When my oldest son was a Boy Scout in England 20 years ago, I once watched his troop play a game in which the boys formed a circle around a troop leader holding a soccer ball. The leader proceeded to throw the ball to the boys at random, saying as he did so either “head” or “catch.” If he said “head,” the boy was supposed to catch it; if he said “catch,” the boy was supposed to head it. Anyone who slipped up and caught the ball when instructed to catch it or head the ball when instructed to head it was out and had to leave the circle. Eventually, only one scout was left standing. That boy, as I have often had occasion to think since, must have been one of nature’s ironists. He and the others had certainly had an education in the central principle of all ironic—and, for that matter, non-ironic— discourse, namely that meaning depends on context. A boy who’d said that he would just love to play such a game could have meant either that he’d love to play it or that he’d absolutely hate it, and all but the most literal-minded would have been able to tell which it was on hearing the words spoken in their context.
All art is to some extent propaganda,” claimed George Orwell, a view that was the corollary of his socialist belief that all human relationships had a political dimension. Though he himself was a robust conservative about some things— patriotism, for example—he was essentially conceding the magnificent artistic heritage of his country to a form of Leninist brutalism by which aesthetic judgment was subordinated to political. It was a concession that was also being made, implicitly if not explicitly, by artists themselves at more or less the same time all over Europe and America. This surrender to politics and, with it, utopianism is what is ultimately responsible for the decline of beauty in art so eloquently lamented in the new book, Beauty, by my colleague Roger Scruton. Beauty, like honor, demands consensus and is therefore in its essence non political.
Writing in Vanity Fair's march issue, Peter Bart, the editor of Variety, pronounces with all the authority of that august eminence that "the movie business is splitting into two distinct sectors, which have little if anything to do with each other." The language there immediately brought to my mind a controversy that blew up in Britain half a century ago this year—which makes this an opportune moment to revisit it. This was the matter of the "Two Cultures," brainchild of a Cambridge scientist called C.P. Snow who was also a popular middle-brow novelist, though his books have long since ceased to be read. He thought that the world of the arts and literature constituted one "culture," the world of science and technology another, and that the two were, much to his dismay, growing ever further apart. The subtext of his remarks was really one of self-aggrandizement, since he obviously saw himself as the bridge between the two cultures.
Crappy days are here again
The skies above are drear again
So let’s sing a song of fear again
Crappy days are here again.
Since there's no election on for a while—and, when there is, the economy will be the Obama administration's responsibility—it would hardly seem to make sense for the media to be as gleeful as they have been in recent weeks to see in the economic downturn a rerun of the Great Depression. True, they like the idea of former President Bush being cast in the role of Herbert Hoover and President Obama in that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but the electoral benefits of the comparison are dubious and, at best, a long way off. No, I think they just like the mythology of the Great Depression in the same way that they liked the mythology of Vietnam at the height of the Iraq War. Nothing rings the media’s bell like the prospect of history repeating itself—although history rarely if ever does in any meaningful way. But the opportunity to pretend that it does gives them the further opportunity to pretend that they understand the new things and can explain them to the rest of us by comparing them to the old ones.
"Obama Makes History," blared the headline in the Washington Post last November 5. A few days later in the same newspaper, Robert Kaiser acknowledged this as "a statement of the obvious," but then asked, "What does it mean to make history?" A good question! Mr. Kaiser thought that "History is made in two ways: By dramatic occurrences, often surprises, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989; and by the slow accretion of small changes over long periods." The election of President Obama, as he saw it, combined both. Well, I agree that his election made history, but I would like to propose a third way in which history is made--particularly when it is the kind of history that appears in newspaper headlines. History is also made when people find something happening in the present that makes them feel good about something that happened in the past.
FRANK LANGELLA IS A FINE ACTOR -- for a movie star. But that he is primarily the latter rather than the former you can tell by the applause that greets him on his first entrance in this autumn’s Broadway revival, directed by Doug Hughes for the Roundabout Theatre Company, of Robert Bolt’s old favorite of 1960, A Man for All Seasons. It was clear on the night I attended that Mr. Langella and not his impersonation of St. Thomas More was what the audience had come to see--which is just as well, as his Sir Thomas had something decidedly second-hand about it. He came just a bit short of the grand British style whose last exponent, embodied by Paul Scofield, who died about six months before Mr. Langella took on what is still probably--on account of the 1966 film version of Bolt’s play--his most famous role. It sometimes seemed as if Langella were playing Scofield playing More, rather than the saint himself.