Monday, May 8, 2017

Alison Hawthorne Deming: Umberto Eco and the Absolute Fake

I first read Umberto Eco’s essay “Travels in Hyperreality” twenty years ago. Lately it’s been bubbling up from the tar pit in my mind, along with saber-toothed cats and wooly mammoths fallen into the suck of that miserable slough. The politics of the time have that hot asphalt pit feel to them. And so I thought perhaps this is the moment to commune with late linguist, medievalist, best-selling novelist, philosopher, and semiotician and have a laugh or two about our current malaise. I remembered that Eco had traveled from Italy to the United States in the 1970s (though the essay didn’t appear in English until the late 1980s), visiting many hallmarks of our national bipolar condition to assess what indeed it was, this American character, that obsesses us and many beyond our borders. Disneyland, Fisherman’s Wharf (nothing to do with fishermen but sporting four waxwork museums), the Pietà of Forest Lawn Cemetery, Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not!” Museums, New York’s School of Holography where he found Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, the laser projected hideaway where the laser-projected Superman goes “to be alone with his memories.” “Between San Francisco and Los Angeles,” writes Eco, “I was able to visit seven wax versions of Leonardo’s Last Supper.”

After hitting these hot spots of hyperreality and many more, Eco concluded that Americans love the fake more than they do the real. Americans demand a refreshing cool beverage on every street corner, “the real thing and to attain it must fabricate the absolute fake.” If Eco were around today, he would love the signifying bumper crop, the apotheosis of fakery, that is the Trumpestuous Regime. What we wanted was an end to stalemates and injustice; what we got is a freak show of greed, mendacity and mean-spirited grandstanding that has, for some inscrutable reason, been dubbed a “populist” voice. Who really wants to dirty mountain streams, kill wolf and bear cubs in their dens, ruin the planet for future generations, defund scientific research along with arts and culture, taunt an adolescent totalitarian to the brink of nuclear war, bully women and refugees, and build a pointless wall that will do nothing to stem the flow of illegal drugs marketed by outlaw multinational cartels that feed America’s boundless appetite? The people? Really?

Let me be clear (which I fear is what the White House press secretary says when he is about to sling the lie his boss pays him to sling); let me be cleared of this duplicity (is what he must say to himself in his hours of insomniac remorse). Let me be clear: I grew up in another America, an Old New England that still revered what Wordsworth feared was lost when he wrote “plain living and high thinking are no more.” Growing up in post-World War II rural Connecticut, I still felt the glow of American virtue hovering over my hometown with its promise of beneficence, despite the proliferation of nuclear weapons—a Nike missile silo right in our hometown. But all of that hypertrophy of weapons seemed unreal to me. What was real? Our family never went to Disneyland or Disneyworld. We were late to acquire a television and when we did it was kept in the basement, near the nether region where the monsters lived. On Saturday mornings, I watched a show about a black stallion named Fury and the boy who loved him. It almost felt like a moral failing to be watching TV in our house—one likely to be punished by the monsters who always hid on the other side of an invisible wall. Other kids came to school on Monday mornings all excited. Did you see “Toast of the Town”? I had no idea what they were talking about. Toast? See? What did everyone know about this but me? How many years was it before I understood this was the name of Ed Sullivan’s show? Our family read books and wrote them, planted gardens and transplanted laurel bushes from the woods down to the terrace. Our family built stone walls, wrote plays and stories and thrillers. Our family played classical music and showtunes on the Victrola. Our family took modern dance lessons, acted in plays, directed plays, attended the annual light opera company production of Gilbert and Sullivan, the equity company performance of “Medea” and “My Fair Lady.” Our family visited the American Museum of Natural History and Statue of Liberty and Bronx Zoo. Let me be clear: all of this is true. I fell in love with Charles Dickens and Eugene O’Neill and James Baldwin. I fell in love with Ofelia and Dido and Hester Prynne. I was stunned that human suffering could be lifted up into art. This was real to me.

My hall-of-self-refracting-mirrors moment reading Eco came when he visited the Movieland Wax Museum, a fake of the original fakery at Madame Tussaud’s, that offered a fake Dr. Zhivago as played by Omar Sharif, the fake name for the actor born Michel Dimitri Chalhoub in Alexandria, Egypt, to a Catholic family (the actor later converted to Islam). The film was shot in Spain because the Soviet Union would not allow the British filmmaker on Russian soil. So, one wax statue, with a little 21st century google assist, becomes a multinational pandemonium of ideologies, all of which are in some manner fake and all of which are in some manner real. What is a sane person to do to feel grounded in reality? In some respect this all seems like good fun, considering that our nation is the entertainment capital of the world. Our culture has been trained to enjoy the game of blurring the line between the real and the fake.

Exeunt all.

Enter Trump, who, with pathological heartlessness, a defect of character that renders him incapable of empathy, has spent his first 100 days in office as impresario of a shit show of unbridled ignorance and mean-spirited lies in the homeland along with spectacularly poor judgment in international affairs. Eco said Americans wanted “the absolute fake” and now we’ve got it. When Trump says, “Fake news,” the resistance jokes, “Fake President.” But alas “the furious hyperreality” (Eco’s phrase) of this American moment is all too real. Who’s laughing now?

Absolute is about certitude. In alcohol, absolute is about being pure and simple (no added water). In philosophy, absolute is about being free from all external restraint or interference, “free from,” says OED, “conditional forms of knowledge or thought.” In physics, absolute zero is the lowest temperature possible, when nearly all molecular motion ceases, the point of lowest internal energy. Absolute zero is thought to be -273.15 degrees Celsius. But absolute zero is a quantum state: it is impossible to reach. The “absolute fake” is that pretense of reality that asks for no stripping away of the mask that reveals it to be fake. The absolute fake lives by the lie that dares not speak its name. The absolute fake is bone-chilling and perilous to life.

Eco visited the San Simeon castle of William Randolph Hearst, finding another dimension to his rubric’s cube analysis of American character. This is the Xanadu of Citizen Kane, which film Orson Welles modeled on the famed newspaper magnate. Hearst filled his Xanadu with a stash of old world captures:
Hearst bought, in bits and whole, palaces, abbeys, and convents in Europe, had them dismantled brick by numbered brick, packaged and shipped across the ocean, to be reconstructed on the enchanted hill, in the midst of free-ranging animals. Since he wanted not a museum but a Renaissance house, he complemented the original pieces with bold imitations, not bothering to distinguish the genuine from the copy. An incontinent collectionism, the bad taste of the nouveau riche, and a thirst for prestige led him to bring the past down to the level of today’s life; but he conceived of today as worth living only if guaranteed to be ‘just like the past. . .’
The bedroom contains the authentic bed of Richelieu, the billiard room has a Gothic tapestry, the projection room (where every night Hearst forced his guests to watch the films he produced, while he sat in the front row with a handy telephone linking him with the whole world) is all fake Egyptian with some Empire touches; the Library has another Italian ceiling, the study imitates a Gothic crypt, and the fireplaces of the various rooms are (real) Gothic, whereas the indoor pool invents a hybrid of the Alhambra, the Paris Metro, and a Caliph’s urinal, but with greater majesty.
These acquisitions and imitations offered Hearst a depth of cultural reference of which America seems incapable with its veneer-thin history. It seems the project of an imagination starved for context, craving history to make oneself relevant, waging a battle in the soul between real and fake, material wealth and spiritual poverty, a lofty perch from which the view must remain confused--and so the voracious need continues. That thin veneer of American history, of course, is not the whole story. The woodland, plains and desert societies of our continent’s indigenous past are our Rome and Athens, but our sense of history remains foreshortened by the stultifying reality of the founders’ exploitive violence. There has always been something vicious in the heart of America. Perhaps it is what has called us to our virtue: can’t we do better than this? How do we choose to define ourselves now? We must never stop asking.


Alison Hawthorne Deming’s most recent book is the poetry collection Stairway to Heaven. She was recently appointed Regents’ Professor at the University of Arizona, where she teaches in the Creative Writing Program

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Alison, for calling out the lie in the term "populist." May that particular insight catch fire and spread. Like "alt-right," it's yet another way we mask the viciousness (thank you, too, for that word) of what's happening. I write from southeastern Michigan, not far from Greenfield Village, another potpourri of buildings and artifacts assembled by another American magnate, and meant, I suppose, to thicken the veneer of our thin history. Wow, it's everywhere.