Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine.
— Simon & Garfunkel
I don’t know what made me think of “The Graduate.” Maybe it was reading an article about the new film “Barney’s Version,” in which Dustin Hoffman plays the main character’s father, that brought to mind the vastly younger Dustin Hoffman who made his name and career playing Ben Braddock, the bewildered, unmoored “graduate”–class of ’67, or was it supposed to be ’68?–of the movie’s title.
When “The Graduate” came out at the end of 1967, it was widely interpreted as depicting the “generation gap” of the time, with Ben’s idealism and sensitivity set against his elders’ coarse materialism. But I don’t remember Ben as less materialistic than anyone else in the film, or with any particular concern for anything except himself. Whether being bedded by the seductive Mrs. Robinson, or mooning over his hopeless love for Mrs. Robinson’s daughter Elaine, he spends most of his time being acted upon rather than acting. Yet in a time when power seemed evil, especially American power, passivity and helplessness might pass as a sort of virtue. Ben, and the middle-aged yahoos who surround him, are all adrift, morally and spiritually. Ben at least knows it, feels it. They don’t.
But what’s happened to the Vietnam War? In 1967 or 1968, the massive reality that any male college graduate had to face, that was bound to dominate his plans for the future, was the war and the draft. In “The Graduate” there’s not a whisper about either one. Ben can dither about what he’s going to do now that he’s out of college, without a thought to how he’s going to keep from going into the Army. The war? We never hear of it.
Or do we?
Listen to the film’s pivotal song, “Scarborough Fair.” The surface lyric–a traditional song used by Simon & Garfunkel–is an elegy for lost, impossible love. (“Tell her to find me an acre of land / Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme / Between the salt water and the sea strand / Then she’ll be a true love of mine.”) But from beneath the surface, in intervals between the words and phrases, fragments of another song keep forcing their way out. These lyrics tell of soldiers ordered “to kill … to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten.”
So there’s the movie, in microcosm. Hidden, overlaid, unrecognized but persistently present, is a war fought without purpose, corroding the society that wages it. It’s at the root of the moral anomie, the thwarted yearning for love, that plagues Ben, his parents, his parents’ friends. The adulterous Mrs. Robinson.
That which is unseen is that which determines. With its deafening silence about Vietnam, by alluding to the war only in obscure hints, “The Graduate” proclaims how absolutely central it was to that nightmare of an epoch we call the Sixties.
As Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav used to say: “Nothing cries out louder than silence.”