Why a four-year-old child could understand this report! Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can’t make head or tail of it. – Groucho Marx
You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test. – George W. Bush
At the beginning of this essay I mentioned that I was pondering several oddly related items that had come to my attention in a short period of time. The first was a real estate transaction. Here is the second: forty years after seeing the original 1979 release of Hal Ashby’s film Being There, I happened to watch it again.
A childlike, naïve, utterly innocent, illiterate, perhaps mentally retarded man named Chance (he has no apparent surname), has never left his wealthy guardian’s home. He has lived a peaceful, nearly solitary existence, cared for by servants, tending the walled garden and watching television. His only mode of connecting with the world outside that he’s never actually seen is the TV remote that he constantly wields to change channels. But he is forced out into that world when his guardian dies.
Chance the gardener has a “chance” encounter with a tycoon’s young wife who mis-hears his name and mistakes him for a cultured businessman with a mysterious, untraceable background named “Chauncey Gardiner.” Chance has learned genteel manners from his guardian; and watching television constantly has given him a superficial idea of social interaction and appropriate gestures. In conversation, he repeats his companion’s key phrases, maintains eye contact, nods thoughtfully, and remarks, “I understand,” and “I know what you’re saying” with apparent empathy. Everyone he meets interprets his simple answers and childish observations as profound wisdom. They take his confused questions as jokes or as pithy folk wisdom, even when he expresses almost no preference other than “I like to watch.”
The Tycoon, his wife, his associates, the national media and eventually even the Nixon look-alike President mistake his horticultural mumblings for sagacious metaphors about life, politics and economics. Chance unwittingly becomes a major celebrity overnight, entrancing the same TV culture that had nurtured him.
The film forces us to address how much Chance’s situation relates to real life. His accidental success, due to little more than the right clothing and the ability to ape televised mannerisms, begins to bear a strange resemblance to the success of actual public figures, and to our readiness to hear what we want to hear. Critic Matthew Lucas writes:
…America becomes willing to give the keys to the kingdom to a man who is wholly unqualified and without the proper understanding of how the government, or the world in general, works. Sound familiar? In that regard, Being There feels eerily prescient (at the time it was interpreted as a comment on the rise of Ronald Reagan…oh how far we’ve come).
In our de-mythologized culture, this is a supreme example of the cult of celebrity. Chauncey quickly becomes the object of desire (for wisdom, companionship and even sex) – the blank projection screen – of nearly everyone in the film. Mark Harris writes:
We invest people with unspeakable power by reinventing them as reflections of our hopes and our vanities, and it is thus terrifyingly possible for us to endow a complete imbecile who watches TV all day with qualities he has never possessed. This idea will never go out of style; as a cautionary tale, Being There is elastic enough to feel as if it is perpetually about our moment…
But the film is asking us to look much deeper, to consider how once, as William Wordsworth wrote, we came “trailing clouds of glory,” and how much of our original brilliance we have given away. Late in the Reagan years (1988), Robert Bly avoided psychological jargon with his A Little Book on the Human Shadow:
When we were one or two years old we had what we might visualize as a 360-degree personality…but one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like (it)…Behind us we (developed) an invisible bag, and the parts of us our parents didn’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag. By the time we go to school, our bag is quite large…we take our anger and put it in the bag…sexuality goes in the bag…we spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourselves to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again…Our parents rejected who we were before we could talk, so the pain of the rejection is probably stored in some pre-verbal place…we often have as a result little energy…every part of our personality that we do not love will become hostile to us…
We will eventually need to see the contents of the bag. We do it by first seeing them in other people. This is how individuals and nations retain their sense of innocence. The process of projection is the foundation of the cult of celebrity:
The bigger the bag, the less the energy…we can only see the contents of our own bag by throwing them innocently, as we say, out into the world…
Only a few characters in Being There see through Chance’s innocent charade. One is a lawyer, but even he projects his own ambition on Chance, thinking that Chance has been deliberately conning everyone. A second is the tycoon’s doctor, who, understanding that the tycoon is dying happily, declines to disenchant him. Another is Louise, an elderly African American woman who had served Chance’s old benefactor. She is the voice of the Other. Watching Chauncey on TV from a retirement home, she knows who he actually is, and what white privilege is all about:
It’s for sure a white man’s world in America. Look here: I raised that boy since he was the size of a piss-ant. And I’ll say right now, he never learned to read and write. No, sir. Had no brains at all. Was stuffed with rice pudding between the ears. Shortchanged by the Lord, and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you’ve gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want.
America laughed to keep from crying, because Reagan was already manipulating our fear of losing our white privilege. Bly commented:
People who are passive toward their projected material contribute to the danger of nuclear war, because every bit of energy that we don’t actively engage with language or art is floating somewhere in the air above the United States, and Reagan can use it…
Reagan the politician (or his handlers) took great advantage of this condition. But Reagan the man, like Chance, liked to watch. Like Chance, he increasingly mistook what he saw on screens for reality, or what he did on the screen for what he had actually done. This was the former actor (as I write in Memory, Myth and The National Mall),
…who had remained in Hollywood during World War II (and) insisted that he’d personally photographed the liberation of Nazi death camps. It was a unique form of memory, composed of scenes from movies Reagan had watched, movies of black-and- white morality in which Americans (white Americans) were clearly the good guys.
Towards the end of the 1985 Beirut hostage crisis, Reagan allegedly told the press: “Boy, after seeing Rambo [First Blood II] last night, I know what to do next time this happens.” He liked to watch.
In our demythologized age history can replicate the fictions that comment on that same history. As Reagan began to show evidence of advancing Alzheimer’s disease well before leaving office, the resemblance to Chance got a bit spooky. CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl described a 1986 meeting:
Reagan didn’t seem to know who I was. He gave me a distant look with those milky eyes and shook my hand weakly…Oh, my, he’s gonzo, I thought. (Then, as Reagan regained his alertness) I had come that close to reporting that Reagan was senile.
By the end, even though the adulation of his “base” had not flagged, the Great Communicator appeared to be something of a Holy Fool himself. And the public was getting used to seeing nothing other than Holy Fools – or Con Men – in the White House.