Tuesday, February 10, 2009


I haven't posted on John Updike since his recent death simply because I cannot recall what is actually in any of the books of his I read (I am pretty sure I read "Rabbit, Run" and "The Witches of Eastwick" - I know I at least saw the movie of the latter).
I very much enjoyed the entertaining interview replayed on CBC's "Writers and Company" that my travels delivered to me. You can find it here for a while. As Eleanor Wachtel says, he is "lovely to listen to".
And then via Rand Simberg, I discovered this essay from 1989. Bits of 1989 (or more exactly, the sixties) remain sadly constant, down to the 'bohunk'.
The protest, from my perspective, was in large part a snobbish dismissal of Johnson by the Eastern establishment; Cambridge professors and Manhattan lawyers and their guitar-strumming children thought they could run the country and the world better than this lugubrious bohunk from Texas. These privileged members of a privileged nation believed that their pleasant position could be maintained without anything visibly ugly happening in the world. They were full of aesthetic disdain for their own defenders, the business-suited hirelings drearily pondering geopolitics and its bloody necessities down in Washington. The protesters were spitting on the cops who were trying to keep their property—the USA and its many amenities—intact. A common report in this riotous era was of slum-dwellers throwing rocks and bottles at the firemen come to put out fires; the peace marchers, the upper-middle-class housewives pushing baby carriages along in candlelit processions, seemed to me to be behaving identically, without the excuse of being slum-dwellers.

He writes with a wonderful sense of irony, often at his own expense, a few times in this paragraph.
It was hard to explain my indignation, even to myself. The peace movement's predecessor and progenitor, the civil-rights movement, had posed no emotional problem. I had been proud, really, of my wife's going off to march in Selma, coming back with sore feet and a slight tan and stories of transracial sexual overtures (rebuffed, I was assured). Feverish with a cold, I marched with her in a large, singing, well-meaning crowd from Roxbury to the Boston Common one raw damp day, braving pneumonia in the process, and we were charter members of the local Fair Housing Committee, founded on the rumor that a black family had been finagled out of an Ipswich house they were on the verge of buying. I went to meetings and contributed to the NAACP and even lent a black we slightly knew some money that he never repaid—I was all for people getting a break, if the expense to me wasn't inordinate.

He captures our sanctimony well, and clearly saw it.
It was all very well for civilized little countries like Sweden and Canada to tut-tut in the shade of our nuclear umbrella and welcome our deserters and draft evaders, but the United States had nobody to hide behind. Credibility must be maintained. Power is a dirty business, but who ever said it wasn't?

He had a trip to the Soviet Union, and reflects.

And yet I came away from that month, and the two subsequent weeks in the Eastern-bloc countries Bulgaria, Rumania, and Czechoslovakia, with a hardened antipathy to Communism. The difference between our empires was not, as many were beginning to say, and were to say louder and louder during the impending Vietnam years, six of one and a half-dozen of the other. It was more like eleven of one and one of the other. Ours was the distinctly better mousetrap.

What made me think so? Was it the glittering display of luxury goods and all the spandy-new runway equipment in the Zurich airport? After my weeks of quaint Communist drabness, Swiss efficiency and prosperity looked like a science-fiction movie. Or was it the little leaks of fear that would show while I was in Communist countries, the spurts of steam betraying the underlying pressure—suddenly impassive expressions, quick lapses into French to evade the eavesdropping walls, a burst of real, scurrying terror from my escort when it appeared I had lost my passport? I had never before been in countries where people were afraid of their own government—where everything, in a sense, every motion of the mind and heart and pen, was politics. And there was something bullyingly egocentric about my admirable Soviet friends, a preoccupation with their own tortured situations that shut out all light from beyond. They were like residents of a planet so heavy that even their gazes were sucked back into its dark center. Arthur Miller, no reactionary, said it best when, a few years later, he and I and some other Americans riding the cultural-exchange bandwagon had entertained, in New York or Connecticut, several visiting Soviet colleagues. The encounter was handsomely catered, the dialogue was loud and lively, the will toward friendship was earnest and in its way intoxicating, but upon our ebullient guests' departure Miller looked at me and said sighingly, “Jesus, don't they make you glad you're an American?”

And he finishes with what a flourish! The sixties and early seventies in one paragraph!
Now the involvement slowly settles into the historical past. War movies are made about Vietnam that sound more and more like other war movies, and there is even (so I read) going to be an attempt to do for it what M*A*S*H did for the unlovely, initially unassuming Korean conflict. In an unforeseeable way, as the vets and evaders age together, and Maya Yang Lin's superb black-marble V-shaped memorial—decked out with personal memorials like a Shinto shrine, a calm and polished Hades of names that takes us below the ground and up again—consolidates its place on the Washington Mall and the national self-image, the years 1965-72 melt into a dreamlike “crazy” time when grunts fragged officers and cops bopped hippies, when brutalized soldiers painted peace signs on their helmets and the daughters of Wall Street lawyers committed murders and robberies in the name of social justice, a baroque time of long-haired hardhats and alliterating Agnewisms, of Joplin and OM and homemade bombs, a time costumed in buckskin and sandals and camouflage khaki and dashikis and saffron robes and miniskirts right up to the crotch, a darkly happy in-between time after the Pill and IUD had freed sex from fear of pregnancy and before AIDS hobbled it with the fear of death, a time when pot and rock ruled in Danang as well as San Francisco, a time luxurious in the many directions of its craziness, since the war and the counterculture and the moon shots were all fueled by an overflowing prosperity no longer with us—a historical time, after all, that in the long run will hold us united as the Civil War opponents are united in the silvery-gray precision of the daguerreotypes they posed for. What with Woodstock and Barbarella and The Joy of Sex and the choral nudity in Hair, there was a consciously retrieved Edenic innocence, a Blakeian triumph of the youthful human animal, along with napalm and defoliation. The Vietnam intervention almost shrinks to the big bad trip in an era of trips (“If you remember the 60's,” Robin Williams has quipped, “you weren't there”), but it discomfited me so much that I have avoided all of the movies about it, from the The Deer Hunter to Platoon, lest they revive my sense of shame, of a lethal stickiness, of a hot face and stammering tongue and a strange underdog rage about the whole sorry thing.

I recall sitting in my apartment in Berkeley listening to people cheering in the streets when Nixon finally surrendered to North Vietnam, and feeling satisfied. That leaves now a bitter taste in my mouth. But I did not come around in my thinking on this even during the 'Boat People' crisis; in fact, oddly, I remember hardly anyone connecting the Boat People to the surrender. I now wonder how much we are currently paying for that surrender.
I suspect I'll put some Updike books on my list.


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