Fri Jan 30, 2004 9:50 pm - A Retro Culture
|Almost everybody in New York these days in the Arts and out of them talks about America with disbelief and dismay the retro culture if they talk about United States as having a culture at all.
If one is in the theatre one sees the skein of revivals on Broadway, the niche smaller theaters putting up their versions of anybody from Aeschylus to Sam Shepard, playwrights who have finished their careers, are now either classical or of no interest and utility whatsoever.
Classical music has been running retro culture since the 1890s; its repertory seems to have been largely frozen at the end of the 19th century. Jazz, blues and rock and roll are similarly written in stone these days in their definitions and have been for a few decades. There hasnít been an new idea in any of these musical genres since 1975.
Go to the bookstores; one sees the same authors in them in the windows and one the displays one saw in 1960 plus a few aging feminists. Even the psychology books seem to have run out of innovations since the ultimate cure for feeling lousy: 60s Scream Therapy. Listen to the conversation at wine and cheese parties on the Upper West Side or the colleges; one hears the old refrains of half a century ago: utopian systems like Marxism, lauds of vegetarian diets, tales of the impeccable morals and wisdom of Asian hierophants, the old notion that Europe, that wonderful part of the world that had brought us World War Two and more genocides than anyplace else, is the cradle of civilization and director of our global destiny, an etiquette of gentility in manners that had as its root the vaporous hungers to be other than human of the pagan saint Plotinus.
If one maunders in the bohemian spots downtown in New York the palaver reminds one of the early 70s though the youth offering such wares could have only heard about it from their elders or found the old culture in some sort of museum.
If one were in the corporate world one hears ideas and selling techniques that were ancient in the 1890s, in that day and this one were promoting in their harsh and arrogant if vaporous realities that made enemies all over the world that a business realm of measure and charity that had learnt something from the past out of reason if not morals could have avoided then and now.
If one were a clothes horse one would be seeing retro styles on the street. If one listened to the music in stories is was all from the 1950s though the 1970s. Many people talked I knew about the retro culture in a superficial way; nobody even began to explain it. It was suddenly at once ordinary and enigmatic as the weather.
As one who was close to the machines that produced new Art and thought I had some idea of the mechanics of why everything seemed to stop. It had to do with a saintly concentration of the businesses that produced Arts for optimal profit. Originality is always harder to sell than banality.
The producers of the Arts didnít want to take a chance on unproven markets. If one took up the business oneself, one couldnít pay the suddenly high rents for the theaters even if the actors and directors worked for nothing. One didnít publish most books that previously would have gone into print because with the same labor one could publish a few select volumes of stale trash.
If one were running a small press one didnít have any distribution. Local candy stories werenít selling books and magazines anymore unless they were about synthetic movie stars or wrestlers. With the same shelf space, paying the high rents they had to make, they could sell condoms, garner more lucre and maybe break even.
The first harvest of our illiterate graduates of our school system were now coming into adult life; they and were not a market as previous young people were. The narrow and politically correct America wasnít a soil to produce even cortices much less creative people. For awhile a terminally stifling economic crunch and the general cemetery of the college scene sufficed for me to explain the advent of retro culture for awhile.
Yet as it the retro flavor become even more dominant while going nowhere for the next quarter of a century in its static way and the life of the country changed without any mirror of it in its Art and thought after a while I had second thoughts about my former answers.
I had been in places like Seville that had once inspired Cervantes to wrote several novels, Madrid that had thrived as a literary and philosophical world in the 1890s; Vienna had been a center of culture of science and Arts until 1920 or so, Paris didnít seem to be producing much beyond its still living savants like Sartre and Genet.
I passed though innumerable other places including Istanbul that was once a center of conscious life. Of them all only London back in the 1960 still was foaling theatre, novels, thinkers and Arts in a healthy way; in fact it was the global center of rock and roll. There was a veritable musical renaissance as it were going on in England in the 1960s that had fecund parallels in novels, painting and the theatre. I had no way of knowing at the time it would all peter out around 1970 or so.
It had occurred to me, thinking this attractive explanation over as a chapter of a large world history, that unless a culture has some reason to respond to an outside force it stagnates fairly easily, high costs of maintaining it or not. London and America were going through vast and deep populist revolutions from the bottom; the rest of the world wasnít.
London had had several such renaissances, the famous one under Elizabeth and James, the minor one during the Restoration, vaguely illegitimate one in the time of the early Romantics and by turns near criminal and autumnal one of the late Victorians.
In each case some external force acted on the culture to jostle it, make it uncomfortable with applied doses of ontological vertigo. One could go back to the Jewish escape from Egypt, the Hellenic clash between the old Olympian region and its skeptical philosophers as the same kind of discomfiting juxtaposition, one might speculate further that the Hellenic flowering of 2500 years ago had ended with a military defeat: the humiliating conquering of Athens by Philip of Macedon.
One could say the same of the Italian Renaissance, influenced as it was by the pagans, the general effect of the French Revolution, the rise in franchise of the populace in the late 18th century in Europe and so on.
Applying this idea to American culture, our heyday came after 1918 when we became a kind of populist intellectual champion in the world though its long season that ended with the election of Richard Nixon in 1958.
According to this idea it would take another meeting of two conflicting large forces of that Herculean magnitude to jostle the country into a public arena that would entertain some resolution of diverse external powders all coming at it at the same time.
According to this attractive theory the great pulverizing events that closed down the populist revolution in the United States in the 70s and brought Ronald Reagan to the presidency here, Margaret Thatcher to power in Britain, dispatched the populist fecundity of our nation and England as well as Europe generally after its liberation from the Second World War and Hitler had to deal at its leisure by the 1970s with the deep aggressiveness and partiality to injury in its culture had done damage of some degree to neighbors, strangers and themselves as well over several centuries.
Also, the ability of the technology to capture Art and thought in a way unknown in the past had a dark side. It closed down the development of many artists and thinkers because the cultural institutions from schools to libraries were shut down with the very records of the past in a way unknown since the Dark Ages out of a high piety destroyed both the culture of the ancient world and as much memory of it as they could.
Itís a little harder to reinvent an Art or a way of thought when one has lost such easy accessibility to how other people before one, many of whom were geniuses. Like the famous Indian mathematics and genius savant who had invented mathematics in his small Asian town from Euclid though the present and afterwards, his parallel efforts were aided by his ignorance of Western mathematical history, not hindered by them.
I think there is at least partial truth to both the first, second and third of these explanations. Certainly had the factors that made the American heyday of arts and thought thrive continued, the cultural evolution and sense of progress in it would have gone on if only out of habit.
Moreover what had closed down Seville, Madrid, Vienna, and Paris were large political events of a terrible nature that crushed the society that had produced its culture. Vienna for example along with the rest of Austria never recovered from loosing is empire in the First World War. Vienna couldnít generate any culture at all after Hitlerís invasion of Austria in 1936. There seems to be a capacity for a communal cultural depression in a community as well as a private woe one feels individually.
Rather curiously a more durable cultural spa like Germany was still turning out theater, music, films and books into the 19560 though it was without an army and to a degree militarily occupied by its enemies, hardly a blow more catastrophic politically than one might imagine.
Yet one could say that the German revival of the 1950s and 1960 came from being free of Hitlerís pulverizing regime much as the Restoration in England produced the extravagant Art and idiosyncratic thinkers it did. Certainly all of Europe along with the West generally plummeted like a hawk with a heart attack into cultural oblivion after 1975 or so if it was still the best place in the world to make a living.
One might think if one were nearsighted there was an epidemic of stasis on the planet except at the same time Brazil produced some interesting major painters, novelists, and musicians; it was a great arena for moviemakers. Both China and Honk Kong were turning out unique films. I saw up through the lip of the 21st century some brilliant Irani films as well . Something was happening in the West that wasnít occurring in China, Hong Kong, Brazil or Iran.
I think Iím in a fair position myself to have some sort of insiderís insight into retro culture. I grew up in a world that assumed it was adorned by very progressive evolutionary culture; it never thought for one instant it would ever stop changing or being innovative. Although it had given up influencing the center of the American culture by the time I was thirty, things really deadenedí break down all over the West till I haws forty.
Retro culture didnít dominate American life until I was fifty. I wasnít merely observing this phenomenon; I was part of it. I was writing and publishing novels, performing music and writing pities of theatre during this time.
I am absolutely certain from my own private experience as well as those of my pears that there either was nor is a lack of bare spirits or Ibsenian Art and thought at the creative end at any time as well as my time.
Itís not as if people can help not observing and reacting to their time; among large groups of people a few are going to be geniuses who will not only redefine what Art and thought is for their age at least privately but produce examples of what they can do to offer their dies to a public. In this age they get discouraged by a distribution machine that in various genres kill off both talent and industry that leads to such at least competent work embracing oneís diversity in the course of nature.
One can think courageous notions alone in a room, one can even give them out to friends; getting it into the larger world is impossible or almost impossible. If Shakespeare were to write all of his plays in this retro age heíd be told that they were too original and idiosyncratic, too wordy, too rich, with the same labor the producer could mount a revival of Gypsy.
If Cervantes were to offer Don Quixote to the publishing industry they would tell him that after a few generations of feminist censorship, 85% of their market are aging feminists; men are repairing to trashy movies, not contemporary books, as a result when they want to enthuse about men and their notions of heroism.
Cervantesís book, they would tell him, was fashioned for a male audience that no longer exists. Both of these savants would be told to read the lit of produced plays and best sellers and to imitate them. If the books are nearly all thrillers, recipe books, and celebrity bios, they should write them themselves. Iíve been told such things myself; I know.
If one is a thinker in a retro age one is informed by those who claim to know better than oneself how one should think though their credentials for such expertise are obscure that if one wants to be known at all in this age, one should waft into the unknown a Marxist notion of how life should be lived by all and sundry that never once breathes the notion that we are laving in a country of people that traveled half way around the world and took up a new life with nothing to escape the definitions of who they are and what they should do by other people.
One does better as a scientist because oneís discoveries might lead others to control the populace better in some way, either by a weapon or a an Upper West Side and college intellectual fashion.
This brings us though hardly panting to the intriguing fourth reason why legitimate and public culture of the Athenian sort often dies: censorship. We have many pious censors of the left and right who have reached their positions by stealth, all of whom have effectively said a less than plaintive goodbye to half the market for the high Arts: males.
They at once complain that the low arts from video games to rap are filled with violence and hatred of women. They donít see their own definition of men as brutes and villains who need to be controlled, monitored, muscled into harness, treated as if they were convicts on parole at best as hatred of men.
Itís fury and stifling piety in a new form that would have been familiar to Torquemada. Of course this doesnít really bury male observation or even limit their theaters of sharing their experience lethally; it merely makes it illegitimate, even criminal, lethal for democracy but hardly a check on human activity generally anymore than prohibition or skepticism about the axioms of sacred lore ever was at other times.
Making freedom of thought and sharing it communally legitimate means that we arenít going to see anything coming from the top that is going to speak to our audiences either as Ibsenean sermonizing or even lobotomized amusement. During this retro period there have been many films with their great huger for selling tickets overriding the censors, offering more truth in their apparent banalities than one could ever get from the New York Times best seller list or the Broadway theatre of constant revivals; we donít have the cortical machinery to understand them much less disseminate them as what they are: a clandestine product posing as a sensational emptiness that touches some primal root: a moral discourse degassed as trash.
Iím reminded when I think of this ploy of the recent fate of novelists in my youth like James T. Farrell, Harold Robbins. Irving Schulman and Harry Grey. These writers mostly for males y were read as sensational, puerile and tawdry tales of sleazy low life and cruelty rather than sermons about morality and honor in a desperate world. In previous days if one wanted to write about ethics and character one had to take up lace curtain manners that many attributed to Henry James, which James himself would have regarded as hopelessly craven and parvenu.
Yet if one walks through the streets of New York the discourses one hears common people quote are all from gangsta rap and hip-hop. My feeling is from reading Henry James that James would have give them all a careful listen and thought about their violent philosophy seriously at his leisure if he wouldnít have liked much about what he heard.
Itís one of the features of retro culture that the dead canít stand up for themselves and say, I am not a monument, I never was an advocate of any craven life, even of certified mice; your college teachers are misrepresenting me, I never said what you are telling your students I had been preaching at all.
I think our didacts wait for are creative minds like Henry James to do so they can misrepresent them without check and with impunity. Death does that to most mortal franchises; when we perish we loose the option to strangle our enemies as well as annoy our friends and lovers.
As the real achievements of the creative intelligences of the age are rejected by its distribution machine the energy and talent doesnít perish altogether though it may die here and there; mostly ;it goes elsewhere. In a retro culture what was once a negotiation between the social and political machine and its residents who are always changing whether or not the legitimate world is apparently static becomes a battleground or avenue for flight, a war between nature and will in which the people who want to think independent as we all do, as we must do if we are free adults, learn or donít learn to purge themselves of the institutions that have lately purged themselves of them.
One realizes that the New York Times is not going to advance anything too interesting in any field one knows anything at all about. Those who felt previously they could scramble though a tough world feel not even their elusive resources are equal to survival in a retro world; only untainted invisibility and a lot of itinerance will do.
One questions very seriously whether going to college or send oneís kids into the school system is other than lethal to oneself and to oneís loved ones. If one can one travels to places that havenít got a stifled retro culture. Where that might be in oneís time becomes a subject of private discussions everywhere.
H.L. Mencken, traveling to the Third Reich to see for himself what Hitler had wrought in Germany said that most of all it was very quiet. That might describe the American heartland today as well with their antennas atop the roofs of their suburban houses pulling in satellite television and their efficient sterile shopping malls.
Democracy and freedom tends to be loud, raucous, contentious, filled with an unruliness that defines itself as a place where people are at liberty to speak their minds. A seemingly arthropod-like efficiency and well oiled economic Leviathan on the other hand is always pretty much what the Third Reich was.
If Hitler managed to quell, kill or exile his internal enemies for twelve years the energy that stifled and injures the potentiality of others to lead those raucous lives of freedom and adult choice find their proper foes somewhere. In Hitlerís case thy were all external; he couldnít apply the force he had been successful with in slaughtering his supposed antagonists beyond his borders.
Rather quickly though not quickly enough the Third Reich fell from Hitlerí;s failed attempts to choose foes among bystanders who couldnít defeat him. If one is bellicose, extnernalizes oneís antagonists, one after some successes eventually miscalculates who is oneís legitimate prey.
Hitler of course had a retro culture; he was one who was an ultimate reactionary. Our own system is much more sophisticated. Yet not surprisingly we have external enemies at our frontes who were once strainers who are now willing to die to harass us and all too often do so; if they could they would bring us down altogether.
Itís a truth older than accounts of the reign of Alexander by pseudo-Callisthenes that those who are willing to die or are indifferent to death as a check on their character unless they are killed are really beyond the power of force or politics.
Unlike the United States, Rome when it saw its morals and integrity unravel in the late republic and early empire had aprons who supported the lives and achievements of artists Na thinkers whom they had hoped would preach sermons that would save the empire from ruin. To this intent we owe Virgilís rather dull Georgics and his more intriguing Aenead.
As Livy said of his age, it knew its vices but it was powerless to do anything about them. We donít know our vices and are powerless to identify them much ells understand them.
It might have been that Virgilís and Augustusí attempt to create a retro culture was misdirected. Wouldnít Rome have done better not to extoll the severe virtue of its largely politically irrelevant past but to honor the rather sensible deal it was offering the world to be part of a great army of epicurean Haves in a world in which poverty, massacre and crushing autocracy by the locals were all too common?
Itís plain that neither Augustus nor Virgil believed in that remedy to Romeís woes though they were living in it, reaping the boons of it, in Augustusí case, ruling it. Nobody ever wrote that epic.
Many times our popular novelists of half a century ago came closer to facing our dilemmas than our supposed thinkers. The ones that stayed away from the colleges were the bravest. The closest we get to it to a kind of Tory acceptance of a world filled with defects and vices, a remedy of measure and caution in the face of folly in the modern world is Herman Woukís The Caine Mutiny and Marjorie Morningstar.
One would have to look very long and hard to find in our entire didactic and critical machine to find anyone extolling Herman Wouk at a great American philosopher but he is. The same local savants would be loathe to regard Harold Robbins as a pundit of corporate morals or James T. Farrell as an intrepid explorer of the bottom of American lie but they were all of that.
If we were to live in a free and Ibsenian world instead of a retro culture after 1980 we would have been promoting a community willing to discuss how Americans had became Haves in a Hade Not desperate world, how our sense of entitlement promotes our epicurean empire aggressively as what all and sundry should embrace whether they like it or not. We call our society free and democratic; a saintly greed has displaced any charity in many American private existences because everybodyís lives are for sale.
We might add to this imaginary set of books, theatre pieces, paintings and musical works mirroring our culture that if and when people donít like the faith system of the peculiar peace and order we are promoting, particularly if they are born into some marginal sub culture traditionally seen as rabble and untermenschen bath armies of quietly miserable suburbanites that inhabit our heartland and the educated fools who reside in court cities, they are liable to be locked up in our capacious prisons or otherwise punished for their dissent.
As much as Augustus and Virgil didnít want to face their world, we donít want to take a look at our empires of missionary epicureanism with its purblind theories of the inevitability of globalization and amalgamation of the planet into one big suburban nation.
Itís not too different in its opaque and unexamined piety than the theories of the once inevitable future of Christianity if now perished along with the hopes of Zeus, the Aryan Master Race or Communism. Perhaps such optimism is the ordinary reality of any realm we reside in. We are perhaps afraid that if we hold up our culture to a horror, we are going like Count Dracula to see either a monster or nothing at all.
Yet it doesnít stop common people from talking about their reality if acknowledging it above a whisper is illegitimate, good manners is discretion as it once was about drinking and whorehouse. The circumspect in the American past didnít make by their politic and polite silences this country other than a place where a partiality for the cup and a habitual repairing to brothels wasnít a central feature of American life. Not to admit that a reality is before us as we do when we wander into a bathroom to defecate doesnít change the verity that in private we make some good use of a toilet.
The central effect of such a retro world is that the legated retro culture becomes trivial to those who arenít making money from it as well as those who are. Rather ironically it changes the nature for us of Arts and thought that were once perceived by us as not at all trivial.
We can see a revival of Oklahoma, Fiddler On The Roof, Gypsy, The Producers, to name at random the resurrections of old vapors I saw the last tium I walked down 45th Street in New Yorkís midtown; their focus on vanished worlds are now experienced by us as escapist forays into an envelope of amused detachment close to death.
As the past recedes from us as it inevitably must do even we are Hitler or Franco, the very fulcrums of spiritual wrestling that once engaged the now perished become misty gewgaws for us.
If we were to face our own imperial reality and its epicurean roots in this retro bubble we might feel different; our world like Augustusí and Virgilís patronizing and creative achievements protects us from such unpleasant and apparently unthinkable scrutiny
One might ask: what is wrong with a retro culture? One doesn't have to invent anything, think much or at all about new ways to do anything which may be worse than the old ones; one can feel the cicero of the known that as far as one looks in all directions one is surrounded by cunningly sugared artifice and triviality. It is even a mark of the power of a world to be able to stop time or garner up any bit of it and manifest it in virtual memory as if we were inhabiting a gigantic electronic realm.
Certainly retro worlds are less terrifying than ones without any known consequence. If they could ever be real they would be preferable as one might argue that death is preferable to life. At best they are island fortresses to be attacked by God and Creation itself as a cosmic odium. We donít want either our deity or nature as an enemy. We have enough trouble with our mortal foes; we arret all that good at dealing with the minor antagonisms of our friends and lovers.
Yet donít we owe ourselves if we can have it a little less anxiety in a dumpy life? There are several fundamental problems with retro worlds: they are really a sign of the inability of the legitimate machines of a culture to respond to life and nature rather than a real time engine; the celestial energy goes elsewhere, often to illegitimate and noxious enterprises.
Secondly, as competitive cultures develop they eclipse whatever means of support and Saturday the culture turned retro has embraced and in their time; at their whim they dominate enslave and even massacre any world that has tardily or not at all taken up its optimal changes to change and do better.
If one thinks of Austria after 1945, Spain after the advent of Franco, India trying to hold back the Industrial Revolution under Gandhi, or some of the more reactionary policies of New World Indians who wanted to stay hunters and have a Stone Age culture while surrounded by Western colonialists, one get some idea of the long term doom that awaits any retro culture.
The essential weakness in any retro culture is that its inherent antagonism both to the unstoppable motility of the cosmos and to the natural genius of our species. The first Sevillian to pay flamenco guitar was an innovate acting as he should to propel himself into the unknown on a moonless midnight; the flamenco guitarist doing the same riffs six hundred years later while the rest of the Europe was living in the 20th century was some kind of imaginary platypus.
We humans aren't the fastest, biggest or most powerful animals on the planet; we are however running it and killing off those who have those feral virtues more than we do because we are the most intelligent and adaptable. We need a culture that challenges us to think, to redefine, to change and to take up progress even when as eighteen happens, what apparently is a remedy for a season is worse for us in its seductions and beauty the long run than the dolors of the social nightmare that foaled into being as a momentary anodyne.
If one sheathes the culture, sterilizes it, puts it in a time capsule, exhibits it like a foetus immersed in formaldehyde in a cosmic anatomical laboratory one better have some support and weaponry from the angels to keep the Goths and Vandals out of the sacred and sequestered geography in which one has cached this fantastical eddy in eternity.
Itís much better really to enter into civil negotiations with nature before Creation itself dismisses one and oneís peers as a starry criminal flouting is excellent laws of mutability and punishes the cosmic malefactors as only nature can.
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