“I was an exile in Manhattan” has an improbable ring, rather like the fifties radio program I Was a Communist for the FBI. All the same, it wasn’t Duluth or Thunder Bay, but glorious, stenchingly hot Manhattan that became my exile during recent court proceedings. All I missed were my panting white dogs whom my husband had never seen, but who are now with us. There’s a bonding thing going on between little Arpad, 90 lb. at eight months, and my husband, undisclosed pounds at 792 months.
Conrad lectures him about the 10th century’s Prince Árpád, who led the Magyars over the Carpathian Mountains to establish Hungary, while Arpad wags his tail with joy and establishes himself on our bed.
When we were dog-less in Manhattan, I had to make do with the Animal Planet channel on the bathroom-mirror TV. Which is how I came to realize that human beings are doomed. A portentous narrator explained that mankind is outnumbered by hundreds of billions of birds, poised like marauding hawks to attack us (not to mention killer swans). Packs of feral hogs are spreading all over America. As for Florida, where I am a part-time resident, we face the Gambian pouched rat, which according to the program Killer Aliens is “the size of an average house cat. It carries deadly diseases that could potentially cripple the population of south Florida.” That’s not counting another 400 non-native species of wildlife, including killer snakes, that are colonizing the Everglades and strangling babies. “We are at the crossroads of interspecies chaos,” intoned a zoologist, whose name I can’t give you since the Kleenex I was using as notepaper while in the bath ran out of space after I scribbled the quote on it.
But what really did me in was the Monsters Inside Us program.
Heaven knows, we’ve all got enough on our minds without worrying about flies that lay eggs inside you via a quick trip into your nose or a scratch on your foot. How many times have you had a fly up the nose? Well, perhaps not so many, but I am a regular in that department due to the prevalence of flies in these subtropical climes and childhood remonstrations to breathe through your nose—unlike the nursery-rhyme old lady who didn’t and thereby swallowed a fly. When the wrong fly detours nasally, you get a revolting movement under your skin as egg turns into maggot burrowing into your flesh.
There were close-ups of the infected foot of a young girl—as pretty and nice as anyone with maggots under their skin can be, which isn’t exactly the Estée Lauder prom-perfect look. After that program came Confessions: Animal Hoarding, in which people like me who want to rescue the entire animal world turn into nutcases marooned among dozens of howling animals while friends cry quietly over the beloved one’s departure from sanity.
When did the Animal Channel turn into a sensationalistic animal National Enquirer? Received wisdom consists of an elegy for the high culture of yore and a screech about today’s extreme and celebrity culture. Neither extremes nor celebs are my strong suit: I didn’t ever get the point of Maria Kanellis and her dust-up with Santino Marella, but then I’ve never been a fan of wrestling, let alone the Bra-and-Pantie Gauntlet femmes. Lady Gaga I naturally put in a class by herself, with US$60 million earned at age 24. A lot of the rest are freaks and sad happenings, some with talent, some without and with very little character to go around as in Amy, Erin, Lindsay, and Paris.
But I’m not persuaded that today’s celebrity culture is any different or worse than yesterday’s or last century’s or for that matter the Ancient Romans’. Every cultivated observer thinks his times are especially shallow and corrupt. O tempora, o mores lamented Cicero in 63 BCE, even though Ovid and Virgil and Horace were about to happen. Our cultural desert of reality housewife shows and fat “disrespecting” females grabbing each other’s hair over some weedy man who has bedded them both isn’t materially worse than the hideous freak shows popular throughout the centuries.
For my taste, no rap lyric can match the awfulness of a description in Louis Petit de Bachaumont’s 18th-century Mémoires secrets of a common Parisian street fair showing, among other freaks, a “four-year-old child who, formed as fortunately as the most vigorous man beyond the finest proportions in the virile organ, has the diverse abilities of it such as erection, ejaculation?.?.?.?especially at the approach of a woman?.?.?.” with the child’s age verified by birth record and teeth. C’mon in, mademoiselle, and see if you can get it up for just one liard.
All that’s different today, I suppose, is that more of our lower classes—culturally speaking—can read and write and pay for cable TV: in earlier times they were functionally illiterate and spent their time stewed at l’assommoir or watching dog fights. Life has improved for them materially—a good thing—but not intellectually. When we had only six television channels we could usually find something that was worth watching. Now we have billions of viewers in search of merde, which means 900 channels and still only one or two worth watching.
The bad always outnumbers the good in any age. We comfort ourselves that great works will survive and the bad will die but you have no way of knowing. The greatest book ever may have been finished last week and is now in the shredder. As Somerset Maugham said, the great American novel has not only already been written, it has already been rejected. And on Animal Planet, I have yet to see River Monsters: Killer Catfish; Gang Dogs; Untamed and Uncut, all overshadowing the Westminster dog show.
O tempora, o mores. Cicero is ever with us.