Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Literature Dunces

It has been almost two months since I wrote a post entitled "The History Dunces," inspired by reading posts on Andrew Keen's Great Seduction blog, which seemed to be reflecting on uninformed readings of uninformed columnists, where the primary information gap was in the domain of history. Well, in the classic words of Twin Peaks, "It is happening again;" but this time the discipline seems to have shifted from history to literature. This time the uninformed columnist is Peggy Noonan, one of the more inspired sources for the scripted words that used to emanate from the mouth of President Ronald Reagan, now flogging her new book, Patriotic Grace: What It Is and Why We Need It Now, in the "Life & Style" section of The Wall Street Journal in a piece which the editors describe as being "on heightened anxiety, the rough election and what the country needs now." How could one not be skeptical in approaching such a text?

Whether or not The Great Communicator really ever communicated, he always seemed to be good at invoking memorable images; and there is a good chance that many (if not most) of those images sprang forth from Noonan's ever-fertile imagination. As we read her opening paragraphs, we see that there is still plenty of fertilizer in that imagination:

Where is America?

America is on line at the airport. America has its shoes off, is carrying a rubberized bin, is going through a magnetometer. America is worried there is fungus on the floor after a million stockinged feet have walked on it. But America knows not to ask. America is guilty until proven innocent, and no one wants to draw undue attention.

America left its ticket and passport in the jacket in the bin in the X-ray machine, and is admonished. America is embarrassed to have put one one-ounce moisturizer too many in the see-through bag. America is irritated that the TSA agent removed its mascara, opened it, put it to her nose, and smelled it. Why don't you put it up your nose and see if it explodes? America thinks, but does not say.

And, as always America thinks: Why do we do this when you know I am not a terrorist, and you know I know you know I am not a terrorist? Why this costly and embarrassing kabuki when we both know the facts, and would even admit privately that all this harassment is only the government's way of showing that it is "fair," of demonstrating that it will equally humiliate anyone in order to show its high-mindedness and sense of justice? Our politicians congratulate themselves on this as we stand in line.

All the frisking, beeping, and patting down is demoralizing to our society. It breeds resentment, encourages a sense that the normal are not in control, that politics has lessened everything, including human dignity. Another thing: It reduces the status of that ancestral arbiter and leader of society, the middle-aged woman. In the new fairness, she is treated like everyone else, without respect, like the loud ruffian and the vulgar girl on the cellphone. The middle-aged woman is the one spread-eagled over there in the delicate silk blouse beneath the removed jacket, praying that nothing on her body goes beep and makes people look.

America makes it through security, gets to the gate, waits. The TV monitor is on. It is Wolf Blitzer. He is telling us with a voice of urgency about the latest polls. But no one looks up. We are a nation of Willy Lomans, dragging our wheelies through acres of airport, walking through life with a suitcase and a slack jaw, trying to get home after a long day of meetings, of moving product.

No one in crowded Gate 14 looks up to see what happened with the poll. No one. Wolf talks to the air.

Gate 14 is small-town America, a mix, a group of people of all classes and races and ages, brought together and living in close proximity until the plane is called. Our town appears, the plane is boarded, the town disappears. An hour passes, a new town begins. This is the way of modern life. We live in magic and are curiously unillusioned.

Gate 14 doesn't think any of the candidates is going to make their lives better. But Gate 14 will vote anyway, because they know they are the grown-ups of America and must play the role and do the job.

Man, that is some heavy shit (speaking of which, had there been a bit more drug-addled surrealism in the imagery, one might suspect that Noonan is now channeling the spirit of Hunter Thompson)! This is not just imagery. This is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as we might find it in a Las Vegas simulacrum of Vatican City! So what was it from this hypertrophied mural that seized Keen's attention? The answer lies in the title of his latest Great Seduction post, "A Nation of Willy Lomans."

Unfortunately, it does not take much further reading to realize that Noonan neither knows nor cares very much about Arthur Miller's antihero. Willy Loman is a throwaway image, not even a metaphor. Noonan was groping for a way to describe lives of quiet desperation without drawing upon anyone as cerebrally radical as Henry David Thoreau. So she invokes the way anyone who has seen Death of a Salesman (on stage or film) remembers that first impression of Willy Loman. She then throws it away, so she can get on to her real business of Reagan nostalgia. After all, that is what she did best when she wrote Reagan's scripts: conjure up images that would arrest the attention, regardless of whether they were relevant or, for that matter, made any sense! As far as I can tell, the real motive behind this piece was to give Wall Street Journal readers the comfort of blaming someone else for the problems they themselves cultivated; and what better time to run it than while our Congress is working overtime on a plan to bail them out of those problems while leaving those suffering the worst consequences deepest in the lurch?

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