Among the Intellectualoids

Desired Things

The death of Les Crane last week allows us to retrace the story of the soppy poem "Desiderata."

By 7.23.08

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The death last week of Les Crane, sometime talk-show host, actor, musician and software tycoon, serves to remind us of the passing of another of the comic monuments of the generation of peace and love, which was Crane's Grammy-winning reading of the soppy poem "Desiderata" by Max Ehrmann in 1971. You know the one I mean. It starts:

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.

And it ends:
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be....

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.


When I first saw it, the poem was still being mistakenly labeled as the product of some anonymous 17th century genius in Baltimore, though it turned out to date only from that first iteration of the decade of the 1960s in the 1920s. Crane's version, with music by Fred Werner, made it soppier still and went to number eight on the Billboard charts. Years later, Crane himself was supposed to have said, "I can't listen to it now without gagging." A lot of us felt that way about it from the beginning.

But it gives me the opportunity to recommend what may be the most brilliant use of the little ditty ever, in Shirley Barrett's wonderful movie of 1997, Love Serenade. There, Crane's gooey sentiment collides head on with -- well, not with reality exactly but with a kind of surreal sexual economy in the small South Australian town of Sunray, where reality is heightened and made more frightening, as it might be by a sort of understated horror film, in order to create a comic contrast with the cozy world of Ken Sherry (George Shevtsov), a disk jockey from the big city of Brisbane who comes to town with some big-city and counter-cultural ideas that, well, don't play well there.

Ken has made his career, both professional and sexual, out of the kind of sentimental patter that you might expect from an admirer of "Desiderata" as well as the music of Barry White -- besides the title track we hear "Never Never Gonna Give You Up" and "I'm Gonna Love You Just a Little More, Baby" -- the old Burt Bachrach-Hal David hit "What the World Needs Now Is Love" as sung by Dionne Warwick and "Me and Mrs. Jones" by Billy Paul, not to mention some of the more soulful songs of Glen Campbell. But poor Ken never quite realizes what hits him when the two Hurley sisters, Dimity (Miranda Otto) and Vicki-Ann (Rebecca Frith) of Sunray both set their caps at him simultaneously.

It's seems very easy for Les Crane to intone for the benefit of a million free-loving hippies and dime-store Lotharios like Ken Sherry:

Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love,
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.

But it takes these small town girls to show Ken Sherry that the last thing he has to worry about in love is cynicism. It is really he who is the cynic, and what the cynic has to be afraid of is someone like the Hurley sisters, for whom love isn't as perennial -- and taken for granted -- as the grass but something to be taken with deadly seriousness. See this movie and you'll never listen to the music of the '60s and '70s in quite the same way again.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.