RHYMES WITH DRASTIC
by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
SEATTLE, Wash. -- Among the royal families there seem to have been at least seven worthies named Philip the Adjective: Philip the Fair, Philip the Good, Philip the Tall, Philip the Handsome, and (twice!) Philip the Bold. (Shouldn't one have been the Bolder? Or might that have sounded too much like "boulder" and suggested unflattering things about his intelligence?)
Be that as it may, my point is that history does not record the name of Philip the Plastic.
The reason is that plastic is, or has become, a Bad Word. This is a shame, for plastic had a splendid career up until the time someone invented a way of stringing together polymers--derived, by ill luck, from petroleum - into tub toys and credit cards.
Even today there are some of us, fewer each hour, alas, who speak of the plastic arts without meaning to dis them.
And please do not complain to my long-suffering editor about the plastic neoplasm (new growth of tissue serving no physiological function) "dis." I'd thought you would get the point.
When did plastic become a Bad Word? It had already done so for recent generations, at least, by the time the friend of Dustin Hoffman's parents took him out on the balcony (in Mike Nichols' immortal film, "The Graduate") and whispered into his ear the infallible secret of future success: "Are you listening, Benjamin?" "Yes, sir." "Plastics!"
I've just read a marvelous new novel by Jose Saramago called "The Cave." It has been widely reviewed, by me, among others, and is well worth the attention of those who hate plastic in all its forms.
An old man named Algor, no relation to the inventor of the Internet, is a potter. He makes plates, saucers, ewers, and other articles of domestic utility from the clay that cooks in the ancient kiln around which his life and that of his family revolves.
He has only one customer for his earthenware, the Center. This is a metaphor for modern life. Those who hate you and me might call it the U.S.A, though Saramago, still a Communist after all these years, does not suggest that. It is in any case a vast mall that sucks into itself the production of such small-timers as our potter.
Then Algor tells them, "That's it. No more earthenware. Our customers want plastic."
With the help of his daughter and son-in-law, he tries another product for the kiln: figurines.
The metaphor here, I think, is this: they don't want honest clay pots, how about clay simulacra of themselves?
No. A poll of customers reveals that they don't want clay replicas of people, either. What they want is ... plastic!
A recent headline in the New York Times proclaimed that gift givers were increasingly resorting to plastic. This turned out to mean that givers were offering recipients a choice by means of plastic ... credit cards.
What is so bad about plastic?
I mean aside from the fact that we need the oil of Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Venezuela, and probably Iceland, that secret member of OPEC, to manufacture it?
I cannot imagine life without cellophane. Those of us who still say icebox for refrigerator say cellophane for what Martha Stewart calls clingwrap. Even as we speak, my fingers are tapping on keys made of stuff that once gushed from a well in, I hope, Texas.
Plastic is an anagram for clapist, the nerd in the front row of the third balcony who keeps applauding after everyone else has sat down. And for another word not printable here. Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.