“When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment…If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.”
— John F. Kennedy
— Eulogy for Robert Frost
“Here’ a truckstop instead of Saint Peters.”
In Book X of the Republic, Plato states that in the ideal city state, the artists will be sent into exile. Not because they are worthless but because their mimetic abilities and their power to agitate are so strong that they must, for the good of everyone else, be sent packing.
One may argue that as this is a pre-industrial culture that it is technically wrong to call Plato a proto-fascist; a beta test for all the leather and discipline and barbed wire to follow but frankly, even if one grants the premise it ends as a distinction without a difference. The man was, among other things, a brilliant thug.
But our point here is not Plato’s thuggishness per se but rather, the extent to which a millennia later his idea and blueprint, has become reality.
Consider the period in America since 9/11. Surely one of the more fraught eras in America’s relatively short history. And we hasten to add, despite the arrogant notions of certain writers born outside of the US, this period, even with its horrors and nightmare distortions is still not (knock wood) as bad as other moments of terror. After all, the army is not freezing to death at Valley Forge and Lee is not marching on D.C., the Japanese fleet is not sailing to Hawaii with murder in its heart, and no one is trying to bomb London back to the Stone Age – nor are 15 million people standing in bread lines.
Which is not to say this suffering is less than another and therefore should be dismissed but it is to do the hard work of being rigorous in our exegesis of our time and our history.
With that in mind we draw your attention to the dog that has, in the last twenty years, not barked.
We speak of America’s writers.
In other posts we have pointed out that Philip Roth, Aleksandar Hemon and Tom Wolfe among a host of others, have been disingenuous at best and collaborationist at worst when they lament the absence of any major – or even small – attempt to write about 9/11 or Iraq or the dislocations and disruptions and distortions of the post 9/11 landscape.
The reason being that clearly, the issue is not that such works have not been written, but that they have not been published.
Anyone who thinks American publishing is an independent, small batch artisanal endeavour, free from the oily corruption of the corporate entertainment empires, is not just a fool but should probably be publically shamed into either silence or contrition or both.
We were thinking about this most recently because of Marcy Wheeler.
Rather than regurgitate all of that we direct you to our previous post.*
What we draw from all of that is the extent to which the entirety of the commentariat, ignores the mountain of data from which information may be drawn – we refer to American art. And we mean that artifact is a map to the soul of our times
What has gone missing, what has been sent into exile, are not just our writers, but the idea that their work tells us the truths of who we are.
For example, while the professional talkers sit around inside the cable echo chamber, dissecting all things Trump, have you ever herd any one of them contextualize their analysis of the man and the current situation, by saying we need to talk about Gatsby? Or Hammett’s Red Harvest? Or that Trump should send any thoughtful person running for a copy of All the King’s Men?
Of course not.
As an example of this defect we draw your attention to the following: Several years ago, during some phase of the Vietnam mea culpa tour, Robert more body bags McNamara, McGeorge Bundy and an editor from Ramparts*, all appeared on the PBS Newshour with Jim Lehrer.
The conversation followed the usual script with details both public and personal about the war, and the roads not taken and the mistakes made.
At one point Bundy and McNamara, in full Greek Chorus mode, said they did not know in the late 50s and early 60 exactly what they were getting themselves and the nation into; they did not know just how bad it was going to be.
The editor from Ramparts said: What do you mean we didn’t know?!? We had read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.
What followed must surely rank as the most important and significant few seconds of awkward silence in American journalism.
No one took the opportunity to say, well tell us about Greene and the novel. No one disagreed; no one said anything and the moment passed.
And that is the dilemma in a nutshell. The establishment is compromised in the main, by people who are essentially functional illiterates.
And while it is better to have presidents who read than not, honesty compels us to point out that while Obama and Clinton are both literate, it did not stop them from making horrendous mistakes. JFK was literate but he was also a prisoner of what in his time, was possible. It is no small thing that at the nominating convention in Los Angeles in 1960, he spoke with Norman Mailer and knew that he had written, The Deer Park. Mailer’s inflated bladder of an ego notwithstanding, one wants a president who can reference a book or ten when it matters and not some sort of freakish, illiterate dullard, whose idea of intelligence is being able to tell real tits from fake.
And a word here about specifics.
Consider the attempts to understand and define Trump.
Imagine Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Streetcar. Or Chinatown*. Now imagine them with a Queens’ accent.
Imagine the hot house atmosphere repressed under layers of rules, and the icy Germanic discipline that defined the psych ward reality of Trump’s childhood. Imagine the Greek tragedy truths, lurking in every barely concealed gesture and the wicked knife thrusts, concealed within darting eyes, and asking that the pepper and salt be passed across the battlefield of the dinner table.
Imagine the sadistic seductions, and the corrupt bargains, inherent in an allowance or a request for the keys to the car or the trips to upscale whore houses.
Where did Trump’s contempt for women begin?
Was it the first time he slipped into his mother’s closet? Was it the first time he touched her dresses and then slipped into one of them?
Is this a dagger we see before our eyes dripping with the truth?
Who is our Lady Macbeth, if not Trump?
But the question is forbidden. And as a result the answers are prefabricated; truncated and stripped of honest use. The system that allows it is in exile, displayed for dead on arrival mock debates that are controlled by tokens and establishment mandarins who, in the manner of Europe’s old Bourbon monarchs, have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
But there is more. So much more.
Because it is not only the mechanism that sees Trump for who and what he is, literature is the mechanism that connects the dots of America; it is the clue that unwinds and leads us down into the dark of the labyrinth, and then allows us to find our way back out and up into the light.
The insistence on a binary construction of the Trump narrative, serves the purposes of those who wish to control the narrative. Thus the Steele dossier is either genuine or not; it’s the Russians or not. But pull the critical lens back further and what is revealed, is the totality of America Incorporated. This is Pynchon’s America. This is DeLillo and this is America as the Pequod, and we are the crew following the obsessed madman screaming he’d slap the sun if it insulted him.
In the official establishment binary discussion Trump is x or y. Perhaps there is a little overlap but what goes missing is any detailed discussion of New York; or America.
There have been the usual shallow biographies that touch upon the usual suspects: Trump and the tabloids. Trump and real estate; his ridiculous cameos in films or video, presented in an endless feedback loop showing him being humiliated by Letterman.
But what of New York? Where are the the detailed excavations of the fixers, the lawyers, the beat cops and crime beat reporters; the doormen, the chefs, the delivery men, the molls, the bankers, the brokers, the addicts, and the middle management drones of Wall Street; the photographers who were Weegee, but wanted to be Avedon even if they had no idea who he was. Where are the people who crossed paths with the goon when he was just one among all the other goons, and where are the characters who live inside hard boiled detective novels that make New York and Los Angeles hum?
Trump does not just pick up a phone and call a Playboy centerfold. He has to have people who arrange things and that’s not all down to Michael Cohen. And even if it was, he in turn has to know people, who know people who make things happen.
How many times have you heard about a movie star, or someone in the industry, getting their photo snapped when they were out someplace they shouldn’t have been, with people they shouldn’t be with, doing something they will regret later?
Trump met repeatedly at a posh hotel with a women in the industry. Who was her manager? Where did they live? Who did they get high with and if they didn’t who were the people that knew it and talked about it? Who were their friends? Who were their enemies?
Listen to something as banal as Joe Rogan talk about going to a party with Dave Chappelle and ask yourself, how things work in L.A.
Or New York.
Feel free to make your own list but amid the celebrities, there is an army of others. The dealers, the publicists, the drama queens of both sexes; the agents, their lawyers, their mistresses (of both sexes) the guy with the bungalow up in the hills that’s secluded, except it has a rotating cast of users and guests and gossip is currency and who knows x about y is king or at least takes a shot at the king, and knows better than to miss.
This is Citizen Kane. This is Robert Crais’ The Monkey’s Raincoat and this is James Elroy; this is Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker and only fools and establishment pricks dismiss them as just fiction and even worse, just detective fiction.
We have become a nation of specialists. Sit in a history class in almost any American university and listen to, for example, the professor talk about America between the world wars ,and paint yourself stunned if anyone mentions Mina Loy, e.e. cummings or Hammett. You might get a moment with Fitzgerald, and some shallow reference to expats in Paris, but then it’s back to rounding up the usual suspects and the next thing you know it’s 1945 and the semester is done.
Consider this piece of pop culture fluff. The Towering Inferno is a silly film any way you look at it. It is one of many in a line that stretches from a woman tied up on a railroad track, to Dwayne The Rock Johnson trying to save his kids in a tower that’s on fire and full of villains. It’s Bruce Willis, it’s Stallone and a host of others but in the Towering Inferno there’s a lot of movie stars. It’s a strange transition from one cinematic generation to another because it stars Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, but it also stars Fred Astaire.
But what matters here for our purposes, is the exchange between Newman and McQueen. They call each other only by their job titles – Fireman and Architect.
This is meant to convey both a kind of terminal authority as well as represent a stripped down, minimalist professionalism, in which the dignity, honor and identity of a man is reflected in what he does. And what he does is the sum total of who he is.
That it also feels like some sort of Stalinesque, Orwellian neo-Maoist fascism is never discussed. That it also reflects a moment of social anxiety in which America had gone from isolated, down on its knees broken nation of breadlines, to world hegemon in the space of a few years, is also never discued. That it could be contextualized as a narrative about Vietnam is nowhere to be found. But that’s part of what was happening in that film and that exchange.
Speak the title and make the truth.
But outside of film studies classes, outside of seminars that the wider media ignore, as if they were both hilarious, pretentious and somehow dangerous, it’s as if these issues do not exist.
And while god knows there are such classes full of pretentious and toxic morons, it’s not as if they have a monopoly on stupidity or being toxic. After all it wasn’t David Lynch or Francois Truffaut who said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
We could at this point turn the critical lenses in almost any direction and strike gold.
Consider that the helicarriers in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, are meant to be drones and then reexamine Steve Rogers snapping at Nick Fury, that it’s not freedom but fear and that killing people without a trial is immoral. Ask yourself then why Star Trek into Darkness, which made exactly the same point, was subject to a concerted media effort to be painted as a spectacular failure.
Take a look at The Quiet Place, and ask yourself if that is, or is not about America in the age of mass surveillance and then compare it to the original and the remakes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Then ask yourself why the 24 hour cable echochamber is not discussing these artifacts of our national identity.
Paul Simon has announced his last tour. It’s time to go. But the words being genius, will endure.
Listen to him from say, 1967 or ’68 or the early 70s, or later, and ask yourself if he is talking about then, or now or both, and even about next year.
Genius is of a specific moment, but being genius it transcends time. As Hemingway said, what’s necessary is to write something that won’t be moldy and bitched after you’re gone.
First, he said, one must endure.
There is of course a double meaning in that even if one reads it in the original French or in translation. To endure is to suffer and to endure is to last. It’s the hard truth of the artist’s life.
Consider what it would mean were the media to devote an hour to attaching Springsteen to the state of our politics. “I got debts no honest man can pay” as a fulcrum upon which we might weigh Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Trump.
But they will not. They will offer up a few minutes here or there to repeat the template – working class hero, small towns and dead factories, cars and hope, but beyond that – silence.
But who will take The Ghost of Tom Joad and say: here we are.
Or as another great writer had it: Let us stop talking falsely now, the hour is growing late.
*For a look at our thoughts on Wheeler and a literary context, see the following:
*We regret we cannot remember or find the name of the Rampart’s editor.
For a look at the entirety of JFK’s eulogy for Robert Frost:
*Regarding Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Trump. First, while Polanki’s personal morality is odious, he is not the first or the last artist with a repugnant personal resume. That he is a vile man also speaks to his significance vis Trump and American Incorporated. The details of the film, the incest, the violence, the corruptions, all reflect the state of the nation. Noah Cross, (John Houston) could not be more Trumpian if Polanski and Robert Towne had been thinking of Trump as their inspiration. The difference, and it is not insignificant, is that Cross is brilliant and vile, where Trump is a moron and vile. But consider how the film ends. Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown, is a statement about the perpetual corruption, the permanent midnight, of America’s moral failures.
While it is also true that America is also Bedford Falls, the issue here is that no one is going to devote an hour of CNN or MSNBC to a serious discussion of how Trump is Noah Cross and Chinatown, is America.
Lastly, we want to emphasize the vast world of American art and the people we’ve mentioned are not meant to be remotely close to a complete list. The number of writers and musicians and artists who have said something significant about America is nearly infinite.
Feel free to make your own list.
Regarding McNamara and Bundy and their claim of innocent ignorance it’s worth noting that following the partition of Vietnam the US Joint Chiefs reported to Eisenhower that attempts to train the Army of South Vietnam would be hopeless, and the Secretary of Defense, Charles E. Wilson said the US should, get out of Indochina “as completely and as soon as possible.” Additionally, Bundy and McNamara could have looked at a cartoon by Daniel Fitzpatrick in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that showed Uncle Sam gazing into a dismal swamp labeled “French Mistakes in Indochina.” The caption read: “How would one more mistake help?”
The previous note is based on details from Fredrick Logevall’s Embers of War, The Fall of An Empire And The Making of America’s Vietnam.