Thursday, July 12, 2012

1959 and Our Culture of the Moment

Jazz musicians really live "in the moment," responding to the immediate environment of sounds to invent new music on the spot.  As an approach to composition, both musical and literary, jazz holds together Fred Kaplan's book on 1959.  The chapters make a daisy chain of call and response.  For example, a chapter about Swiss photographer Robert Frank's off-kilter portrait of The Americans segues into a chapter about "off-Hollywood" film-making, linked by Frank's own foray into the medium.   A chapter on racism's outrages that made household names of Medgar Evers and Malcolm X in 1959, begins with a New York cop's beating Miles Davis, hero of the preceding chapter about how the freedom of jazz made it our best ambassador during the Cold War.  A chapter on "sick" comics is followed by the story of Herman Kahn, who did his own "stand-up" routine in 1959 to promote ways that the USA could survive nuclear holocaust and "win." 

"Living in the moment," like a jazz riff, keeps sounding in other chapters about novels (On the Road), poetry (Howl), art (solemn abstract expressionists inspire fun Rauschenberg, and then Kaprow's faux-spontaneous "happenings"), "sick" comics like Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl,  and even about the A- Bomb and Cold War politics. 

Now, living in the moment has its appeal.  Religious writer Blaise Pascal reflected that his 17th century contemporaries failed to live at all because they clung to the way things used to be or they anticipated some future change.  Psalm 90 reads, "Teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom," stating a theme that appears over and over again in scripture, that you can't count on tomorrow, so live each moment to the full.

Then, why should we spend any of our moments reading a book about history, or a novel, or a blog post?  Why write this stuff?  Shouldn't we all be out there doing stuff?   That's what the heroes of 1959 did.  Kerouac went on the road to write On the Road and only reluctantly took time to edit the thing.  Pollack and his contemporaries were "almost heroic" in their spontaneous "attack" of a canvas (Kaplan 166).  Lionel Trilling spoke out against this kind of ill-formed and careless spontaneity at the time, but his journals, published posthumously, reveal that he harbored envy of Hemingway, an earlier "in-the-moment"  artist, writing that Hemingway's life "which is anarchic and 'childish' is a better life than anyone I know could live" (35).

Following up on that striking confession, I found on the web a review by Allan Massie of a  book about Trilling by Adam Kirsch, containing this spot-on comment by Trilling:  the "contemporary American writer [senses] that he has been like the final investor in a Ponzi scheme, having bought into the venerable enterprise of literature only to discover that it is on the verge of default."  Trilling wrote that in 1952, and I tried to express the same idea about the futility of being an English major -- much less effectively -- in this blog a few years ago.  So, if the time spent composing, reading, and reflecting on literature is all wasted today, that's nothing new.

Massie goes on:
In [Trilling's] later years he became aware that “the case against mind is now being litigated in our culture”. The distrust of intellectualism promoted a loss of faith in literature, which is, “as he understood, fundamentally a loss of faith in a certain ideal of selfhood”. Instead, there emerged what Susan Sontag in 1996 called “the triumphant values of consumer capitalism”, in which “cultural consumption is used”, Kirsch writes, “as a basis – or perhaps, a substitute? – for identity”. There was an ever greater alertness to changing fashion, and a weakening of the position that “an actual response to art depends on discourse – not upon any one kind of discourse, but discourse of some kind”.

This is the take-away from Kaplan's book, that 1959 marked a tipping-point when crazy, youthful, spontaneous, and radical began to attract admiration away from responsible, mature and thoughtful. Born in 1959, I certainly have felt the tension between these two approaches to life.  I identify with Lionel Trilling, now that I've seen those journal entries.

And yet.  Massie quotes Margaret Atwood:  “History depends on the written word – electrons are as evanescent as thoughts.”  And a great deal of what Kaplan describes as ground-breaking in 1959 turns out to have been "evanescent," kept on life support by baby boomers in academia whose lives are invested in those ephemeral works that were cutting edge in their youth.  That's nothing new: Kaplan remarks that the "modern" art enshrined at the Guggenheim Museum was already old hat at the museum's opening, eclipsed by Frank Lloyd Wright's design for the museum itself.   It makes sense that what was created "in the moment" might not have a long shelf-life.  I suppose it wasn't intended to, either.

It's ironic that Shakespeare, who wrote 400 years ago, just for the next matinee, manages to go on creating moments for us to live in.   Yesterday, on the occasion of Peter O'Toole's retirement from stage and screen, National Public Radio re-aired an interview in which he casually remarks that he has memorized all the sonnets, and that they are by his bedside wherever he goes, constant companions through life.  He recited "My mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun," his voice highlighting contrasts and turns in the composition -- thanks to the time he put into analysis of the verse.   So all of us who heard it were able to catch what Shakespeare put into it, filling just that moment with a rich sense of life experienced vicariously.

Peace, Professor Trilling:  the time spent in reading, writing, and reflecting is what gives the moments of action their meaning.   If a tree falls in the forest with no ear to hear it, then the disturbance in the air makes no sound;  if Jackson Pollack captures his own "action" of hurling paint at a canvas with no mind thinking anything more than "Heck, it's just paint drippings," then his moments were meaningless.  Let us take time to make meaning of our moments, actual and vicarious. 

Doesn't "moment" mean "meaning?" 
Reflections on The Year Everything Changed: 1959, by Fred Kaplan. Published by John Wiley and Sons, 2009.  Also response to a review of Why Trilling Matters, book by Adam Kirsch.  Review by Allan Massie. "Does Lionel Trilling matter?" The Times Literary Supplement online. Published 1 Feb.2012. Accessed 11 July 2012

1 comment:

W. Scott Smoot said...

I just ran into this reflection on living "in the moment" from an earlier post about my beloved old dog Bo:

There's a religious reflection in here, somewhere. Ecclesiastes resonates. A meditation in this season's Forward Day by Day suggests that Jesus identified with children because, like them, he was good at living in the moment, spontaneous in his pleasures, unburdened by his past, unworried about his future.

Sounds like Bo to me: an old dog, enjoying the start of his fifteenth year as completely as he has enjoyed every other moment of his life.