My own introduction to the set of circumstances recognized by Hesse and codified by McLuhan took place in the early 1970s when I was asked by NBC television to consider writing a documentary about what was then known as “the energy crisis.” The network had gone to no small trouble or expense to collect nineteen hours of handsome film–footage of Arab oil sheiks and American politicians, of tankers riding at anchor in New York Harbor or streaming through the Strait of Hormuz, long lines of cars at California gas stations–but nobody knew what the pictures were supposed to mean. Until the producers decided what it was they wanted to say–bad Arabs, good Americans; good Arabs, bad Americans; oil reserves plentiful and cheap; oil reserves expensive and scarce–they might as well have been staring at nineteen hours of empty sky. Because none of the people in the room knew anything about the oil business other than what they had read on the front page of the New York Times, I could foresee a long series of meetings likely to lead nowhere except back to the front page of the New York Times, and I wondered why the network didn’t borrow the practice of David Hockney–cut the paper into little pieces, paste up the words on a studio wall, and film the collage from six angles over the top of Edwin Newman’s head.
Although I declined the NBC proposition, some years later I accepted an offer from a British production company to write a six-hour television documentary about America’s wars in the twentieth century and in the course of doing so I discovered what McLuhan meant by the phrase “The medium is the message.” Allotted forty-three seconds and seventy-eight words in which to explain the origins of the Second World War, while at the same time providing a transition from still photographs of Neville Chamberlain at the Munich Peace Conference in 1938 to newsreel footage of the German Luftwaffe bombing Poland in September 1939, I understood that television bears more of a resemblance to symbolist poetry than it does even to newspaper prose. The camera looks but doesn’t see, and the necessary compression forces both the words and the images to become less literal and more figurative.
Twenty-three years after the late President Richard M. Nixon was frog-marched out of the White House, the single word “Watergate” brings to mind not only the burglaries at the building of that name but also a film montage intercutting scenes of the Vietnam War with the face of Sam Irvin superimposed on the faces of H. R. Haldeman and Archibald Cox, Henry Kissinger’s voice mixed with the sound of incoming artillery at Danang, clouds of tear gas drifting across college lawns and the steps of the Pentagon, Nixon himself waving good-bye from the door of the helicopter on the White House lawn.
The Watergate metaphor replaced the Camelot metaphor (another trope made to the specifications of the electronic media), and by the winter of 1975 what was once a land of orchards and sweet-running streams had become a desert inhabited by foul and crawling things. Before Watergate, most politicians were presumed trustworthy until proven guilty of fraud or discovered with a Maha kingpin in a Baltimore hotel. Maybe not all of them were as handsome as Jack Kennedy or as earnest as Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but it was thought that they were not the kind of people who accepted money from Chinese arms merchants or licked a prostitute’s toes.
The towers of Camelot and the ruin of Watergate serve as the two sovereign metaphors for the political history of the United States over the last quarter of a century. Each president subsequent to Kennedy and Nixon has attempted to ally his administration with the glory of the former (behold, another knight come to the Round Table) and sentence his opponent (treacherous friend to the traitor Mordred) to the dungeons of the latter. Every scandal worthy of the name aspires to the ignominy of the suffix “gate” (Irangate, Troopergate, etc.), and on the sunnier side of the proposition, the writers of political ad copy strive for phrases that will restore to government the charm of musical comedy–“Morning in America,” “A thousand points of light,” “A place called Hope.”
Although the tropes seldom accomplish all they intend, they conform to the rules of Hesse’s Das Glasperlenspiel and meet the requirements of the electronic media. Instead of narrative we have montage, and our perceptions being tuned to the surfaces of film rather than to the structures of print, we tell one another stories not by lining up rows of words but by making connections (sometimes synchronous, sometimes in juxtaposition) between the film loops stored in our heads. Words define themselves not as signs of a specific meaning but as symbols bearing lesser or greater weights of cinematic association, and history becomes a form of film criticism.
Although not yet as densely imprinted as the word “Watergate,” the runes “O.J.,” “Disney,” “Lincoln bedroom,” “Microsoft,” “Greenspan,” and “Bork” all evoke a series of images from which I could construct–as if from a strand of DNA–the whole of America’s recent social, political, and economic history. Aligned with images of both Rodney and Martin Luther King (one of them prostrate on a Los Angeles freeway, the other standing before a crowd on the Washington Mall), O.J. signifies black; set in the context of the NFL (another not inconsiderable trope), O.J. connotes talent; matched with Heidi Fleiss, O.J. conjugates as decadence, Hollywood celebrity, or the vagaries of California jurisprudence. “Microsoft” and “Lincoln bedroom” lend themselves to similar sets of changes, similar to those improvised by a jazz musician taking liberties with a standard melody, or Hesse’s Magister Ludi setting up beads in the Academy at Castalia.
No wonder the historian finds it hard to tell a straight story. The prospective readers think in circles. Conversant with the wandering paths through cyberspace (click on genetics, go to Pleistocene) and accustomed to the dissolving images seen on the eleven o’clock news or in the movies of Oliver Stone, the audience imprisoned within the walls of the electronic media inhabits the illusion of a once-upon-a-time in which Eva Peron is a model for Yves St. Laurent and a friend of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Jane Austen is forever riding in a carriage on the road to Bath.
How then to salvage from the past any meaning that doesn’t instantly collapse into surrealist fantasy, a collage by David Hockney, or, together with The English Patient, an epic television commercial for a perfume yet to be named? By the historians whom I’ve read in the last several years, the question seems to me best answered by Evan Connell in Son of the Morning Star. The book takes up the subject of what is now known as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where, on June 25, 1876, General George A. Custer led five companies of the 7th Cavalry into an armed mob of yipping and barking Unkpapa Sioux, who promptly made his name a synonym for glory. But instead of trying to reconstruct a patriotic melodrama, Connell deconstructs one of the more elaborate metaphors in the syllabus of American myth. He proceeds by digression and conducts an interrogation of the surviving facts. Curious about all facets of that unfortunate afternoon and careful to distinguish between what is known and what can be surmised, Connell inquires about everything–Custer’s horse, Dandy, the prior service records of Major Reno and Captain Benteen, Sioux burial scaffolds, steamboat navigation on the Yellowstone River, the practice of taking scalps, the rate of fire expected of a .44 caliber Remington revolver, buffalo skulls, Crazy Horse preparing himself for battle by painting white hailstones on his body and tying a brown pebble behind one ear. As the details accumulate, they extend and compound one another, and the reader who stays the course of Connell’s curiosity comes away with the sense of a weightless flag having been grounded on the field of human experience and clearly marked on the map of time.
Were I to teach history either to grammar-school or college students I would borrow from the example of Connell and address a year’s course to a cross section of time as brief as a week but under no circumstances longer than six months. Making a foreground of a single set of events–let’s say the Constitutional Convention assembled in Philadelphia in the summer of 1187–I would begin with Benjamin Franklin, a benevolent gentleman of eighty-one known for his gargantuan sexual appetite as well as for his wisdom, seated between Alexander Hamilton and James Madison for the occasion of the convention’s opening on June 15, on a little platform raised one short step above the chairs arranged for the other fifty-odd delegates gathered in the statehouse to draw the blueprint of a republic for which, as Madison informed the company, “there had been no precedent in the whole of history.” Madison kept careful notes of the proceedings of the next three months, and to the text in hand I would add concentric rings of historical circumstance–first the size and condition of the city of Philadelphia, understood at the time as a sink of iniquity and a capital of dissipation, its sidewalks and gutters paved with brick but reeking with the stench of horse and human excrement, the Quaker drawing rooms crowded with card tables and crystal bowls of rum, pigs rooting through the quagmire of the streets for spoiled vegetables and rotted oysters, fashionable ladies followed on their afternoon walks by black slave boys carrying their toilet cases and bonbon boxes.
The convention took place in secret, behind windows stuffed with felt and no word of the arguments among the uniformly prosperous delegates (forty of them owed money by the Congress and fifteen owning slaves) released to the rabble-rousing press. The gentlemen in fine broadcloth and brocade had come to arrange the political affairs of the new nation in ways convenient to their own economic interests, and by describing the nature of those interests, I could extend the circles of reference into Virginia and Massachusetts, and then, by again widening the lens but still in the summer of 1787, to the Indian frontier in western Pennsylvania and the tennis court at Versailles, or possibly as far as Russia, where Catherine the Great was making her tour of Potemkin’s artificial villages (not so different from the ones imagined by Hillary Rodham Clinton on her travels through the American Midwest), or to Prague, where Mozart that year conducted the first performance of Don Giovanni.
If at the end of the term the students at least had learned that the parade floats marched across the screen of the news go nowhere except around in circles, I would count the course a success. Because the camera seems to impart meaning where no meaning exists, too often I meet people who think it sufficient merely to recognize the name and shape of Tom Cruise or Newt Gingrich, and that by stringing their symbols like beads on a therapeutic thread of private reverie, they have said something both public and profound. Apparently it never occurs to them that they speak a language of prerecorded experience and ready-made cliche, geared to the specifications of a machine in a magic kingdom where, in Simone Weil’s apt but bleak phrase, “It is the thing that thinks, and the man who is reduced to the state of the thing.”