Wednesday, November 1, 2000

One Brief Shining Moment: Remembering Kennedy, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170

Remembering Kennedy
by William Manchester

William Manchester’s poetic tribute to, and documentation of the Kennedy legend—written twenty years after his death—paints JFK as an Arthurian martyr-messiah. He begins his essay with facts of the assassination and then maps the nation’s psyche. A segue to the official mourning period and the forecast of its rapid passing, versus the nation’s protracted grief, becomes the focus of his essay.

Manchester weaves a scant biography of Kennedy: how Jack, as a child, read about the knights of the roundtable, of his youth as a knight in training, of his political career as king, and of his death as heroic exemplar. He reminds us of how time erased the man, thus replacing him with a legend as old as humanity. 

In the epigram from Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur: “There thou lyest...” he evokes the death of Launcelot and of the roundtable, he compares it to the death of an idyllic era that never was: America in the ’60s. Though it was the age of the antihero, of victim, it was a kinder, gentler nation that might have been. 

 He writes of how we incorporated/ appropriated images of Kennedy into our lives. We are inside Bobby and/or Jack’s heads via the cosmos: “You ...recall...the Southern Cross.... ” Jack as a rising star. Text and sub-text. ... “When he shall die./ take him and cut him out in little stars...” This astral theme is no accident: Jack/Arthur-as-constellation. The title evokes Camelot, the brief star we wish upon.

Manchester retells the historical origins of the Arthurian story through the ages (1500 years!) and of its accretions through the oral tradition. He paints his constellation of a latter-day Camelot with Kennedy as all aspects of the dream: as Arthur, as Lancelot, as Gwenivere (well, maybe, Marilyn/Jackie), as Excalibur, as a messiah, as martyr, etc. 

He evokes the manuscripts of the pseudo-historians: Gildas, Nennius, Geoffrey, Jesus... Manchester’s thumbnail sketch of social commentator David Brinkley as rational versus emotional prophets, seers and oracles is a base form of druidic function, as are the literary agents and pollsters. 

We have many aspects of Le Morte d’Arthur: shrines & pilgrimage, quests & holy relics, pageantry & idolatry. Interesting to note the tchotchkii industry of Kennedy memorabilia (holy relics) was spawned by prolonged national grief. 

Death of a hero-king (whether or not the facts be true) is good for business. How public works were rechristened worldwide, even a section of Runnymede where the Magna Carta was signed, became a Kennedy shrine. “Once a leader becomes a martyr, transformation naturally follows.” 

 Kennedy is endowed with a nimbus, clothed in raiment so that we have no choice but to look up and see him as a part of the firmament, and identify him as star of the first magnitude.

Manchester begins his essay in typical journalistic fashion—basic reportage— he jousts with personal perspective so that the reader is both inside and outside the text. Through a misted lens, personal and collective memory and fact blur and merge. Not quite yellow journalism, this filmic essay is in the camp of Gonzo (I, myself & I feel, therefore I am) journalism. 

Don’t get me wrong: I loved the piece but it is personal narrative masquerading as factual journalism. (I can hardly believe that this is the same author who wrote so dark a picture of the Dark Ages., but I digress...)

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