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adam and eve

OK, so then what is the “canon,” with which we should all be familiar?

There are scores of lists, put forth by scores of people, ranging from insightful critics to close-minded boobs (Yes, Bill Bennett, I’m talking about you). Such lists usually share the usual suspects: Here’s Hamlet, there’s War and Peace, and over there is the Recherche of Marcel Proust. All of them worthy of your deepest attention and capable of inciting the most delightful pleasure.

But as I’ve written before, the purpose of engaging with the canon of Western culture is to understand who your grandparents were, whose cultural DNA you were born to — the common inheritance of all of us in the modern world, our Adams and Eves.

Through most of my youth and into my adult life, my version of the list has grown and grown. I have, after all, at least 50 films on my Top Ten list. I could not do without hundreds of books I have read, paintings I have seen in the flesh, music I know by heart.

But, as I have grown old, I have jettisoned more and more baggage. “Simplify, simplify,” Thoreau said. I’ve given away books, CDs, DVDs. I’m tempted to dump even more. Those that were important, I have internalized; those I want to keep are those I reread and reread.

Under even those, however, is a foundation level, the cultural footings on which I have built my intellectual life, and that the civilization I have inherited was founded upon, almost as its Constitution.

So, I am proposing a canon. A very short one, but an essential one.

First, there is Homer. Everyone should have read the Iliad, at least. The Odyssey is initially more fun — or at least the chapters that chronicle the wanderings of Odysseus — but the Iliad is one of the founding documents of Western civilization and provides a necessary backdrop for everything that has come since.

I reread the Iliad about once a year. I try different translations, because any bit of ancient Greek I used to study has evaporated. The newest translations are usually the best, not because they are more literary, but because they speak the language I use. Older translations sniff of their age, smelling of linsey-woolsey or gaberdeen. I can sense the antimacassar oil on the Lang-Leaf-Myers translation. I sense the Cold War in the Lattimore.

So, the Robert Fagles translation is my standard, although the most recent re-read was in the even newer Stephen Mitchell version.

In Homer, you find the myths that have been re-used and re-energized in all the books written since, that outline the archetypes, give us the parameters of story and narration. The scope of Homer is the widest: from the bee’s tongue to the planet’s motions among the stars.

This is all beside the wonderful enjoyment gotten from reading it, 2500 years after he (or she) set it down.

The second book in my canon is the Bible. Not for any religious reason; I’m completely an atheist and have no use for religion. But the Bible is, like Homer, one of the founding documents and underlies all that has followed. I may wish otherwise, and may often wonder if the Bible wasn’t really authored by a group of people who have spent too long out under the desert sun. It may have been written by white bearded patriarchs under the influence of sunstroke, but they are our grizzled patriarchs.

There are two important considerations when approaching the Bible.

The first is the translation. The King James version is the primary one, and it is the organ-pipe tones of the KJV that underpin our own ideas of language, of majesty, of ritual and solemnity. It is the KJV you hear behind the sentences of Melville and Thoreau, behind the speeches of Martin Luther King.

But the King James is also miserably out-of-date, with usages that are no longer current and oftentimes either misleading or downright incomprehensible. So, a more modern translation may make the stories of the Bible easier to assimilate.

Even so, I prefer mixing the King James and a modern translation with an interlinnear word-for-word translation that demonstrates how much any translation of the Bible is de facto an interpretation. I have valued greatly the Everett Fox version of The Five Books of Moses from the Schocken Bible. Any version of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles is a moving target.

The second thing is that you should read the whole Bible, not just the familiar parts. Some of it is heavy slogging, but you should have read the whole thing. It’s one of the best ways to counteract the baleful influence of all those fundamentalists that would have you believe only their way. You see how they pick and choose only the parts they want and that reinforce their prejudices. You will be astonished at how many things are held to be “an abomination.” You will scratch your head over most of them.

The Bible stories are the Semitic balance to the Hellenic myths and between the two, they are the parents of all that followed.

Finally, in my canon, are the plays and sonnets of William Shakespeare. Ideally, one should see them on stage, in an excellent production (since a mediocre production can be the kiss of death for someone whose language is a florid and baroque as Shakespeare’s), but the fact is that it is as text on a page that Shakespeare has most influenced the course of Western Civ. We read Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and their words continue to astonish the attentive reader with their fire, their brilliance, their wit, and their expansiveness. The “sirrahs” and “prithees” may certainly feel dated, but everything else is bursting with life.

It was after a long-ago divorce that I first decided that if I was going off into exile, I needed to pack only three books: The Iliad, the Bible and a complete Shakespeare, and that somehow, if the world were destroyed all around me, I could resurrect an entire civilization with just these three.

And we would see everything that followed.

"Michael Jackson and Bubbles" by Jeff Koons, and Elgin Marbles figure

“Michael Jackson and Bubbles” by Jeff Koons, and Elgin Marbles figure

In 1632, the young English poet John Milton, just out of college, took up residence at his father’s country estate at Horton, near Windsor. And for the next six years he managed to read everything that had ever been written and was extant, in all languages living and dead, that a European scholar of the time might have heard of. That included literature, history, biography, philosophy, science, mathematics — the whole throatful of it. milton cigar

Everything that had ever been written.

It boggles the mind. Today, we cannot even keep up with the magazines we subscribe to; most of human knowledge falls off the edge of the Earth, where the map of our erudition shows nothing but serpents. reading the oed

We can never achieve what Milton did; it’s foolish to even try. But shouldn’t we attempt at least some sketch of what was fully painted for the poet? There have been recent books by writers who have read every article in the Encyclopedia Britannica (The Know-It-All, One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, A.J. Jacobs, 2004), The Oxford English Dictionary (Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, Ammon Shea, 2008), or the equivalent of the Harvard Five-Foot Shelf (Great Books, David Denby, 1996), but such ventures are little more than stunts.

To absorb 5,000 years of human culture requires more than memorizing almanacs or dictionaries. It means to have a grounding in the art, literature, theater, music and architecture of our ancestors.

Of course, most of human knowledge, at least in ordinary life, in mass or pop culture and in our individual autobiographies is utterly trivial, and it would be a crime to stuff our brains with it.

But not all knowledge in this information age is trivial. There is still a core of useful literature — and I use the word in the broadest possible sense — that it behooves us to be acquainted with.

It is unfortunate that there is an argument over this. In the imbecilic culture wars that currently ravage the intellectual countryside, the lines are drawn between ignorant armies.

On one side, you find right-wing reactionary fossils fighting to maintain the canon of mainly European classics. On the other side, there is a cadre of victimization that wants to eliminate anything written by dead white males.

A pox on both their houses.

Milton didn’t have to worry about the canon. For him, the canon encompassed everything he could possible encounter.

Since that time, though, we have had to become more selective. Those items we have, as a culture, thought worth perpetuating we have called ”classics” and added them to the list — the canon — of ”required reading.”

But we misunderstand the very idea of culture if we believe the world froze solid with the publication of the Harvard Five Foot Shelf.

Corneille

Corneille

The canon is a garden that must be weeded and tended, and each season may call forth a different harvest.

The problem with the conservative view is that it values a former ”golden age” that our own time never measures up to. It is a sentimental view of life and history, and deaf to the fact that we live now, not in the imaginary ”then.” It is the voice of Cato, of Corneille, of William Bennett — a man of whom it is said he cannot sleep a-nights if he suspects someone, somewhere is having fun.

It is a view of an idealized perfection that we have disastrously fallen short of. It is one form of imbecility.

The problem from the other side is an egalitarianism that is just as moronic. According to them, nothing is better than anything else. Either it is merely a question of personal taste, or it is one of cultural identity.

By their standards, it is elitist to prefer Pablo Neruda to Rod McKuen. Let them, I say, let them renew their subscriptions to Us magazine.

They can deconstruct its gossip to death and find the parallels with Plutarch — if they only knew who Plutarch was.

To consider one “text” more important than another, for them, is to promote colonialism and the subjugation of the downtrodden.

Hence, they judge not by esthetic considerations — it’s all just personal taste to them — but rather by politics.

For them, politics overwhelms aesthetics — overwhelms reason, emotion, common sense and experience. For them, everything has a party line. Ah, but they forget, politics answers no question worth asking.

It also worries me that behind the masks of intellectual argument, I sense a fascism on each side — at the very least a certain priggishness to both sides that any reasonable human finds dangerous.

At bottom, the problem is that both sides make the mistake of believing the canon immutable and fixed. They see the canon as an end, one side blindly despising it and the other defending it like Texans at the Alamo.

But the canon, properly seen, is a beginning, not an end; a foundation, not a roof.

It is the ABC of cultural literacy, the cardinal numbers of thought.

One used to hear the warning that when you have sex, you are having sex with everyone your partner has ever slept with. Well, when you read a book, you are also reading everything that the author read. When you hear music, you also hear everything that composer heard.

Culture is the slow accumulation of thoughts and habits. To read Melville is to hear the diapason of King James under the rich melody of the prose. Every author is the product of multiplier and multiplicand: the writer’s imagination and the long road of history leading to his standing on the curb with his thumb out.

The fact is, we cannot read everything, the way Milton did. We must be more selective. Suggestions for that selective offering is what we call the canon. But it changes constantly: It now includes James Baldwin and Toni Morrison; it includes Derek Wolcott and Yukio Mishima;  The Beatles and Duke Ellington.

The Laocoon

The Laocoon

How can you understand Jacques Derrida without standing firmly on the firm ground of Kant’s a priori? How can you read Isabel Allende without sensing the spirituality of Calderon behind her words?

How can you understand Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles if you don’t already have the Elgin Marbles in your system? You can’t. How can you get the joke on the back of countless Yellow Pages if you don’t know the Laocoon?

Certainly, the old rationale for learnedness remains: These are great writers, profound thinkers and brilliant painters and sculptors and we cannot consider ourselves educated without their acquaintance. Knowing them is its own excuse. But even more important is that when you hear the echoes in a piece of art, see its ancestry, the piece resonates. Resonance is what gives art and literature is power. kane

Like the mirror scene in Citizen Kane, one man is multiplied into an army. Like Isaac Newton said, if we see further, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. It is a wise man who knows his parents.

Orangerie Paris

What is culture, and why should we care?

These are questions that don’t get asked often enough when we discuss such inflammatory issues as government funding of the arts and humanities.

To many people, culture simply means a lot of wealthy people going to the opera and sitting through a hare-brained story in a language they don’t understand while listening to a soprano shriek so loud their elbows go numb.

Or it means drinking bad white wine from a plastic champagne glass at an art gallery opening or long, dense scholarly papers deconstructing Little Red Riding Hood as a text about the patriarchal hegemony.

We too often talk about culture as if it meant only evenings in the theater and long Russian novels.

But what would happen if all these so-called ”high” arts suddenly disappeared? Do we actually need them?

To understand the answer, we need to understand what culture is. Culture is broader than just the arts.

It’s what you eat for breakfast and whether your trousers have cuffs. It is who you are allowed to marry and what happens to your body when you die.

Culture is the set of rules — mostly in the form of traditions — by which society runs.

It is the software for our social lives.

In fact, far from being a luxury, culture is something you cannot live without. It is religion, art, laws, ethics, history and even our clothing.

Culture is who we are.

And who we are at this moment: No culture is static. It is an evolving thing — to keep up with the computer metaphor, there are constant upgrades. Culture 2.7 gives way to Culture 3.0, as the circumstances of our lives and our cultural needs change. The culture of the clipper ship means little on a jumbo jet.

Yet, although culture changes, it is inherently conservative. It changes very slowly. Nobody wants to get caught with a beta version of untested software.

Patterns from our ancestors persist in our lives. We enter the jumbo jet from the left side because our great-grandfathers wore their swords on their left sides and consequently mounted their horses from the left, to avoid entangling their swords.

You can see the history of aviation change from the stirrup on the left side of a World War I biplane to the door on a 747.

And how many children today play with ”choo-choo trains,” although not even their parents ever lived in a world with steam locomotives?

The patterns stick with us even when they no longer make sense.

But culture does change. The three-minute song remains the cultural pattern, although Dinah Shore has given way to Taylor Swift.

Songs from our agricultural past, lauding springtime and the moon, make little sense to our urban present, where nocturnal lighting is more likely neon. So we change. Slowly.

And where does cultural change come from? More often than not, from the arts.

The arts try out possible ideas onstage to see if they might make sense. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But the best minds and imaginations give it their best.

That is why we think of theater as ”culture.” Or literature, or painting.

Yes, there are some people who want to keep their old software version, and some who want to return to earlier versions. But culture cannot stand still.

Therefore, we need to be on the lookout for meaningful directions to go in. Art is our investigation of our values, testing them and throwing out some and reinforcing others.

Without art, culture ossifies and the people become emotionally and spiritually dead. So, if we mean to maintain a vital culture, we must support the best in the arts.

There is another computer saying: GIGO — garbage in, garbage out. In other words, if we don’t care for the changes in our culture, we are likely to wind up with the lowest common denominator. We are likely to wind up with nothing more than Duck Dynasty and microwave pizza.

By Mel Ramos

By Mel Ramos

America isn’t a big cheese country. We do Velveeta and Cheez Whiz, and when we’re really adventurous, we ask for that so-called blue cheese dressing on our salads that is really no more than ranch dressing a few weeks past its expiration date. thunderbird wine

Velveeta, of course, isn’t cheese at all. It is officially a ”cheese food product.” That is, it’s a congealed block of yellowed lipids and tastes as much like cheese as Thunderbird wine tastes like Bordeaux. And the new cheese substitutes are worse. They may be healthy, but are they food? Ever tried to make a grilled cheese sandwich with that synthetic stuff? It doesn’t melt, it blackens at the edges and buckles under the heat like linoleum.

Anyone for a scorched floor tile sandwich?

All this came to mind as I searched town for some Gorgonzola. For those who haven’t developed the taste, that is an Italian blue cheese that is greenish and runny, with a smell like laundry left damp too long in the washing machine. It is a taste that grows on you. Of course, something grows on the cheese, too.

But it made me consider how taste changes as we age. When I was young, I ate Hostess cupcakes like everyone else. Adults seemed to like beer and brussels sprouts. Kids drank soda pop, adults drank coffee. SONY DSC

Now that I’m old enough for my toes to start growing funny, I have learned to like rutabagas, glazed parsnips, pickled herring, Stilton cheese and single-malt scotch.

And those cupcakes are poison. As an adult, I taste every gram of sulfated polysaccharide, every microscopic speck of potassium sorbate and monoglyceride. A Hostess cupcake really and truly tastes to me now like an eighth-grade science project.

For me, it all began changing when I was about 18 and one day I tasted coffee for the thousandth time — and for the first time, it tasted good. Really good. manischewitz

I had sampled wines when a child — my parents would give me a little Manischewitz, which is really only fruit syrup with a kick — and I would make a sour little face.

Suddenly, as an adult, I tasted something really dry from France and wine seemed like ichor. Perhaps a little Alsatian Riesling to taste with foie gras and onion confit. Later, I developed a taste for Greek retsina, which tastes the way turpentine smells. It has character.

Then came yogurt, lassi, kefir, Roquefort cheese, herring, corned beef, horseradish. pear and gorgonzola

As kids, we like Hershey bars, as adults we come to enjoy a slice of pear with a bit of cheese.

Maturing taste is certainly not restricted to food. Most of us wear different clothes as we grow up, leaving the sneakers and T-shirts behind. We grow out of our metal-fleck magenta Mustangs with the flames on the hood.

Although not everyone matures: The other day I saw a BMW with racing stripes.

And we stop reading Nancy Drew and take on Eudora Welty. We go from Tchaikovsky to Bruckner and Schoenberg. From Modigliani to Poussin.

Nations go through the same transitions, though on a vaster and slower scale.

It takes centuries for a culture to create and enjoy a Poussin, a Goethe, a Corneille. They are vegetables and whole grains of the art world. And only cultures with enough maturity come to appreciate them. Poussin

France, with 10 centuries of history, can nurture a Samuel Beckett or a Sidney Bechet. Italy, with 20 centuries of history, can’t feed enough opera to its truck drivers and factory workers. The fine arts in those countries are a part of their national identity.

But America, with its two measly centuries, is still a fuzzy-cheeked pubescent soaking up Lion King.

Until America starts eating stinky cheese, it is futile to expect it to support the arts.

Wrestling Sikeston, MO 1938

Stop calling it “pop culture.”

There was a time when we made the distinction between pop culture and high culture. The highbrows went to the symphony and the lowbrows went to the armory for professional wrestling. But there is no more high culture. It is defunct. We need to stop making a distinction that no longer exists.

It isn’t pop culture, it is just culture.

One of the problems is that we don’t really understand what culture is. Most people think of culture as synonymous with taste in entertainment. If some people are entertained by a Bartok string quartet, others are entertained by South Park. But neither the quartet nor the cartoon are culture: They are two tastes in entertainment.

Culture — real culture — is the software we run our society by. It is what we collectively believe is “true.” More it is the sum total of what we believe is true, turned into rules to operate by. At one time, we believed in a bearded sky-god who told us what was right and wrong. Some people still believe and they are now a “subculture” within the larger one. The larger culture now believes what it hears on Oprah or Jerry. We run our lives accordingly. We look for closure, we seek the inner Atilla the Hun and his management strategies. HHH with belt

Everything we do is based, at some level, upon culture. Whether we spank our children, allow divorce, execute criminals and outlaw abortion. It is all based on culture, and culture all based on what we collectively think is true. At a time such as now, what we believe is rather jumbled. It is not coherent or unified. Religion becomes a buffet menu of attractive options. There is not a single unified belief system. The closest thing we have is the widely held belief that all cultures should be respected. But such a belief, at its heart, acknowledges the absence of a single believable system.

So, the argument isn’t between so-called high culture and low culture. It’s all culture. But, much worse, what we’re developing is a system of two opposing cultures — two vision of what each side believes is “true.”

One side calls itself “conservative,” although that is really just a convenient handle — it isn’t really conservative. It is a primarily rural culture, insular and cut-off from the rest of the world and the time it lives in. And, what is more, happy to be so cut off. It eyes the rest of the world with suspicion, even hate. Like the dragon in his cave, with his arms circling his horde, and scowling at anything outside in the sunlight.

The other culture is more cosmopolitan, but not necessarily more intelligent. It tends to believe in the goodness of humanity and the brotherhood of man, forgetting that brotherhood is Cain and Abel. It is more open to progress, but doesn’t always recognize good progress from bad ideas.

If one side is hard and miserly, the other is soft and gushy.

A curse on both your houses.

(One is forced to accept that the ironbound statistical truth that fully half the American populace has an I.Q. below average. It takes only one person with an I.Q. only one point above average to join and make a majority in this so-called democracy. And if you’ve ever met anyone with an I.Q. of 100 — the midpoint and the average — you know that is no great shakes. Overall, humans are just dumb monkeys.)

Anyway, these are two immiscible cultures, and the fact that Congress seems unable to compromise derives from the two cultures, and not from mere policy disagreements. Two umwelts, two completely different understanding of the nature of the world.

And both sides claim pop culture: that messy, energetic, imbecilic, entertaining system of rock-and-roll politics and television theology. It’s just that on one side the television theology comes from Kenneth Copeland, and on the other side it comes from Oprah.

In Victorian times, the symphony and ballet were seen as truer than the dime novel and music-hall comedy. The hoity-toity ran society according to the standards they learned from Tennyson, Carlyle or John Ruskin. The hoi-polloi followed along, reading crime stories in the popular press or sentimental novels. Christopher Daniels flying leap

The new bifurcation of taste and culture is not so vertical. Instead, everything is horizontalized; nobody is any better (or in this view, smarter, or wiser, or more fitted to solve a problem) than anyone else.

The old bifurcation is dead. It was a legacy of those awful Victorians. The last vestige of it is the tails and white tie our symphony conductors wear, and the gowns and dinner jackets symphony patrons wear to the concert hall.

But let’s face it. The symphonies are all near bankruptcy all across the nation. Art museums attempt more and more dumbed-down populist exhibits, hoping to boost attendance.

In a way, they are both irrelevant to the new split.

So, roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news.

cicero 1

Has there ever been a time that wasn’t the worst of all times?

Now the Old White Guard of the Republican party tells us that we are descending ever further into moral and social hell with things such as same-sex marriage, sex-education in schools, fluoridation and the scientific conspiracy against Christmas, to say nothing of the fact that Obama is in the White House, plotting to destroy everything our Founding Fathers originally intended when they hashed out their famous Compromise of 1787.

This has been going on for a while. In 1995, Sen. Bob Dole complained that Hollywood is turning out ”nightmares of depravity,” citing such movies as Natural Born Killers and True Romance.

Yeah, they were the final trumpet of the Apocalypse. Or were they?

It’s just like a conservative to complain about culture and the press ”pimping and pandering for all degrees of vicious taste, and gorging with coined lies the most voracious maw.”

But Dole didn’t say that. Charles Dickens did, in 1842.

If there is one constant in civilization, it is that civilization seems perennially near death, and what is more, is being done in by barbarians.

”Past, and to come, seems best; things present, worst,” wrote Shakespeare in Henry IV, Part 2.

One of the most compelling myths of society was first given definitive form nearly 3,000 years ago by the Greek writer Hesiod, who postulated that humankind had fallen from the perfection of its ”Golden Age” through the lesser, but still great, ”Silver Age,” and into an era of flawed heroes known as the ”Bronze Age.” Current humanity, he said, lives in an ”Iron Age” where the decline of human values is nearly complete.

In its elaborated form, it is a humanistic version of the Christian Fall of Man.

We always think the past was better: more civil, more intelligent, with higher morals and without the problems that plague us now. Of course, it is pure fantasy.

It is important to keep this in mind when thinking about the fogeys’ fusillades against Hollywood and American popular culture, which has always been one of the fountain-sources of increased tolerance and inclusivity. Elvis Presley Jailhouse Rock

Let’s not forget the hoopla that Elvis Presley caused when he first started gyrating before American teen-agers. The reaction of Rev. Carl Elgena of Des Moines, Iowa, was typical: ”The belief in unholy pleasures has sent the morals of our nation down to rock bottom, and the crowning addition to this day’s corruption is Elvis Presleyism.”

The good reverend averred that Presley ”is morally insane and by his actions, he’s leading other young people to the same end.”

Those other young people, of course, are now respectable grandparents, in their turn lamenting gagsta rap.

Rock and roll frequently took hits from the cultural Jeremiahs. They complained that when teen-agers did the twist, for instance, that they wiggled around ”like Hottentots” and never even made contact with their dance partners.

That was an amusing complaint, considering that in the 1800s, the waltz came under fire for the opposite reason. elegant waltz

When the waltz was turning into a craze in Europe, one critic complained of the ”erotic nature” of the dance and wrote, ”The dancers grasped the long dress of their partners so that it would not drag and be trodden upon, and lifted it high, holding them in this cloak which brought both bodies under one cover, as closely as possible against them and in this way, the whirling continued in the most indecent positions. … Now I understand very well why here and there in parts of Swabia and Switzerland the waltz has been prohibited.”

As early as 1797, Halle Salomo Jakob Wolf published a pamphlet titled Proof That Waltzing Is a Main Source of the Weakness of the Body and Mind of Our Generation.

And when the same spit-gargling critics picks on Hollywood, it also has a familiar ring.

In 1936, the Hearst chain of newspapers decried Mae West as a ”menace to the sacred institution of the family,” and added, ”is it not time for Congress to do something about Mae West?” Ads for West’s film Klondike Annie were refused in Hearst papers.

In the ’30s, a rage for moral uplift swept through Hollywood, and Will H. Hays was hired to enforce a studio ”production code” that would prevent immoral behavior from being shown in films. The missionary fervor was intense.

”The potentialities of motion pictures for moral influence and education are limitless,” Hays said. ”Therefore, its integrity should be protected as we protect the integrity of our children and our schools, and its quality developed as we develop the quality of our schools. … Above all is our duty to youth. We must have toward that sacred thing, the mind of a child, toward that clean and virgin thing, that unmarked slate, we must have toward that thing the same responsibility, the same care about the impression made upon it, that the best teacher or the best clergyman, the most inspired teacher of youth, would have.” samson lamarr

It should be noted that the Hays office didn’t prevent Cecil B. DeMille from filming biblical dancing girls and love affairs between Samsons and Delilahs.

Another great crusade to save America came in the early ’50s when Fredric Wertham published his book, Seduction of the Innocent, in which he took to task the comic-book industry for the miserable moral state of the youth of America.

For Wertham, comics caused sadism, masochism and masturbation. They were filled with homoeroticism, racism, fascism and sexism. And what is more, they caused dyslexia.

”To publish crime comics has nothing to do with civil liberties,” he wrote. ”It is a perversion of the idea of civil liberties.”

You find in many places the same sort of concern for the morals of art and its effect on the youth of a nation. It runs through Confucius. Plato would refuse artists a place in his perfect republic.

It is the charge brought by Miletus against Socrates as a ”corrupter of youth.”

It is the lament of Cicero, who wrote, ”O tempora, O mores” — ”O the times, the customs!”

As far back as the sixth century B.C., the Greek statesman Solon warned us, ”Poets tell many lies.”

And around 2000 B.C., one anonymous poet wrote:

”To whom can I speak today?

”Gentleness has perished

”And the violent man has come down on everyone.”

Society is always at its worst moment. And if conservatives wants to pretend that it is any different today, well, then, we remember some other words of Cicero:

”Old men are garrulous by nature.”

old elvis 1

Elvis is America.

I am not entirely delighted by that fact — even somewhat embarrassed by it — but there is no other figure, public or private, from the past 200 years that sums up so succinctly what the United States is all about.

And three and a half decades after his disappearance and reported death, Elvis Presley remains both what Americans are and what they want to be.

Of course, what they want to be is Young Elvis — brash, sexy, talented. And, compared to most Old World cultures, that is just what America is. Its pop culture has preempted many indigenous folkways throughout the planet precisely because it is so appealingly energetic. Content doesn’t matter nearly so much as style points, and Elvis — and America — can swivel and two-step like a blue demon.6/30/00 DS - REF="Elvis_ao_MCos.psd"

The effect is so pervasive that in deepest Africa, you don’t hear tribal drumming so much as you hear Top-40 tunes. And Japanese karaoki is not, after all, based on the music of the classical Noh plays.

No, what appeals to the world is America’s optimism, its lack of guilt, its comfort with itself. America may be a novice in world history, but it is a refreshingly guileless novice — or at least, it has been.

Like Young Elvis, we think of ourselves as dangerous without being threatening.

But America would prefer not to notice the Old Elvis in the mix, which is also part of our Elvis-selves.

For America is also crass, loaded with bad taste, money-chasing, conspicuous consumption, anti-intellectualism, sentimental Christianity, drug hypocrisy, junk food and mindless consumerism.

On the surface, the Young and Old Elvises seem like opposites, but they are not: The one naturally evolves from the other. You cannot have the Young Elvis without the Old One waddling behind, two halves to the same coin.

The flip side of our energy is our anti-intellectualism; our self-confidence is also our provincialism.

Our sober, well-educated founding fathers envisioned an America modeled on republican Rome — or rather modeled on imperial Rome’s nostalgic vision of its republican past.

Washington, Madison, Adams and Jefferson imagined something brand new in the world, something bursting with energy, new ideas and vitality.

That is Young Elvis. But just as republican Rome turned into the empire of Tiberius, Nero and Elagabalus, so America quickly added to its repertoire the Jacksons, the No-Nothings and the Tea Party and Neocons.

Indeed, Andrew Jackson, who kept goats in the White House and stabled his race horses on the grounds, was probably the first Old Elvis in our history. He was even known as “The King,” in his day — King Andrew, he was called by his political opponents, who disliked his monarchical yet proletarian ways.

There is something in American culture that is illogically ambivalent about royalty. We claim to be a classless society and righteously argue that anyone in America is as good as anyone else. Heaven help anyone who “puts on airs.”

Yet, Old Elvis is what America wants to be, too.old elvis 2

It is the ultimate goal of American democracy, not that we all share equally a modest and comfortable life, but that everyone should be a millionaire — and Old Elvis is America’s vision of what a millionaire should dress and act like.

So, we make an image of our desires and create a kind of celebrity aristocracy and pay homage to them by gobbling up tales of their every peccadillo in tabloid exposes.

It is a kind of trailer-park version of royalty: Bad taste, emphasis on wealth and glamor.

Glamor is to beauty as rhinestones are to rubies: There was some genuine grace in the Young Elvis; the Old Elvis is cubic zirconia to the bone.

race gravure

When I was a schoolboy and too young to know better than to ask foolish questions, I wondered why I, with my ruddy pink skin, was called ”White” and why Charlie Johnson, with chocolate skin, was called ”Black.”

What I saw around me was a huge variety of skin color, from the pasty Irish winter skin to the darkest African blue-black. There weren’t two colors, but thousands.

It was one of those cultural inconsistencies that sometimes bother children, but that adults seldom seem to puzzle over. I now recognize that it is as if a linguistic pattern were cast over reality, taking its place, so that we see words and not skin.

The question of race has followed me into adulthood, as I see people argue back and forth, usually at cross purposes, without ever having stopped to ask themselves, ”What is race?”

If they took time to define what they mean, they might have a better chance of making themselves understood.

For race isn’t one self-contained category; we mean many things by it, and sometimes contradictory things.

It would help if we could tease out some of the strands of the knotty problem.

The problem of definition began with the 18th century European obsession with taxonomy. They wanted to name everything. Europaeid types

While it had been recognized for millennia that there were distinctive population groups in the world — The Greeks knew their Ethiopians, Shakespeare knew his Othello was a Moor — it is only during the Enlightenment that anyone tried to pin the variations down to uniform categories.

Race as a scientific idea began with the Swede Carl Linne, who devised an ingenious system for classifying animals and plants by morphology. He devised a system of phyla, orders, families and genera that worked its way down to species and, occasionally, subspecies.

A dog is Canis familiaris, a swamp rose is Rosa palustris. Humans are Homo sapiens.

Linne further divided humans into four ”races,” or subspecies, which he named H. sapiens americanus, europaeus, asiaticus and afer. These, he said, were red, White, yellow and Black. He also defined them by personality and culture.

H. sapiens europaeus, for instance, ”wears tight-fitting clothes” and is ”nimble, of the keenest mind, innovator.” H. sapiens afer, however, are ”cunning, lazy, careless,” and they ”smear self with fat.” Guess which race Linne considered himself to be.

American Indians, by this system, are cheerful and resolute, and Asians are proud and greedy. It should be noted that Linne didn’t get to travel much; it was the 18th century, and what he knew of other peoples was largely peculiar hearsay.

The confusion of race and behavior continues. I remember one White minister in Greensboro, N.C., who announced that his ministry was to aid ”the alcoholic, the drug addict and the Negro.”

Later biologists narrowed the races to three, eliding the red and yellow races, and they called the three Caucasoid, Mongoloid, and Negroid. Then others, noting the number of population groups that could not easily fit into these three classes — Polynesians, for instance, or Australian aborigines — came up with newer and more distinct races and sub-races. The number proliferated to the point that there were nearly as many races as there were people, and race as a useful scientific classification evaporated.

MISSING IN MODERN SCIENCE

Most scientists now discount the idea of race; you will be hard pressed to find the term used in any modern text.

The initial idea was that genetic ”types” exist in regional populations. The problem is that there is more variation between individuals within each group than there is between the groups themselves. Dravidian Caucasoids may very well be darker of skin than Nilotic Negroids.

As a biological concept, race was a convenient but misleading shorthand, made nonsense after a deeper look at the facts. race types

And the very distinctions made between populations — skin color, nose shape, resistance to malaria, lactose tolerance, etc. — are not distributed uniformly through the so-called races. The characteristics are likely to be distributed regionally, but the regions are multifarious and overlapping, not monolithic and co-equal.

It is a very few people who have all the many characteristics used to define a ”Negroid” or ”Caucasoid.” There are dark-skinned Caucasoids and straight-haired Negroids.

It makes even less sense in America, where the variations are no longer regional, and the bloodlines are no longer separate.

Yet, the notion of race persists. It is this nation’s most intractable social problem. If it is not biological, what is it?

Even before science took over the idea, race was a short word for ”bloodline.” Each family, insofar as it can be distinguished from its neighbors, is the culmination of a race. In Wagner’s version of Germanic myth, for instance, there is the race of Wolsungs, the race of Gibichungs, the race of Niebelungs.

I come from a race of Nilsens, although I can only trace it back a handful of generations, and there is no eponymous hero at its source.

But that is not what most Americans mean when they evoke the word ”race.”

In this country, with its peculiar history, race most immediately means skin color.

Yet the distinction is the least useful. If you took all the peoples of the world and lined them up, not as in an old grammar school photograph, by height, but by skin shade, you would not find any distinct breaks, but a continuous spectrum of color: a wash, not a palette. average female face

In the U.S., we have an artificial sampling of skin color. It is as if a dollop of red from one end of the spectrum were plopped down square on the blue end. The colors seem distinct and different, but this is a historical accident, not a true picture of racial difference.

While skin color is the most obvious racial marker, the most important is culture. People brought here from Africa had a different culture from those who came here from Europe.

The cultures have blended together quite a bit, yet it is astonishing how conservative culture is. Cultural forms can be maintained over centuries without anyone really thinking about it. Why does a wooden church in New England so often have the pointed arch of a Gothic stone cathedral? It makes no sense in wood.

We enter our jet planes from the left side, just as we mounted our horses. We let our children play with ”choo-choo trains,” despite the fact that their grandparents were likely the last in their race to have ever seen a steam locomotive.

When I visited South Africa, I was astonished to find it seemed so much like the North Carolina I had lived in for 20 years. I saw an old Black man in a worn blue suit and no shoes, waiting in front of a wooden store/service station for a ride. He could have been from Hobgood, N.C.

I heard a choir of cleaning women singing as they worked, and I recognized in the tone of their voices Ma Rainey and Aretha Franklin.

It is often these cultural differences that we use to separate the races in the U.S. — Rap vs. bluegrass; basketball vs. hockey, grape soda vs. root beer.

We feel comfortable with our own way of doing things, suspicious of other ways. There is considerable xenophobia in our racial attitudes.

Another important facet of what we call race is more accurately called class.

The reaction of many well-to-do Whites to poor Blacks is not much different from their reaction to poor Whites. “Trailer trash,” they call them. One remembers that in the 19th century, when there was so much prejudice against Irish working-class immigrants to the U.S., there were attempts to prove that the Irish were little different from African slaves. Irish negroes

Poor people are seen to have different work ethics, different hygiene patterns, different cultural ideals. That so many more Blacks than Whites, by percentage, are poor, leads to a bleeding of one attitude into another. Much of what is ascribed to African-Americans by their White neighbors is class consciousness, not simple racism.

Both are pernicious, but the two become confused in argument.

POLITICS AND POWER

Then, too, race has become politics. And by politics, I mean power.

Political leaders speak as if they mean to ameliorate the problems of society, but the main goal of politics is power, its acquisition and maintenance. Those in power don’t want to give it up, those disenfranchised want to get it. When they can use race, from either side, they will.

This is used by both sides: White politicians have a glossary of code words that warn their voters that Blacks will take their jobs and their women. The privileged mean to prevent the dispossessed from getting power.

But the Black politician often complains about a Black conservative that he is somehow turning his back on the ”solidarity,” which is needed to gain power. Voter blocks on each side line up to scrimmage at the poll.

If a demonstration of the political definition of race were needed, one only has to consider the concept of ”race mixing,” seen in two different contexts.

Consider these two political systems and their apportionment of political power. In South Africa under apartheid, the admixture of White blood and Black ”ennobled” and made a new category, ”Colored,” above Black and not far under White and with most of the rights of Whites, whereas in the old U.S., a percentage of Black blood mixed with White ”degraded” and created a Black person and the lack of rights that came with the color.

It is an odd system indeed that forces Mariah Carey or Halle Berry into the category, “Black woman.” And how we scratch our heads over the categorization of Tiger Wood. trio

Nor can we forget history when we talk of race. The United States cannot escape the evils of its own past. Whites would like to forget slavery: ”That was a long time ago. I never owned any slaves,” they say. They seem to have no sense of history (unless it’s the Southern White’s sense of grievance about the Civil War.)

But Black Americans cannot avoid the burden of history. It is brought home to them every day. They cannot forget that they arrived on this continent under protest. They cannot forget that they were once legally less than fully human.

They cannot help seeing the vestiges of that past, even when such vestiges are invisible to Whites. What they call ”racism,” is often just the comet-tail of history, still affecting the course of events.

There are still more facets of race: linguistic usage, self-image, marketing. In one sense, race has turned from being a caste marker and into a demographic group.

So, when we open a dialogue on race, as the president has asked, we need to try to be clear about what we mean, and not address skin color when we mean class, not argue over culture, when it’s politics we are concerned with.

I don’t have the solutions to America’s race problems, but I am certain that unless we begin by defining what we mean by race, by beginning with the simplest questions, we will continue to repeat ourselves over and over until we are neither Black nor White, but are merely blue in the face.

Musicals collage with knife

Musical theater is said to be the backbone of the American theater experience. Certainly, in this century, from the creaky story lines of George M. Cohan to the creaky tunes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, musicals have raked in the big bucks while “legitimate” theater plays to smaller, sober audiences.

Yet, are musicals more than merely feel-good entertainment? Can they claim to be real theater?

Let me begin by stating in the clearest possible terms, I hate musicals. I mean, I really hate musicals. They make my skin crawl. They give me the heebie-jeebies. I reach for my revolver.

And I don’t mean just the recent, cat-screeching extravaganzas with their central ponderous ballad. No thinking person can possible defend Les Miz, which was the single worst experience I have ever had in a theater, and that counts once when I was young and spent a night with Brecht after eating some bad clams.

Less miserable? No! I couldn’t have been more miserable.

Les Miz and Phantom are beneath contempt. Pretention amplified by lack of musical talent.

They’re bad enough, and they have taken over Broadway. But what I am talking about, what really makes my flesh turn livery and my eyes spongy, are the bright-faced, cheery musicals of the past, those dynamos of pop standards, with their boy-gets-girl plots and their sparkly chorus numbers. I despise them. I have hated them since I was a kid and watched their corny production numbers on the Ed Sullivan Show.

a chorus line

My face turned in embarrassment for them. And I still suffer occasional tinnitus from having heard Ethel Merman sing once.

From Oklahoma! and On the Town in the 1940s to Assassins and Rent in the 1990s, I hate them all. With a few notable exceptions, they foist off on the public a distorted, happy-face world view. Even Rent ultimately has a chamber-of-commerce take on misery.

It is at best a miserly and partial vision of existence that musicals afford us, running the gamut of emotions from wistful to plucky.

And the thing I have the hardest time with: their arrogant naivete. They are at rock bottom, unsalvageably corny: “To siiiiiing the unbearable soooooong!”

At least the old Rodgers and Hart or Rodgers and Hammerstein shows had some memorable tunes, and extracted from their treacly context, I can enjoy them. But nowadays, the music is aimless harmonic wandering reaching a high-held note cynically plotted to stop the show. “Memories?” Only memories of the kind of tunes Leonard Bernstein could write for Candide. That musical, one of the few I can bear to touch my skin, is pleasantly acid, whereas most musicals are unpleasantly optimistic. I don’t believe in that optimism. It is a lie.

You can point out a Carousel here or a Candide there. Or a whole canon of work by Sondheim, which fails for another reason — tunes no one can remember.

But the form is inherently sentimental, and the actors who sing the tunes in their breathy, oh-so-earnest manner only accentuate the mawkishness of them.

This is different from opera, where the subject matter is usually tragic, and the music is so much richer, more subtle and wider of emotional range, to say nothing of harmonic complexity and drive.

Give me Wozzeck over Brigadoon any day.

I hate musical theater button

 

art critic cap copy

I first recognized that the common baseball cap had taken over the world the second time I drove through eastern Washington, through the vast green and blowing wheat fields of the Palouse. The first time, in the early 1980s, all the farmers and ranchers wore curl-brimmed Western hats, either straw or felt. There was a distinctly cowboy feel to the agricultural workers.

But a few years later, these same wizened, leather-skinned and toothpick-thin men wore the duck-billed “gimme cap” of their local John Deere dealer or seed company.

johndeerecap

The artificial romance of the cowboy was gone for good. The gimme cap became standard.

If we think of Abraham Lincoln in his stovepipe top hat, or Harry Truman in a gray fedora, we are more likely to think of Bill Clinton in a ballcap. Fashions change.

You can still find the gimme cap in rural America, where it gives its wearer an honest day’s labor, but it is in the city that the cap has grown up. A John Deere cap on a farmer means one thing, but the same hat on an advertising company’s art director means quite another.

He is showing off his sense of hipness.

In fact, it is precisely this sense of irony that gives the ballcap — on MTV or on a city lawyer’s weekend head — its cache. We wear the caps to say something other than what the caps seem to say.

I know. I have had a ballcap collection going for something like 20 years, always looking for the corporate logo or bumper-sticker slogan that can be read ambiguously.

My collection is nothing like it used to be: As we get older, our need to express ourselves to strangers weakens and seems less important. Yet, I still have some of my favorites:

There is a DeKalb Seed Company hat with its logo of a flying corn-on-the-cob. I have always taken this as something of a personal totem. Anyone who has read much of my writing will recognize this immediately and have a good laugh.

Dekalblogo

Then there is the red cap with the giant “X” across it. Such hats were the rage when Spike Lee’s film, Malcolm X, came out. But most of its wearers were Black. I wore the hat nonetheless, and when asked about it, I always said it wasn’t about the Black Muslim leader, but was rather a tribute to my favorite chromosome.

O also love the suede gray, elegant cap with the winged “A”  on its front that was sold to advertise the Tony Kushner plays, Angels in America. It is a very butch hat for so subtle a play. It implies a great deal, but its message is only readable to a very few.

My favorite cap recently has been the gray and black Nixon hat. When I wear it to the ballpark, I tell people it honors Otis Nixon, my favorite of all former Atlanta Braves centerfielders — a very large and distinguished group of alumni. Nixon is also a charter member  of my personally selected “All-Ugly” squad. Lord, I enjoyed watching him play.

otis nixon

The perfect gimme cap, though, has the logo of the Shakespeare fishing gear company on it, written in an elegant script as though it were the signature of the Elizabethan playwright. When I wore it, my highbrow friends assumed it was in honor of the author of Hamlet; my more sports-minded friends took it as an endorsement of a rod-and-reel. It was perfectly ambiguous.

I wore that hat out and its replacement is a little less perfect, for added to the signature is the slogan “Since 1897,” which flattens some of the irony.

shakespeare logo

Many gimme caps are promotional items, meant to hawk a new movie or rock band. The most misaimed of these has to be the A&E network cap, with the logo on the backside, so it can be worn bill-back in home-boy style. What used to be the Arts and Entertainment network has given up completely on art, and given over to rednecks making duck calls, or chasing wild pigs across Texas. Artless.

Of course there are people who wear their caps with no sense of irony at all. They don’t mind advertising the Nike swoosh or their favorite baseball team or their brand of cola. They are left hopelessly behind. We read their lives like a book. The irony is meant, instead to hide, while revealing to the initiated.

The non-ironic ballcap is the equivalent of one of those oh-so-earnest bumper stickers that the politically committed paste on their cars. Yes, we care about whirled peas, and our gunless hands will be cold and dead. We should not be so one-dimensional.

But giving out a more complex message, the wealthy Hollywood actor, Tom Selleck can wear the blue-collar Detroit Tigers hat and pretend to be one of the proletariat.

Brooklyn cap

Which is why I choose the Brooklyn Dodgers cap, or the sky blue of the “Oral & Facial Surgical Center of Corinth, Mississippi,” or the plaid Bear Surf Boards cap.

It makes you think twice.