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.


A Force, A Cosmic Certainty

Photo of Princess Leia

Trapped in quarantine purgatory, my partner and I, like two stereotypical GenXers, decided to escape to a galaxy far, far away. As we watched all three Star Wars trilogies, I was transported to the mellow days of the 70s in fog-drenched Monterey when my hair shone naturally golden and my sister and I frolicked in the ice-plant, climbing twisted scrub oaks in our front yard, part of the army base where my helicopter-flying father was stationed. I was five-years-old when George Lucas released his space odyssey Star Wars — that lightning in a bottle of space dust forever entwined in my consciousness. Though I was too young to remember viewing the first film, at some point, I developed my first girl-crush on an intergalactic princess with cinnamon buns for hair.

For Halloween in 1977, my mom sewed the only handmade costume I ever wore, winding my hair into two blonde swirls. We argued then about space-princess fashion. I could not recall Princess Leia having a hood, but later I realized mom was right. The hood shielded her identity as she skulked in space shuttle corridors, protecting top-secret rebel plans to destroy the evil Empire. This princess was righteous. With her chic 70s white gown and cocked blaster, was it any wonder that I was instantly smitten?              

In those early days, Star Wars meant playing in a backyard with a sensitive, tow-headed boy named Timmy. I liked Timmy’s house because he had just about every Star Wars action figure imaginable along with Han Solo’s notorious spaceship, the Millenium Falcon. He also owned Luke Skywalker’s Tatooine land speeder, my favorite space vehicle. Because I was a girl, I had to go to Timmy’s to indulge my fixation; Star Wars toys were meant for boys. But Timmy would often cry, growing weary and bored with this abundance long before I would. He would disappear inside the house, my imagination stretching solo in his backyard, lost and whizzing through the universe among dusty planets with Leia, my chosen avatar.

When I had my tonsils removed, my parents presented me with my very own Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia action figures, quickly followed by a 12-inch Leia doll that appeared under the Christmas tree. She was built like a tank with bright red lipsticked lips. It didn’t take long for her coiled hair to unravel in the violence of play.

Dim in memory’s fractured sense of time, my great-grandmother passed away and we departed on a long flight to New York for the funeral. Emerging from the mourning, what lingered from that trip was a brief outing to see the just released sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. We stood in a snaking line around the theater. Waiting, I stared up at the looming movie poster at Luke riding an Arctic alien creature and in the foreground, dashing Han Solo clutched – in a classic Hollywood romantic embrace – a relenting Leia in wending braids. I left the film dazzled, transformed in the wake of this tragic space spectacle.

After my parents split up briefly and I moved with my mom and sister to my grandmother’s in the South, someone gave me a tiny Yoda action figure for my birthday party at a roller rink. The little green guru came complete with a robe and plastic orange snake draped around his neck. Though I had new jeans wound with a stretchy gold belt, which made me feel older and cooler, I thrilled in secret at this nod to my Star Wars affinity, gone dormant. I found unlikely comfort in a reptilian talisman. It accompanied me to Germany soon afterward, where I existed as a military dependent, a child alien in a foreign land, reunited with my dad.

Returning to the states three years later, I re-entered my homeland in the early 80s an awkward tween complete with bad hair, braces, and spindly legs that had outgrown my body. Stuck in a sweltering summer in tidewater Virginia, my father’s last military assignment, I found temporary relief in a packed theater escape to the Redwood-forested planet of Endor. I was old enough then to realize the jokes were corny and those cuddly Ewok creatures were gratuitous. But there again was that princess, blasting away Imperial Storm Troopers on a speedy hot-rod before the enemy gave away the rebels’ daring plans to dismantle a deflector shield. And, how vile that this clever woman, who could pass as a bounty hunter and rescue Han Solo encased in carbonite, should wind up in a gold bikini enslaved to a slobbery alien slug. Again, after the credits rolled through a darkened theater, I blinked into the bright sun.

And then at some point, I lost the braces, headed to college and graduate studies, moved away, and settled into a career. In short, I grew up. The Star Wars trilogy had concluded and Princess Leia faded away with other childish things.           

Then I turned thirty. Once George Lucas released the highly anticipated three films of the Star Wars prequels, my resistance loosened, and I duly made my way back to the theater. Inferior films all, they failed to move me. Critics cited the overabundant CGI effects and clunky writing, but for me it came down to this:  the lack of a wise-cracking, blaster-packing princess.

But, as chance would have it, I also happened upon Postcards from the Edge, the early writing of Carrie Fisher, the actor forever chained to the iconic Princess Leia role. Her biting wit captivated me, so I followed its unrelenting circles over the years through her subsequent semi-autobiographical books. Vicious and wry in self-deprecation, her writing spared no ugly truth. She was simply brilliant. Surviving drug addiction and electric shock therapy, she endured the vicissitudes of bipolar disorder. Truly, the actor’s life proved as difficult as being outmanned and outgunned in an intergalactic war against a fascist regime.

But the past, especially when it’s a nostalgia-tinged cash cow, has a way of staying unburied. After getting married, we had just moved into our first apartment in a hippie neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side. Standing on a stepladder to store shoes on the top shelf of a closet one day, I noticed a child-sized shoebox stuffed in the far dusty reaches, I assumed accidentally left by the former tenants. Opening the box, I expected to see Buster Brown’s. Instead, a treasure trove of Star Wars action figures from all three original films lay crammed together. The thrill of childhood coursed through me. They were all here:  R2D2, Lando Calrissian, C3P0, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Yoda, the Ewoks. And the best part? Not one, but three different versions of Princess Leia:  I could not believe my luck.

So, why exactly does a space princess still take up space in a grown woman’s mind? Sure, the heroine withstood torture and strangled her oppressor. She kept her sights on something bigger than herself:  a mission, a Force binding us all, even when she didn’t understand it. But she was so much less than this, too. She was not good. She had a temper; she refused to follow orders; she barked quips at the man who presumed to rescue her; she emasculated her brother, noting his short stature. She never armored her heart, allowing herself to fall for the n’er-do-well smuggler, believing in his goodness, all the while knowing it was unwise. And when a primitive race of teddy bear-creatures welcomed her into their tribe, she let down her hair and joined them. This cinematic messiness just feels truthful in all its weirdness.

Princess Leia — but really, Carrie Fisher, who breathed her to life on screen — showed us the contradictions within which women coexist in both their inner world and outer space. The outward show of it might suggest capitulation to expectations:  a virginal, sexy damsel in distress. But Carrie Fisher’s secret weapon remained, always, hard-bitten truth-telling. The gold bikini awakened all her feminine nightmares but, as she made clear in subsequent interviews, she didn’t like it. She enjoyed killing the mobster that enslaved her. As she herself said, then she went backstage and took off the bikini. And sometimes, when asked to shill for the franchise, she delivered unabashed profanity-laden resistance. She refused to stay within the archetypal lines on or off stage.

It was glorious to see Carrie Fisher in the recently released final Star Wars trilogy, back in the role that birthed her in our collective imagination. But it also unsettled me. It became her swan song. A silver-haired military general and grieving mother, she rolled her eyes and heaved sighs in the direction of impulsive fly-boys. Although she embodied an earth-mother knowingness, this too felt like a let-down, another type to entrap her. What do you do with a confounding woman who refuses to lay down her weapons? Perhaps pin her with the star of a general, but only if she remains unsexed and maternal.  

I’m sure women from other generations don’t see Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia with the same fervor and reverence I do. Maybe it’s the timing. A young, impressionable girl, I grew up in an era when women were either idolized as sex objects or glorified as mothers. In my life, I have felt pressured to embody both and came out neither. I can’t remember anything in between. We did not see women on the big screen then as heroes, particularly if they were going to crack wise and refuse to stay within the confines of feminine constructs. Nowadays, young girls see ample examples of the female warrior in comic book movies and no shortage of foul-mouthed, messy figures of pop female empowerment. Then again, there’s a whole industry dedicated to fame, broadcasting nothing more than materialism and heavily filtered sexiness. Maybe we have not come all that far from a galaxy far, far away.

Carrie Fisher’s untimely passing meant we never got to see the version of the final film’s chapter that would have placed Leia’s narrative front and center, the ultimate hero. Instead, she dies a martyr of the Resistance. This perplexed me. But as I had just rewatched this final installment of the saga, the world tilted on its axis in our parallel universe when resolute jurist Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed away. On the fateful day the news broke, a bereft stranger posted something on social media that stopped me cold. “We’ve lost our General Organa,” she wrote. Her cry echoed in chambers deep within me, too. Our rights as we know them hang a mystery between the scales. But mortality does not snuff the stuff of legend. It was Carrie Fisher, after all, who had quipped: “Take your broken heart, make it into art.”Justice remains a moving target, a constant revolution, even when evident only in celluloid science fiction planets, dimly lit and distant.                                                                                                                                                                                 

I read once that J.J. Abrams, director of two films from the most recently released final trilogy, named in an interview his favorite Star Wars image:  a melancholic vision of the boy hero, Luke, early in the first film. Drenched in the fading light of two setting Tatooine suns, he surveys the horizon, longing for an elusive future yet awaiting him.

When trapped sheltering in place, I revisited the films and chose my own favorite. At the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo has been captured, his fate uncertain; and Luke has lost his hand and his innocence, having reckoned with the evil in his father as also himself. But the figure that transfixes me here in this scene is Leia gazing out a window, not at the stars but — as I imagine — into darkness. Though standing next to Luke and their loyal droids, Leia looks small, alone, aggrieved.                                                                                                                                                           

As women, we navigate traps real and imagined, resurfacing, tempting, even manacling us if we’re not vigilant. Sometimes the attempt is downright comical or alternately unspeakable and grim.                                                                                                                                                              

But even enveloped in a bombastic space opera, this woman appears calm, elevated in her yearning. While she might seem lost, something else is at play here: a mature, hard-fought awareness — it, too, a force, a cosmic certainty all its own, surrounded though it may be by nothing but seeming endless emptiness.


Photo at the top of the page is of late actress Carrie Fisher in her role as Princess Leia. Photo from: https://i.imgur.com  

Sitting with a Dying Physician

Paul Rousseau

The smell of sickness saturates the room.

A vomit basin, half full, lies on Mary’s lap. Her thin lips quiver. “I can’t eat or drink anything.” She shakes an unused cup of melting ice in her right hand; a tangle of tubes and wires jostle. She grabs an ice cube and slides it into her mouth. She turns her head to the side and retches. “I need a feeding tube.” She shoves her breakfast to the side. A sob rises in her throat. “It’s getting hard not to think about death.”

She pulls herself up with the bedrails. I glance at the mattress; there is barely an imprint in the sheets. She is nothing but sallow skin and bones. There is a grumbling deep in her belly. She leans forward and spews a bilious, blood-tinged fluid. She swishes her mouth with water and spits into the vomit basin.

We sit in shared silence, the shrill cadence of the heart monitor the only sound. She fidgets with the bedsheets. “I know I’m seventy-nine, but I’m not ready to die. Do you understand? I’m not ready to die.” I grimace and nod. No one wants to die, no one; we cling until we can cling no more. Still, disease carves its own reality. Her cancer has continued to progress despite radiation, surgery, and several cycles of chemotherapy. “The oncologist wants me to give up.” Her brow creases, her hands clench. Her eyes swivel side to side, feral and agitated. She flings her arms into the air. “I’m not ready to die, dammit, I’m not ready. Doesn’t anyone listen to me? Are you listening?” Her existential suffering is profound. I stand and cradle her shoulders. She adjusts her oxygen tube and collapses back in bed, clumps of flesh settling like spilt mercury.

There is a stack of medical journals on the bedside table. She studies her disease. She knows the data, she knows her options, she knows her prognosis. She glances at the journals. “There are miracles.” And she is right, there are miracles, but beneath the grit of struggle, she knows her fate.

I remember, before I was sick, I loved to lie in bed. Pull the covers over me and hide from the world. Make love. Read a book. Now I abhor the bed. It has become a prison, a coffin, a grave.” She balances on her elbows, pauses, and lowers her head. “I wonder how many before me died in this bed?” Her face crumples like linen; fat tears leak in rivulets. “If I’m honest, I’m closer to death than life.” Her voice is despaired and resigned.

She turns toward the window, pensive. The sky is grey, rain falling with weight. “I love this weather.” She pivots. “But the droplets remind me of my cancer and the renegade cells that escaped the slurry of poisons.” A nurse slips in and doses her with morphine. Within minutes, she is in an opioid twilight. She heaves a heavy breath, and closes her eyes. “Forget the miracle,” she murmurs. Her face relaxes and puckers inward.

The phone rings later in the evening. The rain has cleared, the moon a sliver on the horizon. The nurse tells me Mary has died.