I surrendered: http://twitter.com/danieljhartley
The new John Lewis Ad has been making the rounds. Already the legend is surging through the wifi waves that women across Middle England are crying into their John Lewis handkerchiefs and clicking the YouTube replay button incessantly, barely able to control their politely voluble sobs. Uniting The Sun, The Guardian, The Daily Mail and The Telegraph in awed wonder, what is it that this ad has done to cause such a stir?
It shows the life of a white middle-class female from (literally) the cradle to old age – but not the grave, a point to which we’ll come back. The song is a cover of Billy Joel’s ‘Always a Woman to Me’ sung by Fyfe Dangerfield in a hauntingly moving rendition. But it’s a bizarre choice, since it’s about a woman whose character is dubious at best; here are the lyrics used in the advert:
She can kill with a smile
She can wound with her eyes
She can ruin your faith with her casual lies
And she only reveals what she wants you to see
She hides like a child,
But she’s always a woman to me
She can lead you to love
She can take you or leave you
She can ask for the truth
But she’ll never believe you
And she’ll take what you give her, as long as it’s free
Yeah, she steals like a thief
But she’s always a woman to me
She is frequently kind
And she’s suddenly cruel
She can do as she pleases
She’s nobody’s fool
And she can’t be convicted
She’s earned her degree
And the most she will do
Is throw shadows at you
But she’s always a woman to me
They miss out such lines as ‘Then she’ll carelessly cut you/ And laugh while you’re bleedin’. Understandably. Indeed, the literal sense of the lyrics, which is essentially that of a masochistic lover serenading a bitch whose capriciousness is such that he has to reassure us every 30 seconds that she is in fact a woman despite her transgressions of conventional expectations of femininity (passivity, politesse, consistency etc.), is transformed by the context of the mournful melancholia of the voice and the sun-bleached images. And so what was originally an odd meditation on the limits of the feminine in the form of a pop song becomes, uncannily, a pure embodiment of the middle-class woman.
I don’t want to focus too much on the content – the obvious points about the commodification of modern life, how we effectively live even the most personal, private experiences via the medium of large capitalist corporations etc. etc. (just think Fight Club Ikea scene) – but rather on the form. Firstly, those sun-bleached tones: they have about them the aura of a dream, but also of aging and authenticity. Like the enthusiasm for sepia-toned photos, which is effectively a symptom of a society with no sense of history, for whom sepia is the colour of all things past and fulfilling, this bleached feel gives it that blurred-edge lightness of nostalgia. But it is the sun that is crucial: in almost every scene of this 90 seconds, the sun is present, bathing the girl-woman in a constant maternal light. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the sun in this ad becomes coterminous with John Lewis (‘Our lifetime commitment to you’): there for us come youth or old age, in sickness and in health. Like a certain Mr Yahweh used to be back in the day.
But even this doesn’t explain what has made people cry. On one level, yes, it is the content – those maternal instincts, the growing old, the family and so on. Yes, it is the memory of loved ones present and past and those carefully chosen moments (marriage, university, career, retirement). But I don’t think that this alone can account for the dramatic reaction. I suspect it has more to do with the form: the presentation of an (idealized) human life in its entirety. This is something one almost never sees in real life: normally, we die after our parents and before our children. So to envisage a whole life in a single meaningful unit is moving in itself because we are not accustomed to it. But more importantly: the rhythms of late capitalism are such that the only periods we can think in tend to be either those of fashions or of decades. Beyond that, we are unable clearly to conceptualize a total human life, we are unable to find the narrative tools to recount it. Not that this is that new a phenomenon: Walter Bejamin wrote a long time ago that such was the cause of the demise of the traditional folktale.
In the same essay, he wrote about the disappearance of death from our daily lives. How in the Middle Ages it was almost impossible to be in a room where someone hadn’t died, whereas today it’s impossible to be in one where someone has – death is confined mainly to hospitals and hospices, isolated buildings away from the high street, away from John Lewis. And the advert doesn’t show the woman’s death, which is crucial: John Lewis commits to you when you’re alive because when you’re alive your designer purse is too. But when you’re dead, the John Lewis sun cannot transform your reeking corpse into the beautiful money-trees of Middle England.
Only those cartwheeling granddaughters can do that, when they step forward to chuck dirt on Grandma’s shiny coffin in their brand new JL shoes.
This is an extract from the very end of an imaginary interview with a character called Javier Marías. The interviewer is a character called Daniel Hartley. The extract, all I could find of this long-forgotten interview that never took place in a Madrilenian café, begins at the point where interviewee transforms into interviewer.
JM: So what type of man do you think I am?
DH: I think you’re the type of man who finds it unbearable to sit in a café or a restaurant if there is someone sat behind him, because his eyes should always be the last pair in the room, unwatched, but all-watching. You’re the type of man who mistakes habitual introspection for profundity and precise prolixity for compassionate intelligence. You’re the type of man who takes upon his shoulders the pain and badly hidden neuroses of a room of strangers, who suffers on their behalf, but does so constantly with one eye on the hidden gloriousness of that suffering. You’re the type of man who knows it is pretentious to be photographed in black and white behind a typewriter with chin in hand in thoughtful equipoise, but who knows also that without the ironic indulgence of this bohemian cliché, he would fall to pieces, like a dead soul shorn of its ghostly carapace. You’re the type of man who is trapped in legends, and who can’t get out. And in every beautiful phrase you write, there is a lonely boy peering out, wondering how his father could be so genuine when the only thing that he can do is act. You are, in short, a man who longs to be a Hamlet, and therefore Hamlet shall ye never be.
Paper-clipped to this extract I found a scrap of notepaper in Daniel Hartley’s handwriting. It said: ‘Met JM today. Was like talking to a mirror.’