Artwork by David O’Keefe, via
by Christopher Warley
Can the upper class speak? There are signs that it cannot. Maybe this sounds silly, but if you are still in the market for a future for literary criticism, the accurate description of what the upper-class sounds and looks like might be a good place to start. To tell the truth, I am increasingly convinced that literary criticism, by which I mean mostly close reading, is the only thing that can describe the upper class.
I know what the 99% looks like. I was just in London and took pictures of them at St Paul’s Cathedral (I was visiting my boss John Donne). They looked like would-be revolutionaries encamped in tents; like tourists taking pictures of would-be revolutionaries; like journalists trying not to take pictures of the tourists taking pictures; like people on their way to work trying to avoid the entire mess; like English professors on research trips eating Pret a Manger sandwiches (chicken with pesto and arugula). In short, pretty heterogeneous and pretty unremarkable. But I then realized I wouldn’t know the 1% if they were standing next to me. What do they look like? How would I know if that woman over there drinking a diet coke was a billionaire? There are billionaires among us…and they look just like us…
I remember in 2000, when the Republican National Convention was in Philadelphia, there was a protest march including a group called “Billionaires for Bush.” They were all dressed up in top hat and tails, looking like they just stepped off a Monopoly board. And I thought at the time: the 1930s? That is the meanest thing you can think of to represent what a billionaire looks like? It was sad. It is a sadness repeated again on the cover of a the 24 October New Yorker (“Fighting Back,” by Barry Blitt), which also returned to men in top hat and tails and monocles to make visible the upper class. That the men with the top hats looked more-or-less exactly like Eustace Tilley, the New York dandy that is the magazine’s mascot, seemed not entirely to occur to the editors, whose own membership in the 1% might be wondered at from a recent profile in the New York Times of Adam Gopnik’s enthusiasm for expensive restaurants. But though undoubtedly a cultural elitist who writes very well, Adam Gopnik is not, I think, upper class nor the face of the 1%.
Neither is Anthony Bourdain, who was accused by Paula Deen of being an “elitist” after he denounced her for “telling an already obese nation that it’s O.K. to eat food that is killing us.” Her response was a full embrace of ninety-nine percent-dom: “Not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine.” And she added (redundantly, I suppose), that “My friends and I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills.” Anthony Bourdian may be “elitist,” or he may just be funny and provocative, but he is certainly not upper class. And neither is Frank Bruni, who in a hand-wringing editorial (from which I found my quotes of Deen and Bourdain) that left the heavy thinking on the side, denounced the “culinary aristocracy” of which he is an agonized member. You might then turn to Alexander Stille (author of an amazing book about Berlusconi’s Italy) who wrote in an editorial in the Times that the “new elite” is a “paradox,” but it is apparently so paradoxical that it is seemingly unrepresentable.
Could the tax code tell us what they look like? Could we simply look at the bottom line and know the truth? The phrase “1%” implies so. In a widely distributed editorial a few months ago, Warren Buffett called for a tax increase on the super rich. Buffett says that there were 263,883 “households” in 2009 in the United States that had incomes over a million dollars. But those numbers beg a much more difficult question: are the people in the top 20% or top .01% of the income distribution “upper class”? Does super rich (or even sort of rich) = upper class? And if they are upper class, what do they look like? Because if they look like Warren Buffett, I’m not sure they can speak. When you see Warren Buffett on TV, does he look upper class?
A prime difficulty faced by both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street (the two movements have a lot in common), then, is identifying those whom they wish to denounce. Tea drinkers? A street? Wouldn’t it be nicer if you could point to an actual person, or an actual group of people, or—and here is the opening for literary criticism—the image or representation of an upper class? If “tea party” is supposed to mean 99%, and “Wall Street” is supposed to mean 1%, I think there is a problem. The inability to put a face on the paradoxical new elite suggests that a tax bracket is not a very good indicator of class. Numbers and percentages (1%, 99%) only end up repeating the problem: numbers don’t really tell you who the 1% are, because they don’t even begin to address what, exactly, upper class means.
But Caddyshack does—or, at least, it starts to.
It is true, I don’t get out much to see many movies these days, and the TV I watch is almost exclusively TCM or football. But a few months ago I saw a rerun of Caddyshack (1980) on TV and was struck by 1) how dated it looks, and 2) how much I love it. The storyline: Danny, a caddy from lower-class Irish family with so many kids it isn’t clear who they all belong to, wants to go to college and hopes to get the caddy scholarship from the country club he works at. Standing in for the country club is Ted Knight and his Nancy Reagan look-alike wife (elitist, racist, and old); standing in for the nouveau riche is Rodney Dangerfield (ethnic, loud pants, big boat); standing in for the younger, spoiled rich is Chevy Chase (weird, does drugs, a general waste). Off to the side is Bill Murray as a lingering hangover of Vietnam, a sort of comic version of “The Deer Hunter” now working as an assistant groundskeeper. The class struggle among these characters turns inevitably into a golf match. It may be worth noting, for the purposes of health care debates, that Ted Knight’s golfing partner in the final match is a doctor.
But how the struggle resolves is unclear, at least to me. I am not sure who wins the golf match: visually our caddie and his partner Chevy Chase win (the ball dramatically goes in the hole, eventually, and they jump around happy). But if I did the math right the match actually is a tie. And really the end of the match is not the climax of the film: the ball drops into the hole because Bill Murray blows up the golf course with plastic explosives shaped like little animals in an effort to exterminate the gopher who has infiltrated the club from the new condos that Rodney Dangerfield is building across the street. You see the gopher doing a little gopher dance at the end as Kenny Loggins sings “I’m Alright,” but what is alright is a big question. While the movie begins with very clear definitions of the upper class—they are rich, they are uptight, they wear yachting attire, they are in charge, they look like Ted Knight—all that changes by the end as Dangerfield’s two heavies chase Ted Knight to get him to pay up on his bet. Maybe you could say what get blown up in the pursuit of the gopher are clearly demarcated class lines. There is a hilarious scene, worth explicating further, in which the Scottish head grounds keeper pronounces “gopher” and “golfer” exactly the same. That seems to be the primary point of the entire movie: it is hard to tell classes apart.
What looks dated about Caddyshack is itself a yardstick with which you can measure social changes in the United States. What would the future of Caddyshack look like? Are gophers now part of the country club? Is there still a country club at all? What happens to Chevy Chase’s character, who is an upper-class golfer but who hates Ted Knight? Is he now a Democrat calling for tax increases? (btw, what did happen to Chevy Chase?) And Danny, the working-class kid who is really good at golf but who is not going to get a college scholarship at the end—does he start working as a stock broker, or does he end up working in the lumber yard he is trying to escape? After “This Old House,” does anyone think of a lumber yard as strictly lower class anymore, or has it become neo-artisan? The golfers I know—a limited number, true—are descendents of Danny; they are all very blue collar. Or Spaulding, the booger-eating son of Ted Knight: after graduating from Princeton or Dartmouth or Middlebury or wherever, what would he do? Who among them would now count as upper class, and why? If you were to remake Caddyshack today, what could take the place of a country club as symbol of upper-classness? The bizarre side-plots involving Lacey Underall and Maggie O’Hooligan, which seem to have been cut in the making of the movie to include scenes with super stars Murray and Chase, are fun to imagine: Maggie as queer theorist? Lacey as cool corporate CEO?
I was hoping for an insightful article about Caddyshack, but the MLA database brings back no hits at all. Maybe that tells you one of the things wrong with literary criticism today. “Here is contemporary literature, waiting for its criticism; where are the professors of literature?” That’s what John Crowe Ransom had to say in 1937 in “Criticism, Inc.” Anyway, if anyone knows of a good article about Caddyshack, I’d like to see it.
It seems to me that what gets blown up at the end of Caddyshack is the very idea of the clear class differences that are the premise that set the plot in motion. Those clear differences were as much a formal device as they were an attempt to represent anything; they were never historically accurate but were, nevertheless, somehow necessary for the fiction to operate. Clear class difference is the fiction of the fiction, so to speak, the imaginary real thing that the film can represent and play with. And yet that representation is nevertheless still a presentation, what Germans call Darstellung. And in that sense, the film tells me that it is the fact of the blowing up that you have to start with to think about class, not the comforting image of Ted Knight on his new sail boat. Class begins when Caddyshack ends. The movie does not end with socialism. What it does end with is hard to say.
Anyway, here is the problem for Billionaires for Bush, or the tea-partiers and street occupiers, twenty years after Caddyshack: is the upper class unrepresentable? I suspect the group turned to the Monopoly board because in 2000 there was no clear sense of what a billionaire looked like—parading along dressed up like Warren Buffett might very well make people think they were seeing a walking ad for a sale on suits at Men’s Warehouse. And what about in 2011? Who is upper class now? David Carr recently pointed to Craig Dubow, retired head (or looter, depending on your point of view) of Gannet Newspapers. Bill Gates wears Dockers and New Balance. How about Mark Zuckerberg? Have country clubs turned into hoodies? The Social Network is obviously a movie obsessed with class (as an alum of BU, I am especially found of the opening scene), but it is not clear to me that Zuckerberg replaces the Winklevosses as the face of Harvard and the upper class. Does Harvard=upper class? Probably a little bit, but certainly not in the same way it used to—surely that is part of the point of The Social Network. The Winklevosses are an update on Ted Knight: they may be real, but they are also a formal necessity, a fiction of fiction, for the plot. They are not the 1%, which may be one of reason they keep trying to sue Zuckerberg.
So my question: is there an upper class anymore, or are there merely rich people who aren’t really all that different? That was part of the point of the old story about Hemingway and Fitzgerald: F: The rich are different than you and me. H: Yes, they have more money. Are “rich” and “upper class” synonyms? I don’t think so. Surely one of the few things that might provide an answer to that question is…literature (Fitzgerald and Hemingway certainly had a lot to say on the matter). Or, more precisely, careful readings of literature. If class is not something that is quantifiable, something that is not simply reducible to numbers, how else could you see class at all, except through reading collapsing representations, that is, reading moments like the explosions at the end of Caddyshack?
And my second question: besides The Social Network, what would a slow reader slowly read in order to see the upper class, or, better yet, to see the reason you can’t see them?
Bill Murray as Carl Spackler in Caddyshack, Warner Bros., 1980
Piece originall published at Arcade |