Why We Love McMansions and Other Modern Castles

Hearst Castle at San Simeon, Calif. (Photo: DJschreiber/Dreamstime)
Even revolutionaries and democrats yearn for a citadel of their own.

By a paradox that deserves, but has never received, close scrutiny, America, though born in the faith that all men are created equal, is infatuated with castles — the principal function of which is to make other people feel inferior. Scott Fitzgerald showed Gatsby’s castle fantasy to be the stuff of horror, yet it has been converted into a national ideal. The palaces of the plutocrats — Kykuit, San Simeon, The Breakers — have become places of pilgrimage, and there is hardly a suburban subdivision, covered with mock châteaux, that does not offer up its unsightly homage in the name of the national cult.

It is just now the fashion to knock those who inhabit our republic’s grander, or at any rate more conspicuous, castles. But were some new Robespierre or Saint-Just to arise and send the magnificos to the guillotine, we would regret their absence. We need our castles, and not simply because we need something to hate, or to envy.

In trying to explain our fixation, we naturally fall back on Darwin, as we are apt to do today whenever we are confronted with a Mystery. Castles, in the naturalist reading, fascinate us because they are symbols of genetic fitness. A castle is a wooing plumage, the peacock’s tail that gives its possessor an advantage in the competition for a desirable mate. At the same time the castle is an erotic maid-of-all-work, assisting the liege-lord in the discharge of that quantity of animal passion that can’t be satisfied within modest marital limits. When Prince Charles was reproached by Diana for his infidelities, he is said to have retorted, “Do you seriously expect me to be the first Prince of Wales in history not to have a mistress?” He was only conforming to the code of castle libertinism by which his ancestors (with the possible exception of the virtuous or inverted Albert, the consort of Victoria) had lived. The prince’s retort was entirely in the castle spirit of his relative Charles II, who (in Dryden’s telling) revived the more natural, biologically efficient manners of a polygamous age, when “man on many multiplied his kind, / Ere one to one was cursedly confined.”

I saw the Darwinian power of the castle at work in a friend of mine, a rather brilliant young man, now alas dead. After an awkward youth he came into a fortune and discovered, in his middle twenties, that he, too, was one of nature’s darlings. Probably the women who loved him were unconsciously Darwinian, and felt as by instinct that his mere possession of a goodish pile bore witness to a strain of genetic prowess in his blood. Nor did my friend question the unearned largesse of nature: How many men, finding themselves in the same position, would? King David himself was unable to resist the erotic freedom of his castle. (“I was even as a beast before thee . . .”) Where David fell, what castle personage will hope to stand? Certainly not my poor friend, who went downhill after the fashion of Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress.

Yet my friend’s experience showed, too, how much Darwin fails to account for when it comes to castles. His decline was slow and tragical. He overdosed on opium, and was afterward revived by the paramedics; he chased his girlfriend round his loft in Tribeca with (if memory serves) his old Henley rowing oar, and was made to do expiatory penance in a clinic in Minneapolis. And yet he was simply never more attractive to women than in that last disintegration.

The touching fidelity of his harem to the wreck he had become can’t be explained by The Origin of Species. For if the women were instinctively attracted by the genetic fitness that his mere possession of a castle implied, they made not the slightest effort to act on the instinct — to make a proper Darwinian use of the accumulated biological treasures. None, or at any rate few, of those with whom he slept aspired to be his chatelaine; and only the most singular among them fancied him the sire of her children, or looked upon his castle as an ideal nursery for the suckling of genetically well-endowed babes. It is ten to one that most of his Aspasias were on the pill and uninterested in maternity; and surely only the very meanest of them were so calculating as to stake their bodies on the chance that they would be remembered in the will.

What is obscure to the student of Darwin is clear to the scholar of castles. The depravity of the castle is itself a source of its appeal, a more effectual inducement, indeed, than its halo of genetic robustness. The whole tendency of romantic literature shows that it is so. At the bottom of the Gothic fable is the Gothic donjon; and at the bottom of the Gothic donjon is the Gothic chamber of horrors, whether actual, as in Sade’s fictions, or psychological, as in the Brontës’ portraits of Heathcliff and Rochester. A first-rate Gothic artist is not, of course, so crude as to bring all the voluptuary terrors into the open light of day. He relies instead, as Thomas Hardy did in A Group of Noble Dames, on the reader’s imagination to fill up the gaps out of those materials that lie in the cellars of all our imaginations — in that residuum of brutishness that lingers even in the most up-to-date and virtuously progressive human intelligence.

“What is the reason that in all ages the noble’s château has been an object of terror?” the French writer Eugénie de Guérin asked. “Is it because of the horrors that were committed there in the old days? I suppose so.” We are drawn to the evil freedom the castle confers. The perversions of Henry VIII and Gilles de Rais, of the rakes of the Hellfire Club and Colonel Charteris (the “Rape-Master General of Britain”), were closely interwoven with their castle pride. Lord Byron, who seduced his own half-sister, was reputed to be “prouder of being a descendant of those Byrons of Normandy, who accompanied William the Conqueror into England, than of being the author of Childe Harold and Manfred.” As for Sade himself, he could not have existed but for the rank luxuriance of his château.

So great is the liberated woman’s fascination with the ancient horrors that it has bred a lucrative school of neo-Gothic historical fiction.

Much as one sympathizes with the innocent victims of these fiends, the truly candid inquirer cannot be content to rest in mere outrage, as in their piety scholars of the modern school of human behavior are apt to do. The scrupulous taxonomist of the soul — the spiritual Linnaeus committed to examining every fruit of the human garden, however rancid — is bound to record that no sooner was the modern woman emancipated from the evils of patriarchal sexuality than she discovered an intense pleasure in the vicarious re-creation of its perversities, and grew imaginatively fond of the very shaming transactions from which reason and enlightenment had exempted her. So great, indeed, is the liberated woman’s fascination with the ancient horrors that it has bred a lucrative school of neo-Gothic historical fiction. Hardly a month goes by without the appearance of some novel in which the virtue of the heroine is forcibly overcome by a mysterious figure with a Dark Secret — a refurbished Valmont bent on the seduction of so many innocent Mesdames de Tourvel. We may be children of light, but a good number of us, to judge from our reading habits, unconsciously pine for the ancien régime or the Tudor court, for droit du seigneur, for the Bride of Lammermoor world that existed before the pill and the patch and the 19th Amendment.

On the shores of eastern Long Island, castles are sprouting like weeds, and the potato farms of the North Fork have been converted into sod farms to supply turf for the freshly germinated mansions. At a party in Ox Pasture Road in Southampton, bankers in Guccis stand with flutes of champagne in their hands, in a garden where once the bovids grazed. The buttons of their blazers are adorned with what appear to be feudal coats of arms.

Man is by nature a castle-craving creature. From the Golden Palace of Nero to the Sun King’s Versailles, from Knossos to Knole, history has been little more than a succession of citadels.

Man is by nature a castle-craving creature. From the Golden Palace of Nero to the Sun King’s Versailles, from Knossos to Knole, history has been little more than a succession of citadels. The American republic (it is whimsical to reflect) was intended to break the cycle; the constitution drafted at Philadelphia specifically prohibited the granting of letters patent of nobility. Castles, it was thought, were to be a thing of the past.

Naïve souls actually thought it possible. John Ruskin refused to visit the United States because he could not, “even for a couple of months, live in a country so miserable as to possess no castles.” If only he knew. Henry James, returning to the country in 1904, was astonished to find that the simplicity of the early republic had died away: Americans could now “to their hearts’ content build their own castles.”

But they did not build them well. Surveying the palatial abominations of Newport, James warned against “prohibited degrees of witlessness” and the “vengeance of affronted proportion and discretion.” The Forbes list of billionaires, which has replaced Debrett’s and the Almanach de Gotha as an index to the higher reaches of the castle class, bears witness to more raw talent than the old stud books, but contains nothing like so much good taste. The plutocratic manors alone (some demon possessed Forbes to supply photographs) are enough to make one sigh for grandees who had the wit to find Vanbrughs and Palladios to construct their strongholds.

And this is the trouble with the modern castle. We look to it for the evil glamour of Dickens’s Marquis St. Evrémonde or his Sir John Chester; we suspect villainy in the hearts of the elites who gather in Davos and Bilderberg. But truth be told, the besetting sin of the modern castle is not its wickedness but its mediocrity. It is often ludicrous, and not infrequently hideous. But it is almost never charming. Today’s castle magnates are, on the whole, better behaved than those of the olden days, but they are also less splendid, and being less splendid they are also less valuable.

The castle, at its best, is an aider and abettor of civilization; what is evil in it brings forth good. The Greek scholar Werner Jaeger went so far as to assert that culture “is simply the aristocratic ideal of a nation, increasingly intellectualized.” Western culture “begins in the aristocratic world of early Greece,” he wrote, “with the creation of a definite ideal of human perfection, an ideal towards which the élite of the race was constantly trained.” As Jaeger tells it, the young Grecian milord was arduously exhorted to reach for the highest arete (excellence), that he might “take possession of the beautiful” (a phrase of Aristotle’s). Western civilization followed.

Jaeger perhaps exaggerated, but the old castle, being evil and beautiful, did on occasion create attractive forms of order. Brideshead Castle was not, for Evelyn Waugh, an illusion. The order of such places had its effect even on the proles, or so Jaeger believed: Aristocratic ideals of beauty and arete, he maintained, were continuously being democratized, “universalized.”

But the cost was high: Only aristocratic security of possession could give an elite the freedom it needed to perfect its ideals. It was precisely because Achilles did not have to worry about getting his daily bread that he could devote himself to leisure and beauty (in the form of war, the heroism of which, for the old Greeks, was an instance of kalos kagathos, the beauty and honor of the gentleman). It all seemed very pukka at the time, though not perhaps for the little people who, like Thersites, had to be beaten down so that the aristos could be artists.

But the Bastille fell; the old castles were shut up, and aristocratic security of possession disappeared. The very cheesiness of our modern castle establishments is a testament to the triumph of democracy, which makes the well-to-do fretful, and ostentatious in all the wrong ways. Under democratic stars, Achilles has given way to Trimalchio, and not even the grandest of the grandees feel safe in their (transient) privileges; some are even building bunkers.

You see the change in places like the beach club at Southampton, where, on a half acre of sand carefully demarcated from the merely plebeian strand by an array of cables and pennants, what in America passes for old money (traceable at least as far back as 1910) lounges warily under its turrets. No sign here of the sublime confidence that created Blois or Chatsworth; nor are the offspring bred, as in genuinely aristocratic societies, for beauty and leisure. They are brought up, as all good Americans should be, to be laborious technicians; they tend to gravitate toward private equity.

Which is all very well, except that, with the fall of the old castle, another hedge against the triumph of mere utility in life has withered and died. “To be always seeking after the useful,” Aristotle says, “does not become free and exalted souls.” This was the mantra not only of the old castle, but also of the old agora — the Old Western marketplace: the civic and spiritual hearth of the civilization. If the castle was the domain of the aristocrat, the agora was the home of the common man, yet both grew out of the faith that a good deal of the sweetness in life comes from our getting beyond nature’s necessities. Culture is unnatural, and in its highest forms supernatural.

The old liberal education (which we still pretend to honor) developed in the agora centers of the West for much the same reason aristocratic leisure did in its castles. The beautiful and unnatural forms that once flourished in the town square (Greek tragedy, Chartres, the Temple of Nike, the Latin Mass) could not be maintained by narrowly technical specialists, in thrall to nature and utility. So a schooling grew up that favored the free-living generalist. If the Bronze Age aristocrat was an artist, so, too, was the liberally educated agora man of the fifth century, who prepared himself for his civic role by studying (of all things!) the poets.

The agora, as a cultural institution, is now so thoroughly dead that it means nothing to us. But the castle, even in its current diminutive form, absorbs us — absorbs us because it affords us relief from the half-truths of our leading prophets. Some of the oracles tell us that we are animals, in the bondage of nature, and therefore beyond good and evil. (For nature is a biological machinery, indifferent to morality.) Others insist that we are really and fundamentally good, and evil only insofar as we have been corrupted by institutions (private property, patriarchy, or what you will). Reform the institutions, and we shall be virtuous.

The castle tells a different story. In it we see the true state of our souls exhibited in the most dramatic way, not only what is lurid in them — a depravity quite ineradicable — but also the reluctant groping aspiration toward something better.

— Michael Knox Beran is a lawyer and the author of Pathology of the Elites and Murder by Candlelight, among other books.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran is a lawyer and writer. His book WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy is to be published in August.


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