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In 1957 Plymouth introduced its new cars with the ingenious theme, “Suddenly . . . It’s 1960.” Here was progress, or novelty, so brutal that it made the Plymouth models for 1958 and 1959 obsolete before they even existed. I guess existing is something they never got to do.
Obsolescence is the price we pay for fashion, for progress, for death. Each is cruel but each is necessary, don't you think? Like a sorbet, each clears the palate. As I write, my wife waits for Apple to unveil its newest iPad. The new one will be better. The old one, now obsolete, will be cheaper. She has no idea which she'll buy, but what a pleasant choice! Few of us who have sampled life in Chicago yearn to live in a society where nothing changes, one generation giving way to the next so quietly that when someone’s gone for good it’s hard to notice. That sort of life is certainly not for this city, which, as Carl Sandburg put it in one poem, is forever "Building, breaking, rebuilding," and whose credo, as he put it in another, is "Put the city up; tear the city down; put it up again; let us find a city."
Sometimes obsolesence is simply being in the way.
So there’s a lot to say about obsolescence, the Bleader's theme this week. But as I thought about it I came back to a passage I'd read a few weeks ago in A Matter of Principle, the recent memoir by Conrad Black.
Unsurprisingly, the legal profession formally congratulated itself on what had just taken place. The judge made her little speech: “I want to tell the lawyers in here what a pleasure it is to preside over a case . . . with such highly skilled lawyers across the board…” The marshals’ mouths moved in synch with her words. They were clearly familiar with the homily.
Pat Tuite [an attorney for another defendant], author of the remark to [Black’s wife] Barbara and me that a trial is entertainment for everyone except the defendants, rose to take a bow for the cast. “And we want to express our pleasure to you for making this such a pleasant experience. I think I speak for all sides, Judge.”
[Prosecutor] Eric Sussman caught the bouquet and returned it. “You do.”
Tuite took the encore: “And we’d be glad to appear before you in any other case.”
Judge St. Eve responded: “See you back here.”
A last moment of shared jollity from Gus Newman [Tuite’s cocounsel]: “I don’t know if she’ll admit me again!” General laughter all round. Rarely had I found the legal cartel so nauseating in its misplaced self-praise and conviviality.
I suppose the dying are too sick to care during the final vigil if they hear a peal of laughter from the next room. But Black had his wits about him. He'd just become the living dead, the excommunicated.
It’s not as simple as I make it sound. Black became an indomitable prisoner, writing constantly, excoriating his enemies, biding his time until the day—now just a few months off—when he can return to Canada as Lenin returned to Russia, Richard the Lion-Hearted to England. But he used to own newspapers across Canada. He used to own the London Telegraph and sit in the House of Lords. All that's gone. He’s not a player.Willy Loman, a man pole axed by his dispensability.
He’s the discarded man, the man who knows he's through. He’s the man, or woman, conjured in paintings of Ivan Albright with titles like Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida, That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door). In movies and onstage, this character often goes out bellowing, but out he goes. Edward Hopper painted the character in his or her essential solitude, often through a window or looking out a window at the world.
Maybe it’s better to be a lean, silent Clarence or Thad who works the land until he’s spent and then turns it over to Clarence Jr. or Thad III and disappears, too old at some point but never excommunicated. But I don’t think this begins to describe farming today, and maybe it never did. A few years ago I saw a production of Oklahoma! that was heralded as “revisionist,” and when I came out of the theater I wondered what was so different about it and decided that it might have been trying to get at something a little different and more real about life on the plain the wind whistled down. A poem came to me as I was walking to the car.
I played Ado Annie in the high school show.
My folks sat in the second row
And I got all the laughs.
They had me read for Laurie
But that would have been a lie!
Laurey, with her Curly and his herd of cute old calfs
And the buzzards making circles in the sky.
Laurie belonged to the land
I had to leave or die.
So I met this Persian fellow
And got a one-night stand.
But it was worth a try.
I was Ado Annie—and I got such a hand!
I played Ado Annie, but don’t you know,
I could of played Jud Fry.
You can feel obsolescent your whole life. You can grow up with the idea you were born to be a ’58 Plymouth.