Friday, December 10, 2010

Only what I remember: the 20c Zeitwende

Summer, 1963 at 2237 Haste apartment.  It was necessary to pose and hold still doing portraits hand-held and without flash with a pre-digital camera.  And this was the Contaflex Alpha, too
Keep in mind, anyone who reads this, that I have no point to make, and, above all, have no opinion of what is better or worse.  The reason that Damasio's book pleased me so much was his making so clear exactly why, given the physiology of memory, and the way that one's mind makes a memory available, the sole bias of this blog is to explore and try to isolate just what one does actually remember: no "as told to Oprah" about it, no explaining what it might or might not mean.
Now, while also I've been reading Robert Dallek's "The Lost Peace", whose sole purpose is to put together what did actually happen in the decade after World War II, and, so, here we are, without any pleading or point making or ideologizing, I look back and I see that, yes, I do remember what I saw in newspapers and in the news between features at movies.  I was reasonably well informed, for an adolescent, about facts, and quite worried about Berlin and about the Korean war.  But I also remember hurriedly glancing away from newspapers (it was the Oakland Tribune, usually) when they had headlines and pictures about investigations of atomic scientists or about spying (the Rosenbergs) and the HUAC.  No one told me to avoid those subjects.  It feels as if 1945 was still too recent for my handling them.  Certainly, I didn't know enough to form opinions of my own.  As I tried to put between the lines of my enthusiastic review of the revival of "South Pacific", this was my adolescence, and I had everything else, everything else, to put in order.  I am most grateful for Dallek's book.  So it wasn't as though one leader or another could, in medias res, make things right again; the world had made its bed and had to lie in it.  It always had done so.  So I wasn't "apathetic" (the Time-Life epithet for my generation); perhaps I even sensed truly that the news we were given wouldn't hang together.
But the cultural turn, the Zeitwende, of the 20th century, as I remember, began to be noticeable a bit later.  In the year just before I got my degree and went to Oregon to teach, I remember a spate of social evenings when we took all sorts of old magazines and cut them up and in an almost feverish free association reassembled parts of pictures of all kinds and pasted them into collages.  Not collages like political posters.  Collages, rather, of free association.  Then they were pinned to the wall (we knew the building we were in was scheduled for demolition, anyway) and we leaned back and laughed and talked about them, in some cases seeing that they were shocking—considered psychiatrically.  A decade later, in textbooks (on art appreciation, of all things), we saw the birth of Pop Art in England traced back to this sort of thing, though not, perhaps, done as a party game, a game of lingering adolescence.
Anyway, in the visual arts (what I knew) it began with acceptance of the stuff we may have liked but had never given an elevated status: color-lithograph labels, End of the Trail kind of statues, billboards, toothpaste ads, you name it.  I can report feeling that it came of rejecting and yet exalting the kind of imagery that had been used for propaganda, but I cannot say that that feeling was true or adequate.  Yet it was sweeping through highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow society alike.  And Russell Lynes' article, then book, had come out in the 'fifties, too.  To mock Clement Greenberg was significant.  Gradually, even essentially culturally conservative persons (meaning those who liked what they'd been taught) realized that the time was as critical, as crucial, as that preceding World War I.  All Modern criteria were being reexamined; not that the Modern art wasn't great, but the premises on which it judged other art might not be sound.
Jazz was no longer automatically exalted, either, any more than the atonal.  Above all, and gradually the confusion hit us (or hit me, at any rate) that came from respecting pictures that told stories or presented points of view (as in Latino NYC; the African-American artists, for the time being, were still shielded by the modernism that prevailed in the Harlem Renaissance), or pleaded causes, instead of saying something purely visual, however powerful (Arshile Gorky, for instance), without limiting the idea with icons of the verbal world, meant that works of art were no longer sullied by preaching or seducing or tempting.  One had been taught to the contrary.  So we were free to size up things for ourselves.  It seemed plain that representing something nice, like an angel, did not make a great angel, but it did mean that some Hellenistic masterpieces (for instance, if one was in Greek art), such as the "Barberini Faun" could be regarded as awesome (and not only for its Parts!).  Yes, it became plain that it was not only familiarity that endeared the Campbell Soup can to us.  It was a very heady era, with the boundary between commercial and pure breached, with the requirement for a rigorous defense of the work eliminated.  Quickly, though, it began to dawn that new criteria, such as sincerity (which began to look like Hollywood hero sincerity, if the writer or speaker didn't know any better) might not be any better, per se, than the old criteria.
At the same time, there began to be more money—or should I say liquidity?  It looked as if post-war children, as they grew up, could go out on their own and test themselves in their own way, and not die of it.  They had been brought up tenderly, and they were very likable.  They looked out for one another.  They were lovely to look at on our Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley.  They sold pins from a cardtable at Sather Gate saying Frodo Died for You.  Of course, they didn't think that pipeweed was tobacco, but for months those of us who were nearly thirty did not know what-all besides was available.  We had never heard of LSD, and we thought that heroin was for NYC, for James Baldwin's Antother Country.  I mean, I knew that my mother had ruined herself with barbiturates and synthetic morphines by prescription, but I didn't know the half of it.  It was months before the loveliness was darkened by "flying", Peter Pan fashion, out of upper-storey windows.  The hippie children were mostly very heterosexual and they actually liked religions.  We, their elders, were sexually careful (there was no AIDS, of course, at that time, but every ancient STD was still prevalent and dreaded, and pregnancy was feared as well, just as Mary MacCarthy remembered in The Group, 1962—Enovid was new, hard to get, and already had some bad press).  But the lovely children got the grubby STDs, all over again.
Communes, again, were a lovely idea and, again, out of my mother's generation, there was Mary McCarthy's chilling send-up.  And Randall Jarrell.  Only, the children, now growing a little older, didn't read them, but they did read Evergreen Review, and they (or their spokespersons) did see to D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love (not to mention Ulysses) being published without expurgation—and why not, when children were reading William Burroughs, whom I found appalling.  I say 'children'...why?  Well, they were very young, but also they were more heedless than any children of my own past had been: there ought not to be consequences, ergo there were no consequences; it wouldn't be fair, and "no fair" sounded like Grade 7 in school to me.  As for Evergreen Review, I haven't seen them since, but there was a rather beautiful set of photos of a black model and a white model (both female) making out, in such beautiful compositions that I couldn't fault them, but what would my friends think if I bought it and took it home?  Why, today I expect to see it on Antiques Roadshow.  Well, maybe not quite.
You can see that I envied the hippie children, in some ways.  Of course, in a commune you had no privacy or solitude.  Of course, I still do subscribe to the formal basis of visual arts, even though critics who put on airs were becoming tiresome.  Of course, the discipline of studying Greek and Latin, and the privilege of being a member of and studying in the American School in Athens, and everything else that I cherished were their own reward, and they were what gave me the intellectual freedom to admire the Sixties in Berkeley.  At 30 or so I didn't want to be one of them, but I did wonder whether I had not missed something of Youth.  On the other hand, some of them later had a complete turnabout, a revulsion, from  their youth, whereas I have had only some slightly jealous regrets.  And my generation did not go scot-free; I say that in memoriam to the gay men of my own 1930s cohort who were among the first to die of AIDS.  Some were among my dearest friends.
Anyhow (and I haven't finished reading his book), I know that Robert Dallek would agree that the 20th century after its Zeitwende and into the 21st century was, as what we did and what we thought piled up was, a foregone conclusion, and I daresay that it is, and so is all human history.
In other words, as I wrote privately to someone else, the joyous wit of the Beatles had to be, but Lennon didn't need to be killed.  John Lennon, one feels, would understand this post's ambivalence, despite my being merely a wishy-washy liberal.