it’s quiet now
And the silence is alone
except for the thunderous rumbling of things unknown
distant drums very present
but for the piercing of scream
and the whispers of things
sharp sounds and then suddenly hushed
to moans beyond sadness – terror beyond fear

— Marilyn Monroe, Fragments

‘There was something wrong in our ends as well as in our beginnings, in what we are after as well as in what is after us.’
— Lincoln Steffens

The Fifties, when they are thought of at all, are generally regarded in the popular imagination as little more than a dim precursor to the full-blown extravaganza of the Sixties — gray flannel suit discarded for tie-dyed threads, Ozzie and Harriet off to the orgy. There are grains of truth to this conception, of course. Certainly, mainstream culture in the Fifties tried to maintain — and impose — an impossibly constricted image of “normality.” But beneath the placid picture spread by television, advertising and other cultural and commercial redoubts, the Fifties were seething with crosscurrents and complexities that were no less turbulent and transformative than those of the Sixties. (And of course many of those Sixties tourbillions were simply continuances of currents that began or gathered force in the Fifties: the Civil Rights movement, the youth counterculture, etc.)

It’s true that chopping the unceasing flow of time and reality into decades — then giving these arbitrary slices a distinctive character — is an exercise of somewhat limited value. Especially as our slicing is based solely on the Western calendar; lay down another grid on the quicksilver flow, and what we would call, for example, the years 1954 to 1964 or 1897 to 1907, etc., would then be its own rigidly defined “decade,” set apart for us to analyze and characterize.  But it is also true that whatever 10-year delineation you wish to make will generally see a new generation coming into prominence, new technologies, cultural changes and so on (along with the vast array of continuities which also characterize human behavior going back to the start of our history).

So the “decade” prism is not wholly useless as a instrument for looking at the past to find some illumination of the present, of what we are, how we got here. Arbitrary as it is, the decade is one of the “distant mirrors” we can use to deepen our understanding of reality — and, perhaps, to help us escape the tyranny of the Now, which screams its urgent demands into our ears, leading us so often into ignorant, unconsidered actions and reactions.

In any case, although the decade of the Sixties has hung over the collective consciousness like a heavy cloud for almost half a century, I often think the Fifties are a more accurate mirror for our times. Some of the parallels are striking: pointless wars; covert op and regime change operations; unrestrained surveillance of the population; hysterical fears of a bestial, implacable Enemy striking us from without and infecting us from within; a frantic, panicky religiosity obsessed with sexuality, among many others. Think of how Norman Rosten (in a quote from the article excerpted below) described the era: a time of “cowardice on a national scale,” when “strong citizens fell before the rhetoric of pygmies.” Can anything better describe America in the 21st century?

There is also a degree of deadening conformity in the land now that recalls those gray flannel days. Not so much in lifestyle (although there has been an astonishing amount of “backlash” and regression to more rigid gender roles and family structures in last two decades), but decidedly so in politics. For despite the frenzy and mouth-foaming fury of our political debates today, beneath the surface there is a remarkable consensus. Both parties support empire, militarism, corporatism, exceptionalism, oligarchy, executive tyranny, torture and the shielding of torturers, indefinite detention, extrajudicial killing, regime change (covert, overt, by proxy), special ops, black ops, rendition, the drug war, the terror war, undeclared war, war crimes, the relentless expansion of the “National Security” apparatus, the militarization of police powers, slashing the social safety net, serving the needs of Wall Street and the One Percent, and so on and on and on.

There is no disagreement whatsoever on any of the basic tenets of the current system, no attempt or desire within either party to make any kind of deep or serious changes in the increasingly corrupt, imbalanced and now almost totally dysfunctional structures of power. Neither party holds out any kind of alternative vision or ideal or aspiration, other than that what we have now should go on and on, and that their particular faction should be in control. There are of course some differences around the edges, mostly to do with cultural and social mores. (But even here, the differences are not always as sharp as many believe. To take one small example, Barack Obama — who, as we recall, campaigned with anti-gay preachers and invited the anti-gay, pro-rich “megachurch” maven Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration– is still burdening schoolchildren with the same kind of mendacious “abstinence education” programs beloved by George W. Bush and the panicky sex-obsessives on the Right.) But it is safe to say that, in many areas — the relation between labor and capital, for example — the politics of the Fifties sometimes saw more profound and considered alternatives in the direction and structure of the national system being put forth by the main parties than we see today. (Not there weren’t also many areas of convergence and consensus. For example, both parties at that time fully supported “confiscatory” tax rates on the rich — a policy which somehow did not prevent one of the greatest economic expansions in history during that era.)

These thoughts about the Fifties and its continuing significance were prompted by a recent article in the London Review of Books: a thoughtful essay by Jacqueline Rose on some of the deeper (and wider) meanings represented by the quintessential star of that decade: Marilyn Monroe. The piece is marked by unexpected angles and resonances that throw light on the present while helping deepen our understanding of the past. Below are just a few excerpts, but the full piece — all 10,000 words of it — is worth reading. Rose writes:

…. It is something of a truism for psychoanalysis that one member of a family can carry the unconscious secrets of a whole family, can fall sick, as it were, on their behalf. My question is: for whom or what in 1950s and early 1960s America was Marilyn Monroe carrying the can? This is not, I should stress, the same as asking: what or even who killed her? Or: did she commit suicide? These are questions that I see as a diversion and to which in any case I strongly believe we can offer no definitive reply. I am interested, rather, in what she, unknowingly, but also crucially for my argument knowingly, is enacting on behalf of postwar America. ‘Perhaps,’ Cecil Beaton wrote, ‘she was born just the postwar day we had need of her.’ He could be talking of the First World War: Monroe was born in 1926, an infancy scarred by the Depression along with everything else. But ‘postwar’ can also refer here to the Second World War, which comes to its end exactly as her star begins to rise. This is a moment when patriotism, to cite Weatherby, was ‘an excuse not to think’. He is alluding to McCarthyism and the Cold War. When another radical journalist, I.F. Stone, listened to Eisenhower’s inaugural address, what he heard behind its rhetoric of freedom was the drumbeat of war (although Eisenhower was reluctant to send troops to the region, the build-up to Vietnam would start on his watch). … One of Eisenhower’s first moves as president was to appoint Charles Erwin Wilson, the head of General Motors, as secretary of defense. He is the man who said: ‘What is good for General Motors is good for the country and what is good for the country is good for General Motors.’ ‘No administration,’ Stone commented, ‘ever started with a bigger, more revealing or more resounding pratfall.’

[Shades of Obama’s first appointments: Larry Summers and the Goldman Sachs gang in charge of economic policy, Bush holdover Robert Gates in charge of the war machine, etc.]

To say that Monroe was attuned to this is again an understatement. In 1950, a mere starlet with a walk-on part in Joseph Mankiewicz’s All about Eve, she took the autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, the original muck-raking journalist, onto the set. All about Eve is another of her films about the lengths to which an actress will go to make it. Steffens is famous for having taken the lid off city hall corruption (‘Hell with the Lid Lifted’ was the title of a famous dispatch from Pittsburgh). His heroes were beggars, prostitutes and thieves. …

Like Monroe, Steffens detested ignorance above all else. He preferred the honesty of crooks to that of good, ignorant men who ‘sincerely believe things are as they seem and truthfully repeat to you the current lies that make everything look all right’. The malaise went to the very heart of the nation: ‘There was something wrong in our ends as well as in our beginnings,’ he wrote, ‘in what we are after as well as in what is after us.’ He was writing in the 1930s but already for Steffens, the power of the moneyed oligarchy meant that democracy in America was effectively dead. He was one of the first American writers to expose the political dangers of a credit-driven economy: ‘There is indeed such a thing in America as sovereignty, a throne, which, as in Europe, had slipped from under the kings and the president and away from the people too. It was the unidentified seat of actual power, which, in the final analysis, was the absolute control of credit.’ When Weatherby interviewed the playwright Clifford Odets, in the throes of despair about what he saw as the collapse of political hope, Odets asked ‘What’s the problem?’ and then answered his own question: ‘In America – I won’t talk about the rest of the world – the problem is: “Are peace and plenty possible together with the democratic growth to use them?”’ Can you have democracy and growth or does a moneyed economy by definition wrest control from the people? Let’s just say that this problem has not gone away.

…According to Ben Hecht, Monroe said that Steffens’s autobiography excited her ‘more than any other book I had read’. She was excited by it at the exact moment when the world, for very different reasons, was about to be excited by her, when she was on the verge of gaining access to one of the citadels of American power. Mankiewicz spotted Monroe reading Steffens on his set, and warned her not to go around raving about him in case she was branded a radical; Fox removed his name when she put him first on a list (for a publicity stunt) of the ten greatest men in the world. She told Hecht that she carried on reading it in secret, hiding the second volume under her bed. ..

….In a black notebook dated around 1955, Monroe tells herself to ‘know reality (or things as they are … and to have as few illusions as possible – Train my will now.’ It would not be going too far to say that Monroe surrounded herself with people who saw it as their task to rip the cover off national self-deceit. Looking back, her friend the writer Norman Rosten defined the 1950s as a time of ‘cowardice on a national scale’, when ‘strong citizens fell before the rhetoric of pygmies.’ …

Writing of what McCarthyism had done to the spirit of freedom, I.F. Stone cites these lines from Pasternak:

The great majority of us are required to live a life of constant, systematic duplicity. Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike and rejoice at what brings you nothing but misfortune. Our nervous system isn’t just a fiction, it’s a part of our physical body and our soul exists in space and is inside us, like the teeth in our mouth. It can’t be forever violated with impunity.

There was a ‘numbness’ in the national air, Stone wrote. ‘It’s like you scream,’ Monroe’s character, Roslyn, says in The Misfits, ‘and there’s nothing coming out of your mouth, and everybody’s going around: “Hello, how are you, what a nice day” … and you’re dying.’

[Again, are these not apt descriptions of the numbness and duplicity of our day?]

…American culture, Miller wrote in his memoir Timebends, had ‘prised man’s sexuality from his social ideals and made one the contradiction of the other’ (he abandoned a play on the topic because he couldn’t bear the thought of the spiritual catastrophe it foretold). ‘We had come together,’ he wrote of himself and Monroe, ‘at a time when America was in yet another of her reactionary phases and social consciousness was a dying memory … As usual, America was denying its pain, and remembering was out.’ This is the frame of their marriage, the frame of her life. In this context, Hollywood escapism takes on a whole new gloss. Political hope fades and the unconscious of the nation goes into national receivership, with one woman above all others – hence, I would suggest, the frenzy she provokes – being asked to foot the bill, to make good the loss. …

What is being asked of Monroe? ‘Sex,’ Steffens said, ‘was the thing.’ Monroe’s desire to be educated, Trilling suggested, robbed us of a ‘prized illusion’: ‘that enough sexual possibility is enough everything’. Why should a woman with such sexual advantages want anything else? Precisely because she had been so poor, because there was a mental pain in her that no adulator could quite evade (as Trilling put it, the pain balanced out the ledger of her unique biological gift), Monroe pushed want to the very edge of wanting, to a form of wanting that seems to want nothing but itself. What thwarted dreams were poured into this woman’s body? You don’t have to be a Freudian to know that such idealisation punishes as much as it sets you free. …

Seen in this light, Monroe’s suffering becomes the tale America does not want to tell of itself: ‘America was denying its pain, remembering was out’ (anticipating Tony Judt, Miller sees a nation’s refusal to remember and its reactionary politics as deeply linked). Only in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) and Niagara (1953) was Monroe given the chance to play a part that would expose the darker side of America, the pain it wanted to forget – for me, they are two of her best roles. Both turn on the Second World War. In the first, she is a woman driven to murderous hallucinations by the loss of her lover shot down in a plane; in the second, she is a woman who tries to pass her husband off as war-traumatised so his murder by her lover can be staged as suicide. As if in these early films, America could without inhibition offload onto a crazy and/or murderous woman’s sexuality the violence it couldn’t reckon with in itself. At the end of Niagara, the woman is strangled by her husband, who has managed to survive the attempted murder by killing her lover. But I count no fewer than five earlier images where she is lying prone, asleep or in a faint, splayed out, to all intents and purposes already dead (one stage instruction describes her as lying in ‘angelic peace’). It is as if the woman whose sexuality is meant to redeem the horrors of history – the woman who is being asked to repair a nation emerging from a war it already wants to forget – owes her nation a death. America was denying its own pain. Who paid the price? This is the classic role of the femme fatale who is always made to answer for the desire that she provokes.

… In The Misfits, Roslyn, the character played by Monroe, speaks the truth (although ‘speaks’ isn’t quite the right word) in a brute world of mustang hunters, lost men – the misfits of postwar America. Only she can see that their violence is not the antidote to the nation’s poison, but its restaging in the desert to which they wrongly believe they have escaped. She offers them two hundred dollars to set the mustangs free, and when Gay asks her to give him a reason to stop what he has been doing, she is enraged: ‘A reason! You! Sensitive fella? So full of feelings? So sad about your wife, and crying to me about the bombs you dropped and the people you killed … You could blow up the whole world, and all you’d ever feel is sorry for yourself!’ Then as they are tying up the trapped mustangs, she runs off and shouts at them from a distance:

Man! Big man! You’re only living when you can watch something die! Kill everything, that’s all you want! Why don’t you just kill yourselves and be happy?

In the screenplay she screams these lines from forty yards away (Miller’s directions are precise), then runs back towards them and speaks directly into Gay’s face:

You. With your god’s country. Freedom! I hate you! You know everything except what it feels like to be alive.

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