A Bendel Bonnet, A Shakespeare Sonnet

What do a Bendel bonnet and a Shakespeare sonnet have in common besides rhyme? Throw in Mickey Mouse. No, it’s not a riddle manqué or a question rejected by the Miller Analogies test. As many probably know already, these are just a few of the superlative attributes applied to the person who is nonpareil in Cole Porter’s 1934 song “You’re the Top.” In fact, the list of best-in-kind comparisons goes on for verse after verse, including the Mona Lisa, the Tower of Pisa, Mahatma Gandhi, Napoleon brandy, cellophane, an O’Neill drama, a Waldorf salad, Whistler’s mama, and camembert. While the wit of this compilation is yet another example of Porter’s lyrical brilliance, it may also be considered symptomatic of a tectonic shift in the hierarchy of cultural values that took place in the early twentieth century.

The song was written for the musical Anything Goes, with a Porter title song that’s yet another indication of an upheaval:

The world’s gone mad today

And good’s bad today

And black’s white today

And day’s night today

Porter uses the word “shocking” in the song, and many people were shocked by jazz, art deco, dada, and surrealism, not just by “a glimpse of stocking.”

“You’re the Top” contains, in effect, a cultural blurring, a fashionable hat given equal value to the poetry of Shakespeare. What would Matthew Arnold have said? Would he have rolled over in his 1888 grave? Arnold introduced the term “high culture” in his 1869 book Culture and Anarchy, defining it as “the disinterested endeavour after man’s perfection” pursued, obtained, and achieved by effort to “know the best that has been said and thought in the world.”

For Arnold, if he had written a version of “You’re the Top,” all of the comparatives would have been examples such as Goethe’s Faust, Plato’s Phaedo, Oedipus Rex, and, of course—like Porter, Shakespeare’s sonnets. As his book’s title indicates, the opposite and enemy of culture is anarchy, which he considers lacks standards and a sense of direction. He associates anarchy with England’s growing moves toward democracy in the second half of the nineteenth century. No doubt, he would have considered Porter’s lyrics an example of such anarchy—“the world’s gone mad today.” Or to use lines from Arnold’s own poem “Dover Beach”:

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

The late twentieth century attacks on the literary canon—an exalted list of works almost all by dead white males—can be considered an anti-Arnold movement, Arnold himself being one of the dead white males. Beyond ignoring works by women and people from minority groups, the canon was based on the assumption that some experts had the authority to determine the best that had been said and thought and objective standards existed for making such judgments.

Might “You’re the Top” be a whimsical version of a new canon? If not, the specific choices in the list might serve as  a strategy way to deconstruct the old canon?

Yet, even thirty years after Porter, a defender of Arnoldian standards can be found in Dwight MacDonald, a journalist and cultural critic who mixed a patrician background—Phillips Exeter and Yale—with radical politics as a writer for The New Yorker. He probably is best known for his delineation of culture that compares high culture to the lesser qualities of what he called Masscult and Midcult, terms in the title of a 1960 Partisan Review essay.

For him, works of high cultural value called for an active engagement of the reader or observer and produced sophisticated emotional and intellectual reactions. Masscult works are essentially prepackaged and easy to access, emotionally lazy. Midcult he found more dangerous in its pretentious mixture of high and mass culture, seemingly sophisticated but still accessible with minimal thinking. In that category, he placed works like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and the writing of John Steinbeck. Would MacDonald have categorized Porter Mid or Mass?

Ironically, a magazine he wrote for, The New Yorker, has been put down as Midcult in distinction to, say, The New York Review of Books, clearly high culture. The circulation of the former is roughly a million and a quarter, that of the latter 135,000, about one-tenth as large. The New Yorker launched in 1925, five years before Anything Goes, and might be considered an example of a cultural potpourri mixed in the pages of a publication—cartoons, humor writing, fiction by excellent writers, profiles of a variety of people and subjects, and advertisements for expensive products.

In a representative issue, the one of November 24, 1934, three days after Anything Goes opened on Broadway, a reader could find—amid many cartoons and pages of ads for products ranging from Dewar’s Scotch, the new Hupmobile, Beech-Nut chewing gum, to Lucky Strikes—a short story by Norman Matson, humor by Robert Benchley, a poem by Ogden Nash, a profile of the Kewpie doll, a book review by Clifton Fadiman, a movie review of the Astaire-Rogers The Gay Divorcee, reviews of music and art galleries, and articles on sports and fashions.

A magazine with a similar cultural mix that thrived from the teens through the 1930s was the original Vanity Fair. Its issue of the Anything Goes month of November 1934 featured a caricature of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the cover, with an internal conglomeration including a short story by Alan Seager, H.L. Mencken’s “Why Not an American Monarchy?”, John Gunther writing about the exiled Archduke Otto, Marquis W. Childs on the wicked city of New Orleans, and an article on the shopping bazaars of Manhattan, Bendel’s counterparts.

If there were a competition between Porter and MacDonald, Porter is the clear winner, the ranking of cultural values no longer pertinent. In fact, in many ways, Masscult has become the source of new form of mythological references. Consider Mickey Mouse, one of the superlatives defining the person who is the Top, and the cut rodent’s recognition throughout the world. In fact, the cartoon character was once rated the most famous symbol of America.

Yet many references of the literary works in the canon require detailed footnoting to explain names and terms contemporary readers would have understood immediately. The Porter song, too, close to ninety years old now, contains names and objects that would escape many younger listeners today—the nose of the great Durante, Garbo’s salary, and no doubt a Bendel bonnet. A Henri Bendel hat was considered the height of fashion in the 1930s, examples displayed in the high culture Metropolitan Museum of Art. But the store he founded in 1895 on the New York Fifth Avenue site of a Vanderbilt mansion closed forever in 2019.

Still, such ephemera plays a greater cultural role in recent writing than, say, Phoebus Apollo. Brand names—the products characters own or covet—serve as shorthands to define their personal tastes and economic, educational, and social status. An author can avoid paragraphs of exposition just by writing whether a character drives a Tesla or a sputtering Toyota Corolla, drinks Bud Light or Châteauneuf-du-Pape, reads The New Yorker or The New York Review, or eats flown-in Omaha Steaks or SPAM.

SPAM became the one-word lyric of a Monty Python song and the term to designate the junk that arrives on a computer because of the hash of unlikely ingredients blended into that canned meat product.

Another canned-meat product may mark a cultural turning point in the literary merger of high culture and Masscult references. That’s James Joyce’s 1922 novel, Ulysses, based on Homer’s Odyssey transplanted to twentieth-century Dublin. Plumtree’s Potted Meat and its advertising jingle runs through the mind of the novel’s protagonist Leopold Bloom, a seller of commercial advertising space, who associates the product with the newly buried body of Paddy Dignam, the haunting memory of his dead son, Rudy, and the adulterous relationship of Bloom’s wife, Molly, with Blazes Boylan. The term “to pot one’s meat” is Irish slang for copulation.

Ironically, the singer of accolades to the person who rates as the Top has an almost masochist self-evaluation: “Baby, I’m the bottom, you’re the top.” If Bloom had been singing the song, he might tell Molly she was a Homer heroine and himself mere potential potted meat.

If such a Bloom had been thinking of a Shakespeare sonnet, it would, unfortunately, be the line, “An expense of spirit in a waste of shame” rather than, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments.”

Cole Porter may have been having a sport when he wrote “You’re the Top,” but, as Adam Gopnik writes about him in The New Yorker, “He takes pleasure in rhyme for rhyme’s sake, in the play of language, and does so in a way that is, oddly, far more in tune with the main lines of the American avant-garde of his time than operetta style could ever be.”

Matthew Arnold and high culture have followed the fate of Paddy Dignam. The world’s gone mad today.

 

Pinboy

Mine was a career option knocked out from under me by mid-twentieth-century technology, not the silent artificial intelligence that threatens many occupations today, but a clanking contraption of gears, pulleys, and mechanical grippers that made human hands unnecessary.

In my early teens I had worked several nights a week as a pinboy in a six-lane bowling alley one flight up from our small-town movie theater, a narrow place that smelled of shellac, spilled beer, and stale tobacco. I sat on a ledge in a pit at the end of a gleaming wood surface, huddling for safety when the bowling balls came hurtling toward me, my arms and elbows poised to fend off flying pins, then returning the ball with a shove down a grooved shaft. After a strike or the second ball ended the frame with a spare or something like an 8–10 split, I jumped into the pit to press a lever with my shoe, scoop up scattered pins, and arrange them on protruding spikes.

That was the pattern of the evening: set them up, duck for cover, and set them up again. In many ways, it was a Sisyphusean endeavor, but lacking the top of a hill as an unreachable goal. Pinboying had no such illusion of an end in sight. Just the ephemeral satisfaction of seeing the pins neatly aligned before, seconds later, they were scattered again. A lesson for life. The best laid plans smashed to smithereens.

To be honest, I wasn’t cut out for a pinboy future even if technology had not intervened. One lane was all I could handle. As a teenager, I lacked the strength, agility, and stamina of my athletic co-workers, who were able to cover the pin-setting of two adjacent lanes, hopping from one to the other, without the luxury of ducking, constantly pressing and placing and jumping. Amazingly, they were never injured by a flying pin, though we were all in apprehension of those we called Saturday Night Ball Busters—thick, muscled men who heaved balls that sailed above the wood lane until the instant before exploding the pins into lethal projectiles.

I suspect the men who ran the bowling alley, especially Al—the deep-tanned manager always perched on a stool with a cigar and a beer can—were amused by my flailings, their kind words a veiled mockery of my limitations. Every cent I earned as a pinboy, change that never left the cash register, went back to Al to cover the fees of my own bowling and pool table time.

Despite all the hours I devoted to those sports, I never advanced beyond mediocre, in fact, even worse at pool than bowling. At a peach-fuzzed fifteen, as little as I knew about most of life, I was well aware of my mediocrity. Yet I persevered, pushing an immovable rock, desperate to be competent at something, anything.

I have no clear memory of how I became a pinboy, who or what led me up the stairs off to one side of the movie theater where, as a preteen, I had fantasized emulating Roy Rogers’ horseback heroism. No memory of when I gripped my first bowling bowl. Or how Al allowed me into the pit. Did I ask? Did he, shorthanded, make an offer?

Pin-setting followed my failures in the food realm, where at our town’s vaunted seafood restaurant just down the street from the movie theater, on my initial night as a busboy, I spilled water into a customer’s lap the first time I served a table. That led to a rapid transfer into the kitchen and a stool in front of a large bowl of uncooked shrimp. My task was to peel off the shell and scrape out the dark line of innards along the curve of the creature’s shape. With intense concentration, I didn’t want to allow a speck to remain. It turned out that my perfectionism made me a very slow shrimp cleaner. The message was delivered calmly and politely, but I was fired that evening, told not to bother coming back the next day.

Even if I had been a champion shrimp deveiner, that skill would have become as useless as pin-setting. Today, shrimp are cleaned by a machine called the Jonsson System. According to the website, “Jonsson machines automatically adjust to each shrimp, gently peeling and deveining it in the style selected. Shrimp are placed in a plastic tray. Briefly, here is how the peeling process works: a clamp grabs a shrimp, the shell is cut and vein removed, pins pull the shrimp from the shell, peeled shrimp are deposited in one location, and the clean shell is then discharged elsewhere.” Manual dexterity, fine motor control, would be a wasted excess, assuming I had ever possessed it.

And what about the gross motor control of pin-setting? No humans needed. Now a computerized machine uses a combination of infrared signaling, scanner camera, sweeping bar, automatic scoring system, conveyer belt, ball returner, pin elevator wheel, another conveyer belt, and pin distributor. What does such a machine cost? Ebay offers a used “2 Lane Brunswick Frameworx Bowling Equipment With Glow Anvil Synthetic Lanes” for $18,000.

Assuming such machines had never been invented and human labor remained a necessity, what would I as a hypothetical career pinboy have cost an owner like Al? Assuming ten dollars an hour for a forty-hour week, one year of me (assuming I could have managed two lanes), even forgetting benefits, would have been more than a used machine. Over several years of the machine’s life, human labor would have been a serious economic mistake.

My incompetence turned out to be a harbinger. Pin-setting, shrimp-cleaning: They’re just two of my failures, authenticated during my early teens, years before the inadequacies of my adulthood. Fortunately, I did manage to stumble upon alternative ways of being. But what if I had had no alternative to life in a pit, ducking and setting through an eternity of frames, my muscles weakening, my bones creaking, my old man’s lungs gasping?

 

Photo at the top of the essay comes from uni-watch.com.

 

Needles’ Eyes, Wealth, Learning and Virtue

How do those who claim to be Christians today reconcile the modern world’s quest for material gain with Jesus’s severe injunctions against riches? Most notably in verses 10:25-26 of The Gospel According to Mark: “But Jesus answereth again, and saith unto them, Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (King James version). 

I suspect a representative answer came from a pink-cheeked young business major when I asked that question in a core literature class years ago. Without a second’s hesitation, he told me, “Things were different then.”

And so they were. According to theologian Sakari Häkkinen, “In the Ancient world poverty was a visible and common phenomenon. According to estimations 9 out of 10 persons lived close to the subsistence level or below it. There was no middle class. The state did not show much concern for the poor.” In fact, exploiting the poor was the primary source of income for the fraction at the financial top who made their fortunes as provincial governors, tax collectors and moneylenders. By condemning the rich abusers, Jesus was, in effect, preaching to the destitute choir.

Leap ahead fifteen centuries when flourishing proto-capitalistic commerce in Europe spread the proceeds of trade, and the good life was enjoyed by an expanding middle class. As seen in the meticulous details in paintings by Jan van Eyck, Pieter de Hooch, Rogier van der Weyden, and others, material objects were prized, driving the accumulation of the profits needed to acquire them.

This new emphasis on the things of this world is explained by Harold J. Cook in Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age. Ships sailing about the known world made the acquisition and sharing of physical goods a possible goal. Scientists transformed their field by turning their attention to the study of concrete articles. Nonscientists—a larger number—attributed great value to concrete possessions. An expansion in disposable income led to a consumer revolution. A large proportion of this new wealth was spent on literal consumption. Merchants and others with the means were “acquiring well-crafted furniture, linens, antiquities, painting and sculpture, books and manuscripts, strange and lovely items of nature, and other rare and beautiful objects.” Cook concludes that “Valued objects had become ‘goods’ alongside personal virtues. As the historian of art and society Richard Goldthwaite has put it, ‘possessions become an objectification of self,’ perhaps ‘for the first time.’”

But what about Biblical condemnations of riches? In a period when Europeans took the Bible much more seriously than they do today, the affluent sought a loophole to avoid the threat of Mark 10:25-26. Would accumulations of fine jewels, linens, and spices of the East condemn the owners to forsaking eternal salvation?

The Renaissance theologian, poet, and historian Caspar Barlaeus (1584–1648) proposed an answer by defending commerce as beneficial to virtue and wisdom. His argument is explained by Cook. Before Barlaeus, Dirk Volkertsz Coornhert, in 1580, wrote that wealth and virtue were compatible if the profits were given to charitable causes or even supporting military defense. The critics of this position asked why anyone would seek profits they couldn’t keep.

Barlaeus took a different tact, defending self-interest as natural and essential to social interaction, mutually supporting others and ultimately fulfilling God’s purpose for each of us. He claimed that great wealth led to great learning and that virtue and magnificence came from the union of learning and worldly activity. Cook summarizes the core of Barlaeus’ beliefs: “It was not from doctrine but from the interactions found in buying and selling, and in the search for knowledge that was another aspect of exchange, that modesty, honesty, and natural truths emerged.”

While a camel might be stymied by the needle’s eye, a Dutch burgher would sail right through. That is, because for Barlaeus, as much as he defends the basis of capitalism, wealth was not an end in itself but rather a means to the betterment of society and human kind. In his more carefully formulated argument, he echoes my pink-cheeked student in justifying the differences of his period’s economic circumstances from the time of Jesus.

Today, we appear to be in a throwback to Galilean imbalance, with wealth burgeoning exponentially for the few. Inequality is escalating, the top 0.1 percent having as much of the bottom 90 percent. While the 90 percent don’t live in Galilean poverty, the middle class is withering, the working class falling behind, millions resentful at the loss of what they once had and seeing no promise of regaining it. Rather than following Jesus by threatening the rich with the loss of heaven, they—unaware—are closer to Barlaeus in calling for a reallocation of wealth to achieve a better society. Yet, we are a long way from the modesty, honesty, and truth that might result from a search for knowledge.

##

Sources:

Harold J. Cook. Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age. Yale University Press, 2007. 

Sakari Häkkinen. “Poverty in the first-century Galilee.HTS Theological Studies,  2016

Photo at the top of the page: © Trustees of the British Museum.