Friday, July 1, 2011

Letters and Symbols

I am currently reading David McCullough's biography of John Adams, and a few things have struck me thus far:

First, reading this book and especially the passages that McCollough quotes from Adams's letters, reminds me how much I love classical correspondence. The art of the letter is mostly lost today, as the letter has been outclassed by so many technological achievements: the email, the photograph, the recording device, the telephone, the therapist. Whenever I had to do my own research, on Lafayette for example, I always enjoyed the physical descriptions that authors often inserted in their correspondence. Phrases like "Aquiline nose" and "a sharp chin" had connotations that modern audiences can't quite appreciate. We see somebody with a sharp chin, but don't label it as such. We actually "see" the chin, whereas hearing about a chin in a letter calls much more attention to it. Viewing a photograph, we would note the chin, but not highlight it. If John Adams had to describe someone, say, myself, in a letter to Abagail, it might look something like this:
"A strange gentleman stumbled onto the streets from the City Tavern yesterday evening, dearest Abagail. His name is Matthew Reed. Travelling from Brooklyn, New York, he is tall and slender, with oriental eyes and a broad nose. Nearly always unshaven and preferring to wear his hair in the vertical style, Mr. Reed's origins are not immediately recognizable. He has an enthusiasm and curiosity for many ventures, most notably, the City Tavern. A strange fellow indeed."

The other thing that I am currently thinking about is symbols of power. The King, George III, had a crown (as is fashionable among monarchs). The crown was a symbol of power. People refer to "The Crown" as if power-- and responsibility-- resides not within a person, but within a heavy hoop of metal. The Crown provides security and comforts, but is also to be blamed for corruption and terror.

Statesman, on the whole, don't wear crowns anymore (except the Pope-- and yes, that is a criticism [and yes, I know, it's not a crown, but a Papal Tiara. Like he's a fairy princess or something]). That leaves the question, what is the modern crown? What comfortable yet intimidating symbol acts as the buffer between people and those who hold authority?

1. The podium. Whenever somebody steps up to a podium to speak, chances are they are important. If we can see camera flashes as the person approaches the podium, they are definitely important.
2. The White House. The actual building and the phrase. "The White House released a statement today..." Oh really? Did it now? "I need paint." Or, "I don't like the snipers on my roof."
3. The Brass. A military uniform. The epaulets, the service bars, the medals, the name tag, the backwards American flag on the right sleeve. Read my past post on name tags entitled "Name Tags, Legit or Shit."
4. The limousine. Executives, government officials, drunk 16 year olds. All important, depending on your perspective.
5. The American flag? Symoblic. Powerful. Feared, to a degree.

None of these quite capture the degree of seperatness and authority that something like The Crown represents. I imagine it's just another reason why democracy kicks ass.

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