In Search of the Different Drummer (a postscript)

As a college freshman, I made friends with a high school senior who was permitted to live in our dormitory.  I never learned how Gary, a Catholic high school student from Chicago, ended up in a college dorm in Charleston.  Perhaps I should have asked.

Whenever someone did make the mistake of asking Gary what he was doing in Charleston, he invariably answered:

“I’m just waiting for a streetcar.”

And, if the questioner persisted with the inevitable protest,

“But there aren’t any streetcars in Charleston,”

Gary responded:

“That must be why it’s taking so long.”

That is where many of us found ourselves at the start of this new millennium:  stranded and waiting for the deliverance that can never come because it does not exist.  Perhaps we’re a bit like believing Jews, living in expectation of the Messiah who has come and gone without being acknowledged, except in our case there could never be a liberator to set modern Europeans and Americans free from themselves.  Collectively, we once accepted and worshipped our savior, and just as collectively (with some few exceptions) we rejected Him, rejected him in all the cultural institutions of modernity.

Then what are we supposed to do (to use the title of my friend Anthony Bukoski) in this “time between trains”?  In my Perspective of three years ago, as I was preparing to make a hurried exit from a responsibility I had been discharging for some three decades, I suggested that we might refuse to march to the beat of progress, modernity, and the cretinism we inflict on ourselves every time we see an action hero movie, watch FOX news, or scrutinize the Drudge Report.  

I stick by that recommendation, though it is—like so many prohibitions—only useful for telling us what not to do.  During recent months, I have been barraged by friends and family members who wanted to talk about the disgraceful behavior of Hollywood celebrities, football players and Olympic athletes.  Eventually, I observed that since I would not allow people like Dustin Hoffman, Colin Kaepernick, or Lindsey Vonn into my house, I am free to keep them out of my life and out of my mind. Christian “Conservatives” want to eat their Little Debby Snack Cake, while reserving the right to complain about the calories, preservatives, and disgusting taste.  Wouldn’t it be simpler and cleaner not to buy—much lest to ingest-the filth?

What to do is perhaps a more difficult question to address.  I might, of course, recommend avoidance of all electronically delivered stimulation:  no radio, no recorded music, no movies, no television.  If you like music, take up an instrument.  There are gardens to plant, fish to catch, and thousands of old books worth reading.

Life in Qumran sounds like a noble ideal, but it would probably be as boring and hypocritical as an Amish village.  The Libertinism of Charles II was in part a reaction to the sanctimonious joy-killing Puritanism of the people who murdered his father, and it engendered, in turn, a stiff-necked resistance against the little pleasures in life that, taken singly, may not amount to a great deal, but when added up give much of life its flavor.  John Gay, in Rural Sports, lamented the demise of archery and bowling in the country, where the peasantry had only gin to turn to for solace.

I am not composing a Stoic treatise but scribbling a few stray thoughts, and one stray thought is this:  The popular entertainment of previous decades—the music of Rodgers and Hart, the films of Preston Sturgess, radio episodes of Johnny Dollar and Gunsmoke, and even old television programs—allow our minds to escape to a world that is not perfect, certainly, or even particularly beautiful or uplifting, but more direct and naive.  On the rare occasions in which I am forced to watch some current blockbuster film, I think wistfully how much happier I’d be with the coarse honesty of a Shakespeare comedy, the frivolity of a Thin Man movie or—may I be forgiven for this—Hopalong Cassidy or Johnny Mack Brown.  

If I make the mistake of fiddling with the radio dial and come upon whatever it is they are calling music, my mind leaps into the green pastures—not just of Haydn and Mozart but also of Gilbert and Sullivan, Jerome Kern, and Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man—the one work of art of which Iowans should be proud.

In reading the exploits of Dr. Thorndyke and Nero Wolfe, we enter a world of comparative sanity, but one we may more easily comprehend than the world of Vergil and Horace, though I would make the case that Austin Freeman and Rex Stout are closer to Augustan Rome than the sewers of Hollywood.  It’s just a thought, and I am sure all  my readers reached the same conclusion long ago.  Suggestions would, nonetheless, be helpful to the rest of us.

Someone who understands the situation we are in is our newest literary contributor, Ched Rayson.  In his middlebrow science fiction thriller, Born out of Due Time, which we have begun to serialize.  We are confronted with the strange figure of Anterus Smith, a hero whose mind was formed in a better world but is forced to live in this one.  The novel gets off to a deliberately slow start—rather like one of those sort of grave preludes that Haydn sometimes inserts at the beginning of a symphony—but as it picks up speed, I think most (all?) of our subscribers will begin to see its relevance for the issues we are raising in this website.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

2 Responses

  1. Robert Peters says:

    “… formed in a better world but forced to live in this one.” I do not know that I was “formed in a better world,” but just this week my students, all 12th graders, asserted that I was old – not just old in years, which I am by their reckoning which is 68 – but old one of them said “in a primeval sense.” They had not known the word “primeval” before this year. I agreed with them, saying that I came of age before the first dinosaurs laid their eggs. They laughed. I read them the Saxon poem “The Wanderer” which is on our classroom shelf, first in Saxon and then Kline’s translation. I then told them that I, like the Wanderer, had known ring givers and their times; therefore, I know what I have lost. They, my students, have never known a ring giver; for them, in my wake there is nothing but a void. At the very least, I can worship the false goddess of nostalgia; not even that do they have.