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Maya Angelou's new "Life Mosaic Collection" at Hallmark arrives at a time of crisis in the world of greeting card verse. Despite the fact that the audience for inspirational verse has never been so vast, bitter infighting has broken out between the more formal neo-Cardist school, who insist upon such traditional materials, imagery and themes as card stock, dried flowers and Christmas, and the more contemporary purveyors of the O=B=J=E=C=T movement, who seek to explore the incongruities between the 'language' of inspirational verse and the 'object' on which it is printed, thereby limning the schema of relationships between 'reader-as-object' and 'object-as-self' within the context of the inspirational verse transaction. While this struggle for dominance between the ancients and the moderns, as it were, has not yet impacted sales figures negatively, it has been the cause of some rather nasty letters and at least one "accidentally" spilled drink at the annual Greeting Card Association Convention. In addition, the proliferation of "greeting card mills" has tended to water down the quality of inspirational verse, a trend that is "expected to persist," according to the GCA web site. Even so, a GCA-funded research study has found that "an increasing number of greeting card customers are becoming 'passionate' about greeting cards," and so we must consider ourselves lucky that Ms. Angelou has chosen this time to produce inspirational works of such quality, works that manage to balance the agendas of the Cardist and O=B=J=E=C=T factions while introducing an increasingly fervent public to the joys of well-honed verse and the greeting card tradition Ms. Angelou honors with her presence.
When we speak of the greeting card tradition, naturally we speak of a great many methods of producing the desired effect in the consumer, and indeed of a great many desired effects. Certainly one could trace the evolution of the greeting card back to medals addressed to the
Emperor Hadrian in the Second Century A.D. which read "The Senate and People of Rome wish a Happy and Prosperous New Year to Hadrianus Augustus, the father of the country," or engage in disputes over whether John Calcott Horsley or William Maw Egley produced the first known Christmas card, but that would be beside the point. When a new sort of inspirational gift-product appears, it bears the mark of those who came before it, and at the same time alters all the other gift-products so that they bear its influence as well. Consider for instance Ms. Angelou's "'Friendship' Candleholder," with a suggested retail price of $19.99 for a set of two, candle not included. Scrolled around the faux-copper banding of this item is the following verse: "we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike," a verse that, while showing the influence of the great master Louis Prang in its delicate, polyptotonic deployment of "alike" and "unalike," also stands independent of Mr. Prang by dint of its brevity, directness, and position on the side of a set of candle holders. If we are to believe that "the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an 'objective correlative'," then we must admit that engraving a single line of verse about friendship on a reasonably priced object meant to hold a candle represents a work of artistic fusion truly congruent with its age.
Indeed, the "Mosaic Collection" is filled with such moments of perfect symmetry between contemporary consumerism and our earlier tradition of being generally nice to one another--quiet moments recollected in tranquillity and then etched or screen printed on bookends and wind chimes. When Emerson declared that "the highest minds of the world have never ceased to explore the double meaning, or shall I say the quadruple or the centuple or much more manifold meaning, of every sensuous fact," he knew of course that each of these minds also required a hand and perhaps a pen of some sort to share their explorations with the rest of us, but did he think to produce a lovely, purple and olive "Adventures Interactive Journal" (one hundred pages, $14.99) in which to record them? He did not! Indeed, would the great sage of Transcendentalism even think to shrug off a history of misreading other strong poets by choosing to emboss the cover the journal with the words "Life is pure adventure"? I think not.
I should like to say that even Louis Prang himself would be hard pressed to give forth such a spontaneous overflow of marketable objects, but it is well known how much labor goes into producing the simulation of nurturing and empathy. Lifting the veil from reality cannot be accomplished without a great deal of sweat, as Ms. Angelou acknowledged in an article for the USA Today:
"I have yellow pads all over the
place," she said. She then remembered reducing five pages to: The wise woman wishes to be no one's enemy, the wise woman refuses to be anyone's victim.
"When I finally got those two lines, I came into the dining room and poured myself a glass of red
One can only imagine how, at that moment, she must have been thinking of Hegel's remark that "genius is excited in part by an object, and in part can transpose itself into it by its own caprice, a process in which, after all, the services of the champagne bottle are not forgotten," even if she did go about transposing before imbibing. And those legal pads--how many lesser authors have felt content with two or three yellow pads, or even a single, unlined tablet? Imagine what sort of work she can do now with a crate full of "Adventures Interactive Journals" on hand! That some connection exists between possessing great volumes of paper and the ability to whittle five pages down to seventeen words seems obvious, and if indeed the relationship is proportional, what trees must have been felled to produce the "lavender scented fabric sachets with string loop to hang," priced at $9.99, each embroidered with a single word: "Courage," "Joy," or "Serenity." Here too Ms. Angelou cannily shows the influence of the O=B=J=E=C=T school, offering an object that smells of lavender juxtaposed with various signifiers which may or may not have anything to do with the actual scent, an object shaped like a pillow but with no actual
pillowness, no authentic use-value with regards to what society has come to call a "pillow," unless you happen to be a kitty.
Ms. Angelou has even anticipated that a certain amount of criticism would be levied toward her from less talented, more envious folks than herself, but as she said so graciously to the USA Today,
"I have had criticism for a long time for different reasons," a statement followed by the sentence,
"Caged Bird describes how she was raped as a child"--not to say that being a victim of rape entitles one to withstand criticism of one's art any better, of course, but only that Ms. Angelou is well-versed in resisting attempts to surrey her talent. Indeed, the partnership between Hallmark and Ms. Angelou is an apt one, given that the "GM of Emotion" entered the public eye as a corporate entity, rather than as a local retailer, in the early 1980's when an elevated walkway at the Kansas City Hyatt Hotel, developed by Hallmark, collapsed. After this tragedy, the Hallmark's lawyers brilliantly exploited a loophole in the law to drive down damage awards to the point at which the entire payout was covered by insurance--they too refuse to be anyone's victim, it seems. Still, one wonders: if Ms. Angelou had taken a visit to the
maquiladora Duro Bag factory in Mexico, which makes Hallmark's merchandise bags, and seen how workers were routinely beaten by police for attempting to negotiate better working conditions, would she have said of the group of Hallmark executives who took her to lunch that
"their behavior to the waiter who was serving impressed me [...] I've been black a long time, so when I see any person behave fairly, respectfully, with someone in a station below him or her, that always catches my
eye." I suppose we will never know the answer, but shall instead have to make do with a set of "'Friendship' Coffee Mugs" and their twin sentiments. "Nobody can ever take a friend's place--nobody," and "Only equals can be friends," ($7.99, $14.99 for a set of two). Those of us below Ms. Angelou's station will have to find other friends, it seems.