Nude in Black and White
While visiting the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., at age 11, I found out that the transparent bubble on a warplane from which a gunner fires his machine gun is called a blister. This seemed somehow appropriately unsettling, as if any aircraft misappropriated for the purpose of wreaking havoc on the soft gooey insides of human beings would, as a matter of cosmic jurisprudence, end up being covered with welts and vesications. It was like cirrhosis being visited upon an alcoholic, or syphilis upon a whore, this sudden appearance of gigantic, non-aerodynamic blisters on the lower back and belly and ass of an airplane made morally corrupt by a bug-eyed addiction to violence. Had I visited the museum only a year previously, I might’ve been less attuned to the engineering specifics of military aggression, preferring instead to while away the afternoon lolling around the Apollo 11 command module or gazing up at the silver underside of the Spirit of St. Louis and reveling in the pride and optimism once promised to America by famed Nazi sympathizer and eugenics enthusiast Charles Lindbergh. As it happened, however, I had recently been shown a tattered photograph of actress Susan Dey without a shirt on and my priorities had changed.
The picture, which showed every evidence that it had been burglarized with great haste from a magazine and passed around so rapaciously by the entire sixth grade that its texture had become less like paper and more like chiffon, depicted Laurie Partridge herself laying topless on an unmade bed, her mouth like a tiny bow, her pert breasts like upturned teacups, her nipples as pointy as rosebuds squeezed from a pastry bag. As base and vulgar as this description might seem to me now, there was no other way for an 11-year-old to process a naked woman as there was a newness to the female anatomy then that made objectification just another 15-letter-word that like health insurance, I’d eventually get around to caring about. That said, upon seeing the image in 1977, which I would later find out was a still from a movie called “First Love,” my politics aligned in an instant with those espoused by the character that Dey portrayed on TV. As if suddenly freed from the confines of a very dark cave, I found myself groping to gather the light that was Laurie Partridge’s corny pacifism and unconvincing feminism and cheerful dedication to social justice for refuge in my soul, assuming that only a fellow hippie would ever be given access to what I knew existed beneath her fringed and floral poncho.
I thought about Susan Dey and blisters and being a hippie last Thursday when I found myself driving around outside the Air and Space Museum looking for a place to park. I was in D.C. for the purpose of lending my body and rancor to the Occupy Wall Street protesters gathering in Freedom Plaza for their first day of rabble-rousing. I was traveling alone — everybody else I knew had to work — and I couldn’t wait to engage with likeminded strangers and experience the unique thrill that comes from finding camaraderie among beatific and morally anchored interlopers. “What — ?!” shouted my wife through the earpiece on my cellphone, her voice made puny and metallic by the wafer-thin technology I held in my hand.
“I’m lost!” I shouted back above the cacophony of car and foot traffic surrounding me. “I thought I’d see other protesters carrying signs and sleeping bags and just follow them,” I said, looking this way and that, “but there’s nobody like that — just assholes in suits!”
“I can’t hear you!” she hollered.
“Where’s Freedom Plaza?!” I screamed.
“Freedom! FREEDOM!” I said, turning heads with my inadvertent channeling of famed anti-Semite and red-faced, Jesus-loving misogynist Mel Gibson.
After being directed remotely to the protest site by my wife, who guided my trajectory expertly from a windowless room a hundred miles away, I passed through an archway at the southeast corner of Freedom Plaza that was made from a pair of papier-mâché RQ-1 Predator drones mounted on long poles, the irony of the parallelism too ham-fisted for me to appreciate. For the next two hours I read homemade signs and chuckled at sloganeering T-shirts and spoke with revolutionaries about doomsday, foreclosure and what tomorrow should look like, listening peripherally to event organizers and enraged speakers shout into a microphone from the makeshift stage and reconfigure Marx and Debs and Guthrie into cheap rhymes and bumper sticker shorthand. “Wall Street executives are nothing but a bunch of bullies!” shrieked a bearded 30-year-old who was skinny enough to have his posture affected by the weight of his gigantic glasses. “And bullies are big! And they’re mean!” he concluded, giving everybody in the audience the chance to cheer and pump their fists into the air in contempt of all the team captains in grammar school who chose them last for kickball. Cameras biopsied the scene from every angle, creating the uneasy feeling that many of the participants were not really participants at all and, instead, were spectators hoping to get a contact high from the small number of real hell-raisers trying with all their might to recast this Fuck You Mardi Gras against modernity, itself, into a culturally viable sit-in against rich white people, specifically. There was a pissed-off Santa Claus in a putrid red velvet suit at the north end of the square, speaking in solidarity with the protesters yet addressing them with disdain, as if they were rabbits in his garden. “America is a fascist/corporatist state!” he spat, his big spooky old-man hands going every which way. “There hasn’t been any truth in this goddamn country ever since November the twenty-second, nineteen-hundred and sixty-three!” Then he started singing “God Bless America,” insisting that everybody join in.
There were Photoshopped posters of Barack Obama wearing a Hitler mustache, Benjamin Netanyahu wearing a Hitler mustache, Hillary Clinton wearing a Hitler mustache, Sarah Palin wearing a Hitler mustache, Bill O’Reilly wearing a Hitler mustache and, for those trapped in a nostalgia for simpler times, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush wearing Hitler mustaches, the little black square having become the progressives’ most destructive boomeranging metaphor — a rallying cry, really, for those who prefer the big bang of moronomy over the subtle pop of irony.
There were tourists from West Palm Beach and Buffalo and St. Paul cutting through the plaza with pinched faces and raging telepathy that said, “How dare you filthy beatniks ruin our vacations by corrupting our concept of what Washington, D.C., is supposed to signify by exercising the First Amendment rights deemed sacred by every single statue and monument in town!”
There was no nuance as far as the eye could see.
“Did you ever wonder why there aren’t any songs about peace on the radio?” I heard someone say over the rally’s PA system as I made my way across the street, having spotted a Starbucks whose Wi-Fi signal I was hoping to cop for free through the glass. “It’s because all the radios are owned by corporations!” said the voice, inciting the crowd to go apeshit with booing, many of them wearing T-shirts adorned with peace signs from Walmart and Old Navy and Urban Outfitters. Locking eyes on the wide lip of an enormous concrete planter where I noticed an empty space in between two Wall Street protesters typing on laptops, I quickened my pace, motivated by a sudden impulse to re-examine a photograph taken 67 years ago near Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific during the Second World War. “Corporations hate peace and that’s why you don’t hear Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary on the radio anymore!” The lone yelp of approval told me that half the audience was too young to know who Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary were and the other half seemed reluctant to throw their vocal support behind a movement that was demanding to see the safe return of “Guantanamera” and “Stewball” to commercial radio.
There’s a famous black and white picture taken in 1944 by Time/Life photographer Horace Bristol of a naked PBY blister gunner during a rescue operation in Rabaul Bay. The young Navy gunner is unnamed and photographed from the back, his slim build much more gazelle-like than bull, the inhibition expressed in his body language reminiscent of the boy bathers in Thomas Eakins’ 1885 masterpiece, “The Swimming Hole.” Tiny droplets of either sweat or seawater cling to the sailor’s shoulders, back and in a sublime patch of sunlight gathering in a graceful swoop at the top of his ass crack. His hair is mussed and he is wearing headphones, the wartime sky seen through the giant blister that he occupies alive with the lethal bumblebees of Japanese antiaircraft fire.
Most remarkable to me about the photograph is how well it depicts the bewitching vulnerability of a human body. Here is this naked kid, no doubt thousands of miles away from his home, caged inside the ghoulish skeleton of a giant metal machine designed to both stave off and initiate the most brutal sort of mass cruelty devised by modern man, yet his political affiliations and religious convictions and cultural prejudices are rendered completely inconsequential by the tenderness of his age and the beauty of his skin and the fragility of his predicament. His existence, like the stark honesty of his physique, is elemental and harrowing and tenuous without requiring either corroboration from the intellect or rationale from some bureaucratic narrative to make sense, forcing the viewer’s own human vulnerabilities to be likewise exposed and made precious and beautiful by association.
This, to me, was poetry and a much more convincing call to universal amity than Bob Gruen’s photograph of John Lennon flashing the peace sign in front of the Statue of Liberty or Alberto Korda’s iconic picture of Che Guevara scanning the horizon for the red dawn. For me, there has always been a huge difference between seeking inspiration on how to experience life through poetry versus searching for clear instruction on how to live life through religion or politics or economics.
“All right, losers! Either buy something or get out of here!” said a Starbucks thug waving us off the concrete planter like we were pigeons. “Go use the Internet at McDonald’s!” he said, looking just as tattooed and pierced and disenfranchised as the protesters he was shooing away. I slid my computer back into my bag and returned to Freedom Plaza, remembering something Noam Chomsky said in 1967 when asked about Bob Dylan’s perceived abandonment of the protest movements of the day. “If the capitalist PR machine wanted to invent someone for their purposes, they couldn’t have made a better choice [than Bob Dylan].” What Dylan’s detractors failed to recognize then, and maybe they still do, is how hard it is to find a rhyme for antiestablishmentarianism when you’re trying to create art that warms the heart and feeds the soul and gives a person more than just an expert opinion upon which to rely when facing down self-righteousness.Wait, before you go…
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