Friday, July 27, 2007

The past is another country

One of the arguments routinely made by the crackpots who insist that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare’s plays is that the middle-class nobody from Stratford couldn’t have known as much about the lives of kings and queens as the author of the plays knows.

The flaw in this argument is that most of what we "know" about the lives of kings and queens we know because Shakespeare told us about it.

And the odds are he made it all up.

This is a general problem in trying to figure out what people were like in the past. Most of what we "know" about what they were like we learned from plays and movies and novels and TV shows before we were even aware that there was such a place as the past.

The past isn’t dead; it's not even past, said Faulkner. (Quote corrected, thanks to Mike Schilling.) I love that quote, but the past isn’t exactly here and now, either. It’s a foreign country we can only visit virtually and for which there is no reliable Michelin Guide. Historians do what they can, but most people leave no record of what they’ve felt and thought and how they’ve managed to get through a day, and the people who do leave records tend to be...not exactly representative.

There have been periods throughout history when it was not unusual for an average person to keep a diary and write long, thoughtful letters, but those periods have been rare and the practice has been geographically and culturally limited. Since the invention of writing, most people who have been moved to take up a pen or a quill or a hammer and chisel or to sit down at a keyboard have been oddballs and weirdos, introspective misfits who had time to themselves to write because they didn’t like the company of other people as much as they liked their own or because other people didn’t much care for their company.

Socially gregarious and popular types like Henry James and Marcel Proust are the strangest of ducks in a crowd of strange ducks.

Your average poets and novelists and creative non-fictionalists want to have as much to do with the world outside their own heads as most people want to have to do with cleaning septic tanks.

They are the last people to go to to find out how the world works.

They are often very good on the kinds of truths they can discover through explorations of their own hearts and minds, moral and psychological truths. But when it comes to politics and sociology they get fuzzy.

And it’s not just the case that when writing about how the world outside their heads works they aren’t particularly knowledgeable or insightful. It’s that in novels and plays and short stories and movies and TV shows everything—everything—is in service to the plot.

Their job is to get their main characters from here to there and if the historical or sociological facts of life are in the way, they will have their characters just go around them.

And if the facts aren’t getting in the way, but they aren’t helping either, writers will invent their own facts that will do the job.

So you don’t sit through a production of Hamlet to find out about life in the royal court of Denmark in the late middle ages, or even about life in the court of Queen Elizabeth in the late Renaissance. You do it to find about what’s going on in the heads and hearts of Hamlet and Claudius and Gertrude and Ophelia.

Does Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia tell us anything about the roles of men and women in Shakespeare’s day? Not unless you think that all men in Elizabethan England were mad but north by northwest and all women were emotionally fragile flowers with serious daddy issues.

Last night’s live-blogging of Mad Men over at newcritics, ably and insightfully led by Tom Watson, with assists from some of newcritics’ best and brightest (I can say this with all modesty, because I wasn’t home last night and couldn’t take part) and some outside guests including Mr James Wolcott, produced a savvy and sometimes savage group analysis of the show.

But if there was a theme running through the commentary it was this: How many of the attitudes being dramatized on Mad Men, particularly the attitudes towards women, are historically true to life?

(Dramatized may not be the best word. One point that Wolcott kept bringing up is that last night’s episode was not inherently dramatic. There was no real story.)

Mad Men’s production values force the question.

As Nancy Nall lays out over at her place, the show’s producers and designers have done excellent work in re-creating the look of the world of the organization men in late 1950s New York.

But did they put the same effort into recreating the mindset of the people who lived and worked in the living rooms and offices so faithfully reproduced on the sets of the studio?

Dan Leo decided that at least some of what was coming across was true to life because of the similarities he saw between attitudes in the show and attitudes dramatized in literature from that specific time, particularly the short stories of John Cheever and the novel Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.

Now, Cheever was one of the best American writers of the last 60 years, and Yates was a fine writer whose collection of short stories, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, is, I think, the American Dubliners.

But Cheever was a closeted gay man who pretended to be straight and additionally pretended to his family not to be a writer at all. He used to put on a suit and tie every morning, say goodbye to his wife and kids, and go out the door as if he was leaving to catch the train to his office, then go down into the basement of their apartment building where he had set up a table and typewriter to write all day, "returning" home at the time other 9 to 5 dads were returning from their real office jobs.

And Yates was a terrifically angry and self-loathing drunk who had a habit of self-destructing wherever he went. I wish I’d known who he was when I was in college in Boston because he was still alive then, not writing a lick, but available to meet, every night at a bar near campus, where I could have gone to watch him fall off his barstool, an acrobatic feat he was said to perform nightly.

This is to say that while both Cheever and Yates wrote about the suburban and office worker worlds of the late 1950s and early 1960s they were not either of them truly of those worlds.

They were outsiders who had no real desire to become insiders, even imaginatively.

When I was teaching it was an article of faith among the deconstructionist types that I worked with that outsiders were the most insightful critics of a society or culture, outsiders being usually defined not as foreigners but as people from groups marginalized or ostracized within that society, so that the best critics of straight society are gay people, the best critics of male only worlds are women, the best critics of white society are the black and brown people who serve it. This idea, self-serving and self-flattering because who is marginalized and ostracized if not neurotic academic types, doesn’t take into account the emotional damage being caused by being marginalized and ostracized, as if anger, frustration, hatred, and self-loathing are the necessary ingredients to objectivity.

John Cheever and Richard Yates were two of the most unrepresentative middle-class white men alive in 1960 and they produced fiction that expressed their own situations as misfits.

Cheever’s short stories are prose poem dreams of a self he couldn’t be, and Revolutionary Road is a nightmare vision of a life Yates was trying desperately not to have.

You don’t read their stories to find out about life in their time. You read them to find out what their characters are up to.

If the writing on Mad Men seems to be historically accurate because of how well it reflects the work of John Cheever and Richard Yates, it’s probably because what the writers know of life back then they know from reading the likes of John Cheever and Richard Yates.

My feeling is that it doesn’t much matter if the attitudes of the characters in Mad Men are historically correct, any more than it really matters if Tolstoy’s Napoleon matches up with the historians’ Napoleon.

One advertising agency doesn’t represent the whole advertising world, the advertising world isn’t the whole of the business world, the whole of the business world isn’t the whole of the working world, and the whole of the working world isn’t the whole of life.

In other words, there’s a lot of room for the creators of Mad Men to play around in. They are free to say, maybe the stories we’re telling aren’t representative of life in general in the business world of 1960; they are, though, stories about the way things were at this particular agency.

So the question isn’t whether or not anything on the show is historically accurate, but whether or not they are dramatically plausible.

We can’t really know what people in general were thinking and feeling in 1960. But we can know what these characters are thinking and feeling, and knowing that, we can judge whether or not those thoughts and feelings are true to life.

We don’t need to know if these characters are behaving like people did back then. We only need to know whether or not they are behaving like people.

When all’s said and done, a story isn’t compelling because of what it tells us about life back then.

It’s compelling because of what it tells us about life.

Then and now.

The past may be another country, but I need to get around in this one, the present. So my question for the gang at newcritics is this: How well does Mad Men help us navigate through the here and now?

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