A Great Poem

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Migrant agricultural worker in pea pickers’ camp, Nipomo, California, 1936. Photograph: Dorothea Lange
(Hay una versión en español de esta entrada AQUÍ)

Herbert Hoover was the president of the United States when the Stock Market in Wall Street crashed and the whole world descended into the Great Depression. Despite his lifelong reputation as a man of extraordinary managerial skills, Hoover was overwhelmed by the scope and depth of the crisis.

At some point, doggedly cornered by the press and his political rivals to put forward some solution to the economic meltdown, all he managed to say was: “What this country needs is a great poem.”

Obviously, come the next elections, he was crushed by the rival candidate, a certain Franklin Roosevelt, who was of the opinion that what the country needed was jobs, and food for people to eat every day.

Tell me something I don’t know

Why did we start telling each other stuff through histories?

The oldest stories probably conveyed information deemed vital to the community. How to work together. How to avoid assorted dangers. How to engage the natural environment, personified as gods and demons. How and why to obey. How and why to rebel. How to live. How (and when) to die.

What to laugh about, too. Let’s not get too serious. Stories have also entertained us from day one. To have a laugh. To spend the time, while it was dark outside.

What about today? What purpose serves a story?

A common complaint among storytellers (especially when they’re taking heat for their latest effort) is that “everything’s been done”. Any story one might come up with, has already been told. The details change, but the essence was already there in a similar yarn that goes back twenty, a hundred, three thousand years.

Religions and jokes are similar in that both stem from much older versions. It is surprising they should work, but apparently they still do.

Stories keep serving the same purpose of yore. They provide us with vital information to pilot ourselves through the world. To interact with the others. To avoid the dangers that lurk in our paths. And the dangers are changing.

Life is not like that

The battle for diversity that is being constantly fought in the social networks is a battle for the stories, so that new voices enter the cultural industries and reflect the live of those who have remained all but invisible in those stories. Women, of all ages. People of all colours, languages and accents. People in transition to their true gender. People of all kinds of sexual orientations. People who are poor. People who are different in their way of moving,  thinking,  living.

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The fight for diversity in the arts isn’t a 2017 thing: Premiere night of the production of Macbeth, directed by Orson Welles with an all-black cast, at the Lafayette theatre in Harlem, New York, on the 14th of April 1936.

It has nothing to do with political correctness. The “politically correct” label is a weapon that people (oh, what a coincidence) belonging to the traditionally privileged group (white, heterosexual men, with a good income) brandish to attack the new stories they discover around them. Because they don’t find themselves reflected in them, or because the reflection isn’t precisely flattering, they strike them down as pointless, exaggerated, ridiculous. They belittle them by pronouncing them naive, soppy, and, with a smile of condescension conclude: “life is not like that”.

What those critics refuse to see is that, well, maybe life “isn’t like that”, the way some contemporary stories portray it, but it certainly is not as they believe either. Throughout the planet societies are mutating, and increasingly fast too, and they are in desperate need of new stories that help solve the conflicts created by said changes.

Capitalism is destroying the planet. Male chauvinism kills thousands of women every day, and that even in allegedly liberal and egalitarian societies. Toxic candidates are elected to the most powerful offices and proceed to promote policies so harmful they disrupt whole communities and threaten us all with imminent extinction.

And yet there are men, adults with higher education, who go insane with rage because Hollywood produced a female remake of Ghostbusters.

Sexual predators are nurtured, not natured

You don’t write green stories because it is cool to hug trees, but because the environment is collapsing. You don’t write female-led stories because they are all the rage now, but because there are three or four thousand years of patriarchy-sanctioned stories to balance.

920px-Near_Buckeye,_Maricopa_County,_Arizona._Migrant_(African-American)_cotton_picker_and_her_baby._-_NARA_-_522540
Other Voices, Other Rooms: Near Buckeye, Maricopa County, Arizona. Migrant cotton picker and her baby near Buckeye, Maricopa County, Arizona. 1940. Photograph: Dorothea Lange

The wave of sex abuse accusations that unleashed the case of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has made many hope that something is beginning to change in our culture. But all will be in vain if the same men who rule the show business industry keep producing the same stories -Stories where protagonism remains mostly male; with hardly any relevant female characters, and those that actually merely serve to push the male hero’s story forward. Stories where people of colour are incidental; stories where female characters hardly have any speaking lines in the dialogues. Even when the protagonist is a woman.

If today’s boys and girls’ grow up with the very same kind of stories we had, in forty years we will still be talking about Weinsteins and Trumps, and all the professional careers that were cut short by their likes.

“What this country needs is a great poem”

Hoover’s quote has gone down in history as one of the greatest blunders in politics, befitting someone who had lost all contact to reality. Nevertheless, not everybody sees it that way. Gore Vidal rescued the old former president for a cameo in his novel The Golden Age, where he briefly chatted with the protagonist and stuck to his guns: Yes, to leave the crisis behind, the country would have needed a great poem.

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HERBERT HOOVER. Of him Bill Bryson has said that he’s the only case in history where being elected President of the United States was the wrong career move… Though perhaps soon he will have a competitor in that respect…

In a profound sense, Hoover’s statement might be interpreted (misconstrued more like it, but please humour me just this time) as pointing out that the Great Depression was in fact systemic, bred within the capitalist mode of production in which the American Dream was based, and that the only way to solve the problem was to change the dream. And to that end, to achieve a transformation so radical, a great poem that regenerated the very soul of the American society would have been necessary.

Alas, it was not to be. The Great Depression gave birth to much art, of great quality, but nothing resembling what Hoover suggested. The society didn’t change enough. The American Dream remained as it was. And lacking a great poem that would carry the country out of the crisis, someone opted for a great war.

I don’t know whether there is room for great poems in this world where we live. Maybe they aren’t necessary, after all. Maybe all it will take is lots of small poems. They don’t even have to be poem-poems (though of course these will be much welcome). They may be drawings, pictures, videos shot with phones. Novels. Fan fiction. Memes. Superhero movies (even better: female superhero movies). Movies with no superheroes at all. Songs. Musicals. Lol cats GIFs.

They may be things I’m too old to envision, but whatever they are, they must do the same thing stories have always done: Tell us how to work together. How to avoid dangers. How to live. How (and when) to die.

And what to laugh at, naturally.

 


NOTES:

1 Dorothea Lange‘s photographs were taken while she worked for a government project and are in the public domain, according to Wikipedia. The picture on top of the entry is one of the series of six photographs that Lange took of Florence Thompson and her children in the migrant workers’ camp where she and her husband had just sold their tent to buy food.

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“Towards Los Angeles, California, March 1937” Photograph: Foto: Dorothea Lange

Among the six pictures Lange chose one  for its emotional impact and aesthetic qualities, which became a symbol of the Great Depression. The photograph contributed to raise public concern about the plight of destitute agricultural workers, but it had no impact at all in the personal situation of the model and her children.

Voodoo Macbeth was one among a handful of avant-garde theatre projects that turned Orson Welles into a show biz star and eventually paved his way to Hollywood. The production was undertaken by the theatrical branch of the Works Progress Administration, a Federal Agency that funded public projects to create jobs, at a time when private investment was at its lowest.

I’ve shared it somewhere else in this blog, but it is worth to embed here the alleged only footage that has survived of the show:

The show provided work for some of the best African American actors in New York, who suffered the effects of the crisis even more severely than their white colleagues. It was acknowledged as a cultural milestone for the African American community, despite the fact that all direction and managerial positions in the project were held by white people.

The picture in Wikipedia is credited as belonging to the Federal Theatre Project, and therefore in the public domain. The photographer is not accredited.

3 Herbert Hoover’s photograph is part of the great Harris & Ewing photograph collection, now in the public domain. No information about the photographer or the date when it was taken is provided.

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