The crass materialization of Christmas has long been a hobbyhorse of the critics of American culture. Their concern is valid, as far as it goes.
But the institution of gift-giving embodies profoundly countercultural notions that every critic of modern culture ought to praise. For the gift does not conform to the reigning paradigm of individual choice as the mechanism of human fulfillment. The recipient has no control over the content of the gift, which comes upon the recipient as in a flash, its presence revealed to his surprise and delight. This is why gifts are called “presents.” Rather, the object of the critic’s ire ought to be the pernicious modern innovation of “gift cards,” which function merely as financial stimulus, which is to say generational transfer of wealth and encouragement to shop.
This Christmas, out of the magical space underneath the boughs of my grandparents’ Christmas tree, came to me an iPod Touch. I christened it Petrarch, which seemed appropriate, given the indebtedness of the modern rock ballad to the eponymous poet’s sonnets. Sophisticated intellectual history, however, could absolve neither the modern rock ballad nor Petrarch of their self-important unrequited yearning, so I decided on my trip back to Yale to listen to musical theater, a genre slightly less adolescent, if more bastardized.
While walking through the Atlanta airport, Petrarch led me through “Parade,” whose lyrics were a tonic to this “Yankee with a college education,” prone to “hoping when I wake … I’ll be home again.” I boarded the plane to Connecticut, leaving behind the “dream of Atlanta,” soon to be “free of the Southern breeze, free of magnolia trees and endless sunshine.” The plane sat on the tarmac due to weather delay, but that minor annoyance was as nothing compared to the displeasure occasioned by the tunes of “Wicked,” whose catchy lyrics manifest the worst tropes of modern ethics.
There was the glorification of “loathing” and “popularity,” an insult to “dancing” in its identification with “skimming the surface” and “knowing nothing matters,” and the reduction of relationships to the claim that “we deserve each other.” It is true that my irritation ignored context, as the songs were often intended to develop negative characterizations, and their messages were sometimes complicated by plot. But we remember words set to music more than surrounding dialogue, so their ethical vapidity is worthy of at least one lament.
The song from “Wicked” most reflective of the ravages of modernity is “Defying Gravity.” Elphaba is “through accepting limits,” including “love,” which “comes at much too high a cost.” Instead, she will “try defying gravity,” achieving an independent position from which none can “pull” her “down.” And this position of independence ought to be available to all, for “everyone deserves the chance to fly.” The idolatry of individual freedom reaches its fulfillment with Elphaba’s insistence, “If I’m flying solo, at least I’m flying free.”
But my reflections were more than a little ironic, given that “Defying Gravity” had come into my ears just as my plane left the ground. How could I criticize “Wicked” for being a part of its own culture — the civilization that really did defy gravity! Though we may not fly with broomsticks, the fact that we fly in planes is proof that science is just successfully magic, and magical realms like Oz are not nearly as far removed as we might think. Just as our science endeavors to free us from natural constraints, our politics aims at the establishment of individual freedom — the principle of our greatness, and of our fall. What is the critic — the one disenchanted by the world of our enchanting — to do?
My plane flew above the clouds in the waning dusk. I peered out the window at the soft colored light. Suddenly, to my surprise and delight, rising above the clouds appeared the moon. There was an enchantment not of my own making, not of human hands. She was a gift apposite to my anti-modern malaise — her presence pointed beyond herself to the possibility of grace. By that point Petrarch had moved on to “South Pacific.”
“Some enchanted evening,” I mused, nodding wistfully to the song of the same name.
Peter Johnston is a senior in Saybrook College.