The big problem with writing topical blog posts is that a couple dozen new catastrophes are certain to occur between the time you write your little essay and the moment you hit the “post” icon. The piece you’ve worked so hard on instantly becomes dated and irrelevant. (The technical term for this, coined by the philosopher Paul Virilio, is “speed of discourse,” if you really want to get pedantic.) My piece last week, tied to the previous Tuesday and Wednesday night's presidential debates, was written that Friday. And over the weekend, in light of this nation’s most recent horrific batch of gun violence, my critique of Marianne Williamson and twenty-year-old Patrick Stewart movies seemed hopelessly quaint.
Even so, cultural reminiscences are what I do. Sitting in my Brooklyn apartment, at this particular moment, they’re all I can do. And as a grumpy middle-aged man, they’re something I’m well suited to do. So, here we go again.
I played Charles Guiteau in Sondheim’s Assassins in my senior year of college. (It was the show I did just before this one, the subject of a previous Proustian madeleine.) I find myself thinking about that show a lot, that joint revue of America’s presidential killers and musical history. Partly because it’s a fun show to do, and even a ragged, seat-of-the-pants undergraduate production like ours can’t help but have a compelling, fearsome power to it. Partly because I’m old and miss my college glory days. But these days, it’s mostly because as Guiteau (who, in case you missed that day in history class, assassinated James Garfield), you get to take part in “Gun Song,” Sondheim’s take on the barbershop quartet, and harmonize a chorus whose lyrics go like this:
And all you have to do is
Move your little finger
Move your little finger and
You can change the world
Why should you be blue when
You’ve your little finger
Prove how just a little finger can
Change the world
The show’s other big choral number is “Another National Anthem” in which all the characters, some of the most flamboyant losers and charlatans in America’s history, all belt out “where’s my prize?” A defiant, bitter question to a country whose prosperity, whose promise of greatness, appears in their narcissistic minds to have passed them by.
And doesn’t that explain so very much? Why our powerful, prosperous nation seems to be in the middle of an epic nervous breakdown? How people who have been told they live in the most exceptional and most powerful nation on earth, but have no real understanding of that power or access to it, come to view mindless carnage as something to aspire to? How gun violence is a dull, hateful daydream of what real power must be like? In his review of the last Broadway revival, Michael Feingold wrote that our current political landscape is one where “the assassins have actually taken over,” and he’s absolutely goddam right. Sondheim laid out the whole pathology almost thirty years ago.
And he’s not the only one. A while back, I took note of which movies were marking milestone anniversaries this year, as a way of making everybody feel as old and depressed as I do (bwa ha ha ha). One I didn’t cover then was Fight Club, which is now – brace yourselves – twenty years old. Yep, it’s been twenty years since we first saw David Fincher's tale of an affluent young white man who, still not able to find purpose in his life despite all his blessings, descended into mindless violence as a way of seeking transcendence. And sparking a terrorist movement along the way. Yes, true believers, that’s what the movie’s about – go watch it again if you don’t remember it that way. It’s a brutal satire on what we tend to call “toxic masculinity” nowadays – and for two decades, people have been quoting it, acting it out, and willfully misinterpreting it.
Whenever one of these mindless gun tragedies strikes – and they seem to be striking every hour on the hour these days – there’s always a chorus of voices calling it unimaginable, and loudly asking what could possibly be wrong with all of us. It infuriates me to no end to hear this – because the tragedies prompting the question shouldn’t be happening, and because we already know the answers. We know what’s wrong with us. We know what the dark side of our national character looks like. We’ve been told for decades, by the artists I mention above, and countless others along the way, in hundreds of different ways. And they’re part of a lineage, going back thru Miller all the way to Hawthorne, that have pointed all of this out for centuries now.
If we choose not to listen, that’s on us.
Posted on August 12, 2019
by Michael C. O'Day