Cultural Circles

I maintain my friendships with the people I knew first as the friends of my wife but to whom, over the years, I also became close. I like them for themselves alone, and not just because they were originally my wife’s friends, but it would be less than truthful not to say that part of my current relationship with them is to preserve a part of my life that is now over. These were the circle of friends I shared with my wife and so being with them brings back that long part of my life when we were all together, now my dead wife just an absent member of the circle. I am sure they feel the same way. I suppose that part of being old is declining health or no longer having career ambitions or other sources of stress, but part of it is also being left with a leftover life to live after the magic circle of people who hung together for a long period of time has been broken. Cultural circles are also like that. What were once called people to whom we were only vicariously related also make up sets of people who belong together, that circle inhabiting an era that exists beyond a particular individual and where the characteristics of the cultural circle can be treated as providing some of the characteristics of that era.

As my readers know, I am invested in a number of authors who I came across when they were first published, the members of this circle having their relative worth regularly recalibrated because those designations are not inherited or learned but are instead matters that were done from the beginning within one’s own experience. Lionel Trilling used to say that D. H. Lawrence was first read under a flashlight until Trilling introduced him into a course on modern literature. In similar fashion, I didn’t realize “Lolita” was that good until, after I had read it because it was notorious, I read Lionel Trilling’s appraisal of it, which gave me a heightened sense of what I had noticed but not put center stage. I am also invested in a very different way in a number of authors in a number of other periods and generalize the characteristics of those authors into being the characteristics of their period. So I think of William Thackeray, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and George Eliot as creating the characteristics of the Victorian novel. But those Victorian authors do not, as a set, belong only to my appraisals of them. They constitute the novelists of the Victorian Age in literature departments around the world. A literary or artistic period has its own characteristics, such as sudden onset and ending, as when Andy Warhol ushers in the post-Abstract Impressionist period now known as Postmodernism, or more usually, contemporary art. Among other things, literary and artistic periods overlap, so Warhol comes along at the same time as the new appreciation of Miami Beach architecture and the late novels of Nabokov. Cultural circles, for their part, are personal. They are bounded by when you have entered and left the picture, but they also have their own objective characteristics, such as the fact that earlier circles are lost track of within a generation.

I came into watching baseball when Yogi Berra was a rookie and so I watched his exploits as a player and a manager and also a legend which was cultivated well into his old age. I stayed with baseball until Derek Jeter retired and so I have no knowledge of what is reported to me as the young dynasty Aaron Boone is now creating with the Yankees. That means that I have in mind the declining years of Joe Dimaggio and Ted Williams, which was not such a decline for Williams, who won the batting championship, if I remember correctly, during his last playing year with the very non glorious average of .326, though that was in a time when batting averages were low. In the middle of my memory are Mickey Mantle and Moose Skowron and Reggie Jackson in his post  Oakland years and Rickey Henderson stealing bases, but also. Earlier on, Johnny Mize putting in a few good twilight seasons with the Yankees after his stardom with the New York Giants. But lost on me are the references made in those times to players from an earlier era: the Twenty Seven Yankees or even the Tony Lazzari era at shortstop, because the shortstop I knew were those from Phil Rizzuto on. Yes, you hear about the older names at Old Timer Days but they have little resonance, just as people who were adults in the days when I was a child fan had little resonance with Rogers Hornsby or Ty Cobb who were meaningful to me and perhaps also to those adults as people from history.

Baseball dispenses rather quickly with its past, while the movies do not, perhaps because old movies are readily available to us while old baseball games are not or not all that interesting in themselves when they are old games, even old World Series games which had not been settled just today or yesterday. Baseball is ever about the new but movies, like novels, set into both a period and a culture circle.

I came into movies in the late Forties, when Humphrey Bogart was in his prime and Clark Gable was declining, and when Doris Day was young, playing singers, long before, as the wags had it, she became a virgin so as to play in those romantic comedies with Rock Hudson. My movie circle goes through the late Eighties, which means it contains Al Pacino at the height of his career, and includes Marlon Brando from beginning to end. I had to discover the early Olivier on reruns, but watched him through his King Lear on PBS, where he could no longer lift Cordelia when she dies. My movie circle includes people that for some reason I did not like very much, like Audrey Hepburn, who was a charming mannikin, and Julie Andrews who, though she sometimes cast herself against type, as in “The Americanization of Emily”, I fould much too sweet despite her admirable voice. And Steve McQueen had all the acting ability of a rock. I got to the Sigourney Weaver of “Alien” but while I continue to watch movies, the ones with superheroes and giant machines as their heroes have no appeal.

A generalization that can be made about the cultural circles of movies is that they are accompanied by particular styles and technologies--in other words, by some of the attributes that cover their era or age. Forties movies were very talkative, the accomplishment of “Shane” in 1953 that it gave itself the status of a legend by minimizing dialogue. Virginia Mayo in Technicolor always looked over made up. But sometimes those effects are still acceptable or even more so. Though the special effects of “2001” may seem old fashioned in that they are so clearly composites of drawings used as backdrops for movement or made to move, Kubrick was such an artist that his camera angles made you understand movements in space and he was such a student of the history of painting that he has a spaceship descend on the moon so that it can be seen by three spacesuited explorers standing on a rocky ridge. The same goes for “Metropolis” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, which are before my time and so learned of as a dip into the past. Their special effects seem just right for them. I also learned about Buster Keaton as an adult. For my son, however, he is a member of his movie cultural circle because i took him to see “The General” when he was ten and he laughed from start to finish. Buster Keaton was a genius.

A second generalization is that movie circles, though as I have suggested, perhaps not sports, can use their own past or the past of the people watching them, to create a nostalgia for a time past. There were a great many movies about the Gay Nineties when I first started watching movies, both musicals with Judy Garland and melodramas with Ingrid Bergman, and I only later realized that maybe they were pitched to an elderly audience which remembered those times, just as many World War II movies began with reminiscences of the First World War, so as to provide contexts the contemporary movie audience could appreciate. Movies seem to have abandoned any interest in an elderly audience, and I don’t understand allusions to the old days of the Nineties generation (the 1990’s, that is). What was so specific about those times that they were culturally newsworthy? I have to stretch my imagination to remember that as the time of Clinton when there was relative peace in the world, Clinton cleaning up the mess of the Cold War by stretching the boundaries of Europe to reach to the borders of Russia.

Which brings us to the use of politics as the bedrock cultural circle. I came in on the death of FDR. I still remember the day he died because my family was visiting friends all of whom were deeply shocked when they heard the news and I remembered the depth of that feeling among people who were not particularly political. I followed McCarthyism through the pages of Dorothy Schiff’s very Liberal New York Post, and so on and on to the present day, my interest in learning the names of cabinet officials and oh many too many United States Senators not having flagged. The generalization I would draw is that people do not remember very far back when it comes to political circles, Reagan now an ancient figure even if still invoked by Republican politicians as a great President when they no longer can remember Ike, much less TR. The trouble with politics as a cultural circle is that most political history has to be learned from books and students in high school take less and less history and civics because they are supposed to take computers and STEM topics, and so the citizenry is uneducated. Do people remember back to Obama, who was civil and not mean-spirited or do they think that a President who is crude and misinformed is just the way it ordinarily is?

A generalization that can be made about political circles and applied more or less to other cultural circles is that people can be more or less well informed about them. Not everyone follows baseball, though most people have enough of a head for popular music that they know the important artists of their youth and date eras through that circle or the circles of adjacent periods. Public broadcasting sells nostalgia trips to one’s youth by providing the sounds and personalities of different cultural circles. On the other hand, political commentators excuse the ignorance by the public of even the political circle of the moment, what are their policies and rhetoric, as the result of the fact that people have other things to do with their time. They have to make a living and take care of their families and so it is only the professional class of reporters and commentators that have time to keep up with politics. But that is just an excuse whereby people whose job it is to comment on politics pander to the public. People have the mental energy to keep up with sports and with the lives of their friends and relatives and it doesn’t take all that much time to keep up with the rudiments of what is happening in politics, especially when all you have to ask yourself is whether a politician sounds mean spirited, not the sort of person to invite to a family dinner. You don’t have to know very much to know that Scott Pruitt was corrupt and that no one in the Obama entourage was. You just have to engage a little bit and apply the morality you would to the people you know rather than treat politicians as characters out of “Dallas” or “Scandal”, exciting because they are so over the top awful and full of Machiavellian intrigue that one would not otherwise admire them except that they are part of a fictional circle, the thing about political leaders being, however, that they are not at all fictional, but just human, and so to be judged in that way, just the way you judge members of your personal and not at all vicarious circles, where I presume you apply higher standards, however willing you are to forgive people you love. But who loves Trump rather than is excited by him?