Saturday, May 30, 2009

Even in our ashes live their wonted fires

What happens to us when the past asks us to act as if we remember?

According to Stuart Elliott's column in the business section of May 29's New York Times, some advertisers are now curious about that question. They are turning a dark era of the past into an economic theme for consumers -- a theme that assures the American people, "We survived the Great Depression, and we'll survive again."

Elliott illustrates his point with a print advertisement for a chain of gourmet food stores. "New Deals," says the ad's headline in a 1930s font, and between the words is a jaunty caricature of Franklin D. Roosevelt, all chin and grin and rakish cigarette holder. The ad itself, of course, is contemporary. Its item at the bottom about the e-newsletter is 2009, and so are its prices. But the retro headline makes them feel manageable after all.

However, one of the article's other illustrations, from a TV commercial for the Farmers Insurance Group, is more resistant to historical revision.

The caption in the Times reads, "A Depression-era insurance office was depicted in a campaign for Farmers." The ambiance certainly seems right for the attribution. Architecturally, for instance; because that house with its porch and its porch swing says, "I have vanished" to us now. Standing stiffly unsmiling by their neon sign, District Manager Glen M. Kaufman and his staff assure us that we're alive after all, because they must be dead. That pose of theirs is all funeral, and the picture of them and their house is black and white. The monochrome too says, "I am past; I am over." The time it shows us may be early spring; the lawn is dead, the forsythia bushes aren't yet in leaf, and the storm windows are up, but in one of the windows a shade is partway down against the sun. Little do those dead people from the past know what the remainder of their spring will bring them, but we know and we can take that knowledge of ours for a kind of comfort.

But the image isn't Depression-era. The woman standing before the house is wearing the short skirt and squared shoulders of the mid-1940s, the medium-narrow brims and medium-high crowns of the men's hats are circa 1950, and in one of the house's windows can be seen the triangular Art Deco "CD" placard of the World War II and Cold War Office of Civil Defense -- a logo created in 1939. If I were obsessive about these things, I'd guess that this picture was taken in 1948 or '49, just before Christian Dior's 1947 "New Look" became the iconic American women's style of the 1950s.

Well, 1948 was a nervous time in American history, but not nervous enough for the voters to reject President Truman's candidacy for reelection. Nobody -- neither the Farmers Insurance Group nor I -- cares whether this picture from 1948 lives or dies. The images that really attract the obsessives are the ones that bring us close to that mysterious sense of meaningfulness called myth. Look under "Goofs" in the Internet Movie Database's article about Titanic, for instance, and you'll see note after note calling attention to errors in the film's historical reconstruction. Some of the notes even correct errors in other notes. Does the film show copper tubing with sweated fittings in the act of communicating steam from the doomed ship's engines, rather than the historically correct brass tubing with screw fittings? If that has to do with what we believe to be our memory of the Titanic, it matters. And at the very moment in Untergang (Downfall) when Dr. Stumpfegger was mixing the poison for Goebbels's children, an alert hobbyist was rushing to his computer to inform the IMDB that Dr. Stumpfegger's Erlenmeyer flask was postwar. Hitler and the Titanic: we think we remember them, and so (we think) they'll never die. That's one of the things myth does for us: it convinces us that because we remember, we'll never die either.

Meanwhile, the still picture of the insurance agency looks up at us from the page as if it too were alive. All it asks of us is to remember what a spring breeze felt like on a day in 1948. But how can we know that memory, how can we learn to listen for the image's plea? Hasn't its modest request to remember and love been sent to drink of Lethe by Untergang and Titanic -- works of photographic art far more powerful as such than the random distributions of dead leaves on a lawn in front of a house one morning in the era of black and white?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Poets vs. people

When we say "good," what do we mean? The ambiguous old word caused its standard old problem once again last week.

Humanly speaking, this time the problem came out looking like a hybrid of Anthony Trollope and Newt Gingrich. At Oxford University, the Afro-Caribbean poet Derek Walcott withdrew from competition for the prestigious elective post of Professor of Poetry after at least 100 electors received an anonymous mailing which called attention to his age, 79, and documented accusations of sexual harassment brought against him in the 1980s. Walcott, a Nobel laureate, had been the candidate most favored to win; after his withdrawal, the only remaining competitors were the Englishwoman Ruth Padel and the Indian Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. Padel won easily, becoming the first female Professor of Poetry in history. In her gracious victory statement, she deplored the smear campaign against Walcott.

But shortly afterward, it turned out that she'd been associated with the campaign herself. After a tenure of just nine days, she resigned.

And then, of course, it was time for one more run with the old problem. Yes, what do we mean when we say "good"? By way of locating Walcott in a historical context, the Telegraph columnist Michael Deacon raced his readers through a whole list of good (i.e., competent) poets who were not entirely good (i.e., virtuous) men, from the physically filthy W. H. Auden all the way back and down to the depraved Earl of Rochester. Here's a link to the column.

And when you put the problem the way this column does, it is as simple as the columnist makes it sound. John Henry Newman stated it this way for his mistaken students who thought they were in college to become good men: "Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another." That was in 1852, in the lectures that would become The Idea of a University. In freshman comp in 2009, I still teach the oceanic paragraph where Newman's idea comes rolling in, wave after wave. I teach it as an example of the periodic sentence, but I believe it too.  

Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. It is well to be a gentleman, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life;--these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a University; I am advocating, I shall illustrate and insist upon them; but still, I repeat, they are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness, they may attach to the man of the world, to the profligate, to the heartless,--pleasant, alas, and attractive as he seems when decked out in them. Taken by themselves, they do but seem to be what they are not; they look like virtue at a distance, but they are detected by close observers, and on the long run; and hence it is that they are popularly accused of pretence and hypocrisy, not, I repeat, from their own fault, but because their professors and their admirers persist in taking them for what they are not, and are officious in arrogating for them a praise to which they have no claim. Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.

Simple enough, for all its elaborate beauty. To become smart, go to college; to become good, go to church. To learn virtue, go sit at the feet of Maya Angelou. To learn poetry, take a course from Derek Walcott. Poetry has its own claims. But how do those claims become ours? Where does language become a poem -- in a poet's isolated mind, or in the world that the poet shares with readers and their needs for language?

To make the problem manageably small, we could consider just one little world with poetry in it; say, England after World War II. England after World War II was feeling pathetic, I sometimes tell my students, and the reason Philip Larkin became the most historically significant poet of the era was that he was uniquely qualified to put pathetic feelings into accessible form. Consider, for instance, the bitter nostalgia suffusing Larkin's masterpiece, "High Windows." All but physically soiling the page it's printed on, this poem is the secretion of a narrator who is a dirty old man; and (I tell my students) one reason Larkin was so good at realizing that dirty old man in words may be that in what's called real life he was a dirty old man: a bigoted, alcoholic miser with a collection of stroke magazines.

"Always historicize," says Fredric Jameson, writer of ugly prose. In the undergraduate poetry classroom, the dictum works. But post-Padel you can see how historicizing can also oversimplify. By linking a poem to its time-bound poet the way I did, by making a poem the subject of biography and thematic analysis and moralism, I didn't leave myself any way to read its actual words. It's as if I think any dirty old man could write "High Windows." I've demoted Philip Larkin, a poet, to the status of Maya Angelou, a talking biography. I've left out the art part.

And the art part is what this blog proposes to be about.