Into the heart of lightness
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