Medieval People Again

July 12, 1994|By RICHARD RODRIGUEZ

On the day Richard Nixon died, Hillary Clinton met reporters in the White House to answer questions about her personal finances and the Whitewater controversy. The First Lady appeared on national television looking cool and composed in an outfit that was color coordinated with a nearby bowl of spring flowers. Mrs. Clinton sat under a large painting of President Lincoln.

Richard Nixon, on the other hand, was notoriously awkward on television. His career almost ended that long ago night when the entire nation saw him perspire during the debate with the smooth, the handsome, the affable Kennedy.

How much do you trust or, for that matter, distrust what a politician tells you because of how he or she looks? How much of the truth of what politicians say is communicated by their clothes? Does Hillary Clinton need to wear an outfit color coordinated with a bowl of spring flowers? Would you vote for a candidate who appears nervous in front of the unblinking eye of a camera?

In Western art, the oldest prejudice has been Platonic. External appearance mirrors the inner life. In her medieval portraits, as a result, the Virgin Mary can only be beautiful, must always be beautiful -- as girl, as mother -- because her soul is beautiful. This ancient aesthetic notion trusts public life. For if the eye is to be trusted, then external behavior, how a person (a king, a queen) appears in public, is all-telling.

Around the 15th or 16th century, something changes. With the Renaissance, the ancient faith in the eye is called into question. For example, John Milton writes ''Paradise Lost,'' an epic poem in which Satan appears heroically beautiful.

There comes a moment in Shakespeare's ''Hamlet'' when Hamlet, the character, steps out of the play, speaks directly to the audience -- his soliloquy. The play literally stops.

Medieval confidence in public life gives way to a modern skepticism. Hamlet has secrets. He has a life that is hidden from everyone around him. The ancient assumption of the theater was that everything we needed to know about a character we learned in his public behavior. With his monologue, Hamlet becomes a character in a novel.

And so it happens. The play gives way to the novel. The 18th-century novel is still filled with beautiful heroes and heroines, but the voice of the novel becomes starkly solitary.

Modern skepticism about public life has extended in our own century to a post-modern skepticism about private life. Psychoanalysis provides us with the means to uncover secrets we have kept from ourselves. Were he alive today, Hamlet wouldn't tell us about his mother. His analyst would tell Hamlet what

his relationship to his mother means.

In San Francisco, in a district of interior designers and advertising agencies, there is a plaque outside a building honoring Philo Taylor Farnsworth for having invented television. Television flickered to life in San Francisco in 1929. Television's invention led us to believe in the eye with a faith almost as strong as that of our medieval ancestors. Television returned us to a world where the Virgin Mary is always beautiful and where villains are as physically repellant as demonic gargoyles outside a cathedral.

In the age of television we become medieval people again. We become public people again. We trust the evidence of our eyes. We want pretty people to read the news on TV.

But at war with our medieval faith in television is a modern skepticism about public life. Some part of us resists the evidence of our eyes. If something within us responds positively to Hillary Clinton's color-coordinated outfit, something within us also wonders if we ever knew who Richard Nixon was. Or if even he knew.

Richard Rodriguez is author of ''Days of Obligation: An Argument with my Mexican Father.'' This commentary is adapted from an essay for the MacNeil Lehrer NewsHour.

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