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A vast Waste Land (with footnotes) Part II

In his essay about pop culture references in television comedy, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote: "'Krusty Gets Kancelled' is one of the greatest of all "Simpsons" episodes, but if it were a poem, it would need to have nearly as many footnotes as 'The Waste Land' -- and the further away from its original air date we get, the truer that's going to be."

A reader sent him a provocative 2000 Hermenaut essay by Keith Gessen called "'Simpsons' at the Gates: Intimations of the Coming Barbarism." In it, Gessen argues (somewhat facetiously, but not entirely) that the "loss of a referenceable reality will, in all likelihood, eventually destroy our civilization..." He recalls correcting his aunt when she insists that Cary Grant starred in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" (1954). He's correct that it was James Stewart, not Grant, in the picture, but the thing is, he's never actually seen "Rear Window." He'd seen a "Simpsons" episode that referenced it. This troubles him:

I am, it occurs to me in the flush of triumph, Allan Bloom's worst nightmare. I have knowledge, but am shut off from its sources. Bloom must have seen legions of me, baseball caps backwards, shuffling through his lectures as he wrote "The Closing of the American Mind." For this was the fear he expressed--aside from fear of a black planet, that is. Defending the canon against the multiculturalists, Bloom argued that we were losing touch, as a nation, with the well-springs of our moral and political judgments--that we were building a republic in the air. In the argument with my aunt, I demonstrated what we might call a Bloomean ignorance: I had the right answer, but not the knowledge surrounding it.

Does it matter? In a way, yes. Let's take T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," the last sustained effort to gather the lovely shards from the smashed edifice of Western culture--from Ovid, Dante, Spenser, Baudelaire--into one small room. "These fragments I have shored against my ruins," Eliot writes in the final, crescendoing stanza. These shored fragments have the obvious effect of pointing up the inadequacy of the present: when Eliot quotes Spenser, "Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song," and then, in the next line, writes, "The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers," the juxtaposition is startling. But this recoil from modernity is not the essential point. The revolutionary effect Eliot achieves is to bring entire universes into the cramped urban space of his poetry, and ordering them, or attempting to. He explains it best in a 1923 review of James Joyce's "Ulysses": "In manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce... is controlling, ordering, giving shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history." [...]

We are not so much disillusioned as over-allusioned. If Eliot had a historical sense that went back 500 years, and Rob Owen [author of "GenX TV"] and the creators of "The Simpsons" have a historical memory that reaches back to television culture (50 years), then watchers of the show have a historical memory that reaches back only to its inception (10 years). The show could even mark a sort of generational Rubicon, for those raised on this Homer inherit a past so malleable as to be meaningless, full of signs without referents, knowledge without foundation, ammunition for arguments about movies they've never seen.

That seems a mite apocalyptic to me, though I accept the notion for rhetorical purposes. Most of us who've lived past the age of 20 or so have occasionally bemoaned the ephemerality of things we once thought were common cultural currency. (How can somebody not get a Beatles reference? Mein gott, I'm so old!) But art does require some knowledge of history, some familiarity with conventions and traditions (even -- or especially -- if the work itself bends or breaks them). Otherwise it would be incomprehensible -- as some of the more radical works of art and entertainment indeed seemed when they were new.

With those things in mind, I must insist that the first 10 years or so of "The Simpsons" (when I watched it regularly) represent a pinnacle achievement in the history of mankind (almost up there with Firesign Theatre... and "The Waste Land").

What do you think of referential works -- movies, television, music, painting, etc. -- that require "footnotes"? Are they limited by their references, or enlarged by them? We live in an age of pastiche (and have for a good long time). Is originality overrated? Or can it be discovered through recycling?

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Footnote: The phrase "vast wasteland," from a 1961 speech by FCC Chairman Newton N. Minow, was used as shorthand to criticize the American broadcast television landscape for many years.

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