Trying to Eat All the Boat’s Food

July 31, 2011 § 1 Comment

Just finished: The Pale King.

Reading next: The Third Book of Pantagruel, by Francois Rabelais.

This month in national politics has seemed like a nightmare, no?  Or one of those terrible anxiety dreams where you know what needs to get done, you want to do it, but you cannot make yourself move or do the necessary thing, and all the while terror builds and builds of some unknown disaster or monster awaiting you, as you continue to try to do or remember this very simple thing that keeps escaping you…

So yes: the debt ceiling crisis has played out, at least from my perspective, like some horrible emanation from the unconscious mind of the country.  (That description fits the hardline Tea Partiers pretty well, actually.)  And Obama is the avatar in the dream who cannot seem to do or remember the simple-but-impossible thing.  I suspect and kind of hope that he must feel like this at some level himself.  But it’s also felt like a personal nightmare.  There is in the citizen within me (and many others) a wish to wake up and take the government supposedly doing my/our bidding by the lapels and shaking, hard, and slapping forehand and backhand across the cheeks.  And knowing that the hardliners holding up the whole show do not care about my wishes; do not care about any of our wishes, if we do not agree with their ideology.  That’s a kind of nightmare, too.

Economics, government, civics, and nightmares have all been on my mind thanks to The Pale King.  I’ll say more about nightmares in another post.  For now, just let me say that it’s very worthwhile to read and reread section 19 and think about the discussion and/or debate therein, driven by a thoughtful, cogent, apparently conservative high-ranking IRS official, about the role of government, of taxation, and of civic responsibility.  And now I’ll shut up and just let a few excerpts do the talking.  (Except for saying that it’s somewhat useful to keep in mind that the excerpts take place in the very late 1970s, as a Reagan presidency is becoming a possibility.)

Americans are in a way crazy.  We infantilize ourselves.  We don’t think of ourselves as citizens — parts of something larger to which we have profound responsibilities.  We think of ourselves as citizens when it comes to our rights and privileges, but not our responsibilities.  We abdicate our civic responsibility to the government and expect the government, in effect, to legislate morality.  I’m talking mostly about economics and business…

Citizens are constitutionally empowered to choose to default and leave the decisions to corporations and to a government we expect to control them.  Corporations are getting better and better at seducing us into thinking the way they think — of profits as the telos and responsibility as something to be enshrined in symbol and evaded in reality.  Cleverness as opposed to wisdom.  Wanting and having instead of thinking and making.  We cannot stop it.  I suspect what’ll happen is that there will be some sort of disaster — depression, hyperinflation — and then it’ll be showtime: We’ll either wake up and retake our freedom or we’ll fall apart utterly.  Like Rome — conqueror of its own people….

Of course you want it all, of course you want to keep every dime you make.  But you don’t, you ante up, because it’s how things have to be for the whole lifeboat.  You sort of have a duty to the others in the boat.  A duty to yourself not to be the sort of person who waits till everybody is asleep and then eats all the food….

I think it’s no accident that civics isn’t taught anymore or that a young man like yourself bridles at the word duty….

There’s something very curious, though, about the hatred.  The government is the people, leaving aside various complications, but we split it off and pretend it’s not us; we pretend it’s some threatening Other bent on taking our freedoms, taking our money and redistributing it, legislating our morality in drugs, driving, abortion, the environment — Big Brother, the Establishment… With the curious thing being that we hate it for appearing to usurp the very civic functions we’ve ceded to it….

We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie.  So who makes the pie?

Corporations make the pie.  They make it and we eat it….

What my problem is is the way it seems that we as individual citizens have adopted a corporate attitude.  That our ultimate obligation is to ourselves.

The [Internal Revenue] Service’s more aggressive treatment of TPs [taxpayers], especially if it’s high-profile, would seem to keep in the electorate’s mind a fresh and eminently disposable image of Big Government that the Rebel Outsider President could continue to define himself against and decry as just the sort of government intrusion into the private lives and wallets of hardworking Americans he ran for the office to fight against….

The new leader won’t lie to the people: he’ll do what corporate pioneers have discovered works far better: He’ll adopt the persona and rhetoric that let the people lie to themselves.

Bloodlust and Burning Love

March 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Coriolanus.

Reading next: Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems.

Perhaps it goes without saying, since he’s a tragic hero, but nevertheless: Caius Martius Coriolanus is one messed-up dude.  No matter how egregious your fatal flaw might be, though, no one gets messed up, much less dead, without a lot of help along the way.  And really, who better to help you along your way to a gruesome death at the hands of a bloodthirsty mob than your ambitious mother?

Volumnia’s the Lady Macbeth of this play, pushing her son to win glory and honor for his family on the battlefield and then in politics, by standing to become consul.  Coriolanus at least has the skill and inclination to perform amazing feats in war — though he’s a borderline berserker with little regard for tactical niceties.  Entering politics is something he has to be talked into, though, and Volumnia manages it.  It’s a bad idea.  It’s not in his skill set.  (He probably would’ve gotten away with it, though, if it weren’t for the newly appointed peoples’ tribunes.  Aside: it sometimes seems that our own government is composed mostly of people without the inclination for politics, and that in fact we’re looking for exactly the wrong sorts of people in our elections: those who actively scorn political processes and try to equate politics with bureaucracy and waste and faction, and therefore spend most of their time in politics trying not to let anything get done by exploiting the flaws in the system.  One of the most ingenious aspects of Obama’s campaign in 2008 was how he played both sides of this argument, explaining his dislike for bureaucracy and waste and faction but also making his case as a rational, level-headed participant who would operate efficiently in the political sphere.)

But she does talk him into it, and she is, in fact, even colder and more calculating than Lady Macbeth: she’s more concerned about his not embarrassing himself in combat than she is with his surviving battle unscathed (or at all).  You do get the sense, though, that she’s not just a stage mother or a striver.  When she saves Rome from her son at the end of the play, it kind of falls into place that she’s not just a fame-hungry monster, but also a consummate early Roman: republic before family.  Civic pride before flesh and blood.  Public honor before private grief.  Is the fact that the consummate early Romans were, in part,  fame-hungry monsters a big reason why they ended up ruled by Julius Caesar?  Well, sure, I’d guess.

It’s a weird relationship.  As in Lear, part of the weirdness comes from Volumnia’s widowhood and the utter lack of a mention of Coriolanus’ father.  Volumnia seems far more important to Coriolanus than his wife, who hardly ever speaks and whom Coriolanus never seems to consult for advice, sympathy, or much of anything.  It’s much more of a help-meet sort of relationship; there’s virtually nothing of maternal concern or even a sense of her age.

The fact is that there are two people in the play to whom Coriolanus seems to be married, and neither is his wife Virgilia.  Tullus Aufidius, the Volscian general, is his rival, and they are obsessed with defeating each other.  When Coriolanus comes to Aufidius to propose joining to sack Rome, though, in 4.5, we get this pretty amazing admission from Aufidius:

Know thou first,

I loved the maid I married; never man

Sighed truer breath.  But that I see thee here,

Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart

Than when I first my wedded mistress saw

Bestride my threshold.  Why, thou Mars, I tell thee

We have a power on foot, and I had purpose

Once more to hew thy target from thy brawn

Or lose mine arm for’t.  Thou has beat me out

Twelve several times, and I have nightly since

Dreamt of encounters ‘twixt thyself and me —

We have been down together in my sleep,

Unbuckling helms, fisting each other’s throat —

And waked half dead with nothing.

Shortly after, there’s this, from one of Aufidius’ servants: “Our general himself makes a mistress of him, sanctifies himself with’s hand, and turns up the white o’th’eye to his discourse.”  (For “turns up the white o’th’eye,” imagine the smitten damsel gazing up  at her valiant knight, batting her eyes.)  So, yes: the homoerotic elements of Roman military culture are in full force here.  However, Aufidius is important to Coriolanus as a perceived equal or near-equal: he seems to view nearly everyone else in the Roman military with either contempt or disregard.  But then comes Aufidius’ admission of admiration and love.  And very quickly, Coriolanus is treating Aufidius as just another subordinate, not as the equal partner Aufidius expected to be.  Affairs don’t last, and most don’t end well.

The Appearance of Freedom

October 16, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Infinite Jest.

How could I neglect for so long the great discussion of the death of broadcast TV and advertising (p. 410-16)?  It’s great, obviously, for the way it deals with advertising’s weird codependent, parasitic relationship with TV entertainment: how everyone claims to hate TV ads, and they can be so grating and omnipresent and obviously horrible that they even hurt the ratings of the TV shows on and around which they appear (strange: do ads appear “on” or “in” a TV show? why not “among,” or “through”?), but nonetheless they work no matter how much we claim to hate them.  Exhibit A: the political attack ads everyone in the free world claims to hate, but which recur like clockwork in any remotely competitive well-funded race, because they work so much better than the positive ads we all claim to prefer.  (I’m estimating 3/4 of all TV advertising I’ve seen for the past three months has been political — and I watch Simpsons reruns, football, and that’s about it — and just about the only positive ads I’ve seen have been Obama’s, and that’s only a quarter to a half of his ads.  Here in NC, Kay Hagan and Elizabeth Dole are basically just flinging monkey feces at each other by now. )

So this is much like drug addiction (and, while I’m thinking mostly of the recipients of attack ads here, I can imagine McCain furiously rationalizing to himself about one last bender before he goes cold turkey and throws out all the attack-ad and character-assassination-consultant paraphernalia).  But the really stunning phrase occurs in a footnote, in which the narrator pulls us out of Hal’s account to provide a more considered, wider perspective:

164.  Granted that this stuff is all grossly simplified in Hal’s ephebic account; Lace-Forche and Veals are in fact transcendent geniuses of a particularly complex right-time-and-place sort, and their appeals to an American ideology committed to the appearance of freedom almost unanalyzably compelling.

Of course DFW (and that’s as close to straight-up DFW as we get in this book) would consider masters of marketing and advertising “transcendent geniuses.”  He was often a rhetorical writer and they, as a group, are our rhetoricians, however we (or he) may feel about their motives or means.

“Almost unanalyzably compelling” “appeals to an American ideology committed to the appearance of freedom.”  Well, yes.  That’s a very large part of this book.  The AA paradox — the way it works even when you don’t believe in it, and the way it seems to just replace one master with another — is part of that.  This is the darkest aspect of that thread of the narrative: the thought that recovery is just a way of making it appear that you’re free, when you’re really just burying the old urges under layers of habit and repetition and willful recitation of how bad you’d once gotten. (But it works.  And there’s the complication of the Higher Power, which Gately acknowledges that acknowledging this HP even if you don’t believe in it seems to work, and make you feel better.  And the whole AA thing is immensely complicated.)

So there’s our cultural tendency to tell ourselves (in both ads and entertainments) that we have choice, are autonomous, can make that great life-changing moment or relationship or epiphany happen.  But, behind that: the appearance of freedom, not freedom itself.  Our ideology is not freedom itself — freedom is scary, and I’d agree with DFW here that we’ve more or less rejected it by this time in our history, if we ever actually embraced it — but its image.  We have admitted that we do not know what’s best for us and will gladly accept a life of wildly proscribed activity, provided we’re kept safe and entertained.  We’ll watch the TV so long as we appear to be watching what we want.  We’ll pick from two candidates so long as they strenuously insist that they have major differences which we need to take seriously.  We’ll ignore our piles of waste and our overcrowded prisons so long as they’re not in our neighborhood.

And there’s the appearance of freedom from the self: the desire to look like you never think about what you look like, or how you appear to people.  (The U.H.I.D. is a fascinating hall of mirrors, in this respect: appearance of freedom by freedom from appearance.)  Tennis plays into this, too: Schtitt’s philosophical lectures on battling the self, on the freedom available within the constraint of the lines of the court.  Almost Oulipian, those speeches of Schtitt’s.

David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

September 14, 2008 § 3 Comments

Too soon. Too soon. Too soon.

The news was horrifying in a lot of ways, not least of which the method. All of us who loved his work are torn between wanting to know why and not wanting to know anything at all, I think. I’m sure it wasn’t meant as a grand gesture, though. I think we can all agree on that. It’s sad and terrible and I can’t imagine what kind of pain he must have been in, to do this.

While I’m going to reread the last complete novel we’re ever going to get from DFW because it’s the only way I can think of to mourn and celebrate — and because I’ve put it off too long already — it’s two other pieces that my mind keeps going back to. One is “The Depressed Person.” It is so hard to admit that understanding, and empathizing, and expressing, are not the same as overcoming. It’s hard to admit that someone who has shown such a capacity for, and commitment to, all of these things, could commit the ultimate selfish act. Again: what agony he must have been in.

The other is “Up, Simba,” just because of the timing, I suppose. It has been such a shitty month, on a national level. And DFW must have been so disappointed in Senator McCain — in all of us. And I can’t believe I’m never going to hear another word from the one thinker on politics, governance, civic duty, that I actually trusted.

He was one of our great writers, one of our great thinkers. And now he’s dead, and I’m looking at the shelf and his section is far too small. Let’s read him, and remember.

More Humanity

February 11, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invisible Man.

The narrator, the invisible man, has stumbled onto the eviction of an old black couple from their home, and has, in spite of himself, made a speech (beginning as a call to law-abiding behavior and long-suffering) leading to an act of violent uprising. This catches the eye of a socialist group, led by Brother Jack, which grooms him to work for them and speak for them.

In chapter 16 he makes another speech, this time in a crowded auditorium of proselytes, and has similar impact. He says, at one point, after “a stillness so complete that I could hear the gears of the huge clock mounted somewhere on the balcony gnawing upon time” that he feels “more human” before them. He makes a powerful, emotional appeal to them, telling them that they will rise up, and they react powerfully, and he sobs.

He is, of course, being used. The words had poured out of him and it is unclear whether or how deeply he meant them, and where they came from. Immediately after leaving the stage, he meets up with Brother Jack and the other party leaders. In a funny scene, the head socialists are cold and disgusted by his appeal to emotions–his “antithesis of the scientific approach,” his stirring up of the common people. But the organizers, the ones on the streets–they loved it, loved the enthusiasm he generated.

Ellison is opposed to both sides, I think, and is most bothered by all those eyes on the surface of his invisible man, by the enthusiasm of a crowd witnessing the baring of a soul and thinking it mere rhetoric, merely the talking points of their agenda. The narrator himself is troubled by “more human,” and what he might have meant by it. He wonders if he heard it in the literature (Irish Lit?) class he was in, taught by a Dr. Woodridge, who said, of Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, “Stephen’s problem, like ours, was not actually one of creating the uncreated conscience of his race, but of creating the uncreated features of his face. Our task is that of making ourselves individuals.” Ellison does want us to move past race, I think, without neglecting it–to become more human without making anyone become “less of what I was, less a Negro.”

To digress: it all (and maybe obviously) reminds me of Barack Obama. I remember watching his speech at the Democratic Convention in ’04; I remember it was amazing, beautiful, powerful, star-making (maybe more so after all the clunky, wooden verbiage of Kerry and Bush’s utter lack of anything like a believable rhetoric). And obviously it was. And it seemed realer, somehow: you got the sense that he felt it, not just that he knew it was his chance to make a name for himself. We’d gotten to like him, in Illinois, and I was actually excited for him, and about him, and to see him showing it to the rest of the country. I remember the analysts on PBS after it ended. They were clearly very impressed, clearly thought highly of this kid from Illinois–and I caught a whiff of dismissal, a sense that he might amount to something after three or four terms in the Senate. Putting him in his place; bemoaning his lack of the scientific approach.

Anyway, I digress. “More human” is clearly an ambiguous, dangerous, problematic phrase for Ellison and his invisible man, but I do think it’s a perfect statement of what I (we all?) want to end up with in this election. More humanity, for God’s sake. We’ve got no choice but to vote for an operator, but let’s at least vote for someone with a sense of what they’re operating for, and who they’re operating on.

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