Saturday, April 26, 2008

The noble savage, redux

I grow weary of Middle America.

Not in a Reverend Jeremiah Wright way (although I think I understand what he said, and I think he's been misconstrued and hypertrophied in embarrassingly anti-intellectual ways by the press and the political engines that stand to benefit by it). No, I grow very tired indeed of the Romantic notion of Middle America.

Middle America is the post-modern Noble Savage in press and politics, both demonized (bitter, ignorant, incestuous, oblivious) and canonized (the folk of the nation, salt of the earth, somehow more real and more valuable than we jaded cosmopolitan souls fallen from the Eden of nature.) Let me tell you something: Middle America is imaginary.

I must confess that seeing American Gothic brought me to tears. Its subtle and compelling wit is eloquent indeed, and I suggest that you go admire the original if you ever have the chance. Prints and digital images fail quite utterly.

One of the haunting things about that painting is the forthright and arresting look of the man. He is looking back at the viewer. Although he is uncommonly orderly (look at the way the pitchfork tines, stitching of the overall, and shirt pleats echo one another) and his expression is grave, it is his attentiveness that captures the viewer. His wife, restless and thoughtful, has her eyes on something else -- perhaps something that escaped the couple as they worked past their first bloom of youth and on into their homely middle years. Behind them, the rounded trees, the tidy landscape, and the stately home show the modestly magnificent and hard-won fruits of their labor.

It is the discontent, the inscrutability, and the uncannily returned gaze that give this picture its magnificence. The respectful attention to the details of orderly and respectable life; the evidentials of hard labor, the diacritics of proud frugality, the withering into thin and dour ghosts of what was evidently a fierce young couple. A Romantic notion: belatedness. Too hard a life for Eden, and too much focus on putting Nature into orderly straight lines; we work to create our own little corner of paradise until we are trapped upon our path. We retire to live upon the fat of our labor in middle or old age, when para-gliding and war are sadly beyond our capacities and, bewilderingly, no longer tantalizing. It is a tragic image, as I see it -- a tragedy of constricting liberties and fading, unsatisfied youth. (Your mileage may certainly vary.)

Yet this couple is a caricature, and the image depends on that loving caricature for its success. They are archetypally our collective parents, our roots. They expect something of us: do we measure up?

The Romantic poets were obsessed with the idea that they had come too late. Too late for Nature, too late for Classical grandeur, too late to live in God's garden. We work; we age; we die; we are not living myths. The inherence of the noble savage concept to this world-view is hardly surprising: primordial Man, casting an immortal heroic shadow on a landscape of Nature. It is the desirable antithesis to what we feel we are.

In lazy political rhetoric, the Founding Fathers cast such shadows: they are culture heroes who transcend the bonds of mere mortality (or fact, as it happens.) Lately, Middle America -- generalized, robbed of its true grit, complexity, and intellectualism, faded into pastel red-white-and-blue and caricatured immensely -- has begun to acquire some of the same sepia luster.

Friends, this is the problem: art and life are not the same thing.

Honor thy father and thy mother. Enjoy your retro "comfort food." Quote the Founding Fathers (better still, READ what they wrote and know them as something that was flesh, blood, and brain, not cartoon.) Hell, put flags all over your vehicles if you want. But try, for the love of your country, not to lump together large parts of its citizens and predict their responses as if they belonged to a native, innocent, and somehow prior condition. If there is a real Middle America, it is in the present, it shares the blood or glory on the hands of ... (what's the alternative? Edge America?), and it must make its decisions the same way we all do: by thinking of its own future. There is no part of the country that resembles the Jerry Springer Show in its social dynamics, and no part that resembles the Super-Friends' Justice League, either.

Reporters and political campaigners, I beg you to stop telling these people what they think. I'm interested in seeing their frank and returned gaze break down my expectations, instead.


Sam said...

Beautiful essay, Ducks.

I do have to point out what the woman is looking at, though, because it is clear (to me) that she is watching her (grand)child doing something potentially, but not immediately, dangerous -- like, say, running near a industrial combine.

Ducks said...

Thank you! I had been chewing on that particular rant for a couple days. It had to get out, like steam from a pressure cooker. The blog is my valve.

Hee hee! I would so much rather see the projected peril of a foolhardy young relative than the end of her youth as the source of her suppressed and restless panic... and when I'm thinking of it, I do. :)

I think it's odd how affecting I find that painting. One grows up with the image, further caricatured by Bugs Bunny or Popeye or the Addams Family, and yet it retains the power to move us. Impressive.