This year, my husband and I decided to host a foreign exchange student. “If a kid wants to come to the United States in these dark days,” we told each other, “let’s do all we can to show him or her that we are not the nation we appear to be under the present regime. Let’s welcome that kid with open arms and praise the bravery that brought him or her here.” And so hosting a foreign exchange student became part of my own private resistance to the 2016 election.
We were so enthusiastic, in fact, we offered to host two students. After all, our house is fairly big, we live quite close to the high school, and, most of all, our youngest son was a foreign exchange student in 2015, and I felt that it was my karmic duty to reciprocate in some way.
Our international experiment, as I called it, did not go well–but more on that in a later post. We are down to one foreign exchange student now, and things are going much, much better, but that’s not what this post is about. What I want to discuss here is something I’ve learned from being a host parent of a European teenager, a discovery that I think needs to be shared with other Americans. And I also want to share something that I’ve learned about myself.
Here is my discovery: Europeans do not understand what is happening here. They do not know how much we despise the present regime; they do not understand that we feel our country has been commandeered by a power elite that is aiming to enslave our population through hatred, racism, ignorance, and overpowering greed. They understand that Trump has a lot of opposition, but they do not comprehend the ways in which an outdated system of voting was manipulated (in all likelihood with foreign help) in order to take over our government. According to our student, who is admittedly young but was chosen by the German government to study our culture and government while on a scholarship here, the Women’s March in protest of the inauguration was not a focal point in European news, and pussy hats are virtually unknown there. The massive resistance that is part of our everyday lives simply isn’t understood in Western Europe.
We have tried to explain certain things to her. We have said that Trump’s election was so shocking and horrifying to us and to our friends that we did not leave the house for several days. We have compared the night of his election to the day on which JFK was assassinated: a moment which showed just how awful Americans can be and how easily our hopes for the future can be wiped out. We have explained that we are afraid to watch Tuesday’s election returns for fear that the 2016 election might have been a signpost for the future, and not a terrible accident, a result of complacency, laziness, and foreign interference.
I think she is beginning to understand. But more importantly, we have begun to understand, too. We understand now that the rest of the world thinks we just made a mistake in 2016, that Americans did something stupid and inexplicable–after all, our nation has done that so often. We are beginning to see that our sense of despair and anger, our horror at Trump’s policies and the Republicans’ willingness to comply with them, is not registering across the Atlantic. Our government has been hijacked, we tell our student, but she is only beginning to understand that.
Meanwhile, I’ve learned something about myself as well.
I love my country. Of course, I am not always proud to be an American. For forty years, I have criticized the United States; I have never withheld judgment on what I see as a culture overpowered by greed, smug ignorance, and rapacious, unfettered capitalism. I know our faults and our flaws, many of which go back to the days of the Puritans, resulting in the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of African Americans, and the wholesale oppression of minorities. Clearly, our history contains many things to be ashamed of.
But there are things to be proud of as well: NASA, baseball, multicultural neighborhoods that are teeming with people of all ethnicities and languages, Muslims coming forward to help Jews, Jews coming forward to help Muslims, people protesting the actions of a cruel and oppressive government by massing in the streets, in airports, and at border resettlement centers. Last night, during dinner, I shouted the word “jazz!,” to the surprise of everyone at the table, then explained that it’s the one, truly original American art form. It’s a contribution to world culture that all Americans can be proud of.
For the past couple of days, I’ve been trying to explain both to my student and to myself why I am afraid to watch the election returns on Tuesday night. Will I be overcome by despair again? Will I have to throw up my hands in disgust and say that as a country we deserve what we vote for, that our grand experiment in democracy is finally over? I’m not sure how I’ll bear that, considering how awful November 7, 2016, was for me.
But what if the opposite happens? How will I manage a blue victory, given that the thought of millions of people coming out to vote in the midterm elections to show they are not sheep, that they believe in right and wrong, that they will not be complicit with a government that is irresponsible, ignorant, and self-serving–how will I cope, given that this possibility also overwhelms me with emotion? Since the mere thought of this possibility makes me tear up–I can be very sentimental when confronted with evidence that human beings can be kind and decent–I think that either way, I might be in for some kind of an emotional collapse on Tuesday night.
(I will just add here that there’s another, minor, concern, of mine, too: I’m running for local office, and I will be watching election returns on Tuesday night to learn the results of my race. But the stakes are so much lower for that race that I am not expending much thought on it.)
So here’s to all of you out there who, like me, regard Tuesday’s election with an uneasy mixture of heavy dread and stubborn, overpowering hope. Let’s remember that we can take our country back and set it on the right path again. If we get out in strength on Tuesday, maybe that will be the very first step to re-fashioning our country into the nation we want it to be, the nation it needs to be.
Sleep eluded me for most of last night. Fear kept me awake–fear for my country, for myself, for my loved ones. Our democracy is in serious danger, and I am not sure what we can do to save it.
Our democratic institutions have been hijacked by politicians who believe in victory at any cost. In recent years, it has become more important to win at politics than to make good policies. And winning today means completely annihilating one’s opponent: no compromises, no concessions, no happy mediums.
When this kind of winning becomes the norm in politics, democracy loses. It’s as simple as that.
What can we do about this? Robert Reich urges us not to lose hope, and gives us 10 good reasons for his optimism. But this isn’t enough for me.
So I’ve made up a new political theory and I am acting on it. It goes like this: when the higher levels of government turn toxic, citizens must engage in local politics. Though we may feel like it, we gain nothing by withdrawing completely; in fact, doing so ensures that we leave government in the hands of those least competent to operate it. Instead, we should put our effort into protecting the very lowest, most local, democratic institutions we have: city councils, county commissions, township boards.
In short, I believe that if we build our dedication to democracy from the bottom up, we may be able to save it.
To do this, we have to make certain that no race is ever uncontested. Democracy only works if we safeguard it, and one important way to protect it is to make sure that the electorate always has a choice between candidates. An election is not an election unless at least two candidates run.
I thought I would never enter the political arena again, but when I realized that my ward risked having an uncontested election for city council representative, I agreed to run. I felt it’s the right thing–indeed, the only thing–for me to do, considering my strong beliefs on the matter.
Whether I win or lose is not the point. The point is to get involved and to stay involved. In the weeks since I’ve worked on my campaign, I’ve learned a lot about my city’s government. I like what I see. It works. It functions as a democracy, although it would function even better if more people got involved and were interested in the issues it faced.
Will I be disappointed if I lose the election to my worthy opponent? I’m sure I will be, at least a little. But I will also be somewhat disappointed if I win. After all, serving in any public capacity is a lot of work and responsibility. As a city council representative, I could alienate some of my friends and neighbors because of the positions I take on issues, and I would hate to do that, so losing the election would not be the worst thing to happen to me. But either way, win or lose, I know that come November 6, I will have done my civic duty. And that’s something I urge every single one of my readers to do as well.
Certainly these are dark and scary days for American democracy. But we can’t give up. We have to remember that engagement and action can help us save our democracy and ultimately our way of life.
So go learn about your local government. Volunteer for a committee. Attend a meeting or two. Or five or six.
I have always assumed that the best example of my argument that most people get Shakespeare plays all wrong would be Romeo and Juliet. But I have to admit I was mistaken. In fact, I think it is safe to posit that no other Shakespeare play is so maligned and misunderstood as Julius Caesar.
I think this is largely due to the way we teach the play in the United States. Of course, because we do teach the play in high school, Julius Caesar has always gotten tremendous exposure: almost everyone I’ve met has been forced to read the play during their high school career. In fact, I think it’s still on high school reading lists today. But that’s probably also exactly why it’s so misunderstood.
I’m not blaming high school teachers, because by and large they’re told to teach these plays without any adequate preparation. I suppose if anyone deserves blame, it’s the colleges that train teachers. But all blame aside, before I talk about what a great play it really is, and what a shame it is that most people summarily dismiss Julius Caesar without ever really considering it, let’s look at why this has happened.
First of all, it goes without saying that making someone read a play is not a great way to get him or her to like it. Especially when that play is over 400 years old and written in (what seems to be) archaic language. But a still greater problem is that there is a tendency to use the play to teach Roman history, which is a serious mistake. (American high schools are not alone in this; Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example, criticized the play for not being realistic in its portrayal of Roman politics back in the early 1800s.) In short, far too many people associate this play with a bunch of men showing a great deal of thigh or swathed in endless yards of material, flipping their togas around like an adolescent girl tosses her hair over her shoulder. It’s all too distracting, to say the least.
So, in order to set us back on the right track and get more people to read this fine play, I’ve made a little list of rules to follow that will help my readers get the most enjoyment, emotional and intellectual, from the play.
Rule Number One: Forget about Roman history when you read this play. Forget about looking for anachronisms and mistakes on the part of Shakespeare’s use of history. Forget everything you know about tribunes, plebeians, Cicero, and the Festival of Lupercalia. The fact is, the history of the play hardly matters at all. Rather, the only thing that matters is that you know in the beginning moments that Caesar will die and that, whatever his motives and his character, Marcus Brutus will pay for his part in Caesar’s assassination with his own life and reputation.
Rule Number Two: Recognize that this is one of Shakespeare’s most suspenseful plays. Our foreknowledge of events in the play, far from making it predictable and boring, provides an element of suspense that should excite the audience. Here we can point to Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of suspense, in which he explains that it’s the fact that the audience knows there’s a bomb hidden under a table that makes the scene so fascinating to watch, that makes every sentence, every facial expression count with the audience. It’s the fact that we know Julius Caesar is going to die on the Ides of March that makes his refusal to follow the advice of the soothsayer, his wife Calpurnia, and Artemidorus so interesting. We become invested in all of his words and actions, just as our knowledge that Brutus is going to lose everything makes us become invested in him as a character as well. A good production of this play, then, would highlight the suspenseful nature within it, allowing the audience to react with an emotional response rather than mere intellectual curiosity.
Rule Number Three: Understand that this play is, like Coriolanus, highly critical of the Roman mob. Individuals from the mob may be quite witty, as in the opening scene, when a mere cobbler gets the better of one of the Roman Tribunes, but taken as a whole, the mob is easily swayed by rhetoric, highly materialistic, and downright vicious. (In one often-excluded scene–III.iii–a poet is on his way to Caesar’s funeral when he is accosted by the crowd, mistaken for one of the conspirators, and carried off to be torn to pieces.) It’s almost as if this representation of mob mentality–the Elizabethan equivalent of populism, if you will–is something that Shakespeare introduces in 1599 in Julius Caesar, only to return to it nine years later to explore in greater detail in Coriolanus.
Rule Number Four: Recognize that this play, like many of Shakespeare’s plays, is misnamed. It is not about Julius Caesar. It’s really all about Marcus Brutus, who is the tragic hero of the play. He is doomed from the outset, because (1) it is his patriotism and his love of the Roman Republic, not a desire for gain, that drives him to commit murder; (2) he becomes enamored of his own reputation and convinces himself that it is his duty to commit murder and to break the law; (3) he falls victim to this egotism and loses everything because of it. Audience members really shouldn’t give a hoot about Julius Caesar; he’s a jerk who gets pretty much what he deserves. But Brutus is a tragic hero with a tragic flaw, a character whose every step, much like Oedipus, takes him further and further into his own doom. The soliloquies Brutus speaks are similar to those in Macbeth, revealing a character that is not inherently bad but rather deficient in logic, self-awareness, and respect for others. In fact, in many ways, it’s interesting to look at Julius Caesar as a rough draft not only of Coriolanus but of Macbeth as well.
Rule Number Five: Appreciate the dark comedy in the play. Shakespeare plays with his audience from the outset, in the comic first scene between the workmen and the Roman Tribunes, but another great comedic scene is Act IV, scene iii, when Brutus and Cassius meet up before the big battle and end up in an argument that resembles nothing more than a couple of young boys squabbling, even descending into a “did not, did so” level. This scene would be hilarious if the stakes weren’t so high, and if we didn’t know that disaster was imminent.
Rule Number Six: Experience the play without preconceptions, without the baggage that undoubtedly is left over from your tenth-grade English class. Once you do this, you’ll realize that the play is timely. It explores some really pertinent questions, ones which societies have dealt with time and time again, and which we are dealing with at this very moment. For example, when is it permissible to commit a wrong in order for the greater good to benefit? (surely Immanuel Kant would have something to say about this, along with Jeremy Bentham). How secure is a republic when its citizens are poor thinkers who can be swayed by mere rhetoric and emotionalism instead of reason? What course of action should be taken when a megalomaniac takes over an entire nation, and no one has the guts to stop him through any legal or offical means?
In the end, Brutus’s tragedy is that he immolates his personal, individual self in his public and civic responsibilities. Unfortunately, it is the inability to understand this sacrifice and the conflict it creates, not the play’s historical setting in a distant and hazy past, that has made it inaccessible for generations of American high school students. Too many decades have gone by since civic responsibility has been considered an important element in our education, with the sad but inevitable result that several generations of students can no longer understand the real tragedy in this play, which is certainly not the assassination of Julius Caesar.
But perhaps this is about to change. In the last few months, we’ve been witnessing a new generation teaching themselves about civic involvement, since no one will teach it to them. And as I consider the brave civic movement begun by the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I am hopeful that from now on it’s just possible that reading Julius Caesar could become not a wasted module in an English class, but the single most important reading experience in a high-school student’s career.
I have long argued that television programs, particularly situation comedies, perform an important piece of ideological work in our culture. Far from being pure entertainment, they introduce ideas that society may not want to confront. Of course, no one who can remember All in the Family or Murphy Brown will dispute this; but we may well be surprised to realize that television has always done this, even from its earliest days.
The two examples I have chosen to demonstrate this theory come from The Honeymooners (1955) and Bewitched (1964-1972). Back in the 1950s and ’60s, these sitcoms had to code their messages, making them available only to subtle and clever television viewers. In fact, the entire premise of both series rests on the implicit understanding that while women may have to kow-tow to their husbands, they are in fact the brains in their marriages. After all, Samantha is presumably all-powerful, yet she chooses to remain with the awkward and pouty Darren. Alice Kramden’s situation is less enviable–she is constrained by the 1950s dictum that proclaims women to be subservient to their husbands–but at the same time, she demonstrates to herself, to Ralph, and most importantly, to the audience, that she is in fact much more capable than Ralph and that he is head of the household only because of society awards him this position.
Ideological work is hidden, or coded, in early sitcoms, but it’s still there. For example, in The Honeymooners, in Episode 4 (“A Woman’s Work is Never Done”), Alice decides to get a job after Ralph berates her for not being able to keep up with the housework, while telling him it’s easier to work outside the home than within it. Ralph ridicules the notion, but Alice succeeds quite well, and even earns enough money to hire a maid to carry out the household chores, a maid who turns out to be so efficient and sarcastic that Ralph begs Alice to quit and return to being a homemaker. The message here, years before either That Girl or The Mary Tyler Moore Show appear on television, is that women can indeed be successful in the professional world. This message might have been too revolutionary to appear without coding, but it is delivered nonetheless through this subtle means.
Perhaps more interesting is Episode 7 of the first season of Bewitched (“The Witches Are Out”), in which Darren’s work on an advertising campaign that features witches is critiqued by Samantha as being clichéd and, even worse, rife with prejudice. She takes to the streets to spearhead protests against the campaign, joining a picket line, clearly reflecting the actual protests that were taking place in 1964, when this episode first aired. Since it was too dangerous to talk openly about racial prejudice, the show used a fictional prejudice–against witches–that the viewers would still understand, though perhaps unconsciously.
Neither of these episodes were intentional about their ideological work: in early situation comedies, these shows’ writers merely reflected and refracted the social reality they observed. In other words, during the early years of television, shows didn’t consciously represent the women’s movement or the civil rights movement. They simply reflected and displaced the social trends that were present at the time of their creation and presented them in a non-threatening, palatable form for their viewers.
But by the mid-1970s and beyond, television changed and became more outspoken, taking on a more direct role in society, and at the same time becoming much less afraid to stand on a soap-box. The velvet gloves came off, and we grappled openly with all sorts of issues, from bigotry (All in the Family), to homosexuality (Will and Grace). However, I believe that television still uses coded messages from time to time, and I think I’ve found an example of one genre that horrifies me, and not for its intended reason.
Since the mid 2000s, zombie-themed shows and books have proliferated. I first noticed a fascination with zombies among my students in about 2005, and I found it strange that a genre that had lain dormant for so long was coming back to life (pardon the pun, please). Since then, we’ve had World War Z, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, and The Walking Dead. Ever the cultural analyst, I wondered what this preoccupation with zombie infestation might represent: just what kind of ideological work is it performing? At first, I thought it might indicate a fear of contagion, of a swift-moving and deadly pandemic. After all, we’ve seen, in the last twenty years, outbreaks of swine and bird flu, SARS, and Ebola. It would certainly make sense for a fear of virulent and lethal illness to express itself as a zombie invasion.
But recently it dawned on me that the imagined zombie invasion might represent something far worse: an invasion of migrants. And, before you dismiss this idea, let me pose a question: Is it possible that the populist rhetoric directed against immigrants is connected, through a subtle, ideological sleight-of-hand, to the rise of the zombie genre in film and television?
After all, so much of zombie plots resemble the imagined threat of uncontrolled immigration: the influx of great numbers of threatening beings who are completely foreign to our way of thinking, who are willing to fight for resources, who will not give up easily, who make us just like them–and who must be destroyed at any cost. I think it’s just possible, in other words, that the present social climate of suspicion, of protectionism, of hostility towards outsiders, has been fostered and cultivated by our ideological immersion in the genre of the zombie plot. Again, as with early television situation comedies, I don’t think this is an intentional linkage on the part of the writers; but intentional or not, the ideological work gets done, and suddenly we find our culture and civilization hostile to the very force that made us what we Americans are.
About ten years ago, I had a student who adored horror films and books. I asked him how he could stand to be made frightened by what he loved and spent so much time on. His answer haunts me today: “This isn’t what frightens me,” he said, pointing to a Lovecraft novel. “What frightens me is the day-to-day things, such as how I’m going to pay my rent.” In the same vein, I’ll end by asking this question: what if the really frightening thing about zombie shows isn’t what happens to their characters, but what happens to us when we watch them?
There’s a lot of ink being spilled right now about the failure of liberal democracies, and I am guilty of pouring some of it myself. But it might be helpful to go back to redefine the two terms which invest so much of our discussions and arguments these days.
What, exactly, is the difference between liberal and conservative thought?
I’m not satisfied with responses that point to contemporary political positions: they are too fraught with bias, and thus don’t yield a reliable answer. In order to provide such a good answer, then, we will need to go back and define the terms themselves, to think about what it really means to be a liberal or a conservative.
And this proves quite tricky–so tricky, in fact, that although I first asked myself this question back in the 1980s, I have never been able to come up with a good answer. But thankfully, I don’t have to, because it turns out that Anthony Trollope provided an excellent answer back in 1876.
In his novel The Prime Minister, the Duke of Omnium, who is serving as the ineffective prime minister of Great Britain in a coalition government (and who fully realizes that nothing of consequence will be accomplished during his term of office) pauses to consider why people align with either the Liberal or the Conservative Party. In Chapter 68 (it is a very long novel), entitled “The Prime Minister’s Political Creed,” the duke questions his colleague Phineas Finn about why he is a liberal. (The duke, while obviously an aristocrat, is somewhat paradoxically a member of the Liberal Party.) In doing so, he reveals why he himself is a liberal:
I began life with the misfortune of a ready-made political creed. There was a seat in the House for me when I was twenty-on. Nobody took the trouble to ask my opinions. It was a matter of course that I should be a Liberal…. It was a tradition of the family, and was as inseparable from it as any of the titles which [we] had inherited…”
But now, at the apex of his political career, when he realizes that he will soon have to resign as prime minister, the duke thinks about what makes him a liberal. He begins by explaining what he considers conservative thought: the idea that God has fashioned the world in a certain way, and it is up to man to maintain that structure. The liberal thinker, says the duke, works to improve the world in order to reach a millenium (which I take to mean a Utopian period of human existence) in which the social and political order is perfected. However, this millenium, he says, “is so distant that we need not even think of it as possible.” He goes on to tell Phineas, “You are a Liberal because you know that it is not all as it ought to be.”
I think there’s quite a lot to learn from this chapter, even after though more than a century has passed since its publication. First of all, many of us begin our adult lives as liberals or conservatives simply because we have been handed those labels and told that they belong to us. Perhaps our parents were conservatives, so we identify as one–or perhaps we go the other way, rebelling against our parents and their beliefs. But I think it would be better for us, like the Duke of Omnium, to stop and think about why we behave as we do, and why we believe the things we believe.
When you simplify the issue as much as possible (I realize the danger of simplistic analysis, but it is sometimes worth the risk), the difference between the Liberal thinker and the Conservative one, as Trollope’s novel portrays it, is this: the conservative view holds that things were better in the past and should be maintained that way, while the liberal view holds that, however things were in the past, they are highly imperfect in the present and should be improved–and although a state of human perfection, while theoretically possible, is light years away, this is no reason to shirk the work involved in getting there.
In other words, the conservative view looks to the past, wanting to keep things as they are: stable, predictable, and functioning. After all, the past got us to the present, so it must work. The liberal view, in contrast, looks to the future, with a supreme confidence that improvement is possible in the human condition.
I endorse neither views at this point. I just want to posit a new way of looking at these terms to help open up a badly-needed space for discussion.
… But I also want to say that Anthony Trollope totally rocks the Victorian novel.
It may be my bad luck, and my generation’s bad luck, to be alive at a time when we are witnessing the limits of democracy. We’ve had a good run–over two hundred years now–but it may be time to call it a day and start over with some new form of government.
I suppose I am as patriotic as anyone. There are two times in my life when I felt tears well up in my eyes solely because of my pride in being an American. One was after a three-week trip to Iceland, Scotland, and England in 1996, when I returned with my young family to Houston Intercontinental Airport. Waiting in customs, I noticed a babble of languages, and looking around, I saw myself surrounded by people of color, dressed in a variety of ways, many with headscarves or turbans. At that time, it was easy to imagine that these people, if not Americans themselves, would be welcomed as visitors to the United States, or perhaps as potential citizens. That was enough to make me sentimental about the diversity of my country, to be thankful to live in a country that valued all people.
(I will pass over for now the very real possibility—indeed, the near certainty—that this was simply a fiction, even at that time. My belief, however, was real enough to draw tears of pride from my eyes, which of course I quickly wiped away.)
The second time I became emotional with pride in my country was in about 2003 or 2004, when, as a union member from the local community college I stood in solidarity with nurses who were striking at the hospital. I was proud to do so—it is our right as Americans to stand and protest, as so many of us have recently found out. I was proud to be a citizen of a country that allows its citizens to congregate for such a purpose, despite the inconveniences that may be caused by it.
In the last couple of years, I’ve seen protests, but I haven’t taken part in them. I’ve supported them, but I have not been able to make myself participate in them. During the Women’s March, I stayed home, dissolved into a teary mess most of the day. But these were not tears of pride. Perhaps there was some pride mixed in, and admiration for the women who dedicated themselves to the cause, but there was also a feeling of profound despair at the need for such a march. It was the same thing with the March for Our Lives. What a beautiful expression of solidarity, but why should the people of this country need to march in order to protect our children, in order to stand up against an organization that should have no part in our electoral process, to protest the very electoral process that has been shown to be corrupt—not only because of foreign interference, but because of outrageously large campaign donations that fund and sway our elected officials?
Don’t get me wrong. To those of you who are participating in these movements, I want to say that I admire and love you for what you are doing. Yet I cannot help but feel that the need for such movements marks the decline of democracy, the end of this glorious experiment in civic rule that began over 200 years ago.
(Again, I will pass over the fact that this glorious experiment probably started, as so many others have, with the desire for personal gain on the part of the architects of the experiment.)
Democracy cannot work when it is corrupted by the desire for financial gain. It cannot work when the electorate is divided along the lines of hard-held, incontestable beliefs that brook no argument or discussion. It cannot work when our elected officials are, like the people who elect them, small-minded, fearful, and utterly dependent on large corporations who try to direct every facet of their lives and thoughts and are free to do so if they spend enough money on licit and illicit media campaigns.
Recently, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens called for the repeal of the Second Amendment. It may in fact be time for such a step. But I fear it may be time for a more drastic step: to admit that our democracy, such as it is, has failed, and that it is time to go back to the drawing board to find a new, more equitable, more humane way of living together in this world that we have created for ourselves.
I cannot remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to be a writer. Perhaps I didn’t care about writing back when I was too young to understand what being a writer meant–before I’d really learned to read, in those days when, as a young child, I read only the books that were placed in my willing hands, those rhyming, oddly illustrated children’s books that were so common in the 1960s. It’s quite possible that back then I didn’t have a hankering to join what I have come to consider the Great Conversation, that I was content to look and pass, not feeling compelled to offer something–some small tidbit at least–to the exchange of stories and ideas that has gone on for centuries now.
My first memory of reading was from the Little Bear books, which my father, an accountant, got by the cartload, since he worked for the publisher (I think?). I am confused about this, however. It’s just as likely that we had a surplus of these books laying around our house. I was the youngest of three children, after all, so it makes sense that children’s books would pile up, and that they would be handed off to me. I don’t remember actually learning to read, but I do remember the laughter that ensued when I tried to sound out “Chicago,” as well as having to struggle with the word “maybe,” which I pronounced incorrectly, with the accent on the “be” and not the “may.”
But these books certainly didn’t enchant me. That would have to wait for some years. In the meantime, I remember seeing a copy of Julius Caesar on our dining room table, with its cover illustration featuring a lurid, bloody toga attracting more than a mere glance at it, and although I didn’t try to read Shakespeare’s misnamed tragedy, it couldn’t have been mere coincidence that I became enamored of the story of Caesar and Cleopatra, to such an extent that I would wrap myself in striped beach towels and stomp through our Brooklyn duplex declaring, in all seriousness, “I wish to be buried with Mark Anthony.” My elaborately crafted Cleopatra-fantasy imploded, however, when I convinced my second-grade class to put on a short play about Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Mark Anthony. (Is it possible that I wrote the play myself? That seems unlikely, but I cannot imagine that many age-suitable plays on that subject were available.) I was over the moon–until I got the news that I was to play Julius Caesar. And that was the end of that fantasy, much to the relief of my family.
The books that did grab my attention were a set of great books that my grandmother had bought for her two children back in the 1930s: a set of all of Dickens, all of Twain, and some odds-and-ends, such as William M. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, as well as a full set of encyclopedias. (I still have a few of the Dickens works, but most of the books were destroyed in a flooded warehouse back in the 1990s.) I am sure that my grandmother’s purchase was an investment in wishful thinking: I would swear an oath that neither my uncle nor my father ever read a word of these books. I am equally sure that I, feeling sorry for the books (which is something I still do–and explains why I sometimes check out books from the library that I have no interest in but will read because I think someone should pay them some attention), picked a few of them off the dusty shelf one summer and began to read them. I remember reading, and delighting in, Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad long before I ever read Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn.
As the youngest child in the family, I was frequently left to my own devices, and that was fine with me. But I think I might have been a little lonely, a little too strange for children my own age, and this was something that my parents wouldn’t have noticed, not back in the 1960s and ’70s, when there was less attention placed on the lives of children. So it’s natural that the books became my friends. When I visited my father after my parents got divorced (there was no joint custody back then, which was delightful for me, as it meant that I was able to stay with my father in NYC for a huge swath of the summer vacation), I started reading through the set of Dickens. In doing so, I found a whole new set of friends and family. Even today, when I open a Dickens novel–any Dickens novel–I feel like I am at a family reunion full of quirky, oddball relatives. It is a wonderful feeling.
This oddly rambling blog post is doing a fine job of explaining how I became a reader, but it is completely missing what I set out to do: explain how I became a writer. That, I can see now, will have to wait for another post.
Last night, in shameful parody of democratic rule, the U.S. Senate passed a sweeping tax bill that undercuts the middle and lower classes, eviscerates health care, and attacks education–all while giving more money to the very entities that need it least: the wealthiest portion of the population and the corporations they control.
Instead of analyzing how this happened, or why the people we elect have sold us out to the people who keep them in office–their political campaign donors–I will make some grand generalizations here to shed light on how the United States has become what it is today, on December 2, 2017: a plutocracy.
Let’s start with history: in the late Bronze Age (1200 BC or so), the growth of powerful societies was carefully controlled by a simple custom. Simon Stoddart, Fellow of Magdalene College, Oxford, speaking on In Our Time, a BBC 4 radio podcast, explains that in these societies, “it was not permitted to become too powerful,” and if a king did attain too much wealth, he was expected to throw a huge feast to dispense his wealth, or even bury excess wealth in a hoard. Doing this would gain the king prestige and restore economic balance to the region, but it would also lead to some instability in succession, because great wealth could not be inherited. Yet the custom was apparently practiced by European Bronze Age societies as a levelling mechanism, to prevent one person or family from becoming too powerful.
Now why on earth would a powerful king consent to this kind of rule? The answer is simple: it was the custom of the time–he could not avoid doing so. And why was there such a custom? My guess is that early societies, living close to nature, observed a natural balance in the world they lived in, and they knew that no good could ever come from upsetting this balance. Think of it this way: early societies observed first-hand what happened if there were too many lambs born in a certain year, or if too much rain fell on crops–or if one man became too powerful.
Human societies unlearned this lesson when they became less reliant on the natural environment they inhabited. By the early modern age (1500 or so), people were beginning to control nature to meet their needs. Transportation was easier, so if you depleted your farm’s soil, you might move to another one. You could drain bogs to make more arable soil on which to grow more crops and raise more livestock. You could even, as so many people were beginning to do, move to the city and try your hand at making a living completely divorced from the cycle of nature.
By the late 1700s, we see the beginnings of the massive growth in urban areas that will characterize the world we live in today. It is no coincidence that we also see the rise of capitalism–as a philosophy and as a practice–at this time. And while the idea of capitalism is based on balance–the invisible hand adjusting the scales–it’s clear now that such an invisible hand was more wishful thinking than reality.
My point is that we have lost any notion of the need for balance in our political and economic systems. We have forgotten that when the very wealthy take more than they can possibly use, they leave other people in penury. Certainly the wealthy people have forgotten this law of nature and are simply grabbing all they can while the grabbing is good. The real problem is that too many people in the United States have identified with those wealthy people (how this has happened is interesting but must wait for another post), trusting that if the very wealthy are taken care of, they will be taken care of, too.
This tragically flawed logic is like thinking that in a shipwreck, if a powerful and athletic man manages to secure a place on a lifeboat, he will always make room for–in fact, he will always exert himself to save–the women, children, and less fortunate men who are still waving from the deck as it sinks below the waves. But here’s the problem: exerting oneself to save others demands a strong sense of either ethics or altruism, both of which seem to be lacking in the American upper class.
I don’t have any answers or solutions to offer. We live in dark and troubled times. To say that I despair for my country is not an exaggeration. Indeed, I never knew how much love I had for this country, this grand and imperfect experiment in democracy, until last year, when I witnessed what I think now might be the first chapter of its descent into decay and destruction. Last night, while we were sleeping, we may well have seen the second one.
But I do know one thing: one way or another, balance will be re-established. It may be a somewhat orderly process, in which case we will see a great deal of corrective legislation coming from a newly elected Congress in the early months of 2019…. Or it may come after a long, destructive, and painful struggle, with lives lost and ruined in the process.
Either way, fasten your seatbelts, Americans. It’s going to be a bumpy night.
It’s been a year now since the election, and here I am, still fighting off a sense of futility and hopelessness about the future. During that time, the United States has pulled out of the Paris Accord in an astounding demonstration of willful ignorance about climate change, suffered a spate of horrific mass murders due to lax gun laws, and threatened nuclear war with North Korea. Suffice it to say that things are not going well.
But I should point out that the emphasis in my first sentence should be on the word “fighting,” because that’s what I’m doing these days: in my own small way, I’m waging a tiny war on some of the ignorance and egotism that seems to be ruling my country these days. Somewhere (I can’t find it anymore, and perhaps that’s just as well), the French novelist Léon Werth said that any action taken against tyranny, no matter how small, no matter how personal, helps to make things better. I’ve taken his words to heart, and I’m using this space to take stock of what I’ve done in the last year. I do this not to brag–far from it, because I know I’ve done far too little–but to remind myself that although I feel powerless too much of the time, I am not quite as powerless as I seem.
Let me begin, however, by saying what I haven’t done. I have not run for office. I did that in 2012, perhaps having had an inkling that things were not going well in my part of the country, but I was crushed by an unresponsive political system, apathy, and my own supreme unsuitability for the task. I am not ready to run for office again. In fact, I may never be ready to run again. I did write about my experience, however, and over the past year, I have encouraged other people, specifically women, to run for office. I’ve talked to a few activist groups about my experiences, and perhaps most important of all, I’ve donated to campaigns.
The thing I’ve done that merits any kind of discussion, however, is what I would call “resistance teaching”: going behind the lines of smug, self-satisfied ignorance, and using any tools I have to fight it. I still believe, naive as I am, that education can fight tyranny, injustice, and inequality. So I have engaged in a few activities that will, I hope, result in creating discussions, examining benighted attitudes, and opening up minds. I haven’t done anything too flamboyant, mind you–just a few actions that will hopefully develop into something more tangible in the months to come.
Here is my list:
In spite of feeling gloomy about the future, I’ve continued with my writing, because I felt that even in difficult times, people should concentrate on making art. I self-published my second novel, and I wrote about it here, explaining why self-publishing can be an act of resistance in and of itself.
I began to translate a novel about WW I, written by Léon Werth. I am now nearing my second revision of the translation. I have submitted a chapter of it to several fine magazines and received some nice rejection letters. I will be using my translation to present a short paper on WW I writing and Hemingway at the International Hemingway Conference in Paris this summer.
I’ve traveled–quite a bit. I went to Italy, to Wales, to France, to Dallas, to Boston, and some other places that I can’t remember now. Traveling is important to open up barriers, intellectual as well as political. For example, in France I learned that while we Americans thought of Emmanuel Macron as a kind of savior for the French, he was viewed with some real skepticism and even fear by his electorate. Sure, he was better than Marine LePen–but he was still an unknown quantity, and most French people I met expressed some degree of hesitation about endorsing him.
I directed a play for my community theatre group. Although it was hard and very time-consuming, I discovered that I really believe in the value of community theatre, where a group of individuals come together in a selfless (for the most part) effort to bring the words and ideas of a person long dead back to life. So what if audiences are tiny? It’s the work that matters, not the reception of it.
I gave a talk at the C.S. Lewis Festival, which you can read here. It was fun and stimulating, and I remembered just how much I enjoy thinking and exploring literature and the ideas that shape it.
All of these things are fine, but I think the most important thing I’ve done in the past year is going back into the classroom again, this time as a substitute to help out some friends, but also to engage in what I think of “resistance teaching.” As a substitute professor, as a lifelong learning instructor, I can engage students and encourage them to think without being bound by a syllabus or any other requirements. I can get behind the lines of bureaucratic structures and work to create an atmosphere of free discussion and intellectual exploration. It is small work, and it may not be very effective, but I have taken it on as my own work, my own idiosyncratic way of combating the heartless ignorance, the dangerous half-assed education that prevails in our society.
I have always loved the idea of Resistance Fighters. I just never thought I’d be one myself.
Please note: This is a very long post. It is based on a talk I gave yesterday (October 28, 2017) at the C.S. Lewis Festival in Petoskey, Michigan. Consider yourself warned!
The study of myth seems to me to take three different paths:
Anthropological / Archeological: the study of classical mythologies (Bulfinch’s Mythology, Edith Hamilton)
Religious / Transcendent: the spiritual meaning of myth (Karen Armstrong, Joseph Campbell, Sigmund Freud)
Structuralist: the study of the same structures that recur in myths (Northrop Frye, Joseph Campbell, Roland Barthes)
This is all interesting, but I would like to back up a moment. I feel like I’ve arrived a dinner party, and that somehow I missed the first two courses. I feel as if I might get some kind of mental indigestion if I don’t start over at the very beginning.
The fact is, I want to know something more fundamental about myth and its function.
I want to know what it is and how it works.
Specifically, I want to know what distinguishes myth from other forms of story-telling.
Because for me, Story-Telling is what distinguishes human beings, homo sapiens, from all other species on this planet, as far as we know.
Studies have shown that crows have memories
Studies have shown that chimpanzees use tools
Philosophers are now beginning to agree that animals do indeed have consciousness
But we—we should be known not as homo sapiens (wise man, the man who knows), but as homo narrans—the speaking man, the man who tells, who narrates—story-telling man. Because it is clear to me that we humans communicate largely through story-telling, and this story-telling function, this tendency to rely on narration, is what makes us human.
I’m going to ask you to bear with me for a little while as I tease this out. I’d like to say that by the end of this essay, I’ll have some answers to the questions I posed (what is myth, and how does it work, and what is the difference between a really good story and a myth)—but I’m pretty sure I won’t. I may, however, ask some more questions that might eventually lead me to some answers.
So here goes. To begin with, a few people who weigh in on what myth is and what it does:
Roland Barthes, the French post-structuralist literary theorist, says that myth is a type of speech, a system of communication, a kind of message. In a way, Barthes and JRR Tolkien are not really different on this point, incredible as it is to think of Barthes and Tolkien agreeing on anything at all, much less something so important to each of them.
They are both incredibly passionate and devoted to the concept of language
Barthes, in his book Mythologies, which I have shamelessly cherry-picked for this essay, says that the myth’s objective in being told is not really important; it is the way in which it conveys that message that is important.
He says that “the knowledge contained in a mythical concept is confused, made of yielding, shapeless associations” (119).
But this isn’t as bad as it sounds, because myths actually don’t need to be deciphered or interpreted.
While they may work with “Poor, incomplete images” (127), they actually do their work incredibly efficiently. Myth, he says, gives to its story “a natural and eternal justification…a clarity which is not that of an explanation but that of a statement of fact” (143).
Myth is a story in its simple, pure form. “It acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences…” (143).
You can see how this view of myth kind of works with the myth-building that Tolkien does in The Lord of the Rings, which works with simple efficiency, whose very images are incomplete to the point of needing clarification in Appendices and further books like the Silmarillion. Yet even without having read these appendices and other books, we grasp what Tolkien is getting at. We know what Middle-Earth is like, because the myth that Tolkien presents needs no deciphering, no real interpretation for us to grasp its significance.
Tolkien, I think we can all agree, was successful in creating a myth specifically for England, as Jane Chance and many other scholars have now shown to be his intention. But is it a novel? Some might argue it isn’t—myself included. In fact, what Tolkien created in The Lord of the Rings is less a myth (I would argue that we only use that term because Tolkien himself used it to describe his work and his object—think of the poem “Mythopoeia,” which he dedicated to C.S. Lewis) than it is a full-blown epic.
For my definition of epic versus novel, I’m going to my personal literary hero, Mikhail Bakhtin, a great thinker, a marvelous student of literature, a man who wrote with virtually no audience at all for many years because he was sent into internal exile in the Soviet Union. In his essay “Epic and the Novel,” Bakhtin attributes these characteristics to epic:
It deals with an absolute past, where there is little resemblance to the present;
It is invested with national tradition, not personal experience, arousing something like piety;
There is an absolute, unbridgeable distance between the created world of epic and the real world.
The novel, says Bakhtin, is quite the opposite. It is new, changing, and it constantly “comes into contact with the spontaneity of the inconclusive present; this is what keeps the genre from congealing. The novelist is drawn toward everything that is not yet completed” (27).
I think the three characteristics of epic described by Bakhtin do in fact match up nicely with The Lord of the Rings: absolute past, national tradition, distance between the actual and the created world. But here’s another thing about epic as described by Bakhtin: “The epic world knows only a single and unified world view, obligatory and indubitably true for heroes as well as for authors and audiences” (35). It would be hard, indeed impossible, to imagine The Lord of the Rings told from a different point of view. We need that distant narrator, who becomes more distant as the book goes on. As an example, imagine The Lord of the Rings told from Saruman’s point of view, or from Gollum’s. Or even from Bilbo or Frodo’s point of view. Impossible! Of course, we share some of the point of view of various characters at various points in the narrative (I’m thinking specifically of Sam’s point of view during the Cirith Ungol episode), but it couldn’t be sustained for the whole of the trilogy.
The interesting thing here is that in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien took the novel form and invested it with epic. And I think we can say that against all odds, he was successful. On the other hand, C.S. Lewis, in his last book Till We Have Faces, took a myth (the story of Cupid and Psyche), which is certainly more closely related to epic than it is to novel, and turned it into a successful novel. This isn’t the time and place to talk about Till We Have Faces, although I hope someday that we can come together in the C.S. Lewis Festival to do that very thing, but I couldn’t help mentioning this, because it’s striking that Lewis and Tolkien, while they clearly fed off each other intellectually and creatively, started from opposite ends in writing their greatest creative works, as they did in so many other things. It’s almost amazing that you can love both of them at the same time, but of course you can. It’s the easiest thing in the world to do.
But I’m losing the thread of my questions here. What is myth? Can we actually have modern myths? Can someone actually set out with the intention of creating a myth? And can a mythic work spontaneously just happen? Another question needs to be posed here: if this long book, which is probably classified in every bookstore and library as a novel, touches on myth but is really an epic, can a novel, as we know it, become a myth? This forces us to tighten up our definition of what a myth is and asks us to think about what myth does.
Karen Armstrong, I think, would say yes, to all three of these questions. In her book A Short History of Myth, Armstrong follows the trajectory of myths through time and argues that the advent of printing and widespread literacy changed how we perceive and how we receive myth. These developments changed myth’s object and its function—and ultimately, it changed the very essence of myth.
Armstrong points out that myths and novels have similarities:
They are both meditative
They can both be transformative
They both take a person into another world for a significant period of time
They both suspend our disbelief
They break the barriers of time and space
They both teach compassion
Inspired by Armstrong and by Bakhtin, I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a stab at answering my questions. And I’ll start by defining a modern myth as a super-story of a kind: a novel (or a film, because let’s open this up to different kinds of story-telling) that exerts its power on a significant number of people. These stories then provide, in film professor and writer Stuart Voytilla’s words, “the guiding images of our lives.”
In short, a modern myth has these characteristics:
It belongs to a certain place and time. Like epic, it is rooted in a time and a place. It might not be far removed from the actual, but it cannot be reached from the actual.
It unites a group of readers, often a generation of readers, by presenting an important image that they recognize.
It unites a group of readers by fostering a similar reaction among them.
It contains identifiable elements that are meaningful to its readers/viewers. Among these might be important messages (“the little guy can win after all,” “there’s no place like home,” the American Dream has become a nightmare”).
In other words, a mythic story can be made intentionally, as Star Wars was by George Lucas after he considered the work of Joseph Campbell; or it can happen accidentally. Surely every writer dreams of writing a mythic novel—the Great American novel—but it’s more or less an accident. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a mythic novel of American, until it was displaced by To Kill a Mockingbird. And I would note here that having your novel go mythic (as we might term it—it is, in a way, like “going viral,” except mythic stories tend to last longer than viral ones) is not really such a good thing after all. Look at Harper Lee—one mythic novel, and that was the end of her artistic output—as far as we know. A mythic novel might just be the last thing a great writer ever writes.
Anyway, back to our subject: a modern myth gets adopted rather than created. Great myths are not made; they become. So let’s’ think of a few mythic novels and see how they line up with my four characteristics:
The Wizard of Oz
The Great Gatsby or Death of a Salesman—take your pick.
The Case of Local Myths—family or friend myths, references you might make to certain films or novels that only a small number of people might understand. A case in point would be the re-enactments of The Rocky Horror Picture Show that take place each year around Halloween.
In essence, my answer, such as it is, to the questions I posed earlier comes down to this:
Modern myths are important stories that unite their readers or viewers with similar emotional and intellectual reactions. Modern mythology works by presenting recognizable and significant images that unite the people who read or view them. As for what distinguishes modern myths from other forms of story-telling, what tips a “normal” novel or film over into the realm of “mythic”—I don’t have an answer for this. I only have a couple of vague, unformed theories. One of my theories is this: Could one difference between myth and the novel (“mere” story-telling as such) be that myth allows the reader/listener to stay inside the story, while the novel pushes the reader back out, to return to the actual world, however reluctantly?
And let’s not forgot what Karen Armstrong wrote about myth: “It has been writers and artists, rather than religious leaders, who have stepped into the vacuum [created by the loss of religious certainty and despair created by modernism] and attempted to reacquaint us with the mythological wisdom of the past” (138). Armstrong’s closing sentence is perhaps the most important one in the book: “If professional religious leaders cannot instruct us in mythical lore, our artists and creative writers can perhaps step into this priestly role and bring fresh insight to our lost and damaged world” (149). With this in mind, perhaps it’s time to go and read some more, and find more myths that can help us repair and restore ourselves, our faith in our culture, and in doing so, the world itself.