Language note: in a time of austerity, the conscience undergoes change

During the early 1970s, Marlboro cigarettes, formerly a niche brand, rocketed to the top of the market and became the best selling cigarettes in the world. The reason is well covered in histories of advertising: Marlboro’s manufacturer switched niches. If the cigarettes haven’t killed you yet, you associate Marlboros with masculinity, thanks to the extraordinary success of an advertising campaign whose icons came coughing onto the page beginning in 1954 — first as men with tattoos, then as cowboys. Look to your left, however, and you’ll see that as of 1944 Marlboros were a woman’s cigarette, tipped with red to hide lipstick stains. At http://tobacco.stanford.edu/tobacco_main/images.php you’ll find a richly illustrated history of the gender reassignment. This note is about a language change that seems to have occurred concomitantly, and perhaps a moral change too.

Yes, in this advertisement even the illustration has a moral. Between the woman and her ashtray stands Daniel Chester French’s image of the Minuteman of Concord, steadfastly posted eyes-front at breast height. Almost as an afterthought, the advertisement’s text is duty-bound likewise. “Two luxuries she can conscientiously enjoy,” it explains about the illustration, and it half-conceals its heroine’s lineaments of conscientiously gratified desire behind a turned back and a mirror image guarded by a raised arm.

Nineteen-forty-four, after all, was a year when openly acknowledged desire must have seemed shameful. In the sixth year of the Second World War, all of the unashamed rest of America was austere. In window after window hung a little flag bearing at least one star, each star the symbol of a son in the Armed Forces or (if the star were gold) of a son dead on the field. In magazine after magazine, too, the advertisers who articulated the language of America’s economy somberly explained the necessities of shortage and pleaded for willing submission to the unending sacrifice. Turning her back and refusing to look at anyone but herself, Miss Marlboro counterpleaded, with feminine emphasis and a feminine diminutive, for “mere pennies,” but the 1943 penny itself was a memento mori. Not made of copper that year because copper was desperately needed for shell casings, it was minted instead in galvanized steel: no longer the red of a Marlboro beauty tip but gray, gray. “In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life,” Ralph Waldo Emerson had cried with defiant joy as he stood before Harvard’s divinity school in 1838, but 106 years later the threat to joy was no longer a three-quarters-dead regional Puritanism but death itself, fully dressed against the summer in menacing black.

But no, pretty miss in heels and peach-colored panties: even under that dread circumstance, you need not feel ashamed of your bath. It makes you not just clean but clean-feeling, and that harmless benefit comes to you free of any charge, either in money or in currencies of the soul. The world outside has descended fully into 1944, but in this room with the ashtray on the vanity you are about to sink into a bath conscientiously. The original sense of that adverb happens to have been in good conscience.

Postwar, I get the impression that that sense has all but disappeared from American English. The word conscientiously now seems to connote little more than rational but uninspired acceptance of a duty. Yes, yes; I do, conscientiously, try to practice good dental hygiene. But except perhaps as a vestigial technicality in the legal term conscientious objector, any sense of conscience as a motivating joy seems almost to have vanished from English. In 1914, in the first poem of the sonnet sequence he called 1914, Rupert Brooke compared men about to volunteer for the war with “swimmers into cleanness leaping,” but as early as 1918 some of the Englishmen to whom that simile had once seemed to mean something were saying, “Went to war with Rupert Brooke, came home with Siegfried Sassoon.”

So conscience understands that it will be different this time when you take off your panties and leap. But do leap. It seems possible that the calendar will never again advance from 1944, and the leap will at least make you feel clean until you resurface in the smoky air. As a poet who thought himself postwar once sang:

Never such innocence,
Never before or since.

 

Sources:

http://rbrower45.tumblr.com/post/147185242401/gameraboy-marlboro-ad-1944. Photoshopped.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Divinity School Address”

Philip Larkin, “MCMXIV”

Shadowing Domesday lines

Under fluorescent light on Philip Larkin’s desk in the library at the University of Hull lies a black-and-white photograph. Looking in, Larkin notices a midden of tiny broken English things. These he takes to be metonyms for a larger England which is about to be broken. In the image, under the famous cloudless sky of summer 1914, are men standing in lines to enlist for what is about to become the Great War. Observing the behavior of the shadows cast by the lines, Larkin writes out a forecast: in an amazingly short time from this illuminated moment, the sun will shine down on one more thing: the title of the poem Larkin is now about to write, “MCMXIV.” Then the word will be inscribed in the stone of a war memorial. But for now, in the photograph, it is not yet even a word. It is only a pre-verbal, pre-stone dust that nobody yet understands to be subject to future inscription:

. . . the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns . . .

A farthing was a copper coin worth one fourth of England’s old pre-decimal penny — that is, 1/960 of a pound. A sovereign was a one-pound coin made of gold. Long before England’s currency went decimal in 1965, both coins had disappeared from circulation — the farthing because its purchasing power had diminished to nothing, the sovereign because the gold it was made of had become worth more than the shrunken fiat pound. Larkin’s term for the vanished years of farthing and sovereign is “innocence.”

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word . . .

Or, in prose: on the sunny day they signed up to die for the British Empire, the men of 1914 had their pockets full of soon-to-be-lost value. They lived before the loss began, poor innocent men, and the British Empire died with them, and now not all the antique shops in England can keep the Pakis out of Larkin’s neighborhood. For most of its length, “MCMXIV” expresses an idea, and that really is all the idea amounts to. As George Orwell remarks in “Inside the Whale” about A. E. Housman’s tragic young men in their emotionally similar situation: “Hard cheese, old chap!”

Nevertheless, all sentimentality discounted, on the other side of the brooks too broad for leaping there does lie a world different from ours. There everything in the present is seen at eye level, and the past isn’t seen but experienced by intuition. This sovereign landscape is pastoral, and its weather hints at pastoral’s delicate foreboding irony: the quality of both knowing and seeming not to know that it is a mere literary fashion.

And the countryside not caring:
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s restless silence . . .

The earth-father of these Larkin lines is Wordsworth, and Larkin has obviously done the responsible thing and read Wordsworth’s report about the detection of splendor in the grass. But it’s hard to sense the grass-hazed coordinates of poetry’s specifics from on high, and during the Great War the coordinates of vision began acquiring a vertical axis. Here, then, is a counterimage to the one in “MCMXIV.” We see it from altitude, the War’s new sightline.

Onto the old world, says altitude, I have superimposed a new ruin: the aluminum frame of a German zeppelin bomber, all that remained after the zeppelin’s lifting gas burned off and recombined with its originating air. For the moment, the frame’s unburned streamlines are still contained within the rectilinear subframes of a pastoral landscape. In the poetry of Larkin and Housman and Edward Thomas and Hardy, these straight lines are taken to be metaphors for a natural order which incorporates human order into itself and makes the two orders one. Under the rules governing that genre, the only world there is is a world at ground level, seen from the height of a man. But the new ruin has begun to change that way of seeing. It descended on the land from above, and we see it now from above.

In ancient tragedy, only the gods see from above. The new image comes to us demonstrating that that’s no longer true. The original shadows of Domesday, level with the earth they were drawn on, have now been supplemented by lines surveyed from a higher angle. “MCMXIV” reads the new lines as an ironic antipastoral: not yet a new way of reading tragically, but a start.

For the start, poems like “MCMXIV” need more light, better distributed. Something verbal needs to be done, for instance, with the instance of light that penetrated for the first time into the skeleton of an airship. But time has been allotted for that to occur. After all, says the somber forecast from 1914, the new light is going to keep falling forever. With every declining sun in the century since a camera in the air first detected a fallen flightform, the lengthening, darkening, ever more almost-readable shapes of its roundness on the earth have shown us promises of more.

Source: George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2006001296/. Photoshopped.