Friday, December 21, 2007

From The Polar Express To The Magic Bus . . . And Back

My family and I were watching The Polar Express and, me being me, I got to thinking about some weird juxtapositions, certain social . . . ironies? . . . involved. The story takes place at some point during the 1950's; had Tom Hanks' character survived Saving Private Ryan, one could almost imagine this as some kind of weird sequel.

The biggest trauma older baby boomers faced was the assassination of President Kennedy. In many ways, that event - which revealed the dark underbelly of America; the reality of the persistence of an evil that transcends our attempts to mechanize it, socialize it, bureaucratize it, and organize it out of existence - was the political equivalent of the fantasy of no longer believing in Santa Claus. While much of the Kennedy myth was postmortem, there is no doubt that his appeal stemmed in part from his own inspiring desire to be believed more than what he was. What he was, in fact, was a pill-popping philanderer, suffering debilitating pain, with limited social vision and political instincts. What he presented was a vital, vigorous, progressive, faithful powerful presence - staring down the Red Bear, either in Berlin or Havana. His destruction of South Vietnamese infrastructure during 1962 and in to 1963, with the help of RVN President Ngo Dihn Diem, led to the first mass protest against the war - in Vietnam, when a Buddhist monk, protesting the anti-Buddhist policies of the Catholic Ngo, immolated himself. Kennedy acquiesced when he realized that Ngo might actually balk at the lengths he, Kennedy, believed necessary to end the Viet Cong insurrection.

In much the same way, the whole Santa Claus thing can be seen as an allegory for lost innocence. As plaid out in the film Polar Express, we have a nine or ten year old boy who is facing a kind of crisis of faith. He has certain facts that challenge his belief in the red-suited one; yet he has a desire not to surrender the belief in the face of contradictory facts. Given the opportunity to take a trip, he goes, never quite accepting it as real until confronted by Santa himself.

Yet, even after the climactic moment, he realizes he has failed - in losing the bell he loses the token of proof necessary to support his belief in the event itself. The discovery of the bell under the tree is, in some ways, like a resurrection moment. The reality of the trip may have been in question; but it is a reality that can be supported now by nothing so huge as a small bell.

I still picture the boy, the young girl, and the rest of the children on the train, ten or twelve years later, sitting around in dashikis, passing a hash pipe, all in long hair, some of the boys in beards, listening to "White Rabbit" or "The Other One" or "This is the End", discussing a sit-in, or march. That, too, is a reality that, with the passing of years, must seem as much a dream as a trip to the North Pole. Yet, with the passing of years, the radicals who chanted "F-U-C-K" along with Country Joe MacDonald at Yasgur's Farm looks back not to the idyll in August, but to the train trip - to a point not when the loss of innocence is flaunted but when lost innocence is confronted with the challenge that innocence does in fact have a basis, perhaps not in reality, but in dreams just as powerful as reality.

In our time of political and social integration, in many ways I believe that it is necessary to hold these two, different yet related, traveling experiences in tension. Those who danced naked in the rain at Woodstock are now approaching retirement, and it is a natural human tendency to revel in the nostalgia of childhood, especially at Christmas. Yet, I think that recalling both group travels - both partly within the mind of the traveler - are necessary. Both are important. Part of my own disgust with much of the counter-culture and political radicalism of the late-1960's lies in the fact that, belief having been shattered in Dallas and in the pages of Camus, Sartre, the novels of John Barth, and the rice-paddies of South Vietnam, belief itself became something akin to surrender to a corrupt, criminal system. Without belief, no political process can long hold together; without belief, even in the rightness of one's own political, social, and cultural instincts (even if they are counter what is currently acceptable), there is no way to sustain the hard work necessary to keep working for change. As senescence sets in, it seems that The Polar Express shows that the desire for belief is still there. I just wonder if those same young senior citizens will turn, with time, to reacquiring the fire in the belly, if perhaps not the fashion and preference for opiates, that energized them when the first blush of youth had fallen from their ideals.

Virtual Tin Cup

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