Monday, February 15, 2010

Hill of Beans

In my blog entry yesterday, I wrote about the effect of World War II on jazz music, and how it rendered the modernist values jazz had come to represent in the 1920s and 30s—“individualism”—unfashionable. As a consequence of the need for personal sacrifice during the war (personal sacrifice was required to win the war), individualism was no longer as highly valued as group cohesion and communal harmony. I referred to Paul Fussell’s observation, in his book Wartime, that the most popular songs during the war were about sexual depravation or pleas for fidelity—think of the Glenn Miller Band's “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me).” Fussell also noted that if the songs were not about sexual abstinence and the virtues of self-denial, they were about nothing at all (“Little Brown Jug”).

The opposed values of individual expression and group cohesion were often enacted, dramatically, as duty vs. desire. A classic wartime film in which the tension between duty and desire is dramatically enacted is, of course, Casablanca (1942). In the film’s climactic scene, Rick is faced with a choice that also happened to correspond to the need to resolve an ideological contradiction: should he allow Ilsa to go with her legal husband, Victor Laszlo, or keep her with him in Casablanca? The film demands the audience choose between love and romance (desire) or duty to a higher cause (getting Laszlo to Lisbon).

RICK: Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going. If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.
ILSA: But what about us?
RICK: We’ll always have Paris. We didn't have. We lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.
ILSA: When I said I would never leave you—
RICK: And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that.

It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world—in other words, the woman must be sent away. Rick’s “hill of beans” line is a virtual restatement of the quotation by Eileen M. Sullivan that Fussell cites in Wartime: “There was no room in this war-culture for individual opinions or personalities, no freedom of dissent or approval . . . .” (195). Interestingly enough, the ideological need to value social duty over individual desire corresponds to the wartime need for sexual abstinence and deprivation, yet another form of personal sacrifice that was needed to win the war.

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