Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Donald Trump

Burrowing into The Tunnel

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Last fall, it occurred to me that someone should write an essay on the parallels between the novel The Tunnel by William H. Gass, which was published in 1995, and the contemporary situation in America. Since nobody else seemed to be doing it, I figured that it might as well be me, although it was a daunting project even to contemplate—Gass’s novel is over six hundred pages long and famously impenetrable, and I knew that doing it justice would take at least three weeks of work. Yet it seemed like something that had to exist, so I wrote it up at the end of last year. For various reasons, it took a long time to see print, but it’s finally out now in the New York Times Book Review. It isn’t the kind of thing that I normally do, but it felt like a necessary piece, and I’m pretty proud of how it turned out. And if the intervening seven months don’t seem to have dated it at all, it only puts me in mind of what the radio host on The Simpsons once said about the DJ 3000 computer: “How does it keep up with the news like that?”

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July 12, 2019 at 2:35 pm

Beyond the Whole Earth

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Earlier this week, The New Yorker published a remarkably insightful piece by the memoirist and critic Anna Wiener on Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. Brand, as I’ve noted here many times before, is one of my personal heroes, almost by default—I just wouldn’t be the person I am today without the books and ideas that he inspired me to discover. (The biography of Buckminster Fuller that I plan to spend the next three years writing is the result of a chain of events that started when I stumbled across a copy of the Catalog as a teenager in my local library.) And I’m far from alone. Wiener describes Brand as “a sort of human Venn diagram, celebrated for bridging the hippie counterculture and the nascent personal-computer industry,” and she observes that his work remains a touchstone to many young technologists, who admire “its irreverence toward institutions, its emphasis on autodidacticism, and its sunny view of computers as tools for personal liberation.” Even today, Wiener notes, startup founders reach out to Brand, “perhaps in search of a sense of continuity or simply out of curiosity about the industry’s origins,” which overlooks the real possibility that he might still have more meaningful insights than anybody else. Yet he also receives his share of criticism:

“The Whole Earth Catalog is well and truly obsolete and extinct,” [Brand] said. “There’s this sort of abiding interest in it, or what it was involved in, back in the day…There’s pieces being written on the East Coast about how I’m to blame for everything,” from sexism in the back-to-the-land communes to the monopolies of Google, Amazon, and Apple. “The people who are using my name as a source of good or ill things going on in cyberspace, most of them don’t know me at all.”

Wiener continues with a list of elements in the Catalog that allegedly haven’t aged well: “The pioneer rhetoric, the celebration of individualism, the disdain for government and social institutions, the elision of power structures, the hubris of youth.” She’s got a point. But when I look at that litany of qualities now, they seem less like an ideology than a survival strategy that emerged in an era with frightening similarities to our own. Brand’s vision of the world was shaped by the end of the Johnson administration and by the dawn of Nixon and Kissinger, and many Americans were perfectly right to be skeptical of institutions. His natural optimism obscured the extent to which his ideas were a reaction to the betrayals of Watergate and Vietnam, and when I look around at the world today, his insistence on the importance of individuals and small communities seems more prescient than ever. The ongoing demolition of the legacy of the progressive moment, which seems bound to continue on the judicial level no matter what happens elsewhere, only reveals how fragile it was all along. America’s withdrawal from its positions of leadership on climate change, human rights, and other issues has been so sudden and complete that I don’t think I’ll be able to take the notion of governmental reform seriously ever again. Progress imposed from the top down can always be canceled, rolled back, or reversed as soon as power changes hands. (Speaking of Roe v. Wade, Ruth Bader Ginsburg once observed: “Doctrinal limbs too swiftly shaped, experience teaches, may prove unstable.” She seems to have been right about Roe, even if it took half a century for its weaknesses to become clear, and much the same may hold true of everything that progressives have done through federal legislation.) And if the answer, as incomplete and unsatisfying as it might be, lies in greater engagement on the state and local level, the Catalog remains as useful a blueprint as any that we have.

Yet I think that Wiener’s critique is largely on the mark. The trouble with Brand’s tools, as well as their power, is that they work equally well for everyone, regardless of the underlying motive, and when detached from their original context, they can easily be twisted into a kind of libertarianism that seems callously removed from the lives of the most vulnerable. (As Brand says to Wiener: “Whole Earth Catalog was very libertarian, but that’s because it was about people in their twenties, and everybody then was reading Robert Heinlein and asserting themselves and all that stuff.”) Some of Wiener’s most perceptive comments are directed against the Clock of the Long Now, a project that has fascinated and moved me ever since it was first announced. Wiener is less impressed: “When I first heard about the ten-thousand-year clock, as it is known, it struck me as embodying the contemporary crisis of masculinity.” She points out that the clock’s backers include such problematic figures as Peter Thiel, while the funding comes largely from Jeff Bezos, whose impact on the world has yet to receive a full accounting. And after concluding her interview with Brand, Wiener writes:

As I sat on the couch in my apartment, overheating in the late-afternoon sun, I felt a growing unease that this vision for the future, however soothing, was largely fantasy. For weeks, all I had been able to feel for the future was grief. I pictured woolly mammoths roaming the charred landscape of Northern California and future archeologists discovering the remains of the ten-thousand-year clock in a swamp of nuclear waste. While antagonism between millennials and boomers is a Freudian trope, Brand’s generation will leave behind a frightening, if unintentional, inheritance. My generation, and those after us, are staring down a ravaged environment, eviscerated institutions, and the increasing erosion of democracy. In this context, the long-term view is as seductive as the apolitical, inward turn of the communards from the nineteen-sixties. What a luxury it is to be released from politics––to picture it all panning out.

Her description of this attitude as a “luxury” seems about right, and there’s no question that the Whole Earth Catalog appealed to men and women who had the privilege of reinventing themselves in their twenties, which is a form of freedom that can evolve imperceptibly into complacency and selfishness. I’ve begun to uneasily suspect that the relationship might not just be temporal, but causal. Lamenting that the Catalog failed to save us from our current predicament, which is hard to deny, can feel a little like what David Crosby once said to Rolling Stone:

Somehow Sgt. Pepper’s did not stop the Vietnam War. Somehow it didn’t work. Somebody isn’t listening. I ain’t saying stop trying; I know we’re doing the right thing to live, full on. Get it on and do it good. But the inertia we’re up against, I think everybody’s kind of underestimated it. I would’ve thought Sgt. Pepper’s could’ve stopped the war just by putting too many good vibes in the air for anybody to have a war around.

When I wrote about this quote last year, I noted that a decisive percentage of voters who were old enough to buy Sgt. Pepper on its first release ended up voting for Donald Trump, just as some fans of the Whole Earth Catalog have built companies that have come to dominate our lives in unsettling ways. And I no longer think of this as an aberration, or even as a betrayal of the values expressed by the originals, but as an exposure of the flawed idea of freedom that they represented. (Even the metaphor of the catalog itself, which implies that we can pick and choose the knowledge that we need, seems troubling now.) Writing once of Fuller’s geodesic domes, which were a fixture in the Catalog, Brand ruefully confessed that they were elegant in theory, but in practice, they “were a massive, total failure…Domes leaked, always.” Brand’s vision, which grew out of Fuller’s, remains the most compelling way of life that I know. But it leaked, always.

The confidence tricksters

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When I look back at my life, I find that I’ve always been fascinated by a certain type of personality, at least when observed from a safe distance. I may as well start with Orson Welles, who has been on my mind a lot recently. As David Thomson writes in Rosebud: “Yes, he was a trickster, a rather nasty operator, a credit thief, a bully, a manipulator, a shallow genius…a less than wholesome great man…oh, very well, a habitual liar, a liar of genius.” But in his discussion of the late masterwork F for Fake, Thomson also hints at the essence of Welles’s appeal:

The happiness in F for Fake, the exhilaration, comes from the discovery and the jubilation that knows there is no higher calling than being a magician, a storyteller, a fake who passes the time. This is the work in which Welles finally reconciled the lofty, European, intellectual aspect of himself and the tent show demon who sawed cute dames and wild dreams in half. For it can be very hard to live with the belief that nothing matters in life, that nothing is solid or real, that everything is a show in the egotist’s head. It loses friends, trust, children, home, money, security, and maybe reason. So it is comforting indeed, late in life, to come upon a proof that the emptiness and the trickery are valid and sufficient.

Welles claimed afterward that he had been “faking” his confession of being a charlatan, as if it were somehow incompatible with being an artist—although the great lesson of his life is that it can be possible and necessary to be both at the same time.

This is the kind of figure to whom I’m helplessly drawn—the genius who is also a con artist. You could even make much the same case, with strong reservations, for L. Ron Hubbard. I don’t like him or most of his work, and he caused more pain to other people than anyone else in Astounding. Yet the best clue I’ve ever found to figuring out his character is a passage by Lawrence Wright, who writes shrewdly in Going Clear:

The many discrepancies between Hubbard’s legend and his life have overshadowed the fact that he genuinely was a fascinating man…The tug-of-war between Scientologists and anti-Scientologists over Hubbard’s biography has created two swollen archetypes: the most important person who ever lived and the world’s greatest con man. Hubbard himself seemed to revolve on this same axis…But to label him a pure fraud is to ignore the complex, charming, delusional, and visionary features of his character that made him so compelling.

I’ve spent more time thinking about this than I ever wanted, and I’ve grudgingly concluded that Wright has a point. Hubbard was frankly more interesting than most of his detractors, and he couldn’t have accomplished half of what he did if it weren’t for his enormous, slippery gifts for storytelling, in person if not on the page. (On some level, he also seems to have believed in his own work, which complicates our picture of him as a con artist—although he certainly wasn’t averse to squeezing as much money out of his followers as possible.) I’ve often compared Welles to Campbell, but he has equally profound affinities with Hubbard, whose favorite film was Citizen Kane, and who perpetuated a science fiction hoax that dwarfed The War of the Worlds.

But I’m also attracted by such examples because they get at something crucial about the life of any artist, in which genius and trickery are often entwined. I don’t think of myself as a particularly devious person, but I’ve had to develop certain survival skills just to keep working, and a lot of writers come to think of themselves in the fond terms that W.H. Auden uses in The Dyer’s Hand:

All those whose success in life depends neither upon a job which satisfies some specific and unchanging social need, like a farmer’s, nor, like a surgeon’s, upon some craft which he can be taught by others and improve by practice, but upon “inspiration,” the lucky hazard of ideas, live by their wits, a phrase which carries a slightly pejorative meaning. Every “original” genius, be he an artist or a scientist, has something a bit shady about him, like a gambler or madman.

The similarities between the artist and the confidence man tend to appeal to authors with a high degree of technical facility, like David Mamet, who returns to the subject obsessively. In the lovely essay “Pool Halls,” Mamet writes: “The point of the pool hall was the intersection of two American Loves: the Game of Skill and the Short Con…Well, I guess that America is gone. We no longer revere skill, and the short con of the pool hustle and the Murphy Man and the Fuller Brush Man. The short con, which flourished in a life lived on the street and among strangers, has been supplanted by the Big Con of a life with no excitement in it at all.”

As Mamet implies, there’s something undeniably American about these figures. The confidence man has been part of this country’s mythology from the beginning, undoubtedly because it was a society that was inventing itself as it went along. There’s even an element of nostalgia at work. But I also don’t want to romanticize it. Most of our trickster heroes are white and male, which tells us something about the privilege that underlies successful fakery. A con man, like a startup founder, has to evade questions for just long enough to get away with it. That’s true of most artists, too, and the quintessentially American advice to fake it till you make it applies mostly to those who have the cultural security to pull it off. (If we’re so fascinated by confidence tricksters who were women, it might be because they weren’t held back by impostor syndrome.) Of course, the dark side of this tradition, which is where laughter dies in the throat, can be seen in the White House, which is currently occupied by the greatest con artist in American history. I don’t even mean this as an insult, but as a fundamental observation. If we’re going to venerate the con man as an American archetype, we have to acknowledge that Trump has consistently outplayed us all, even when the trick, or troll, was unfolding in plain sight. This also says something about our national character, and if Trump reminds me of Hubbard, he’s also forced me to rethink Citizen Kane. But there’s another side to the coin. During times of oppression and reaction, a different kind of deviousness can emerge, one that channels these old impulses toward ingenuity, inventiveness, resourcefulness, humor, and trickery, which are usually used to further the confidence man’s private interests, toward very different goals. If we’re going to make it through the next two years, we need to draw deeply on this tradition of genius. I’ll be talking about this more tomorrow.

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November 8, 2018 at 8:32 am

Wounded Knee and the Achilles heel

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On February 27, 1973, two hundred Native American activists occupied the town of Wounded Knee in South Dakota. They were protesting against the unpopular tribal president of the Oglala Lakota Sioux, along with the federal government’s failure to negotiate treaties, and the ensuing standoff—which resulted in two deaths, a serious casualty, and a disappearance—lasted for over seventy days. It also galvanized many of those who watched it unfold, including the author Paul Chaat Smith, who writes in his excellent book Everything You Know About Indians is Wrong:

Lots occurred over the next two and a half months, including a curious incident in which some of the hungry, blockaded Indians attempted to slaughter a cow. Reporters and photographers gathered to watch. Nothing happened. None of the Indians—some urban activists, some from Sioux reservations—actually knew how to butcher cattle. Fortunately, a few of the journalists did know, and they took over, ensuring dinner for the starving rebels. That was a much discussed event during and after Wounded Knee. The most common reading of this was that basically we were fakes. Indians clueless about butchering livestock were not really Indians.

Smith dryly notes that the protesters “lost points” with observers after this episode, which overshadowed many of the more significant aspects of the occupation, and he concludes: “I myself know nothing about butchering cattle, and would hope that doesn’t invalidate my remarks about the global news media and human rights.”

I got to thinking about this passage in the aftermath of Elizabeth Warren’s very bad week. More specifically, I was reminded of it by a column by the Washington Post opinion writer Dana Milbank, who focuses on Warren’s submissions to the cookbook Pow Wow Chow: A Collection of Recipes from Families of the Five Civilized Tribes, which was edited by her cousin three decades ago. One of the recipes that Warren contributed was “Crab with Tomato Mayonnaise Dressing,” which leads Milbank to crack: “A traditional Cherokee dish with mayonnaise, a nineteenth-century condiment imported by settlers? A crab dish from landlocked Oklahoma? This can mean only one thing: canned crab. Warren is unfit to lead.” He’s speaking with tongue partially in cheek—a point that probably won’t be caught by thousands of people who are just browsing the headlines—but when I read these words, I thought immediately of these lines from Smith’s book:

It presents the unavoidable question: Are Indian people allowed to change? Are we allowed to invent completely new ways of being Indian that have no connection to previous ways we have lived? Authenticity for Indians is a brutal measuring device that says we are only Indian as long as we are authentic. Part of the measurement is about percentage of Indian blood. The more, the better. Fluency in one’s Indian language is always a high card. Spiritual practices, living in one’s ancestral homeland, attending powwows, all are necessary to ace the authenticity test. Yet many of us believe taking the authenticity tests is like drinking the colonizer’s Kool-Aid—a practice designed to strengthen our commitment to our own internally warped minds. In this way, we become our own prison guards.

And while there may be other issues with Warren’s recipe, it’s revealing that we often act as if the Cherokee Nation somehow ceased to evolve—or cook for itself—after the introduction of mayonnaise.

This may seem like a tiny point, but it’s also an early warning of a monstrous cultural reckoning lurking just around the corner, at at time when we might have thought that we had exhausted every possible way to feel miserable and divided. If Warren runs for president, which I hope she does, we’re going to be plunged into what Smith aptly describes as a “snake pit” that terrifies most public figures. As Smith writes in a paragraph that I never tire of quoting:

Generally speaking, smart white people realize early on, probably even as children, that the whole Indian thing is an exhausting, dangerous, and complicated snake pit of lies. And…the really smart ones somehow intuit that these lies are mysteriously and profoundly linked to the basic construction of the reality of daily life, now and into the foreseeable future. And without it ever quite being a conscious thought, these intelligent white people come to understand that there is no percentage, none, in considering the Indian question, and so the acceptable result is to, at least subconsciously, acknowledge that everything they are likely to learn about Indians in school, from books and movies and television programs, from dialogue with Indians, from Indian art and stories, from museum exhibits about Indians, is probably going to be crap, so they should be avoided.

This leads him to an unforgettable conclusion: “Generally speaking, white people who are interested in Indians are not very bright.” But that’s only because most of the others are prudent enough to stay well away—and even Warren, who is undeniably smart, doesn’t seem to have realized that this was a fight that she couldn’t possibly win.

One white person who seems unquestionably interested in Indians, in his own way, is Donald Trump. True to form, he may not be very bright, but he also displays what Newt Gingrich calls a “sixth sense,” in this case for finding a formidable opponent’s Achilles heel and hammering at it relentlessly. Elizabeth Warren is one of the most interesting people to consider a presidential run in a long time, but Trump may have already hamstrung her candidacy by zeroing in on what might look like a trivial vulnerability. And the really important point here is that if Warren’s claims about her Native American heritage turn out to be her downfall, it’s because the rest of us have never come to terms with our guilt. The whole subject is so unsettling that we’ve collectively just agreed not to talk about it, and Warren made the unforgivable mistake, a long time ago, of folding it into her biography. If she’s being punished for it now, it’s because it precipitates something that was invisibly there all along, and this may only be the beginning. Along the way, we’re going to run up against a lot of unexamined assumptions, like Milbank’s amusement at that canned crab. (As Smith reminds us: “Indians are okay, as long as they meet non-Indian expectations about Indian religious and political beliefs. And what it really comes down to is that Indians are okay as long as we don’t change too much. Yes, we can fly planes and listen to hip-hop, but we must do these things in moderation and always in a true Indian way.” And mayonnaise is definitely out.) Depending on your point of view, this issue is either irrelevant or the most important problem imaginable, and like so much else these days, it may take a moronic quip from Trump—call it the Access Hollywood principle—to catalyze a debate that more reasonable minds have postponed. In his discussion of Wounded Knee, Smith concludes: “Yes, the news media always want the most dramatic story. But I would argue there is an overlay with Indian stories that makes it especially difficult.” And we might be about to find out how difficult it really is.

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October 19, 2018 at 8:44 am

The chosen ones

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In his recent New Yorker profile of Mark Zuckerberg, Evan Osnos quotes one of the Facebook founder’s close friends: “I think Mark has always seen himself as a man of history, someone who is destined to be great, and I mean that in the broadest sense of the term.” Zuckerberg feels “a teleological frame of feeling almost chosen,” and in his case, it happened to be correct. Yet this tells us almost nothing abut Zuckerberg himself, because I can safely say that most other undergraduates at Harvard feel the same way. A writer for The Simpsons once claimed that the show had so many presidential jokes—like the one about Grover Cleveland spanking Grandpa “on two non-consecutive occasions”—because most of the writers secretly once thought that they would be president themselves, and he had a point. It’s very hard to do anything interesting in life without the certainty that you’re somehow one of the chosen ones, even if your estimation of yourself turns out to be wildly off the mark. (When I was in my twenties, my favorite point of comparison was Napoleon, while Zuckerberg seems to be more fond of Augustus: “You have all these good and bad and complex figures. I think Augustus is one of the most fascinating. Basically, through a really harsh approach, he established two hundred years of world peace.”) This kind of conviction is necessary for success, although hardly sufficient. The first human beings to walk on Mars may have already been born. Deep down, they know it, and this knowledge will determine their decisions for the rest of their lives. Of course, thousands of others “know” it, too. And just a few of them will turn out to be right.

One of my persistent themes on this blog is how we tend to confuse talent with luck, or, more generally, to underestimate the role that chance plays in success or failure. I never tire of quoting the economist Daniel Kahneman, who in Thinking Fast and Slow shares what he calls his favorite equation:

Success = Talent + Luck
Great Success = A little more talent + A lot of luck

The truth of this statement seems incontestable. Yet we’re all reluctant to acknowledge its power in our own lives, and this tendency only increases as the roles played by luck and privilege assume a greater importance. This week has been bracketed by news stories about two men who embody this attitude at its most extreme. On the one hand, you have Brett Kavanaugh, a Yale legacy student who seems unable to recognize that his drinking and his professional success weren’t mutually exclusive, but closer to the opposite. He occupied a cultural and social stratum that gave him the chance to screw up repeatedly without lasting consequences, and we’re about to learn how far that privilege truly extends. On the other hand, you have yesterday’s New York Times exposé of Donald Trump, who took hundreds of millions of dollars from his father’s real estate empire—often in the form of bailouts for his own failed investments—while constantly describing himself as a self-made billionaire. This is hardly surprising, but it’s still striking to see the extent to which Fred Trump played along with his son’s story. He understood the value of that myth.

This gets at an important point about privilege, no matter which form it takes. We have a way of visualizing these matters in spatial terms—”upper class,” “lower class,” “class pyramid,” “rising,” “falling,” or “stratum” in the sense that I used it above. But true privilege isn’t spatial, but temporal. It unfolds over time, by giving its beneficiaries more opportunities to fail and recover, when those living at the edge might not be able to come back from the slightest misstep. We like to say that a privileged person is someone who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple, but it’s more like being granted unlimited turns at bat. Kavanaugh provides a vivid reminder, in case we needed one, that a man who fits a certain profile has the freedom to make all kinds of mistakes, the smallest of which would be fatal for someone who didn’t look like he did. And this doesn’t just apply to drunken misbehavior, criminal or otherwise, but even to the legitimate failures that are necessary for the vast majority of us to achieve real success. When you come from the right background, it’s easier to survive for long enough to benefit from the effects of luck, which influences the way that we talk about failure itself. Silicon Valley speaks of “failing faster,” which only makes sense when the price of failure is humiliation or the loss of investment capital, not falling permanently out of the middle class. And as I’ve noted before, Pixar’s creative philosophy, which Andrew Stanton described as a process in which “the films still suck for three out of the four years it takes to make them,” is only practicable for filmmakers who look and sound like their counterparts at the top, which grants them the necessary creative freedom to fail repeatedly—a luxury that women are rarely granted.

This may all come across as unbelievably depressing, but there’s a silver lining, and it took me years to figure it out. The odds of succeeding in any creative field—which includes nearly everything in which the standard career path isn’t clearly marked—are minuscule. Few who try will ever make it, even if they have “a teleological frame of feeling almost chosen.” This isn’t due to a lack of drive or talent, but of time and second chances. When you combine the absence of any straightforward instructions with the crucial role played by luck, you get a process in which repeated failure over a long period is almost inevitable. Those who drop out don’t suffer from weak nerves, but from the fact that they’ve used up all of their extra lives. Privilege allows you to stay in the game for long enough for the odds to turn in your favor, and if you’ve got it, you may as well use it. (An Ivy League education doesn’t guarantee success, but it drastically increases your ability to stick around in the middle class in the meantime.) In its absence, you can find strategies of minimizing risk in small ways while increasing it on the highest levels, which just another word for becoming a bohemian. And the big takeaway here is that since the probability of success is already so low, you may as well do exactly what you want. It can be tempting to tailor your work to the market, reasoning that it will increase your chances ever so slightly, but in reality, the difference is infinitesimal. An objective observer would conclude that you’re not going to make it either way, and even if you do, it will take about the same amount of time to succeed by selling out as it would by staying true to yourself. You should still do everything that you can to make the odds more favorable, but if you’re probably going to fail anyway, you might as well do it on your own terms. And that’s the only choice that matters.

Written by nevalalee

October 3, 2018 at 8:59 am

The flat earth society

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In his indispensable book Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster draws a famous distinction between flat and round characters in fiction. This classification has been beaten to death in countless high school literature classes, so it can be bracing to revisit his original language:

In their purest form, [flat characters] are constructed round a single idea or quality: when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve towards the round…One great advantage of flat characters is that they are easily recognized whenever they come in—recognized by the reader’s emotional eye, not by the visual eye, which merely notes the recurrence of a proper name. In Russian novels, where they so seldom occur, they would be a decided help. It is a convenience for an author when he can strike with his full force at once, and flat characters are very useful to him, since they never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere—little luminous disks of a pre-arranged size, pushed hither and thither like counters across the void or between the stars; most satisfactory.

This kind of insight from a professional novelist is cold, hard cash, and it reminds us that a round character isn’t necessarily better than a flat one. “A novel that is at all complex often requires flat people as well as round,” Forster says, and I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I frequently get more enjoyment from stories populated by vivid flat characters than by the indistinguishable round ones of so much modernist realism.

Yet there’s an even deeper point to be made here, which is that flatness may actually be closer to how we think about the people around us, or even about ourselves. We can start with Forster’s observation that flat characters are often more memorable than round ones: “They remain in [the reader’s] mind as unalterable for the reason that they were not changed by circumstances; they moved through circumstances, which gives them in retrospect a comforting quality, and preserves them when the book that produced them may decay.” And I’d argue that we also remember flat characters more clearly because they partake of the ways in which we see the supporting players in our own lives. When we think of neighbors, coworkers, and other casual acquaintances, we’re likely to associate them with one or two obvious qualities, if we even manage to have a distinct impression of them at all. It’s only the ones we know best—our families, lovers and closest friends—that we can grasp with the nuance with which we view the roundest characters in fiction. And this can even extend to our own motivations. It’s hard for us to integrate all aspects of our past and personality at once, except when it takes the form of instinct. Most of our actions are intuitive or habitual, and when we need to consciously pay attention, it’s easier to emphasize one part of our identity at a time. We can switch between roles multiple times each day, or we can play a single part for years. It’s an adaptive strategy that makes it easier for us to act and make decisions. We’re only one thing at a time because that’s all we can keep in our heads at once, and the other sides of ourselves have a way of falling into line.

I started thinking about this after reading an article by Perry Bacon, Jr. on FiveThirtyEight on how Americans seem to be shifting other aspects of their identity—like religion or ethnicity—to fit their political affiliations. This conclusion is based on a paper by the political scientist Patrick Egan, who analyzed a series of surveys that were given to the same group of respondents over time. He found that what we tend to see as relatively fixed demographic information can actually be quite fluid, and that these changes are strongly correlated with the political labels that we embrace. As Bacon sums up the results:

Liberal Democrats were much more likely than conservative Republicans to start identifying as Latino or saying that their ancestry was African, Asian or Hispanic.

Conservative Republicans were much more likely than liberal Democrats to become born-again Christians and to stop identifying as non-religious; liberal Democrats were much more likely than conservative Republicans to leave religion and stop describing themselves as born-again.

Conservative Republicans were more likely than liberal Democrats to stop describing themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual; liberal-leaning Democrats were more likely to start identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Bacon concludes: “Increasingly, the political party you belong to represents a big part of your identity and is not just a reflection of your political views. It may even be your most important identity.” And this strikes me as only a specific case of the way in which we flatten ourselves out to make our inner lives more manageable. We pick and choose what else we emphasize to better fit with the overall story that we’re telling. It’s just more obvious these days.

And while this might seem like a stretch, I can’t resist drawing a comparison between our two most recent presidents. Whatever else you might think of Obama, he was undeniably complicated, with a personality shaped by a vast network of pressures and expectations. From a literary standpoint, he was a round character. Trump, by contrast, can seem ridiculously flat. Nearly everything that he does can be adequately explained by his vanity, or his desire to project weakness as strength, and he emerges as a far more sinister version of a flat character like Mr. Pickwick. As Forster writes: “It is a conjuring trick; at any moment we may look at Mr. Pickwick edgeways and find him no thicker than a gramophone record. But we never get the sideway view. Mr. Pickwick is far too adroit and well trained. He always has the air of weighing something.” And there’s a real mismatch between Trump’s flatness, which is traditionally a comic quality, and the tragic consequences of his actions. Here’s Forster again:

[Flat people] are best when they are comic. A serious or tragic flat character is apt to be a bore. Each time he enters crying “Revenge!” or “My heart bleeds for humanity!” or whatever his formula is, our hearts sink…It is only round people who are fit to perform tragically for any length of time and can move us to any feelings except humor and appropriateness.

Cultures have a way of taking psychological cues from their heads of state. As Forster says of one critical objection to flat characters: “Queen Victoria, they argue, cannot be summed up in a single sentence, so what excuse remains for Mrs. Micawber?” When the president himself is flat—which is another way of saying that he can no longer surprise us on the downside—it has implications both for our literature and for our private lives. The process is already happening. And it shouldn’t astonish us if we all wake up one day to discover that the world is flat.

Written by nevalalee

September 13, 2018 at 8:39 am

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