Wednesday, January 15, 2014

`Those Stationary Trivialities'

David Myers tweets: “Chose Hopper's `Gas’ as the desktop for my new MacBook Air. Wife and kids hate it, but it sings to me of solitude." I can see that but Hopper’s painting sings to me of America, not to put too fine point on it. Critics see something ominous in "Gas." I see something beautiful and familiar, a welcoming roadside American scene. I like the tidiness of this clean, well-lighted place. I like the attendant in his neat white shirt, vest and tie, reading the pump. (See Hopper’s other gas station painting, this one played for domestic comedy -- “Four Lane Road,” from 1956.) By 1940, the automobile and its appendages – highways, billboards, “motor courts,” gas stations -- had molded the landscape. Seven years later, Humbert Humbert and his young companion are driving across the country, and our narrator notes the winged red horse painted by Hopper: 

“We had stopped at a gas station, under the sign of Pegasus, and she had slipped out of her seat and escaped to the rear of the premises while the raised hood, under which I had bent to watch the mechanic’s manipulations, hid her for a moment from my sight.” 

In his first book, The Carpentered Hen (1958), John Updike sketches a familiar American type, “Ex-Basketball Player,” the one-time athlete whose life peaks at eighteen. Flick is now a grease monkey and precursor to Rabbit Angstrom, who is playing basketball when we meet him in the opening pages of Rabbit, Run (1960). Updike writes: 

“Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps—
Five on a side, the old bubble-head style,
Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low.
One’s nostrils are two S’s, and his eyes
An E and O. And one is squat, without
A head at all—more of a football type.” 

Elizabeth Bishop also visits an Esso station in “Filling Station”: “Somebody / arranges the rows of cans / so that they softly say: / ESSO—SO—SO—SO / to high-strung automobiles.” Bishop seems offended by the oiliness of the gas station and the family running it, while sensing a certain shabby-genteel poignancy (“Why, oh why, the doily?”). Humbert, too, with his snobbery and anxiety about the whereabouts of his companion, knows a “dull discomfort of mind,” as does his detail-minded creator: 

“Well--my car had been attended to, and I had moved it away from the pumps to let a pickup truck be serviced--when the growing volume of her absence began to weigh upon me in the windy grayness. Not for the first time, and not for the last, had I stared in such dull discomfort of mind at those stationary trivialities that look almost surprised, like staring rustics, to find themselves in the stranded traveler's field of vision: that green garbage can, those very black, very white walled tires for sale, those bright cans of motor oil, that red icebox with assorted drinks, the four, five, seven discarded bottles within the incompleted crossword puzzle of their wooden cells, that bug patiently walking up the inside of the window of the office.”


R.T. said...

What a lovely posting. In "Gas," I see the never-to-be-recovered past, and I become both happy and sad. Perhaps that reaction comes with being a certain age. I would rather not associate "Gas" with Humbert Humbert, which is a subjective reaction because of my annoyance with _Lolita_, but I imagine Professor Myers will enjoy your homage to his favorite 20th century novel.

Brian said...

Bishop's Esso station is just down the road from where I live in Nova Scotia. Great Village remains a sleepy village with a subdued response to the great poet. A wonderful poem.

And there is Tom Waits' "Nighthawks at the Diner" which pays tribute to another Hopper painting.