Bells and Time
Christendom, for centuries, set our lives to a slow but steady pulse by the mellowness of church bells metering the hours and days of circling seasons. Just below the high Cross, steeples often showed clock faces, so the godly need never be late to services. There was a time for every purpose unto Heaven.
Then, around the turn of the 20th century, the two most feminine affectations of the Victorian Era — smoking cigarettes and wearing a wrist watch — caught on among everyday men as well. It was a sign. Enter the Age of the Machine. Time was never again to simply be the human tempo of our beating hearts. People began living at a more peremptory pace than ever was counted out by tower bells, or grandfather clocks standing coffin-like in hallways, or “Christmas” clocks — wound up once a year — upon fireplace mantlepieces.
So, wrist watches made good sense. Time must be kept closer now. Revolutionary inventions were forcing on Moderns a newly-accelerated and monetized sense of time — “Time is Money.” And cigarettes? Puffing hurriedly through a cigarette suited busy city men better than lingering over the studied formalities of clipping, piercing and perhaps dipping in brandy a fine cigar, or the leisurely cleaning, reaming and tamping of loose tobacco into a favorite pipe.
So much happened so awfully quickly. Perhaps the single most epic change — after four millenniums of being central to human existence, the horse became obsolete. Multi-horse-power Ford automobiles left behind no smoking turds in the streets, but crime and sex ran wild. Before police could respond, storefront stick-ups came and went so fast, gunmen had already disappeared into the web of the city. And “Flaming Youth” caught fire when “dating” replaced “courtship” because young motorists drove off freely by themselves, together without chaperones.
Samuel Morse’s telegraphy shrank, first, nations, then the world, by making even trans-oceanic communications normal. You could wire Timbuktu. Pictures moved. Less than a generation after Louis Lumiere, live stage actors applauded by a few thousand theater-goers in a season, suddenly had to compete for audiences with the nationwide release every month of moving — if silent — pictures. Youth worldwide cheered former Broadway Shakespearean leading man William S. Hart riding like a cowboy centaur his famous half-wild stallion Fritz, “The greatest all-round horse that ever lived.”
The Wright Brothers gave man wings two weeks after the most authoritative physicist of his day declared heavier-than-air flight “impossible.” Voices, too, flew through space. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, refused to have one of the damned things in his own home because it so outrageously made possible strangers demanding a hearing at any time of the day or night. Yet soon, thanks to Tesla and Marconi, whole households spent hours “listening in” to their radio; and now, for the first time, fathers daily permitted into their family circle unknown strangers whom the family soon realized possessed more authority than father himself.
And we know all too well about changes in warfare. Man-to-man war, if it had ever once claimed a shred of nobility and honor, now became global butchery, first as a mechanized slaughter house, then, for a second time, as a blitzkrieg lightning strike of monster tanks trampling down national borders, and finally to be ended only by something even worse: nuclear weapons so destructive they threatened all human life on the planet.
So Henry Ford’s seminal invention of mass production, when writ large around the world, turned out to have a profound reciprocal effect on the workers who toiled at each stage of the endless assembly lines. Global warfare against civilian populations and a ruinous international economic depression — the howling naked anguish of hundreds of millions of human beings — proved how the rise of the machines had made the 20th century, for all its creature comforts, the most miserably deadly era since the plagues of the Middle Ages.
And machines begot more machines; change, both good and bad, nonetheless kept accelerating. Radio became TV, little silent movies got loud and big, the hard-wired electric circuit was transistorized, and the transistor soon shrank into a silicon chip. A booming American “consumer economy” grew up around cheap “labor-saving” devices advertised by Madison Avenue as guarantees of greater ease and leisure but which instead somehow created a restless uneasy sense of not having enough time to do anything anymore. The choices of what to do were never more various or inviting, and yet, it turned out, the long-promised good life just kept you running.
As World War II drew to a close, before the advent of television, movie-going stood at an all-time high. Up there on the silver screen, in a friendly communal darkness innocent as popcorn, there was still to be seen the positive optimism about ourselves and our nation which the coming Cold War with the Soviet Union began to corrode. And just as the obsolescence of the horse had helped to put cowboys among the biggest Hollywood stars, a similar but perhaps more secretly desperate nostalgia was at work among these mid-century audiences.
What was it we were harking back to when the biggest hit of 1945 became a Leo McCarey movie starring crooner Bing Crosby as a priest and Ingrid Bergman playing a nun? Not the simplicities of Christian faith, which the horrors of contemporary history had undermined among so many. Not even the idea of the church itself and the good deeds forever needing to be done in a war-shattered world.
No, those restless audiences — haggard by rush-rush-rushing around being spared labors which, in retrospect, turned out to have been decent and fruitful ways of life — they bought tickets searching for a half-remembered world, unmechanical, to be sure, and full of horses, but of a time when time itself came to our ears ringing like The Bells of St. Mary’s.