Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Our Fathers That Begat Us

by Jenna Orkin
(reprinted from Father's Day, 2010, in commemoration of the death of Edgar Doctorow, gentleman, scholar, good friend, wonderful writer)

Sometimes I think about my father in that pointless way one thinks of the dead:  "What would he say about what I'm doing now?"  He had a strong journalistic streak himself; like many in his writing circle, revering the profilist, Joseph Mitchell, who was known as much for the exquisiteness of his prose as for the paucity of his output.  (Out of deference, the New Yorker set aside an office for him for many unproductive years.)

It's a pointless question because our parents, at least mine, were children of their era.  They knew that and would not have had it otherwise, any more than a fish would choose to move to Central Park South, even though it's some of the most sought-after real estate in the world.  Having lived through the Depression and the War, and having seen segregation disintegrate, they relished what Francis Fukuyama notoriously called the "end of history."  The prejudices and superstitions of their parents' countries seemed to belong to a less evolved consciousness.  Who could imagine turning back?

A few years ago, I attempted to contact two of my father's friends to let them know what I'd learned since 9/11 since it had bearing on what was to come.  These were influential, well-connected men who, if they wished, could convey the message further in the sphere of movies and letters.  I also felt these two men were the most likely among my parents' old friends to be open to what I had to say.  
The first, Walter Bernstein, might be receptive, I thought, because he'd written the screenplays, Fail Safe, about "an accidental sortie" of nuclear bombers to the USSR, and The Front, about the blacklist during the McCarthy era (of which Bernstein had first-hand experience.)  He was what used to be called "a lefty from way back" and was no stranger to the notion of corruption in high places.  Fail Safe is particularly memorable for a rare foray by Walter Matthau into serious drama, playing a general who's itching for an opportunity to unleash a nuke.

Bernstein was as kind and cordial as one might wish but his gentle assessment was, "I hope you're wrong."  "So do I," I said.

The second friend, whom I attempted to contact at an address which had worked years before, was Edgar Doctorow, the author of the novels Ragtime, about the twenties, and The Book of Daniel, about the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.  But most intriguing was his role as editor at Dial Press when they published Report from Iron Mountain, a book which professes to be a spoof but which luminaries such as John Kenneth Galbraith swore was an actual government report.  Galbraith said he knew this first hand because he'd been asked to work on it himself though he felt certain the final product was the work of either Dean Rusk or Clare Booth Luce.
Report from Iron Mountain concerns what would happen "if peace broke out."  Since war is an essential part of the economy, phoney foes would have to be concocted.  Slavery might have to be re-instituted.
Writing for the Washington Post under the pseudonym Herschel McLandress (a Jewish Scot?) Galbraith said he agreed with the book's conclusions.  He was familiar with Keynes' Post-World War I work, The Economic Consequences of Peace, which discusses the  inevitable "rapid depression of the standard of life of the European populations to a point which will mean actual starvation for some (a point already reached in Russia and approximately reached in Austria.)  Men will not always die quietly. For starvation, which brings to some lethargy and a helpless despair, drives other temperaments to the nervous instability of hysteria and to a mad despair."  Galbraith/McLandress only questioned the wisdom of releasing the report to "an obviously unconditioned public," (thus supporting this blog's admonition a couple of days ago that people have to be educated over time; you can't feed them soccer and Brangelina, then expect them to accept the notion of die-off.)
Doctorow did not respond to my letter though he'd been helpful in the past when I wrote fiction.
These non-responses were to be expected.  Doctorow is almost eighty; Bernstein over ninety.  They may have felt that even if they'd "spread the word," their efforts would have led to a dead end; the only question was when. 
At the same time, things are moving under the carpet.  We at Collapsenet know this because we are under the carpet too, watching them.   But also we are actors as well as observers, a circumstance as inevitable in life as it is in quantum mechanics.  
"Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us."
The minimal response from my father's old buddies, as well as a far more enthusiastic response from a musician friend, the late Rosalyn Tureck, who was of the same generation, confirmed my sense that the older generation wishes us well but feels relieved their time is up. 
In terms of culture, our fathers' era may indeed have been the best of times; but in terms of environment, it was the worst of times.  It's up to us to turn the ship around.  It won't be smoothe sailing after that but at least our children will have been set on the right course.