Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The long view and a bit of Faulkner.

Years ago when I was a young almost-man, I studied to be a professor of English literature. But as I was completing my course of study, I almost did the unthinkable. My focus and interest began shifting from literature to history.

I think if I had been born ten years earlier and had needed graduate school as a crutch to keep me out of Vietnam, I would have gone on for a degree in history. 

Of late, I find solace in history. At a time when it seems like all order is gone in the world, that terrorists lurk around every corner and every cop is a criminal, history tells us that these times we are living through are not really extraordinary or extraordinarily threatening.

Last night as I turned the Republican National Convention on TV, I felt armed, somewhat. I had read, I guess before the 2012 conventions, a New York Review of Books reissue of Norman Mailer's accounts of the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions: "Miami and the Siege of Chicago."

Mailer was a hugely gifted writer. And while I was 10 in 1968, he brought those conventions and the candidates to life in ways I missed the first time around.

If you're trying to make sense of our worldwide entropy epidemic, Mailer's 200-page book might not be a bad way to start. Many of the hatreds and fears and forces that are so visceral today were just as visceral in Miami and Chicago almost 50 years ago. 

Back then, we were a country riven by a murderous war. We were a country at war with ourselves. We were a country where it was plausible that soldiers would shoot down (like in some Latin American fief) protesting students.

The world has always been nasty and brutish. Life has always been short. And leaders from Caesar to Nixon to Trump have always been able to leverage fear of other to make electoral hay.

That's my point today--the historical precedent I'd like to point out. Nothing good comes when candidates and political systems operate on the basis of propagating fear. People are easy to manipulate when they're afraid and when people are easy to manipulate bad things tend to happen.

Of late a lot of people have come to me feeling afraid. Afraid of Trumpism. Afraid of our racial discord. Afraid of the economics of inequality.

All I can do is let them know how I cope.

I read a bit of history. I find that we've been through this before, and somehow survived.

Often I think of Faulkner, too. I guess going back to my literary roots.

This is from his Nobel Prize Banquet Speech, December 10, 1950, in Oslo, Norway. My gentle highlights are bolded.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it.
There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.
I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

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