I have just been, for the first time, to see and hear a picture talk. “A little late in the day,” my up-to-date readers will remark, with a patronizing and contemptuous smile. “This is 1929; there isn’t much news in talkies now. But better late than never.”
Better late than never? Ah, no! There, my friends, you’re wrong. This is one of those cases where it is most decidedly better never than late, better never than early, better never than on the stroke of time. One of the numerous cases, I may add; and the older I grow, the more numerous I find them. There was a time when I should have felt terribly ashamed of not being up-to-date. I lived in a chronic apprehension lest I might, so to speak, miss the last bus, and so find myself stranded and benighted, in a desert of demodedness, while others, more nimble than myself, had already climbed on board, taken their tickets and set out toward those bright but, alas, ever receding goals of Modernity and Sophistication. Now, however, I have grown shameless, I have lost my fears. I can watch unmoved the departure of the last social-cultural bus—the innumerable last buses, which are starting at every instant in all the world’s capitals. I make no effort to board them, and when the noise of each departure has died down, “Thank goodness !” is what I say to myself in the solitude. I find nowadays that I simply don’t want to be up-to-date. I have lost all desire to see and do the things, the seeing and doing of which entitle a man to regard himself as superiorly knowing, sophisticated, unprovincial; I have lost all desire to frequent the places and people that a man simply must frequent, if he is not to be regarded as a poor creature hopelessly out of the swim. “Be up-to-date!” is the categorical imperative of those who scramble for the last bus. But it is an imperative whose cogency I refuse to admit. When it is a question of doing something which I regard as a duty I am as ready as anyone else to put up with discomfort. But being up-to-date and in the swim has ceased, so far as I am concerned, to be a duty. Why should I have my feelings outraged, why should I submit to being bored and disgusted for the sake of somebody else’s categorical imperative? Why? There is no reason. So I simply avoid most of the manifestations of that so-called “life” which my contemporaries seem to be so unaccountably anxious to “see”; I keep out of range of the “art” they think is so vitally necessary to “keep up with”; I flee from those “good times” in the “having” of which they are prepared to spend so lavishly of their energy and cash.
Such, then, are the reasons for my very tardy introduction to the talkies. The explanation of my firm resolve never, if I can help it, to be reintroduced will be found in the following simple narrative of what I saw and heard in that fetid hall on the Boulevard des Italiens, where the latest and most frightful creation-saving device for the production of standardized amusement had been installed.
We entered the hall halfway through the performance of a series of music-hall turns—not substantial ones, of course, but the two-dimensional images of turns with artificial voices. There were no travel films, nothing in the Natural History line, none of those fascinating Events of the Week—lady mayoresses launching battleships, Japanese earthquakes, hundred-to-one outsiders winning races, revolutionaries on the march in Nicaragua—which are always the greatest and often the sole attractions in the programmes of our cinemas. Nothing but disembodied entertainers, gesticulating flatly on the screen and making gramophone-like noises as they did so. Some sort of comedian was performing as we entered. But he soon vanished to give place to somebody’s celebrated jazz band—not merely audible in all its loud Vulgarity of brassy guffaw and caterwauling sentiment, but also visible in a series of apocalyptic close-ups of the individual performers. A beneficent Providence has dimmed my powers of sight so that at a distance of more than four or five yards I am blissfully unaware of the full horror of the average human countenance. At the cinema, however, there is no escape. Magnified up to Brobdingnagian proportions, the human countenance smiles its six-foot smiles, opens and shuts its thirty-two-inch eyes, registers soulfulness or grief, libido or whimsicality, with every square centimetre of its several roods of pallid mooniness. Nothing short of total blindness can preserve one from the spectacle. The jazz players were forced upon me; I regarded them with a fascinated horror. It was the first time, I suddenly realized, that I had ever clearly seen a jazz band. The spectacle was positively terrifying.
The performers belonged to two contrasted races. There were the dark and polished young Hebrews, whose souls were in those mournfully sagging, seasickishly undulating melodies of mother love and nostalgia and yammering amorousness and clotted sensuality which have been the characteristically Jewish contributions to modern popular music. And there were the chubby young Nordics, with Aryan faces transformed by the strange plastic forces of the North American environment into the likeness of very large uncooked muffins or the unveiled posteriors of babes. (The more sympathetic Red Indian type of Nordic-American face was completely absent from this particular assemblage of jazz players.) Gigantically enlarged, these personages appeared one after another on the screen, each singing or playing his instrument, and at the same time registering the emotions appropriate to the musical circumstances. The spectacle, I repeat, was really terrifying. For the first time I felt grateful for the defect of vision which had preserved me from an earlier acquaintance with such aspects of modern life. And at the same time I wished that I could become, for the occasion, a little hard of hearing. For if good music has charms to soothe the savage breast, bad music has no less powerful spells for filling the mildest breast with rage, the happiest with horror and disgust. Oh, those mammy songs, those love longings, those loud hilarities! How was it possible that human emotions intrinsically decent could be so ignobly parodied? I felt like a man who, having asked for wine, is offered a brimming bowl of hogwash. And not even fresh hogwash. Rancid hogwash, decaying hog wash. For there was a horrible tang of putrefaction in all that music. Those yearnings for Mammy of Mine and My Baby, for Dixie and the Land Where Skies Are Blue and Dreams Come True, for Granny and Tennessee and You—they were all a necrophily. The Mammy after whom the black young Hebrews and the blond young muffinfaces so retchingly yearned was an ancient Gorgonzola cheese; the Baby of their tremulously gargled desire was a leg of mutton after a month in warm storage; Granny had been dead for weeks; and as for Dixie and Tennessee and Dream Land—they were odoriferous with the least artificial of manures.
When, after what seemed hours, the jazz band concluded its dreadful performance, I sighed in thankfulness. But the thankfulness was premature. For the film which followed was hardly less distressing. It was the story of the child of a cantor in a synagogue, afflicted, to his father’s justifiable fury, with an itch for jazz.1 This itch, assisted by the cantor’s boot, sends him out into the world, where, in due course and thanks to My Baby, his dreams come tree־ue, and he is employed as a jazz singer on the music-hall stage. Promoted from the provinces to Broadway, the jazz singer takes the opportunity to revisit the home of his childhood. But the cantor will have nothing to do with him, absolutely nothing, in spite of his success, in spite, too, of his moving eloquence. “You yourself always taught me,” says the son pathetically, “that the voice of music was the voice of God.” Vox jazzi vox Dei—the truth is new and beautiful. But stern old Poppa’s heart refuses to be melted. Even Mammy of Mine is unable to patch up a reconciliation. The singer is reduced to going out once more into the night—and from the night back to his music hall, where, amid a forest of waving legs, he resumes his interrupted devotions to that remarkable god whose voice is the music of Mr. Irving Berlin as interpreted by Mr. Paul Whiteman’s orchestra.
The crisis of the drama arrives when, the cantor being mortally sick and unable to fulfil his functions at the synagogue, Mammy of Mine and the Friends of his Childhood implore the young man to come and sing the atonement service in his father’s place. Unhappily, this religious function is booked to take place at the same hour as that other act of worship vulgarly known as the First Night. There ensues a terrific struggle, worthy of the pen of a Racine or a Dryden, between love and honour. Love for Mammy of Mine draws the jazz singer toward the synagogue; but love for My Baby draws the cantor’s son toward the theatre, where she, as principal Star, is serving the deity no less acceptably with her legs and smile than he with his voice. Honour also calls from either side; for honour demands that he should serve the God of his fathers at the synagogue, but it also demands that he should serve the jazz-voiced god of his adoption at the theatre. Some very eloquent captions appear at this point. With the air of a Seventeenth Century hero, the jazz singer protests that he must put his career before even his love. The nature of the dilemma has changed, it will be seen, since Dryden’s day. In the old dramas it was love that had to be sacrificed to painful duty. In the modern instance the sacrifice is at the shrine of what William James called “the Bitch Goddess, Success.” Love is to be abandoned for the stern pursuit of newspaper notoriety and dollars. The change is significant of the Weltanschauung, if not of the youngest generation, at any rate of that which has passed and is in process of passing. The youngest generation seems to be as little interested in careers and money as in anything else, outside its own psychology. But this is by the way.
In the end the singer makes the best of both worlds—satisfies Mammy of Mine and even Poor Poppa by singing at the synagogue and, on the following evening, scores a terrific success at the postponed first night of My Baby’s revue. The film concludes with a scene in the theatre, with Mammy of Mine in the stalls (Poor Poppa is by this time safely under ground), and the son, with My Baby in the background, warbling down at her the most nauseatingly luscious, the most penetratingly vulgar mammy song that it has ever been my lot to hear. My flesh crept as the loud speaker poured out those sodden words, that greasy, sagging melody. I felt ashamed of myself for listening to such things, for even being a member of the species to which such things are addressed. But I derived a little comfort from the reflection that a species which has allowed all its instincts and emotions to degenerate and putrefy in such a way must be pretty near either its violent conclusion or else its radical transformation and reform.
To what length this process of decay has gone was very strikingly demonstrated by the next item on the programme, which was the first of that series of music-hall turns of which the dreadful jazz band had been the last. For no sooner had the singer and My Baby and Mammy of Mine disappeared into the limbo of inter-cinematographic darkness, than a very large and classically profiled personage, dressed in the uniform of a clown, appeared on the screen, opened his mouth very wide indeed and poured out, in a terrific Italian tenor voice, the famous soliloquy of Pagliacci from Leoncavallo’s opera. Rum, tum, ti-tum, tum; Rum-ti־ti, tum, ti־tum, tum—it is the bawling-ground of every Southern virtuoso, and a piece which, at ordinary times, I would go out of my way to avoid hearing. But in comparison with the jazz band’s Hebrew melodies and the singer’s jovialities and mammy yearnings, Leoncavallo’s throaty vulgarity seemed not only refined and sincere, but even beautiful, positively noble. Yes, noble; for after all, the composer, whatever his native second-rateness, had stood in some sort of organic relationship, through a tradition of taste and of feeling, with the men who built Santa Maria del Fiore and the Malatestan temple, who painted the frescoes at Arezzo and Padua, who composed the Mass of Pope Marcellus and wrote the Divine Comedy and the Orlando Furioso. Whereas the Hebrew melodists and the muffin-faced young Nordics, with their Swanee whistles and their saxophones, the mammy songsters, the vocal yearners for Dixie and My Baby are in no kind of relationship with any of the immemorial decencies of human life, but only with their own inward decay. It is a corruption as novel as the régime under which they and all the rest of us now live—as novel as Protestantism and capitalism; as novel as urbanization and democracy and the apotheosis of the Average Man; as novel as Benjamin-Franklinism and the no less repulsive philosophy and ethic of the young Good Timer; as novel as creation-saving machinery and the thought-saving, time-killing press; as novel as Taylorized work and mechanized amusement. Ours is a spiritual climate in which the immemorial decencies find it hard to flourish. Another generation or so should see them definitely dead. Is there a resurrection?
From Do What You Will by Aldous Huxley. Copyright 1929, 1956 by Aldous Huxley. Reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.
1.The reference is to The Jazz Singer (1927) directed by Alan Crosland; starring Al Jolson (as the jazz singer), Warner Oland (as the cantor), and May McAvoy (as the jazz singer's girl).