NOT SEEING THE THING ITSELF
Monday, June 9, 2014
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
NOT SEEING THE THING ITSELF
I am standing at Housestead Roman Fort (Vercovicium) on Hadrian’s Wall, where the civilised Roman Empire attempted to put a barrier between itself and those wild barbarians up north. I want to remember this moment, so I get my wife to take a shot of me trying unsuccessfully to look nonchalant and cool as I lean against a Roman wall and survey the countryside.
But what is going on inside my head?
I am trying to remember all the words to W.H.Auden’s “Roman Wall Blues” (“Over the heather the cold wind blows. / I’ve lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose” etc.). And I’m reliving bits of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth, set in Romanised Britain, which I read years ago to some of my older kids when they were young teenagers.
Blast! It’s happened again.
I’m not looking at the thing itself.
I’m not looking at what is in front of me.
I’m filled with the literary associations.
I’m filtering everything through the medium of somebody else’s imagination.
I’m just an echo box.
It’s like when I walk along Takapuna Beach and hear bits of Bruce Mason’s End of the Golden Weather being declaimed in my head. It’s like driving into Wellington and immediately striking up with Baxter’s “radio masts, huge harps of the wind’s grief”.
“No problem,” you think, reflecting that all of these are perfectly respectable cultural referents.
But it gets worse.
I am snapping photos of the canals of Amsterdam, and trying to think of Spinoza, Descartes in exile, Rembrandt and other such highbrow stuff.
But what is my head really playing?
I hate to tell you, but it’s Max Bygraves dolefully and monotonously singing “Tulips from Amsterdam”, which I never liked in the first place.
I’m driven down to Flanders for an Anzac Day ceremony. I look over the gentle rolling farmlands and have the common thought that it is hard to connect it all with the shell-shattered mudfields of old war photographs.
And do I think of some uplifting and thoughtful bit of Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg?
Instead I think of John McCrae’s bloody awful “recruiting poster” of a poem “In Flanders Fields” (“take up our quarrel with the foe” etc.).
I mean, you’d think my stupid brain’s reflexes would do something more worthwhile than recycling propaganda, wouldn’t you?
Then there is the nadir of this doleful tale.
We’re in Paris at a nice bed-and-breakfast hotel right on the Seine and immediatelyopposite the Louvre. Out our window I snap shots of the bicycles and booksellers and street-sweepers and row of poplars and river between us and the great palace-museum.
Now if brain is going to reflex something, surely it should be some Baudelaire?
Instead brain automatically strikes up with Eartha Kitt singing “Sous les Ponts de Paris” and Mireille Mathieu singing “Sous le Ciel de Paris” and in no time I’m hopping round the room humming “I Wanna Step Out on the Champs Elysees”, like Fred Astaire in the movie Funny Face, till my wife tells me to calm down.
It’s not as if this condition is life-threatening, but it is annoying – the way places are overlaid with pop culture references. It’s like the way you can still remember the jingles to long-ago TV advertisements. It’s because they’re so catchy. But they still do block out the daylight – the thing that is really in front of you. And if you don’t make a big and conscious effort to push them aside, you will see nothing with your own eyes. You will end up behaving as you have been told to behave in pop songs and romantic movies. Like thoseidiot tourists who buy golden padlocks, lock then to the wire-mesh side of a bridge and throw the key into the Seine because some dumb pop song told them that if they do this, their love will last. How crass! How like thinking of “Tulips from Amsterdam” while looking at unoffending canals!
Yes, dear postmodernist. I do know you think all reality is “constructed”, and if my brain didn’t strike up with glib and ready-made associations before every scene, it would still be seeing that scene as it has so often been “constructed” for me. But I am still saying that it is possible to see things cleanly and clearly with your own fresh eyes.
Places with no literary associations whatsoever. Places that nobody has written a song about. Places ignored by wordsmiths. Perhaps I will be fortunate enough to find such a place one day.