Around Here: two nostalgic soundscapes

As of spring 2014, NewsHour, a program on the United States’ non-profit Public Broadcasting System, was underwritten by the BNSF Railway Company and the stockbroker Charles Schwab. Each firm introduced the nightly broadcast with what on a commercial network would be called a commercial.

The railroad commercial was all nostalgia. In black and white and faded color, film clips from the 1940s and ’50s evoked the iron horses and iron men of the old Santa Fe Railway . They showed us a steam engine on a turntable; they showed us an overalled brakeman angled at thirty degrees as he leaned from the ladder running up to a freight car’s rooftop running board, hanging on with one hand and waving with the other, all smiling life, to his engineer. Juxtaposed with the antiquities were color-enhanced clips of modern automated trains. Photoshopped to a high gloss, these trains were free of running boards and free of brakemen, but as they highballed through fields of wind turbines they shared their pastureland with herds of wild horses. And the soundtrack as they rolled was all iron-horse sound effects of choo-choo and whoo-whoo.

 

The whoo-whoo, especially, could have come right out of something sung by the Pips in Midnight Train to Georgia forty years earlier, when the sound had already passed beyond the allusive range of recognizable onomatopoeia and become a mere burden, a now meaningless noise like “Hey nonny nonny.”

Like the soul song, the BNSF commercial is a music for dream.

But the Charles Schwab commercial begins in the present tense with the sound of an alarm clock.

 

Awakened, the listener hears a basso declaiming, in American demotic, one more sound out of the corpus of tradition: “There’s a saying around here: you stand behind whatcha say.” Over the sound, the video displays one more rolling-stock anachronism: a car in the rain at dawn, faithfully delivering to a row of houses with heritage architecture a printed newspaper. The words on this paper’s newsprint, however, are the softest of soft copy. These particular words can never yellow or crumble. The audio track assures us that they’re perennials: words that grow and grow again in the rain, season following season. They are the language of what the entity that lives (so to speak) among the heritage homes calls Around Here. In its aspect of uttering itself into being, Around Here tells us that it exists as that which stands behind its constituting words. And its final words are a reassuring command, in the present tense on behalf of the future tense: “Own your tomorrow.”

But the voice of command has nothing like a bodily standing. On the evidence of the audio track, it’s only a voice — and, at that, a voice reciting only the script of an unsecured, unsecurable promise. Invisibly, over a scrolling background of video Americana, the voice says to us who still live in our poor mute uncomprehending bodies:

“For the sake of the past whose language I speak, I ask you buy the articles that I have awakened you to buy. I call those things ‘securities,’ because after all I have to call them something. If you attend fixedly enough to my song while you’re being awakened in order to buy, its sound may grant you a dream, maybe even tonight!, of midnight trains followed, season by season, by newspapers at dawn. In that dream I will stand behind my word ‘security,’ and just like my phrase ‘stand behind’ it will have a meaning, the way words once did in the days of trains and newspapers.

“In the dream you’ll understand what I’m telling you now. You and I together will be parts of its sound. As we board the midnight train, we’ll all be singing from a score whose burden is the peaceful iamb ‘secure.’ The brakeman in his overalls will have closed the door behind us, and we on the midnight train will be on our way for the last time, riding singing into the quiet that will follow the final commercial.”

Technical PS: so as not to lose the links to the commercials for BNSF Railway and Charles Schwab, I converted them to Flash videos for this post. However, neither my Android tablet nor my Android phone will play them in that format. For Android, then, here are the links.

Things remembered: two footnotes

* Era

Bounded by soft dusty curtains on either side of their narrow screen, the characters in a 1940s movie modify daylight in a 1940s way. On its 1940s emulsion, daylight’s world is an office where light is split by venetian blinds into shards of black and white. It is all hard. It is the seen, only. It is unequivocal. But at night, in night’s club, other senses join sight and uncase their equivocation equipment: saxophones, voices habited in clouds of cigarette smoke, the single combined smell of smoke and whiskey and the memory name of Kreml hair tonic.

 

* Trophy

Men seeking memories walked into the forest of the animals, who cannot know a past. Once they were present among the unspeaking animals they went silent, raised their rifles to their shoulders, and blasted the animals to death. Then they picked up the dead, had them formaldehyded, carried them into their dwellings, and hung them on interior walls. The idea was that the men’s sons would look at them in later years, speak of them, and in that way bring their fathers’ memories back to life.

For the new year, a cure for nostalgia

In the January 2 New Yorker, the subject of Roger Angell’s lead comment is a proposed reduction in the speed of deliveries by the U. S. Postal Service, with the final extinction of the mailed letter to follow as a predictable consequence. If Angell missed a New Yorker cliché when he turned that news item into an elegy for stationery, the oversight didn’t come to my attention. E-mail, just not the same thing. The days of Anthony Trollope. John Updike’s postcards to, of course, The New Yorker. Eheu fugaces. World War II V-letters. An antique postcard kept at, of course, the summer house in, of course, Maine. Smiling through his tears, Roger Angell delivers a freight of casual-classic thought.

For The New Yorker, the part of time that gets remembered in a style like Angell’s is leisure time. That’s when we become worthy of The New Yorker’s advertisers. When the magazine is closed, we’re merely sordid, merely alive and changing: so busy earning our subscriptions to The New Yorker that we don’t even have the time to notice our own permanent exquisiteness. At such a time, the antique postcard held between finger and thumb is only a dirty piece of cardboard. But after the gates of The New Yorker have been opened to admit a crew of artists, the temporary marker of a life now ended will be replaced by a marble tomb.

That metamorphosis is a moment in the art history of New England. In New England, from the colonial stonemasons to Frost’s “Home Burial” to E. B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” the tomb-maker’s art has helped us understand the sad irony of trying to represent in space the sense of something that no longer exists in time. White’s dirt road that is no longer rutted in three tracks because the horses have gone away is metonymy for the invisible dead. The original writer and reader of Roger Angell’s postcard from the past have gone invisible likewise. They are now only an indecipherable allusion to something in a dead letter.

But for us intended readers of The New Yorker, who live in what we might as well call New York by way of metonymic contrast, the postcard itself is transformed into something newly visible. In New York, lifted for a moment out of the cigar box of Roger Angell’s prose, the card goes reflective and becomes a mirror, a portable space in which we are supposed to think we see ourselves poised and unchanging, balancing on the infinitesimal between a postcarded past and a postcardless future. Holding the mirror between our hands, seeing right through both the dead words on one surface and the picture on its reverse of what no longer is, we contemplate what we think we see of our reflected selves as if we could keep on contemplating forever.

The optical illusion reassures us that we are. That’s what Roger Angell constructed it for. Relieved, we reach for our wallet, extract a credit card, and renew.