Yesterday I happened to run across a recording of Ray Peterson singing his smash hit from 1960, “Tell Laura I Love Her”. Americans of a certain age will remember the song well, but just in case you’re not familiar with it, you can listen to it here.
I certainly remember it well, although I was not yet a teenager when it hit the charts. I assume that the older kids who listened to it, even though they weren’t hardened knee-jerk cynics like today’s youngsters, understood that the song was sentimental kitsch. Still… I’ll bet it brought a lump to their throats, just as it did to my ten-year old self in his romantic latency period.
Despite being honored more in the breach than the observance, standards still existed in those days. Among them were:
- The ideal of romantic love.
- Marriage and fidelity as a normative societal standard.
- Striving and self-sacrifice to attain a worthy goal.
- The postponement of gratification.
These commonly-held sentiments helped “Tell Laura I Love Her” catch fire on the airwaves. And the world that created them and respected them is gone.
It was only a little more than fifty years ago — I remember it clearly — but the decent and honorable culture that produced that song is dead, and will not return. The architects of its demise were even then reaching their majority and preparing their (not so long) march through the institutions. We didn’t know it at the time, but the old world had only a few years left to live.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Thinking about all these things brought to mind a line from a Louis MacNeice poem: “It was all so unimaginably different/And all so long ago.”
MacNeice wrote those words in late 1939, during the “Phony War” — after Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the Allies’ declaration of war, but before any real fighting had begun. During those months Britons were filled with a sense of foreboding, waiting for the inevitable storm to break. They were well aware that the conflagration that lay ahead would most likely put an end to their way of life — not to mention their lives.
I’ve posted this excerpt before, but here it is again:
From “Autumn Journal” (Part IX)
By Louis MacNeice
October comes with rain whipping around the ankles
In waves of white at night
And filling the raw clay trenches (the parks of London
Are a nasty sight).
In a week I return to work, lecturing, coaching,
As impresario of the Ancient Greeks
Who wore the chiton and lived on fish and olives
And talked philosophy or smut in cliques;
Who believed in youth and did not gloze the unpleasant
Consequences of age;
What is life, one said, or what is pleasant
Once you have turned the page
Of love? The days grow worse, the dice are loaded
Against the living man who pays in tears for breath;
Never to be born was the best, call no man happy
This side death.
Conscious — long before Engels — of necessity
And therein free
They plotted out their life with truism and humour
Between the jealous heaven and the callous sea.
And Pindar sang the garland of wild olive
And Alcibiades lived from hand to mouth
Double-crossing Athens, Persia, Sparta,
And many died in the city of plague, and many of drouth
In Sicilian quarries, and many by the spear and arrow
And many more who told their lies too late
Caught in the eternal factions and reactions
Of the city-state.
And free speech shivered on the pikes of Macedonia
And later on the swords of Rome
And Athens became a mere university city
And the goddess born of the foam
Became the kept hetæra, heroine of Menander,
And the philosopher narrowed his focus, confined
His efforts to putting his own soul in order
And keeping a quiet mind.
And for a thousand years they went on talking,
Making such apt remarks,
A race no longer of heroes but of professors
And crooked business men and secretaries and clerks,
Who turned out dapper little elegiac verses
On the ironies of fate, the transience of all
Affections, carefully shunning an over-statement
But working the dying fall.
The Glory that was Greece: put it in a syllabus, grade it
Page by page
To train the mind or even to point a moral
For the present age:
Models of logic and lucidity, dignity, sanity,
The golden mean between opposing ills
Though there were exceptions of course but
The bloody Bacchanals on the Thracian hills.
So the humanist in his room with Jacobean panels
Chewing his pipe and looking on a lazy quad
Chops the Ancient World to turn a sermon
To the greater glory of God.
But I can do nothing so useful or so simple;
These dead are dead
And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
The careless athletes and the fancy boys,
The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics
And the Agora and the noise
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta
I think of the slaves.
And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.
Yes, it was unimaginably different. Yet so was 1960. Just fifty-two years — but all so long ago.
Was 1960 as different from 1939, just a brief generation before? It took a worldwide cataclysm, a feast of death on a hitherto unimaginable scale, to convert 1939 into 1960.
What made 1960 metamorphose into 2012? How did our world become sundered from all that we once knew to be good, and beautiful, and admirable, and true?
To quote Riddley Walker: “O, what we ben! And what we come to!”