Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Donald Trump

The end of applause

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On July 8, 1962, at a performance of Bach’s The Art of Fugue, the pianist Glenn Gould asked his audience not to applaud at the end. Most of his listeners complied, although the request clearly made them uneasy. A few months earlier, Gould had published an essay, “Let’s Ban Applause!”, in which he presented the case against the convention. (I owe my discovery of this piece to an excellent episode of my wife’s podcast, Rework, which you should check out if you haven’t done so already.) Gould wrote:

I have come to the conclusion, most seriously, that the most efficacious step which could be taken in our culture today would be the gradual but total elimination of audience response…I believe that the justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.

Later that year, Gould expanded on his position in an interview with The Globe and Mail. When asked why he disliked applause, he replied:

I am rebellious about the institution of the concert—of the mob, which sits in judgment. Some artists seem to place too much reliance on the sweaty mass response of the moment. If we must have a public response at all, I feel it should be much less savage than it is today…Applause tells me nothing. Like any other artist, I can always pull off a few musical tricks at the end of a performance and the decibel count will automatically go up ten points.

The last line is the one that interests me the most. Gould, I think, was skeptical of applause largely because it reminded him of his own worst instincts as a performer—the part that would fall back on a few technical tricks to milk a more enthusiastic response from his audience in the moment. The funny thing about social media, of course, is that it places all of us in this position. If you’ve spent any time on Twitter or Facebook, you know that some messages will generate an enthusiastic response from followers, while others will go over like a lead balloon, and we quickly learn to intuitively sense the difference. Even if it isn’t conscious, it quietly affects the content that we decide to put out there in the world, as well as the opinions and the sides of ourselves that we reveal to others. And while this might seem like a small matter, it had a real impact on our politics, which became increasingly driven by ideas that thrived in certain corners of the social marketplace, where they inspired the “momentary ejection of adrenaline” that Gould decried. Last month, Antonio García Martínez, a former Facebook employee, wrote on Wired of the logistics of the site’s ad auction system:

During the run-up to the election, the Trump and Clinton campaigns bid ruthlessly for the same online real estate in front of the same swing-state voters. But because Trump used provocative content to stoke social media buzz, and he was better able to drive likes, comments, and shares than Clinton, his bids received a boost from Facebook’s click model, effectively winning him more media for less money. In essence, Clinton was paying Manhattan prices for the square footage on your smartphone’s screen, while Trump was paying Detroit prices.

And in the aftermath, Trump’s attitudes toward important issues often seem driven by the response that he gets on Twitter, which leads to a cycle in which he’s encouraged to become even more like what he already is. (In the past, I’ve drawn a comparison between his evolution and that of L. Ron Hubbard, and I think that it still holds up.) In many ways, Trump is the greatest embodiment so far of the tendency that Gould diagnosed half a century ago, in which the performer is driven to change himself in response to the collective feedback that he receives from applause. It’s no accident that Trump only seems truly alive on camera, in front of a cheering crowd, or while tweeting, or why he displays such an obsession with polls and television ratings. Applause may have told Gould nothing, but it tells Trump everything. Social media was a pivotal factor in his victory, but only at the cost of transforming him into a monster that his younger self—as craven and superficial as he was—might not have recognized. And it worked horrifyingly well. At an interview in January, Trump admonished reporters: “The fact is, you people won’t say this, but I’ll say it: I was a much better candidate than [Clinton]. You always say she was a bad candidate; you never say I was a good candidate. I was one of the greatest candidates. Someday you’re going to say that.” Well, I’m ready to say it now. Before the election, I argued in a blog post that Trump’s candidacy would establish the baseline of the popular vote that could be won by the worst possible campaign, and by any conventional measure, I was right. Like everyone else, though, I missed the larger point. Even as we mocked Trump for boasting about the attendance at his rallies, he was listening to the applause, and he evolved in real time into something that would raise the decibel count to shattering levels.

It almost makes me wish that we had actually banned applause back in the sixties, at least for the sake of a thought experiment. In his essay, Gould sketched a picture of how a concert might conclude under his new model:

In the early stages…the performers may feel a moment of unaccustomed tension at the conclusion of their selection, when they must withdraw to the wings unescorted by the homage of their auditors. For orchestral players this should provide no hazard: a platoon of cellists smartly goose-stepping offstage is an inspiring sight. For the solo pianist, however, I would suggest a sort of lazy-Susan device which would transport him and his instrument to the wings without his having to rise. This would encourage performance of those sonatas which end on a note of serene reminiscence, and in which the lazy Susan could be set gently in motion some moments before the conclusion.

It’s hard to imagine Trump giving a speech in such a situation. If it weren’t for the rallies, he never would have run for president at all, and much of his administration has consisted of his wistful efforts to recapture that glorious moment. (The infamous meeting in which he was showered with praise by his staff members—half a dozen of whom are now gone—feels now like an attempt to recreate that dynamic in a smaller room, and his recent request for a military parade channels that impulse into an even more troubling direction.) Instead of banning applause, of course, we did exactly the opposite. We enabled it everywhere—and then we upvoted its ultimate creation into the White House.

Written by nevalalee

March 16, 2018 at 9:02 am

The scorpion and the snake

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At the end of the most haunting speech in Citizen Kane, Mr. Bernstein says wistfully: “I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.” And I don’t think a week goes by that I don’t think about Orson Welles, who increasingly seems to have led one of the richest and most revealing of all American lives. He was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, of all places. As a young man, he allegedly put together a résumé worthy of a Hemingway protagonist, including a stint as a bullfighter, before he was out of his teens. In New York, he unquestionably made a huge impact on theater and radio, and he even had a hand in the development of the modern superhero and the invasion of science fiction into the mainstream, in the form of a classic—and possibly exaggerated—case of mass hysteria fueled by the media. His reward was what remains the most generous contract that any newcomer has ever received from a major movie studio, and he responded at the age of twenty-five with what struck many viewers, even on its first release, as the best film ever made. (If you’re an ambitious young person, this is the sort of achievement that seems vaguely plausible when you’re twenty and utterly absurd by the time you’re thirty.) After that, it was all downhill. His second picture, an equally heartbreaking story about an American family, was taken out of his hands. Welles became distracted by politics and stage conjuring, fell in love with Dolores del Río, married Rita Hayworth, and played Harry Lime in The Third Man. He spent the rest of his life wandering from one shoot to the next, acquiring a reputation as a ham and a sellout as he tried to scrounge up enough money to make a few more movies, some of them extraordinary. Over the years, he became so fat that he turned it into a joke for his audiences: “Why are there so few of you, and so many of me?” He died alone at home in the Hollywood Hills, typing up a few pages of script that he hoped to shoot the next day, shortly after taping an appearance on The Merv Griffin Show. His last film performance was as Unicron, the devourer of planets, in The Transformers: The Movie.

Even the barest outlines of his story, which I’ve written out here from memory, hint at the treasure hoard of metaphors that it offers. But that also means that we need to be cautious when we try to draw lessons from Welles, or to apply his example to the lives of others. I was once so entranced by the parallels between Welles and John W. Campbell that I devoted an entire blog post to listing them in detail, but I’ve come to realize that you could do much the same with just about any major American life of a certain profile. It presents an even greater temptation with Donald Trump, who once claimed that Citizen Kane was his favorite movie—mostly, I suspect, because it sounded better than Bloodsport. And it might be best to retire the comparisons between Kane and Trump, not to mention Jared Kushner, only because they’re too flattering. (If anything, Trump may turn out to have more in common with Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil, the corrupt sheriff of a border town who frames a young Mexican for murder, only to meet his downfall after one of his closest associates is persuaded to wear a wire. As the madam played by Marlene Dietrich says after his death: “He was some kind of a man. What does it matter what you say about people?”) But there are times when he leaves me with no choice. As Eli Rosenberg of the Washington Post noted in a recent article, Trump is oddly fond of the lyrics to a song titled “The Snake,” which he first recited at a primary event in Cedar Falls, Iowa, saying that he had read it “the other day.” He repeatedly returned to it throughout the campaign, usually departing from his scripted remarks to do so—and it’s a measure of the dispiriting times in which we live that this attracted barely any attention, when by most standards it would qualify as one of the weirdest things that a presidential candidate had ever done. Trump read it again with a flourish at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference: “Did anyone ever hear me do ‘The Snake’ during the campaign? I had five people outside say, ‘Could you do “The Snake?”‘ Let’s do it. I’ll do it, all right?”

In “The Snake,” a woman takes pity on a snake in the snow and carries it home, where it bites her with the explanation: “Oh shut up, silly woman. You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.” As Trump helpfully says: “You have to think of this in terms of immigration.” There’s a lot to unpack here, sadly, and the article in the Post points out that the original song was written by Oscar Brown Jr., a black singer and social activist from Chicago whose family isn’t particularly happy about its appropriation by Trump. Other observers, including Fox News, have pointed out its similarities to “The Scorpion and the Frog,” a fable that has made appearances in movies from The Crying Game to Drive. Most commentators trace it back to Aesop, but its first known appearance is in Welles’s Mr. Arkadin, which was released in 1955, and it’s likely that we owe its most familiar version to none other than Welles himself. (Welles had written Harry Lime’s famous speech about the cuckoo clocks just a few years earlier, and Mr. Arkadin was based on the radio series The Lives of Harry Lime.) Here’s how Welles delivers it:

And now I’m going to tell you about a scorpion. This scorpion wanted to cross a river, so he asked the frog to carry him. “No,” said the frog, “no thank you. If I let you on my back you may sting me and the sting of the scorpion is death.” “Now, where,” asked the scorpion, “is the logic in that?” For scorpions always try to be logical. “If I sting you, you will die. I will drown.” So, the frog was convinced and allowed the scorpion on his back. But just in the middle of the river, he felt a terrible pain and realized that, after all, the scorpion had stung him. “Logic!” cried the dying frog as he started under, bearing the scorpion down with him. “There is no logic in this!” “I know,” said the scorpion, “but I can’t help it—it’s my character.” Let’s drink to character.

And just as Arkadin raises the possibility that the scorpion is himself, you’ll often see arguments that that Trump subconsciously identifies with the snake. As Dan Lavoie, an aide to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, recently wrote on Twitter, with what seems like almost an excess of shrewdness: “Historians will view it as obvious that Trump was describing himself in ‘The Snake.’ His over-the-top recitation will be the narrative device for the first big post-Trump documentary.”

We often explain real life to ourselves in terms drawn from the movies, and one way to capture the uncanny quality of the Trump administration is to envision the rally scene in Citizen Kane with the candidate delivering “The Scorpion and the Frog” to the crowd instead—which only indicates that we’ve already crossed into a far stranger universe. But the fable also gets at a deeper affinity between Trump and Welles. In his book Rosebud, which is the best treatment of Welles that I’ve seen, the critic David Thomson returns obsessively to the figure of the scorpion, and he writes of its first appearance on film:

The Welles of this time believed in so little, and if he was to many a monstrous egotist, still he hated his own pride as much as anything. We should remember that this is the movie in which Arkadin delivers the speech—so much quoted afterward, and in better films, that it seems faintly spurious now in Arkadin—about the scorpion and the frog. It is a description of self-abuse and suicide. That Welles/Arkadin delivers it with a grandiose, shining relish only illustrates the theatricality of his most heartfelt moments. That Welles could not give the speech greater gravity or sadness surely helps us understand the man some often found odious. And so a speech full of terror became a cheap trick.

What sets Trump’s version apart, beyond even Welles’s cynicism, is that it’s both full of terror and a cheap trick. All presidents have told us fables, but only to convince us that we might be better than we truly are, as when Kane archly promises to help “the underprivileged, the underpaid, and the underfed.” Trump is the first to use such rhetoric to bring out the worst in us. He can’t help it. It’s his character. And Trump might be like Arkadin in at least one other way. Arkadin is a millionaire who claims to no longer remember the sources of his wealth, so he hires a private eye to investigate him. But he really hasn’t forgotten anything. As Thomson writes: “Rather, he wants to find out how easily anyone—the FBI, the IRS, the corps of biography—might be able to trace his guilty past…and as this blunt fool discovers the various people who could testify against him, they are murdered.”

Written by nevalalee

February 26, 2018 at 9:31 am

The war of ideas

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Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about a pair of tweets. One is from Susan Hennessy, an editor for the national security blog Lawfare, who wrote: “Much of my education has been about grasping nuance, shades of gray. Resisting the urge to oversimplify the complexity of human motivation. This year has taught me that, actually, a lot of what really matters comes down to good people and bad people. And these are bad people.” This is a remarkable statement, and in some ways a heartbreaking one, but I can’t disagree with it, and it reflects a growing trend among journalists and other commentators to simply call what we’re seeing by its name. In response to the lies about the students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School—including the accusation that some of them are actors—Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post wrote:

When people act like cretins, should they be ignored? Does talking about their misdeeds merely give them oxygen? Maybe so. But the sliming—there is no other word for it—of the survivors of last week’s Florida high school massacre is beyond the pale…Legitimate disagreement over policy issues is one thing. Lies, conspiracy theories and insults are quite another.

And Paul Krugman went even further: “America in 2018 is not a place where we can disagree without being disagreeable, where there are good people and good ideas on both sides, or whatever other bipartisan homily you want to recite. We are, instead, living in a kakistocracy, a nation ruled by the worst, and we need to face up to that unpleasant reality.”

The other tweet that has been weighing on my mind was from Rob Goldman, a vice president of advertising for Facebook. It was just one of a series of thoughts—which is an important detail in itself—that he tweeted out on the day that Robert Mueller indicted thirteen Russian nationals for their roles in interfering in the presidential election. After proclaiming that he was “very excited” to see the indictments, Goldman said that he wanted to clear up a few points. He had seen “all of the Russian ads” that appeared on Facebook, and he stated: “I can say very definitively that swaying the election was not the main goal.” But his most memorable words, at least for me, were: “The majority of the Russian ad spend happened after the election. We shared that fact, but very few outlets have covered it because it doesn’t align with the main media narrative of Tump [sic] and the election.” This is an astounding statement, in part because it seems to defend Facebook by saying that it kept running these ads for longer than most people assume. But it’s also inexplicable. It may well be, as some observers have contended, that Goldman had a “nuanced” point to make, but he chose to express it on a forum that is uniquely vulnerable to being taken out of context, and to unthinkingly use language that was liable to be misinterpreted. As Josh Marshall wrote:

[Goldman] even apes what amounts to quasi-Trumpian rhetoric in saying the media distorts the story because the facts “don’t align with the main media narrative of Trump and the election.” This is silly. Elections are a big deal. It’s hardly surprising that people would focus on the election, even though it’s continued since. What is this about exactly? Is Goldman some kind of hardcore Trumper?

I don’t think he is. But it also doesn’t matter, at least not when his thoughts were retweeted approvingly by the president himself.

This all leads me to a point that the events of the last week have only clarified. We’re living in a world in which the lines between right and wrong seem more starkly drawn than ever, with anger and distrust rising to an unbearable degree on both sides. From where I stand, it’s very hard for me to see how we recover from this. When you can accurately say that the United States has become a kakistocracy, you can’t just go back to the way things used to be. Whatever the outcome of the next election, the political landscape has been altered in ways that would have been unthinkable even two years ago, and I can’t see it changing during my lifetime. But even though the stakes seem clear, the answer isn’t less nuance, but more. If there’s one big takeaway from the last eighteen months, it’s that the line between seemingly moderate Republicans and Donald Trump was so evanescent that it took only the gentlest of breaths to blow it away. It suggests that we were closer to the precipice than we ever suspected, and unpacking that situation—and its implications for the future—requires more nuance than most forms of social media can provide. Rob Goldman, who should have known better, didn’t grasp this. And while I hope that the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas do better, I also worry about how effective they can really be. Charlie Warzel of Buzzfeed recently argued that the pro-Trump media has met its match in the Parkland students: “It chose a political enemy effectively born onto the internet and innately capable of waging an information war.” I want to believe this. But it may also be that these aren’t the weapons that we need. The information war is real, but the only way to win it may be to move it into another battlefield entirely.

Which brings us, in a curious way, back to Robert Mueller, who seems to have assumed the same role for many progressives that Nate Silver once occupied—the one man who was somehow going to tell us that everything was going to be fine. But their differences are also telling. Silver generated reams of commentary, but his reputation ultimately came down to his ability to provide a single number, updated in real time, that would indicate how worried we had to be. That trust is clearly gone, and his fall from grace is less about his own mistakes than it’s an overdue reckoning for the promises of data journalism in general. Mueller, by contrast, does everything in private, avoids the spotlight, and emerges every few months with a mountain of new material that we didn’t even know existed. It’s nuanced, qualitative, and not easy to summarize. As the coverage endlessly reminds us, we don’t know what else the investigation will find, but that’s part of the point. At a time in which controversies seem to erupt overnight, dominate the conversation for a day, and then yield to the next morning’s outrage, Mueller embodies the almost anachronistic notion that the way to make something stick is to work on it diligently, far from the public eye, and release each piece only when you’re ready. (In the words of a proverbial saying attributed to everyone from Buckminster Fuller to Michael Schrage: “Never show fools unfinished work.” And we’re all fools these days.) I picture him fondly as the head of a monastery in the Dark Ages, laboriously preserving information for the future, or even as the shadowy overseer of Asimov’s Foundation. Mueller’s low profile allows him to mean whatever we want to us, of course, and for all I know, he may not be the embodiment of all the virtues that Ralph Waldo Emerson identified as punctuality, personal attention, courage, and thoroughness. I just know that he’s the only one left who might be. Mueller can’t save us by himself. But his example might just show us the way.

The stories of our lives

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Last week, I mentioned the evocative challenge that the writer and literary agent John Brockman recently posed to a group of scientists and intellectuals: “Ask the question for which you will be remembered.” I jokingly said that my own question would probably resemble the one submitted by the scholar Jonathan Gottschall: “Are stories bad for us?” As often happens with such snap decisions, however, this one turned out to be more revealing than I had anticipated. When I look back at my work as a writer, it’s hard to single out any overarching theme, but I do seem to come back repeatedly to the problem of reading the world as a text. My first novel, The Icon Thief, was openly inspired by Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, which inverts the conventions of the conspiracy thriller to explore how we tell ourselves stories about history and reality. I didn’t go quite as far as Eco did, but it was a subject that I enjoyed, and it persisted to a lesser extent in my next two books. My science fiction stories tend to follow a formula that I’ve described as The X-Files in reverse, in which a paranormal interpretation of a strange event is supplanted by another that fits the same facts into a more rational pattern. And I’m currently finishing up a book that is secretly about how the stories that we read influence our behavior in the real world. As Isaac Asimov pointed out in his essay “The Sword of Achilles,” most readers are drawn to science fiction at a young age, and its values and assumptions subtly affect how they think and feel. If there’s a single thread that runs through just about everything I’ve written, then, it’s the question of how our tendency to see the world as a story—or a text—can come back to haunt us in unexpected ways.

As it happens, we’re all living right now through a vast social experiment that might have been designed to test this very principle. I got to thinking about this soon after reading an excellent essay, “The Weight of the Words,” by the political scientist Jacob T. Levy. He begins with a discussion of Trump’s “shithole countries” remark, which led a surprising number of commentators—on both the right and the left—to argue that the president’s words were less important than his actions. Levy summarizes this view: “Ignore the tweets. Ignore Trump’s inflammatory language. Ignore the words. What counts is the policy outcomes.” He continues:

I have a hard time believing that anyone really thinks like this as a general proposition…The longstanding view among conservatives was that Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech and Reagan’s call to “tear down this wall” were important events, words that helped to mobilize western resistance to Communism and to provide moral clarity about the stakes of that resistance.

On a more basic level, since it’s impossible for the government to accomplish everything by force, much of politics lies in emotional coercion, which suggest that words have power in themselves. Levy refers to Hannah Arendt’s argument in The Human Condition, in which a familiar figure appears:

The stature of the Homeric Achilles can be understood only if one sees him as “the doer of great deeds and the speakers of great words”…Thought was secondary to speech, but speech and action were considered to be coeval and coequal, of the same rank and the same kind; and this originally meant not only that most political action, in so far as it remains outside the sphere of violence, is indeed transacted in words, but more fundamentally that finding the right words at the right moment, quite apart from the information or communication they may convey, is action.

Levy then lists many of the obvious ways in which Trump’s words have had tangible effects—the erosion of America’s stature abroad, the undermining of trust in law enforcement and the civil service, the growth of tribalism and xenophobia, and the redefinition of what it means to be a Republican. (As Levy notes of Trump’s relationship to his supporters: “He doesn’t speak for them; how many of them had a view about ‘the deep state’ two years ago? He speaks to them, and it matters.”) Trump routinely undercuts the very notion of truth, in what seems like the ultimate example of the power of speech over the world of fact. And Levy’s conclusion deserves to be read whenever we need to be reminded of how this presidency differs from all the others that have come before:

The alleged realism of those who want to ignore words will often point to some past president whose lofty rhetoric obscured ugly policies. Whether those presidents are named “Reagan and George W. Bush” or “JFK and Barack Obama” varies in the obvious way, but the deflationary accounts are similar; there are blunders, crimes, abuses, and atrocities enough to find in the record of every American president. But all those presidents put forward a public rhetorical face that was better than their worst acts. This inevitably drives political opponents crazy: they despise the hypocrisy and the halo that good speeches put on undeserving heads. I’ve had that reaction to, well, every previous president in my living memory, at one time or another. But there’s something important and valuable in the fact that they felt the need to talk about loftier ideals than they actually governed by. They kept the public aspirations of American political culture pointed toward Reagan’s “shining city on a hill.”

He concludes of all of our previous presidents: “In words, even if not in deeds, they championed a free and fair liberal democratic order, the protection of civil liberties, openness toward the world, rejection of racism at home, and defiance against tyranny abroad. And their words were part of the process of persuading each generation of Americans that those were constitutively American ideals.” America, in short, is a story that Americans tell one another—and the world—about themselves, and when we change the assumptions behind this narrative, it has profound implications in practice. We treat others according to the roles that we’ve imagined for ourselves, or, more insidiously, that our society has imagined for us. Those roles are often restrictive, but they can also be liberating, both for good and for bad. (Levy perceptively notes that the only federal employees who don’t feel devalued these days are immigration and border agents.) And Levy sounds a warning that we would all do well to remember:

“Ignore the tweets, ignore the language, ignore the words” is advice that affects a kind of sophistication: don’t get distracted by the circus, keep your eye on what’s going on behind the curtain. This is faux pragmatism, ignoring what is being communicated to other countries, to actors within the state, and to tens of millions of fellow citizens. It ignores how all those actors will respond to the speech, and how norms, institutions, and the environment for policy and coercion will be changed by those responses. Policy is a lagging indicator; ideas and the speech that expresses them pave the way.

“Trump has spent a year on the campaign trail and a year in office telling us where he intends to take us,” Levy concludes. And we’re all part of this story now. But we should be even more worried if the words ever stop. As Arendt wrote more than half a century ago: “Only sheer violence is mute.”

Le Guin Again

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A few weeks after the presidential election, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote on her personal blog: “Americans have voted for a politics of fear, anger, and hatred, and those of us who oppose this politics are now trying to figure out how we can oppose it usefully. I want to defend my country, my republic. In the atmosphere of fear, anger, and hatred, opposition too easily becomes division, fixed enmity. I’m looking for a place to stand, or a way to go, where the behavior of those I oppose will not control my behavior.” The problem of opposing the situation “usefully” is one that evidently preoccupied her for the rest of her life, as Donald Trump, whom she had once dismissed as “the essentially harmless nut who thinks he’s Napoleon,” continued to dominate the conversation in the country that she loved. And she had been preparing for this fight for her entire career. Last February, after comparing Trump to the golem, a giant that could be turned back into mud if a single letter on its forehead were erased, she wrote:

[Trump] is a true, great master of the great game of this age, the Celebrity Game. Attention is what he lives on. Celebrity without substance. His “reality” is “virtual”—i.e. non-existent—but he used this almost-reality to disguise a successful bid for real power. Every witty parody, hateful gibe, clever takeoff, etc., merely plays his game, and therefore plays into his hands…Look away from him, and at the people who are working desperately to save what they can save of our Republic and our hope of avoiding nuclear catastrophe. Look away from him, and at reality, and things begin to get back into proportion…He is entirely a creature of the media. He is a media golem. If you take the camera and mike off him, if you take your attention off him, nothing is left—mud.

Two or three years ago, the strategy of collectively ignoring Trump might have worked well enough to get rid of him. It seems less effective now. But I think that what Le Guin was advocating was less the idea of reducing him to irrelevance through our collective indifference, which is a ship that has unfortunately sailed, than of limiting his impact on our inner lives. The relationship between the private self and the state is a mystery that has been investigated by countless American writers, and the beauty of Le Guin’s work was that she was able to explore it on an interplanetary level. Science fiction has a way of making individual human beings seem all but irrelevant, to the point where the genre’s true hero, as the editor John W. Campbell often argued, is humanity as a whole. Its depiction of societies evolving over time may well be a more accurate reflection of how the world works than conventional realism, which has a way of overstating the power of free will, but it can also be frustrating for those of us who look to fiction for answers. Le Guin’s genius lay in taking this inherent tension and transforming it into one of her great themes, which was the role that specific people could play in the rise and fall of planets. It makes for a stark contrast with Asimov’s Foundation series, in which history is reduced to the statistical aggregate of trillions of lives, and it also avoids the trap of the Star Wars franchise, which until recently seemed to identify the fate of the galaxy with that of a single family. Le Guin’s protagonists aren’t chosen by fate, but they also aren’t rendered irrelevant by the scale of the problems involved. They’re ordinary men and women doing what they can to affect systems of unbelievable complexity.

Earlier this week, I republished my post on The Left Hand of Darkness, which is the story of a solitary envoy, Genly Ai, who sets out to convince an entire planet to change its ways. A few years later, Le Guin revisited this basic story in The Dispossessed, which in some respects is even more interesting, because it comes closer to our own experience. If Genly Ai is almost unbelievably admirable and devoted to his cause, Shevek, the central figure of The Dispossessed, is a mess. The novel opens with Shevek traveling from his planet, Anarres, to its twin, Urras, which have been isolated from each other for generations. Anarres is an anarchist utopia, while Urras has developed along capitalist lines, and they exist in a state of mutual distrust. Shevek, a physicist, sees his visit to Urras as a way of bringing the two cultures closer together, or so he tells himself and others. In fact, his motivations are more complicated—he left Anarres largely because of professional frustration—and when he arrives at his destination, he makes a terrible job of it. He allows himself to be manipulated by the ruling class; he gets drunk and makes a clumsy pass at a married woman; and when he finally goes over to the side of the underground revolution, his only visible act is to give a speech at which scores of people are killed. In the end, when he returns to Anarres, he seems to have accomplished almost nothing, and the book ends on a note of ambiguity. (To be fair, Shevek also discovers the principles behind the ansible, a form of communication that travels faster than light, but this is handled almost as an aside.) It’s a messier, more frustrating novel than The Left Hand of Darkness, but it also more accurately reflects the nature of most political engagement, which is often driven by personal factors, and frequently leaves us unsure if any of it was worthwhile.

And it isn’t an accident that The Dispossessed centers on the image of a wall. On the very first page of the novel, Le Guin describes the wall around the spaceport on Anarres, which is the only legal boundary on the entire planet:

There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. Where it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.

After arriving on Urras, Shevek finds himself on a planet of walls, including the ones inside the heads of the people whom he meets. He marvels of one of them: “There were walls around all his thoughts, and he seemed utterly unaware of them, though he was perpetually hiding behind them.” But Shevek soon finds walls in his own mind as well. Moving past them is Le Guin’s other major theme, and she returned to the image repeatedly in the months before her death. In February, she posted a poem by Anita Endrezze simply titled “The Wall,” followed a few months afterward by a poem of her own, “The Jaguar,” in which she remembers being given a piece of the Berlin Wall by a friend, and adds: “but this wall they are building / straight across my heartland / with our flag draped across it / is the coffin of my country.” She lived long enough to see many of her worst fears come to pass, and she died while they were still unresolved. But in her very last post, in a poem that she wrote a quarter of a century ago, Le Guin left us with what often seems like the only possible answer: “And I will honor only / my people, the powerless.”

Written by nevalalee

January 26, 2018 at 9:26 am

The large rug

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A few days ago, I was browsing through The Journals of André Gide, 1914-1927 in search of a quotation when my eye was caught by the following passage:

What a wonderful subject for a novel: X. indulges in a tremendous effort of ingenuity, scheming, and duplicity to succeed in an undertaking that he knows to be reprehensible. He is urged on by his temperament, which has its exigences, then by the rule of conduct he has built in order to satisfy them. It takes an extreme and hourly application; he expends more resolve, energy, and patience in this than would be needed to succeed in the best. And when eventually the event is prepared to such a point that he has only to let it take its course, the letdown he experiences allows him to reflect; he then realizes that he has ceased to desire greatly that felicity on which he had counted too much. But it is too late now to back out; he is caught in the mechanism he has built and set in motion and, willy-nilly, he must now follow its impetus to its conclusion.

Reading this over, I naturally thought of Donald Trump, who seems less happy to be in the White House than any other president in recent memory. Before I reveal how the story ends, however, I need to talk about Gide himself, a man of letters who was awarded the Nobel Prize later in life in honor of a career of extraordinary range and productivity. The plot that he outlines here sounds at first like a crime novel, but he may well have had a political context in mind—he wrote this journal entry on May 9, 1918, adding a few days later of the war: “The victory will be due to an invention, to something surprising or other; and not so much to the army as to the scientist and the engineer.”

But there’s also an uncomfortable truth about Gide that we need to confront. In 1999, Anthony Lane of The New Yorker wrote an appreciation of Gide’s work, saying that his “sincerity” was “alarmingly apposite to our own era, when a few insincere words to the press corps are almost enough to unseat a president.” This reads now as merely quaint. But a few pages later, Lane writes: “Gide was true to his inconstancy; he would never relinquish his sweet tooth for young Arabs, or for teenagers of every race.” In the book André and Oscar, Jonathan Fryer, a sympathetic biographer, describes a trip to North Africa that Gide took in his early twenties:

André’s illness did not prevent his going out to sit with [the painter] Paul Laurens, as his friend painted local scenes, or persuaded local children to pose for him. The children fascinated André. Groups of boys would gather outside the hotel where the two friends were staying, out of curiosity or a wish to earn a few coins through some trivial service. André’s attention had been particularly caught by one brown-skinned lad called Ali, who one day suggested that he should carry André’s overcoat and invalid’s rug to the dunes, where André could enjoy some of the weak autumn sun…As soon as they got into the crater, the boy threw his coat and rug to the ground, then flung himself down, stretched out on his back, his arms spread out, all the while laughing. André sat down primly at a distance, well aware of what was on offer, but not quite ready to accept. Ali’s face clouded; his smile disappeared. “Goodbye then,” he said, rising to his feet. But André seized the hand that the boy held out and pulled him to the ground.

I’ll skip over Frye’s description of what happened next on that “invalid’s rug,” but I’m compelled to note that he concludes of what he calls “this restorative treatment”: “André had indeed found himself.”

What are we supposed to think about this? Many of Gide’s admirers have done their best not to think about it at all. Lane, writing two decades ago, mentions it only in passing. (His article, incidentally, is titled “The Man in the Mirror,” a pop culture reference that I sincerely hope wasn’t intentional.) Fryer does what he can in the line of extenuation, in terms that have an uncomfortably familiar ring: “Most of André’s and Paul’s little visitors were on the wrong side of puberty, as moralists these days would view it. Not that André’s pedophilia seems to have taken on any physical dimension. Many of his future sexual partners would range between the ages of fourteen to seventeen, with the initiative coming from the adolescent himself.” This wouldn’t fly today, and even if we try to ignore Gide’s interest in very young children—Fryer compares him to Lewis Carroll—there’s no getting around those teenagers. In André Gide: A Life in the Present, the biographer Alan Sheridan shares the following story, which took place when Gide was in his thirties:

The train journey to Weimar was not without its “petite aventure.” No doubt as the result of his usual systematic inspection of the entire train, Gide found himself in a compartment with two German boys, brothers aged sixteen and fourteen. After falling asleep, Gide woke up to find the younger boy standing near him looking out of the window. Gide got up and stood beside him. Wandering fingers were met with encouragement—the elder brother was still asleep. Under a large rug, matters proceeded, further helped when the train entered a long tunnel.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. And Sheridan’s “matters proceeded,” like Fryer’s “restorative treatment,” feels like another large rug flung over our ability to honestly talk about it.

I’m not an expert on Gide, so I really can’t do anything more at this stage than flag this and move on. But it seems clear that we’re at the early stages of a reckoning that is only now beginning to turn to the figures of the past. Much of the pain of recent revelations comes from the realization that men we admired and saw as intellectual or artistic role models have repeatedly betrayed that trust, and the fact that the person in question is no longer alive shouldn’t exempt him from scrutiny. If anything, it’s only going to get harder from here, since we’re talking in many cases about literary giants whose behavior has been a matter of public record for decades. (Just last week, Orhan Pamuk, another Nobel laureate, mentioned Gide in the New York Times in an essay on the rise of nationalism in the West, but omitted any discussion of his personal life—and if you think that this isn’t relevant, try to imagine doing it now with a consideration of the ideas of, say, Israel Horovitz or Leon Wieseltier.) Here’s the conclusion of Gide’s “wonderful subject for a novel” that I quoted above:

The event that [X.] no longer dominates carries him along and it is almost passively that he witnesses his perdition. Unless he suddenly gets out of it by a sort of cowardice; for there are some who lack the courage to pursue their acts to their conclusion, without moreover being any more virtuous for this reason. On the contrary they come out diminished and with less self-esteem. This is why, everything considered, X. will persevere, but without any further desire, without joy and rather through fidelity. This is the reason why there is often so little happiness in crime—and what is called “repentance” is frequently only the exploitation of this.

This still seems to shed light on Trump and his enablers—but also on Harvey Weinstein and so many others. And it can’t just be swept under the rug.

The two hawks

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I spent much of yesterday thinking about Mike Pence and a few Israeli hawks, although perhaps not the sort that first comes to mind. Many of you have probably seen the excellent profile by McKay Coppins that ran this week in The Atlantic, which attempts to answer a question that is both simpler and more complicated than it might initially seem—namely how a devout Christian like Pence can justify hitching his career to the rise of a man whose life makes a mockery of all the ideals that most evangelicals claim to value. You could cynically assume that Pence, like so many others, has coldly calculated that Trump’s support on a few key issues, like abortion, outweighs literally everything else that he could say or do, and you might well be right. But Pence also seems to sincerely believe that he’s an instrument of divine will, a conviction that dates back at least to his successful campaign for the House of Representatives. Coppins writes:

By the time a congressional seat opened up ahead of the 2000 election, Pence was a minor Indiana celebrity and state Republicans were urging him to run. In the summer of 1999, as he was mulling the decision, he took his family on a trip to Colorado. One day while horseback riding in the mountains, he and Karen looked heavenward and saw two red-tailed hawks soaring over them. They took it as a sign, Karen recalled years later: Pence would run again, but this time there would be “no flapping.” He would glide to victory.

This anecdote caught my eye for reasons that I’ll explain in a moment, but this version leaves out a number of details. As far as I can determine, it first appears in an article that ran in Roll Call back in 2010. It mentions that Pence keeps a plaque on his desk that reads “No Flapping,” and it places the original incident, curiously, in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, not in Colorado:

“We were trying to make a decision as a family about whether to sell our house, move back home and make another run for Congress, and we saw these two red-tailed hawks coming up from the valley floor,” Pence says. He adds that the birds weren’t flapping their wings at all; instead, they were gliding through the air. As they watched the hawks, Pence’s wife told him she was onboard with a third run. “I said, ‘If we do it, we need to do it like those hawks. We just need to spread our wings and let God lift us up where he wants to take us,’” Pence remembers. “And my wife looked at me and said, ‘That’ll be how we do it, no flapping.’ So I keep that on my desk to remember every time my wings get sore, stop flapping.”

Neither article mentions it, but I’m reasonably sure that Pence was thinking of the verse in the Book of Job, which he undoubtedly knows well, that marks the only significant appearance of a hawk in the Bible: “Does the hawk fly by your wisdom, and stretch her wings toward the south?” As one commentary notes, with my italics added: “Aside from calling attention to the miraculous flight, this might refer to migration, or to the wonderful soaring exhibitions of these birds.”

Faithful readers of this blog might recall that earlier this year, I spent three days tracing the movements of a few hawks in the life of another singular figure—the Israeli psychic Uri Geller. In the book Uri, which presents its subject as a messianic figure who draws his telekinetic and precognitive abilities from extraterrestrials, the parapsychological researcher Andrija Puharich recounts a trip to Tel Aviv, where he quickly became convinced of Geller’s powers. While driving through the countryside on New Year’s Day of 1972, Puharich saw two white hawks, followed by others at his hotel two days later:

At times one of the birds would glide in from the sea right up to within a few meters of the balcony; it would flutter there in one spot and stare at me directly in the eyes. It was a unique experience to look into the piercing, “intelligent” eyes of a hawk. It was then that I knew I was not looking into the eyes of an earthly hawk. This was confirmed about 2pm when Uri’s eyes followed a feather, loosened from the hawk, that floated on an updraft toward the top of the Sharon Tower. As his eye followed the feather to the sky, he was startled to see a dark spacecraft parked directly over the hotel.

Geller said that the birds, which he incorrectly claimed weren’t native to Israel, had been sent to protect them. “I dubbed this hawk ‘Horus’ and still use this name each time he appears to me,” Puharich concludes, adding that he saw it on two other occasions. And according to Robert Anton Wilson’s book Cosmic Trigger, the following year, the writer Saul-Paul Sirag was speaking to Geller during an LSD trip when he saw the other man’s head turn into that of a “bird of prey.”

In my original posts, I pointed out that these stories were particularly striking in light of contemporaneous events in the Middle East—much of the action revolves around Geller allegedly receiving information from a higher power about a pending invasion of Israel by Egypt, which took place two years later, and Horus was the Egyptian god of war. (Incidentally, Geller, who is still around, predicted last year that Donald Trump would win the presidential election, based primarily on the fact that Trump’s name contains eleven letters. Geller has a lot to say about the number eleven, which, if you squint just right, looks a bit like two hawks perched side by side, their heads in profile.) And it’s hard to read about Pence’s hawks now without thinking about recent developments in that part of the world. Trump’s policy toward Israel is openly founded on his promises to American evangelicals, many of whom are convinced that the Jews have a role to play in the end times. Pence himself tiptoes right up to the edge of saying this in an interview quoted by Coppins: “My support for Israel stems largely from my personal faith. In the Bible, God promises Abraham, ‘Those who bless you I will bless, and those who curse you I will curse.’” Which might be the most revealing statement of all. The verse that I mentioned earlier is uttered by God himself, who speaks out of the whirlwind with an accounting of his might, which is framed as a sufficient response to Job’s lamentations. You could read it, if you like, as an argument that power justifies suffering, which might be convincing when presented by the divine presence, but less so by men willing to distort their own beliefs beyond all recognition for the sake of their personal advantage. And here’s how the passage reads in full:

Does the hawk fly by your wisdom, and spread its wings toward the south? Does the eagle mount up at your command, and make its nest on high? On the rock it dwells and resides, on the crag of the rock and the stronghold. From there it spies out the prey; its eyes observe from afar. Its young ones suck up blood; and where the slain are, there it is.

Written by nevalalee

December 6, 2017 at 9:04 am

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