Friday, August 11, 2023

The drive in experience

 Like many another whelp of the golden age of the American car, I remember drive in movies. In that toddlerhood which comes back to me in bits, a kind of primeval soup of dreamlike images, I remember suffering the passion of Ole Yeller at some drive in probably located, at the time, in the York Pennsylvania metro area, and now no doubt a parking lot or dump. There the dog faithfully defended its owners, there the dog, in a drizzle of images (sound via a gizmo one attached to the car door – and how my father, psychorigid about all things appertaining to paint scratches and fingerprints on windows, approved this I do not know), lived out the last of his, alas, one dog life, and there we cried. It is an incident, the popcorn, outdoor screen, car, that comes together as a hieroglyph of a certain kind of life, dead now as an Egyptian mummy. I also remember a certain erotic feeling aroused by another film from about the same time, a Disney film called, improbably, The Love Bug – could it have been about a Volkswagen? I’m not looking this up on IMDB. Let personal myth remain personal myth.

In a novel the paperback version of which I often press on friends (where it is destined to gather dust, no doubt, an alien to be pitched out or traded when the time comes to get rid of the junk in the house), Lookout Cartridge, the narrator is obsessed by an image:
“Or the Landslip Drive-in Movie, whose monumental screen under clean and clement American stars and in front of you and a hundred other cars without audible warning one summer night began to lower, to tilt back hugely and drop as if into a slot in the earth.
The image became yours even more surely by disappearing. It disappeared with a distinguished rumble mixed with what still came out of the speaker draped over the edge of your car window. An actress and actor in the corrected colors of the spectrum had been touching each other’s colossal faces and their breaths kept coming faster and more intimately loud to bring right into your car this whopping slide of mouths and fingers and nostrils inserted into the night-pines and sea-sky above the locally well-known clay cliffs that had just enjoyed their first clear day in two weeks. But now for the first time since before World War II a section of cliff gives way and the famous faces are swept as if by their camera right up off the monumental screen…”
The author, Joseph McElroy, was obsessed, in this stage of his career, with the media-mediated collectivity of images just beyond the proprioceptive zone, images that we barely but distinctly recognize as part of our “experience”, that word no longer denoting our face to face and tactile immersion in what is, but the immersion in what is represented, our, so to speak, zones of interest as subcontracted to the prevailing media regime.
My experience of the drive in was renewed – and Adam’s was initiated – last night in a field outside of Jackson Iowa, easily reached by way of State Highway 71 from the Iowa Great Lakes region. Adam, on this trip to America, has been longing for a drive-in movie, an item on his extensive trip bucket-list. A storm made that impossible in Georgia. Here, though, was an apparently clear evening, so we drove out and Adam got the hotdog, popcorn, fries, coke and ice cream sandwich that lays a ring of sugar and fat around our spectatorship. I warned, just like Dad did long ago, against letting any of that stuff drip onto the car seat. The Drive-in movie screens look a little anamolous out there amidst the corn and soybean fields. The man at the booth told me that there were only 230 left in the whole of the States, and we both agreed it was Covid’s fault. Instead of a gizmo, what you do for the sound is you tune in to a dedicated FM channel. Sweet! And it was thus that we beheld the wonders of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, a remake, as Adam reminded us. It was fun and cheesy and at a certain point the clement sky was overshadowed by clouds and lightning began to play on the horizon – not a bad addition to a haunted house movie. Just as the hero was embracing the heroine in the inevitable ending, the rain began to fall. Thus, in an additional dollop to the memory this will become for Adam, the parents scouted their way cautiously through a cloudbuster of a storm, across various bridges. As a driver, I’m on the spectrum with the Ancient Mariner – so cautious I’m a danger, or at least an irritant, to the poor unfortunate behind me. So we crept the 14 miles to home. And so to bed.

Monday, August 07, 2023

on the Des Moines glacial lobe


13,000 years ago, the Lake I look at from the dining room window would have been embodied in an ice sheet, around 1300 feet thick, the 'Des Moines Glacial Ice Lobe'. A mere millenium later, the ice wall had retreated north – glaciers have the attributes of troops on a battlefield, they are always advancing or retreating – leaving the depression into which water found its way.

The Ice Age! I love that term, and associate it with the American contribution to geology – via Agassiz. Who actually hypothesized the ice age in Switzerland.

‘On July 24, 1837, the Societe Helvetique des Sciences Naturelles ha its annual meeting in Neuchatel and Agassiz gave his opening addres known as the Discours de Neuchatel, which is the starting point of that has been written on the Ice-Age.” This I break off from Albert Carozzi’s “Agassiz’s Amazing Geological Speculation: the Ice-Age.”

Like many a European scientist, Louis Agassiz eventually came to the United States – in search of proof for his glacial hypothesis. Carozzi sees, exactly, the romantic aesthetic behind Agassiz’s striking proposal.

“During his stay in America, Agassiz never lost sight of the traces glacial action, which had caught his attention the moment he land in the fall of 1846. Here is a striking account of his first impression:

"When the steamer stopped at Halifax, eager to set foot on the new continent full of promise for me, I sprang on shore and started at a brisk pace for the heig above the landing. On the first undisturbed ground, after leaving the town, I w met by the familiar signs, the polished surfaces, the furrows and scratches... so well known in the Old World; and I became convinced of what I had already anticipated as the logical sequence of my previous investigations, that here also this great agent had been at work.”

We could be reading the words of Dr. Frankenstein, in search of his great agent.

Hard to believe in ice on this sunny morning. But I must mention one other great agent in this dimly rhapsodic string: Marianne Moore. Her poem, the Octopus, is, to my mind, the most enigmatic of the American attempts to saw the epic into a form fit for the American tongue. It was one of John Ashberry’s totems, with its bristle of indirections and the babble of its mysterious citations. No other poem gets so close to seeing America as a poem, a geological, botanical, political epic, with all its bloody edits. Eliot might quote Dante; Moore would quote “W. P. Taylor, Assistant Biologist, Bureau of Biological Survey, U. S. Department of Agriculture.”

Hard to believe in ice. The lake bears its speedboats, water skiers, and lilly pads, made of some foamy material, perfect tabs for young swimmers to leap around on. Last night, in the storm, it was all bustling with white caps, and today it is placid and flat. We’ll soon take a boat and dock over at Arnold’s Park and go to the Nutty Bar.


The Ice. It is melting in the background, the planetary background, even as I type. But I like to think of Agassiz and Moore today. Vacation is made of blissful, intentional ignorances.


The fir trees in “the magnitude of their root systems,”

rise aloof from these maneuvers “creepy to behold,”

austere specimens of our American royal families,

“each like the shadow of the one beside it.”


Sunday, August 06, 2023

The drunken boat on vacation


Leon Edel makes a shrewd juxtaposition between the fate of Charlotte Verver in the Golden Bowl and the consequent voyage to America of the hero of his biographical trifecta,  Henry James, quoting Fanny Assingham: “I see the long miles of ocean and the dreadful great country. State after State – which have never seemed to me so big or so terrible.”

Henry James’s travels in the U.S. in 1904, 21 years after he’d been there last, make up that bundle of impressions, The American Scene. James is the Silenus of expatriates – we all bow down to his altar, sooner of later. State after State – this was the great “subject” he was after, another writer – like Kerouac or Whitman, Mailer or, why not, Jane Smiley – in search of the real American thing, a story to pull out of the terrible vastness. On his first day, disembarked in New Jersey, James could already feel it:

Nothing was left, for the rest of the episode, but a kind of fluidity of appreciation a mild, warm wave that broke over the succession of aspects and objects according to some odd inward rhythm, and often, no doubt, with a violence that there was little in the phenomena themselves flagrantly to justify. It floated me, my wave, all that day and the next ; so that I still think tenderly for the short backward view is already a distance with "tone" of the service it rendered me and of the various perceptive penetrations, charming coves of still blue water, that carried me up into the subject, so to speak, and enabled me to step ashore.”

What expat come home has not surfed on that wave? Has not felt some lost familiarity in its motion and temperature? Some intervening distance that puts one on one side, the stranger at the party?

But Charlotte Verver and Henry James came home from a Europe that was truly distant – when distance was the experience of days and tossing currents, not of today’s menu of movies and tv shows and jet lag – an utterly new experience of time. I arrived in Atlanta a little sick, but soon cast off the threatened cold and plunged as directly as I could, with a casting off of newspaper headlines, into the “subject”. It is a plunging that requires cars, and getting used to vast, cathedral like grocery stores all over again. For Adam, the New Jerusalem is all about his bucket list of fast food places, as well as going, in Atlanta (and Athens, visiting his cousins), to comic book stores and parks and even visiting the King memorial down on Auburn Street. We are in Iowa now, and the bucket list consists of  swimming for three hours a day in Lake Boji  and amusement park rides in Arnold’s Park.

Myself, I am pretty amazed by the unconscious affluence here, the cheapness in the Walmart and the expensiveness of the restaurants; I’m tickled by the voices, by the way that the grocery store clerk can decide to tell you the story of her dog’s funny habits while ringing you up, just because; and I’m amazed at feeling so very American myself, as through bursting through the thin layer of the French quotidian.

Feeling American does not mean feeling kin to the official face America shows the world, or the unofficial American buzz on social media. I know that’s there. That’s always there. But that is not the wave. The wave is what I am interested in, more, at the moment.

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...