Two lines from Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, the adaptation of a Booth Tarkington novel he made in his twenties after completing Citizen Kane, have stuck with me. In one, a middle-aged man tells the woman he’s loved most of his life, but been separated from for several reasons, not to worry too much about her son’s headstrong push to keep her from seeing him. “At 21 or 22 so many things appear solid and permanent and terrible which 40 sees are nothing but disappearing miasma,” he says. “Forty can’t tell 20 about this; 20 can find out only by getting to be 40.”
In the other scene, the patriarch of the family is struggling to make sense of his daughter’s death, having been unable to see her at the end because of her son’s objections. He’s looking into a fire, and drifts into a soliloquy after being asked about how the estate had been set up.
“It must be in the sun! There wasn’t anything here but the sun in the first place, and the earth came out of the sun, and we came out of the earth. So, whatever we are, we must have been in the sun,” he says. “We go back to the earth we came out of, so the earth will go back to the sun that it came out of. And time means nothing — nothing at all — so in a little while we’ll all be back in the sun together. I wish – I wish — somebody could tell me!”
Several generations – an entire leap in time from one era to another – gets encapsulated in these lines. The first is said by a man making new wealth from the automobile, which the woman’s son and the old man object to as a nuisance. The second is expressed by a person from an aging generation. Both scenes resonate for the parent in me, but also for the child, as well as for the student.
What are the big shifts taking place now? We’ve seen the advent of digital everything. Now we socially distance and step back ever further from tactile life. and all that came with it. We’ve witnessed ideological disruption and political and cultural unraveling
All that’s knowable. What’s coming isn’t quite visible on any horizons yet. Could it yet be a return to something more basic than any of us can remember? If that’s so, I say we welcome it, while preserving all we most fear might get lost.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Paul Smart.