Saturday, October 27, 2012

On American Mid-Century Middlebrow

I've decided that I approve.

I'm very keenly aware that the rising tide of my advancing years is hurling me toward the shoals of old fartitude, and that the most conspicuous features of that deadly lee shore are precisely those that summon up the keenest yearning for a vanished past. Fortunately (fortunately?) I am lashed to the mast of my forward progress toward…well, you know. The past is irrecoverable, and howsoever much those pangs may afflict me (and I first remember a sense that the Good Old Days had slipped irretrievably behind me in 1958, the year I turned six), I'm not going home again.

But geez, I do miss the cultural polity that was a model for the striving US middle class in the calm and complacent fifties and sixties. Complacent? There were, to be sure, nerve-racking episodes like the Cuban Missile Crisis of half a century ago, but with the admittedly conspicuous exception of the fear of being blown to isotopes, there was a certain security in believing that rational men were seeing to the affairs of the country. The American middle class of the day was largely optimistic and hence progressive: if upward mobility was a condition of civic and economic life, who would not look forward to the future? But this model of economic advancement had its counterpart in the intellectual realm: the suburbs, seeded with college grads who'd made it that far on the strength of the GI Bill, would breed a brighter new generation for a confident country at the top of its game. I'm thinking particularly of what has lately been called the “Mad Men” era, from the late Eisenhower years through the abrupt end of Kennedy’s Camelot, with that forward momentum of idealism and optimism carrying the culture into mid-decade, when those characteristics began rapidly to transmogrify into something rich and strange and still quarreled over as the so-called “Sixties.”

I'll pause here to make the standard and obligatory stipulation (obligatory, that is, for those of us outside the fevered fantasies of the nascent brownshirt movement that afflicts our public life today) that the era under consideration is not universally remembered as a vanished golden age by sundry classes of then politically, economically, culturally or sexually disenfranchised Americans. You may imagine this disclaimer to be as eloquent and as detailed as you like, and I will sign it.

I’m considering here the cultural climate, as perhaps descried from the managerial and professional classes of the day, obtaining from about 1959 to 1965: the stories they told themselves, the stories they listened to, the stories they felt appropriate for their children.

Exhibit A: The Time-Life “Great Ages of Man” series. This twenty-one volume series, handsomely produced, lavishly illustrated, well-written by noted scholars (although subjected, one suspects, to a certain amount of sanding and polishing to impart to the narrative surface the distinctive triumphalist wordview of publisher Henry R. “American Century” Luce), were sold by subscription to suburban households across This Great Land of Ours between 1965 and 1968. Each volume treated a Great Age: Imperial Rome. Ancient Egypt. Classical Greece. Early India. Byzantium. Rise of Russia. Renaissance. I own them all, having begun adulthood owning perhaps a fifth of the series and completing the collection in the decades since by application variously to the used bookstores with which neighboring Berkeley is well stocked and, these latter years, to online commerce. I have also purchased complete sets for two or three teenaged children of friends.

When I present these books to youngsters to whom I doubtless appear an eccentric, almost grotesque social appendage of their parents, I’m careful to warn them that notwithstanding the high production values and sound scholarship of the books, they are drenched in some cultural assumptions that will sound an odd note to a young person educated in the polyglot and polycultural environment of the Bay Area, which appears sometimes for better or for worse (for better, is my own guess) to be shedding the skin of the traditional American nation-state and morphing into something I can’t yet see the outlines of. The series title is “The Great Ages of Man”; left unsaid at the time but loud and clear nonetheless was the message that of all Man’s Great Ages there could be little doubt that the Greatest of all of these was the Age and culture that produced “The Great Ages of Man.” Occasionally this lofty assumption of cultural superiority became explicit and even cringeworthy, as in one of the concluding paragraphs of the volume Ancient America:

The strange civilizations of the ancient Americans will never rise again. Developed in isolation, they were imperfect and could not compete with the dynamic world culture that crossed the Atlantic with the Spaniards.

It’s more than a little unfair, though, to judge the cultural assumptions of half a century ago against our enlightened standards of 2012. I guarantee that some of today's most comfortable premises are going to look at best pretty comical in 2062.

What I admire today about the "Great Ages" books is how well-written and edited they are, and how they were aimed primarily at an audience of high schoolers. High schoolers and their parents, I should say: there was a common ethos of intellectual self-improvement. Today, I fear, these volumes would soar above the heads of tenth-graders and their sires. Nevertheless: Discount the American chest-beating and there are riches of historical knowledge here—not a lot to satisfy a serious scholar, but enough to enrich a young person’s context for future input.

Exhibit B: Horizon Magazine was an upper-middlebrow quarterly published between hard covers for about twenty years beginning in 1958. My parents, who had intellectual aspirations, subscribed for a few years early on, and tended to leave copies on the coffee table. Beginning just the past few years I’ve been collecting old numbers beginning with the maiden issue, and these have constituted such happy nightstand reading that I will probably aim eventually for the entire run (eventually rising production costs forced the publication, following a change of ownership, from hard covers into the conventional magazine format: I am sufficiently the middlebrow child of my parents for this to constitute a dealbreaker).

Horizon is a delight. Its early issues engage still. Let us consider Volume 1, Number 3, from January 1959. What riches there are in its 144 pages, unsullied by adverts! Noted architect and historian Allan Temko writes about “The Flowering of San Francisco.” Arthur C. Clarke contributes a piece, penned immediately post-Sputnik, on “Space and the Spirit of Man.” There’s a piece on “A New Music Made with a Machine,” profiling Stockhausen, Cage and others who were about to transform the upper echelons of music. P.G. Wodehouse and Somerset Maugham each contribute humorous pieces, George Plimpton interviews Hemingway in Cuba and William K. Zinsser, who was then thirty-seven and is now ninety, writes humorously but without being too condescending about the follies of the then-young in “The Tyranny of the Teens.” Incidentally, the very youngest of the teens Zinsser was poking fun at in January 1959 are about to turn sixty-seven, and the oldest, seventy-three.

What impresses me about the thirty some-odd issues of Horizon I’ve scored to date is how eminently civilized they are. I live in fear lest a back issue somehow come in physical contact with, say, the average individual who leaves a comment on a news story posted at Yahoo: surely the collision would obliterate all life, property and matter within a 400km radius of Macon GA.

What I think doesn’t matter, of course, and whether or not my ears are stopped, this ship of fate sails where it will, and the siren song of the past affects its course not at all. But I miss the placid shallows of half a century ago, and I miss the mild middlebrow ethos that yearned for self-improvement rather than the Dionysian wallow in anti-intellectualism that lately appears ever-poised to overtake us.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Another one over the side, alas

Connie, Gail Coney's cherished pooch, died early in August after a brief bout with a wasting disease (she is pictured here in July, shortly after its onset was first observed). Connie was a loyal dog, adored by all who knew her and particularly by our own Ravi, who will not again get to lick her ears.

A Dog Has Died

My dog has died.
I buried him in the garden
next to a rusted old machine.

Some day I'll join him right there,
but now he's gone with his shaggy coat,
his bad manners and his cold nose,
and I, the materialist, who never believed
in any promised heaven in the sky
for any human being,
I believe in a heaven I'll never enter.
Yes, I believe in a heaven for all dogdom
where my dog waits for my arrival
waving his fan-like tail in friendship.

Ai, I'll not speak of sadness here on earth,
of having lost a companion
who was never servile.
His friendship for me, like that of a porcupine
withholding its authority,
was the friendship of a star, aloof,
with no more intimacy than was called for,
with no exaggerations:
he never climbed all over my clothes
filling me full of his hair or his mange,
he never rubbed up against my knee
like other dogs obsessed with sex.

No, my dog used to gaze at me,
paying me the attention I need,
the attention required
to make a vain person like me understand
that, being a dog, he was wasting time,
but, with those eyes so much purer than mine,
he'd keep on gazing at me
with a look that reserved for me alone
all his sweet and shaggy life,
always near me, never troubling me,
and asking nothing.

Ai, how many times have I envied his tail
as we walked together on the shores of the sea
in the lonely winter of Isla Negra
where the wintering birds filled the sky
and my hairy dog was jumping about
full of the voltage of the sea's movement:
my wandering dog, sniffing away
with his golden tail held high,
face to face with the ocean's spray.

Joyful, joyful, joyful,
as only dogs know how to be happy
with only the autonomy
of their shameless spirit.

There are no good-byes for my dog who has died,
and we don't now and never did lie to each other.

So now he's gone and I buried him,
and that's all there is to it.

—Pablo Neruda

Friday, August 24, 2012

“The crowd loved it!”

He went there!

“No, no, not a swipe,” Romney said. “I’ve said throughout the campaign and before, there’s no question about where he was born. He was born in the U.S. This was fun about us, and coming home. And humor, you know, we’ve got to have a little humor in a campaign.”

Yaaa-suh massah!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Bad Moon Rising: Annals of Batshit Crazy

In the news today (is it a full moon? —no, not until month’s end) we have a New Hampshire candidate for sheriff who proposes to use “deadly force” in defense of the unborn, a tactic formerly the exclusive province of freelancers, and a Texas “judge” (the title is apparently understood differently in this part of the state) who wants additional funding to arm the good people of Lubbock County for the coming insurrection against the Kenyan Usurper.

All very droll, of course. But this is what the modern GOP is slowly becoming as, behind the personable faces of its 2012 standard bearers, it begins (in Martin Amis’ marvelous phrase) visibly to fizz with rabies. I remember catching Pat Buchanan’s disastrous address to the red-meat crowd at the Republican convention twenty years ago, and thinking that I understood for the first time the sentiments underlying the Yugoslavian civil war, that it was mutually intolerable to Pat’s people and to mine that we should be compelled to share a national identity in common. This was half-jocular on my side, but not more than a fifth part, I suspect, on Pat’s. These jokers, though, make Buchanan sound (in someone’s online formulation today—I forget where) like “Kindly Old Uncle Gestapo.” As a young Nixon staffer, incidentally, PB explicitly recommended shattering the nation’s social and political consensus, such as it ever was, on the grounds that Nixon would be in a position to grab most of the pieces. This was, of course, the tactic employed by Milosevic in Yugoslavia after Tito’s death, and I think it has been the GOP’s operating procedure ever since Bush the Elder lost the election (largely courtesy of mad Ross Perot, with KOUG giving a kind assist). In practice the Republicans have ever since practiced tyranny in power while attempting to make the country ungovernable during their periods of opposition. Now we see officeholders openly discussing Second Amendment remedies to the intolerable spectacle of the Other in office.

Milosevic and his confederates worked for ten years to undermine the consensus and institutions that held Yugoslavia together before they were able to launch the bloodbath they yearned for. We are fortunate here in that our principal blood feud goes back only three or four generations (I have a sister-in-law whose grandfather fought in the Civil War), whereas the Serbs, Croats, Muslims and Albanians sipped well-fermented thirteenth-century grudges from their mothers’ milk. And yet, and yet. In my lifetime our artificial two-party duopoly has more nearly resembled the post-Stalin Soviet Union, with its facade of choice, than the lively multi-party democracies of postwar western Europe, but until recently this constrained system performed the signal service of locking the lunatic fringe out of the action. Now that lunatic fringe—or rather, its violent  offspring—has eaten out one of the parties from within. I should rejoice that my old complaint that the parties were indistinguishable from one another in the main particulars has been addressed. We now have a true two-party system. Unfortunately, one party is led by timid opportunists, and the other consists of a motley coalition of lunatics, plutocrats, demagogues, grifters and criminals. In a perfect world this wouldn’t have been my choice, but it is a choice, by God, and these frothing God-botherers need to be put down hard at the ballot box, unless you want Sheriff Szabo and Judge Head to be calling the shots.

Cripes. These people make Lyndon LaRouche look like Bob Dole.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Martian Chronicles

Something about the homely detail of pebbles and dust kicked onto the surface of this American spacecraft, so improbably delivered intact to within 1.5 miles of its intended target on another world, rouses in me a sense of pride on behalf of Homo sapiens and, more surprisingly, of Homo americanus. I was not quite seventeen at the time of the first manned moon landing, and I’m sixty now. Given that the first successful US automated soft landing on the moon had been just three years earlier at the time of Apollo 11, I and many others still imagined in 1976, when the Viking probes landed on Mars, that a manned follow-up would be at most a couple of decades away. There's talk now about doing this sometime in the 2030s, but I suspect that by then our empire will have dissolved into regions devoting their limited energies toward trade and territorial skirmishes, and that the Chinese will have the appropriate honor of planting their flag on the Red Planet. 

And yet, and yet. For all Grover Norquist’s snark (now there's someone I wouldn't mind seeing drowned in a bathtub), I regard the present mission as a worthy expenditure of our per capita pennies, am moved by these preliminary panoramas from the surface, and look forward to several years of vivid images from the CCDs of this extraordinary robot. I have little patience with “American exceptionalism” and claims of US “greatness” (USA numbah one? Prison population; gun homicides among developed countries, and sundry other dishonorable metrics), but it should be observed to the credit of this savage former republic that while other countries or agglomerations of countries might have been capable of this feat, none have to date contrived to accomplish anything close to it. Much of what this country has done is a bloody stain on the record of the human species, but its program of planetary probes should be honored and emplaced as a starry tiara on the troubled brow of this jumped-up race of carnivorous, aggressive, highly territorial apes.*

*The image is intended to evoke Kubrick's 2001. Imagine how close to that vision we might have come had the treasure expended on the instruments and appurtenances of armed conflict and “defense” these past forty years been thrown instead toward the cosmos...

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Bain of His Existence

The source image was created by Michael Hayes, to whom I doff my hedge fund in tribute.

It's far too soon for us to be doing victory laps, but I sense a box being built around the Mormchurian Candidate, and I further predict that he will find its dimensions increasingly cramped between now and November.

A clubfoot, a tin ear and a glass jaw: These are the attributes I like in a GOP candidate.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Goldman Sachs: Fool me once…

I recall an account of the lead-up to the 1929 crash mentioning that Goldman Sachs had created layers of shell companies whose notional values were calculated according to their vast inventories of one anothers’ worthless shares. Goldman Sachs was also a major player in the 2008 clusterfuck. Makes me think that, like Diebold, they ought to start marketing flaws as features. Here I imagine that, like MetLife, GS licenses the beloved “Peanuts” characters from the estate of the late Charles M. Schultz.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Decline and Fall

Every now and then I assign myself one of the larger white whales in the western canon. Five or six years ago it was The Anatomy of Melancholy. This year it’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Burton's Melancholy, stylistically almost impenetrable at the outset, was a hoot. Gibbon's Decline and Fall is nowhere near as forbidding: on the contrary, the prose is buttery, seductive. The author contrives to make long, complex sentences seem perfectly effortless. Although I’m generally familiar with the material from other authors ancient and modern, I’ve never enjoyed the telling quite this much. Very highly recommended indeed—but you didn’t need me to tell you that.