Cherwell

Looking through the window

I would take a postcard over a poster any day. Free from the facile exhibitionism of the poster, postcards are not just a glaring statement which imposes on or entertains a viewer, they are windows onto something or somewhere. The size of this window also determines its power; they represent something bigger, partly because they are, indeed, smaller. A postcard on the wall draws you in, the viewer becomes like Lewis Carrol’s Alice looking into Wonderland: ‘she knelt down and looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw. How she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains, but she could not even get her head through the doorway; “and even if my head would go through,” thought poor Alice, “it would be of very little use without my shoulders. Oh, how I wish I could shut up like a telescope!”’ Like Alice, we are tantalized, already half-seduced by something so small with the power to encompass so much. The experience is like looking through a window onto an entire culture which we can look through and admire but not step into ourselves. Alice’s desire to “shut up like a telescope” is understandable, the desire to shut off the division, so we are no longer tele, at a distance, from the enticements of the garden beyond.   

George Orwell was fascinated by postcards, and their potential to reveal something of cultural identity. In his essay ‘the Art of Donald McGill’ he discusses the particular genre of saucy seaside postcards.  He is interested in the postcards not particularly for their art or humour, which he characterizes as falling into recurring categories such as sex jokes and drunkenness (‘both drunkenness and teetotalism are ipso facto funny.’) It is rather his belief that they offer an insight into a counter-cultural subversive statement against hegemonic cultural systems of law and virtue which drives his admiration for this particular genre of postcard. He posits that they would function in a similarly subversive role if England’s political and social system was fundamentally changed: “in a society which is still basically Christian they naturally concentrate on sex jokes; in a totalitarian society, if they had any freedom of expression at all, they would probably concentrate on laziness or cowardice, but at any rate on the unheroic in one form or another. It will not do to condemn them on the ground that they are vulgar and ugly. That is exactly what they are meant to be. Their whole meaning and virtue is in their unredeemed low-ness, not only in the sense of obscenity, but lowness of outlook in every direction whatever.” Obviously this point is articulated in Orwell’s typically problematic relation to his socialist ideology – that working class culture is something to be celebrated and embraced with class equality, but that he feels it is also essentially ‘low’ and dirty. Yet, his point about the subversive appeal of the postcards is valid – the viewer enjoys the jokes because “A dirty joke is not, of course, a serious attack upon morality, but it is a sort of mental rebellion, a momentary wish that things were otherwise. So also with all other jokes, which always centre round cowardice, laziness, dishonesty or some other quality which society cannot afford to encourage.”

Orwell comments that these lewd jokes would never be acceptable on the news, or in other print media, ‘the comic post cards are… the only medium in which really ‘low’ humour is considered to be printable. Only in post cards and on the variety stage can the stuck-out behind, dog and lamp-post, baby’s nappy type of joke be freely exploited.’ The form of the postcard itself seems to lend itself to cultural subversion.  Presumably rude postcards are considered less of an outrage than obscene jokes appearing in national papers because the presumption is that they are for private use, for an individual’s keepsake or to function as a letter to a friend.  Yet, the form of postcards is essentially disruptive of this private/public division. Sending a postcard to an individual is like having a seemingly private phone conversation on a crowded train – there is no envelope and therefore no boundary preventing whoever comes into contact with the dialogue from overhearing, or overseeing as it were. Perhaps this almost cavalier lack of privacy which is bound up in sending a postcard is linked to the text content as well as their front matter. Just as McGill’s mass-produced seaside postcards show trends in the stock figures they reel out and types of jokes they employ, there are also discernible formulaic patterns in what we write on the reverse. Not that every postcard is the same, yet even the most interesting people seem to feel the need to relate anecdotes from their holidays, which often conform to the standard wish-you-were-here banal format. The reverse of the postcard then also reveals norms, culturally sanctioned discourses which seem to lurk in our collective consciousness – windows do not, after all, only offer a one-way view.

On another note, contemporary postcards tend to offer a window onto what our culture aspires to, or obsesses over. Of course, museums do an excellent trade in postcards which capture objects of historical and cultural importance.  These are sold because they are better than the photos museum goers can take themselves (if they are allowed to), but they are also more interesting, and relate to (you guessed it) windows.  In fact, they become a kind of window within a window – the postcard shows the cultural moment that say, the Mona Lisa represents, but also has the marketing of the Louvre – revealing the present culture which wishes to preserve this and continues to assign it value.  Actually postcards in themselves have become an essentially ideological demonstration of which aspects of culture we consider worthy of preservation.  I’m quite a fan of the Penguin books postcards, for instance, or postcards with excerpts from novels (I do English in case you haven’t realised.) I guess we would like to think of these as a window onto the soul, a wish-you-were-here not for a place but for the transportation into the literary world that the book provided.  In looking at these postcards you are drawn into so many windows with their corresponding views that it’s like a figurative glasshouse – the author’s culture, and that of the reader, and also their experience of looking through that window too.  In these more than ever I think we’re trying to squeeze into the tiny doorway, to the wonderland (or indeed window-land) on the other side.