Thursday, January 31, 2013

no denim

If the cities of the world had not been deserted, they would have been destroyed.

-- Clifford D. Simak, City

When I made a living as a performer, I would go to the plains in September with a farm equipment company.  In Nebraska, Ohio, Iowa, Indiana, or Illinois, on a site with permanent infrastructure used three days a year, in a sawdust arena under the sky with twenty-foot high entrance doors, I summoned, dismissed, named and praised, sometimes drove the latest tractors, for the delight of farm families.  They dressed me like the kind of person who might buy a tractor: no denim, khakis, flannel plaid shirt, the latest baseball cap in company colors, and on cold days a barn jacket.  They thought my midwestern moonface fit the product well, and so they paid me enough to bridge the rough patches of an actor's business. 

I had the gig for ten years.  When I started, the bleachers were often packed, and we might average five hundred spectators six shows per day.  The farm show site, an evanescent city of ten blocks square, was jammed with grandpas and grandmas, moms and dads and kids, the smallest of whom were towed down the street in little red wagons.  There was something for everyone at the farm show -- if you lived on a farm.

Ten years later the bleachers were often empty, and the streets clear.  There weren't as many farm families.  Agriculture was still a healthy business, but it was changing.  There were fewer buyers, and they bought more machines, and they didn't have to come to a farm show to make their decisions.

There's a strain of science fiction that fears the success of cities.  And there's another strain that rejoices in forecasting their failure.  The city, that place after which they've seen it, you can't keep them down on the farm.  The place your child runs away to and is lost, and comes back later as a different person who doesn't belong on the land.  The place where everything changes and traditions go to die, but there are a hundred ways to live and everything is up for grabs.

One of our fantasies is that cities will eat our souls, interring us in coffins of steel and concrete.  The other is that the cities will devolve into ghost towns, leaving us only savage lives to live.  We know without having to figure it out that everything modern comes from the urban landscape, but on alternating days we change our mood about modernity.

The bourgeoisie (burghers, literally people of the town) arose in the cities, making so much money that kings had to parley with them in a parliament before they could fight their wars; and popes damned them for buying and selling on the market rather than at eternal prices.  When the bourgeoisie get in a sour mood about the cities, they may go to the country to live by what they imagine is rural simplicity, and then god help them.  Brook Farm and New Harmony broke up after a few years, and that is the more benign ending of this plot; the less benign ends at Jonestown.

Clifford Simak thought that technology would relieve us of the need to live near each other, and then we would disperse ourselves in manors about the countryside.  But it is the countryside, not the city, that is depopulated; and driving through the plains, off the interstate highway, you'll see ghost farmhouses.  I have two fantasies about my later life: a Manhattan apartment and a Vermont farmhouse.  I'm not rich enough to have both, and I have chosen the Manhattan apartment.  It's a simple life, and an ecologically sound one, in which I share heating and cooling, transportation and greenery, facilities and infrastructure with thousands of neighbors.

The most wasteful lifestyle is the isolated farmhouse.  There was once of course an economic rationale for living in splendid isolation, but now a single operator can farm hundreds of acres from an air-conditioned cab with stereo and internet, the equipment controlled by a satellite that knows where you are within three feet of tolerance.  Most farmhouses are now a self-indulgence.

And the city is where they figured out how to do this.

The values by which cities are condemned were born in the cities.  We think too much of the Israelites as desert nomads or as subsistence farmers.  Their scriptures, including the splendid Deuteronomic History that tells of the tragedy and division, destruction and redemption of David's Kingdom, were shaped (or "redacted," as the scholars say) in the time when Judean exiles, descendents of those sent into captivity in Babylon, returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and to restore (recreate) their ethics, their values and their religion.  In Jerusalem they argued about their origin, their laws, their gods, their identity.  We see the signs of their argument in their statements of the Law, and in the outrage of their prophets.  In the city heroism and cowardice, righteousness and sin, justice and corruption, are displayed and judged.

The god who would destroy the cities of the plain must have been there, and failed.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

so loud

The process of trying to say something dignifies and improves a person.

-- George Saunders*

I guess I am a man who likes chick-flicks.

Tonight I saw again how Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr, a kept man and a kept woman, doing what was necessary, discovered their souls in each other while traveling on other people's money in first class, crossing the Atlantic in an ocean liner. . .

How elegant they were, not a fiber out of place.

O once, in a time gone by, it was possible to tell an entire sexual history without popping a single button! without naming a single body part or position thereof!  And how grown-up, how mature it seems, from this receding shoreline of juvenility, to view through the long telescope of nostalgia those ballrooms of our mothers and fathers where sublimation partnered art.  More literal than the naked wrestlers of our day, Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire actually went dancing in the dark, and when they got back in the carriage their intertwining fingers told us all we need to know about the meaning of their moving, fully clothed.

. . . and how having found true love on the tab of false loves, Cary and Deborah vowed on landing in New York to do their dirty work, liberate themselves from liaisons, support themselves and meet again in six months' time to consummate their longings, at the top of the Empire State Building.  And how an accident prevented that meeting and gave rise to misunderstanding.  And he was so angered that he became a real artist.  And she so injured that she became a humble teacher of her art.  And how his grandmother reached out from the grave with a gift that brought them together.  And his gift of his art to he knew not whom betrayed the proud secret of the woman he loved.  And how . . .

This film was a remake.  And a remake was made of it.  And then the meta-remake, with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.**  It's a successful property, this story.

Oh well, it seems I like chick-flicks.

"Your money or your life."  There was once a comedian who made America laugh, week after week, with a slow take to the audience.  "I'm thinking!" he said.  Now some of my favorite comedians, people who have plenty of alternatives, think they cannot make me laugh without bleep-words.  I don't watch them for the bleep-words.

In The Bridge on the River Kwai there was exactly one explosion, blowing up the pretension that there can be laws of war.  There's an assumption in the movies now that all fights must last at least fifteen minutes, with blows that sound like wrecking-balls as they land, and tiresome explosions that bloom like nuclear fireballs.

In the musical education of my childhood, you had to listen to the music -- not because the music was holy but because if you didn't listen you wouldn't hear it.  Classical music, in its long-form journeys, actually varies its loudness from moment to moment.  This is one of the tools of musical narrative, and if you can't calm down after the bravura moment to hear the little motif of a single note, or god help us the silence that follows it, then you've chosen not to understand.  Folk music (by which I mean the actual music of our folk) requires that we listen to the words.  Broadway and Tin Pan Alley married words to tunes for a listening public who sanctioned urbanity, knowledge, irony and poetry.

Now it doesn't matter whether you listen or not; it's so loud, it will pillage you despite resistance.  It's in the DNA of rock-and-roll to blow away the corrupt discourse of the elders.  Neither Mozart, nor Joan Baez, nor Perry Como can enter the Hall of Rock without being atomized.  The music is not an object for your consideration but a physical assault on your body, an assault that lots of geezers still come back for, and geezers now perform.  Those maximal unrelenting volume levels were never accidental, but always essential to the purpose.  And the essential conventions of rock have been universalized to other genres, so that the word "music" in public places now means "Sound So Loud You Can't Ignore It." I've sat in a Broadway theatre to watch an awarded and literate musical comedy, my chest wall vibrating in sympathy with the sound system, hearing not a word because everything was so damn loud (pardon my french).

This is the contemporary meaning of the word debauchery.  F. M. Alexander*** said that the wisdom of the body is debauched, meaning not that we have too much sex but that, whatever we're doing, we don't know when to stop because we can't feel anything until it's hurting us.  We mistake the damage for sensation, which was supposed to protect us from damage.

We've given up on saying things in favor of doing things.  People of my age and class and nationality have a lot to do with that change.  I went to a college where activism was an extra-curricular activity, and I graduated in the year when prophets were gunned down and riots broke out across the country.  We were tired of leaders who talked.  We wanted them to act.  The rules had been proven corrupt, and so we would stop playing by the rules.  Civil disobedience was our code, soon to become uncivil, as civility itself fell into dishonor.  But that was OK, because we were the good guys.  We were making a difference.

Well, everybody else learned the game.  We taught that the personal is political, and our opponents have learned how to make the political personal.  If you doubt me, turn on the AM radio at noon eastern time.  You'll learn that if you don't dance to the bloviator's tune you are a liar, a fascist, a socialist, a terrorist, a traitor, a hater of America, a feminazi, a slut.  The bomb-throwers have made a difference, and we don't like dodging their grenades.  We live in a time when a serious presidential candidate can disparage education because it fosters critical thinking.  Appalling as such a statement is, it continues an anti-discourse that people like us started.

We wanted to stop saying things, to stop making sense.  We wanted to do things directly, short-circuiting the slough of despair, the swamp of discourse.  Nobody had taught us that direct action is the thug's game, not ours; or that when we resort to it, we can find out pretty quick that the other guys are more practiced than we are.  Their big brothers are bigger than ours.

What we didn't know then, what our civilization has discovered since that time, is that when you say it right you've done something.  Our history is in the hands of people who write code and by doing so make things happen.  Our very existence is written.  DNA is a language of finite characters, in which an infinite number of creatures can be stated and made real, and the best hope for a cure of cancer is a technique for re-writing the code, correcting its mistakes.

Isaac Asimov wrote a story ("The Last Question") in which human intelligence, and then artificial intelligence, ponders the problem of entropy while the universe flickers out, at which time the results come in: "Let There Be Light."  Asimov wrote before the digital revolution, but he foresaw a time when we could once again understand how utterance makes fact.

So perhaps we will remember that, since the universe is written, it may be important to get the writing right.  My high school friend went to Amherst College, where he was required to take Freshman Comp from the writer and critic Benjamin DeMott.****  No collaborator with sloppy thinking, DeMott gave rigorous brief assignments and covered the pages of his students with comments.  My friend took this well.  He showed me his one-page paper on the assignment "Describe the Objects on Your Desk."  He laughed uproariously as he pointed to DeMott's sentence at the top of the page: "This paper is clawed by beastly errors."

Thank you.  This paper is clawed by beastly errors.  Indeed.

*from Joel Lovell, "'Stay Open, Forever, So Open It Hurts:' The Beautiful, Brutal Vision of George Saunders," New York Times Magazine (January 6, 2013), p. 26.

**Love Affair (1939, Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne), Love Affair (1994, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening), Sleepless in Seattle (1993).

***Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955), the Australian actor and voice teacher whose observations inspire the "Alexander Technique" studied by many musicians, singers, actors and others.

****Benjamin DeMott (1924-2005).  The subtitles of several of his books include the phrase "Why Americans Can't Think Straight."