By MICHIAL FARMER.
I hear you saying, “Hey, the city’s all right”
When you only read about it in books
Spend all your money getting so convinced
That you never even bother to look
— Elvis Costello, “Welcome to the Working Week”
I’VE SEEN DISNEY’S 1953 Peter Pan several dozen times in my life, and since childhood I have been substantially more interested in the parts of the movie set in London than in the parts in the children’s fantasy of Neverland. After the sequence in which Wendy, John, and Michael fly with Peter off Big Ben, the movie becomes substantially less appealing to me. Why, I’ve wondered since I had the words to adequately wonder it, would the Darlings want to leave Edwardian Bloomsbury in favor of this silly world of stereotypical pirates and Indians?
MY FAVORITE AUTHOR in elementary school was Judy Blume. I devoured her novels, beginning with the child-friendly Freckle Juice and continuing into a number that I was probably too young to read and certainly too young to understand. My favorites, though, were the age-appropriate Tales of a Fourth-Grade Nothing and its sequel, Superfudge. Blume, I believe, updates their chronological setting every decade or so, but the copies I read were set in the 1970s in New York City—hardly the city’s best decade. There’s a passage in one of the books in which Peter, the narrator, explains what to do if you’re mugged. I didn’t know what mugging was, but I knew to take the money out of your wallet rather than handing the whole thing over. I still carry paper money in my wallet, just in case.
In Superfudge, Peter’s father, who works at an advertising agency, gets an opportunity to move to Princeton, New Jersey, for some reason. The adults jump at the opportunity to escape the city that Gerald Ford had recently told to drop dead. Peter is more skeptical, and I was with him: I always preferred Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing to Superfudge.
I FIRST READ T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” my junior year of high school, and I was hooked immediately. I was especially drawn to its descriptions of the London that the narrator walks through on the way to the tedious party that serves as the main setting:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep. (ll. 15-22)(ll. 15-22)
When I read further in Eliot’s Collected Poems, I discovered the “Preludes” and its even bleaker description:
The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots. (ll. 1-8)
I say “bleaker,” but the truth is, I didn’t—and don’t—experience them as bleak. They energize me.
I’VE HAD A number of terrible years, but one of the worst was the summer of 2002. I was living alone in rural Georgia, having stayed at college after everyone else went home for the break. I worked nights at a chain hotel about twenty miles away and lived in a shabby apartment built in the 1940s and lacking such luxuries as air-conditioning. (It was 95 degrees during the day and not less than 80 at night.) I was nearly friendless, and I was terribly hung up on a classmate; I slept all morning and puttered about aimlessly in the late afternoon and evening, preparing to go to work for minimum wage at that crummy hotel.
For a few weeks, my boss farmed me out to an even crummier hotel an hour away, which had lost their third-shift regular for some reason. This hotel wasn’t open all night; it closed at 3 a.m., meaning that I only worked half a shift, meaning I only got half a paycheck for those few weeks. (Looking back, it seems clear that I was chosen for this honor because I was the worst employee of the hotel.) I’d drive the deserted highway back through the darkened pine forests at 70 miles per hour, singing along to Bruce Springsteen’s Greatest Hits at the top of my lungs. I still think the most poetic lyric in rock history comes from “Thunder Road”: “There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away / They haunt this duty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets.” I’d shout it out to the absent object of my desire as if volume and sincerity could make her love me. On my nights off, I had to keep the same cracked sleep schedule, so I’d be up all night in my hot apartment without television or internet. Instead I’d write my own songs—uniformly desperate and depressing, without any of the poetry of “Thunder Road.”
It was, as I said, among the worst periods of my life—and yet when I look back on it, it’s with fondness. I don’t exactly want to go back there, but I see a pleasurable quality in it that I was totally blind to at the time.
WHAT DO THESE examples have in common? One’s immediate temptation is to say nostalgia, but only the fourth example is, strictly speaking, nostalgia, in the sense that it’s the only one that involves my wanting to return to a Garden of Eden from which time and age have ejected me. And even that is only a partial case of nostalgia, since, as I have said, I don’t want to actually have that time back, and I don’t think it was better than my current life. Nor are these examples connected by what we might call antiquarian feeling, that “Miniver Cheevy” desire to inhabit an earlier, purer era. The Springsteen song and the Blume book are separated from what was then my present reality much more by space than by time, and at any rate none of them really denigrate my own reality in the way that antiquarian feeling tends to do. What’s more, the things I’m drawn to—the tedium and helplessness of the Darlings’ life in their Bloomsbury nursery; the muggers of Manhattan; the air pollution of World War I-era London; the forgotten beaches and stagflation of Springsteen’s New Jersey; my own loneliness and despair—are scarcely presented to me as beautiful and desirable things, as the Middle Ages are to poor Miniver Cheevy. My attraction to them is, quite literally, ill-advised.
I’m tempted to call this phenomenon aesthetic distance, except that that term already exists and refers to a work’s ability or inability to draw a person into its world. What I am talking about is in some respects the opposite of aesthetic distance: if I am drawn into the world of Peter Pan or “Thunder Road,” it’s in a way that’s not sanctioned by their creators. Let’s call it kallic distance instead, from the Greek word for beauty. Kallic distance is a sort of misreading—more unconscious than willful—of an artist’s intentions, such that what she meant to be a critique reads as praise instead. The process is made possible by a sort of inexperience on the reader’s part, whether due to geography or chronology: because I’m not subject to the limitations of a Bloomsbury childhood, the Darlings’ nursery becomes its own sort of Neverland for me. Or more accurately, the process is made possible by a sort of overexperience on the artist’s part, an overfamiliarity that can only breed contempt. This imbalance of experience results in new vistas opening up to the reader: because my view of London can never be Eliot’s, the yellow smog he figures as a rutting tomcat has a soft, romantic valence for me. Because there was no chance of my being mugged in my quiet Atlanta suburb, the prospect did not worry me but excited me—I didn’t exactly want to be mugged, but if I were, it would mean I would be enjoying the features of urban life Peter took for granted: walking to the movies, having a doorman, riding in an elevator.
I’VE PROVIDED MULTIPLE examples because kallic distance comes in different varieties. The Springsteen example is in some ways the purest: he’s writing about a world he was intimately familiar with, the world he grew up in, a world that had precious little to recommend itself to him. But that world is unfamiliar to me, since I have no experience of the empty, cold beaches on the Jersey shore after the tourist season has ended. My family visited the sweltering, crowded Gulf Coast of Florida every summer, and so a deserted, out-of-season beach carries a certain sort of magic in my imagination. I’ve never been to New Jersey and thus have no desire to escape it—which is of course what “Thunder Road,” along with “Born to Run” and many other beloved Springsteen songs, is all about. So I am free to see the beauty of the broken shoreline and its husks of rusted cars, even though I might be depressed by it if it were in front of me, especially if I spent two and a half decades there, as Springsteen did.
The story is similar for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” with the difference that Eliot did not have decades to be disenchanted with London before he wrote it. Though the poem was first published in 1915, it was written in 1910 and 1911, when he was living in Paris and Boston. No doubt he had familiarity with London, but not the familiarity that proverbially breeds contempt, and the descriptions in “Prufrock” are to a large extent imaginary, perhaps inspired by other cities of his acquaintance. The supposed nastiness of the physical descriptions are likely the product of Eliot’s depression, or at least Prufrock’s. We are clued in to this exteriorization of mental states by the poem’s famous opening: “Let us go, then, you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherised upon a table” (ll. 1-3). As a teenager, I had very little experience with any city, limited to periodic family excursions down the clogged interstates to see a baseball game or Sesame Street on Ice, and I had no experience of walking through a city. What’s more, my parents hate cities, especially big cities, so there was a rebellious quality to Eliot’s descriptions. No wonder “Prufrock” captivated me. And my later experiences with cities, including my negative experiences, were at least partially conditioned by my reading and rereading Eliot, such that I am still inclined to see the telltale signs of urban decay as a species of magic. It also helps that my reading took place in the late ‘90s, after the EPA had cleaned up much of America’s worst air pollution. I knew fog but not smog, so I couldn’t imagine the no doubt noxious odor of Eliot’s “yellow smoke.”
The Blume novels are a little different, in that Peter loves his city, and Blume obviously does, too. Whatever the advantages of Princeton and the disadvantages of New York, the Hatchers return to the latter at the end of Superfudge, and Blume clearly means it to be a happy ending. I rather suspect that my longstanding romanticization of large cities has as much to do with Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing as with anything else. And yet the kallic distance between Gwinnett County, Georgia, in 1990 and Manhattan in 1970 was great enough that even the things Blume meant as negative aspects, like the omnipresent threat of mugging, I received as largely positive. In some ways, Blume did her job too well: in selling me (and no doubt other suburban children) on urban life, she taught me to paper over its more unsavory characteristics. I wonder if being mugged would cause the whole kallic edifice to collapse. I hope I never find out.
Peter Pan is also a strange case because my kallic distance from it is double. The writers and animators who produced the film did not have Edwardian childhoods, and so their presentation of that space and time was already distanced from J.M. Barrie’s novel and play. Thus it’s not at all clear to me that they intended for me to despise the nursery, as the Darlings themselves did. (Their distance from Edwardian Bloomsbury was chronologically about the same as mine from the Blume novels, and geographically it was substantially greater.) So Peter Pan the film is built on a misreading of Peter Pan the novel and play, which I then misread even further. I do wonder if my preference for the more realistic sections of the film is the product of my own stunted and concrete imagination, or whether the animators merely failed to make Neverland interesting to someone whose pop culture was so different from their own—but the effect is the same either way.
WHAT DOES KALLIC distance, as a phenomenon, say about human beings and our relations with the world? It’s tempting to say that it proves the truth of that old cliché, “The grass is always greener on the other side.” In other words, the situation we find ourselves in—whatever it might be—will always be somewhat tedious, and other situations, however tedious to those inhabiting them, will always be attractive to us. Human beings, as Blaise Pascal puts it, “do not know that it is the chase, and not the quarry, which they seek” (§139). There’s some truth to this explanation: humanity’s restlessness and insatiability are well-documented and undeniable. But it turns kallic distance into something sheerly subjective—or, more to the point, it turns beauty itself into something sheerly subjective.
I’d prefer, therefore, to see kallic distance as an expression of something that is objectively there in the scenario the artist portrays, the scenario away from which she means to frighten us. In other words, my distance from 1970s Asbury Park or 1910s London allows me to bypass the uglier parts of their milieux and to see a beauty that is actually present, though invisible to the artist, whose familiarity with it blinds her to it. Art, after all, is at least partially about re-presenting the world in such a way that we see it with fresh eyes. The poet in particular re-enchants the quotidian world by turning it 25 or 30 degrees. What the phenomenon of kallic distance suggests is that this process happens more or less without the artist’s permission, even against her will: the mere act of presentation reveals beauty that might otherwise be difficult or impossible to see. But it does not, I repeat, create that beauty, nor does the spectator’s unfamiliarity. It reveals something that most of us are aware of only intermittently, if at all, which is that our world is fairly bursting at the seams with beauty, if we only had the eyes to see it. Or, as a medieval philosopher might put it, beauty is a quality of Being itself.
Kallic distance is not a form of nostalgia, nor of antiquarian feeling, but it does lie at the root of these phenomena, and perhaps it reveals that they are not as nasty or as noxious as they are commonly supposed to be. They are, if used properly, a means of seeing something that is genuinely there—though I hasten to add that they are frequently used improperly. At its world-enchanting best, kallic distance ought to provoke us not to imaginatively escape the dusty and tedious world around us, but to find the beauty in it that we might otherwise be in danger of missing. It ought to encourage us, in other words, to see our own lives as a kind of poem.
Eliot, T.S. The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950. Harcourt Brace, 1967.
Pascal, Blaise. The Works of Blaise Pascal. Black’s Readers Service, 1941.
Michial Farmer is the author of Imagination and Idealism in John Updike’s Fiction (Camden House, 2017) and the translator of Gabriel Marcel’s Thirst (Cluny, forthcoming). His essays have appeared in Front Porch Republic, PopMatters, and America Magazine. He lives in Atlanta.