Everything is Contemporary

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Everything is Contemporary

One of the unforeseen side effects of the internet is that everything is made contemporary. For those seeking to commune with the past, one need go only so far as YouTube to step into 1931 or 1946. Back in November of last year I wrote of how young people delight in dressing up in vintage garb and how they surround themselves with the trappings of a more stylish and elegant time as a response to the ugliness of the present day. I won’t mow over that same territory here. What I would like to consider instead is what happens when those who love the past encounter the ugliness of the past.

It’s difficult for us to fathom that those whose captured images and voices we revere might not be as enlightened as we are. However much we love the art and music they produced—and how present it seems to us—we cannot see ourselves guilty of the foibles that stand out in ghastly relief to their creative works. Sometimes their private humor, however innocent or even affectionate in intent, is so coarse to us as to cross the border into verbal abuse. The inclination of evolved (retro) moderns is to judge, and judge severely.

I recently spent a couple of highly instructive days on Facebook, as I attended what seemed a virtual tribunal of Al Jolson, detailing his crimes against humanity. It was conducted by a very intelligent, knowledgeable, and sincere woman who has spent years publicly celebrating all things Jazz Age. She would not, she insisted, be celebrating Al Jolson’s birthday, ever.

Exhibit A, oddly enough, wasn’t Jolson’s renown for performing in blackface. Al’s burnt cork paled (if you will) in comparison to the still-smoking gun of the private recording he made in 1929 for his wife Ruby Keeler, who at the time was recuperating in the hospital. On this incriminating piece of shellac, Al told Ruby, “If you don’t do what I tell you I’ll beat [the] hell out of you.” And, “I’ll spank your fanny.”

That was enough to condemn Jolie to the scrap-heap of entertainment history. I won’t defend him here, except to say that I played the three-minute recording in its entirety for my wife, who said, “That was obviously meant to be a private joke between them. He’s kidding.”

My initial response, as I witnessed the string of (seriously) vicious epithets directed at Jolson, was: “Why is everyone here pouring so much hate on a guy who’s been dead sixty-five years?” If you read the YouTube comments on this recording (and it’s easy to find online), you’ll see some of that vitriol. What did not occur to me at the time was that, thanks to his image and voice being ever-present online, Al Jolson is perceived as being one of us in the here and now—and he is held to our own standards.

The Jolie-bashing went on for several days. Godwin’s Law was evoked. (“Well, Hitler is dead, too—and I hate him!”) I finally walked away from the trial, still in progress, stating for all to hear, “I know that I am, in essence, no better than Al Jolson—and I will never claim to be. We are all human beings on this planet.”

There are so many musicians and performing artists of the 20th century who would not survive such an ordeal. I won’t name names, but certain people come to mind as being particularly egregious in their bad behavior. And, in a number of cases, it isn’t even a “historical context” matter. Their legacy is safe as long as we don’t look behind the icon. When we go digging for dirt we are certain to meet with distaste—not only for their long-ago offenses but for their once-beloved creations.

My Jazz Age-loving friends won’t pick up a shovel. Why shatter a beautiful illusion? I tend to be of a different view: a healthy disillusionment is a much preferable state of mind. We harbor a whole checklist of noble qualities we feel compelled to project onto those we admire. Though often we feel the need to smash our idols for made-up and magnified sins. If we saw them as human in the first place we wouldn’t need to tear them down.

A fatal flaw in our enlightenment is that we cannot bring ourselves to forgive the dead their ancient follies. This makes it so much easier to dismiss them (and their life’s work) with a word of disdain. It’s much harder even than absolving those who still live—some of whom definitely need to try harder to earn our forgiveness.

I wonder what manner of stark enlightenment awaits to judge our own memory? A couple of generations down the road, will we be seen as villainous because we flushed away the world’s precious supply of fresh water through our toilets, squandered natural resources by not recycling (enough), and ate sentient creatures for dinner? Will all our own enlightened works be summarily dismissed (and composted) as the insufficient efforts of a depraved people writing above their own intelligence?

I fear the wrath of the not-yet born, but I cannot change my ways to appease them. But I can smile at the shade of Al Jolson, whose lively image flickers on my computer screen, and say, “We are not just contemporaries—we are brothers.”

Folks, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!

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