The Mortal Storm
Illustration by Mr. FishThese are heady days to be an obituary writer. Ever since Americas best-known critic, Susan Sontag, died in late December, theres been a startling slew of Important Deaths. The greatest talk-show host, Johnny Carson. The most famous playwright, Arthur Miller. The most gonzo journalist, Hunter S. Thompson. The most legendary diplomat, George F. Kennan. The most lavishly celebrated novelist, Saul Bellow. The most career-savvy (and politically reprehensible) architect, Philip Johnson. The most irrelevant monarch, Prince Rainier. Not to mention the most infallible pope at least until the next one. So many big names have passed away so quickly that people have taken to joking about it. When The Daily Show flashed an image of Fidel Castro honoring John Paul II, Jon Stewarts comment was, Hes next. If the new century began for most of us on September 11, 2001, the 20th century may well finally have ended with all these high-profile funerals. One by one, the individuals who defined the last sixty years of American culture have been vanishing from the landscape. And this sudden sense of an ending has been reinforced by the equally abrupt disappearance of the men who once read us the headlines about our national life: Brokaw is retired, Rather was chased from his chair, Jennings has lung cancer and Koppel is calling it quits at ABC. Small wonder that you now hear yearning for the supposedly good old days when the anchorman was a colossus. George Clooney is even directing a movie about Edward R. Murrow. Predictably, the loss of so many celebrated touchstones has set off an epidemic of Cultural Declinism. You know the drill. None of todays diplomats is as worldly as the mandarin Kennan. None of todays late-night hosts boasts Johnnys immaculate poise. None of todays playwrights equals the towering Miller (he even married Marilyn Monroe, for crying out loud). None of todays journalists matches the gleeful fear and loathing of Thompson. And naturally, none of todays novelists can match Bellows exuberant blend of high and low, the references to Heraclitus and the streetwise similes born in Chicago, that somber city. Ah, back then there were giants! Now, Im not mocking their achievements. Kennans famous Long Telegram and 1947 Foreign Affairs article (published under the groovy pseudonym X) laid down a blueprint for what became the U.S. side of the Cold War for better and worse. Nor would I claim not to miss things from our recent past, like the 60s iconoclasm that meant a national magazine would spend the money and show the audacity to publish the reporting that became Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 72. Thompson didnt come cheap or give a hoot how a focus group might react to his call for Hubert Humphreys castration. Still, its not as if we live in a culture where all the Shaqs have been replaced by Chucky Atkinses. Yet that was the subtext of many of the appreciations inspired by Bellows recent death. The Washington Posts fine literary critic Jonathan Yardley began by saying, The void left in the American literary landscape by the death yesterday of Saul Bellow is too large to map or describe. He was the last giant of our literature when it still had giants, when it ruled the world, when it spoke to and about this country its people, its history, its character in ways that connected not to the little world of the literati but to the people themselves. At one level, Yardley is absolutely right, and not only about Bellows brilliance. Forty years ago, a difficult literary novelist such as Thomas Pynchon might sell millions of copies in paperback. Today, the very Idea would be a pipe dream just ask William T. Vollmann or David Foster Wallace. But like the current fondness for video games or reality TV, the marginality of serious fiction doesnt mean that the cultures swan-diving into the trash can. (Heck, Norman Rush does better by Africa than Bellow.) It does mean that we need to rethink our old ideas of what it means to be central to American life. After all, even if a new Saul Bellow came along and a novelist of that stature, male or female, will emerge he wouldnt have the same impact or meaning. Nor would a new Johnny Carson or Hunter Thompson (as Uncle Duke was painfully aware). We now live at a time when our big-box culture lets almost everyone follow his or her own bliss. Were still sorting out how things will look in the globalized 21st century. In a recent column about Bellow, The New York Times David Brooks addressed this issue. Where Bellows work was a pas de deux between Europe and America, Brooks argued, were now living in a unipolar culture, and its lonely at the top. (Spoken like a true neoconservative.) This claim might be more persuasive if Brooks hadnt identified himself as one of those who dont pay attention to what is being written and said in Europe because it doesnt seem that exciting. (Quick, what book is the talk of Berlin? Who is the Francois Truffaut of our moment?) What Brooks seems not to realize is that world culture hasnt stood still over the two decades since he graduated from the University of Chicago. Only his thinking about it has. Contemporary American culture seems unipolar only if you arent paying attention. These days Berliners are talking about Orham Pamuks novel Snow a labyrinthine look at the pressures of Islamic fundamentalism while our moments Truffaut (since you ask) comes with names like Wong Kar-Wai, Alfonso Cuarón, Satoshi Kon and Jafar Panahi. You wont hear them bemoaning decline. Of course, its precisely the desire to find or put events at the very heart of American culture that makes our news media so relentless about belaboring The One Big Story. This was infuriatingly obvious in the coverage of Pope John Paul IIs funeral, an orgy of redundancy and histrionics that, I must confess, gave even me a pang of Declinism. I felt nostalgic for the days when the three broadcast networks wouldve given the whole damn burial about an hour, tops. But this is a new century ruled by the ironclad laws of entertainment. Asked why so many civilians and politicians turned up in Rome, a BBC reporter replied, This is the main event in the world. There hadnt been this kind of funereal overkill since the media herniated itself milking, er, mourning the death of Ronald Reagan. This was fitting, for if Pope John XXIII was the JFK of popes a 60s charmer who won the heart of the world John Paul II was the Gipper of the Holy See, the first show-biz pontiff. He realized (albeit decades after the American evangelicals) that the modern pulpit is the TV screen. And he took care to give a good performance; indeed, in The New Republic, Andrew Sullivan accuses him of showboating. Aware that canonization is always a sure-fire crowd pleaser, John Paul II set a papal record for dispensing holy honors, handing out sainthoods like celebrity gift bags at the Oscars. Who cared if some Croatian cardinal (Stepinac was his name) played footsie with the Nazis? Loyal to the church, the bastard could still be beatified. Not that you would have known this from watching TV. The cable networks were so busy showing the crowds in Rome or trotting out another cheerleading priest that they couldnt be bothered to delve into why the popes tenure was so controversial. This wasnt surprising, for ever since The Passion of the Christ, our media have been terrified that theyre out of touch with the Christian heartland, bending over backward (or is it forward?) to prove theyre down with religion. You could watch for hours, make that days, without anyone mentioning that John Paul IIs Culture of Life included medieval ideas of contraception that may well spell the death of millions from AIDS. Nor did anyone look into the churchs vast sexual-abuse disgrace, which the pope took so unseriously that he gave one of its villains, Cardinal Bernard Law, a sinecure in Rome. The true horror of this didnt really get covered until Law, incredibly, was allowed to give Mondays memorial mass at St. Peters Basilica. (The Vatican issued a gag order prohibiting cardinals from talking about this.) As the bracingly anticlerical Christopher Hitchens accurately noted in Slate, the pontiff who supposedly toppled the Kremlin actually presided over a Vatican whose own authoritarian workings would be right at home on Red Square. No wonder church attendance among U.S. Catholics dropped during his reign. As often happens these days, the popes death and funeral took on a ghastly reactionary tinge. The right tried to hijack everything from John Paul IIs most conservative ideas you didnt exactly hear Fox News analysts talking up his criticisms of capitalism or the Iraq war to his aura of unassailable rectitude. President Bush was especially eager to wrap himself in the papal robes. Whereas Bill Clinton said that John Paul II had been right about some things and wrong about others, Dubya said he couldnt think of a case where the pontiff had been wrong. That seems reasonable to me. After all, if one infallible leader cant spot another, who the hell can?
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.