This piece, entitled In America, was printed in Antithesis’ fourth edition in 1990. Encompassing Melissa Hardie’s musings on American culture at the end of the eighties, it is a fascinating insight into the era, and indeed, it’s quite possible to draw lines between then and now – from blind banner-waving to today’s Trumpian nation, from a macabre fascination with murder to the current wave of stubborn Second Amendment defence.
Dr Melissa Hardie is now an associate dean and senior lecturer in English at the University of Sydney, and the President of The English Association Sydney.
Washington D.C., perched on the banks of the Potomac, presents the stylised façade of the American Empire. The District of Columbia was invented as The Nation's Capital in 1800 by the shrewd architects of geographic democracy, who clubbed together land ceded by Maryland and Virginia, and united the cities of Washington and Georgetown to create this symbolic spot, neither state nor city.
Beginning life as a trade-off— the capital was located in the (political) South on the condition that the South assume responsibility for the repayment of Revolutionary War debts—today the District of Columbia symbolizes for the worthy citizen not only government, but also a drug economy which recasts yet again the historical terms of trade between North and South.
I went to Washington, D.C. to spend two months at the University of Maryland; the next two months were devoted to a leisurely ramble across the States. I arrived in Washington on July 4, a date which chimed well with the district's other role: as the elaborate headquarters of national celebration and the eternal repository of Americana, hoarded here like so many nuts for a Cold War winter. The touristy North West quarter of the city is dominated by the Mall, a broad concourse lined with the various Smithsonian Museums, and topped and tailed by the Capitol and the Washington Monument, all within easy walking distance of George Bush's swanky pied-a-terre. It is here, in this conglomeration of policy and nostalgia, a camp version of the Ringstrasse for the jingoistic sightseer, that the conundrum of United States tourism is played out.
Rana Kabbani's perceptive rendition of the European myth of Orient accounts for the spirit of exploration that animated the colonial European of past centuries, and indeed for the hordes of Australians toting their wood carvings through Denpasar each summer, seekers and custodians of 'the perfect wave’. As a general description of the experience of travel, it misses the mark when a more recent form of tourism is considered, a form of tourism perhaps more closely analogous to pilgrimage: the experience of the erstwhile traveller to the USA. Travel to the United States is distinct from tourism in the United States; distinct from Europe, perhaps, where tourism is geared to the foreigner, grudgingly acknowledged as the bearer of cold, hard cash.
For, as the traveller passes time in the United States, it soon becomes clear that tourism in the States is an in-house activity: their attractions, whether the kitsch palace of Graceland or the campanologist's nightmare of The Liberty Bell, are sites of recognition and congratulation, with the overseas visitor included only as an afterthought.
This certainly adds a particular delight to the activity of touring the United States. We come, not to see, but to watch others seeing. A son et lumiere spectacular accompanies the display of the original 'stars and stripes' at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History. This awesome institution is housed in an impressively large building whose exterior, like that of so many buildings in Washington, is covered in furiously chiseled exhortations and invocations, urgings to read and to think and to be patriotic. The unveiling of this flag and the accompanying spectacle are mildly entertaining; the whole event is enhanced immeasurably, in fact, made an attraction, by the fierce crowds of Americans who furiously jostle one another through the performance: one hand on their heart and another wrapped around a handycam.
The Mall brings together the State and the Museum without the taint of irony or the embarrassment of wit. This marriage, which merely announces the sometimes more discreet coupling of ideology and artifact, provides an opportunity for scenes of delighted self-acclamation for the native; places to act out an overt and hugely enjoyable ritual of learning the already apparent. For a foreigner, though, these places are places of confusion: places where incongruity reigns, and where the unexpected attraction is usually the person beside you.
If the Museum of American History is the most vulgar of the palaces of patriotism which line the Mall, worse, even, than the post-Christa MacAuliffe National Air and Space Museum, it must be said that only the harshest visitor would require of it a muted, or tasteful version of American history. Why, you might wonder, would such a person go there at all, and why indeed should the Institution sponsor a version of truth dourly at odds with the out-of-doors spectacle of American culture?
Things grow stranger, however, when a visit is made to the Museum of Natural History next door. This institution also, it seems, dips freely into the myths of the Republic with a feckless disavowal of perspective. On my first visit, it reminded me of nothing so much as the museums I was taken to as a child, with their inevitable cave dwellers, spears, and decaying dioramas. On subsequent visits, however, I clawed my way through thick crowds of boy scouts and kids in "Just Say No" T-shirts to find this nostalgic familiarity uncannily disturbed by features I found, well, disturbing in a "Natural History" Museum. At the Museum of American History it was no great surprise to find that the philatelic exhibition was largely a thinly disguised, but nonetheless elaborate, tribute to "Owney":
And here was Owney, stuffed by a taxidermist in Toledo, relieved at last of the 1,107 baggage tags he collected on his travels and wore on a special jacket.
But why was an "exact replica" of George Washington’s false teeth at the Natural History Museum instead, and thus, the intimate of fake glyptodons and mock volcanoes? Who was that person who abstracted the original set of dentures from the museums, no doubt exponentially escalating their status in the orthodontic black market, and these fakes classed as miraculous modem phenomena rather than as reproduction historic driftwood?
Why, indeed, at the exhibition called "Pain and its Relief”, was a diagram of the human nervous system mapped onto a representation of the continental United States, rather than, say, a representation of the human body? Was it to let me know I was an alien, a stranger in a strange land; my misrecognition was to see a political description as simply that, rather than as an analogy for selfhood, which set me apart from my fellow viewers, as their surprised reaction to my surprised reaction amply demonstrated.
I was hushed and cautioned, but my merriment was instructive: it isolated an opportunity for irony apparently not available to my fellow museum-tourists. For what really distinguishes the native tourist in the United States is precisely a lack of distance. Kabbani notes parenthetically the factor of geographic distance as mitigating the power of ideological sustenance afforded the colonist. But tourism in the United States is a solipsistic orgy of recolonisation which removes the niceties of place and time, genre and history, in a celebration of the impossibility of distance in a culture which refutes distinctions between the visitor (“Give your autograph to Elvis… Consider the reactions you will get when you take out this First Edition Elvis MasterCard”) and the spectacle.
How do you begin to understand a culture you have learned to love through its media excess; the one that taught you the etiquette of braces on your teeth (The Brady Bunch); how to "fall in love" (Annie Hall); the complications of adultery (Another World); hairdressing (Dallas); how to be a mum and a tycoon (Mildred Pierce) - how to die (Dark Victory)? Do you read it through its movies and its television, in quite the same way, once you're there?
Across the United States I tried to do just that. I spent a week cloistered in the Mackintosh Inn in Lawrenceville, N.J., ignoring the spired shadow of Princeton, sampling the pleasures offered by 63 television channels. I cursed when I couldn't choose between Oprah Winfrey’s feelgood encounters and Sweethearts ("Three couples... but only one is really married. Can our celebrity panel...?"). It was all too much... the lesson here was merely excess.
The movies offered a less hopeful ground for investigation. Sex, lies and videotape offered trainer-wheels modernism in a tired replay of The Big Chill, its lowercase title a tribute to the thirtysomething generation's wish to seem clever; a formula as predictable as that of John Hughes' Uncle Buck, though less amusing. The leaden predictability of dystopia, Batman style, was a relatively welcome contrast to the vile preachings of Dead Poets Society, a film that epitomizes the horror of Reagan's legacy, with its sinister promulgation of a fatuous credo of individualism buttressed by a macabre appropriation of Whitman's salute to Lincoln (“Oh Captain! My Captain!"').'It is hard to gauge whether this theft would have more offended the poet or the politician: at least Wait would have appreciated the homoerotics of the film, a New England Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, if not its homosocial ethos.
1989 was the fiftieth anniversary of both Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, but failed to mark this anniversary with any cinematic triumph of its own. Not to movies, but to books I turned, as I tried to understand the country I had landed in. I arrived with Frommer’s and Eco (Travels in Hyperreality), but I left with a curious collection of paperbacks, all, in their own way, attesting to the spirit of fin-de-siècle America.
If Hitchcock's Rope is the natural ancestor and more truthful antecedent of Dead Poets Society, its pernicious rewriting of the terms of privilege that construct this country finds its literary equivalents in the work of (Alan) Bloom and Hirsch: the latter’s Cultural Literacy lists 5000 "essential words and concepts", without which the citizen is "culturally illiterate". Apparently it is important to know "kangaroo court", but not so necessary to know “kangaroo": this collection of must-know tid-bits is the most curious conglomeration of concept and cliché, which merely makes you puzzle over its panel of expert list makers. Perhaps it expresses an urge to rewrite the decadent catalogue of the late nineteenth century with a late twentieth century accent, to render as commercially viable a fetish for facts, for lists, and for numeric proliferation that seems to haunt the paperback market at the moment.
Along with Virginia Andrews and Danielle Steele, non-fiction seems to be the boom area for popular culture right now in the States, and this tendency is exemplified by the upsurge of journalistic writing pitched to a paperback market, although its effects are more profound than this simple fact acknowledges. Thus the success of I. F. Stone's The Trial of Socrates, a liberal reconsideration of the condemnation of Socrates in the light of Jeffersonian democracy: a bestseller in 1989, it is intellectual but not academic, journalistic though not tabloid, giving to the college-educated middle classes what the rest of America gets from The Queen of Mean: the Unauthorised Biography of Leona Helmsey (Randsell Pierson).
1989’s contributions to the endless Kennedy Question was, for instance, provided by the doubled of Don DeLillo's Libra, and Leo Damone's Senatorial Privilege: The Chappaquidick Cover-Up, the former a fictionalized biographical portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald, the latter a scrutiny of the manifold fictions of Chappaquidick. In both cases, the books present victims (John F. Kennedy, Mary Jo Kopechne), but dwell upon the mechanics of victimisation: both describe social as well as personal violence, and both are interested in the processes of justice and discovery through lacquering facts and detail upon an unknown or unknowable incident. Criminal activity is relegated to the place of the unknown and the hero is the archivist, the one who most comprehensively assembles the various fragments that express the unknowability of the incident so painfully reconstructed.
Whether it be expressed through a condemnation of uncitizenly Socrates, or Leona Helmsley’s tax fiddles, or through the tribulations of JFK and Ted, this country seems obsessed with transgression, American Style. In these instances, celebrity sets the players apart from the reader as much as the crime. But the more bizarre, and more interesting demonstration of this obsession is found in the ubiquitous appreciation of murder.
Truman Capote's In Cold Blood may have inaugurated the genre of 'True Crime", Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song may have made it literary, or arty, or kitsch (especially when read with the work of Mailer's Genet, Jack Henry Abbott's In the Belly of the Beast). Quite suddenly, however, the world of "true crime" and the random murder has become a kind of distaff cultural key to the country. John Water's account of nos. 30-35 of his 101 favourite things, not to mention an earlier nod to Mervyn LeRoy's 1956 classic The Bad Seed, which argues for genetic evil through the figure of the murderous tot Rhoda signals
the camp potential of murder: a potential known, of course to last century’s decadents. In the October 1989 issue of House and Garden, Quentin Crisp notes the eclectic tastes of Michael O'Donoghue (ex-writer for Saturday Night Live , whose West Side townhouse is the subject of his lightly arch blurb:
No, indeed! This camp appropriation of murder by the cognoscenti of the Republic is matched by the brisk trade in true-crime paperbacks, available in drug-stores and the 7-11, as well as bookshops across the States. An interest in murder as "fun", "trash", replicates the film noir idolisings of past decades, providing an intimacy with the otherwise undistinguished perpetrators of grisly deeds. It satisfies both a mass experience of morbid curiosity, and the desire of a cultural elite to know how plain folk live, for banality is frequently the secret ingredient of these nightmare stories.
The banal meets the extraordinary in tales of random death, tales whose characters always seem misplaced in a contemporary Grand Guignol. Thus Nurse Genene Jones, a very ordinary nurse, who thrived on the experience of medical emergency, and was revealed as precipitator of not a few of these at the infants' intensive care units she worked in (Kelly Moore and Dan Reed, Deadly Medicine). Or professor William Henry James (!) Douglas, a colourless and unassuming man who brutally slayed his lover but never seemed particularly involved with it at all (Teresa Carpenter, Missing Beauty). Or Diane Downs, the devoted mother with a penchant for surrogate motherhood who shot her kids in her car one night as Duran Duran blared from the cassette deck (Ann Rule, Small Sacrifices).
The author of the last of these is the grande dame of the genre, famed for her book on Ted Bundy, infamous Republican and serial killer: hers is the classic text on Bundy, principally because she was (coincidentally) a friend of his, and began writing the book unaware of her intimacy with the then undetected murderer (The Stranger Beside Me). Serial and multiple murders are the class act of this catalogue of criminal genre. It is not surprising that E.D. Hirsch, Jr. expects us to know "sociopath" and “psychopath" (though not “Canberra”), because in the catalogue of culture, these crimes epitomise not only a cultural urge to catalogue (“murder by numbers"), but also obey the economic principles of the junk bond marketplace: the more, the merrier. The murderers are modem day freaks: serving no instructive or illustrative purpose save to show what a weird place the States is, they nonetheless caution that in the ‘80s and '90s the Papin sisters may be lurking in any apartment building or midwest cul-de-sac. What happened to Ann Rule could happen to us all.
In a similar nod to inflationary culture, the cult of multiple personality has scored in a similar, eerie way. From Thigpen and Cleckley’s Three Faces of Eve to the sixteen personalities of (Schreiber's) Sybil, to a book I received notice of a couple of weeks ago - When Rabbit Howls, by "the ‘troops’ of Trudi Chase". 'The Troops" are apparently the ninety-two personalities that inhabit Trudi. Ninety-two? In the spirit of antiauthoritarian de-authorship, the voices finally come to write themselves, in a text penned by many hands which literalises far too many critical conceits for me to enumerate here.
Sadder, perhaps, is the world of murder as it is captured in a strange logic of counting and collecting that haunts America. To the cynical outsider, it speaks of a spectacle of the everyday, where the victims are as valueless as the "Disney Dollars" they give you in Anaheim, to be stowed away for memory; representing, even as they mock, the social economics of Main Street USA.
Image by Matthias Ripp.