In the fat Age of Pleasure, Wealth, and Ease,
Sprung the rank Weed, and thriv’d with large Increase.
Alexander Pope writing in the 18th century states it for our own cultural moment: Rather than a Renaissance, the “rank weed” thrives.
Seen over time, September 11, 2001 was but a pause in a wave of raunch unleashed in the “fat age” of the 1990s. Now, three years since that catastrophic day, rather than the heights we skim the depths, the detailing at which discretion blanches but will outline: When a musical called Urinetown wins a Tony award; when a performance piece called The Vagina Monologues continues to win rave reviews and spawns Puppetry of the Penis; when a producer’s “golden gut” tells him his TV series Skin will go No. 1; when stripper classes are offered at the local mall—dare we hope the nadir was reached at the last Super Bowl when a pop singer popped a breast?—the rank weed has leapt the fringes and taken over the garden, the mainstream.
Equally rank is the narcissism at the weed’s root, reflected in the moment’s emblematic figure—the avatar of “cool”—he pridefully posing with mean look, she in what can only be called the slut look, putting it to us (and the world as we “liberate” it): “Are you hot?”
Yech. This, from us, beneficiaries of unparalleled personal choice? In a culture with impressively inventive artists? And, most unsettling, chosen after the collective glimpse of our better selves on 9/11?
Seen in its historical significance, 9/11 was the day the world crashed into America. The fateful question became—and remains: Would the self-absorbed superpower finally turn outward and relate to the world? Hope ran high we would. But gauging by the cultural fare at the moment, there is scant “Aha” of recognition that we in our humanity connect with that of the world—except at a very low level. Instead the narcissism deepens, the rauncherie ramps up, with an even tighter focus on skin and the nether parts.
Flash! The New Yorker scores breakthrough photos—of “serious” actor Kevin Kline grabbing his crotch and of a female rocker showing us her pubic hair. Just a few hairs, mind you—slippery slopes are teased by the centimeter—but yes, the venerated magazine goes for the “money shot.” Cool.
Flash! The descent accelerates: The New Yorker sacks the incremental approach and only months later brings us two actors in full nudity. Wa-a-ay cool. And Nobel laureate in literature Sir V.S. Naipaul graces us with a pornographic short story. Small relief that he did not indulge his usual form, the novel, and go longer.
One would like to joke “Who knew?”—one really would. But a fever of three years is no joke, all the less so given our need for transcendence. Certainly, in the shock of 9/11, distraction was needed (“Singer, sing for us”); the elevation of Mozart’s Requiem could not be sustained forever; we sought cheaper thrills. But with time, cheapened habit becomes character—and we are being revealed. Truly, is a rank weed the best we can do? Thrust by 9/11 to defend the front lines, we are fighting for—what?—dysfunction?
Flash! We are fighting for dysfunction: U.S. Commerce Secretary goes to China to “kick butt” over bootlegging of revenge film Kill Bill. Point: Violence (along with “cool”) is a major export, so hands off. Meanwhile, “standards minder” Jack Valenti says of the film, “Even an impressionable child would say they’ve seen worse on Wile E. Coyote.” Question: Why, if fare of this ilk was deemed “inappropriate” by the industry in the aftermath of September 11, is it now not only appropriate but officially defended?
And another question, to be asked in front of the mirror: Is it any surprise that a culture of raunch and revenge might yield the depredation of an Abu Ghraib, of American soldiers engaged in the torture, often sexual, of Iraqi prisoners—and laugh while doing so?
On this point, The New Yorker performs a true public service with Seymour Hersh’s exposes of the shame at Abu Ghraib. But does this offset the raunch cited above? (No.) Sadly, The New Yorker is not the only prestige venue to engage in this moral hypocrisy.
America, it is clear, has taken a moral fall—a steep one—of which the raunch is symptomatic. There are flashes of beauty and health, to be sure; in the main, though, raunch now rules. But to note this moral fall—even to raise a moral question—is, both for citizen and artist, to be seen as rude, or unpatriotic, or, equally damning, “uncool.”
Surveying the wreckage, the precipitous fall, thoughtful citizens feel insulted and angry, especially those trying to guide children in their growth. Others, depleted in spirit, despair for America, fearing we are beyond recovery. And too many, heartsick and “past caring” or feeling “uncool” and thus benched, have undertaken what Soviet citizens did in the Communist era: “inner migration.” One such friend is rereading the novels of George Eliot and Henry James—specifically for the joy of their characters’ inner moral struggles.
Myself, I cannot migrate inward. With America in crisis on two fronts—its security and its Soul—serious artists must engage, no matter that America historically has not engaged serious art, nor that few “serious” artists protest the present rankness—perhaps because they have contributed to the rankness, seriously. So compelled, I study a postcard on my desk of an ancient amphitheatre, the one at Ephesus, and I wonder: Will the American superpower succumb to the tragic fates that befell Greece, Rome, Mesopotamia-now-Iraq?
Or can we, dynamic and reinventive, counter the fall—and create something higher?