of Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel, The House of Mirth. Lady Gaga is the persona created by singer Stefani Germanotta, whose debut album The Fame, appeared in 2008. The House of Mirth was a best seller and added to Wharton’s considerable wealth. Lady Gaga was Billboard’s Artist of the Year for 2010 and ranks number 22 on Forbes’ “money ranking” of celebrities. According to Forbes, “She earned $31-million from a 106-date tour and her video for ‘Telephone.’”
Lily Bart, who is 29 at the beginning of the novel, is a young woman of luxurious taste who, though she has slim financial resources, is a presence among New York City’s wealthy families. Her aim is to secure a rich husband. She depends on her beauty, her sense of style, her refinement, and her social adroitness. Lady Gaga, who turns 25 next month, is the epitome of outrageous style. She has appeared for performances wearing a plastic bubble dress, wearing raw meat, drenched in stage blood, and in all manner of skimpy costumes. Lily’s costumes are never skimpy, but she spends nearly as much time as Lady Gaga in putting forward a calculated show. At a crucial scene in the novel she dressed the part of a figure in a Sir Joshua Reynolds painting to stand in a tableau vivant. Lily tries and fails to become a hat maker. Lady Gaga has successfully inspired a line of Halloween costumes.
The difference between these two characters says a lot about the century or so that lies between them. But the similarities are striking too. Both Lily Bart and Lady Gaga are essentially ornamental. They are for show: though they are both intensely ambitious in what they hope to achieve. An immediate difference between them is that Lady Gaga is by any standard a success. Lily Bart ends up a cast off of the New York fashionable social scene and, reduced to the prospects of poverty, dies of an overdose of a narcotic sleeping aid.
Lily lives in a world of fine gradations and unresolved ambiguities. Even her death preserves a secret: accident or suicide? Lady Gaga is entirely about flamboyant transgression. It is hard to see much of anything unresolved in her lyrics or her performances.
Oh, oh, oh
I’ll get him hot, show him what I’ve got
And baby when it’s love if it’s not rough it isn’t fun.
Lily lives in fear of mistaken appearances that might suggest that she is sexually involved with one or another of her married or unmarried admirers. Lady Gaga is pretty much full-blast promotion of promiscuity and using her sexuality for personal advantage. This isn’t merely a matter of late Victorian times in contrast to the liberated present. Wharton’s novel depicts high society as rife with sexual affairs. Lily simply chooses to avoid them.
So what does any of this have to do with higher education? Perhaps very little, but it is worth consideration. Neither Edith Wharton nor her fictional heroine Lily Bart went to college. Wharton nonetheless became one of the acknowledged masters of the American novel. And Lily, despite her crippling disdain for the world of gainful employment, possesses a degree of cultural polish and sophistication well beyond what we look for today among the graduates of our most prestigious liberal arts colleges. Stefani Germanotta, like Lily (but unlike Edith Wharton), came from a New York family of modest means. She attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for four semesters before dropping out to pursue her musical career.
America admires success and has limited use for figures who represent tragic failure. But Wharton’s novel was immediately acclaimed by critics and embraced by readers. On its face this is a little odd in that Lily is a facile character in love with the superfluities of life. She passes up her best chance of happiness by turning away the attentions of a young lawyer who admires her better qualities but isn’t rich. Wharton keeps us interested in this sybarite mainly by the power of her writing, which combines psychological acuity with deft irony. She describes a social climber as having “an inconvenient familiarity with the habits of those with whom he wished to be thought intimate.” Lily has the “art of giving self-confidence to the embarrassed, but she was not equally sure of being able to embarrass the self-confident.” A puffed-up woman is “secure in the shelter of her conspicuousness,” a phrase that might indeed capture Lady Gaga. Of another, “Her own fastidiousness had its eye fixed on the world.” And, “Her pity remained in a state of spectatorship.” A stingy aunt takes Lily in because a “public display of selfishness, difficult though it is, does not interfere with its private indulgence.”
Pulled along on the current of Wharton’s slightly acid observations, readers cling to Lily’s better qualities while realizing from the start that she is headed for disaster. The only cloud that hangs over Lady Gaga’s future is the danger that the fashion for outrageous display might fade.
I don’t think that Americans would welcome the return of an era where women like Lily Bart had only one career option—to marry a prosperous husband—short of which lay the path of genteel poverty or worse. Wharton’s novel is a satire of that world and a firm rejection of its shallowness. The novel’s title comes from Ecclesiastes, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.” Nonetheless, Lily Bart exemplifies, even if inconsistently, some admirable qualities: kindness, spontaneity, the art of conversation, the longing for some ennobling action that could redeem the sordidness of mere material wealth. It surely isn’t true that we have altogether lost these qualities today, but they aren’t very common either.
We have, to the contrary, cultural idols who exemplify something else. Energy, perhaps. Rawness. Flamboyant sexuality. Nothing especially new here: popular culture has been on this slope for quite a while and Lady Gaga is merely the latest claimant to the leading role.
And here at last is my point. Higher education once fostered the aspirations of young people to take possession of some share of their civilization. The university was never the only means to acquire that aspiration. Reading good books and joining in conversation with others who have read further may be the better path. But the liberal arts opened the minds of many to the riches of art, science, philosophy, and literature. Today? Not so much. A tiny fraction of students bother with the liberal arts at all—about 3 percent of students—and a good many of those are channeled into what might be rightly termed the pseudo-liberal arts. They study the fields that teach disdain for their civilization and the supposed advantages of a vaporous “global citizenship.”
Lady Gaga bears no blame at all for the debased tastes of contemporary culture. She simply saw her opportunity and took it. But higher education does bear quite a bit of the blame for this situation. It gives trash culture a veneer of respectability and encourages students to open themselves to many of their worst impulses—and to take pride in the spectacle.
I don’t know whether Lady Gaga has garnered any honorary degrees yet, but there is a petition to the president of NYU to grant her one. I expect it is only a matter of time.