Reading Sheila’s charming if obsessive Dean Martin posts, I thought of how often lately my mind has gone to Robert Mitchum. As one of the commentators observed, they shared a kind of coolness – one sang well, one acted well, but they kept a joke going; they kept a distance. Martin was a cool drunk, the jokes were on him – the graceful goofiness Sheila rhapsodizes over – but that freed him; he had a dark suit elegance. He didn’t want to be seen trying. That era was cool & ironic & silky; those guys didn’t want to put much on the line – they eschewed earnestness. Of course, James Bond, that favorite reading matter of John Kennedy, was cool – like his martinis, his music.
My husband once asked if my uncle ever said anything that wasn’t ironic. As a child I’d always been put off by that – he seemed to be laughing at me. Actually, he was. I was clumsy & melodramatic. We may feel sympathy for the objects of Mr. Bennet’s sharp tongue and Jane Austen lets us know by the novel’s end that she does not find her character’s wry humor the best tone for a patriarch; nonetheless, we like cool, we smile at wit; we value the softer, gentler form as Jane Austen probes society’s foibles, making us aware of a proportionality that remains useful two hundred years later. Sarcasm, the blunt weapon of an adolescent’s anger, tries to be cool, but it fails. Irony is detached, precise; it is an adult’s diversion.
My uncle was well-educated and competent; I suspect he has a good heart: he gave up his own ambitions to mind the family business and now nurses his wife through her difficult last years. Perhaps it is not surprising that he’d use irony to deal with our talkative, argumentative lot; it helped him reconcile himself to life far distant from the foreign service for which he’d trained himself. I don’t think he was an easy father. Nor was mine. When they got together, married to sisters, the two kept up a dry, witty patter that often exasperated their wives, who kept their own distances. When my father died, my brothers talked to each other, sounding like him – both in timbre and wit, distancing themselves, handling the moment with the cool, the ironic.
I never felt close to my father. I watch my daughters as they hug theirs, as he tears up when they pull out of the driveway. This seems foreign. The differences are ethnic, of course; probably geography enters. But I suspect the cause is also generational. My brother, for instance, was quite sentimental at his own daughter’s wedding. In my memory (and perhaps this isn’t true) I came home after a year of wandering about Europe and my father – sitting in his chair, holding his drink – waited for the show (probably the news) to conclude before he noted my presence. To say that my father wasn’t demonstrative is a bit of an understatement.
The fifties were cool, dry, witty. But such threads are not cut sharply; they remain, plaited into the braid that made up the “movements” – the later sixties, the seventies. And I have begun to realize that for some of us that very cool led to the heat of our own youths. God knows, we were earnest. Awed by that generation’s cool, we also felt angry, frustrated by the solidity of the front they presented. Trying to describe this with my friends, one brought up Peter Gunn. Perfect, I thought – that pairing of Blake Edwards & Henry Mancini, the sultry singer in the bar – I, too, remember watching it with my father, who loved Brubeck & Mulligan. And, then, she said, there was the dapper Niven in that first, great Pink Panther. Yes, I smiled, for I remember the first time I saw it, the guy I saw it with, the strawberry sundae I ate afterwards. I developed a totally irrational passion for the guy, who was icy & German, with an engineer’s mind & laconic patter. I wanted cool; that, I was used to. The irony in those movies moved into the campy – the later Panther ones, Modesty Blaise. As the sixties wore on, a movie had to go pretty far over the top before it seemed funny. Seeing Casino Royale a few years ago, I was struck by the slowness of its pace – a pace I’d remembered as surprisingly fast. The temperature warmed, the cool era came to a boil, but immersed in the water we hardly felt the change.
In my youth I had a picture of myself as an alienated adult – my silly, romantic adolescent vision was that I’d spend my maturity standing at the end of a darkened bar, drinking scotch and listening to Gershwin. That was a fifties image – that was a rat pack, Bogart, Mitchum image. This is nothing like my life has turned out – and for that I’m constantly thankful. I found I couldn’t hold and in fact didn’t like liquor; I found myself far too earnest and far too driven to waste time hanging around bars. I’m hardly the type. In some ways, I’ve become less rather than more sophisticated, so has my generation. I found – like many of us – that being a suburban housewife with a taxing job has its small but quite real pleasures and, to my infinite and daily surprise, this was the choice life gave me. But, you know, there aren’t bars like that any more, there aren’t songs like that, there aren’t lives like that. Certainly, my life has been easier than was my parents – easier in every decade of mine matched with theirs. But we lack style. We saw sophistication as detachment and shunned it – we were “real.”
But if much of that is gone, we have come to appreciate that wit as we’ve become our parents. A friend at lunch makes a remark about himself – a phrase, a side long look, and we break up. Critical, even sarcastic: we begin with what should be and laugh at what is. At lunch with one of my husband’s colleagues, I look up after such a remark, this time self-deprecating, usually describing my ineffectual attempt at the conventional. She doesn’t laugh. Instead, she lectures: it isn’t necessary to be conventional, to live a conventional life. Earnest, without irony, the assumption that all norms are oppressive, only our will defines our choices – she doesn’t see the humor. Me, I’d like a little order; I lived through the sixties. I’ve seen about as much earnest disorder as I need. Born a few years too early, she feels cheated. I should be generous: that wasn’t her era, but she intends to make it her own. Perhaps she can have mine.
Our parents had gotten through the depression and then through World War II; this made them stoic, fatalistic. I think we can quite justifiably think of them as a “Great Generation.” But that greatness was bought at some cost. As after many wars (look at the realism that followed the Civil War, the brittle wit of the twenties), we look for security; we mistrust abstractions, earnestness, the sentimental, even passions. I suspect war makes us fear the elemental – passions are unleashed by war, we long for control. The response of “Nuts,” SNAFU; the laugh blended with fatalism, all help. That’s what Catch 22 caught. Our parents still trusted the old virtues. But their stoicism, their powerful sense of duty, their rigor, even their fatalism made them value dry wit. They could wink at one another and know what they meant. They could drink – and boy, did they drink. And smoke. And laugh. They liked cool. (I did another very long post that contrasted Perry Mason with the Rockford Files the former cool, the latter warm. As I noted then, I’m sure some of my fondness for that old series came from the way Mason kept in amber my parents’ world.) This was also the milieu of my mother’s coffee klatches – she and her friends, children wandering in and out. They smoked & drank coffee, told anecdotes, laughed wryly at men, children, life.
So, I’ve come to respect my parents. That coolness may have lacked warmth but also gave them a code, one of duty. When I think of the hours spent carpooling, the work that living out those days included, I respect them. My mother returned to teaching to provide an extra paycheck when I started college – this was the same mother who had worked her own way through high school. Then college. Unlike so much of the thrust of modern feminism, her equality came from equal responsibility – she enlisted quickly after Pearl Harbor. Their self-irony came from humility before the duties they shouldered which we, in our willfulness, often shrug off.
The ironic style ran deep. Their generation was immersed in Freud as well, and that, of course, fed irony, implied layers. They were more aware of class than their parents, always a bit uneasy, a bit ironic, about society. They read Vance Packard. They read a lot; they joked about their tastes, about ours. My father once observed he had been a bad father in many ways – he had lost his temper easily, hadn’t always provided well, hadn’t always been sober, but, he said, he’d never left Reader’s Digest out where the kids could see it.
Cool was the heart of the discipline in which I was trained. My teachers were part of that era, too; younger, they were more often from the “silent” generation. And if several marched in Selma, their pleasure in literature & its lessons came from appreciating irony (they saw it everywhere – and sometimes overvalued it). I remember a lot of laughter – at Chaucer, at Donne, at Shakespeare. The teachers saw in literature a powerful affirmation of proportionality – one affirmed by ironic point after ironic point, always bouncing off the proper proportion, the one that not only Hamlet but we so often missed. The authors, my teachers assumed, were saying something profound. Perhaps they wrought better than they were – but that was not spoken. The personal wasn’t important, art was. Duty for them was careful reading, respect for the words – they had a humility & even maturity often lost in the willful criticism of my generation, which sometimes forgets that it, too, has a speckled human nature; it, too, is in history.
I agree with John – I wish mass entertainment was more adult. I also wish we approached lit as adults. When I think of adult, I think of wit & allusions, maturity & proportion – I think of the head more often than the heart, the purposeful rather than the hormonal, the long, long view rather than the immediate, the universal rather than the personal. Part of what we lost came from dumbing ourselves down. A few years ago, my kids were watching an old Flip Wilson show on TVLand. Like other variety shows (Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, Gary Moore, etc.), it combined sketches with music. Walking by, I stopped for a minute – the sketch was a satire of Shakespeare. It was fairly funny; it obviously called upon a certain knowledge of the play and the author. I didn’t see them when they were new, never saw another – I don’t know what its sophistication level was, but I suspect it was fairly representative. Television doesn’t require much from us – and we don’t have all that much to give. (I will observe that the poignancy of one Law and Order lay in the corrupt defense attorney’s series of allusions to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” but that surprised me.) Such allusions are becoming increasingly difficult, without a canon we share. Choices are dependent upon a teacher’s whim, an argument that students are likely to identify with a story, poem – one that is about someone like them. Without a belief in human nature, we can’t treat literature as the core of the great culture of which we are but a transitory part but rather as an extension of our own identities.
That began in the sixties. (So, today, my daughter can take an honor’s course that is only about Ben Hur.) The problem with those years (and perhaps its strength as well) was its earnestness, its emotion, its appeal to the young ego; the political became the personal and the personal political. It valued immediacy; it shattered the distance irony gives. It had no humility before tradition, before history. We discarded proportionality. We thought we were stepping outside history, but it kept going along. We were too busy looking at our navels to notice we, too, were in motion. We didn’t know what the hell was going on because we didn’t think it would affect us. It did.
Certainly that intensity pricked. Brinksmanship, confrontation, and destruction of the old institutions – with each of these we feel intensely alive. It’s the same reason teen-agers take a turn too fast or long for the “bad” – the dangerous – boy. Walking on the edge, living on the margin, we’re engaged. But such engagement is probably less attractive to survivors of World War II, survivors of the depression.
And so we come to the sixties. There’s irony to The Graduate’s “plastic,” but not much to Hoffman himself – fully engaged, he staggers to the balcony of the wedding chapel, throws himself upon the window, appears half-crucified. The various crucifixion images from movies from that era are done with a remarkable lack of irony. Our disillusionment with disengagement is reflected in the roles of Paul Newman: first, he peels away layers of “cool” in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, The Long Hot Summer, The Hustler, then, in Hud cool becomes manipulative and empty. Cool was sometimes brittle; often, it broke before the onslaught of warm.
Juxtapositions seem strange as we look back. Spontaneity & laughter, buoyancy came in with the Beatles. They were strangely reassuring. Life had meaning – it had zest. There was plenty of laughter, but little cool. Their first appearance on Ed Sullivan was in February of 1964. Contemplating this, we may get a sense of how welcome they were when we also remember the two great cinema trilogies that preceded them: Antonioni (1960, 1961, 1962) and Bergman (1961, 62, 63). Of course, looking over the Oscar winners from that era, we see another British invasion (Lawrence of Arabia, Tom Jones & My Fair Lady won “best picture” for three years) and of the Civil Rights marches (To Kill a Mockingbird and Lilies of the Field garnered best male lead). Of course, the Oscars were going to the last great musicals, but still in those years the more serious movies were often about alienation – think Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Those themes, whether portrayed by the international set in lush Italy or the bookish world of the Swedes or Albee’s academic America, were painfully hollow. Watching them again this summer, I’m struck by how much people must have longed for the youth, buoyancy, camaraderie the Beatles do so well. They offer no more spiritual solace than Bergman, but draw us into a different world, with different questions. It’s a shift in direction and we suddenly realize that Bergman’s isn’t the only road to go down. There’s happiness, there’s connection. We feel like the windows have opened.
But the somber guys move through the decade as well. Antonioni’s Red Desert gives us a world polluted and empty. By decade’s end, Bergman seeks out the margins of marriage as he had those of belief, again questioning tradition, questioning a second great institution at the core of our civilization. Thirty years ago, my husband and I watched Scenes from a Marriage in its six-part length. This summer, we rented it again. In many ways it has aged well. Bergman understands psychology, he understands people – he catches the small & telling gesture, the rhythms of anger & love. Some people get tired of psychological realism, some people think it’s precious. Personally, I like it, whether it’s The Golden Bowl or Thirty-Something or Scenes from a Marriage. That’s where we are trained in virtue. Marriages embody, define, replicate our culture. Examining them seems a worthwhile project.
I can’t remember if we were married or not when we saw it first, but it was right when we were beginning that long & not always successful definition of what marriage would be for us. I especially loved the scene where we saw her mature before our eyes – I used it to demonstrate coming to consciousness in my dissertation on James & Hawthorne. Now, we’ve been married more than thirty years. So we bring different eyes to the movie. Made self-conscious again, we watched interviews; we find an aged Bergman and Ullman interviewed separately, but both fondly remembering that the series provoked a huge increase in divorce & marriage counseling wherever it was shown. We sit there, a bit uneasy; such intensity & self- (or marriage-) examination is not the nature of our lives. Perhaps the only life worth living is the examined one, but my husband rather firmly believes that the examined marriage is not likely to be a long one. Still, we understand what Bergman and Ullman prize. Couples are said to speak more – and more intensely – to one another in the first and last months of a marriage. Those are the times when a marriage can’t be taken for granted, can’t be ignored as part of the given while our attention wanders elsewhere. In the sixties, we used to talk about the energy of the marginal – it remains true. Ullman & Bergman were right – probably the movie made people examine the compromises they had made to keep their marriages together. But that privileging of disaster makes us aware (why does this great truism keep surprising us?) that artists often make better than they think; the great & acute psychological realism doesn’t mean that the creators are wise. And, no, I have my doubts divorces inspired by a movie are really in the end acts of higher consciousness, of liberation.
For the fifties, questions lay beneath that surface. Bergman’s stance – marginalize institutions, seek meaning through living on the brink – this became the sixties’ answer. Terry Anderson demonstrates the various & energetic experiential; if this is our value, the 60’s really worked. And certainly, some of these juxtapositions help us understand why the young threw themselves so thoroughly into the “movements” that were central to those years.
What happened in the sixties is caught in its remarkable, powerful diversity in Anderson’s The Movement and the Sixties,. I’ve mentioned it before – it seemed to take me forever to get through it and I kept feeling like I was lost. But two-thirds of the way in, I began to realize why a colleague who teaches history used it so much: it is the sixties, the unreconstructed, full-throttle ahead sixties. I’ll never remember those details but he amasses them. (His skills as an oral historian came in handy – and probably caused some of its strengths as well as weaknesses.) He gives us little sense of what came before except as seen through the eyes of the sixties – the “cold war culture” he constantly refers to (well, those metaphoric ” around it may be a kind of irony). He sees a fantasy adversary created by the “man” in the fifties. (Do such people ever realize how xenophobic, how parochial their view?) He has no sense of the importance of Freud, of Einstein – of ideas in general – that shaped the currents that became the sixties. He is dismissive and quite obtuse about the popular culture preceding those years. For instance, he is oblivious of the “virtues” & importance of character that certainly Himmelfarb would see in such shows as Ozzie & Harriet and Father Knows Best, he tells us “neither show touched a social issue” (23). That they assert the values of civility, of temperance, of maturity does not mean they are without a thought. (He doesn’t mention Andy Griffith which is also from that time and whose meaning has been much more rigorously studied.) Unreconstructed sixties people assume Thirty Something and Henry James were about nothing. Well, yes, if only the public, the political are considered “something.”
Nor does he pause at what many of us see as the disastrous effects of the movements he loves: welfare, education, Viet Nam are all seen as they were in, say, 1972, rather than twenty years later when he wrote the book. Many of the differences in relations between the races, between the sexes was good. But even in terms of sex & race, it hasn’t been completely successful. This book, like the sixties, has the energy of youth, but it is all spent inward, looking at itself – which, again, mirrors the sixties. But I’m going to give some lengthy quotes that show how much Anderson ignores the head & appeals to the heart, how he uses feeling in the place of threads of meaning. He understands the sixties because he clearly has remained caught in its centripetal field, pulled by an energy that forty years later hasn’t been spent.
I. He concludes his first section (“The First Wave: The Surge”) with a kind of manic high; note the (emphasis added) cascade of enthusiast diction:
The feeling was exhilarating for the first wave of activists in the early sixties. “In the brief moment of time,” Tom Hayden wrote, “the sixties generation entered its age of innocence, overflowing with hope.” While the enthusiasm of some activists had been broken in the South, the generation as a whole seemed to have unlimited potential. As Howard Zinn wrote in 1964: these “young people are the nation’s most vivid reminder that there is an unquenchable spirit alive in the world today, beyond race, beyond nationality, beyond class. It is a spirit which seeks to embrace all people everywhere.
For the generation, then, the early sixties was an era of expanding optimism, and that spirit often stayed with activists for the rest of their lives. Casey Hayden reminisced twenty-five years later that the movement “was everything: home and family, food and work, love and a reason to live. . . . It was outrageous, really. Exciting liberating, spicy, when we were young and in the South. The movement—sometimes I have longed for it profoundly. . . . It was a holy time.” (86)
II. At one point, I wondered whether the author was bi-polar, but eventually came to realize that his passionate outbursts, his romantic diction accurately recorded the sixties. Not surprisingly, his treatment of 1972 is the other half of that:
Alienation soared, and hatred for authorities seethed out of tight smiles—families and friendships dissolved. Aware that they could not influence the Nixon administration, activists faced three options: go underground and fight the establishment by any mans necessary, drop out and do their own thing or turn their energies toward other causes. A tiny fraction did the first, a suicidal option. Many more did the second, for it eased the pain and could result in personal liberation. The vast majority adopted the third, empowerment, or they mixed the personal and the political. (353)
III. Those on this blog who have little patience with baby boomers will find their prejudices reinforced by Anderson’s conclusions. The fifties had a proportionality we lacked, but that is subtle. We were not subtle. Nor is Anderson.
Those who participated in some aspect of the movement are different from their parents. These sixties people are more skeptical about experts, leaders, politicians, and about institutions – the church, government, and military. They are more flexible, introspective, and tolerant, especially concerning race, living arrangements, and personal behavior. They are more open about their feelings, compassionate, and more liberated sexually. Women feel that they have the same right to sexual satisfaction as men, . . . Being “normal” is no longer a mandate for behavior. Be yourself. Sixties people are more interested in self-fulfillment, defining their own lives, and they often question authority and do their own thing. Let it be.
Most of the counterculture values that since have become clichés still influence behavior. America is more casual in dress and behavior than ever before, and the daily diet includes a wide variety of health foods . . . . The result is more personal freedom than at any time in the history of the Republic—so much in fact that youth since has had little to protest, and some have become bewildered with all their options. As James Reston wrote about the graduating class of 1985, there was nothing to confuse them but freedom.” More than ever, America is the land of the free.(422)
Anderson concludes by describing the sixties as a form of American activism in a series that included “the Jacksonian period, progressive era, and 1930” for the “sixties activists were provoked by the inconsistencies between the Founding Fathers’ noble ideas and the disappointing realities for many citizens.” (421)
We may have been wrong about a lot of things, but youths generally are. We got our way more than we should have but I expect that was a combination of demography – there were so many of us we swamped the culture – and the fact that the brittle, cool culture couldn’t withstand much passion. In the end, while we may have wrecked much, some of it needed to be wrecked. And some of those discrepancies between the goal and the real needed to be noted. It took the South, for instance, a ridiculously long time to get rid of Jim Crow laws. And if my mother held herself responsible much more broadly than some feminists do today, we do have more choices than she. The world might have been better without the movements of the sixties, but I’m not so sure. I figure it’s a mixed bag – most things are. But we haven’t had time to sort it out and Anderson, so clearly caught in the sixties himself and so unwilling to face its consequences, we may not feel has earned the right to his smugness. That is for the next generations to sum up – and I doubt they will do it so firmly.
Of course, in his book we often see history repeated. Let’s conclude our look at him with his observation about the tenacity of – what? – we’d call it human nature, he’d call it a “past” insufficiently escaped, insufficiently junked. So, he describes what history would have told him:
After someone stole radio and tape recording equipment from Abbie Hoffman, he announced his resignation from the counterculture.. . .
Perhaps this should have been expected. These children of the postwar era often tried, but usually could not escape their past. Most had a very difficult time reversing twenty years of upbringing, conditioning, and socialization.” (289)
Irony, wit, detachment – our parents looked at history, the history which they had made, and longed to disengage, to observe. Our generation, because of our size and mostly out of our naiveté and willfulness, thought we were outside history. We had too little interest and so forgot what others had found out, and, if this book is indication, what this tumultuous period brought about. This was encouraged by theories that far too often assumed we were blank slates, beginning anew. Anderson sees we weren’t , but (as so often with people of his political calling) he believes we are too affected by an outdated society. Older now, we recognize we are inescapably in history, inescapably human. Those old verities are not ever in or out of mode – they are. And that is human nature – always complicated, but quite real.
The answers of the sixties did not always satisfy – the public and private, the political and personal were confused. Mixing them made us self-conscious, even exhilarated – the energy coming from pushing against the margin. Institutions as well as mere conventions wobbled; they were less stable, less supportive, less awesome. We felt free perhaps, but we lost the amorphous security of institutions that had grown through the centuries – the church, the government, the family. Eventually, we turned back to them, but they were changed. Some of the bathwater was pretty dirty, but we threw out a lot of babies in it. We confused desires with principles, politics with virtue. We believed if we wore long hair we weren’t exploitive; if we didn’t marry, the sexes were equal. If we’d known much history, we might have seen a mini-version in the socialists at the turn of the century. Eleanor Marx, Margaret Sanger, Olive Schreiner, Havelock Ellis, H. G. Welles: their solutions undermined most of their attempts at personal happiness. Nor did their public ideas lead to happiness for the larger society. We could have learned from history, but we refused to see its application. Youths generally do, but by now we have no excuse.
So, our intense self-consciousness gave our lives color. But ignoring human nature, positing nothing bigger than the experiential, was less helpful. We felt (quite wrongly as it turned out) we were uncontaminated by what went before. In the end man is a fallen, prideful creature. And we, too, had insufficient humility; that long line of others may have thought they, too, had discovered the world anew. But a longer look gives proportion. We lost our ability to distinguish; without history, we have little to gauge our progress.
The sixties made irony difficult because it requires a sense of proportion. With irony, we laugh at ourselves. But without standards, deviations aren’t funny, they aren’t unexpected – nothing is unexpected. And, frankly, the earnest laugh a lot less – and, especially, they laugh a lot less at themselves. Irony is an important tool in reaching real self-consciousness. Losing irony, losing the ability to laugh at one’s self is something we need to fear in a leader. We want to know that he’s kept a sense of proportion. I can’t imagine, for instance, that Kim Jong-il has spent as much time as he should developing a sense of irony. Certainly, those who reacted to the Pope’s speech by demanding that he give up his post and convert to Islam, with threats of havoc, seem lacking in that sense. But, then, we were prepared: would someone with a sense of irony claim to almost faint at Larry Summers’ remark? would anyone with a sense of irony construct the vocabulary of political correctness?
I don’t think our mood is only a consequence of 9/11 (and the grim Middle East), or climate-change science, or Christians’ displaced fear of science and social change. It’s also a function of the baby-boomers’ becoming elderly. For half a century, they have dominated the culture, and now, as they enter the glide path to death, I think their generational solipsism unconsciously extrapolates approaching personal doom: When I go, everything goes with me, my end will be the end. It’s the pre-apocalyptic converse of the postapocalyptic weariness of the hero in The Road: “Some part of him always wished it to be over.”
This sense that before we arrived to the horizon were vast deserts and after us the deluge – messy cliches to combine, of course – are ones we boomers may find attractive, even if they are not likely to be all that accurate. Yeah, we still may think it is all about us. A belief that takes such different shapes as those of President Ahmadinejad & Al Gore & the Rapturists & Mel Gibson with . . . well, it is interesting.
And how much is it rooted in pride? Well, isn’t that true of most of our hazy ideas. Certainly, it seems true of the modern apocalyptic environmental movement. It seems to have limited humility before the awesome cycles of nature, assuming that “normal” is what was true in one’s own youth. Oh, well, if most of our generation is not sufficiently humble, most of us still blundered on through our lives and in the end we probably contributed more than we took, created ore than we destroyed. Well, we can hope.