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By Philip Stevick
“In or about December, 1910,” Virginia Woolf famously wrote, “ human character changed.” Curiously, commentators on that passage never linger over its tone. The essay in which the sentence appears is polemical and deeply felt and the sentence most certainly means what it says. Consider, however, the legalistic phrase “in or about,” not a phrase likely to occur to the impressionistic, lyrical mind of Woolf, implying, here, a tongue-in-cheek quality, suggesting, with a flourish of irony, the playful notion that a universal transformation of human consciousness occurred roughly within a single month! At once serious and flippant, Woolf’s sentence entertains the plausible appearance that a monumental shift in human sensibility could occur, or could seem to occur, in an implausibly very short time, not as a result of an event—a disaster, a new invention, an act of war, but by some internal dynamic which we cannot understand. It is not the mystery of the change, however, that most engages the mind of Woolf; it is the shortness of time in which the change took place.
A half-century later, John Cheever wrote a story that touches on the same bemused unease, the feeling that profound changes in our shared, general sensibility may not necessarily evolve over time, but can, on occasion, leap abruptly. The story titled “Mene, mene, Tekel, Upharsin,” after the biblical “handwriting on the wall,” lacks all of the frequent apparatus of a Cheever story, the suburban commute, the alcoholic buffer against the world, the perpetual crisis papered over. Yet it achieves a curious power that transcends those customary Cheever stories, stories that will seem in time, despite all of their art and their poignancy, to be period pieces. The narrator, unnamed, has been in Europe for an unspecified time, not short, not long, and is returning to the United States on a much-delayed flight. In Grand Central Station at an odd hour, he goes downstairs to use the men’s room. The partition, he notices, a light brown marble, is covered not with the usual indecencies: crude drawings, phone numbers, erotic invitations; rather it is covered with a meticulous script of an astonishing copiousness, arranged in the manner of the pages of a book. “It had been a day of triumph in Capua,” it begins. “Lentulus, returning with victorious eagles, had amused the populace with the sports of the amphitheater....” What, he reflects in astonishment, could have compelled someone to have copied out many pages of such antique and stylized prose on a subject matter so dramatic but so remote? “Had some profound change in the psyche of my people,” he asks himself, “taken place during my absence?”
In the next few days, he travels in the Midwest, stopping at Indianapolis, and again visits the men’s room, where he finds the wall covered with writing in a fine and precise hand, which he reads against a background of stale air and running water. This time the passage seems like Victorian melodrama, Gothic and overwritten, as if threatening to tip into genteel pornography. Finally, he visits the men’s room on his train to find still another example of copious prose and a sensibility and subject matter astonishingly remote. Back in New York, he attempts to describe what he has seen to three friends, who can make no sense of his account, deciding that he has probably been away too long. There is only a last visit to a men’s room at the airport, waiting for the flight back to France, where there is a fragment of Keats on the wall, and then the night sky out of the airplane window. And Cheever’s strange story, not the ingenious, whimsical invention that it seemed to be, is over, leaving the reader feeling, at the least, rather unsettled.
In both cases, the mere sentence from Woolf, the eccentric story by Cheever, the cultural change is deep and essential and it is very sudden. The change is also decontextualized, neither prepared for nor explained after the fact. And although neither the serene poise of Woolf nor the sophisticated bafflement of Cheever’s speaker says so, such a change is deeply upsetting, especially when, as in the end of Cheever’s story, no one else even seems to notice that the change has occurred.
Let us imagine a parallel scenario, the time being now, more or less. A traveler has been away, shall we say not to France, as in Cheever, but really away, long enough to be keenly interested in what has remained the same and what has changed. Let us imagine our traveler to have been away for, let us say, ten years. Back in our world, he notices that the iconic figures of celebrity culture are almost all different: the famous figures he remembers are mostly forgotten now and a new set of figures has replaced them, none of whom he knows anything about. Traits of speech, fashion, and social behavior have changed. But none of these changes are surprising, nor are they deep or threatening or disorienting in any way. But two changes are absolutely astounding: nothing could have prepared him for them and, seeing them, nothing can account for them.
Full article available in Salmagundi No. 153-154.
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