Forget U.

Editor’s note: This is the third essay in a series by Thomas F. Bertonneau, who teaches literature at SUNY Oswego. His previous essay, “Literacy Lost,” can be found here.

The phrase je me souviens, “I remember,” is not just French but particularly Québécois. Among the people of Quebec it refers to the specifically French character of Laurentian culture, to the history of French settlement in the St. Lawrence river basin, to the conflict with the English, and to the legal concessions made by the English at the end of the wars that guaranteed the right of the militarily conquered to retain their native language and institutions. Upstate New York, where I live and teach, shares a border with French Canada, where my family often travels during the summer vacation.  I admire the Québécois people, in part for their thematic insistence on remembering their own peculiar past and traditions.  
In a related instance, a Hebrew-competent friend tells me that the first words of one of the most frequently invoked of Jewish prayers, Sh’ma Yisroel, mean both, “Listen, O Israel” and “Remember, O Israel.”  So, also, memory as a theme runs centrally through the ethical philosophy of Plato, who constantly called on his fellow Athenians not to forget the lesson of his and their teacher, Socrates.

How else could a culture or a national or local tradition exist except through the intention of remembering?  Yet modern culture, especially modern mass-entertainment culture—commercial culture—is predicated on pre-programmed forgetting.

It could hardly be otherwise, because selling the latest pop-music phenomenon, or the latest sexploitation comedy, requires the suppression, as one might say, of last year’s model. Or last week’s model, as the cycle always accelerates. Commercial culture—in movies, television programming, and mass-audience music—swiftly and deliberately suppresses its own past. This self-obliterating function of mass-audience, lowest-common-denominator entertainment deprives those who take reference solely from it (they are legion) of any notion of cultural continuity. Not only, then, is the representative college freshman unlikely to know anything about James Fennimore Cooper’s “Deer-Slayer” or the Lincoln-Douglas debates; he is unlikely even to identify a passing allusion to Star Trek or to Seinfeld – the latter described by television critics, with some justification, as the most popular sitcom ever, which ended its run a decade ago but still draws a large audience in syndication.

When my department chairman asked me a year ago to teach the local version of the popular-culture course for a semester, I welcomed an opportunity to confront students about the prevailing collective loss of memory that is characteristic of our age. I wanted to demonstrate for them their own temporal isolation from the traditions of public entertainment and call on them to break free from their commercially inculcated insipidity of taste. I felt that they could do this by learning to appreciate items of leisure and popular cultivation from the grandparental and great-grandparental decades before their birth. I also wanted them to read writers like Neil Postman (see my previous essay) and Roger Scruton on the impoverished character of current popular culture, to give them an idea of how genuinely cultured people see the contemporary situation. Postman, incidentally, was a left-leaning liberal, as is typical for an academic; Scruton, who prospers outside the academy, is pronouncedly conservative in his leanings.  The convergence of their judgments is startling.

The class was large, opening with 120 students on the roster.  On the first day of the term I asked a question: How many folksongs do you know? With one or two exceptions, and not from shyness but from an honest admission of ignorance, most students answered, “none.” The exceptions, which were few, had to do with hymns and Christmas carols, but even concerning carols students agreed that they only knew the first verse. I had a follow-up question: How many of the songs that you listen to can you also sing?  Here again, the overwhelming answer was, “none.” I then quoted Scruton to them, who points out in his Guide to Modern Culture (2000) that the representative commercial rock-and-roll song is devised precisely to be unsingable—except by the particular “star” who, through radical technical intervention, will appear on the video-track to be singing it. The whole thing is an electronically mediated illusion.

Thus there is a startling difference between the songs that students consume and the songs that their grandparents and great grandparents sang, the memory of which the commercialization of music rudely interrupted, starting about fifty years ago. People sang folksongs, music-hall songs, and parlor songs; people consume contemporary “pop” songs. The singer is active; the consumer is passive. I told the students that we would spend the first three or four weeks of the fifteen-week semester reading in Postman and Scruton and discussing them while listening attentively to as many folksongs, music-hall songs, and parlor songs as I could access from local music libraries and the Internet.  But, I added that, so as not to remain in passivity, students should form small groups of four or five, select from a list a song that they would like to perform in class, and prepare it. The performance would count for the midterm examination.  
To say that I had conjured a grim shadow of terror would be something of an understatement. But I promised not to excuse myself from the requirement and to put on a show with the rest of them.  (I can manage “The Sailor to His True Love” in a pinch.)

The choices that students favored surprised me. Five of nineteen groups selected a Harry Champion song called “A Little Bit of Cucumber.” Champion reigned as the undisputed monarch of the London music-hall scene from the first decade of the twentieth century to his death in 1942. Champion could hardly sing at all—he barked out his lyrics using the few notes in his range—but his style communicated verve and enthusiasm that still come across in his legacy of recordings. Several groups also committed to the maritime ditty “What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor?” The midterm turned into an hour’s songfest, with everyone soon joining in everyone else’s song.

More than a “kumbaya moment,” the occasion taught students that some songs are actually singable with a bit of effort and that a definite positive pleasure comes from the discipline of learning them with others and performing them. One perceptive coed said that part of the fun was the “weird words.”  She meant the words of Champion’s “Cucumber,” deliberately silly, but thoroughly clever, and noticeable therefore as an artistic exploitation of the charm inherent in thoughtful language.

While confessing to the anecdotal character of my evidence, I believe that the idea of a lapse in the cultural memory made an impression on the students and that the insights linked to learning a song made them more open to Postman and Scruton than they might otherwise have been. They also better understood what I meant by the loss of cultural memories and traditions, as referred to by Postman and Scruton, than they did at the beginning of the semester. We later moved from popular song to jazz. I availed myself of the “soundies”: short films from the 1930s and ‘40s featuring the jazz and swing bands of the period. Simply in terms of instrumentation, Duke Ellington’s band differs utterly from the usual rock-and-roll quartet; almost any Ellington performance rises to art in its instrumental color and suavity of line. Cab Calloway often drew on the black- church-service institution of the “call and response.” Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” serves in an unlikely way to demonstrate the rootedness of mid-twentieth century entertainment music in rich social traditions. Again—students reacted cautiously, but with a sense of discovering something worth knowing that, for them anyway, would otherwise remain in oblivion.

I also wanted to address film. Of course, college students constitute a main pillar of the movie audience, and studios aim a majority of movies at the high school and college market. In this sense students “know film” from immersion in it. They have, however, typically almost no notion of the history of film and almost no acquaintance with any films made before they were in the eighth grade.  (An exception is Star Wars, dating prehistorically from 1977.)  I screened outtakes from a number of movies, starting with turn-of-the-century George Méliès “silents,” while for uninterrupted screening I selected two feature-length films from the middle of the last century – the Michael Curtiz production of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and the Michael Powell production of I Know Where I’m Going (1944).

Strict criteria governed my choices: I wanted films as removed as possible in subject matter from the sex- and violence-saturated movies that students flock to see; I wanted films that have a historic dimension, treating past events or exploring long-standing traditions; I wanted films that dealt in subtleties of behavior; and I wanted films that were linguistically rich, where the dialogue illuminates and deepens the visual narrative.

The Adventures of Robin Hood rises to the level of art and skillfully juxtaposes imagery and word. I called attention to a sequence midway through the film in which Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) has captured Sir Guy of Gisbourne and the Sheriff of Nottingham—and along with them Lady Marian Fitzwalter (Olivia de Havilland)—as they pass through Sherwood Forest. Fitzwalter has earlier appeared as a haughty Norman, disdaining the Saxons, as do others of the French-speaking aristocracy. Robin cajoles Marian to meet and speak with the refugees in his camp, who have all experienced severe mistreatment under the despotic regency of the Norman prince John. Marian is obviously moved by what she sees. Afterwards, the things she says to Robin, while not referring directly to what she has just witnessed, nevertheless indicate a change of heart. The challenge for students is to make sense of director Curtiz’s marvelous indirection and to figure out what Curtiz deliberately does not make explicit.

Some students could do this; some, as their essays attested, did not quite put things together. We discussed what indirection in art entails, however, and I made it clear that, as the next film would be even more indirect in its presentation, those who encountered difficulties in deciphering Robin Hood should endeavor to pay close attention indeed to I Know Where I’m Going.  They should take notes.

I Know Where I’m Going tells the story of Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller), a spoiled young woman from Manchester, England, who, planning to marry a rich man, travels north to Scotland’s Western Isles for their nuptials. Webster is crass and materialistic; she has no sense of tradition—she is a nightclub-frequenting city-dweller who lives entirely in the present. Weather strands her one island short of her goal, and she must spend an indefinite period with the penniless but custom-rich islanders of Mull. Among them is a Royal Navy officer on leave, Torquil McNeil (Roger Livesey). On Mull, the people speak with a heavy Scots accent, often in Scots Gaelic. They live by old customs going back to the Viking period; they know the songs and sing them lustily. Aware of Webster’s fiancé, they refer to him as “The Rich Man of Kiloran” and satirize his spending habits.

In particular, they take astonishment in the millionaire’s lack of appreciation for the natural beauty and resources of Kiloran. “The Rich Man of Kiloran,” says one, “ach—he has the finest tackle from Glasgow, but the fish they do not know him, no.” Like Lady Marian in Robin Hood, Miss Webster is forced to evaluate her values anew. She ends up with McNeil, who also happens to be the Laird of Kiloran, travel to which the relentless winds block—but the process is slow and Powell indicates the stages in an exquisitely roundabout way. The dialogue, the language, of the film carries the story.  Sometimes we glimpse the inner state of one character through a remark made by another character. The film requires its viewers to do quite a bit of mental work.

To the announcement that we would be watching one film from 1938 and another from 1944 and that the second was a black-and-white film, students responded initially with the sub-vocal groan that one expects after twenty years of college teaching.  Strong prejudice against anything not belonging to the narrow present in which, culturally speaking, students live shapes their attitude to new experiences, especially the ones that take them backwards into the (to them) unfamiliar past.  Image-oriented (I borrow Jacques Ellul’s term from my previous essay), they are obtuse about any dialogue that exceeds the practical or works as other than the caption to a scene that, visually gross and overwhelming, really requires no words.  

The good news is that, even though one can only rarely turn non-readers into readers, it is possible to crack the psychic defenses of late adolescents locked in the “peek-a-boo world,” as Postman calls it, of non-serial, flickering images, whose content is not truth, but fantasy. Most students admitted to their appreciation of the films, saying that they were surprised by how heartily they reacted to them.

The job of cracking those defenses needs to begin much earlier than college. Yet—there’s the rub!—it cannot.  The content of the larger culture militates against it too powerfully. The necessity of forgetting in a “peek-a-boo world” makes it less and less likely that the subject of that world will ever say, je me souviens.