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The Johnston Letter, Volume 5, Number 4
Nobel Oblige

Merce Cunningham, photographed by Julie Lemberger.
Photo ©Julie Lemberger.

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2009 Jill Johnston

When Merce died, Ingrid said my generation is dying out. That's good to know in a way, because my generation was not very communicative. I put it in the past tense, although plenty of us are still around. I wrote these words before everyone woke up to the news that Norway honored our president for his communications skills. For him to be honored with the peace prize is to insult our intelligence, when Mr. Obama is currently overseeing two wars, and threatening two countries with sanctions if they don't stop developing a single nuclear warhead of which we have thousands ourselves, even in countless bases around the world. But communications are important, and our commander-in-chief has an unprecedented rhetorical gift. Long before Obama demonstrated his gift on our national political stage and beyond, he showed what he could do with words in writing, impressing even writers with a book about his origins called "Dreams from My Father." I hailed his book in a book of my own published in 2005, saying he "writes beautifully," and that he "placed his personal story without any embarrassment in the center of his ambitions." I wondered if he would "die in the Senate the way most senators do," then presumed "how great it would be to have Obama succeed GW."* I don't go down easily over my predictions and heroizing, but judging from how friends of mine are holding on to their own hopes for Obama, I know I sound preemptively pessimistic. Actually it's worse than that. I think he's finished. But I thought that in February or March when I saw a big photo of him in the Times standing in position like the prow of a ship, his joint chiefs of staff arrayed behind him in a V formation. Call the prow a figurehead. As such, he was intact then, but now he's as tattered as the lady who forged the seas in the fictional "Surprise" of "The Master and Commander" when the boat was taken off guard in a fog by a much bigger French ship, c.1805.  Obama can no more stop the wars he inherited in the Middle East than his joint chiefs of staff can stop the defense industry. I see him lost to us, and to himself, the moment he was inaugurated. I imagine the bible he swore on (Lincoln's I believe) had secret instructions tucked into it for his new role as commander-in-chief. Before the last inaugural dance was over, he knew where the Button was, and where and when he was supposed to use it. It may have been slipped into his pocket before he got to his new house to sleep. If so, he would've placed it on a bedside stand next to his watch and his Blackberry for the night. It's no wonder he deploys his expensive private airplane for personal trips. What does he have, after all, except his perks? He's a bit like the queen. Only a bit -- because she was to the palace born, so she can die there. Obama will donate his 1.4 mill Nobel cash prize to charity. That's nice to hear, but we can do the math. More than twice that amount was the cost of his unsuccessful trip to Copenhagen to lobby for his hometown as base for the 2016 Olympics, a trip we paid for. There's an identical backup plane following AF One, two armored presidential limousines, security forces and in this case another plane carrying Michelle and the kids. The total cost would provide a reliable living for a number of families for the rest of their lives. An official excuse was provided by Obama's 25 minutes meeting with General McChrystal, flown in from somewhere, probably Afghanistan. Ingrid thought it unbecoming of Obama not to make time in Copenhagen to meet her queen. They could have shared a cigarette together. Rahm Emanuel jokingly referred to Obama's "Oslo beats Copenhagen" moment. And since Oslo won't be able to afford his trip to receive his prize, we'll pay for that too. My generation, which is dying out, as Ingrid notes, was not very communicative, but we did create a revolution. And Merce was a figurehead. Unlike Obama, Merce and the rest of us in New York came strictly from nowhere. It can be essential in a revolution to be unidentifiable. We were sprung fully grown like from Zeus's head, with family affiliations to other writers and artists. This meant that the work was everything, the life a background you might suspect existed but that had no bearing whatever on the artifacts shown in lofts, on stages, in church spaces and galleries, between frames or on the streets. Merce, for instance, had no parents or birthplace. The books I read, beginning in the 1950s, had been outstandingly abstract, even the novels (I never identified with any characters), but most explicitly those in art history and literary criticism. Slowly, for me anyway, lives heaved into view. After a pure astral experience, i.e. not induced by LSD or mushrooms or the like, I found things in my own head more interesting than all the things I had been seeing "out there." Undergoing a revolution that was personal, I left the public one I had helped create in writing about the work of Merce and his friends and many more. Just recently, I was reminded of my serious defection when one of Merce's friends told me in so many words that my writings were no longer interesting when they concerned mainly myself. Luckily for me, the men who owned my newspaper were in a different "family" circle, and didn't care if I wrote about goldfish or manhole covers. Years later, my defection turned into a liability when upon re-entering a career of writing about artists, I sought wherever possible to integrate their lives with their work. Now it's easier to contemplate the fortunes of Obama, whose communications skills have brought him to a precipice. No longer a man in search of a father, he looks like a lost son, kidnapped first by the joint chiefs, now by a European institution in a stroke of Nobel Oblige, prescribing something he can't bring about. Obama may be a man of peace, but his nation is addicted to war, and he risks his life if he tries to do more than just talk about peace. He must of course talk about it -- one of the established smoke-screens for war. So what does he believe on his own by now? Does he believe anything at all on his own? Did he ever? His rhetoric sounds empty to me. In the vacuum, if such it is, I'm tempted to regress to predictions and heroizing. Besides affairs of the military, we know he is on schedule to posture over finances and the banks, unemployment, health and insurance, and such lesser items as the Defense of Marriage Act and the scandalous Clinton era's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy afflicting military personnel, and still lowlier issues, involving women and abortion, and the abduction of children. So what can we imagine as an authentic future for him? My crystal ball has fogged up. If I threw it down on a concrete surface, its pieces might arrange themselves like tea leaves into a new idea or two -- spelling out perhaps: wait for something dramatic to happen, something totally unforeseen and unexpected, and look to the man who is still searching for his father to come to life. In the meantime, I might acquire a piano, in other words twiddle my thumbs. I say "acquire" because I can't afford one that I would like, nor do we even have the space for it, and I saw one advertised on a tree for nothing. I called the lady who was giving it away, and she said it's a big upright, missing some ivories, and hasn't been tuned for years. She doesn't want to throw it out. I guessed she figured it would be a lot cheaper for her if someone else hired a truck to remove it. It's a WW Redcliffe Boston USA, a make I never heard of. I should contact David Bradshaw to come and shoot it to death -- an art form in which he specializes. I covered one of his shootings in the course of my return to art criticism. I covered Merce at home February 9, 2006 in my journal. An artist took me there for dinner, and it was a real pleasure. We communicated personally with great ease. He didn't stand on any ceremony, i.e. no career arrogance was evident. He couldn't stand at all any more, except to rise from his wheelchair and hold on briefly to a walker. I'm not sure about that. I understand he was taken by wheelchair every day to his studio at Westbeth where he worked with his last dance company until a week or so before he died, when he got too tired to go on. He was once awarded America's Nobel for artists, the Kennedy Center thing. No oblige was involved. I suppose we shouldn't begrudge the "entangled giant" -- as Obama has been called in his imprisoned executiveship -- his hometown longings in AF One outings on behalf of Chicago, or his appearance at the All-Star baseball game, rushing onto the field to throw out the first ball in a Chicago White Sox jacket. I'm concentrating on walking myself, a new revolution in my personal histories. A lady around these parts who knows about my troubles saw me on a pathway one afternoon and said from her car window, "It's a nice day for a walk."

*See pages 144-45 in "At Sea On Land: Extreme Politics."


©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here. To read more of Jill Johnston on the Dance Insider, click here.

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