Sixteenth century: Copernicus formulates the solar system; 17th century: Sir Isaac Newton formulates gravity; 18th century: James Watt formulates steam power; 19th century: Charles Darwin formulates evolution; 20th century: Albert Einstein formulates relativity. And for the millennium?
William Jefferson Clinton formulates Unilateral Consensual Sex.
Ah, what a piece of work is Man!
A telltale sign of the quality of the recent Bill Clinton visit has been that its aftermath has lingered scarcely longer than a wisp of smoke. The man was barely here, and when he was, his schedule was dictated by people whose motive in becoming “Hamptonites”-as they doubtless call themselves-seems principally to be the hope of taking on some of the gloss of the frenzied publicity with which the media have invested this place (to the point that it has become a cash crop!). Unearned celebrity by association, in a word.
Why, otherwise, in a place famous for its corn, its lobster and fish, its fresh green produce, its tomatoes and its pies, would the welcoming committee drag the First Feeler off to a barbecue place? Amagansett is famous for many things, but barbecue is not one of them. Of course, what does an Arkansan know from barbecue, being that the pig is, fittingly enough, the state animal. Even in peckerwood country, it’s about as un- de rigueur as you can get to eat the flesh of your mascot, especially when you’ve got the public treasury back there in Little Rock to feed on. Still, one does wonder why the powers of arrangement didn’t commission a clambake from the Clam Man in Southampton, the Seafood Shop in Wainscott, or whoever it was who did Jane Holzer’s July 4 picnic, which Glorious Food’s Sean Driscoll, no mean critic, told me was the best he’d ever eaten.
I feel sorry for ol’ Gobble-My-Goober, though. To be fed “Gourmet” Bar-B-Q beside the Montauk Highway while having to listen to Alec Baldwin’s political views is bad enough, but in the bargain to be lumbered with 40 percent (2 out of 5) of the Horsepersons of the Hamptons Apocalypse seems downright sadistic (or masochistic, depending on your view of things): not only Mort Zuckerman, a good argument for requiring that press proprietors be licensed, but also Barbaralee Diamonstein-etc., who has brought what we Net types call “push technology” to Hamptons social life. She somehow wedged herself into the Presidential party, turning the slopfest into the gastronomic equivalent of the Kursk Salient. Oy, gevalt! Or, as Leo Rosten defines the term in my 1968 edition of The Joys of Yiddish , ” Gevalt , Lord, enough already!”
Speaking of which, why haven’t the media called attention to the eerie coincidence that the two most publicized recent Presidential blowjobs have both been committed by young women named Monica. M. Lewinsky we know all about, but then there’s M. Crowley, whose posthumous fellation (only in print, admittedly) of Richard M. Nixon has been every bit as intense and enthusiastic as her current counterpart’s Oval Office hob-knobbing. As Romeo asked, what’s in a name? Are the gods telling us something?
Be that as it may, I say, Away, dull care! I am off for my annual August sojourn in Jamaica with Beloved Stepmother, with books to read and issues to ponder. Which makes this column a fitting occasion for desk-clearing. Last week, a pants-wetter wrote in to excoriate me for dissing Saving Private Ryan , which he stated, categorically, to be “the most eloquent and fiercely powerful antiwar statement ever produced by Hollywood.” So let me add a couple of thoughts. The Steven Spielberg movie is surely the greatest “anti-flesh wound” statement ever emitted by Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. As such, and in keeping with present politics, it is surely the most powerful disincentive to serving in the armed forces ever filmed, at least so far this year. Also very contemporary. But “antiwar”? Nowhere in the picture is the issue of “Why are we fighting?” squarely met. Nowhere do we engage with issues of folly and waste, or cause, or duty, or the schemes of statesmen and the ambitions of tyrants. These were matters of which the Allied commanders-Churchill, Roosevelt, Eisenhower-spoke openly and exhortatively. The opening sequence has been described to me by World War II combat veterans as the most true-to-life portrayal of battle they have ever seen on screen, and I believe them, but I must also point out that for these men, the film’s images register on and make connections with sensibilities unlike our own. The bullets on screen evoke real memories of bullets that flew at them, of friends and platoon-mates whom those bullets killed or maimed. But death and dismemberment are not all there is to battle, these men will tell you, there is also survival and the exhilaration that comes with it.
These are feelings only combatants know. Especially when presented to us as rawly and bloodily as Mr. Spielberg does. No more bloodily than Robert Altman did in M.A.S.H. , however. The problem is, we are given no personal, individuating sense of the soldiers being shot up on the beach. Except Tom Hanks, who gets the same star treatment John Wayne does in the criticized The Longest Day (a much better and more interesting film, by the way) in that recognition is our only peg.
There’s a reason great war films confer specific personalities and identities on the characters early on. Why we see men in basic training. So that we can make a personal and moral and emotional-a human-connection with them when the shooting starts and they begin to drop.
In other words, being against carnage isn’t the same as being against war. You want to see an “antiwar statement” worthy of the term? Change your diapers and go and rent Twelve O’Clock High, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Paths of Glory , for that matter, Tunes of Glory, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, A Walk in the Sun, All Quiet on the Western Front, Grand Illusion .
And two more points worth thinking about. Had the Hanks character survived, he would surely have been court-martialed for disobeying orders twicefold: (a) in abandoning the mission to get Private Ryan out of harm’s way, and (b) for not blowing up a bridge that was a high-priority enemy objective. Real-life military orders seldom include provision for deus ex machina , but in Life According to Spielberg, that’s all there is.
And then there’s this: In “Horatius,” Thomas Babington Macaulay writes, “And how can man die better/ Than facing fearful odds/ For the ashes of his fathers,/ And the temples of his gods?” No work, of art or otherwise, that presumes to make a meaningful “statement” about war can avoid answering this question in some form. The poem is about Horatius the man; Mr. Spielberg’s film about the bridge. At the end of the day, it is an empty helmet.
Here’s another interesting question. Now that the Low Point in American High Culture, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the High Point in American Low Culture, Vanity Fair , are both run by Canadians, is any further degradation possible? Reader views on this point will be welcomed at email@example.com.
What about Mike Barnicle? I think he should have been fired. Plagiarism is the rankest, most unforgivable sin any writer can commit. Against another writer, against the beleaguered profession. And by the by, it’s not The Boston Globe that’s put Mr. Barnicle’s “glorious” 25-year career at risk, as the spinners would have us think, it’s Mr. Barnicle himself. And how The Globe can even think about keeping a white male plagiarist on staff after dismissing a black female fantasist beats me. She at least used her imagination; all Mr. Barnicle seems to have used was a scanner. And while we’re about it, isn’t it time to disband the Don Imus Boys Club? Talk about a circle-jerk! Or circle of jerks. Can’t somebody give the guys who do the voices their own show?
The terrifying bombing of our embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam has produced all sorts of analytical reaction. What I couldn’t help thinking was that when, in 1989, the Wall came down and Marxism-Leninism died, the cheers for the triumph of capitalism included many a fine paean to its technology. The fax, the copier, ’twas said, were what made possible the free circulation of ideas and information that toppled the commissars’ statues and liberated the huddled gray masses. Isn’t that same technology today still disseminating combustible information: circulating potent images of the Land of Have-of waste, inequity, self-indulgence, libertinism, love of violence and so on-to the Land of Have-Not? Images of our plenty that can breed an inner-city awareness of deprivation fully capable of metastasizing into hatred.
Finally, in this era of print journalists whose true ambition seems to be to appear on TV talk shows, here’s a quotation from William Hazlitt ( Conversations With Northcote ) worth thinking about. “There is the difference between writing and speaking. In writing, you address the average quantity of sense or information in the world; in speaking you pick your audience, or at least know what they are prepared for, or else previously explain what you think necessary.”
See you when I get back. Keep pants and powder dry.