Embarrass My Dog: The Way We Were, the Things We Thought
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by Damien Broderick
Category: General Nonfiction/History
Description: Award-winning writer Dr. Damien Broderick gathers his most forthright articles from the 1960s and '70s, on topics ranging from sex, politics, and religion to drugs and the way things were before the Internet, and caps them with sharp insights from today, looking back in amazement--and often with dismay or laughter. Great reading!
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 2010 USA
eBookwise Release Date: January 2011
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [433 KB]
Reading time: 242-339 min.
"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." In grim postwar 1953, L. P. Hartley wrote that opening to The Go-Between, set in the golden summer dawn of the twentieth century. But the future, too, is a foreign country where they do things even more differently. Yet here's the weirdness: once you reach a certain age (after you turn thirty, perhaps), the present turns into the future, decade by decade growing ever stranger and more dislocating.
For many of us, at least in some moods, the true present is always those years when we were in our late teens or twenties. So this now we find ourselves stranded in cannot be, not completely, the vibrant, confident present. It really is already the future, where they take for granted some things we always imagined happening two or fifty or 100 years from today, way off in tomorrowland.
And yet the frustration of the thing is that quite often we find ourselves stuck in the wrong future. Wasn't that meant to be a time and place where (fill in the blank)?
Sometimes the tomorrowland (blank) contained images from old comic books or TV cartoons: flying cars or instantaneous matter transmitters, limitless cheap "atomic power," domes on the moon, invisible force fields that would protect vulnerable cities from H-bomb devastation, aliens from the stars.
Sometimes it stood for simpler dreams familiar to nearly everyone: a loving partner, a satisfying and remunerative job, the company of friends, perhaps children and the comfort of faith, all of it adding up to a blend of excitement and contentment--in a word, to happiness.
What the (blank) didn't contain, for most of us, even the science fiction dreamers, was a Moon abandoned 40 years in the past even as we harvested close-up pictures from the far reaches of the solar system, even as planets were found around hundreds of nearby stars. Computers not only on every desk but inside every portable telephone--a telephone that contacts other phones instantly almost anywhere in the world, and sends text, photos and videos (a feature of comic strip detective Dick Tracy's "2-Way Wrist TV" but now commonplace, as handy for thieves and drug dealers as for business execs and swarming fellatio-habituated schoolkids). Legal homosexual weddings, and a black US president, and new or resurgent infections, and seventy-year-old rock stars, and no Soviet Union, just an amorphous toxic cloud of international religious fundamentalist terrorists....
But first I need to insert a sort of heads-up alert for American readers about how these fragments from the time machine must be read: as a variant take on the familiar, a sort of not-quite-exact parallel universe (a charming one, I hope). I am an Australian now living in the USA, but most of these pieces were written in my home country where, of course, they have always done things slightly differently. And that means differently from the way they've been done (during any given period) in Britain as well as the USA, Canada, Japan, India, China, Russia, the nations of Africa.... Far more differently in the latter five cases, obviously, but significantly skewed from the great metropolitan centers of the West. It's complicated. Aussies play a different kind of football, and enjoy cricket (which endears them to Brits and Indians, but not to baseball-loving Americans) but listen to and perform rock and rap, and provide film actors of immense talent--who quickly switch their accents when they hit Hollywood.... So this world I'm reviving isn't just the past, it's not just like another country, it is another country. Yesterday Through the Looking Glass.
My mother's father (the grandfather I knew, and lived with on and off for some years) was twenty-four when the First World War broke out. An Australian from a country town, he enlisted in the mounted cavalry with his twin brother and fought in Europe, ending up as a machine gun instructor. My father was twenty-three at the start of the Second World War, and he engaged in hostilities from a distance, as a "reserved occupation" expert machinist making armament equipment. I was twenty when Australia introduced military conscription, against widespread protest, and twenty-one when the Prime Minister sent an infantry battalion into Vietnam. I was not called up, and most of my student friends were spared by the tumble of the conscription lottery. Of those conscripts who served, 1.3% were killed, and one in twelve was wounded.
This recurrence of deadly international violence during the early twenties of three generations of my family is a simple reflection of the history of the twentieth century. If I'd had a son in 1970, he'd have been twenty-one when the first Gulf War ("Operation Desert Storm") broke out, but the Australian troops who obediently trooped off to serve alongside American forces were spared combat roles. In 2003, when an Aussie contingent fought in the second invasion of Iraq, my hypothetical offspring would have been thirty-three, and perhaps by then himself the father of a young child--who would therefore be, as I write, just now entering adolescence. If the past repeats itself (a foreign country that does things differently while continuing to do the same thing at regular intervals), my imaginary grandchild is scheduled to enter his or her twenties just in time for the next big blow-up in, say, 2017.... A dismaying prospect.
Yet a key factor that we are almost unable to appreciate viscerally is how different the face of that recurrence will look. A friend who worked for many years as a spacecraft controls engineer for a major US military contractor commented to me recently: "Consider the great difference in the way your grandfather fought in WWI compared to today's soldiers and tomorrow's. These future (and present day) conflicts will likely mostly be fought by soldiers sitting in an office building in Nevada, controlling drones that will each drop exactly one super highly accurate guided bomb, which will carry only a very small explosive charge approximately equal to a single hand grenade, designed to destroy not personnel but rather the engine of war that is its mechanical target, making war far safer for both allies and enemies. We have really succeeded in tuning up our ability to fly unmanned into enemy airspace at night, drop one small bomb, have it penetrate a target building with a few hundred grams of pyrotechnics, then watch as that building explodes a few seconds later in a mysteriously violent blast."
So the future will be foreign, no matter how deeply embedded in our genes are the drives that manifest themselves century after century in human action. Maybe we can get a better grip on the Tweeting, Facebook'd, Googled, Palinized present and the uncanny future, with its mix of monkey antics and science fictional improbabilities, by vacationing for an hour or two in the not so long ago pre-Internet past, when today's elderly were fresh, naive, hopeful, angry, curious, sexually adventurous amid the stifling fumes of Hays Office decorous pieties, out to remake the stuffy world of their own elders, fuming with piss and vinegar.
When does the shift of perspective happen? It's a subtle thing, and creeps up on you. I'm not talking about the cliched "midlife crisis," if we take forty to be the fabled date for doubt and uncertainty and a frantic search for the last evidence of lost youth. This effect kicks in sooner than that. The change I'm tracking is more like the jolt when suddenly the music you love, the melodies and beat and lyrics that seized your attention at puberty and later teens, is gone, replaced by something alien and probably abominable to your ears. It could be the replacement by rocking Elvis of 1940s' and 1950s' jazz or soupy soapy romance ballads, or the appearance of the Beatles in the early '60s ("the fetal Beatles" as folk singers Peter, Paul and Mary called them contemptuously, and then vanished under their tidal wave, even as the Fab Four remade themselves again and again in a genius surge of innovation), or the sickening/fun move from heavy metal to 1970s' disco and bubblegum and Abba, or their evaporation under the onslaught of punk, and then the rise of hip hop rap with its discovery that you could get a lot of mileage out of just two notes, maybe three if your vocal range was ambitious, and a chanted frenetic angry street poetry of violence and misogyny (or so it seemed to those for whom the bell had just tolled)....
These jumps are mini-epochal cruxes when the flowing present abruptly stopped (for someone) and the future was arrested forever into an eternal watermarked "present" against which everything thereafter is measured, and usually found wanting.
So it's not just a matter of generations. These days the jolt comes very much faster than that. Still, the twenty-five-to-thirty-year ticking of the generational clock does seem to mark the biggest jumps, those moments when the present is glued shut and everyone younger, looking back at it a decade or two later from the outside, is struck into embarrassment and a kind of sickened grimace. "Eeewwww," as the kids were saying a few months or years ago, "gross! You liked that? You thought that? OMG!"
The great American poet Emily Dickinson caught it exactly, although in a rather different context, in a letter to a distant adviser:
"...they talk of hallowed things, aloud, and embarrass my dog."
She added: "He and I don't object to them, if they'll exist their side."
Exist their side, and leave her in peace, she meant. Well, that's not how generations operate now: their worlds interpenetrate, however compartmentalized by fashion and demographics and faith and race or ethnos, each marked by a different on-going present and future. And the composite pumped-up noise of the world trivializes all of these different hallowed things into blur and jump cuts and tweets, embarrassing the dog. The dog averts his gaze and growls. So this book is an attempt to soothe the dog even as we embarrass him with glimpses of a lost world, to display (and reflect upon, sometimes with rueful hindsight) several moments when the future became the present, and then the present left that future behind. But not without some torsion, not without a trace, not without regret and sometimes bitterness or, more often, I hope, simple disbelieving laughter.
Most of the essays and articles gathered here were published between 1967 and 1974, and written a little time earlier, so that their writer was aged twenty-two or twenty-three through thirty. A few come from later decades, and show how different times bring change to the same questing mind--but sometimes, admittedly, how markets ranging from men's magazines to literary journals focused that mind in a variety of directions. I hope it provides a glimpse of a Zeitgeist, as well as a time slice through the worldview of one rather eccentric traveler through the 1960s and 1970s, and beyond. I know it is sure to embarrass the dog, and probably the reader, but that's the price of admission to the past, where they did things differently.
You'll find that the pieces are bunched into those categories usually held to be beyond the bounds of polite conversation: Sex, Politics and Religion, of course, but also Drugs and a few items candidly declared to be (in a recycling of a series I wrote in the late 1970s for the Australian alternative newspaper Nation Review) Weird Shit. If you wonder how I can write about those turbulent times without mentioning that other partner of Sex and Drugs, namely Rock 'n' Roll, it's not because I wasn't there.
In February 1966, two Monash University friends started my nation's first pop music periodical, Go-Set, which beat the fabled US Crawdaddy into print by about five days. I chose not to get involved, fool that I was (the founding editors did rather well for themselves), but the following year I was enticed back from Sydney, where I was freelancing, to write about music and teen lifestyles. What I knew about these topics was scant (I fancied myself a young intellectual, not a clubber), and my weekly outpourings were usually cribbed from copies of New Musical Express and Melody Maker, airlifted from London. At the end of the Seventies, I condensed this borrowed wisdom into a rapture for a time that was already gone, as I observed with sardonic overkill. Later I recycled this paean and indictment into a novel, but here it is, in its mock-lyric brevity, to stand in for the absent section on Rock 'n' Roll:
DECEMBER ELEVENTH NINETEEN EIGHTY
The 1960s died on the 11th day of the twelfth month of 1980 when, outside his New York home, five bullets were pumped into the body of John Lennon by the music critic Ronald Reagan, who was later released after questioning by police.
The 1970s died much earlier, on the 19th day of the eighth month of 1969 when half a million children pitched their sad loony tents in a field outside Woodstock, in upstate New York. A recorded interview was later released to the media.
It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Picture a skinhead bootboy with razorblades at his toes and safety pins through the flesh of his cheeks, stamping on his own face forever.
No. Picture four scrubbed and patched middleaged Swedes rampant on a field of armwaving eight year olds argent, droning the theme of the decade: "Money money money."
No no no. Picture Linda Ronstadt and Governor Jerry Brown on undecorated sheets in a single bed, Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta flicking and sliding in the mirror above their heads on squares of pure light.
No. Alice Cooper eating a live chicken. The Kiss in their six year old fantasy greasepaint and ten thousand decibels. Sid Vicious in spoiled brat psychopathic rage working out the punk dreams of his generation in the murdered flesh of a convenient woman.
The Seventies was waking into the hungover spoils of the party. Everyone had died during the night.
Jim Morrison was dead in whiskey, caught by the snake.
Hendrix was dead, all his flashing crying chords jangled.
Joplin was dead, swallowed up and chewed into lard and blood.
Presley was dead, fat and banal, in alcohol and spangled spansules.
Marc Bolan was dead, gnawed by Tyrannosaur's jaws.
The Beatles were dead, John by an assassin's gun, Paul (to all intents and purposes) by his own hand.
Abba were born dead.
Disco was a corpse plugged into a defibrillator.
Like old pre-industrial gods, the remnants of the pantheon took themselves into eclipse and changed their wigs, were reborn, shook it again in the video clips: David Bowie falling in endless rebirth, Lou Reed transformed, Carly Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Brown; Heavy Metal clashing by night, Tangerine Dreaming their remote electronic buzz; and Dylan was Born Again.
Robert Zimmerman was Born Again.
The music of the Seventies was a pike gaffed into the belly of the Eighties.
Man, I had no idea what was burning toward us in the next thirty years....
Here's how these pieces came to be written: on-the-fly, mostly for desperately needed immediate money--but I didn't regard them as mere hack work. I put my back into these articles, so it is not entirely implausible that they captured and retain some concentrate of their time. That epoch is now long past, and nothing like it will ever return, not exactly, anyway. When we were in our twenties, long hair blowing in the breeze, we laughed at the inevitable prospect of the future. Our children, we told each other ruefully, would wear business suits and brutal haircuts, carry executive briefcases, and work as lawyers or accountants. Strange visions! But for all our laidback utopianism, we knew at least that time brings change. As it happens, I now find myself married to an intelligent, self-directed woman who is both a tax lawyer and accountant--and a permaculture farmer, when she has the time. So that element of the counterculture persists, as does her kickass attitude (and mine) to the viciousness and stupidity of wrongfully directed authority.
In a rational world, at around the time I started writing these pieces I would've been immersed in a philosophy doctorate. By now, I assume, I'd be an emeritus professor, although probably not at any of the grander universities. (In fact, I have the privilege of being a Senior Fellow in the School of Culture & Communication at the University of Melbourne, although I reside half a planet away from Australia, in Texas, the republic I dreamed of as a child devoted to cowboy movies.) In a more malign world than this, I would instead have recently retired from some dire factory, or perhaps be working in the fields, scrambling along half-starved behind a gaunt animal. Another reality that never happened would have seen me a priest in the Catholic Church, a prospect I embraced when I entered a seminary at the age of 15, and put behind me, thank God, two years later.
A series of unfortunate events turned me into an eclectic gadfly excessively interested in almost everything except my scholarship-funded studies. So at nineteen and twenty, I started to eke out a frugal living writing for popular magazines of a kind that don't exist any longer--intended for family reading--or the limpest of soft porn tits&ass men's monthlies. Some years later, I briefly served as editor of one of these, MAN, a periodical aimed at working men and boys, sometimes found in doctor's waiting rooms, more often in a metal locker. I kept the job for a little over five months. Prior to that, though, I had been dashing off unambitious short stories for MAN and its competitors; during an upgrade meant to combat more sophisticated, explicit product from the USA (Playboy, Penthouse, in the 1960s frequently banned in Australia), I was invited to adopt the role of a kind of youthful pundit, providing fodder for a new feature, "Men at Arms."
My first foray was the article that opens this book, "The Moral Revolution," which took the deliberately confrontational line that sex--or at least slavering and anxiety about sex--was overrated. This piece of one man think-tankery was followed by others on numerous topics: environmental degradation and the impending greenhouse effect (not yet something widely discussed in the late 1960s), the rise of the drug culture, the war in Vietnam that even then was hotting up. Eventually, to my great surprise, I managed to smuggle in thoughtful accounts of the radical thinkers Herbert Marcuse and Arthur Koester, although my attempt to insinuate a piece on the scarifying anti-psychiatrist R. D. Laing met a scowl and the rejection notice.
Later, I wrote for more serious journals, and a few of those later pieces are here as well (including one from an important recent anthology on atheism). At the same time, I was selling novels in Australia and the United States. I went back to university in my early forties (a sort of midlife crisis choice, no doubt, but shaped by the wish to delve into the mysteries of Derridean deconstruction and the social studies of science, in a delayed PhD dissertation). Those early articles embarrass not only my dog but me as well. They are desperately naive in many ways, the work of a young man in a world swept by drastic change. But now they are a kind of time capsule, a means by which older readers may revisit their youth and wonder where it went and how we got here from there, while younger readers (I hope) can regard with astonishment the way we were, and the things we thought, back there in that foreign country with borders that have been closed and locked for decades.