Into the heart of light­ness

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Peter Craven

How the World Was Won: The Amer­i­can­i­sa­tion of Ev­ery­where By Peter Con­rad Thames and Hud­son, 336pp, $49.99 (HB)

PETER Con­rad is one of those Aus­tralians who knows ev­ery­thing. He isn’t an ex­am­ple of the ex­tra­or­di­nary per­former ex­pat where the self and the eru­di­tion are part and par­cel of each other, as in the case of Ger­maine Greer or the great Robert Hughes. He’s noth­ing if not quiet — even his books seem quasi-tacit ex­er­cises in hy­po­thet­i­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tion — yet he can talk with his vast ac­cu­mu­lated knowl­edge about ev­ery as­pect of cul­ture high and low: mod­ernism and mu­sic, Aus­tralia and its thou­sand images, Verdi and Wag­ner (in one book), love and death soar­ing through opera, cul­ture and all its la­tent dis­con­tents.

He is, in per­son, the op­po­site of the grand brash Aussies out-By­ron­ing By­ron with their brute beauty of speech and per­son. The chap I met glanc­ingly 25 years ago at Or­mond Col­lege, when he was still teach­ing at New Col­lege, Ox­ford, had a crisp, all but word­less au­thor­ity. (Yes, he said, it was hard to know whether nou­velle cui­sine or lit­er­ary the­ory was the greater crime of the French and the huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ Bri­tish bar­bar­ians couldn’t be­lieve that he’d dared to write a his­tory of their lit­er­a­ture.)

But the im­age was like a quiet character played by Dud­ley Moore, a dor­mouse sleep­ing his way through the ex­hi­bi­tion of his bril­liances. And the books play that way too, not least this new quasi-en­cy­clo­pe­dic, oddly af­fect­less his­tory of Amer­ica and the lights and shad­ows it has cast on a world that would not know where it was with­out the US.

The odd thing about Con­rad is that he tends to dis­ap­pear into the icons of his own in­sights, which are more like hy­po­thet­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties of in­ter­pre­ta­tion, bits of struc­tural data for some hermeneu­tics of the fu­ture. But at the same time he is ca­pa­ble of a kind of daz­zling es­say­is­tic qual­ity, at once per­sonal and en­gag­ing, which he is nor­mally at pains to re­sist.

How the World was Won: The Amer­i­can­i­sa­tion of Ev­ery­where be­gins bril­liantly: “Like many who ar­rived in the world after 1945, I of­ten need to re­mind my­self that I am not an Amer­i­can.” As well he might given he has had an apart­ment in New York for 35 years, even as he has pur­sued his bril­liant ca­reer teach­ing at Ox­ford and writ­ing books and thou­sands of ar­ti­cles on the widest range of high­brow sub­jects, while also deign­ing — wasn’t it in The Monthly? — to do an A to Z of Brit­ney Spears.

But that open­ing is a killer and ev­ery­one (not least his fel­low baby-boomer Aussies) will iden­tify with it.

Con­rad was born in Ho­bart in 1948 and went to Ox­ford on a Rhodes schol­ar­ship. He says he “grew up jug­gling the bor­rowed cul­ture of two for­eign pow­ers”: the lit­er­a­ture of Eng­land, Shake­speare and all that, and the en­ter­tain­ment of Amer­ica, where the In­di­ans in their warpaint as­sailed the cow­boys and the cavalry rode in at the end.

“A so­ci­ety of scarcely cred­i­ble gloss and glam­our,” as Con­rad bril­liantly puts it. He ef­fort­lessly cap­tures the ex­tra­or­di­nary ro­mance that Amer­ica by ne­ces­sity had for any Aus­tralian kid grow­ing up 40 or 50 years ago, that sense of a soar­ing lux­ury, a richer ver­sion of just what we were and wanted. Yes, but the his­toric grandeur of the English thing was ro­man­tic too.

Yeats, ar­guably the great­est poet of the 20th cen­tury, said that for an Ir­ish­man, Eng­land was fairy­land. Well, for an Aus­tralian, ev­ery­where was fairy­land, as Con­rad well knows. It’s at Ox­ford that he meets a bearded, chubby-faced Amer­i­can who in­vites him to his rooms and says (with what Con­rad takes to be in­fi­nite Amer­i­can world­li­ness), “That’s not a French invitation.” No, it is gen­uine friend­li­ness, wide as a con­ti­nent, how­ever south­ern in its in­flec­tion,

Novem­ber 22-23, 2014 and the man who of­fers it is the young Bill Clin­ton. Typ­i­cally the young Con­rad didn’t take him up on it and barely re­mem­bered the en­counter un­til decades later.

This is won­der­ful stuff and so is his child­hood mem­ory of John F. Kennedy an­nounc­ing that to be an Amer­i­can at the start of the 1960s would be a “hazardous ex­pe­ri­ence”, though it was de­bat­able whether we would find the ex­pe­ri­ence as ex­hil­a­rat­ing as JFK did. And then his mem­ory of Kennedy just dead and Con­rad’s mother say­ing, “Now there’ll be a war.”

This is bril­liant, even as it courts a cool­ish kind of creepi­ness, and so is the fi­nal chap­ter when Con­rad re­turns, for the first time in hun­dreds of pages, to talk per­son­ally, in the man­ner of an or­di­nary prat­tling jour­nal­ist, as some­thing like him­self. It’s at the end, too, that he gives away his love of the US, though he talks with a wry in­tel­li­gence of how Barack Obama, after mak­ing oblig­a­tory obei­sance to Amer­ica as the great­est coun­try on earth, refers to “this im­prob­a­ble na­tion”. Con­rad goes on: “His favourite ad­jec­tives are at once mes­sianic and ironic, match­ing both the dis­tinct nov­elty of the idea and its pre­car­i­ous­ness.”

This is sharp stuff and it’s also critic’s stuff. Of course Obama is both an evan­ge­list — he must be the great­est Amer­i­can or­a­tor since Kennedy, if not a greater one — and he’s also a cool dude, a tem­per­a­men­tal lib­eral with a scep­ti­cal sense of what’s pos­si­ble. Even if his­tory may be kinder to him than we are by in­clud­ing that Amer­i­can im­pos­si­bil­ity, health­care, in the list of his achieve­ments.

But Con­rad trea­sures Amer­ica. He says, quite rightly, that “the high cul­ture as­saulted by the Nazis … was pro­tected and pre­served by Amer­ica. That her­itage is no longer at risk [and] and there is no rea­son why it should not be sup­ple­mented … by a lowlier cul­ture … as ephemeral as a popular song”.

This fi­nal per­spec­tive comes to Con­rad via film critic Pauline Kael’s dec­la­ra­tion that trash could have its place. The dif­fi­culty with How the World is Won is that it is a wide-rang­ing ex­am­i­na­tion of much of the popular cul­ture of Amer­ica as it might hap­pen to in­habit the mind of a one-time Tas­ma­nian who was read­ing Dick­ens and Shake­speare at seven, but get­ting off on the Satur­day mati­nee and the panora­mas, dra­matic and comedic, of Dis­ney­land.

When Con­rad was first mas­ter­ing

lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, the great summa of the new crit­i­cism (which was also, in a cen­tral way, a po­ten­tial de­mo­li­tion of it) was Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Crit­i­cism. It was full of in­sights about ev­ery cor­ner of lit­er­a­ture but was also a cri­tique of the whole idea of eval­u­a­tion — though with the com­plex qual­i­fi­ca­tion that Frye dis­placed the idea of value away from the in­di­vid­ual word and on to the to­tal or­der of words that con­sti­tuted lit­er­a­ture. Like Frye, Con­rad pro­vides a kind of in­ter­pre­ta­tive tax­on­omy, a map of what he sur­veys. In this case, Amer­ica and its in­flu­ence, most par­tic­u­larly in film and jour­nal­ism.

So in this book we have Con­rad talk­ing not just about the Mar­shall Plan that saved (West) Ger­many after the war but Stan­ley Kramer’s 1961 film Judg­ment at Nurem­berg. Re­mem­ber Max­i­m­il­ian Schell’s stun­ning Shake­spearean open­ing ad­dress in un­sub­ti­tled Ger­man, Burt Lan­caster as the old Ger­man judge and Spencer Tracy pre­sid­ing in the midst of it all? Well, Con­rad fo­cuses on Tracy, for­get all that other im­pres­sion­ism. We’re in the do­main of some­thing like Frye’s as­ser­tion that myth equals what Ar- is­to­tle meant by mythos: that is, the plot. Here’s a bit of Con­rad’s ac­count: Hence the choice of Spencer Tracy to play Judge Hay­wood, a provin­cial from Maine who says he was jobbed in be­cause no one bet­ter could be found ... His very or­di­nar­i­ness, ac­cord­ing to Kramer and [screen­writer Abby] Mann, is what au­tho­rises this ar­che­typal Amer­i­can to pre­side at a trial of crimes against hu­man­ity ... Tracy, grand­fa­therly and un­in­tel­lec­tu­ally tac­i­turn, rep­re­sents the ba­nal­ity of good­ness, which gives cre­dence to his puni­tive ver­dict at the end of the film when he finds the ac­cused lawyers guilty.

“Un­in­tel­lec­tu­ally tac­i­turn”? Any­one who has ever fallen among Bri­tish lit­er­ary in­tel­lec­tu­als should re­pent in dust and ashes the habit of look­ing clever by putting an ad­verb in front of an ad­jec­tive: it’s so facilely smart. The re­ver­sal of Han­nah Arendt’s ba­nal­ity of evil is very clever, but isn’t it also a lit­tle bit lame? Shouldn’t a book that cel­e­brates Frank Capra take Amer­i­can dra­matic folksi­ness as a given, and wouldn’t Arendt her­self have run scream­ing from this as­pect of the Amer­i­can pop­u­laire.

There’s some­thing odd too about Con­rad’s con­clu­sion, when he says the Tracy fig­ure’s judg­ment would be un­ac­cept­able to the mil­i­tary au­thor­i­ties, who wanted le­niency. “Amer­ica had given up ex­pect­ing love, and for­lornly hoped for pop­u­lar­ity as a sec­ond best.” The dif­fi­culty with this kind of in­ter­pre­ta­tion is that it seems to pro­ceed from what Shake­speare called “the pic­ture of No­body”. It’s in­ter­pre­ta­tively fea­si­ble but not true.

You get the same qual­ity in his de­scrip­tion of Jean-Luc Go­dard’s Breath­less, the most cel­e­brated film of the new wave (and it’s typ­i­cal of Con­rad that he’s for­ever mov­ing side­ways to present Euro­pean con­cep­tions of Amer­ica): “[Jean-Paul] Bel­mondo, who mim­ics a hero he fondly calls Bo­gey, is larce­nous on a more am­bi­tious scale. He steals cars, which must be Amer­i­can to be worth the risk ... His ‘New Yorkaise’ girl­friend Jean Se­berg is in­ter­change­able with th­ese cars and when he of­fers ‘ une Amer­i­cane’ to a shady dealer on the tele­phone she won­ders if he means her ... But car and girl are alike in be­ing what lin­guis­tic the­o­rists call a ve­hi­cle, the con­veyance for an idea, a metaphor­i­cal to­ken that will Amer­i­can­ise Bel­mondo by as­so­ci­a­tion.”

Is this tonally true to the film as we ex­pe­ri­ence it, and if it has a truth beyond tonal­ity, what does that amount to? How the World was Won is full of bril­liant bits of crit­i­cal fancy foot­work that could make any­one say, “Very clever, Mr Con­rad, yes. But what about...” And the “what about” will al­ways be to do with tone, hu­mour, ten­der­ness and — in the last anal­y­sis — im­pres­sion­ism and feel­ing.

Well, some heads are too hard and some minds too fine for such webs and mist. Mal­larme may have said the ef­fect of the thing in the mind was more im­por­tant than the thing it­self, but Con­rad is more in­tent on an Amer­ica with the full co­gency of a thou­sand lu­cid and con­fronting hy­pothe­ses, whether we’re talk­ing about Mark Rothko’s paint­ings or Katharine Hep­burn or Susan Son­tag and Mary McCarthy in Viet­nam.

I don’t re­ally be­lieve Con­rad’s heart be­longs to trash or he’d be a bit less clear-cut about the popular song be­ing ephemeral. It’s fas­ci­nat­ing that he all but ends with the fact that Amer­i­can re­gional lit­er­a­ture (the south in Wil­liam Faulkner or Flan­nery O’Con­nor) gave Tim Win­ton “per­mis­sion to write about his own cor­ner of Western Aus­tralia”.

And I like the sneak­i­ness with which he as­serts his love of Don DeLillo, and the quo­ta­tion from that ex­tra­or­di­nary master­piece White Noise where a character says of the land of the free: “We still lead the world in stim­uli.”

Judg­ment at Nurem­berg,

left; wide-rang­ing au­thor Peter Con­rad, above

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