Happy Endings: ‘Ragtime’ and ‘Nashville’ (8/4/75)

Some months before the critical tidal wave that lofted Robert Altman’s Nashville and E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime into the promised land, a cartoon by Edward Koren appeared in the New Yorker. Pictured was an author, grinning like a madman and pounding away at his typewriter as a chorus line of imagined reviewers cheered him on. “A brilliant achievement,” one critic shouted. “Writing at its most illuminating,” cried a second. “Gripping.” “Explosive.” “Long overdue.” “True vision.” “Plain speech.” And finally the prize: “Proclaims the failure of our civilization as a whole.”

Koren’s cartoon says as much about the drift of present-day discourse as it does about an author’s fantasies. As Ragtime and Nashville prove, a stylish work that proclaims the failure of our civilization—of America, to be precise—has become the artistic equivalent of the sucker punch. It is no matter that Ragtime starts out in the early years of the century, or that Nashville is set in the present; stories that seek to put an end to a history are a never-ending story.

The book and the movie, in their different ways (Doctorow with solemn or wry irony, Altman with happy-go-lucky swings of a sledgehammer), both proclaim the failure of our civilization, and both have received notices—or obeisances—that add up not to the usual ballyhoo for enjoyable works by respected artists, but to announcements of cultural landmarks. With Nashville, the common comparison is to Citizen Kane, with Ragtime, to The Great Gatsby—though Ragtime has also been compared to Citizen Kane, not to mention Ulysses. These works are cited as instant, full-blown metaphors for America itself: mirrors that challenge us to endure, if we can, the twisted visage and empty eyes that stare back. What is perhaps more remarkable—for works so disturbing, dark, and serious, it is nearly unprecedented—both book and movie have been hailed as immediately and totally accessible, enormous fun, and sure-fire hits: “an orgy for movie-lovers,” on the one hand, and “impossible to put down,” on the other. All of this—the book, the movie, and their reception—seems particularly suited to the spirit of passivity and fatigue that animates, if one can use that word, the times.

In his most provocative comment on the practice of art in America, Herman Melville wrote that “all men who say yes, lie; and all men who say no, why… they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpet-bag,—that is to say, the Ego.” But there are times when saying no—to one’s society, culture, to one’s civilization as a whole—is to say yes to one’s audience: to take the easy way out, to ask the easy questions and provide the easiest answers, to offer the safest and most shallow satisfactions. Just such a yes is brought forth in both Ragtime and Nashville—a yes enveloped by a coldness emanating from the artists’ all but perfect insulation from their subjects. Altman and Doctorow are never for a moment implicated in the stories they tell, the lessons they draw, or the actions—the failures—of their characters. When Gatsby lost, it’s plain, so did Fitzgerald, and, it has turned out over the years, so did everybody else. But speaking like sages—in the most suspicious author’s voice there is—Altman and Doctorow remain on high.

They keep their distance—or rather enforce it. They aren’t bent on discovering the fate of their characters as they emerge, but on imposing it. Exceptions are either killed off aesthetically when they bid to take over the story, or else killed off plain and simple, to make the author’s point. Instead of struggling with the open possibilities all interesting fictional characters hold—facing the real choices artists have to make not merely as to where they will take their characters, but as to where their characters will take them—Doctorow and Altman falsely foreclose openings to make a statement: our by now deadeningly familiar proclaims-the-failure song and dance.

It’s interesting that when Altman screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury went off to compose a film script about some characters in the country music mecca, Altman insisted, before there were any characters, that one of them die at the end—and that when Tewkesbury came up with the Loretta Lynn-like country singer Barbara Jean, and disposed of her as a suicide, Altman substituted an assassination, and dropped in the plot thread of a mysterious political campaign moving in parallel with the wanderings of an altogether unbelievable stock mad killer, in order to produce an ending whose meaning no one could possibly escape. It is just as interesting that the characters Doctorow cannot handle in the same mechanistic way—they are, it turns out, his most vital characters, and all of them female—are either dropped (the siren Evelyn Nesbit, abandoned right on the verge of real adventures and open questions), or defined as socially lobotomized mutes and robbed of whatever presence they threaten to display.

“Unlike the stories and novels of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner,” Albert Murray writes in “A Clutch of Social Science Fiction Fiction,” collected in The Omni-Americans, “…those of more recent American writers frequently read like interim research reports and position papers. Indeed, what most American fiction seems to represent these days is not so much the writer’s actual sense of life as some theory of life to which he is giving functional allegiance.” This seems to me the sharpest possible summation of the aesthetic that governs in both Ragtime and Nashville. Altman, as Robert Mazzocco wrote in a sane piece in the New York Review of Books, is the man of the hour because he stands for it: “because he represents a certain failure of nerve. He has a feeling perhaps about the hopelessness or aimlessness of the world…”

Altman objectifies this vague feeling into argument by presenting an unmotivated and all but incomprehensible act of murder. It’s the most dependable element in his movies. Sometimes, as in McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Thieves like Us, it works, somehow leaving the viewer as bereft and stranded as the victim’s survivors; otherwise, as in The Long Goodbye and Nashville, it’s an insult to his characters as well as his audience. Doctorow uses murder in much the same way, though he lacks Altman’s gratuitous vengefulness—everything in Doctorow’s writing has a message, nothing is just for pleasure. He proves America is empty by creating empty characters, executing those who won’t sit still for his typology or exiling them from the plot. In Ragtime he presents a string of historical figures (Evelyn Nesbit, Henry Ford, J. P. Morgan, and so on) interacting fictionally with each other and with a set of ideologically determined representative families: White Upper Middle Class, Black, and Immigrant. After a slew of ironic deaths, the three families merge into one: a dismal parody of the melting pot. So that the point of their representativeness is never lost, none of the family characters ever has a life of his or her own, because that might undermine their function.

As such—as works that represent “not so much the writer’s actual sense of life as some theory of life to which he is giving functional allegiance”—Ragtime and Nashville are aesthetic, moral, and political ready-mades which, in this time of cynicism and abandonment, have elicited a critical response that matches them in grandiosity and intelligence. The bigness of the ideas dissolves their banality. Let us take a look at what has been said.

The purpose of Nashville, Newsweek announced in its cover story, is to “expose complacency.” It “demonstrates the true lesson of Watergate—the cost of putting the ends before the means.” (What this has to do with Nashville I have no idea, but it demonstrates that the movie’s sensibility is contagious.) Said Pauline Kael (whose notorious pre-release New Yorker review stands up better than any other rave—I wanted to agree with it): “Nashville is about the insanity of a fundamentalist culture in which practically the whole population has been turned into groupies.” Andrew Kopkind in Boston’s Real Paper: “The real disaster is America, the doom in store for us is not as merciful as Altman’s oblivion, but the long nauseating terror of a fall through the existential void… We are the disaster.”

This is heady stuff, but Tom Wicker, writing in the New York Times, far surpassed it. He came completely unglued. In Nashville, he said, we see “the vulgarity, greed, deceit, cruelty, barely contained hysteria, and the frantic lack of root and grace into which American life has been driven by its own heedless vitality… the American mobility culture, with its autos obsolete and crunchable the day they’re sold, its fast food parlors, plastic motel rooms, take-out orders [for shame! ], transient sex [nice juxtaposition] and junk music… where patriotism and sentimentality salve the wounds of progress, and madmen peer mildly from benign eyes…”

With Ragtime no one has gone quite so berserk, but in the more restrained milieu of book reviewing the reception has been in the same vein. Time spoke of the book with awe, as if it were simply too powerful to talk about: “Its lyric tone, fluid structure and vigorous rhythm give it a musical quality that explanation mutes.” (There’s a lot of muteness running around the book; some of the characters barely talk.) Nevertheless, explanation is provided: “In Doctorow’s hands, the nation’s fall from grace is no catalogue of sins” (and it isn’t, because sins are committed by people, and there are only types here: society is the criminal). Newsweek came through with its entire book section. Ragtime has “grace and surface vitality, but [lest you think this is just another entertainment] beneath… sound[s] the neat, sad waltz of Gatsby. Doctorow has found a fresh way to orchestrate the themes of American innocence, energy and inchoate ambition—with the antiphonies of complacency [our old friend], disorder and disillusion.” Doris Grumbach, in the New Republic, rose to almost Nashvillean heights of proclaims-the-failurism: “Unerring backward vision” to-“a-time when it might still have been possible to make peace between classes and races in this country, between children and parents [so much for Freud—one of Ragtime‘s bugaboos], between the world of simplicity and optimism at the turn of the century and the weary, corrupt decadence with which the century is wearing itself out.” (How—or why—do you “make peace” between the beginning of a century and the end of it?) “It implies all that we could ask for in the way of texture, mood, character and despair,” George Stade wrote on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, as if imitating Edward Koren’s cartoon—in effect declaring that despair has become one of the requirements of art.

Now, one can respond by saying you can’t blame a book or a movie for the reviews it gets. In these cases I think you can, because it seems to me Nashville and Ragtime were made to elicit exactly such responses: a common orgy of yes disguised as no. Some of us want the security of knowing our great experiment has been a failure—so that we no longer have to harbor dangerous, risky ambitions for our politics, our culture, or ourselves, or believe that one has anything to do with another.

It is probably spoiling all the fun to point out that before a work can be convincing as a metaphor for something as big and complex as America–as Altman pronounced Nashville, and as reviewers are taking Ragtime—before it can function as anything so grand as a portrait of “our fall from grace,” a book or a movie must be convincing on the more basic, if seemingly tiresome level of plot, character, motivation, and quotidian detail. One feels out of place noting that the most chilling scene in Nashville—the vicious, heartless reaction of the country music crowd to Barbara Jean’s onstage breakdown—cannot possibly be a metaphor for anything but the director’s cynicism and disinterest in his ostensible subject, since no country audience would respond to the collapse of a singer as well loved as Barbara Jean is supposed to be with anything but compassion and fear. Doctorow’s allegory of the crushing of The Black Man is weightless, and costs the reader nothing, because his black man, Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (and that first name—why didn’t Doctorow just call him “Dinge”?), is the same stick-figure victim so often met in American fiction: one more pathetic example, again to quote Albert Murray, of the need of-white writers to “behave as if the slightest notion of a black compatriot as a storybook hero compels them to equate the strongest Negroes with the most helpless.” Given, say, Ishmael Reed’s work, especially the myriad indomitable trickster characters in Mumbo Jumbo—a novel that begins, historically and in every other way, where Ragtime leaves off—Doctorow’s creation of Coalhouse Walker should have been treated as a scandal.

But not only must detail be convincing, the artist’s ideas must be convincing. Newsweek, quoting Altman’s summation of Nashville–“Country music stars and politicians are alike in this country. Basically they’re just involved in popularity contests”—calls such things “extraneous,” which is neatly self-defensive; with ideas like this they’d better be extraneous. Altman’s statement is remarkable only in that it tells us even less about politics than about country music. Those who think George Wallace, on whom the shadow political candidate in Nashville seems modeled, is just engaging in a popularity contest are kidding themselves.

The ideas in Nashville are not extraneous to its shape and texture anymore than they are in Ragtime, and the ideas in Ragtime are just as flat. What is most striking about the book is that it is all surface. I am not a fast reader, but I initially read Ragtime in something under four hours. I read it again, and it was work. Once you have read the book there is absolutely nothing more to be gotten from it. It is dead on the page. The writing carries a reader along, but it implies nothing, suggests nothing, never makes you stop and think, never makes you puzzle out motives, because there really are none. It certainly never hits you with the kind of power that leads you to stop reading, compose yourself, and meditate on the ceiling. It’s not that you can’t put the book down, it’s that you don’t have to.

Doctorow’s barely outlined, imprisoned characters—Father, Mother, Younger Brother, Little Boy, The Black Woman, The Black Man, The Immigrant, His Wife, His Beautiful Daughter—cannot support, let alone redeem, the ironic burden they are forced to carry: the burden of big ideas like the purposelessness of American values, the power of plutocracy, the chaos hidden in the American lust for system and order. But a lot of the ideas in Ragtime are just silly. Doctorow has anarchist Emma Goldman, who seems to be the voice of the book’s politics, announce that sex symbol Evelyn Nesbit, with whom the masses will be manipulated into identifying—courtesy of yellow journalism, Hollywood, and other odious forms of popular culture—”would in the long run be a greater threat to the workingman’s interests than mine owners or steel manufacturers.” Such an idea cannot be taken seriously, but it is, for a book that moves along so well, effectively glib. Doris Grumbach thought Ragtime spoke to the decadence of our age, and so it does, by imitating it. If such an idea is not the essence of an enfeebled, decadent Marxism, I don’t know what is.

I think such facile pronouncements of no-way-out, of our-time-has-passed-or-never-was, of the-failure-of-our-civilization¬as-a-whole, are what the fuss is all about. Yet great works, with which Nashville and Ragtime have been so blithely compared—and The Great Gatsby and Citizen Kane are indeed the best examples—cannot be forced into such pigeonholes. We may have come to see them as grand metaphors for our culture, each an acting-out of the whole of our historical possibilities; they are also, each time you return to them directly on the page or on the screen, irreducibly about individuals, people you and I are not, except perhaps in the inherited fantasies we share with them, the fantasies that, by now, for us, they have partly shaped.

The Village Voice, August 4, 1975

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