Weekly musings on the arts and current events.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Proper Study of Mankind

Where is the touchstone of memory? A friend's father had a charming quirk by which he discounted all changes to his environs. Thus the new Walmart was only squatting on Mr. Stillman's farm, and the sleek Exxon was just a mask fitted over the old general store with its hand cranked gas pump.

For people of my generation, an implanted memory abides from our first schoolbooks of Dick and Jane, Baby Sally, Spot, and Puff, and their lives on Pleasant Street. Theirs was a worriless world of temperate weather and kindly neighbors. From time to time, as I drive around Southern California, I see such neighborhoods with mature trees, wide streets, and grassy medians. For just a moment or two I can be fooled into thinking my memories are real and that the world of Pleasant Street in the 1950's is worth going back to.

But Pleasant Street is not a touchstone; it's a chimera. Post war America, despite its booming economy, was a place of great suffering. Poverty and discrimination were rampant. Conformity to narrowly defined religious and political beliefs, and social restrictions, were rigorously enforced both informally and by law. Shibboleths abounded regarding patriotism, sexual mores, race, God, and American exceptionalism.

And yet, I think we may be forgiven for hoping that one day we'll live in a demi-paradise of neighborliness and blooming gardens on shaded streets. What is unpardonable, however, is to believe that the past ever held a time when greater wisdom prevailed.

I mention this after reading Ryan Lizza's article about Congresswoman and Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann in this week's New Yorker in which he names people who have profoundly influenced her religious and political thinking, starting with the late Francis Schaeffer, who helped inspire the rise of the religious right, and who denounced the Renaissance as a time when the world ceased to be God-centered and embraced the heresy of humanism. Others include a revisionist historian who sees the Civil War as an attack by the Godless North on the Christian South, and followers of "Dominionism" which is a call for an American theocracy.

I hope that greater exposure of Ms. Bachmann's atavistic thinking will result in her greater renunciation and derision.

The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David, 1793. In this neo-classical work, David appropriates the style of religious art (think of Michaelangelo's Pieta) to depict a secular martyr: radical journalist and politician Jean-Paul Marat. The painting was grandly reproduced onstage in Peter Weiss' inspired 1963 play The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade , or Marat/Sade for short, which was embraced by radical chic audiences of the Viet Nam era.


DUTA said...

So, they've already started to try and de-legitimate Michele Bachman just as they did to Sarah Palin.

I don't know wether she could solve the problems of America (which at present seem unsolvable), but she's highly intelligent, has a nice face to look at, and the world will trust and respect her.

The same world will give Mr. Obama a Nobel Prize, an Oscar, an Emi and whatever it takes to make him feel grand, but will not really trust and respect him as the president of what is supposed to be the world's leading nation.

Paula Slade said...

Beautiful painting - I was not familiar with it.

It is easy to look back in time and have a different perspective - the naivety of childhood tends to soften the memory.

However, the harsh realizations of adult awareness bring everything into a balanced focus.

In the long run, I hope people realize the polarizing sound bites of Bachman and Palin are just that - sound bites.

TallTchr said...

@ Duta: Congresswoman Bachmann's chief critics, so far, are fellow Republicans who want a candidate that will appeal to the mainstream, not just the right wing. Democrats snicker about her, but they'd like nothing better than for Obama to run against an extremist.

TallTchr said...

@ Paula: Did you ever see Marat/Sade? I was in it in college. It's a spectacular play and, if I hadn't retired, I would have done it at my school.

Paula Slade said...

No,I never had the opportunity to see the play performed. What role did you play?

Actually, Marat/Sade would be a riveting drama to reintroduce to today's audiences, considering the troubled economic times worldwide.

Ben Hardy said...

I have just come back from Brussels, and saw the original of this painting. I don't have anything intelligent to say about it, except that it is always a joy to see the originals of paintings you know. In a nearby room was The Fall of Icarus by Breughel senior, and I was a little disappointed that the Gallery did not display Auden's Musee de Beaux Artes next to it (About suffering, they were never wrong, the Old Masters ...)