Friday, November 22, 2013

50 Years Ago Today

Here is a short editor's note from the December 7, 1963 issue of The New Yorker.  As was their custom at the time, it was unsigned; but it was written by John Updike (and was later republished in one of his many volumes of collected nonfiction—Assorted Prose (1965), I believe).  When I teach my seminar on the 1960s—as I am doing this fall—I use this to discuss Kennedy's death, since it captures (so far as I can tell, viewing the event through the lens of history) the experience of living through the assassination—the immediate, human experience of those days—as well as anything I've read.

For the fiftieth anniversary, I thought I'd share it here.
It was as if we slept from Friday to Monday and dreamed an oppressive, unsearchably significant dream, which, we discovered on awaking, millions of others had dreamed also. Furniture, family, the streets, and the sky dissolved; only the dream on television was real. The faces of the world's great mingled with the faces of landladies who had happened to house an unhappy ex-Marine; cathedrals alternated with warehouses, temples of government with suburban garages; anonymous men tugged at a casket in a glaring airport; a murder was committed before our eyes; a Dallas strip-tease artist drawled amiably of her employer's quick temper; the heads of state of the Western world strode down a sunlit street like a grim village rabble; and Jacqueline Kennedy became Persephone, the Queen of Hades and the beautiful bride of grief. All human possibilities, of magnificence and courage, of meanness and confusion, seemed to find an image in this long montage, and a stack of cardboard boxes in Dallas, a tawdry movie house, a tiny rented room where some shaving cream still clung to the underside of a washbasin, a row of parking meters that had witnessed panicked flight all acquired the opaque and dreadful importance that innocent objects acquire in nightmares.

What did it mean? Can we hope for a meaning? "It's the fashion to hate people in the United States." This quotation might be from one of a hundred admonitory sermons delivered after President Kennedy's death. In actuality, it occurs in an interview granted in 1959 to a United Press reporter, Aline Mosby, by a young American defector then living in Moscow, Lee Harvey Oswald. The presumed assassin did not seem to be a violent man. "He was too quiet, too reserved," his ex-landlord told reporters. "He certainly had the intelligence and he looked like he could be efficient at doing almost anything." In his room, the police found a map on which was marked the precise path that three bullets in fact took. The mind that might have unlocked this puzzle of perfectly aimed, perfectly aimless murder has been itself forever sealed by murder. The second assassination augmented the first, expanded our sense of potential violence. In these cruel events, democracy seemed caricatured; a gun voted, and a drab Dallas neighborhood was hoisted into history. None of our country's four slain Presidents were victims of any distinct idea of opposition or hope of gain; they were sacrificed, rather, to the blind tides of criminality and insanity that make civilization precarious. Between Friday and Monday, three men died: a President, a policeman, and a prisoner. May their deaths be symbols, clues to our deep unease, and omens we heed.

The dream began to lift at the sight, on television, of President Johnson giving his broad and friendly handshake, with exquisite modulations of political warmth, to the line of foreign dignitaries who had come to Washington as mourners. The sanity of daylight has returned, but the dissipated dream should not be forgotten; it must be memorized and analyzed. We pray we do not fall into such a sleep again.

-- John Updike
At some point, in my handing this out, I lost the last paragraph, and gave out only the first two to my classes.  It was an error—hence my adding it back here—but I think it was the sort of error that, in popular memory, sands the rough edges off of famous quotations.  Which is to say that I think that, in certain respects, the passage reads better truncated at the word "heed"—that it does not feel incomplete without the final paragraph, and indeed that it is in some ways diminished with it.  Hence, in reading it over, I did not notice the lack, since the lack improved it.

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