What fun these huns!

Russell Baker

October 19, 1993|By Russell Baker

IN A decadent age it is social death to seem undecadent, so let me make it absolutely clear that I am just as happy as the next person about living in an era when Sylvester Stallone can appear on the cover of a $3 magazine wearing nothing but his pelt.

All I said when the magazine was thrown in my lap was that it was all right by me if Sylvester wanted to do it, but you would never catch me doing it.

Normally I wouldn't have said anything so unfashionable, but the magazine hit my lap while I was being distracted.

The distraction was a television commercial, if "commercial" is the right word, for Elizabeth Taylor advising all humanity to use condoms, though not recommending a particular brand.

The right term is probably "public service message," since Elizabeth's advice was being issued to promote public health just as Charlton's brief television messages, always spoken on behalf of all guns rather than one particular gun, were issued to promote public safety.

Note my refusal to call Elizabeth and Charlton "Miss Taylor" and "Mr. Heston." Decadence isn't just being naked on slick magazine covers and saying "condoms" without checking first to see if Grandmother has left the room.

Decadence requires mastering a thousand details. One is learning to call strangers by their first names. Thus, phoning Charlton Heston at dinnertime to sell him a new credit card, the only possible opening is, "Hi, Charlton, how you doing tonight?"

Before decadence, salesmen hesitated to use this chummy greeting on strangers whose dinners they had just interrupted and whose fondness for firearms was well advertised on television. With the triumph of decadence, however, if Charlton takes forceful action he invites ridicule as a fussbudget who thinks louts would profit from instruction in good manners.

The onset of decadence has put the shoe on the other foot and the gun in the other hand. Typically, it is the oaf whose finger is now on the trigger.

Typically, he is ready to squeeze it when arguing with stuffed shirts on points of etiquette.

a result, decadence has had a slight quieting effect on our streets since decadent-age motorists wise in the arts of decadence-survival know that fusillades may finish them off if they toot a car horn when other cars are in the neighborhood.

One drawback about being finished off in the age of decadence is that the person who did it will probably show no remorse. Newspapers are filled with stories of such people, many scarcely old enough to be out of short pants, who, brought to justice for finishing off people, depress judges, lawyers and reporters by showing no remorse.

This shows how behind-the-times judges, lawyers and reporters can be, for showing remorse is definitely undecadent. I first noticed this a few years back while puzzling over a new trend in fashion photography.

Whereas fashion models had previously been photographed to look as empty of humanity as show-window mannequins, now they were beginning to fill papers and magazines with presences that were slightly threatening.

It was hard for a long while to determine what emotional undercurrent was producing these disturbing new facial expressions on fashion models. Some looked surly, some contemptuous, some angry and some looked dangerously "capable of anything," as hack writers used to say of psychotic killers.

What was obvious about all of them was that they had never smiled, never would smile, and considered all smilers too innocent to understand that decadence had come to stay.

These new photographees were beyond smiling. They didn't give a tinker's hoot how the customer felt about them. They were remorselessly indifferent.

They were the style setters for today's young killers. Showing no remorse had become the style of decadence, which is natural, since decadence, which is decay, results from the death of feeling.

So here is Sylvester Stallone looking us right in the eye, naked as a jaybird from tip to toe, with a face that registers nothing, not even the sheepish smile that would earn our forgiveness for a man who at least knows he is being silly because he lives in an age that requires it.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times and host on public television's "Masterpiece Theater."

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