Saturday, February 25, 2006

Forms of Grace

Jazz critic Stanley Crouch offers a nice dual appreciation of Louis Armstrong and Fred Astaire on Slate. But I was brought up short by this sentence:

He [Astaire] remains more pure than all categories because of his ability, in motion, to transform all things through grace, which is the fundamental dream beneath the gaudy exterior of American civilization.

This describes Astaire's dancing well, I think. But the idea that the transformation of all things through grace is the fundamental American dream strikes me as stunningly counterintuitive. Is "grace" the keynote of the New York skyline, or of Coney Island, Disney World, or the Vegas Strip? Of the great American movies (Godfather, Citizen Kane, Apocalypse Now)? Of rock 'n' roll or hip hop? Of Whitman or Dickinson or Plath? Of Twain or Faulkner? Of Pollock or O'Keeffe? Of R. Crumb or Lenny Bruce?

I don't see it. If I had to choose one word that summarizes what these quintessential American artifacts have in common, I might choose "energy" or "power," or (more darkly) "ambiguity," "irony," "self-destructiveness," or even "violence." But "grace"? I don't get it.

I would like it if the grace of Fred Astaire had laid out a path for American civilization. But in fact, as the years pass, he seems to me more and more peripheral. Few people of my kids' generations (X and Y) seem to care for him at all. Thirty years from now, I suspect his name will evoke very little for the average American. Which is a shame.

Meanwhile, Mary-Jo brings home from Sephora a tiny packet of "perfume solid" bearing the brand name "Amazing Grace" and adorned with the slogan, "in the end, it all comes down to one word. grace."

Her comment: "Of course that's what it all comes down to, because it's the brand name and they want you to buy it." (Which she did, but despite the slogan, not because of it.)

Maybe this is the sense in which "grace" is the fundamental dream of American civilization: grace as marketing.

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