Culture Watch

by Benjamin DeMott

The original man

A self-improver since youth, I check out foreign newspapers in the library at least once a month, seeking broadening, and lately there’s been a payoff from the London Times—the paper’s coverage of the Stonehouse case. John Stonehouse‚ MP, you’ll remember, is the banker-politico who‚ a year or so ago, vanished from Miami where in theory he had been starting a business trip. (Just before he split he told a business associate, Mr. James Charlton, that he was going swimming.) A few months later he turned up. under another name, in Australia, and was hustled home to face charges of embezzlement.
At a subsequent magistrate’s hearing, prosecution spokesmen mentioned “stolen riches,” accused the MP of running up huge debts on credit cards, stripping company bank accounts to the sum of close to £100,000 and spending four months planning how to “fake a death.” They also let fall that there was a Mrs. Buckley, a “secretary,” in the equation. “On November 21,” said the Times, listing the allegations, “some of Mrs. Buckley’s clothes were flown to Australia along with some of Mr. Stonehouse’s, which had had the labels cut out.”
Details like this have a teasing effect. At the moment when it came to mind, the notion of clipping out the labels . . . were Mr. Stonehouse and Mrs. Buckley together? How exactly did the eyes meet? Companionable joint congratulation? The same again on the parting‚ Mr. Stonehouse talking about a little dip, having no intention as he spoke of ever revisiting the strand at hand. What did the voice within say at that moment? — Tah, James Charlton. Wouldn’t you he shattered if you knew?
But it wasn’t, as it happens, these morsels that held me. It was a passage in a speech Mr. Stonehouse delivered in the House of Commons, by permission, on the subject of his disappearance. The passage, which occurred just after a description of the impact of the 1974 banking crisis, ran as follows:
In 1974‚ with the collapse of many secondary banks and the problems of the British economy, the strains became ever worse. There seemed no escape from the awesome pressures which were squeezing the will to live from the original man. Everything he had lived for and worked for seemed to be damned . . . The original man had become a burden to himself, to his family and to his friends. He could no longer take the strain and had to go. Hence [Stonehouse added] the emergence of the parallel personality‚ the disappearance, and the long absence during the period of recovery.
What caught me in this was the stylishness of the self-objectificationthe splendid air of research science in the phrase the original man, the remarkable specimen sense of self. How easy it is to slip these idioms and personae into one’s interior monologue, to carpenter them into the deep structure! I see Original Man. doer of my ancient shameful deeds, in a dimmish background; nearer, almost middle ground, stands Parallel Personality, a pushy type who, arriving late, has nevertheless elbowed his way forward to notice; up front, looking back at these two with a perfectly civil but unillusioned eye, stands a rather nicer chap called I—I as in “I.” Keeping a seemly distance, obviously connected to the others by nothing more substantive than a courteous squinting curiosity, he has an altogether happy manner; as one gazes at him one knows he’s the sort that he and I‚ we‚ you and they, even one as well, can absolutely trust.
Granted it’s heartless to joke about a man in a jam‚ still it’s equally bad to fail to keep track of stages in the development of our aptitude for shucking off unwanted former selves. The Stonehouse scheme for self-appraisa1‚ whether broadening or merely spacedout, clearly is a breakthrough, and I’d give a First to our Parliamentary correspondent for finding it worth a line.

Art before life?

“The commonest kind of missing person is the adolescent girl, closely followed by the teen-age boy. . . . There is another minor peak in the third decade of life, less markedly workingclass, and constituted by husbands and wives trying to run out. . . . Older cases of genuine and lasting disappearance are extremely rare. . . . When John Marcus Fielding disappeared, he therefore contravened all social and statistical probability. Fiftyseven years old, rich, happily married, with a son and two daughters; on the board of several City companies . . . owner of one of the finest Elizabethan manor houses in East Anglia, with an active interest in the running of his adjoining eighteen-hundred-acre farm . . . he was a man who, if there were an -arium of living human stereotypes, would have done very well as a model of his kind. ... It would have been very understandable if he had felt that one or the other side of his life had become too time-consuming . . . but the most profoundly anomalous aspect of his case was that he was also a Conservative Member of Parliament . . . the hunt was at last placed firmly in professional hands.” (From the opening of John Fowles’s story “The Enigma,” published just before the Stonehouse caper in THE EBONY TOWER (Little, Brown, $7.95).

A few bad habits

I was worse than late catching up with Antonioni’s most recent film, ThePassenger—would have missed it altogether if it hadn’t shown up in a dreamy double bill with Sunday, Bloody Sunday at a $1 upper-Broadway movie house the last time I was in New York. The story is about a TV journalist (played by Jack Nicholson) based in North Africa who, offered an opportunity (by a countryman’s sudden death in the hotel room next to his) to flee his life, seizes the chance on the run. Much to remember in this movie—most notably the scenes, eerie, fluid, calm, wherein the exchange of identities is effected. Carrying a dead body from one room to another seems as weightless a deed as detaching and remounting a passport photo; the tape-recorded “day before,” in which the dead man speaks easily, conversationally, is smoothly interchangeable with the still ticking present in which he’s nothing but the whisper of shuffled paper.
As for the acting: by “doing nothing,” Nicholson communicates a throwaway Why not?-ism highly appropriate for one who, having trashed his former self, lives each instant as a becoming, all fixity gone. (“I’ve run out on everything—my wife, a house, an adopted child, a successful job—everything but a few bad habits.”) Why not tell the whole story, this minute, flatly, abruptly, straight out‚ to that pretty stranger over there? (Extremely pretty: the stranger is Maria Schneider.) Why not contemplate other identities to come? A novelist in Cairo? waiter in Gibraltar? The film enters upon a Robbe-Grillet phase toward the end— affectless voice-over descriptions of comings and goings in a courtyard. But the compositional beauty, together with the arid, curling, half-humorous puzzlement of Nicholson’s voice, continuously undercuts portentousness.
And something penetrating about disappearance-fantasy does come clear. In the opening frames Nicholson, pursuing a tip about a guerrilla headquarters, arrives in an African village, minus language or contacts, seeking information. He is offered instead a vision of a zero self, is treated as minimal man, cigarette dispenser, tool, fool, nonbeing—as a person to whom not the smallest measure of separate personal significance need be conceded. Many a traveler, I imagine—traveler or “passenger”—will feel the truth of the moment. Selfimportance collapses, the “I” discovers it’s nothing but air, fuzz on a mop string, one bummed butt. It asks, What is identity that so much is made of it? And the query leads on . . . In this film it leads first to an acknowledgment of the emptiness of the hero’s work, then to a cry of protest; in the end the question itself seems the chief invitation to disappearance.
The Passenger is occasionally mannered and nervous, often uncertain about its subject, distrustful of its own metaphysical élan. The hero’s center of being remains elusive—shadowy as that of a Hawthorne disappearer, visible only as a magician’s fingers are at those delicate instants of display when innocence is claimed. But the film’s chill mastery of cut-and-run psychology is, for long stretches, striking.

The prison beauty shop

Reread on the eve of the trial‚ Rolling Stone’s pieces on Patty Hearst help one to reach out to the girl. (“The Inside Story,” by Howard Kohn and David Weir. The authors were aided, says the wise money, by Jack Scott, former athletic director at Oberlin who‚ after winning a $40,000 settlement from the college over a severance dispute, set up as author and angel of radical causes.) The scramble-shambles side of the peregrinations of the three fugitives, Patty Hearst and William and Emily Harris, following the May, 1974, wipe-out of the SLA, comes across clearly. So, too‚ does the dependence upon Scott, who (by this account) bankrolled the fugitives’ summer in a Pennsylvania farmhouse, drove Ms. Hearst back and forth across the country, patiently endured abuse from those he was saving, and, for a period on toward the end‚ became Randolph Hearst’s friend and drinking companion. The reporters, presuming that becoming another (Patty into Tania) induces a sense of being separated by untraversable distance from those who claim to know you, work hard at dramatizing alienation. (On a visit to Patty Hearst in jail‚ Catherine Hearst, her mother, notices her daughter’s natural brown hair “peeking out from under [a] red dye.” She asks—according to Kohn and Weir—“Why don’t you go to the prison beauty shop?” whereupon “Patty just smiled, as though to say, ‘Catherine will never change.’”) The reporters are also alert to the possibility that terror wears off‚ and their version of the weeks in the summer farmhouse is an idyll, complete with a hint that the fugitives may even have known glee and release, the joy of dress-up, while working on their repertory of disguises.
Not much glee, however. The abduction itself isn’t “done” in these pages, but the journeyings are, and in the reading they tighten a nerve. On the first desperate trip eastward, when Jack Scott would pull in for gas, Patty Hearst (say Kohn and Weir) “frequently demanded he speed away as an attendant approached. ‘I don’t like the way he looks.’ ” What would it be like to stare and not stare, to read a face (your life in the balance), deciding whether the face was reading yours, to try to guess whether that look was a “shy smile” or “knowing suspicion,” to try to avert one’s gaze naturally? How could one bear the inner intensity, constant newness, strangeness, edge-of-theplank‚ stomach-emptying fear? Fear and elation? Fear and pride?
Counsel are ready; may it be a fair trial.


I have a loved one with a travel hang-up—a person who (like me and many) is not getting younger, yet remains committed by habit to a fierce, yearly, sixor eight-week winter tour (leaving Auckland as this is written, Bangkok ahead) . . . ventures that look depleting to someone who has about given up tripping. The opening pages of Dean MacCannell’s THE TOURIST: A NEW THEORY OF THE LEISURE CLASS (Schocken‚ $8.95) suggested a negative view of travelers, whereupon an idea dawned. A gift book for the loved one against globe-trotting, just the thing, way to insinuate the wisdom of cooling it a little, enjoy an old-fashioned winter, see what the book says . . .
The Tourist, a sociological treatise on tourism, is intermittently an interesting probe of its subject. For openers, it advances the notion that mass tourismself-conscious witnessing—ought to be regarded as a distinguishing feature of post-industrial ages. (The book’s debts, each decently acknowledged, are owed to Veblen, Boorstin‚ and Goffman.) It moves from here to some potted history on the genesis of the phenomenon, including a cunning reading of two turnof-the-century Paris guidebooks that redefine various work places as attractions, or “work displays,” and advise sightseers on how to participate in the life observed therein. Next the author considers touristic angst, which amounts in brief to this: tourists know what they want and can’t have it. “The variety of understanding held out before tourists as an ideal,” MacCannell writes, “is an authentic and demystified experience of an aspect of some society or other person.” They’re motivated “by a desire to see life as it is really lived, even to get in with the natives. . . .” But they haven’t a prayer, because the workers in these tourist attraction work places—tobacco plant people or tapestry weavers or whatever—are themselves inauthentic‚ can’t be known at the level of “interpersonal relations.” They’re always on, part of a show, and in that respect they’re like the rest of us, patrolling post-industrial beats where “society is established through cultural representations of reality,” no longer through work pure and plain.
A point of view. But not‚ I’m afraid, an effective text for my particular purposes. The Tourist has, in the first place, a brutal jargon problem. (“. . . the failure of Goffman and Lévi-Strauss to note the existence of social integration on a macro-structural level in modern society can be traced to a methodological deficiency: neither of them has developed the use of systemic variables for his analysis of social structure.” Inflict this upon your loved one?) It’s in a frenzy, furthermore, to speed up the pace of the times—to transform every worker into a portrayer of work, every job into a bit. (Hard to take if you’re grading your fiftieth blue book in a week . . . Hard to take if you’re the mason, Mr. Liebnow‚ just finishing a three weeks’ run in a show at our house called “Making a Fireplace and Chimney out of a Fence with Mortar, Cement Mixer, and Muscle.”) And beyond all this, the dogmas about tourist torment are unconvincing. Our loved one, Ms. Auckland-Bangkok, by her own word lights out from us (1) to get away (from authentic children counseling her to cool it); (2) to be entertained (pandas in depth, etc.); (3) to consider other travelers (“So many Japanese,” says the Auckland card neutrally). And I much doubt she’s self-deceived.
Like many books in the field, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class is somehow overstimulating. What it mainly did for me was confirm an old suspicion: books are better allies when you’re persuading into rather than out of.

The vanishing breed

Telly Savalas is thwarted by some bozo whom “the feds” have provided with a “new protected identity.” Cronkite and Chancellor both run Mr. X testifying on FBI sin with his head in a paper bag, telling the congressional folks he’s scared of blowing his cover. There’s this New Jersey banker who’s been out of sight for two years. And Ms. Hearst declaring herself a guerrilla. And the lord high MP flying the Commons. Nicholson talking about waiting table. And Bob and Ray—
Bob and Ray, speaking for B & R Enterprises, are currently making us an amazing offer:
. . . your dream of assuming a new identity can come true each and every month when you’re a member of the Bob and Ray Person-ofthe-Month Club. . . . The postman will bring right to your door every thirty days all of the documents you need to assume a new and fascinating identity . . . you’ll get phony credit cards, a bogus driver’s license, new laundry marks for your clothes . . .
The B & R people had a grand special during Christmas—greeting cards featuring not only somebody else’s name but somebody else’s kids as well. Brood for any time on this splendid comic turn, and you’ll conclude Bob and Ray are trying to tell us something, namely that there’s no longer any counting the kooks. But they are gentlemen, this pair; they put their stress on satisfaction; customer response has been enthusiastic—an Ohio lad who has shed his old identity and become the Shah of Iran ... an ecstatic Arizona lady (“Imagine a simple housewife like me suddenly becoming Vaughn Monroe!”) . . . another lady out in Oregon who has written in to say: “Life has taken on a new meaning for me since I became Gladys Knight and the Pips. I can never thank you enough.” This last note, by the way‚ was signed (so Bob avers) “All of us.”