"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, January 10, 2020

The Indefinable, Inescapable Allure Of Pop Culture

Betty Albright had grown up in a somewhat austere family – not Calvinist by any means, but definitely Puritan and rock-ribbed Anglo-Saxon in origin and application.  Work, practicality, parsimony, and seriousness were the bywords of the Albrights, and mistrustful if not scornful were they of anyone who did not subscribe to the same simple principles. 

Image result for images cotton mather

It was comforting to belong to a family of such clear and uncompromising  beliefs where there were no grey areas, no questionable ethics or morality, no fungibility, and no weak, permeable borders.  Things were what they were as they had always been.  A nickel might not be still worth a nickel, but value was unchangeable.  There was no room for opportunity cost, relative valuation, or debatable investment.  Four-fifty was simply too much for a torque wrench, ten dollars unconscionable for a meal that could be cooked at home for a fraction, and two hundred a night for a resort stay on the Chesapeake when the view out the bay windows of their Lake Pleasant home fine and dandy enough for nothing.

There were no fanciful diversions at the Albrights’ home – no thousand-piece puzzles, no romance novels, and no television.  Enjoyment was to be be created by family interaction, family enterprise, and good works.  Sewing, knitting, tending to the back forty, to accounts and investments, and to the weeds, the gutters, shingles, and pathways of the front forty were enough – enough to keep the old homestead together and running smoothly, and enough to satisfy God and Martin Luther.

Image result for images martin luther

‘The Amish’ is what the Albrights were called by their children’s friends, a family just short of the the Lehigh Valley neo-Puritans who eschewed motorized transport, machines, and comfort in favor of God, a family close in aspiration to the Shakers and the Seneca Utopians, and who, despite the cackles and innuendos of their neighbors, held the line, never budged an inch.

One was reminded of the Paul Theroux book, Mosquito Coast, a story of an Albright-style idealist who rejected everything from the corrupted, materialistic, commercialized world of America and took his family to the remote jungle of Honduras.  He would build everything from scratch, from native, natural materials, from the ground up with his own hands and those of his families.  He would show the native Hondurans, the Miskito Indians, and mestizo interlopers, what life should be, and how more comfortable, easy, and profitable it could be, built from the same basic, organic, resources available from the trees, the rivers, the plants, and the animals they had lived with but underutilized for centuries.  He would bring civilization and culture, but without plastic, processing, and waste.
He came to no good end, but not because of the inadequacy of his vision, but because of his own arrogance.  He overreached, his tragic flaw undid his Utopian dream, and he died an unhappy but deserved death.

Henry Albright, the father of the Albright clan had no such fanciful ambitions.  In fact any such notions would have been roundly dismissed as ungodly by the Salem-style pastor of  his church, looking much like Cotton Mather, his hero and guide whose portrait hung on the walls of the rectory.  No, one’s ambitions should never be more than temperate and always conceived within God’s plan.  A life of simplicity, devotion, and above all practical use of the abundant resources that God provides, was all that was expected.

Life in America being what it was, what with the pervasive, irresistible influences of Hollywood, Las Vegas, and New York, it was nigh impossible to resist.  The once-thought culturally impenetrable walls of the Albright home turned out to be nothing of the sort.  The rabble had easy access.  The corrupting, ungodly influences from outside entered.

First it was Alan Freed and Rock ‘n’ Roll, and one Albright sister was lost.  Then the Beatles, Deadheads, the Stones, and Sister Number Two was gone; and finally, despite Henry Albright’s militant defense, the walls of Jericho were breached, once and for all.  There was no holding back the tidal wave of American commercialism and bourgeois culture.

Image result for images grateful dead

In his calmer moments, Henry Albright reflected on his Western past – the ranch, the horses, the up-at-dawn, bed-by-dusk Depression-era routine where every ounce of energy, every piece of dirt, every scrap of metal was needed to keep things viable.  He had never damned his fate nor his future. God had provided, however meager his offerings, and it was up to him, his family, and his kin to make something of them.  It was the ranch, the prairie, the fences, and the sheep dips which gave him character and purpose, and he was not going to let that go.

But let it go he must, for the onslaught of ‘plastic’ was unstoppable, and the only thing he could do was to preach practicality, parsimony, and temperance to his daughters now with their own families and far-flung.

His eldest daughter, Emily, was the apple that fell not far from the tree.  While her sisters wandered far from the old homestead and carved out strange lives dangerously unfamiliar to their father, Emily stood fast.  She of all the Albrights not only retained her father’s sense of Calvinist propriety and good faith, but extended it.  She turned out to be the model of Calvinist godliness, a woman for whom every penny counted, whose every movement had purpose and reward, whose entire life was based on a sincere practicality that allowed no frills or accommodation.  She counted every farthing, saved every penny, economized on every expenditure, whittled the family budget down to its bare, but God-worthy bones, and was happily dutiful (to God and her father) for most of her adult life.

Image result for images john calvin

Until she in her advancing age began to wither, to become flaccid and weak around the edges and open to suggestions and ideas about end-of-life pleasures which would have been anathema before.  She found herself tempted by television – a thing she had never permitted herself or her children but now, in a media-rich age, she began to consider.  Why not watch a program on the Empty Quarter, the Ottoman Empire, or the origins of the Mayas? Why not travel virtually to the souks of Cairo, the bazaars of Fez, or the snows of Mt. Blanc?  What was the harm? Where was the dereliction of duty to her father and Cotton Mather?

“What’s that doing here?”, her husband asked when he saw the super-sized television screen on his wife’s office wall, displacing the hand-woven pre-Columbian textile that had hung there for decades, replacing the stars and crescents of the Quechuas with a blank grey space.  “I’m going to watch TV”, Betty replied; and true to her upbringing she did indeed only watch the History Channel and National Geographic; but it was not long before her husband found her lingering on soap operas and game shows. “A little relaxation”, she said, as her drift into Americana got worse and worse.  After a few months she had capitulated, purely and simply, joined the mainstream.

Image result for images wall sized tv

Tolstoy, after decades of searching for the meaning of life with no success, he gave up   If hundreds of millions of people believe in God, he wrote in A Memoir, and if billions before have believed in him, there must be something to it.  And so fatigue won the day.  An intellectually fatigued Tolstoy simply said, “Why not me?”

And so if was with Betty Albright.  Despite her father, his Calvinism, her rock-ribbed Protestant faith, and her inherited genes of practicality, parsimony, and temperance, she went over to the other side.  If millions of people were watching Judge Judy, then why shouldn’t she?

She died in front of an even bigger, wall-sized television watching a The Days of Our Lives re-run.  She wanted to see if Mary would actually leave Lance before she died, but never quite made it; but she died calm, unquestioning, guiltless, and happy.

We live in a pervasive, insistent, universal popular culture, and there is no way to avoid it.  No one is immune and there is no inoculation against it.  It comes seductively and even the most hearty and prepared are infected with the idea of yachts on glittering seas, beautiful women on the arms of powerful men, of castles, royalty, penthouses, and bright, tailored clothes.  Even the most hardened Upper West side intellectual cannot resist its charms.  Proust is put down 'for a few minutes', Kant put aside for excursions of the mind that always end in the heart.  Not a few Columbia professors' wives sneak a peak at daytime TV and then watch it every day.

So Betty Albright deserves no criticism for her abandonment of Calvinist values or her father's lifelong teaching.  American pop culture is simply too strong for anyone to resist, and God bless her for dying in peace.,

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.