The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Bruce in 1962

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Lenny Bruce was performing in California. Don DeLillo recounts the scene in Underworld:

"We're all gonna die!"
Lenny loves the postexistential bent of this line. In his giddy shriek the audience can here the obliteration of the idea of uniqueness and free choice. They can hear the replacement of human isolation by massive and unvaried ruin. His closest followers laugh the loudest. Their fan-fed vanity is gratified. They're included in Lenny's own incineration. All the Lennies. The persecuted junkie. The antihypocrite. The satirist and nose picker. Lenny the hipster fink. Lenny the ass mechanic, girl-spotting in hotel lobbies. Lenny the vengeance of the Lord.
"Powerless. Understand, this is how they remind us of our basic state. They roll out a periodic crisis. Is it horizontal? One great power against the other. Or is it vertical, is it up and down?" He seemed to lose his line of argument here. "The U.S. is putting up a naval blockade. Fine, good, groovy. D'ya hear what he said?" And Lenny did his basso head of state. "Any offensive military equipment being shipped to Cuba gets stopped dead in the water by the U.S. fleet." He jabbed at some imaginary lint on his lapel, signaling a shift, a bit. "And there's this woman sitting out there in Centralia listening to the speech. She hears, Maximum peril. She hears, Abyss of destruction. She has a job dishing out meat patties in the school cafeteria and she comes home exhausted and turns on the TV and it's the President of the United States and he's saying, Abyss of destruction. And she sits there in her cafeteria whites, with her shoes off, picking her feet. Her name is Bitty. She's thinking they preempted Lawrence Welk so this Irish Catholic millionaire can talk about Abyss of destruction. Then she thinks, Hey, wait, that's a movie title, right? Sure, it's one of those hard-boiled cynical crime dramas in moody black and white. I saw it with the Muscular Dystrophy Mothers of Central Kansas. The speech goes on and on and Bitty's trying to register the enormous -- and the President says something about, Swift and extraordinary buildup. Soviet missiles in Cuba. But she thinks he's talking about the grease in her oven. Yeah that greasy buildup's beginning to bug me, man. She has this oven cleaner she's eager to try. Works fifty-two percent faster than the strongest industrial acid. She tries to concentrate on the President's speech but everything he's saying sounds like a pitch for insect repellent or throat spray. And Bitty's sitting there in Emporia or Centralia and she gets up out of the chair and goes to the phone and calls her friend DeeAnn. DeeAnn is the local movie expert. DeeAnn reviews movies for the cafeteria workers' newsletter, Meat Patty Week. And Bitty says into the phone, Who was in that movie the President's talking about on TV? And DeeAnn says, You're asking me about movies? At a time like this?"
Lenny bent his knees and spread both arms wide, his mouth stretched in a rictus of gaped and grinning terror.
We're all gonna die!"
I was not alive at the time, and I probably represent the fading rearguard of the generation able to remember the terror of these times, if only secondhand. I read A Canticle for Leibowitz and "The Last Objective" and On The Beach and Second Variety and Thunder and Roses, and in doing so I tasted the edges of the fear that stalked through older minds night and day.

Who would bring those times back? Who can be nostalgic for such a feast of ashes? But see this appalling post from Glenn Reynolds:

For a warmongering global imperialist power, America seems to be insufficiently feared.
UPDATE: Hmm. If Taiwan "acquired" a few dozen thermonuclear weapons, would the calculus change?

Mr. Reynolds is suggesting that the U.S. precipitate a Taiwanese Missile Crisis; in a potential Cool War with China that hasn't even started yet; despite having made it through the Cold War without nuclear-arming our proxies. If we will defend Taiwan with nuclear weapons, we should say so convincingly, and do so if needed, ourselves.

Eloquence fails me; I could write a dictionary, not a brief, against this reckless, immoral, shortsighted, swaggering, cynical, naive, warmongering, egocentric, and suicidally stupid idea. Mr. Reynolds owes the world a prompt, clear and pointed retraction.