Who would've thought that it was nearly 50 years ago when W. H. Auden wrote:
I sit in one of the dives on 52nd Street,
uncertain and afraid,
as the clever hopes expire
of a low, dishonest decade.
Auden was gloomily responding to events in a Europe plagued with militant fascism. But the lines might just as well fit the American '80s, which still await their descriptive tag as they grind to a fretful close--unlike the '70s, which was noted as "The Me Decade" or the '60s, "The Age of Aquarius."
The decade that began as a new "Morning in America" is now choking in a dusk of smoldering disappointments over reports of ubiquitous scandal. Duplicity at the top. Insider trading. Evangelical gouging of the credulous (pony up if you love Jesus).
The fallout seems to have seeped into our personal lives already littered with media-trash (will the spoils of success keep Vanna White from learning the other half of the alphabet?). It has permeated our culture, whose mounting commercial acquisitiveness speeds across our attention span with less pause for the redemptive clue.
Critic Robert Hughes tagged modern art's impulse as "The Shock of the New," but it could be a sociological term as well: As the clamor for our money and our attention has heightened in pitch, we've grown more shockproof. Like the air around us that nips the eyes and coats the tongue with metallic residue, our Post-Modern taste has grown distinctly nasty.
What would a reflective foreign visitor like Auden experience right now in a night on the town? To begin, he would not be brooding in a whiskey bar. Bars are out. They're too loud and AIDS has made sexual complaisance unthinkable. Health-food stores and fast-food emporia are in. He might be composing his lines in a takeout chicken joint, wondering if the news he had heard within the past week were true and what he was about to eat might well have been fished out of a contaminated bin.
Let's extend the scenario. A more finicky companion may join him, and in deference he may book a reservation at a trendy Melrose Avenue restaurant, noting, as they drive through Los Angeles, a proliferation of trash in the street, some of it clustering around the sleeping bodies of the homeless (reft of the succor of any Reaganomic trickle). They edge with care through the arrogantly zany automobile traffic that zips around them--disdainful of red lights and stop signs. Any alarmed protest is met with a finger raised in bold phallic rebuke, or homicidal glowering.
At the restaurant, they're kept waiting for an hour. They think about leaving but realize it would take just as long to go somewhere else. When they sit, they can't hear each other speak over the din. After another hour, the maitre d' appears and asks them to leave--someone else is waiting for their table.
They agree that this is depressing, an assault on civilized sensibility. Perhaps a stop at a local comedy club will offer a quick fix for their bludgeoned spirits. The theater, which is artistically enervated and pricey at the commercial level and often amateurish or shallowly nihilistic--or plain dull--at the Equity Waiver level, is too much of a gamble. And some time ago they tired of performance art's infantile preoccupation with excrescence and brutality.
At the club, expecting some humorous reflections on America's phantasmagoric excess, its thundering nervous tension, its relentless media clamor and sexual misery, they might blanch as Sam Kinison plumps himself up like a blowfish, reddens and bellows barely articulate epithets into their stricken faces. Or, if the visitor's Los Angeles companion is female and blond, they may hear comedienne Karen Babbitt scornfully single her out as a "A Malibu Barbie-doll slut."
Enough of this hostility. The visitor suggests a movie. No, answers his companion, the little cineboxes are too jammed, and fetid with dead air. Besides, people have been so conditioned by television to assuming that they're in their own living rooms that they've been effectively de-socialized. In other words, they won't shut up. And the floors are so gooey with the detritus of cola syrup and uneaten candy that they suck your shoes right off your feet.
The movies themselves, preoccupied with visual effect, seem essentially locked into formula depictions of senseless violence, sexual alienation, shallow self-interest and corrupt authority (including parenthood). The comedies are dumb and the rest is mostly empty, with a frequent spattering of blood.
Home to the tube, then? The visitor asks his companion to turn off the voice on the car radio fulminating with comments that skewer racial and sexual minorities and the handicapped with swift malevolent cackles. He wants to think about what it means to live in a land where 23 million (or 13% of the population) are functionally illiterate and 35 million more are only semiliterate, meaning they read at the eighth-grade level.