Advertisement for a 1956 Chevrolet Two-Ten
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The snow is gone now. A few dead leaves still lie in the gutter, blown about by the speeding Chevrolet, but the grass is beginning to turn green. Seen through the swept-back windshield of his car, the driver grips his big steering wheel and leans forward as if he were racing. Elsewhere in the picture, stylized whooshes of dust fly backward from the car and the police motorcycle speeding ahead of it, escorting from the lead. Accurate representations of readily observable phenomena, the whooshes signify that the driver's body language is accurate. He is racing.
Sitting calmly upright even though he is exposed to the wind, the motorcycle policeman is old. Watching from the sidewalk as the fast little parade races past them is a couple with a leashed dog. Their carefully layered clothes and the leash on the dog signify cautious middle age. But the Chevrolet's grinning, beefy driver is young. In the passenger seat beside him is a woman, also young, habited in a kerchief and a fully buttoned coat.
Her clothing signifies stillness, demureness, and buttons fully buttoned wherever on her body they may happen to be. Her eyes are modestly downcast. Her happy half-smile, lips fully closed, signifies, "I have a secret -- but if you love me, you'll know what it is and I won't have to tell you."
Birth has been translated from biology to drama, and its playwright and set designer are at work on a comedy of manners. The middle-aged couple have a dog and a leash in symmetry with the young couple who are about to have a baby and a baby carriage. The motorcycle patrolmen is old because in comedy it's the job of a kindly old man to help the juvenile and the ingenue overcome the disorder of Act 1 and drive on to establish their continuity with the wise past. So we all know: in Act 3 the sign on the vacant lot will have given way to another suburban house, and the freshly exposed earth on the hill in the background will be covered with more houses, each with its garage.
Half a century ago, for reasons that don't seem very comprehensible now, people who read books found vehicular comedies like this oh terribly upsetting, especially when they were engineered out of money and hard steel but marketed as if they were the unstable fabric of a dream. A journalist whose name actually was John Keats wrote a book about the awfulness of it all and called it The Insolent Chariots (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1958), and at the end of "For The Union Dead" (1964) Robert Lowell bellowed,
Everywhere,giant finned cars nose forward like fish;a savage servilityslides by on grease.
Lowell's histrionic elegy was for the moral greatness of Robert Gould Shaw and the artistic greatness of the sculptor who memorialized his part in a war against servility. That war can't be continued now, says Lowell. It can't even be spoken of, because its moral language has been replaced by the silent impulses of the animal in us and in our society. We are now in labor with silence, waiting with downcast eyes for time to deliver us.
But the young man's budget-model car in the painting is the pale yellow-green of new grass on a spring morning, and Samuel Johnson said this about the happy ending into which Nahum Tate delivered King Lear.
A play in which the wicked prosper, and the virtuous miscarry, may doubtless be good, because it is a just representation of the common events of human life: but since all reasonable beings naturally love justice, I cannot easily be persuaded, that the observation of justice makes a play worse; or, that if other excellencies are equal, the audience will not always rise better pleased from the final triumph of persecuted virtue.
In the present case the public has decided. Cordelia, from the time of Tate, has always retired with victory and felicity.
It seems to have turned out that Tate's excellencies weren't equal to Shakespeare's after all. On the other hand, I used to teach Robert Lowell a lot more than I do now. And what do you drive through the empyrean, Dr. Johnson: a professormobile like my own pure and moral 2005 Nissan Sentra, or something more cheery?