I was raking dead leaves and grass in a meditative mood. A biting wind, signaling a change of seasons, cut through the air. Blackbirds flared overhead, scattering like grapeshot. Suddenly, they merged again, like iron filings drawn to a magnet. I stood transfixed as, out of nowhere, these words came back to me: "Beatrice Fairfax don't you dare, ever tell me he will care. I'm certain, it's the final curtain."
It was one of those Proustian moments in which a fragment from the past suddenly penetrates the consciousness, unlocking a chain of memories. I had that song on a vinyl record once. The record is gone. Vinyl has given way to CDs. But the tune remains. It came back with a poignancy not entirely explained by the sad lines, awakening a nostalgia for the songs of my youth.
Does anyone remember those romantic songs about unquenchable, unattainable love, songs full of wit, charm and good taste? Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin songs that have been banished by tuneless rants spewing expletives about dismembering "hos" and such? (Beatrice Fairfax, in case anyone has forgotten, was the nom de plume of Marie Manning, who started her famous advice column in 1898.)
Another somewhat different fragment returned to me the other day: "Comic Books - Blueprints for Delinquency." It was the title of an article I read over 50 years ago in preparation for an eighth-grade debate in which I represented the argument that trashy reading material corrupts innocent, youthful minds. Exhibit A of the article was a man who'd matured into a serial rapist after having spent his childhood immersed in the dubious exploits of comic book heroes.
My father, a religious man who read the Bible every day, supplied me with a line from St. Peter: "As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God." I'm not sure exactly how this pronouncement served my cause, but the memory of it stirs a fondness for my dad and for the eventual valedictorian of our class, who torpedoed my argument with a stirring advocacy for freedom of speech. Those two are gone, but the alchemy of memory brings them back with the vividness of life itself. And I also remember the transgressive thrill I experienced in reading aloud in public, under the sanction of a school debate, the headline of the article: "Knit Cap Rapist Strikes Again."
A recent article in the Economist, "Breeding Evil? The Real Impact of Video Games," shows that the debate is still alive, only the technology has changed. The article reports that there is "no solid evidence that video games are bad for people." In fact, they may be useful educational tools. The controversy is more than anything a consequence of "generational divide." Old people don't like new things.
Fifty years ago, some clergyman denounced rock 'n' roll as "an evil influence on the youth of your country." Even liberal-minded Hillary Clinton showed her age when she blamed video games for "a silent epidemic of media desensitization" and "stealing the innocence of our children."
As someone who lives exclusively in the past and who believes that all change is change for the worse, I argue that reading anything - including comic books - is better for the mind than playing "Grand Theft Auto." Of course, some scholars argue that Shakespeare was a mere mouthpiece for the dominant culture and that to elevate Hamlet above Spiderman or Plasticman is a heinous example of value judgment. At any rate, I predict that members of the plugged-in generation will grow up to be baffled by reality and incapable of tuning into the voice of their own consciousness.
No matter. I accept decadence as an inevitable part of the life cycle of cultures. I no longer foam at the mouth over such things. The pendulum swings. But will today's young people ever look back on the noise which passes for their "music" with the same fondness that I recall "Fools Rush In," "Dancing In The Dark" or "They Can't Take That Away From Me?"
The famous ending of "The Great Gatsby" comes to mind: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." According to novelist Jane Smiley - who demonstrated her imperviousness to irony by elevating "Uncle Tom's Cabin" above "Huckleberry Finn" - F. Scott Fitzgerald's image is "lyrical and paradoxical, but it doesn't really make sense." Really? Anyone who's striven against the current knows that it's possible to lose ground. Moreover, as we go forward in life, our future shrinks. The past overtakes and ultimately overwhelms us. We sense that we're not getting anywhere. Progress is an illusion. We keep making the same mistakes.
A "D" for you, Jane Smiley. There's more in Fitzgerald's image than its few words suggest. I, too, feel as though I'm paddling against a current. The past keeps washing over me, flooding me with memories both bitter and sweet. There's no choice but to keep on rowing. The most I can hope for is to stay in place for another day.