[Paleopsych] LA Weekly: The Mortal Storm: The Deaths of the 20th Century

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Wed Apr 27 01:25:47 UTC 2005

The Mortal Storm: The Deaths of the 20th Century


    These are heady days to be an obituary writer. Ever since Americas
    best-known critic, Susan Sontag, died in late December, theres been a
    startling slew of Important Deaths. The greatest talk-show host,
    Johnny Carson. The most famous playwright, Arthur Miller. The most
    gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson. The most legendary diplomat,
    George F. Kennan. The most lavishly celebrated novelist, Saul Bellow.
    The most career-savvy (and politically reprehensible) architect,
    Philip Johnson. The most irrelevant monarch, Prince Rainier. Not to
    mention the most infallible pope at least until the next one. So many
    big names have passed away so quickly that people have taken to joking
    about it. When The Daily Show flashed an image of Fidel Castro
    honoring John Paul II, Jon Stewarts comment was, Hes next.
    If the new century began for most of us on September 11, 2001, the
    20th century may well finally have ended with all these high-profile
    funerals. One by one, the individuals who defined the last sixty years
    of American culture have been vanishing from the landscape. And this
    sudden sense of an ending has been reinforced by the equally abrupt
    disappearance of the men who once read us the headlines about our
    national life: Brokaw is retired, Rather was chased from his chair,
    Jennings has lung cancer and Koppel is calling it quits at ABC. Small
    wonder that you now hear yearning for the supposedly good old days
    when the anchorman was a colossus. George Clooney is even directing a
    movie about Edward R. Murrow.
    Predictably, the loss of so many celebrated touchstones has set off an
    epidemic of Cultural Declinism. You know the drill. None of todays
    diplomats is as worldly as the mandarin Kennan. None of todays
    late-night hosts boasts Johnnys immaculate poise. None of todays
    playwrights equals the towering Miller (he even married Marilyn
    Monroe, for crying out loud). None of todays journalists matches the
    gleeful fear and loathing of Thompson. And naturally, none of todays
    novelists can match Bellows exuberant blend of high and low, the
    references to Heraclitus and the streetwise similes born in Chicago,
    that somber city. Ah, back then there were giants!
    Now, Im not mocking their achievements. Kennans famous Long Telegram
    and 1947 Foreign Affairs article (published under the groovy pseudonym
    X) laid down a blueprint for what became the U.S. side of the Cold War
    for better and worse. Nor would I claim not to miss things from our
    recent past, like the 60s iconoclasm that meant a national magazine
    would spend the money and show the audacity to publish the reporting
    that became Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 72. Thompson didnt
    come cheap or give a hoot how a focus group might react to his call
    for Hubert Humphreys castration.
    Still, its not as if we live in a culture where all the Shaqs have
    been replaced by Chucky Atkinses. Yet that was the subtext of many of
    the appreciations inspired by Bellows recent death. The Washington
    Posts fine literary critic Jonathan Yardley began by saying, The void
    left in the American literary landscape by the death yesterday of Saul
    Bellow is too large to map or describe. He was the last giant of our
    literature when it still had giants, when it ruled the world, when it
    spoke to and about this country its people, its history, its character
    in ways that connected not to the little world of the literati but to
    the people themselves.
    At one level, Yardley is absolutely right, and not only about Bellows
    brilliance. Forty years ago, a difficult literary novelist such as
    Thomas Pynchon might sell millions of copies in paperback. Today, the
    very Idea would be a pipe dream just ask William T. Vollmann or David
    Foster Wallace. But like the current fondness for video games or
    reality TV, the marginality of serious fiction doesnt mean that the
    cultures swan-diving into the trash can. (Heck, Norman Rush does
    better by Africa than Bellow.) It does mean that we need to rethink
    our old ideas of what it means to be central to American life. After
    all, even if a new Saul Bellow came along and a novelist of that
    stature, male or female, will emerge he wouldnt have the same impact
    or meaning. Nor would a new Johnny Carson or Hunter Thompson (as Uncle
    Duke was painfully aware). We now live at a time when our big-box
    culture lets almost everyone follow his or her own bliss. Were still
    sorting out how things will look in the globalized 21st century.
    In a recent column about Bellow, The New York Times David Brooks
    addressed this issue. Where Bellows work was a pas de deux between
    Europe and America, Brooks argued, were now living in a unipolar
    culture, and its lonely at the top. (Spoken like a true
    neoconservative.) This claim might be more persuasive if Brooks hadnt
    identified himself as one of those who dont pay attention to what is
    being written and said in Europe because it doesnt seem that exciting.
    (Quick, what book is the talk of Berlin? Who is the Francois Truffaut
    of our moment?)
    What Brooks seems not to realize is that world culture hasnt stood
    still over the two decades since he graduated from the University of
    Chicago. Only his thinking about it has. Contemporary American culture
    seems unipolar only if you arent paying attention. These days
    Berliners are talking about Orham Pamuks novel Snow a labyrinthine
    look at the pressures of Islamic fundamentalism while our moments
    Truffaut (since you ask) comes with names like Wong Kar-Wai, Alfonso
    Cuarón, Satoshi Kon and Jafar Panahi. You wont hear them bemoaning
    Of course, its precisely the desire to find or put events at the very
    heart of American culture that makes our news media so relentless
    about belaboring The One Big Story. This was infuriatingly obvious in
    the coverage of Pope John Paul IIs funeral, an orgy of redundancy and
    histrionics that, I must confess, gave even me a pang of Declinism. I
    felt nostalgic for the days when the three broadcast networks wouldve
    given the whole damn burial about an hour, tops. But this is a new
    century ruled by the ironclad laws of entertainment. Asked why so many
    civilians and politicians turned up in Rome, a BBC reporter replied,
    This is the main event in the world.
    There hadnt been this kind of funereal overkill since the media
    herniated itself milking, er, mourning the death of Ronald Reagan.
    This was fitting, for if Pope John XXIII was the JFK of popes a 60s
    charmer who won the heart of the world John Paul II was the Gipper of
    the Holy See, the first show-biz pontiff. He realized (albeit decades
    after the American evangelicals) that the modern pulpit is the TV
    screen. And he took care to give a good performance; indeed, in The
    New Republic, Andrew Sullivan accuses him of showboating. Aware that
    canonization is always a sure-fire crowd pleaser, John Paul II set a
    papal record for dispensing holy honors, handing out sainthoods like
    celebrity gift bags at the Oscars. Who cared if some Croatian cardinal
    (Stepinac was his name) played footsie with the Nazis? Loyal to the
    church, the bastard could still be beatified.
    Not that you would have known this from watching TV. The cable
    networks were so busy showing the crowds in Rome or trotting out
    another cheerleading priest that they couldnt be bothered to delve
    into why the popes tenure was so controversial. This wasnt surprising,
    for ever since The Passion of the Christ, our media have been
    terrified that theyre out of touch with the Christian heartland,
    bending over backward (or is it forward?) to prove theyre down with
    religion. You could watch for hours, make that days, without anyone
    mentioning that John Paul IIs Culture of Life included medieval ideas
    of contraception that may well spell the death of millions from AIDS.
    Nor did anyone look into the churchs vast sexual-abuse disgrace, which
    the pope took so unseriously that he gave one of its villains,
    Cardinal Bernard Law, a sinecure in Rome. The true horror of this
    didnt really get covered until Law, incredibly, was allowed to give
    Mondays memorial mass at St. Peters Basilica. (The Vatican issued a
    gag order prohibiting cardinals from talking about this.) As the
    bracingly anticlerical Christopher Hitchens accurately noted in Slate,
    the pontiff who supposedly toppled the Kremlin actually presided over
    a Vatican whose own authoritarian workings would be right at home on
    Red Square. No wonder church attendance among U.S. Catholics dropped
    during his reign.
    As often happens these days, the popes death and funeral took on a
    ghastly reactionary tinge. The right tried to hijack everything from
    John Paul IIs most conservative ideas you didnt exactly hear Fox News
    analysts talking up his criticisms of capitalism or the Iraq war to
    his aura of unassailable rectitude. President Bush was especially
    eager to wrap himself in the papal robes. Whereas Bill Clinton said
    that John Paul II had been right about some things and wrong about
    others, Dubya said he couldnt think of a case where the pontiff had
    been wrong. That seems reasonable to me. After all, if one infallible
    leader cant spot another, who the hell can?

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