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February 2004

To Number Our Days / A Word from the Devil

Sunday Night Journal — February 29, 2004

When someone begins a sentence with the words “I’m not superstitious, but…” you can be pretty sure he is about to confess a superstition. So let me phrase this a bit more straightforwardly and precisely than that: I don’t consider myself to be superstitious, but I do sometimes interpret events in a way that may attribute more significance to them than is strictly warranted. Of this bent are the thoughts that occur to me as I compose my fifth journal entry for the month of February. We are in a leap year, and February 29 has fallen on a Sunday. We have had five Sundays in our shortest month. When I noticed this, it struck me immediately and irrationally as a good thing. But what difference does it make which month the Sundays fall in? The number of Sundays yet to pass before the end of the world, or the end of one’s own life, is unchanged. And yet it seems somehow a bit of good fortune, or a blessing.

Whatever their names, the number of our days is fixed, and they continue to pass. In contemplating what is left behind as each day ends, I have often conjectured that one of the secrets of the next life might be that what is good in this life would somehow be available to us. Perhaps this is just the sentimentality of one too attached to this world, but it seems difficult to believe that what is truly good and beautiful in earthly life should be gone forever once it has receded in time. My notion of access to all time poses no logical difficulty if it is true that we will be in eternity. But since sin cannot enter the Kingdom, any time spent in sin would truly be gone, irrecoverably: time wasted, in a perfectly literal and permanent sense.

I have been reading—very slowly, a few pages here and there—a book I should have, and wish I had, read years ago, Boswell’s Life of Johnson. I was intrigued to find in it the following prayer from a diary entry made by Johnson on his twenty-eighth birthday; it seems to hint at a similar idea, though considered only with respect to the day of judgement, and not beyond :

Mayest thou, O God, enable me for Jesus Christ’s sake, to spend this in such a manner that I may receive comfort from it at the hour of death, and in the day of judgement! Amen.

Speculation aside, this is an excellent morning prayer for any and every day.


A Word from the Devil on the First Sunday of Lent

Upon hearing today’s Gospel (Luke 4:1-13) I found myself considering the reason why the devil considered himself entitled to offer Jesus all the power and glory of the kingdoms of the world: “…for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will.”

I don’t think this means that anyone who has worldly power owes it to Satan—there is testimony in the Bible to the contrary—but as we try during Lent to wean ourselves at least a little from the world, we do well to keep in mind that success therein is not necessarily a sign of God’s favor, and might even be the work of an altogether different power.

A Useless Frivolity

Sunday Night Journal — February 22, 2004

Mardi Gras in New Orleans is said to be scandalous, but I’ve never been, so I don’t know for sure. Almost everyone I’ve known who has witnessed it has simply said “It’s crazy.” As a student of human nature I have sometimes asked for more details, but have been met with a shaking of the head and a rolling of the eyes. They all agree, whether they applaud or lament the fact, that Mardi Gras in Mobile is a far more tame affair. And I agree with those who applaud; Mobile’s Mardi Gras is something that whole families can and do enjoy.

In spite of its relative mildness, though, Mobile’s Mardi Gras does have its detractors and opponents. To begin with, there are those who believe the drinking of alcohol to be a serious sin. For them, Mardi Gras itself must then be a fairly bad thing, for to attempt to have Mardi Gras without alcohol would be like expecting a gelding to reproduce. As far as I know the attempt has not been made, and no one would expect it to succeed if it were. There was, this year, a movement to set aside certain areas of the parade routes as alcohol-free. I’m not sure how those have worked out, as I didn’t visit them, but I think the more common practice of serious teetotalers is to have nothing to do with the festival. I’m told that a local Baptist college does not even officially acknowledge its existence.

The other attack on Mardi Gras comes from social reformers of a more secular and (doctrinally speaking) liberal stripe. These are offended in (it seems to me as an outsider) two ways: first, because Mobile is a city with continual financial problems, they are offended by the sheer wastefulness and frivolity of the thing; and second, they are offended by the exhibition of social inequality which Mardi Gras presents. I remember being struck by the latter at my first parade. You have a few people riding majestically down the street on large expensive conveyances tossing cheap baubles to the masses, who conform to stereotype by begging and scrambling frantically for the trivial favors.

But this is not quite as bad as it appears. It is true that the whole Mardi Gras phenomenon is sustained by the city’s upper class, but it is certainly not their exclusive province. In fact, in the American way, the classes flow back and forth across the line separating the spectators from the participants fairly freely. My parents-in-law used to go to Mardi Gras balls regularly and they were people who had grown up poor and advanced to middle-class comfort, but certainly not to wealth. I know several participants in this year’s parades, and they are ordinary suburbanites like me.

As for the squandering of wealth when—the typical complaint—“that money could be going to improve our schools”—well, as a moral judgment this is reasonable, but as an expectation of what would happen if Mardi Gras were abolished it is pretty clearly a fallacy. Few of those who now spend their money for Mardi Gras would, if the festival were no more, say to themselves, “I think I’ll take the money I would have spent on Mardi Gras this year and sign it over to the local government.” Nor could they be forced to do so, except by the clumsy and inconvenient means of a tax increase, which would be difficult to achieve and not readily be accepted by any of the people, rich or poor.

I wonder if these reformers are offended not so much by the possibility that the money might be put to nobler use as by the knowledge that it is in fact going for something which is by utilitarian measures quite stupid. I have just spent three evenings watching parades from the corner of Government and Franklin streets and as far as I am able to testify a good time was had by all, but nothing whatsoever was accomplished. Mardi Gras is pure festival, except in the eyes of some Christians who maintain its connection with the liturgical year, and in order to enjoy it one really needs to relax in some fundamental way.

Perhaps the need for this relaxation and resultant tolerance performs a sort of natural selection: those who are not capable of it do not attend, or soon leave. At any rate my experience over the years has been that the people who make up the hundred thousand or so attendees at a typical parade are almost entirely amiable, except for the occasional brief struggle over a Moon Pie™ or a string of beads and the very rare burst of real violence, although many of them are drunk and among people who are not their natural cohort. The crowd at Government and Franklin was, on all three nights, a very mixed bunch—a diverse bunch, it is accurate to say, although the word “diverse” has now a sort of taint about it due to its prevalent use as a political euphemism. Black people outnumbered whites by two to one or more, and one of the nice things about Mardi Gras is that there doesn't seem to be much open racial tension; I suppose there is a certain discomfort at times, but I have not witnessed or heard of real conflict.

Ball-goers in formal wear wander among people still wearing the uniforms of their jobs as janitors and cooks. Teenagers of all colors and conditions fend their way somewhat restlessly but as a rule with reasonable courtesy among those of us who tend to stand around in one place. Families with small children set up little encampments of folding chairs and coolers. College kids and young single adults bring coolers only. Elderly people from the retirement apartments at Cathedral Place seem to enjoy the parades as much as anyone else, and sometimes get surprisingly deep into the trinket-grabbing scrimmage. The drinkers are cheerful and generally not so boisterous as to be unpleasant.

Here is the Archbishop of Mobile, whose hundred-and-fifty-year-old house is on the northwest corner of the intersection. He is an old Mobilian and runs into a lot of people he knows. Here is a young (or so I still think of him, although I notice his hair is going) priest with a complement of sturdy nephews; they have just emerged from a fairly strenuous struggle over a package which, he tells us, was constructed for and thrown to them specifically by a friend—the priest is from another old Mobile family—and they were not about to let an interloper get away with it. Here is the somewhat more reserved chancellor of the archdiocese (of Anglo, vs. the other priest’s Lebanese, heritage) who nevertheless does his share of grabbing for beads and candy. Here is a couple who look a little familiar to me and who introduce themselves as the real estate agents who sold a house for us in 1992; my wife and I are pleased to hear that they remember our children as being remarkably well-behaved and personable. Last year I ran into someone with whom I worked in another city almost fifteen years ago and hadn’t seen since. There are very small children in their parents’ arms or on their shoulders; there are bigger children everywhere, whose tactic is not to try to catch things as they fall but to snatch them up from the pavement where most of them land. They are always underfoot when a float is passing. I come up with a split lip when one of them dashes under my arm as I reach down for a string of beads, then, having snagged it, jumps up and smacks me in the face with the top of his head.

The floats are, I hear, much smaller than those in New Orleans, but they’re plenty of spectacle for us, brightly colored and brightly lit and full of (mostly) drunken men in costumes and masks that make them look mysterious. One is rarely out of earshot of a brass band, or at least the drum line of a brass band, and my wife and I marvel at the complexity of the rhythms maintained by some of them—Vigor High gets especially high marks from us—and at the fact that they will keep it going almost continually while walking three or four miles. Most people are at least nodding their heads or bouncing up and down most of the time, and some are dancing. With the bands are the girls with flags and batons, and some of these introduce an unwelcome note of vulgarity, dancing in ways that make them look cheap, and we wonder why the adults involved let them get away with it. (Later we hear from our daughter, who marches much more decorously with the band of the local Catholic high school, that grown women are yelling at them to “shake it, Catholic girls.”)

Viewed coldly, the whole thing would seem shabby. It’s well that most of the parades take place at night, for the broad daylight would make the shabbiness harder to ignore. It is easier to participate in the illusion of the floats’ magical splendor if floodlights draw attention to the spectacular portions and leave the works—tires, axles, exhausts—in dimness. The streets are soon strewn with garbage, and in fact I know people who won’t come downtown for a parade because “it’s so dirty.” One of the things that make them say so is, no doubt, the smell: there is a smell in the air which is, clinically speaking, a bad smell, compounded of garbage, grease, onions, sausage, spilled beer, and humanity, with subtle overtones of urine and manure (some of the drunks duck between or behind buildings rather than seek out the portable toilets, and some of the police ride horses) but which I somehow enjoy because of its association. A general air of gaiety and benevolence prevails. I make it my enjoyment to hand over most of what I catch to children who are too small, timid, or slow to get as much as some of the others. When someone is aggressively greedy the general response of others seems to be less an inclination to punish than to ostracize, even perhaps a little to pity, the one who has manifested such a deplorable character.

Brief acquaintances flower and are broken as the crowd shifts. When the last float has passed for the last time (certain places, and Government Street is one of them, are visited twice as the parade makes its way back to its point of origin at the Civic Center), followed closely by the police and street-sweepers, strangers exchange goodnights and wishes for a happy Mardi Gras. The traffic jam that follows is a pretty relaxed affair, certainly far more so than the ones I encounter on a working day.

Surely festivals are one of the human needs that soon present themselves when our basic physical requirements are satisfied. It would certainly be no service to the poor who comprise a large portion of the Mardi Gras crowd to do away with this one. Has anyone committed this night an act of immorality for which he might not otherwise have had the occasion? Quite likely, I suppose. Have money and time been expended to no material or even lasting purpose? Without a doubt. But frivolity has its uses. For my part I am a happier, and I think at least briefly a better, man for having been a harmless and careless fool for a few hours. And soon enough it will be Wednesday, and time for silence and ashes.

A Further Note on “Oldies”

Sunday Night Journal — February 15, 2004

A correspondent writes, in reference to my February 1 entry:

…that the music of a time doesn't necessarily reflect the mood. Look at depression-era jazz, for instance—much of it is quite exciting and joyful...the idea of course is that people need joy and excitement when times are hard. Not to say that what you said about the ‘50s isn't necessarily true…

This is a good point, and prompts me to explain myself more fully. My first premise—that the art produced by a society is indicative of the prevailing mental climate of the times (with all due allowances for the temperaments of individual artists)—is not very controversial. But the relationship between external or material circumstances is often, as I think we all know from personal experience, not always as direct a matter of cause and effect as we might expect. People are bound to be less than perfectly happy most of the time, and at the same to expect, irrationally, that they should be perfectly happy, and in fact have a right to be so. External problems provide a plausible reason for the unhappiness. In their absence we face the more fundamentally disturbing possibility that something is wrong with us, that we ourselves are the real problem, not our circumstances. Walker Percy makes much of this phenomenon in Lost in the Cosmos, one of my favorite books.

Many years ago when I first discovered medieval and Renaissance music I was struck by the disparity between the difficulty of life in those times and the sweetness of the music they produced. This was a civilization in which life was, from our point of view—the point of view of a comfortable American—almost inconceivably difficult and harsh. Yet its music is, on the sacred side, transcendently exalted and serene, and, on the secular side, merry—or, if melancholy, melancholy in a sound way, about love or death or time, not morbid or deracinated. It is hard for me not to conclude that medieval society was psychologically healthy in some fundamental way that our own is not.

My point about the 1950s (actually the period between roughly the early ‘50s and mid-‘60s) is similar. The conventional view of the time, as seen in entertainment and journalism, is that it was sick—neurotically repressed about sex, and driven by fear of an imaginary demon—Communism—to embrace a real one—anti-Communism. Deep wells of misery lay beneath the superficial prosperity and stability, and people who thought they were happy were actually experiencing only a sort of timid comfort, sweetened with self-righteousness. According to this view, we ought to expect the art of the time to be either stiffly inorganic and inauthentic, like Nazi or Communist art, or bitter, angry, and depressed, like Brecht or Celine. Yet the popular music of the ‘50s (and I prefer to put aside for the moment the question of how much of the real soul of the society was in these commercial products, except to say that I think it was considerable) is lively, confident, good-humored, and still capable of imparting high spirits not only to the people who grew up with it but to people young enough to be the grandchildren of those who made it.

Of course, if the ‘50s were not a nightmare they were also not an idyll. In fact the period was not as different from our own as many journalists and academics who should know better make it out to be. The essential conditions of modern life had been established, and many of our current problems were clearly present then. The fine arts had been wrestling with post-Christian spiritual conditions for decades. But just as it seems that the basic mental health of medieval society was more sound than that of our own, so it seems that our time is sicker than the ‘50s. It’s a long way from Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry to death metal and gangster rap. The question of the connection between the former and the latter I leave for another time.

The Entertainment Industry and the Ratchet Effect

Sunday Night Journal — February 8, 2004

The biggest and most ludicrous news story of the past week has been the brief exposure of a pop singer’s breast during a half-time concert at the Super Bowl. I myself did not witness the great event, although I watched most of the game. As probably happened in many American households, the husband went off at half-time to do something else while the wife—and in our case, a daughter—watched the entertainment. My daughter, who is in her high school band, has something of a professional interest in half-time shows, although I think she knew there would be little in the way of marching bands, batons, and flags.

I don’t think the flash made a great impression on them. After half-time, they commented to me only that the show was crude and stupid, that it was just as well I’d missed it, and that they wished the NFL would do something along the lines of the shows that are traditional in non-professional football games. It was only the next day that I realized the level of shock and outrage that had been generated. My first reaction was to wonder why anyone should be so very upset by this one moment when—as I assumed and has been amply confirmed since—the entire show had been one big exercise in vulgarity. This sort of thing is what big-time pop music stars do for a living, and why would anyone expect anything different from them?

For many of those in the audience, though, the nudity seems to have been a last straw, a definitive crossing of a boundary. Where does one draw, or find, a line of acceptability between the relatively mild sexuality of the dancing seen in (for instance) many old Hollywood musicals that are now considered fairly tame, and the much more salacious moves and gestures now tolerated? There is a real and significant difference, of course, and I have no patience with those who argue—from either the libertine or the puritanical extremes—that that there is none. But it is difficult, in the face of an entertainment industry consciously committed to what it likes to call, with manifest self-congratulation, “pushing the envelope,” to specify in a precise and legalistic way exactly where the line is. (I say “legalistic” because that is the only way such things can be approached now, appeals to simple respect and common sense being no longer of much use.) So the vast majority of Americans who deplore and despise the commerce in lewd entertainment have found themselves for the most part able only to fume impotently. Anyone who dares raise a voice against it can expect to be vilified by the entertainment industry and much of the news media—which latter are, after all, only an arm of the same industry. Consider the case of Tipper Gore, who made a very moderate attempt to pressure the industry to clean itself up and was rewarded with intense vituperation. (Unfortunately, Mrs. Gore seems to have learned her lesson, or at least learned not to offend potential contributors to the Democratic party, and has long since dropped and effectively repudiated her campaign.)

But a specific instance of nudity, even one as brief as this one, is a clear and definable action to which one may voice a clear and definable objection. And the intensity and volume of the reaction is probably in part an effect of the long-suppressed frustration of many people. “We can’t even sit down with our children to watch a football game,” goes the typical comment, “without them shoving this stuff at us. We’ve had enough, and we’re not going to take it anymore.” Some commentators of a traditionalist tendency, such as Peggy Noonan, have expressed the hope that this is the beginning of a reversal of the long trend toward increasing salaciousness in entertainment, and that the number of people making it clear, by voting with their attention and therefore their money, that they want a change will be great enough to make the industry react.

Perhaps it’s my natural pessimism, but I don’t think this is very likely. A temporary retreat may occur, but I don’t think such a great change can happen that easily. The most prestigious and powerful people in the country are against it; in the latter category I refer above all to the courts. More importantly, the people at large are, if not actually in agreement with, then disinclined or unable to make a stand against, the shallow libertarianism which is expressed in letters and phone calls to my local newspaper, as no doubt also to yours, by the argument “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to watch it.” (Or listen to it, or read it, or purchase it, as applicable.)

This argument is sound enough as an approach to minor differences. I like to watch football and baseball games on television, so I do. I don’t like to watch basketball games, so I don’t, and yet I feel no impulse to suppress basketball. Is this not a model for reconciling all differences? Of course it isn’t, unless you insist on reducing every possible component of our culture to a matter of subjective taste. Never mind, for the moment, the philosophical argument about relativism: as a practical matter, this tactic (which is all it really is) denies the possibility of culture—not of any culture in particular, but of any culture at all, because culture is by definition an expression of shared beliefs and attitudes.

But everyone knows at heart, even if he denies it with his mind and voice, that man is as much a culture-making as a biological creature, and the question is not whether there will be a culture but what it will be. If any practice or expression at all, no matter how repellent to most or many people, is to be accorded the same respect as any other, and if the only recourse of those who object is to attempt to hide, what is happening is either the disintegration of culture or the displacement of one culture by another, necessarily requiring either the expulsion or the assimilation of adherents of the older culture. And that, as has been noted by many observers of the culture war of the last generation or two, is what is really happening here. It is not just any offensive practice or expression which is to be tolerated, it is those that offend what can loosely be termed moral traditionalists, especially Christians.

I think the hopes of Peggy Noonan and others will be disappointed because I believe that the sexualization of popular culture is an essential a part of a cultural movement which is now so powerful, so well-established, and so deeply rooted in interpretations (however flawed) of the American ideal of liberty, that it is unlikely to be turned back unless by some crisis which makes its destructive frivolity untenable and unacceptable.

When my wife and I discussed this she remarked that “This stuff never gets rolled back. It might stop going forward for a while, but it never goes back.” Exactly. Like a ratchet that allows a wheel to turn in one direction but not the other, forces both inside and outside the entertainment industry will allow, for a while, a temporary halt in its progress toward some imagined end point of perfect “liberation” (and who can imagine what that might be?), but do not permit reversal.

Who will disengage, or perhaps destroy, this mechanism? Many of the powerful wish its operation to continue, and the people are uncertain and divided. Considering that we cannot, as a society, take action toward making hard-core pornography significantly less available on the Internet, even though the vast majority of us can agree that it is at least unhealthy, I see no reason to expect that the entertainment industry will not continue to ratchet up the sleaze which it has incorrectly associated with artistic merit but, it seems, quite accurately associated with commercial success. And the latter point is, of course, the most important: in the end the power is in the hands of the people. Whatever other factors may be involved, it is certain that as long as most people are unwilling to withold the patronage that insures profitability, the industry will continue to allow and encourage the sleaze-mongers among them.

You may have noticed that I have not mentioned the names of the performers who took part in the Super Bowl exhibition, nor the name of the television network which sponsored it, nor the other television network which produced it. Given that publicity of any kind is the lifeblood of the entertainment industry, the withholding of these names is a tiny gesture of opposition which I have enjoyed making, however futile it may be.


A Useless Woman? b/w Dancing in the Aisles (Of the Grocery Store)

Sunday Night Journal — February 1, 2004

In an otherwise conventional speech (reported here) [sorry, that link is no longer valid -mh 6/22/2010] justifying an abortion she had in the 1950s before she was married, the novelist Ursula Le Guin recently made an odd and extremely sad statement: that if she had not been able to abort her first child she would have been “another useless woman.”

That this statement implies a great deal of contempt for women whose principal occupation is motherhood is clear, and no surprise. Or at least it shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s always been clear that one of the fundamental convictions of the feminist movement is the belief, once held mainly by men, that the traditional tasks of mothers and wives are trivial, really little more than a form of idleness, and a waste of time and ability for any but the dullest. Yet I always am surprised, just a little, when I encounter it. I think that’s because I persist in expecting women to stick together somehow, at least about this particular matter, since male disrespect for women’s work is such a basic component of the battle of the sexes. I have always imagined that women once shared as a secret the knowledge that what matters most of life is in the small, quiet, and obscure, not in the crashing and strutting of great deeds and fame, and that this knowledge was a comfort to them in the face of male disdain and condescension. If that was ever the case, it is no longer.

But these ironies and contradictions of the feminist movement have been worked over pretty well, and there is not a great deal more to say about them. What is more striking in Le Guin’s remarks is her approach to the question of what might have been. She believes her life would have been ruined if she had given birth to a child at the age of twenty; presumably she believes her consequent “useless” life would not have included her becoming an esteemed writer of fiction. And she is disturbed to think that “her three wanted children” would not have been born. But of course she doesn’t know, and can’t know, that things would have worked out badly. Why should she not have, eventually, become a writer?—if she would indeed have been “unmarriageable,” she might in time have found herself with more freedom to write. I’ve always been skeptical of the idea of the “mute inglorious Milton.” To a young woman intent on becoming, say, an Olympic gymnast, motherhood might indeed mean a definite end to that ambition. But writing has no such biological limitations. Perhaps she would have been a very different writer if she had not given birth at twenty, but I see no reason to think she would have been a worse one; she might well have been a better one.

The question of the “three wanted children” is more difficult. One of the paradoxes of Christian theology and indeed of Christian life is the role of sin in bringing about the good. The Resurrection required the Crucifixion, and the Crucifixion required Judas’s betrayal. Those of us who have sinned not only gravely but in such a manner as to change the course of our lives find our repentant selves in an impossible position: we wish with all our heart we had not sinned, and yet in the years that follow the sinning—I speak as one well along in life— there may be much that we cannot wish undone and which, so far as we can see, would not have happened had we taken the right path at some long-ago juncture. We might have lived elsewhere and in other ways, might have married someone else, and would then not have had the same children. We cannot sort this out and soon abandon the attempt and place it all in God’s hands.

But that of course is something a person like Le Guin, who has, or so I’ve read, described herself as firmly anti-Christian, cannot do. She has things she loves: her writing career, her marriage, her wanted children. If aborting her first child brought her these things, she cannot repent of, and thus repudiate, that action. She cannot simultaneously, as a Christian in her position would be obliged to do, affirm that the action should never have been, yet accept the good things that nevertheless followed upon it.

Nor, it appears, is she willing simply to write the whole thing off as an example of the tragedy inherent in human life. She must say that the action which led to the good things was therefore also good. To repent of the abortion would be to wish her other three children not to exist and would therefore, I suppose, seem contradictory to her. Or (to look at it the other way around) to affirm the lives of her “three wanted children” is to affirm the death of the unwanted. If the effect is good, the cause must also be judged essentially good, as being at worst a regrettable necessity. This is the logic of pragmatic paganism, and it has at least a certain cold consistency. But it is a consistency which solves the apparent moral contradiction by eliminating it, declaring to be good that which was formerly considered evil. Perhaps this is a psychological necessity when forgiveness is believed to be unavailable.

From the Christian point of view this dilemma is an instance of the way apparently opposing truths are dealt with: not by eliminating one or blending the two or explaining away their opposition, but by insisting on both and contemplating the God in whom they are mystically reconciled. That which seems in the eyes of the world a mere contradiction becomes, when consigned to the vast sea of God, a healing paradox, like the wounds of Christ.


Dancing in the Aisles (of the Grocery Store)

I was pleased to find, on my last visit to the local Food World, that the management has resumed its former practice of using oldies—that is, the pop music of the ‘50s and ‘60s—as the store’s background music. All right, I’ll grant the abstract argument that the world would be a better place without background music in stores and offices. But if we must have it, this is great stuff to have, at least for something as dull as shopping for groceries. This store had used oldies for some years, and I once complimented a cashier on the selection. “A lot of people say that,” she replied.

And I also expressed my regret when they decided a couple of years ago to move ahead a decade or two and use the much less engaging radio pop of the ‘70s and later. “A lot of people say that,” replied the cashier this time as well. Now this error of judgment has been corrected, and it really is surprising what a lift in mood some of this music can produce. I once overheard a friend of one of my then-teenaged children say that he had been listening to the oldies station because he wanted to hear something that would make him feel good. One might suppose that affection for this music is only nostalgia, and for me there may be some truth in that, but when this young man was born the music was already a generation in the past. No, there’s something about the music that has proved —against all reasonable expectation— to be evergreen, as capable now as then of inducing good cheer. I’m not sure it would require much instigation to get a few people dancing in the aisles of Food World when they hear a song like “Roll Over Beethoven.” Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, the Drifters, the Platters…we’re going to have to call them artists, after all.

And what does this say about the despised 1950s, that time when, as we are constantly told, a crushed populace moved timidly through a minefield of political fear and sexual repression? The effervescent popular music of the time stands defiantly in contradiction to that silly view.