Thursday, February 7, 2013

Downwind from Gettysburg

"And for a long time the father cannot bring himself
to ease his translator of the wind down to set him on the earth..."

I have always wanted to do a film on Gettysburg and the vast crowd there and far away out at the edge of that sun-drowsed impatient lost thick crowd, a farmer and his son trying so hard to hear, not hearing, trying to catch the wind-blown words from the tall speaker there on the distant stand, that gaunt man in the stovepipe hat who now takes off his hat, looks in it as to his soul rummaged there on scribbled letterbacks and begins to speak."

"And this farmer, in order to get his son up out of the crush, why, he hefts the boy up to sit upon his shoulders. There the boy, nine years old, a frail encumbrance, becomes ears to the man, for the man indeed cannot hear nor see but only guess what the President is speaking far across a sea of people there at Gettysburg and the President's voice is high and drifts now clear, now gone, seized and dispersed by contesting breeze and wind. And there have been too many speakers before him and the crowd all crumpled wool and sweat, all mindless stockyard squirm and jostled elbow, and the farmer talks up to his son on his shoulders in a yearning whisper: What? What's he say? And the boy, tilting his head, leaning his peach-fuzz ear to the wind, replies."

-Downwind from Gettysburg, Ray Bradbury

What is this if not interpretation? Go find a copy of I Sing the Body Electric, Ray Bradbury's collection of short stories from which this chunk comes. Check it out of the library. Go buy it, you won't regret it.

Bradbury, in his short story, tells the tale of a man whose obsession is to bring the dead to life. Phipps wishes to make a film about Gettysburg, the film outlined in the passage above. A boy on his father's shoulders translates the Gettysburg Address from it's wind-borne course.

Phipps never gets to resurrect the dead on film. What he does do is bring a robotic Lincoln back to life, with oil coursing through his metallic veins.

And this is what we do too. Freeman Tilden made the astute observation decades ago. "Interpretation is an art," he wrote, "which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical or architectural."

And in his short story, Bradbury is doing nothing more than revealing a great moral, philosophical and historical truth through art. He is speaking of the human soul. He is interpreting the real past and the imagined future, he is interpreting his mystical make-believe characters and our flesh-and-blood selves, all simultaneously.

Bradbury's father and son never existed. And yet, their story speaks truth that even the best of historians can't truly access. It is fiction that tells an historical truth.

Bradbury resurrects the dead through his art, not with a robot or celluloid, but with the word. In the end, we only need the word. And it is through that means, the power of our language, that we raise the dead every day.

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