Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Down in the Basement

That Europe is nothing
but a great big auction.
Bunch of old worn-out places.
It's just a big fire sale.

I watched Cat On A Hot Tin Roof the other night, finding myself in need of some mid-century melodrama to wash down the remnants of my 21st century weekend. The garish and grotesque children of Gooper and Sister Woman, costumed and done up provided a nice humorous counterpoint to the sniping of Maggie and Brick, young lovers turned wounded harpie and unresponsive alcoholic (respectively, if not respectfully). But more than the great dialogue and resonant themes of filial crisis and personal anxiety, personal disappointment and scarred relationships finally redeemed, I was struck by the cobwebbed bric-a-brac and crated goods in an old plantation basement. It was the similarities between the cellar in Big Daddy Pollitt's mansion stuffed with Old World antiques and the hoarding impulses exhibited by another cinematic self-made man: Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. Like Kane, Big Daddy also looted the Old World and raged against the shabby, decaying continent, although instead of a sled named Rosebud, Big Daddy, near the end of his life, ruminated ambivalently about an old suitcase left to him by his hobo father - containing his father's uniform from the Spanish American Civil War.

I find it difficult to believe that Tennessee Williams saw antiquing as a decadent affection of a moribund society: by virtue of him being a southern homosexual in that particular era he would (stereotypically) have a fine appreciation of it... But rather, it was the desperate conquering mindset behind it all. Big Daddy, patriarch of the Pollitt family, traipsed through Europe with his wife, buying up culture - a Philistine's desire to own what he could never truly have, mirroring his own attempts to buy his family:
The human animal is a beast that eventually has to die. If he's got money, he buys and he buys. The reason why he buys everything he can, is because... of a crazy hope that one of the things he buys will be life everlasting...
Big Daddy's son Brick, played by Paul Newman, twice speaks to just how futile it was: "You gave her things, not love," and "You own us, but you don't love us." Unlike Kane, Big Daddy eventually reconciles with his family, and the film (and play) is less of an epic than a family drama which ends on a note of reconciliation and hope, even if Big Daddy's spastic colon (of all things) will soon bury him beneath the rich pasture he saved from the swampland.

So: clutter, acquisition, old basements. Some of my fondest memories of my great grandparents are of summer afternoons spent climbing up cherry trees, gorging myself and retiring to their musty basement to root through old boxes for toys, watches or comic book adaptations of the Count of Monte Cristo: typically pastoral and nostalgic, just like all memories of elderly relatives should be. (At the height of my teenage pretensions, when I'd talk for hours about Godard to anyone who'd listen (no one did), I still nurtured a sweet tooth for Euro schmaltz films about children in rural France or Italy after World War II.)

Later on, I'd try to feign an interest in high modernism, the chic minimalism of Wallpaper* magazine, but it never really rang true. And when I worked for a season on a reality television series about design, the trend at that time was to declare war on clutter. A declaration made by the tightly-coiffed hostesses, targeting these rank and unsophisticated amateurs. That, no joke, struck me as a remnant of the minimalist mid=century impulse - fervently ahistorical, utopian, without the messy complications of history and emotion, although enacted in the lowbrow masquerading as highbrow but at best middlebrow arena of reality TV. Not entirely future-obsessed, there was the occasional a nod to times past: Philippe Starck's grotesque Louis Ghost Chair for Kartell or a damask on some throw pillows. (The at once clever and meaningless presence of a Samuel Beckett photograph in a gilded frame on the set of France's Tout le Monde en Parle always baffled me, for example.) Reality television now has a new enemy - hoarders. Poor sods.

All of my discomfort with a nice modernist line, cubes and 90 degree angles is almost certainly owing to growing up in western North America. Aesthetic self-loathing is a powerful force: Germans, sick of the burden of their own history, gobble up Karl May's cowboy & Indian books and come to North America wearing feather head-dresses or Stetsons and spurs; and Japanese fans of Road to Avonlea invading the east coast of Canada... Closer to home, many of our parents' generation decided that gravitas, authenticity and enlightenment was left somewhere along the side of the Silk Road when Marco Polo was returning to Europe from China, (he figured that pasta was lighter and the carbohydrates more filling) so made pilgrimages to ashrams in India, monasteries in China and Tibet, and (more frequently), hash dens in Afghanistan.

The problem with blank canvases in history, is that so often the . Okay, sorry, I'm joking about that...

The compulsion to hoard items, to maintain, but at the same time, I don't see. In many ways, hoarding and collecting are pre-moden impulse: vestigial remnants of a time when icons and charms had intrinsic animistic properties. It's not like the most tech-savvy amongst us are entirely immune to it: a Blackberry or iPhone or Smartphone must have some talismanic properties, given the way we compulsively clutch at them, beyond the boundaries of good sense. (I do it myself.)

I didn't think of myself as a particularly superstitious person, and there's a lot about an animistic view of life that I find reprehensible and preposterous, but when it comes down to how I actually live my life, I'm a pre-modern - I assign emotional value to ludicrous items, and I tend to obey arcane rules in modern life that don't stand up to close scrutiny. For the longest time I wouldn't step on cracks in sidewalks for the fear that I might harm my mother's back. From the earliest I can remember, I was obsessed with doing things (like, God, of all things, cracking my fingers and toes) in a repeating pattern of fours.

Humanity is not a rational animal - motivated as we are by passions, superstitions, and a lust for shiny baubles. For the majority of the 20th century, one of the most barbarous and unsettling on earth, the neuroses of civilization's leading nations were taken care of by adherents to a doctrine created out of the mind of a Viennese cocaine fiend (who thought that parental empthy was misplaced narcissism) and who could, at times, seem like nothing more than sophisticated witchdoctors. Noted sociologist (also ex-husband of Susan Sontag and father of David Rieff) Philip Rieff believed that modern culture amounted to a "mourning for the Christian past,*" which may be true, I guess. But to me, it seems that if it is Christian, it's far more Catholic than Protestant. That we all have our icons and remnants of the cross, and that we are all more like Big Daddy Pollitt, coming to terms with our own mortality and failures in a cellar filled with junk we've acquired in order to avoid Death. Not very profound, I know, but when I started writing this earlier this morning I promised myself I'd finish it. Enjoy the songs.

* (I'm paraphrasing Peter Homans here. Homans goes on to describe Rieff's writings on Freud as being drenched "in irony, display bitterness, sadness, and not a little despair. But irony is the trope of mourning or, rather, of the inability to mourn.") Peter Homans, The Ability to Mourn: Disillusionment and the Social Origins of Psychoanalysis

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