Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 33 No. 12. 5 August 1970
Impressions of America
Impressions of America
Leopold Tyrmand was a well-known novelist and journalist in Poland before he went to live in the United States in 1965. Two of his novels have been translated into English: The Man With the White Eyes and Seven Long Voyages. During his stay in the United States Mr Tyrmand has written articles for The New Yorker, the Reporter and Dialogue (from) which magazine this interview has been reprinted), as well as a number of other publications. Mr Tyrmand's view of America is perhaps just a little less jaundiced than that of Salient's . . .
Now that you have been in America for three years, let me begin by asking what was your first impression?
Everything is bigger here than in Europe—potatoes highways, billiard tables and the lust for life. And everybody has four kids, because just two of them indicates that the family is cither poor or incompatible.
What do you like best in America?
Would you like to live here?
I would like it better if more Americans felt like living in Poland. Some do.
Who are they?
Some individuals who are attracted by the nonconformity and the vivid intellectualism present in some Polish milieus.
That means there is a lack of nonconformist milieus in America?
On the contrary. Intellectual, artistic and cultural nonconformity (and also the nonconformity of customs) has increased in America during the last years to such an extent—socially and statistically—that it has become a new conformity. Here in America, everything gets mass-produced in a flash. Everything undergoes the stupefying process of production, reproduction, superproduction and over-production, but also, everything goes through the process of being improved and multiplied in hundreds of colours, kinds, sorts, brands, classes, versions and shapes. This also happens to nonconformity in America.
What do you dislike most in America?
Too much of America.
What does that mean?
The problem is one of abundance to the point of excess. For me, America is not determined by her enormous vastness, nor by the might of Raterial means, nor by the unlimited resources of strength. America of today is, first of all, an image of diversity—an incredible, somewhat mad variety of things. When I consider the possibility of metaphysical, suicidal catastrophe, it seems to me that the causes would be the excesses and surpluses created by unlimited productive output. "What kind of potatoes would you like?" asks the waiter in every restaurant, "Fried, whipped, mashed, trampled, kicked, curled or boiled? Russian style, Lebanese style or North Ireland style?" "What kind of slacks do you wish?" asks the clerk. "With cuffs or without? How many pockets? Do you want them long, short or medium? Buttoned or zipped? And in what colour from the 137 colours we are able to sell you?" The same goes on with airoplanes, shoes, salads, life insurance, elevators and shampoos. There is danger in this frightening multitude, in copying everything into an infinity of versions, a crazy intention of exhausting every possibility of life—which, as we know, is impossible.
An example of the latter is greeting cards. I must admit that the shops with greeting cards make me much more optimistic. But, at the same time they fill me with disgust. They are proof of the useless efforts of those who intend to master the entity of life with the help of flawlessly planned production. The manufacturers of these cards pretend to fulfill all the needs of all people where any kind of greeting is concerned. There are cards with greetings for Easter, Christmas, New Year's and for all possible holidays for every existing creed. They are classified for all stages of human life, age, status of family, society and education. There are greetings for birthdays, weddings and promotions; for fathers, mothers, grandfathers, cousins, uncles and adopted children. Every occasion seems to be scheduled and if we looked very carefully for it, we could find greetings for an unexpected visit, premature pregnancy, a successfully-passed anthropology exam, or mutual agreement to divorce. It looks as if the manufacturers have foreseen everything, but I always had trouble finding a card which I liked and this simple fact was comforting. Nor could I find a nonprinted, plain card on which I could invent my own greetings, and this proved that the manufacturers were afraid of human invention.
It may be that abundance to the point of excess is tiresome, but why do you consider it dangerous?
Excessive abundance is bound to make searching futile. Too many things and possibilities lead to a feeling of being lost, of not being able to make any decisions. Demands and needs become uncertain, unsettled, rotted by perennial hesitation we never know if what we look at, what we hold, what we want is really what we need and wish; nor do we know if there is a possibility of finding it in another colour, shape or version. Thus, human beings are deprived of the opportunity to search and find what is really necessary for them. This is already a danger.
What did you know about America before coming here?
Everyone who has an opportunity to read, to listen and to watch movies knows a lot about America. Today, America is the property of the whole world. America is not always aware of this, and even more rarely aware in the proper way. A country cannot lead the way in creating the most attractive cultural features and at the same time believe that other nations are ignorant of that country's creativity.
And did your knowledge of America match the reality you confronted here?
It's very hard to answer that question. Some elements of the American reality are engraved on the conscience of my generation because of our constant contact with American literature and films. One should never forget that the American movies of the '20s and '30s were a powerful source of information about the world for that generation. During my trip, some bits and pieces that had been impressed upon my memory by the early movies had heightened my anticipation of what I was to see. A street in Los Angeles, fire escapes in Chicago, skyscrapers in New York—all of them were so well-known. Only when one is actually in San Francisco, can he evaluate and understand how forcefully Jack London wrote about the Bay. Oakland and Sausalito, and how successful he was in captivating the imagination of every boy about 14 years old all around the world. For me it was especially fascinating to stroll through New Orleans. It so happens that I wrote a book about this city without ever having been there. Now I wandered through the streets, recognizing at every step of the way things which I had never seen before.
Sometimes, watching a western in the Warsaw cinema, one thinks, "No that's impossible. They exaggerate a little bit. Such colours do not exist anywhere." Then I came to New Mexico where I could easily sec that the whole of New Mexico is in technicolor. The problem of colours, distances and dimensions is a very important one Coming here we are prone to compare everything to European standards. This method is totally useless. Maybe Columbus and Amerigo [unclear: Vespucci] could still afford to do it. But today, nearly five centuries later, the European scale is not only useless, but silly.
Is that a matter of colours and dimension only?
No. Even the European scale of value is worthless. To hell with it, as Hemingway would say.
You mean a scale of moral values?page 14
Yes. For example, human greatness. Personally I was never fond of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He was a superb human being and did a lot for this country. But I am not his admirer. However, I would never deny his greatness. Especially after seeing his memorial in Washington.
A monument of Roosevelt in Washington? I never saw it. Where does it stand?
Rather, it lies—in front of the Archives of the United States in Washington, D.C., on [unclear: Peansylvania] Avenue. On the lawn there is a small, modest quadrangle with the following [unclear: inscription:]
([unclear: September] 1941 Franklin Delano Roosevelt [unclear: ed] his friend, Supreme Court Justice [unclear: Finkfurter,] to the White House and asked [unclear: ice] to remember the wish he then expressed if any memorial is erected to me, I know [unclear: lastly] what I should like it to be, I should like it [unclear: 0] consist of a block about the size of this [unclear: ing] his hands on the desk) and placed in the [unclear: tre] of that green plot in front of the Archives Building. I don't care what it is made of, whether limestone or granite, or whatnot, but I want it plain, without any ornamentation, with the sample carving, 'In memory of—'"
A small group of living associates of the president, on April 12, 1965, the 20th anniversary of his death, fulfilled his wish by [unclear: viding] and dedicating this modest memorial. [unclear: io] greatness I am talking about here does not [unclear: ean] only Roosevelt's modesty, but also the fact that America knew how to accept it. I can imagine the stormy disputes if the associates of Gladstone, Bismarck, Clemenceau or Lenin had [unclear: ommemorated] them in a similar way. In this case, greatness expressed itself in tremendous simplicity, which is characteristic of great American institutions and great American statesmen. Simplicity is a value in the American scale of values which is hardly understood in Europe.
Do you think that the differences in the scale of values may be the reason for misunderstandings?
Yes, if they turn into cliches. I think that every [unclear: eliche] hinders mutual understanding. The colour slide sent to the relatives across the ocean is still one of the most powerful sources of knowledge about America.
You don't really believe that knowledge of America today derives from family letters?
Of course not. But the bare fact, for example, that there are many sad, grey, tired people in America, as everywhere, is still either not known outside the States, or simply not accepted by average people. The big legend about America is still based on the conviction that they do not exit wist here. It is the impression left by letters from Natives who succeeded. In the eyes of a [unclear: oreigner] everybody succeeded in America, because success was measured by the effects of work and not by the amount of work done. And American effects are fairly spectacular! Furthermore, somewhere in Utah and Missouri [unclear: es] what we Europeans imagine as America, Today's California, Arizona, Texas do not fit this image, but Illinois and Michigan do. Texas and Arizona do not fit what we Europeans imagine as Texas and Arizona either. They are centuries apart from their European cliches.
And what is this European cliche?
In Europe they speak of Phoenix, the capital of Arizona, as the town of Barry Goldwater who is synonymous with provincial obscurantism. Actually, Phoenix seemed to me the site of the most poetic, modern architecture I have ever seen. Frank Lloyd Wright spent the last years of his life there, and now Phoenix is the battlefield of the most interesting ideas in architecture. It is said that all of Texas reflects the dullness of cattlemen and oil millionaires. Very carefully visiting every theatre on my way, I can testify that the most interesting theatre performance I saw was in Houston, Texas at the Alley Theatre. They presented a play by Luigi Pirandello so well that it would make Jean Vilar, Peter Brook and the Contemporary Theatre in Warsaw envious.
Does your theory of cliches adapt itself to racial conflicts?
I think so.
It would be interesting to know how you, a European liberal, look at this problem.
I suppose that for me the sweeping picture of racial relationships is determined by two circumstances. First: everywhere in New York you can meet Negroes. Everybody treats them politely, some with excessive friendliness to emphasize their own integration and emancipation. Second: the majority of policemen in Washington seem to be Negroes. They control the traffic, guard the federal buildings, and give out passes in administrative centres. They are armed, of course, with clubs, revolvers and all other instruments of police power.
I do not quite understand what you mean by the second example.
It does not seem so natural that a policeman is armed if this policeman is a member of a minority. We nave known the problem of minorities for centuries, too. An ethnic minority gets arms only when it can be considered as an organic part of the nation, when there is no [unclear: tonget] persecution which would make it use the arms against the majority in a moment of despair and revolt. This is the way we handle such problems. It seems that Americans handle them differently. If you were to ask me if this means that I think there is no longer racial persecution in the United States except in the deep South, I would be inclined to say, yes. The point is that some Negroes do not think so. And as long as there are people like Malcolm X or LeRoi Jones who appeal to the appetite for revenge and justify every violence, there can be no true progress. Violence is harmful and repugnant, no matter if it is a tool of oppression or a tool of vengeance. But I am afraid that the romantic side of violence has a gloomy, forceful attraction for some Negro youths.
Many specialists consider this threat as stemming from social conditions, not from racial differences. Do you think that the war against poverty will eliminate the danger?
I would like to be such an optimist.
Do you not foresee any positive solution?
I want to believe in the incredible strength of assimilation of the American society. Do you know that in America I do not feel alien either in a social or in a national sense? I waited once in a Greyhound bus stop in Flagstaff, Arizona, and somebody asked me a question. When I answered in my not-too-polished English, he added, "You are from the North, aren't you? Illinois or Michigan, right?" Some weeks afterward, I sat on the bench in Boston and looked out at the Common. An elderly gentleman addressed me and then, after my reply, said "Aren't you from Texas? Or New Mexico?" Not one of them realized I was a foreigner. This represents an unusual capacity for acceptance of all that is new and alien. The rest will be done by cultural revolution and the constant growth of missionary trends.
What do you mean—missionary trends?
American society was shaped by pragmatism and materialism, but at the same time the conscious idealism and a feeling of a certain mission in the world was always very strong. The Quakers and Woodrow Wilson. UNRRA and the Peace Corps are the other face of American materialism. One hundred and fifty years of practicing it has brought interesting facts. I met a gentleman in Detroit who up until his 35th year had never left Ohio, but whose five sons are today spread all over the world. They are social or scientific workers in Thailand. Venezuela. Ethiopia and God knows where, helping with the development of those countries. I hope that after many obstacles and misunderstandings such activity will eventually create a powerful American universalism.
What do you mean then by cultural revolution?
I mean an incredible spread of culture and knowledge in dimensions unknown until now. American sociologists already have noticed that the conflict between generations probably results from the intellectual superiority of the children over the parents. Quite simply, teenage children en masse are more intelligent and better educated than their parents. They know more, and this has had a far-reaching effect upon society. The American educational system extends its perimeters wider and wider and emphasizes a broad education.
Some effects are to be seen right now. Attending a reception at the Manned Spacecraft Centre in Houston. I was surrounded by mathematicians, physicians, engineers and astronauts, but the conversation concerned mainly films, theatre and the latest books of Saul Bellow and Truman Capote. In comparison, the European scientist always complains that he does not have enough time to master the progress of his own specialization and absolutely is not able to follow the progress in artistic realms. The attitude of Americans seemed to me very comforting. Once I sat in a Washington bus beside a young girl who was reading a book.
After a while I saw the title: Three Ways of Philosophical Thought in Ancient China. Shakespeare in pocket book editions is available in every drugstore, and concerts of Bach and Beethoven are heard by 30,000 people at once. This I call a cultural revolution.
Do you think that the American press contributes to this revolution or holds it up?
Hard to say. The American press has a dangerous tendency to simplify events and problems. On the other hand, there are so many other publications in which anyone can find out—in great depth and in an intellectually honest version—about something that interests him. I think that papers in this country are made up so cleverly that one does not need to read them. I asked myself many times if the editors cared about their papers being read, or did they only want them to be looked at. Perhaps it is better they don't care about them being read, because imagine what a disaster it would be if we were obliged to read carefully those 70 pages each day.
Every American considers it a point of honour to be a severe and contemptuous critic of TV. I think it is very easy to criticize American TV for being' commonplace, routine, monotonous, shallow and primitive. On the other hand, show business, which has been revived considerably by TV shows a very interesting leaning toward a certain kind of modern classicism. The last years proved that American traditions of entertainment nave become increasingly similar to the ancient Greek spectacles, or like the French and Italian baroque court theatre of the 17th century, or like the Japanese Kabuki theatre. This means that the value of the production is measured by established rules and conventions. Without any surprises and with total infallibility we know what Batman is going to do, what happens to Superman, what Dr. Kildare is going to say in any given situation we know what will be the reaction of the Munsters, Popeye and Donald Duck—even which phrase the Supremes will use for the ending of a song.
What we watch and want is perfection within known and given patterns. The most hostile critics of American TV simply forget that the perpetuation of some artistic conventions does not mean their failure. This was obvious to the ancient theatregoers or the admirers of commedia dell' arte By the way, the stiffness of entertainment programmes on American TV is compensated by the commercials, the main object of hate and contempt generated by American snobbery. In my opinion the commercials are the biggest American achievement in contemporary art. They invent and create a totally new world constructed from fantasy and idealism, using all the forms developed in the cinema, cartoons, modern graphics and other advanced techniques. This world is full of many feelings and emotions—and what is more noble in art than to create emotions? Nobody in real life ever saw such a hamburger, or such a beer. Rather, they are ideas of beer and hamburger, but their artistic impact is irrefutable.
Do you really think the commercials can be discussed in aesthetic terms?
I am not well prepared to discuss the philosophy of art. But considering these problems from a practical, however dilettante, point of view I must admit that here I faced problems for which I am not able to find an answer-even after reading Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and Lewis Mumford. For example, there exists a phenomenon which I call canned beauty,' or things aesthetical reproduced in innumerable copies by industrial methods. For 100 years specialists have tried to determine the relationship between aesthetics and industrial, reproduction. On every hand in America you can see something that is beautiful according to aesthetic values, but which has been multiplied in unlimited copies—thereby taking away the quality of uniqueness, one of the most important premises of beauty.
Don't you think that this contradicts what you said at the beginning of this interview?
Not at all. Diversity and variety are characteristic of America's production capabilities, but this does not mean that one aesthetic principle can be reproduced limitlessly. Here we are at the most crucial of all problems—the problem of being different, a real obsession of the whole nation.
Why do you call it an obsession?
Probably a better word would be yearning or longing. But when the whole nation longs to be different, to be unique and individual, it becomes an obsession. The girls wear badges with the inscription: "I am different." Every restaurant and every store advertises that it is "amazingly different." In a television show, a mother asks her daughter about her fiance. "Does he have a personality?" Individuality counts far more than money, good looks, honesty, social position, future and education. It becomes a really top-rate value. "Be different!" This slogan becomes an ambition of the highest order, and of course, as with every real value, it is very difficult to attain. To be different is quite impossible in America today. The social extent of the need defeats it. The most ambitious beatnik, who just yesterday invented a new pattern of hairdo or a new design of slacks, sees them on the street the next day in a million copies and imitations, reproduced immediately by industry, commerce and the mass media of communications. The same applies in a certain sense to literature and the arts.
What is your opinion of America's young people?
In the history of mankind youth has always thought itself more interesting, or pretended to be more inventive, than it really was. Today's youth seems to want to make adolescence an ideal, a way of life, attributing to it rights, privileges, qualities and virtues which are purely fictitious. Being young is the most fleeting human condition, which is terribly humiliating. Its inability to recognize this simple truth immerses contemporary youth in the ridiculous. The Romantics of the 19th century—Byron, Pushkin, de Musset, Mickiewicz—glorified adolescence as a state of super-sensitivity but at the same time were very humble and melancholic about the value of youth. As an ideal solution they proposed dying young—and many of them did. Which isn't at all the case of today's juvenile ideologists: many of them have already reached their forties and want only to prolong the adolescent look, habits and manners in the most comical way.
On the other hand, there is much to be said in defence of American youth. Its most interesting, quality is its attempt to destroy the idolatry of money as the overwhelming element in social striving. One reason for this may not be very idealistic: it is more of a challenge now to be interestingly poor in this country than to be averagely prosperous. Sincere, passionate involvement in community life is another striking feature of a large segment of American youth. On every campus, during my travels, they insisted on taking me for a ride through the countryside, usually through the poverty-ridden sections, most of them Negro slums. As I looked at the deteriorating housing, they watched me carefully, for a reaction of horror at the sight of such misery. But the misery never impressed me enough—I've seen worse in my own country. This misery was brighter than ours: the children were running around in Levi's blue jeans which are the dream of prosperous children In Europe. What did impress me were the young men themselves, their sensitivity and compassion, and the fact that they were not resigned to their society's shameful imperfections.