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Real Bad : A Connoisseur's Guide to the Worst of American Schlock

August 25, 1991|Paul Fussell | P aul Fussell, who lives in Philadelphia, is the author of "The Great War and Modern Memory," "Class" and "Thank God for the Atom Bomb." This article is adapted from his book "BAD: The Dumbing of America," to be published in October by Summit Books

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BAD AND BAD?

Bad is something like dog-do on the sidewalk, or a failing grade, or a case of scarlet fever--something no one ever said was good. BAD is different. It is something phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant or boring that many Americans can be persuaded is genuine, graceful, bright or fascinating.

Big-band leader Lawrence Welk is a low example, George Bush a high.

For a thing to be really BAD, it must exhibit elements of the pretentious, the overwrought or the fraudulent. Bathroom faucet handles that cut your fingers are bad. If gold-plated, they are BAD. Dismal food is bad. Dismal food pretentiously served in a restaurant associated with the word gourmet is BAD. Being alert to this distinction is a large part of the fun of being alive today, in a moment teeming with raucously overvalued emptiness and trash.

Addressing himself on his 50th birthday in a poem titled "Ode to Me," Kingsley Amis found it somewhat comforting that more than half his life, at least, had been spent in the years before the great contemporary explosion of BAD:

. . . bloody good luck to you, mate/That you weren't born too late/For at least a chance of happiness/Before unchangeable crappiness/Spreads all over the land . . . .

And he's talking about England, not yet entirely enthralled to BAD because of its counterweight of antiquity. The great crappiness is essentially American, for reasons that will become clear as we go along. But there is a slight consolation. As Amis says in "Lucky Jim": "The one indispensable answer to an environment bristling with people and things one thought were bad was to go on finding out new ways in which one could think they were bad."

One striking thing about the United States is the omnipotence of "presentation." A thing that is palpably bad doesn't stay bad very long before someone praises it and thus elevates it to BAD, and soon it is celebrated everywhere as highly desirable. It's as if Americans were so insecure, so timid about relying on their own decent tastes and instincts, that they welcome every possible guru to instruct them about what is good (that is, BAD) and to encourage them to embrace it.

Plain bad has always been with us. It goes back as far as the history of artifacts. In Rome, there was certainly a chariot-wheel maker who made bad wheels, a wine seller who dealt in wretched wine. Introducing sawdust into breadstuffs is a time-honored practice, but it becomes BAD only when you insist that the adulterated bread is better than any other sort. BAD, that is, is strictly a phenomenon of the age of hype--and, of course, a special will to believe by the audience. To achieve real BAD, you have to have the widest possible gap between what is said about a thing and what the thing actually is, as experienced by bright, disinterested and modest people. There was a bit of BAD visible as far back as 1725 or so, when the earliest newspapers began printing ads. By the 19th Century, BAD was well developed, especially in America, as various passages in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" attest.

But for genuine, deep BAD, you have to arrive at the 20th Century, especially that part of it following World War II. The Vietnam War is as good an example as any of the way something bad could be made to seem acceptable for quite a while, until people began to see that what was bad was really BAD, with Lyndon Johnson and William Westmoreland serving as admen. As the music critic Virgil Thomson perceived about symphony and opera, so shrewd and ubiquitous is "paid publicity" that rugged criticism is "the only antidote." But few newspapers rejoice to print scathing notices; instead, as Lewis H. Lapham has observed, they are largely engaged in ladling out indiscriminate dollops of optimism and complacency, preserving "myths that the society deems precious, reassuring their patrons . . . that all is well, that . . . the banks are safe, our generals competent, our Presidents interested in the common welfare, our artists capable of masterpieces, our weapons invincible and our democratic institutions the wonder of an admiring world." BAD, all of it.

Thus, underneath, what we are talking about is the publicity enterprise propelling modern life, which seems to make it clear that few today are able independently to estimate the value of anything without prompting from self-interested sources. This means that nothing will thrive unless inflated by hyperbole and gilded with a fine coat of fraud. If in some ways the subject suggests the tragic--all those well-meaning people swindled by their own credulity--looked at another way, the topic proposes all the pleasures of farce. BAD projects anew and continuously the classic comic motif--the manipulation of fools by knaves.

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