Smile, smile, smile . . . Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth. – Jean Baudrillard, America
The Mad Men series finale opened with an unexpected sequence of images: a dry lakebed, a car zooming by, and Don in dusty goggles behind the wheel. “We just saw Mad Max,” my friends and I joked. The scene was so very narratively improbable and so very narratively unnecessary that I immediately decided that it must be A Symbol, and this insight is what I will try to explain to you today. I did not set out to write comprehensive review of the series or even of the finale, but thinking through this scene has turned out to help me make sense of Don’s character arc, and I hope that it will for you, too.
For the last three episodes of the series, Don has been somewhat inexplicably driving west. This began in the middle of episode 12 of this season, “Lost Horizon,” when he walked out of a meeting with Miller in which their representative, in describing the ideal customer of what would become Miller Light, asked a room full of creative directors to imagine a man “of very specific qualities: he lives in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio. Some call it the heartland, some call it the beer belt.” Don is the only one in the room who seems perturbed; he keeps looking around to find another eye to catch, and he cannot. The representative goes on to list some more “very specific qualities” about this man: he “has some college,” he “makes a good living,” he “wants a hammock,” and “he likes dogs, because they don’t talk.” Don is the only one who doesn’t laugh at the joke. It’s when the representative says “We all know this man, because there are millions of him” that the mysterious music starts to play and Don starts to look out the window, sees the airplane, and eventually gets up and leaves the meeting.
At the time, I figured Don was hitting the road because he saw through this guy’s bullshit and thought he would go see the heartland for himself to figure out how to market to a real person and not a bunch of stereotypes, and/or to try to track down Tragic Waitress Lady, a goal that might turn out to dovetail nicely with the project of understanding the real midwest. The other option was that Don was ditching the ad business forever, in order to undergo another identity transformation either backwards into Dick Whitman or forwards into somebody else (::cough:: D.B. Cooper ::cough::).
The racing-in-the-desert scene caused me to instantly abandon both those hypotheses, before anything else in the finale happened, because it reminded me so very strongly of Jean Baudrillard’s characterization of America in his book titled simply America. I understood immediately that what we would see would be neither the discovery of an authentic identity (Don’s or Mr. Heartland’s), nor the adoption of a new identity, but the obliteration of identity. Baudrillard, a French philosopher, published America in 1986, after exploring the country via its highway system and declaring based on this experience that “All you need to know about American society can be gleaned from an anthropology of its driving behavior. […] Drive ten thousand miles across America and you will know more about the country than all the institutes of sociology and political science put together” (54-5).* This might sound very much like the “discovering the true heartland” business that I was suggesting above, but in fact it’s quite the opposite: for Baudrillard, the essence of America is not in folksy encounters that one has with people along the road, but in “the excessive, pitiless distance, the infinity of anonymous faces and distances” (9), and the only logical way to traverse them: with unrelenting, dangerous, and delightfully freeing speed.
Speed creates pure objects. It is itself a pure object, since it cancels out the ground and territorial reference-points, since it runs ahead of time to annul time itself, since it moves more quickly than its own cause and obliterates that cause by outstripping it. Speed is the triumph of effect over cause, the triumph of instantaneity over time as depth, the triumph of the surface and pure objectality over the profundity of desire. Speed creates a space of initiation, which may be lethal; its only rule is to leave no trace behind. Triumph of forgetting over memory, an uncultivated, amnesiac intoxication. The superficiality and reversibility of a pure object in the pure geometry of the desert. Driving like this produces a kind of invisibility, transparency, or transversality in things, simply by emptying them out. It is a sort of slow-motion suicide, death by an extenuation of forms – the delectable form of their disappearance. Speed is not a vegetal thing. It is nearer to the mineral, to refraction through a crystal, and it is already the site of a catastrophe, of a squandering of time. Perhaps, though, its fascination is simply that of the void. There is no seduction here, for seduction requires a secret. Speed is simply the rite that initiates us into emptiness: a nostalgic desire for form to revert to immobility, concealed beneath the very intensification of their mobility. Akin to the nostalgia for living forms that haunts geometry. (6-7)
Forgive me for the long quote, but we are deep in Don Draper territory here. This is a character who incarnates “the triumph of effect over cause,” whose past has been multiply erased, and yet who no longer has any secrets with which to seduce — everybody knows that he used to be Dick Whitman, and nobody cares. He cannot return to being Dick Whitman, he will never be the real Don Draper to his not-niece Stephanie Draper, and yet “Don Draper” is a well-established brand within the advertising world. “Don Draper” is the perfect embodiment of Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum: a copy of something that has become more real than the original, and/or that never had an original to begin with. I am hardly the first one to notice this; the literate blogosphere started making this connection at the end of season one, with Don’s masterful pitch of “the carousel” to Kodak, where his real pain at looking at real pictures of his broken family’s former happiness is packaged and sold as “a deeper bond with the product.” He seems to perhaps feel more emotion while putting on this performance than he did while these things were happening, when he was presumably cheating on his wife and feeling trapped by domesticity: this is Baudrillard’s version of nostalgia, which feels more real than the original experience.
The concept of the simulacrum is, non-coincidentally, bound up for Baudrillard with the concept of advertising: the ad promises more fulfillment than the product will ever deliver, and leaves us grasping for an imaginary wholeness like Leonard from the support group at the end of the finale: “You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize: They’re trying, and you don’t even know what it is.” This resonates deeply for Don — bearing in mind that “to resonate” is to echo in an empty chamber. Don cries and hugs the stranger, but he has been coming to terms with his own emptiness for some time now. Megan’s mother stripped him of his furniture, he gave away his car, and when summoned to the race at “El Mirage” (a real-life racetrack with a deeply suggestive name), he drunkenly declares “I’m packed,” referring simply to an envelope of cash. He has been rejected as a father by Sally, who tells him correctly that she knows better than he does what should happen to her brothers after Betty’s death, and by Betty, who tells him that for the boys’ sake she “want[s] to keep things as normal as possible — and you not being here is part of that.”
If Don is to continue existing — and Peggy is not wrong to fear that he might not want to — he must embrace an identity that is fully uprooted: one Baudrillard would call quintessentially American. He writes, “America ducks the question of origins; it cultivates no origin or mythical authenticity; it has no past and no founding truth. Having known no primitive accumulation of time, it lives in a perpetual present. Having seen no slow, centuries-long accumulation of a principle of truth, it lives in perpetual simulation, a perpetual present of signs” (76). Don Draper as simulacrum is Don Draper as quintessential midcentury white American male: a product of late capitalism, postmodernism, and television. If the show has dealt too lightly with the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and other upheavals of the 1960s, as some critics have claimed, it is perhaps because these movements are grounded in firmly-felt identities and are therefore relatively alien to Don and to this aesthetics of surfaces. (Which is not to say that the show wouldn’t have been more interesting if it had attempted more nuanced development of these things, particularly of non-white characters.)
I now believe that Don left the room at McCann not because he didn’t buy the Miller representative’s description of “a man of specific qualities” who somehow lives in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio simultaneously, but because it was the beginning of the vision of the emptiness at the center of identity that would lead him to both an acceptance of “Don Draper” as pure simulacrum and the Coke epiphany. “We all know this man, because there are millions of him,” the line that causes Don to get up and leave, is a paradox: the only way to really know someone is individually — “person to person,” to invoke the episode’s title. To claim that you know someone’s “specific qualities” because “there are millions of him” is either to generalize (and therefore to lie about the “specific” part) or to get the zeitgeist of late 60s / early 70s America exactly right: if sign has replaced substance, then there’s nothing under the surface to know.
That zeitgeist finds its perfect expression in the “I Want to Buy the World a Coke” ad that Don dreams up while — significantly — emptying his mind in meditation at the new-age retreat. He empties himself, after a long period of having aspects of himself stripped away, and has a vision of an empty multiculturalism, a smiling we-are-the-world montage that a post-“Summer of Love” America wants to be sold, a million people of “specific qualities” all coming together to share goodwill in the form of Coca Cola. NPR’s Eric Deggans sees Don’s epiphany as a mining of his personal experience for ad copy just like when he hit up a black waiter for ideas about how to sell Lucky Strikes in episode one, but I think this is actually the opposite of that. That was a “person to person” interaction, that was the equivalent of going out to find the real Mr. Heartland, and this is an utter rejection of identity: shiny, happy people with visually-marked “specific qualities” singing in apparently heartfelt harmony that “what the world wants today” is “the Real Thing™.” It’s “Don Draper,” human simulacrum and ad man extraordinaire, who can give it to them.
*Jean Baudrillard, America. New York: Verso, 1988.
This morning, the town of Red Bank, NJ, and everyone who grew up in or near there woke up to the news that the Broadway Diner had closed, suddenly and without warning. There was nothing to be done — one of the owners had died, and that was it. Shock reverberated throughout my social networks. “My youth is officially over,” wrote one friend. “So many good times here, and now it’s gone,” wrote another.
The thing about the Broadway was that it was actually open 24 hours, unlike the majority of establishments that call themselves diners these days. It was always there for you when the bars closed, or whenever your night was winding down — or your day was starting up. It was also one of those classic neon-and-chrome affairs that let you feel like you were in a Tom Waits song, smoking a cigarette with your eggs and toast.
Well, my time went so quickly, I went lickety-splitly
Out to my ol’ ’55
Pulled away slowly, feelin’ so holy
God knows I was feelin’ alive
There hasn’t been a smoking section at the Broadway for years, but it looms large in my memory. In high school, before we were old enough to go to bars, there were three main places to hang out Red Bank: the 7-11 parking lot, Marine Park, and the Broadway. The basic routine was to get kicked out of each of these places in turn. (Later, we’d get the exciting new Internet Cafe, whose very name is a period piece, but that’s a story for another time.) At the 7-11 or Marine Park, you were definitely loitering. At the Broadway, there was at least the possibility of being a paying customer — a cup of coffee or an order of fries split four ways could buy you some legitimate time. But if you were broke, there was some excellent loitering space out front, as well as the Walk of Shame: a long glass wall that made more or less all its tables visible from the outside. Lore about this name varied: was it more shameful to not know anybody in the diner right now, or to know people in there who hadn’t invited you?
Most of my memories of the Broadway are a blur — it was long ago and far away. But one stands out crystal clear, and that’s the one I’m going to give you today. It was a few years after high school, but I was home for the summer. I had a friend in town visiting, and we’d stayed up all night drinking and talking in my parents’ basement. I was halfway in love with this person, and I don’t remember to what degree I’d told him about it yet, but when 4:30 AM rolled around, neither of us wanted to go to sleep because that would have meant we’d have to stop talking to each other. I was by this time sober enough to drive, so to have an excuse to stay up we decided to go to a diner. First we tried the Middletown Diner, which was very good back then and pretty close to my parents’ house, but it turned out that I was mistaken about its being open 24 hours. Rather than try somewhere else and fail, I pointed the car to Red Bank, where I knew the Broadway would be waiting for us.
And now the sun’s comin’ up
I’m ridin’ with Lady Luck
Freeway cars and trucks
Stars beginning to fade
And I lead the parade
It almost seems impossible in retrospect, but I swear to you that Tom Waits’ “Ol’ 55″ came on the radio — it must have been the local community college radio station, some DJ with a poetic sensibility who decided to greet the sunrise with this song. Suddenly everything was perfect — the sky was reddening, the air was cool, and God knows, I was feelin’ alive. There’s something about greeting the sunrise after being up all night that makes you feel free, and holy, and maybe a little sad — it’s a patently irrational choice, a fuck-it choice. We were holding on to our perfect night, even as it was fading into day.
Just a-wishin’ I’d stayed a little longer
Oh Lord, lemme tell you that feeling’s gettin’ stronger
The Broadway was there as it always was, when we arrived at about five in the morning. There was, of course, nobody I recognized along the Walk of Shame. We were the only bedraggled, hungover kids in there — most of the other patrons were men getting coffee and a bagel on their way to construction jobs, or elderly couples sharing orders of pancakes. I ordered eggs and toast and coffee; I did not smoke a cigarette. The diner was a long, slow slide back into real life: the food and coffee made us feel somewhat reluctantly normal, and the people around us were going about their business as though one of the most interesting nights in the world had not just happened. We bought a newspaper, and marveled at what some people thought was newsworthy this morning. By the time we got back into the car, the sun was up, and the night was over.
And it’s six in the mornin’, gave me no warnin’
I had to be on my way
Well, these trucks all a-passin’ and the lights all a-flashin’
I’m on my way home from your place
I know I’m not the only person whom the diner has gently guided back to reality. Things never quite worked out romantically with that guy, and it was for the best that they didn’t, but that night and especially that morning are seared across my memory in brilliant gold. Thank you, Broadway Diner, for your years of service to Red Bank’s lost souls.
And now the sun’s comin’ up
I’m ridin’ with Lady Luck
Freeway cars and trucks
Freeway cars and trucks
Freeway cars and trucks
In October, I decided on a whim to read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959): because it was “in my period” (20th century American), because it was written by a woman, and because it seemed appropriately “Halloweeny.” Since then I’ve been on a minor streak: a few months ago I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1963), and I’ve just finished Hangsaman (1951), by far the strangest of the three. It seems that her books’ popularity is more or less in inverse proportion to their strangeness, which is a pity, because their strangeness is precisely what makes them so compelling. For example, The Haunting of Hill House, by far her most popular novel, would be not very different from any other ghost story were it not for the radical uncertainty of how much of the haunting is in the main character’s imagination — and this uncertainty is what makes the book truly creepy. Jackson is a master of what might be called, rather than “the uncanny,” “the unsettling.” Her stories literally unsettle us, they shake us up a bit and make us uncomfortable. They’re told in simple enough prose that I recently recommended them to a friend looking for “young adult fiction,” but they resist cohering in the expected ways, and their relatively straightforward style makes their deep weirdness somehow even weirder. All three of the books I’ve read so far have young female protagonists who are varying degrees of crazy, so you might call them “unreliable narrator” stories, except that the narration is in the third person, which contributes a lot to the creepiness: the liberal use of free indirect discourse makes it deeply unclear what is being reported by the narrator as fact, and what is skewed by the protagonist’s thoughts.
These books are therefore really interesting windows into young women’s minds, and reveal what odd places they are. All minds, surely, are odd, but the minds of girls becoming women in the 1950s offer Jackson a particularly rich sea of strangeness to draw from: the question of expected behavior vs. individual autonomy plays out in all three of these books in a variety of bizarre ways: in Hill House, accepting the invitation to visit the haunted house is the first independent choice Eleanor has ever made; in Castle, the Blackwood girls struggle with the question of whether to re-integrate with the community or continue to live defiantly on their own; and Hangsaman is quite literally a going-off-to-college, coming-of-age story, though a very weird one. Hangsaman in particular provoked shocks of recognition in me at regular intervals, as I realized I’d perhaps never read a book that captured so well the oddly self-absorbed marveling at the world that characterized my teenage years:
The sight of the mountains far away was sometimes so perfectly comprehensible to Natalie that she forced tears into her eyes, or lay on the grass, unable, after a point, to absorb it — she was, of course, adequately hidden from the windows of the house — or to turn it into more than her own capacity for containing it; she was not able to leave the fields and mountains alone where she found them, but required herself to take them in and use them, a carrier of something simultaneously real and unreal to set up against the simultaneously real-and-unreal batterings of her family. (23)
What kills me in this passage is the word comprehensible — not incomprehensible, but comprehensible. This isn’t the overwhelming sublime, this is a feeling of mastery somehow, of being able to contain and understand the spectacle. Natalie must force the tears into her eyes, she must actively “turn it into more than her own capacity for containing it.” I’m not sure I could have articulated until now that a lot of my imagination in my late childhood and adolescence consisted of making the world significant, because I wanted it to be, because I was told (by fiction, I guess, and movies and TV) that it ought to be, and because on its own, it really wasn’t: I was just a kid, seeing normal things, living a normal life of very little consequence. But imagining my routine life into a life of significance was a way of exerting a measure of control over it: I could make boring things interesting, and I could make things forced on me feel like things intended for me by some kind of mystical fate rather than by mundane rules and expectations.
As I mentioned before, Hangsaman is a coming-of-age story with some standard markers of that plot, but the execution of that plot is “unsettling” in that it doesn’t actually hang together very coherently. The third act, in particular, comes seemingly out of nowhere and I kept thinking that I might have missed a crucial plot point that tied it all together — particularly since I read the middle hundred pages in the fog of an endless delay parked in an airport bar. But more than articulating a coherent plot, Hangsaman is concerned with feeling its way around the odd, drawn-out process of coming to own and control all of yourself: it operates on a stranger and more philosophical register than most coming-of-age stories. Following immediately after the above passage, we get this:
There was a point in Natalie, only dimly realized by herself, and probably entirely a function of her age, where obedience ended and control began; after this point was reached and passed, Natalie became a solitary functioning individual, capable of ascertaining her own believable possibilities. (23)
Exploring this point “where obedience ended and control began” is the central issue in this book. Natalie draws away from her overbearing father and enters a college world where she is socially defined in two very different contexts, which gives her a very unstable sense of her own identity: she is reviled by the girls in her dormitory, but becomes a pet of a fashionable young professor and his wife and therefore has some social standing among a different, older set of girls. Both social groups are governed by strict (and somewhat conflicting) norms which demand “obedience” (just as the rules of her father did) and Natalie rebels against both as she tries to figure out what part of her is really her own. This all is complicated by her near-hallucinogenic imagination, and to make matters worse and weirder, a sexual assault that Natalie experiences early on casts a pall over the whole book — it’s certainly a profound experience of the loss of control. In the last third of the book, Natalie suddenly finds that she has a (female) best friend named Tony, and the two of them go off on a journey away from the college and into town, skipping their classes, which is a dizzying experience of freedom and control for both of them (and is also, I theorize, meant to recapitulate the assault scene to a certain degree — but discussing this in more detail would give away too much). In the following passage, drunk on free will, the girls engage in some familiar solipsism:
“I wonder what the rest of them do with their time?” Tony said absently. “Do you think they go to their classes as usual? Or has the whole college faded away or blown into dust or collapsed — ”
” — or crumbled or snapped out like a light — ”
— Just because we’ve gone? Tony thought. “We are on a carpet,” she announced soberly. “It unrolls in front of us, but in back of us it rolls up and there is nothing under it.”
“The immediate spot where we are walking is the only immediate spot there is,” Natalie said. (185)
This passage, and the book as a whole, does a marvelous job of capturing what freedom is: an eternal but very narrow present. In the film Donnie Darko, we are occasionally shown watery, tentacle-like projections that emerge from characters and seem to draw them along their expected paths:
We’re meant to understand that it’s habit, intention, fate, or some combination of these that draws Donnie inevitably toward the refrigerator. The tentacle concretizes how expectations literally shape the future, and can give us an almost psychic ability to see it. When Tony and Natalie skip class and walk into town instead, they reject a planned, visible future in favor of a nebulous “red carpet” (as Tony says), or perhaps more accurately, in favor of simply an “immediate spot” (as Natalie decides). The rest of the world falls away: there is you and your will and the present moment. This pure world, free from consequences and complications, is not really the one we live in — as the girls quickly discover. Nor would we want it to be, I hope: functional societies and meaningful relationships both entail obligations as well as consequences for ignoring them. Yet we continue to hold “freedom” as a central American value, relatively uninterrogated in popular discourse. What Jackson excels at is bringing into focus is the narcissism, terror, and sociopathy that accompany freedom in its purest form. If that’s unsettling — well, it should be.
Friends, we are so lucky to be loved.
My parents are moving out of the house where I spent my adolescence into the house where they will spend their retirement. This requires me to go through all of the nonsense I left behind when I moved out of their house when I was 18 years old, nearly 15 years ago. This requires going through a lot of tedious bullshit, but it also requires going through my box of old love letters from high school.
Let me be clear: I am engaged to be married to the man without whom I could not imagine myself. It’s not that we “finish each other’s sentences,” it’s that together we form whole thoughts and concepts that are bigger and better and funnier and crazier than anything either of us could have come up with alone.
There is an episode of Friends that I remember vividly, in which the female characters all decide that they need to burn all their mementos of their past boyfriends in order to wish themselves new and better luck on Valentine’s Day, and of course it turns into a minor disaster, and of course the firemen who show up to save them are hunky so it all turns out okay. This episode (“The One With the Candy Hearts” – thanks, Google!) aired in 1995, when I was in 7th grade, and probably influenced the very existence of this box of love letters that I would begin to accumulate in high school. It taught me three things: 1) that a lady saves tokens of affection, 2) that she saves them all together in a big box of affirmation to prop herself up later in life, and 3) that a time might come when it was appropriate to set fire to the contents of that box in order to move on.
So: I’m engaged, my parents want me to clean my shit out of their house, and I have to decide the fate of these letters. Time to get drunk, obviously, and read them.
I went into this task 100% sure that after reading them I would want to burn them, that the only honorable thing to do would be to burn them (or, you know, responsibly recycle them). But I can’t. Because they’re beautiful. I can’t quote them to you; it would sound like bragging, and besides, it’s private. But I can tell you that the honesty with which one sixteen-year-old addresses another with whom they are in love is a force that we need more of in this world.
I’m aware that I’m immensely privileged to have such a record: for one thing, plenty of people don’t find any measure of success in love until much later in life; for another, plenty of people don’t or can’t save much from their teenage years; and for a third, kids these days and their Snapchat; do they even know what it would mean to have a handwritten note to get sentimental about in their thirties?
It’s not that I still love any of the people who wrote these letters—I don’t, in any kind of romantic or possessive way. Nor do I entertain any fantasies that they “still” love me, whatever that could mean this many years removed. But I honor, tremendously, what these letters do: they ask for the pleasure of my company, and they explain simply and frankly how much they enjoy it. Most of them do little more than this. Some of them do it in grand, florid prose; others do it in simple, misspelled sentences.
It’s what they say about why they are so eager to spend time with me that motivates me to tell you about all of this. Some of the letters go through a rigmarole about my looks (false), and my sense of humor (getting warmer), but they pretty much all arrive at a single point: these letter writers were all overjoyed that I seemed so much to enjoy spending time with them. A cynic might say that these boys were just trying to get in my pants, and some of them no doubt were, but most of them could clearly never have imagined that possibility in a million years—their innocence is almost breathtaking. These letters made me remember that the real earth-shattering awe of teenage love is the simple fact of love reciprocated: that after pining and yearning alone for so many years, to find someone who returns your feelings is a real live miracle. And it still is, and it always is.
I know I hit the love lottery. I know a lot of people have a lot of love to give. I know it’s not easy, in the guarded adult world, to do so.
But take a minute to think with me about this box of letters—a box full of people saying, essentially, “I love how much you love me.” Think about what that means. And then tell somebody about how much you love them. Do it fancy, do it simple, avoid the word “love” if that freaks either one of you out. But do it!
Friends, we are so lucky to love!
I realized this morning that I haven’t yet told this blog about my new online poetry project, The Blank Caught Fire. It started in April as a National Poetry Month project, and after succeeding at writing 30 poems in 30 days (!), I’ve been continuing it at a more leisurely pace. It’s a collage poetry project, where my source material is my partner’s current online writing project, Sister CIty 73. His project is a serial, improvisatory, weirdo novel wherein the plot moves forward through a combination of random chance (literal throws of the dice), bibliomancy (looking back at previous pages for fortuitous juxtapositions), and a fascinating kind of associative logic wherein the figurative images that have been used to describe a character in the past will dictate her present actions. For example, when a character receives a telephone call summoning him into a room full of people he knows are angry at him, he hesitates, but since he has been compared to a dog before, he comes when he’s called. These strings can get much weirder, such as when a character is compared to another character’s teeth, and that character been compared to an actress, “so her teeth / are good and so he is / good which is what Erin / says Superman / does so he’s flying.” You’ll note the reference to myself there; I’m occasionally consulted as an oracle for this piece (along with the dice, the book itself, and the previous images), and some of the author’s day-to-day experience is also woven in. It’s super fun!
So as you’ll notice if you followed any of those links, Sister City 73 is written in columns, and that’s where my collage work comes in. Each of the poems in The Blank Caught Fire is based on a single page of Sister City 73, and is assembled out of the fortuitous phrases that are generated where words rub shoulders with one another due to the columnar format of that project. I’ll post two of my favorite poems below, and if you like them you should consider checking out the project on Tumblr and/or buying the chapbook from Horse Less Press that collects some of the early poems!
only pretends to be
something like a room I go to
I puzzle about one
splatter of himself
the Chinese fire
has a wealth of words
in the case of old images
I brush by ten years—
the coin says it’s two:
the next lover’s
sputtering trick birth
it’ll probably be called
“studies: figurative and then crushed”
my memory back under the stage
with all the repetition
tempts me with accident
the opposite sister
in love with the Shakespearean
who has taken up with his hero
in a plan to redeem his rival
and since her embodiment shows
he lost to her wooden impression—appropriate
in the battle of Frank O’Hara
lucky for him, she’s also the perfect wave
transformation is as fickle
from figurative to literal—ah, Romeo!
I liked Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby — the visual extravagance was eminently appropriate, the movie was surprisingly willing to poke fun at its own absurdity, and I even liked the controversial hip-hop soundtrack, which I thought added to the dizzying disorientation of the party scenes and also marked the movie unmistakably as an artifact of the present moment rather than a “faithful” reconstruction of history. I’m just going to take issue with one little bit of the movie today, and that’s the end, where Gatsby dies (spoiler alert!) while waiting for a telephone call from Daisy. In the movie and the book both, Nick leaves Gatsby the morning after the accident promising to call him later, and Gatsby says “I suppose Daisy’ll call too,” and expects Nick to corroborate this hope. Then, in the movie, we see Gatsby waiting by the telephone, and having the telephone brought out to the pool, intercut with Nick moping at his office and with Daisy sitting by her own telephone, presumably thinking about calling Gatsby and taking him up on his offer of a life together. Finally the phone rings at Gatsby’s pool, and he thinks (and says) “Daisy!” as he climbs hopeful and starry-eyed up the pool ladder, only to be shot in the back and to fall backwards in stunned slow motion. After he’s dead it’s revealed that it was only Nick on the phone, worried about Gatsby.
It had been a long time since I’d last read The Great Gatsby cover to cover, but I was pretty darn sure this last gasp of hope, the ringing phone that might have been Daisy, was not in the book. And indeed it is not — at least, not exactly. Furthermore, I recognized this revisionist ending — it’s a version of the ending of Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, where Juliet wakes up from the sleep-drug before rather than after Romeo dies from the poison he’s just downed, allowing for the two of them to have an agonizing few seconds of “OH SHIIIIIIIT” eye-contact before Romeo succumbs. And that, of course, was also DiCaprio. So here we have, for the second time, Luhrmann giving DiCaprio an unauthorized minor revision to the source material in which his character sees both love and death in the same moment — the sudden, surprising promise of the one being unraveled before his eyes by the imminent certainty of the other.
In R + J, it’s certainly not in the original script, but it’s at least a choice a director could legitimately make — it involves no alteration to the spoken words. In Gatsby, it’s part of a pattern in which Luhrmann alters the text to remove ambiguities and make Gatsby more purely into a symbol of undying, incorruptible hope. Significantly, Luhrmann leaves out the punchline in what turn out to be Nick’s final words to Gatsby:
“’They’re a rotten crowd,’ I shouted across the lawn. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.’
I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, [because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.]”
The excision of the remark in brackets from the film’s narration is one of many small ways in which the film gives us a Nick who is more thoroughly starry-eyed about Gatsby than is the character in the book. The invented scene with the telephone call is another, more significant revision in this vein. First of all, the book is cagier about what phone call Gatsby is even waiting for. He certainly says to Nick that he hopes Daisy will call, but when Nick tries to call Gatsby he never gets through and is told that the line is being held open “for Detroit” — whereas in the movie, we see Gatsby specifically telling his butler not to take Detroit’s call, as well as shots of Daisy thinking about calling (which the book never gives us reason to think that she does). The book doesn’t actually “show” Gatsby’s death, but here’s Nick’s imagining of Gatsby’s final moments:
“No telephone message arrived but the butler went without his sleep and waited for it until four o’clock — until long after there was anyone to give it to if it came. I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about… like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.”
This is nearly the opposite of the scene in the movie — not only does no call come, but Nick thinks that Gatsby has finally lost hope, and rather than a final glorious moment of possibility, Gatsby’s death is imagined as almost being caused by giving up on hope. Letting go of hope has caused formerly lovely sights to become “frightening” and “grotesque,” and it is this terrible “new world” that sends forth the ghost-like form of Gatsby’s murderer in the final line here. Luhrmann, on the other hand, prefers Gatsby to remain a perfect, unspoiled symbol of hope until the end. His revision of this scene makes melodramatic tragedy out of Gatsby’s vision of love snatched away by death, and backs away from the deeper tragedy that Fitzgerald draws, of the world’s very animating soul draining out as hope dims.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to compare Gatsby to the Kierkegaardian knight of faith, who says to himself that even though his love is impossible, “I nevertheless believe that I shall get her, namely on the strength of the absurd, on the strength of the fact that for God all things are possible.” The thing about the knight of faith, though, is that he has first to accept that his love is really not possible in this world, and I don’t think Luhrmann’s Gatsby ever gets there. For one thing, Luhrmann takes away the condition that the love be thoroughly impossible by showing those scenes of Daisy with the telephone, thinking about calling. She even reaches for the phone at one point, and the camera cuts back to Gatsby’s phone ringing, and his emergence from the pool only to be shot, allowing viewers to think along with Gatsby that this is in fact Daisy calling. The slow-motion tragedy of Gatsby falling back into the pool is the moment of Romeo seeing his future with Juliet being drawn away from him by the tunnel of his own death — it’s not until afterwards that viewers get the punchline that it was just Nick on the phone. Gatsby’s hope that Daisy will call is not at all unreasonable or absurd in the movie, which takes away some of its poignancy.
To be honest, I’m not sure that Fitzgerald’s Gatsby qualifies as a true knight of faith, either. Kierkegaard explains that “childlike simplicity and innocence” can also account for impossible hope that is just naïveté rather than true faith based on the renunciation of earthly possibility. But Fitzgerald’s vision of Gatsby is nonetheless darker and more complex than Luhrmann’s, and Gatsby’s last moments are an experience of a dead, empty world left lifeless when hope has gone: “He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about…”. What’s striking about these lines is the transformation of natural beauty into uncanny horror. And is Gatsby himself one of these “poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air”? If so, it’s another transformation, from a vision of himself as drawing strength and vigor from his dream to one of himself barely clinging to life through it. Another line of Kierkegaard’s comes to mind: “Through faith I don’t renounce anything, on the contrary in faith I receive everything.” It’s as though Gatsby’s faith has been giving him the world up until this moment, and now suddenly the world is taken away — even though it’s still in front of his face. It’s not just Daisy who vanishes in this tragedy, but everything — and not because of Gatsby’s death, but because he wretchedly remains alive. Fortunately, this world of shadows sends forth its avenging angel.
As a poetry teacher, I loved Melancholia. I’m always telling my students that in poetry (as in all literature), the best interpretations are the ones phrased in terms of “both/and” rather than in terms of “either/or” — and that’s exactly how Lars Von Trier’s film begs to be read. The film is divided in two parts: in the first half, Kirsten Dunst’s crippling depression threatens to sabotage her fairy-tale wedding, and in the second half, a rogue planet called “Melancholia” threatens to obliterate the earth. The absurdly obvious symbolism of a planet actually called “Melancholia” that might actually destroy the earth is so ludicrous as to demand further interpretation. “Yes,” I can hear myself saying to my imaginary poetry-and-film students, “the planet stands for depression. But are you satisfied with that? What else might it mean?”
The first thing I should point out is that the second half of the film — when the actual end of the world is nigh — feels like a relief. The first half is tense and awkward and upsetting: you sympathize with Justine (Dunst’s character), because you realize that depression is a medical condition and she can’t just think herself out of it, but you also wonder along with her relatives why she can’t just, on this one joyous day, actually be happy. When her sister Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), tells her to at least put on a smile and go through the motions for the benefit of everybody in attendance — including the groom — it sounds both reasonable and insensitive. This dilemma cuts to the heart of what is, for me, the central problem with weddings: they are supposed to be about things sincerely and deeply felt by the bride and groom, but they generally take the form of elaborate, complicated ceremonies followed by elaborate, complicated parties that seem to exist much more for the benefit of family and friends than for the actual people getting married. What if you wake up in the morning on your wedding day and you’re just not in the mood to deal with all that nonsense? What if you agreed to deal with all that nonsense because your fiancé and your family want it, but you are medically unable to enjoy it? The right thing to do in both cases seems to be to soldier on and pretend to be happy, because ruining your wedding might ruin your marriage and/or hurt or upset your family members. But then, suddenly, there is a troubling absence at the center of the ritual.
American mainstream culture seems able to tolerate “empty ritual” in just about every case EXCEPT weddings. At funerals, we recognize a wide range of “stages of grief,” and it’s perfectly okay if you feel numb or angry instead of properly melancholy. If you are a regular churchgoer, you will sometimes feel religiously moved by your Sunday services, but it’s okay if some weeks you’re there more in body than in spirit. And there are hundreds of less-religious rituals where the divorce between practice and feeling is widely recognized and accepted: my mother, for example, is planning a retirement party for a woman who, it turns out, really doesn’t want a retirement party but is probably going to get one anyway — and she will probably smile her way through it. But the idea of just smiling one’s way through one’s own wedding is unthinkable — whenever a bride in a movie is a tiny bit less than ecstatic about her wedding, it’s taken as a sign that the love in question is not “true” and Dustin Hoffman is likely to pound on the glass shouting her name at any moment, grinding the “false” ceremony to a halt. (My favorite version of this, incidentally, is when Patrick Dempsey literally busts into the chapel on a white horse at the end of the dreadful film Made of Honor. Um, spoiler alert.) And the other side of the coin is that whenever a groom is less than enthusiastic about his impending wedding, he will inevitably “grow up” just in time to undergo the ceremony with wholehearted and authentic feeling. Clearly there are gender dynamics that might be investigated here — the bride has been pushed into something she doesn’t feel, while the groom has been pushed into something he DOES feel — but I’m less interested in that problem than in the way that both these clichés are rooted in a fantasy of absolute authenticity.
One of the most troubling things about Melancholia for me was that Justine’s groom actually does leave her, right in the middle of the wedding reception, because of how unenthused and disengaged she is about the proceedings. He seems to buy into the Hoffman/Dempsey movie-logic that the rest of the film is trying to put into question, which at first just felt like a misstep on Von Trier’s part to me. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it’s actually not so inconceivable that an otherwise loving fiancé might back out of a wedding under these circumstances — because we are so conditioned by film to think of weddings as absolutely authentic experiences.
In the second half of the film, the question of ritual again resurfaces in the face of the end of the world. This is a circumstance that we have no ready rituals for, because it has never happened before, so we have to make them up. Claire proposes a glass of wine on the terrace, which Justine violently rejects. Instead, Justine gathers up Claire’s child (who would, of course, not have been able to enjoy the bourgeois ritual of the glass of wine) and runs to the forest to gather wood, which they fashion into a makeshift teepee, where Claire eventually joins them. The teepee is an invented ritual: it looks like a ritual, because of its primitivism, and it is endowed by Justine’s performative fiat with magical protective properties. This ritual, unlike the one Claire proposed, was clearly designed with the child in mind: it was meant to include and to comfort him. It also feels more authentic than either the wedding was or the glass of wine would be, because it was tailored to this specific purpose — a unique ritual for an unrepeatable event.
J.L. Austin, of course, has argued that it is precisely the fact of their historical repetition that gives utterances such as “with this ring, I thee wed” their power to make things true in the world. But since at least Wordsworth, we’ve expected “powerful feeling” to take the form of “spontaneous overflows,” which seem difficult to square with the iterative nature of most rituals. This is the kind of inauthenticity that the first half of Melancholia deals with: Justine’s desire to feel authentically leads her to wander out on the golf course in the dark instead of staying at her wedding reception and cutting the cake. But the second half of the film presents a more Durkheimian view of ritual as something that permits, structures, contains, and maybe even produces powerful feelings.
One of the answers I expect my imaginary poetry-and-film students might give if I asked them “what else does the planet stand for?” is “Justine’s wedding.” At first, the prevailing opinion of Melancholia is that it will pass by the earth at an incredibly close distance and provide an exciting (but safe) astronomical spectacle. It seems, itself, like a rite of passage: humanity will have its brush with death but will emerge unharmed. It is eagerly anticipated by Claire’s husband and son, and presumably by many other people around the world. But, like Justine’s wedding, what was supposed to be a transformative “close encounter” turns slowly and agonizingly into a catastrophic collision.
It’s the very externality of the end of the world that makes the second half of the film feel less awful than the first half: unlike Justine’s depression, the planet Melancholia is a real, observable physical object that everybody (eventually) agrees is a huge bummer. Rituals to greet it therefore stand on far less ambiguous emotional ground than Justine’s wedding did. Both Claire’s proposed glass of wine and Justine’s teepee have specific situational goals and reflect specific attitudes toward the end of the world: Claire proposes a classic bourgeois down-with-the-ship attitude, akin to the orchestra on the Titanic, while what Justine offers is something both more imaginative and more sacred. But I don’t think the film comes solidly down on the side of either formal ritual (like the wedding) or spontaneous personal ritual (like the teepee). The wedding scenes are utterly gorgeous, and I think ultimately Von Trier presents the wedding not as a straitjacket from which Justine needs to escape but as an ambitious failed project: both this glamorous, complicated event and the very idea of marital bliss are enormously difficult feats for a person with severe depression. What is easy for such a person is, of course, the end of the world: it seems like something Justine has been expecting. The planet stands for both depression and ritual, then — among other things — and Von Trier asks us to consider the disconnect between situation and emotion in both cases. If ritual is supposed to structure and produce powerful feelings, it certainly presents problems for people whose feelings don’t function in the usual way.
I am delighted to announce the publication of Impossible Loves: Essays. When my friends Heather and Steve started up Rock Paper Tiger Press last year, they proposed that their first book be a collection of essays from this blog, and I was thrilled and honored. The essays have been edited, polished, and a little de-blog-ized for publication, and I hope you’ll like them!
Here’s the copy from the back cover:
To read McNellis’s essays is to find yourself having one of those late-night conversations you always thought awaited you – those conversations where, for two hours before dawn, everything made complete sense. She’s good – very good – on ideas and thinkers, excellent on poets, and she’s miraculous on love. There is a real discursive ease of thinking in the essays, a desire to communicate the difficult joys of being human, and the reader can only hope to reciprocate.
– Dr. Timothy C. Baker, Ph.D., Author of George Mackay Brown and the Philosophy of Community
“Possible loves – are for fools – The wise have – impossible loves,” reads a journal fragment from Christian mystic Simone Weil, whose life and works are examined here amid a seemingly unlikely assortment of topics. An argument for maintaining a reverence for commitment while rejecting a traditional, sentimental embrace of outmoded family structures becomes an inquiry into Weil’s drive toward self-sacrifice. A consideration of what Weil might have had in common with libertine and frequent critic Georges Bataille develops into a discussion of Timothy Treadwell, the tragic, grizzly-bear-enamored subject of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. Later, delving into the tradition of reticence in American poetry is brought into relief against the author’s own experience at Burning Man, where the beat never stops.
Like a long discussion with a sharply intelligent friend, Impossible Loves moves effortlessly from topic to topic without ever losing its focus. “Nearly every paper in my academic career has the secret or not-so-secret message of ‘please, please try to love one another,’ and I think it would not be exaggerating to say that many, if not most, works of art have exactly this message as well,” McNellis writes, admitting in the same essay that “emotions are embarrassing.” Embarrassing, complex, even impossible though it may be, love is still the answer – but that doesn’t make the questions any less interesting.
You can get the book from Amazon, or you can order it through your local bookstore!
For those of you keeping track, I have now finished my Ph.D. in English and am about to stumble across the finish line of my first semester of adjuncting. But I will have a nice long six-week winter break, during which I hope to bring you a slew of new posts on the Occupy movement and on what I’ve been reading. Cheers!
The spectacle of police officers at UC Davis pepper-spraying peaceful, seated students last week has, rightly, caused an outraged uproar both within and outside the Occupy movement. Bob Ostertag, a Davis professor, has pointed out that even in prison riots, prison guards are forbidden to use pepper spray on seated prisoners because they are “not considered to be an imminent threat,” and that when prison guards plan to use pepper spray they are required to have medical personnel on the scene to treat the victims. Today, as a means of welcoming this blog back to the land of the living (after my year-long bout with finishing my dissertation), I plan to investigate the significance of the Davis police’s actions in my customarily roundabout way.
Last night, I watched Chris Marker’s La jetée, a 1962 short French dystopian film about time travel, and Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, a 1995 film inspired by La jetée that, as you probably recall, stars Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. Both films take place in a dystopian future where humanity has been forced to live underground due to the ruination of the earth’s surface — in La jetée, the cause is nuclear war, and in 12 Monkeys it’s a viral epidemic. In both films, the protagonist is forcefully “volunteered” by the draconian government of the survivors and is made to participate in time-travel experiments designed to help humanity out of its desperate situation. In La jetée, the protagonist is sent back in time on a series of short visits, where he befriends a woman seemingly tolerant of his tendency to literally appear and disappear unpredictably. These visits to the past are eventually revealed to be mere rehearsals for the real work at hand: once the protagonist has proven that he is mentally stable enough to handle time travel, he is sent to the distant future to beg help from the more technologically advanced society that he finds there. These future people equip him with technology to save his people, but instead of being hailed as a hero, the protagonist is sentenced to death by his draconian government now that he has served his purpose. The people from the future offer to help him escape to their time permanently, but he asks instead to be sent back to the past to live out his days with the woman he met there. The people from the future do this for him, but he is pursued by an agent from the draconian government of the present who guns him down as soon as he gets back to the past. (I am concealing the biggest plot twist from you out of the goodness of my heart.)
12 Monkeys, being a feature-length studio film from the 1990s rather than a short auteur film from the 1960s, makes many changes and complicates the plot immensely. But the change that bothered me the most is that the circumstances of the hero’s death are entirely different. Bruce Willis is killed not in the midst of trying to build a life with the woman he loves, but in the midst of trying to save the world from the very government for whom he has been forced to work. He discovers that the plague which wiped out the world was aided and abetted by the draconian government that sent him back in time in the first place, and is shot by agents of that government while trying to stop the man who will spread the disease. What bothered me so much about this change is that it actually takes the teeth out of the original film’s criticism of the power of the state. It is not very difficult to imagine a corrupt government trying to protect itself by executing people who are actively trying to bring it down. But what makes the ending of La jetée so shocking is that the protagonist is not trying to bring down the government at all — all he wants is to be left alone and allowed to pursue his own happiness. The state evidently views these desires themselves as a threat, since they are in excess of its instrumental plans for this citizen.
Viewing these films now, in what some are calling the “American Autumn” as a corollary to this year’s “Arab Spring,” I can’t help but notice the parallels to the Occupy movement and the power of the state that has recently been flexed in order to quash it. The powers that be wish they were fighting Bruce Willis, an enemy trying actively to bring them down. If they were, they’d have a much stronger case about the need to use force against the protestors. But in fact, the protestors are much more like the nameless protagonist of La jetée. The Occupy movement’s continued refusal to produce concrete demands has made it clear that — for now, at least — what the movement is about is the occupations themselves. Members of the movement talk enthusiastically about the communities built at the occupation sites: they have libraries, social services, first aid, and many other communal resources. Many people who have been living at the occupations report that the Occupy movement is one of the first communities in which they’ve truly felt at home. What they want, in other words, is to be left alone and allowed to pursue their own happiness.
This is not, however, an insular or apolitical demand — as the fascist government in La jetée realized, and as our own government may also be realizing. Unlike the communes of the 1960s, which were generally set up out in the wilderness away from population centers, the occupations are in our town squares and parks, in our faces every day. As Matt Taibbi recently explained in Rolling Stone, the movement at its heart is about “going on strike from one’s own culture”:
This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become.
This idea is, ultimately, much more radical than a list of concrete demands such as “increase regulation on the banks” and “remove money from politics” could ever encompass. The Occupy movement points to the fact that daring to dream of a better and more free life than the one offered by the current economico-political regime is a deep and dangerous threat to the powers that prop up that regime. This is why the government in La jetée had to kill the protagonist of that film, and it’s why the police in Zucotti Park, Oakland, Seattle, and UC Davis feel authorized to use viciously violent force on peaceful protestors. Our challenge, then, is to continue to dream — both because and in spite of the opposition.
I am currently reading Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic, a conceptual poetry project consisting of twenty-four hours of traffic reports from New York’s 1010 WINS (available online in its entirety here), and am stunned to find myself moved nearly to tears. Goldsmith, who claims that his transcription projects make him “the most boring writer that has ever lived,” is not thought of as a particularly moving writer, and I was certainly not expecting to react this way. But as soon as I opened the book I was floored; I was transported Proust-style right back into the kitchen of the house where I grew up in suburban New Jersey:
12:01 Well, in conjunction with the big holiday weekend, we start out with the Hudson River horror show right now. Big delays in the Holland Tunnel either way with roadwork, only one lane will be getting by. You’re talking about, at least, twenty to thirty minutes worth of traffic either way, possibly even more than that. Meanwhile the Lincoln Tunnel, not great back to Jersey but still your best option. And the GW Bridge your worst possible option. Thirty to forty minute delays, and that’s just going into town. Lower level closed, upper level all you get. Then back to New Jersey every approach is fouled-up: West Side Highway from the 150’s, the Major Deegan, the Bronx approaches and the Harlem River Drive are all a disaster, the Harlem River Drive could take you an hour, no direct access to the GW Bridge with roadwork. And right now across the East River 59th Street Bridge, you’ve gotta steer clear of that one. Midtown Tunnel, Triboro Bridge, they remain in better shape. Still very slow on the eastbound Southern State Parkway here at the area of the, uh, Meadowbrook there’s a, uh, stalled car there blocking a lane and traffic very slow.
Just about every weekday morning of my life between ages six and eighteen, I listened to traffic reports exactly like this one sputtering out of my father’s battery-powered radio. And I do mean exactly: it was 1010 WINS that he had on every morning, with traffic updates every ten minutes from Pete Tauriello, who is evidently still doing the traffic reports that Goldsmith is transcribing. (Actually, now that I think about it, there was definitely a period where my dad listened to WNEW’s Bloomberg Radio instead — another AM news channel financed, of course, by the man who would eventually become mayor of New York.) But in any case, Goldsmith’s block of text activated neurons I didn’t even remember I had, and it occurred to me that his work is rarely considered in terms of the specific times, places, and communities that it evokes. Critics tend to be concerned with what it means to copy something so banal word-for-word — to be concerned, that is, with the theoretical — and miss that perhaps what he’s trying to get at is the banal itself, rather than the philosophy that leads him to reproduce the banal.
My dad listened to that little battery-powered radio while shaving, and then would bring it with him into the kitchen to make breakfast for himself, me, and my brother. My mother didn’t really eat breakfast; she seemed to subsist on instant coffee and diet Pepsi until noon. When I was very young, I would hang around in the bathroom watching my dad shave and then follow him and the radio out to the kitchen. When I was older, I would endeavor to wake up as late as possible, but I’d still find myself downstairs in the kitchen shoveling cereal or Pop Tarts into my mouth in the cold dark morning while the radio chattered away. This was a decidedly pre-internet age; my dad listened to AM radio every morning so he could get the news efficiently, which I now suddenly recognize as an antiquated practice. I doubt he listens to that radio at all anymore, now that he has an iPhone. Stations like 1010 WINS are on a very short loop — the traffic and weather recur every ten minutes (and each time are just the slightest bit different, as conditions progress) and the material between these reports varies a bit more — sometimes you’ll get financial news, sometimes political news, etc — but even so, you don’t have to listen to the radio for more than twenty or thirty minutes before you start hearing the same stories repeated exactly. So it was always a little bit of a mystery to me why my father let the radio accompany him through his whole morning ritual — he, and I by extension especially when I was young and following him around, would be subjected to not just repeated-with-a-difference content like the traffic, but actually verbatim repeated content.
In addition to being repetitive, a lot of the news on the radio didn’t really affect my dad very much, and it certainly didn’t affect me. My parents had some investments, so I guess the financial news was sort of important, and it’s also how I learned about the stock market myself. (“Dad, what’s a ‘bear market’?”) The traffic reports that came on every ten minutes meant nothing to anybody in my family, since both of my parents had “commutes” that were less than ten minutes long. But listening to the traffic reports every morning taught me a fair amount about local geography — the BQE, the Major Deegan, the Verrazano — these names were burned into my brain before they even really meant anything, and years later when I learned to drive and started navigating the highways myself, I found myself having little a-ha moments every time I crossed a bridge in real life that I had previously only known from Pete Tauriello’s traffic reports.
Now that I think about it, the reason the traffic reports are so burned into my brain is that the one thing I personally was always interested in was the weather report, and these radio stations of course do “traffic and weather together” — so when you started to hear the traffic report, you’d hush everybody up so you could catch the weather. The thing about these news stations is that they operate at a blinding pace — everybody is always speaking very quickly so they can cram as much information as possible into their minute-long slot. The rhythm and diction of the traffic reports that Goldsmith transcribes are at least as evocative for me as the names of the tunnels and bridges. Some phrases the announcer seemed to have by rote — “stalled car blocking a lane,” “only one lane getting by” — these we’d hear several times a morning. “Jackknifed tractor-trailer” was one we’d hear a lot, and I remember being somewhat enamored of the sound of the words as well as slightly alarmed by its frequency given what an enormous disaster a jackknifed tractor trailer in fact is. Sentences in this barrage of information tend to be clipped and lack verbs: “Meanwhile the Lincoln Tunnel, not great back to Jersey but still your best option. And the GW Bridge your worst possible option. Thirty to forty minute delays, and that’s just going into town.” And to make matters worse, the announcers would jump all over the map: “then back to New Jersey every approach is fouled-up.” I remember trying to hold it all in my head, to picture the places they were talking about, and I always found that it was too difficult to follow. On the rare occasions that we did need the traffic report’s wisdom, we found that we’d have to strain to pick out the relevant information from this rapid barrage. But colorful touches like “the Hudson River horror show” remind you that there’s a person and a personality on the other end of this deluge of information that is so particularly stylized. I hadn’t thought about Pete Tauriello in years — in fact, I never really thought about him; I just heard his name a lot — but when Marjorie Perloff mentioned him in her chapter on Traffic in her new book, Unoriginal Genius, I gasped aloud as the “Pete Tauriello” neurons in my brain started firing again more than ten years later.
In retrospect, I think my dad probably just liked the chatter. The radio made us all feel connected to the outside world, whether or not we were paying very close attention to it. Now, of course, we have the internet to fill our lives with chatter and connection — but I think one of the things we can learn from Goldsmith’s Traffic is that not all forms of chatter are alike. Ten years from now, will radio announcers still be clipping their diction and dropping their verbs to fit all the traffic into their one-minute report? Or will news radio wither and die from the internet’s competition? Even if it doesn’t entirely vanish, I’d wager that news radio will reach ever smaller — poorer and older — segments of the population, and that it will no longer be a mainstay of middle-class suburban houses like my parents’.
I think, then, that part of what Goldsmith is getting at in his transcription projects is the power of records of utterly banal minutia to evoke the particular places and times from which they emerge. I doubt that Traffic would have had so powerful an effect on me if I hadn’t moved across the country to southern California, where names like “the BQE” make me feel nostalgic and the very idea of straining to hear the weather report in order to choose appropriate clothing is somewhat quaint. Neither the radio nor even weather itself is much a part of my life these days. But I experience these traffic reports as microcosms of a life I once lived, reflected through something I never particularly paid attention to while I was living it. Traffic reports — and weather reports, and newspapers, subjects of some of Goldsmith’s other transcription projects — are part of the texture of the everyday; they are where we live without noticing that we live there.