Working the Dying Fall

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
                    only exceptions
     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
                    and lastly
     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!”

4 thoughts on “Working the Dying Fall

  1. Nostalgic and predictive both, and very well done.

    I’m one of those who remember Ray Peterson’s song very well, as I was finishing high school then.

    You are right: “… it was unimaginably different. Yet so was 1960. Just fifty-two years — but all so long ago.”

    Victoria, BC

  2. And let’s not forget “My Back Pages” by Bob Dylan

    Crimson flames tied through my ears
    Rollin’ high and mighty traps
    Pounced with fire on flaming roads
    Using ideas as my maps
    “We’ll meet on edges, soon,” said I
    Proud ’neath heated brow
    Ah, but I was so much older then
    I’m younger than that now

    Half-wracked prejudice leaped forth
    “Rip down all hate,” I screamed
    Lies that life is black and white
    Spoke from my skull. I dreamed
    Romantic facts of musketeers
    Foundationed deep, somehow
    Ah, but I was so much older then
    I’m younger than that now

    Girls’ faces formed the forward path
    From phony jealousy
    To memorizing politics
    Of ancient history
    Flung down by corpse evangelists
    Unthought of, though, somehow
    Ah, but I was so much older then
    I’m younger than that now

    A self-ordained professor’s tongue
    Too serious to fool
    Spouted out that liberty
    Is just equality in school
    “Equality,” I spoke the word
    As if a wedding vow
    Ah, but I was so much older then
    I’m younger than that now

    In a soldier’s stance, I aimed my hand
    At the mongrel dogs who teach
    Fearing not that I’d become my enemy
    In the instant that I preach
    My pathway led by confusion boats
    Mutiny from stern to bow
    Ah, but I was so much older then
    I’m younger than that now

    Yes, my guard stood hard when abstract threats
    Too noble to neglect
    Deceived me into thinking
    I had something to protect
    Good and bad, I define these terms
    Quite clear, no doubt, somehow
    Ah, but I was so much older then
    I’m younger than that now.

  3. Here is Britain we are back in 1939 and although the majority have no idea what is going on and just love the X factor and Strictly Come Dancing those who are educated and look beyond the tv trivia are being filled with an ever-increasing sense of foreboding. Today I spoke to the lady in the local travel agents and it was quite a shock. She was obviously a highly educated and well-read lady and knew what was happening with the dollar turning into wheelbarrow money and the US being in hoc to China. It was amazing.

    So Clinton and Brown deregulated the banks and Brown sold off Britain’s gold cheap to create a short-lived mini-boom but nobody told the bankers to stop and now the euro and the dollar are going down the plughole. So the bankers have done better than in the 1920s and 1930s and so have the Marxists as anybody who opposed them was just tainted with Hitler’s brush and called a neo-Nazi.

    So I think it’s over this time the bankers and the Marxists have got what they were after. I think there’s going to be a big bang.

    As regards 50 years ago, I think it was called something evil like white hegemony. The European race ruled the world and was virtually unopposed. The cold war was just that and pretty cold and those behind the Iron Curtain were Europeans as well.

    Now the Europeans have been chased away and the world is ruled by the bankers and the third world. So it’s all going down the pan. Any suggestions?

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