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Cruel Summer: Against Estival Romanticism

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cruel-summerBy B. David Zarley

Droplets of water, glistening, tiny misshapen jewelers’ loupes clinging desperately to and summarily highlighting rebellious curls of hair darkened and weighted by moisture, falling from eyelashes, caressing clavicles and iliac crests, running along lines, be they bust, thigh, abdominal or other; nights as warm as the days, trees aflame with the phosphorescent backsides of fireflies; ice cubes and ceiling fans sweeping across naked bodies; hideously pink baseball gloves and grotesquely crude cartoon characters with gum-ball accoutrements; opaque delicacies the flavor of citrus and the shape of a shark, with the color of electricity, and the blooming of a powdered and pinwheel shaped delicacy known as the sugar waffle; these estival pleasures aside, summer is the most acerbic of all months.

“Cruel summer,” a turn of phrase offered into the popular lexicon from places as far afield as Bananarama and Kanye West, is more than simply a rhetorically pleasing bent on the traditionally amiable representation of the summer months in language—e.g., sunny, breezy, balmy, hot, smoldering, sizzling—and indeed reveals itself as perhaps the most apt description one has available to designate the period between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox, less a juxtaposition and more a definition. The romanticization of summer and the ensuing estival-industrial complex is sinister and perpetual. Our love for the season is as ridiculous as the Victorian’s Halazone treatment of  the Arthurian Age, or, more recently, the Conservative’s pining for the 1950s and the nouveau Hippie’s plaintive yearning for the 1960s. Thanks to the distance between these suicidal dreamers—to go backwards, as a society, is to die—and the ages which they covet, the majority of us are able to apply reason, and realize the age we live in now is the best it ever was; there is no similar panacea for the foolish embrace of summer, arriving as it does each year to woo one anew, leaving barely enough time for one to recall the terrors previously wrought when Aestas was last on the throne.

In what ways, really, does summer trick us into loving her? Perhaps the most common answer—the warm weather—is a rather foolish one; it is not to summer that the credit for finally freeing us from the cold shackles of winter belongs, but to spring, whose tempestuous arrival brings with it the first days of warmth. Indeed, summer’s warmth is one of her most damning features. The season lacks the texture and nuances of her far superior transitionary siblings, who offer us worlds of Seconal and rust and yellow leaves, salmon and cream and Tyrian flowers, winds and rains, sleet and flurries, brilliant blue skies and heather gray domes; no, in comparison, summer bludgeons us with azure, drowns us in ugly white light, blasts us—continuously, callously—with heat. Summer is a one-note season, a note played with equal parts banality and viciousness, so that days blend together and by the end one prays for rain, if not to break the heat, than to just feel something. In reality, judged by tone rather than temperature, summer is not so different from her diametrically opposed sibling, who is so universally loathed; she is to winter what hate is to love, less opposites than equals.

banarama-cruel_summerIt is to this oppressive nature that we can attribute the proliferation of summer’s most common cultural contributions, hard-bound novels with whorish candy-colored covers and soulless popcorn movies—an unfortunate term, defaming, as it does, the marvelous snack—which offer us, for every truly entertaining and spectacular feat of human creative genius, at least a dozen poorly written/filmed pieces of shameless money grabbing, elaborate crazy straws of Scooby Doo proportions and ludicrousness with which to suck money from philistines’ pockets. By summer’s terrible end, stages fitfully slumber beneath the industrial tumult of the Great Shakespeare Machine, and galleries quietly lay in repose, awaiting the more intellectually friendly, less tyrannical quarters of the calendar year. Who could stand to be challenged by art when one has spent the entire day breathing through a damp, hot sponge or, sans humidity, a cigarette filter? Better to prop up the tent pole, loft the easy canopy underneath which one can hide, entertained and unchallenged.

The juvenile notion of summer as some sort of respite from life is laughable, unless one is a young child. Students who have moved past primary education often find their summers filled with work, while it is far from unusual to find the odd teacher or school administrator similarly padding their pockets. Not only is there no stoppage of work for most Americans, but the toil becomes even harder; suits smother, warm winds lap seductively, commutes turn savage. Summer is a jealous season, and she does her best to make sure those who are not buried in her pleasures suffer her wrath.

And all of this would be forgivable, were it not for summer’s most cruel trait, her exposure of, and revelment in, socioeconomic inequality. Most all of things we espouse about the season—the beaches, the movies, the music festivals, the pools, the boats, the jet skis, the cold, pleasing bite of central air conditioning—require expendable income to enjoy. Those things which are free—the sunshine, the warm nights—require a safe neighborhood. To a Chicago area family or penthouse dweller reading about the weekend’s shootings before heading out to enjoy whatever Aestas is currently bribing them with, summer carries a hint of melancholy, an undercurrent of sadness soon enough washed over in sweat, suntan lotion and Summer Shandy. To those without the means to pay tribute, summer flashes the scythe; in Chicago, and urban centers around the world, it is the summer solstice which marks the harvest.

No more should we sing songs and spin prose in celebration of summer. No longer should we hide oppressive heat and unmitigated violence in romantic ideals and rose colored glasses first donned as school children. One sentiment, and one sentiment alone, should cross the mind of the discerning citizen when the cruelest of all seasons rises from behind the lion or the lamb and bears her dread visage: Fuck summer.

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