I want to do something different this quarter, a unit on identity and society. Students will choose one book to read from a short list of books, interview a United States resident born outside of the United States, and write (among other things) a profile of that person.
Which books, though. The college just approved my syllabus using Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. My thought was that students would choose between (and as a class compare) the experience of a member of a minority citizen and that of an emigrant.
But as I’m reading Invisible Man for the third time, I’m struck by how some of my high school seniors (it’s a dual-enrollment course) or their parents might be offended by it. If it were purely a college course, I wouldn’t think twice. My plan all along was to give them fair verbal and written warnings. It’s funny: more and more these days I feel like a troublemaker when I put certain works from the accepted American canon in a course.
To replace Invisible Man or to supplement the two choices, what about Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son? Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces? Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp? I’m even considering Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, which also deals with the individual and society, mostly from a political standpoint.
Every time we log onto our blogs, we WordPress bloggers (the .org ones, anyway) are required to prove our humanity. The solution of a simple addition problem constitutes acceptable proof. It seems a low standard of proof. I admit that humans are the only animals that can add using numerals, but I always wonder, logging on, why I’m asked to do something the bots wishing to take over my blog can surely do.
I must be missing something about bots, but bigger questions remain: doesn’t being human mean more than mastering simple addition? Shouldn’t I have to do more, or shouldn’t I have to be more, to prove my humanity?
These are two different questions, and I won’t address the first one. The second question, I discovered this morning, is at the heart of the Baldwin gospel. I was rereading the first essay in Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, which distinguishes works that Baldwin has grouped into “the American protest novel” genre from more well-rounded novels. The former genre includes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Richard Wright’s Native Son. Despite their different epochs and tones, the two works, Baldwin believes, are two sides of the same flat coin because “they are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses.” Protagonists in these two novels use entirely different strategies, but they fight for the same end — their humanity.
Wright supports his protagonist Bigger Thomas’s tragic quest to prove his humanity, but to Baldwin this exercise is what makes Wright’s and Stowe’s characters two-dimensional and their novels theologically (and therefore politically) flawed:
For Bigger’s tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry, not even that he is American, black; but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life, than he admits the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth. But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it.
In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” employing the guise of literary criticism to explore human identity and its conflicts with society (see Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work for an entire book pulling off the same trick with film criticism), Baldwin previews his gospel. He would later retreat from its purest form after the social and political disappointments of the 1960s and 70s. But he never ceased to recoil quickly from society’s trap of proving one’s humanity to oneself.
I assign all Americans but a single book a year, and they must discuss it with their neighbors as part of an effort to reconstitute the local. I don’t think this is too much to ask. (Past assigned works have included Reinhold Niebuhr‘s The Irony of American History, James Baldwin‘s Notes of a Native Son, James Agee and Walker Evans‘s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Hannah Arendt‘s Between Past and Future.) This year’s book is the first new release ever assigned: Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America.
I met a few writers this year who seem to understand who I am and encouraged me in the direction I’m heading. Chief among them is the Austrian philosopher Eric Voegelin.
Voegelin is considered a conservative political philosopher; in fact, Mark Lilla introduced me to Voegelin through an essay dedicated to him in Lilla’s The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, published last year. What initially impressed me about Voegelin was Lilla’s account of Voegelin’s conversion of sorts. Here’s Lilla’s summary of his account of Voegelin’s conversion from political reaction: “his historical nostalgia did not survive the assault of his limitless curiosity” (26).
Lilla places Voegelin with political philosophers, left and right, who fled Hitler, such as Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno, philosophers who believed that “it was transformations in Western thinking that had prepared the unthinkable, and that a new intellectual path had to be found before a political one could be.” Voegelin’s thinking initially wasn’t much different from others Lilla labels as reactionaries – Voegelin believed that the bifurcation of religion and government that developed after the Middle Ages gave rise to the politically religious qualities to Fascism, Marxism, and nationalism – and he won followers among American conservatives for this analysis detailed in his earlier books.
These conservatives tended to overlook Voegelin’s views about what came before the rise of modernism (Christianity was at fault for the bifurcation of religion and government) and what should come after (he did not call for any kind of religious nationalism) (31 – 32). But his conversion, which I’ll attempt to explain shortly, left them feeling betrayed.
Lilla’s retreat from a fall-and-restoration narrative mirrors my own late-in-life distaste for so-called prophetic narratives of the political fundamentalism of some Christians and Muslims, as well as the historical narratives of Marxism, Fascism, and other –isms. All such movements wish to “immanentize the eschaton”— Voegelin’s most famous expression – that is, they wish to bring on a kind of millennium or end of history in the political here and now. (Shakespeare’s Macbeth is, to me, primarily a warning against immanentizing the eschaton.)
Voegelin’s concerns about hastening the end of history start early in his writings, but after his conversion he understood his own unwitting participation in such a project. His newer view of history and the future is more like my own: it is mysterious in both a religious sense (“a field where the divine and human meet,” as Lilla puts it) and in a categorical sense (“a mystery in the process of revelation,” as Voegelin puts it) (39).
Was Voegelin’s conversion more than simply a philosophical one? Yes and no, I think. I got a sense of his conversion when I started reading the 1977 English translation by Gerhart Niemeyer of Voegelin’s 1966 book Anamnesis, a short and dense book (well, all of his books are dense) of his more experimental writings from 1943 through 1977 (the English translation includes two essays written since the 1966 original). Anamnesis reads like a mashup of Samuel von Pufendorf and St. John of the Cross – political theory not just in mystical terms but understood only as a form of mysticism. And the entry to this mysticism is both a religious and philosophical conversion, which I assume Voegelin must have experienced.
Voegelin in Anamnesis understands Aristotle’s insistence on “what is right by nature” to come not from the adherence to “a set of external, immutable propositions” but from asking the spoudaios – a mature man or, more generally, “existentially the right order of man.” Man does not become rightly ordered through adhering to ethical norms but through “the permeability through the movement of being, i.e., the openness of man for the divine; the openness in turn is not a proposition about something but an event . . .” (65). Such language suggests that the “event” involves the transformation of the inner man, the end of many religious faiths. This is why I am bold enough to use the word conversion to describe Voegelin’s approach.
Consider the initial stages in this conversion “toward the divine ground of existence”: attraction from the divine, a desire to know about the ground, a questioning in confusion, and a consciousness of ignorance (97). These are steps towards religious conversion, not of the initial kind to a set of religious tenets but of a later kind described by John of the Cross as the night of sense – one that leads to transformation.
The reason I answered “yes and no” to my question regarding the nature of Voegelin’s conversion – whether it was “more than simply a philsosophical one” – is that, for Voegelin, philosophy as understood by Plato and Aristotle is a kind of mysticism:
Hence, philosophy in the classic sense is not a body of “ideas” or “opinions” about the divine ground dispensed by a person who calls himself a “philosopher,” but a man’s responsive pursuit of his questioning unrest to the divine source that has aroused it. (96)
Even though we have no biographical evidence that Voegelin adhered to any creed or indeed believed in a personal god, his philosophy is based in large part on the notion of mystical transformation.
Philosophy, understood mystically, is one such means to the ground of being; Voegelin refers to it as “the event of philosophy as flowing presence” (133). Another comes courtesy of the Ecumenic Age (the eponym for Voegelin’s fourth installment of Order and History with its mea culpa that Lilla finds exemplary), which makes this experience available to all. During the age of the first empires, conquering nations disrupted the fixed, tribal cosmos of smaller civilizations, causing the smaller civilizations’ inhabitants to question their received understanding of the way the world worked. The clash of myths accelerated the questioning and helped the spread of Christianity, which offered a beginning and a beyond that accounted for more than that of the original culture. Here we are introduced to how this “differentiation” – this movement from a fixed cosmos and its myths to the ground of being that underwrites all of it – moves from an individual to a culture.
But the movement from individual to culture – the idea that the ground of being affects individuals first and cultures second – is significant for political theory. History is built on individuals’ movements to the ground; therefore, “all ‘philosophies of history,’ which hypostatize society or history as an absolute, eclipsing personal existence and its meaning, are excluded as false” (114). Voegelin refers, of course, primarily to Hegel and secondarily to Marx. History cannot be understood as “an object that could be known ‘intersubjectively’ and thus would present about the same phenomenal image to everyone.” Instead – and here Voegelin sounds like a Doctor of the Church – the tension in being that becomes history
. . . must be experienced personally and [it] therefore presents itself in a manifold of experiential modes on the scales of compactness and differentiation, of transparency and obliqueness, of anxiety and faith, of libio dominandi and charity, of despair and hope, of acquiescence and rebellion, humility and defiance, opening and closing oneself, apostasy and return, promethean revolt and fear of God, joy of life and contemptus mundi. (133)
In moving towards the ground of being, we live in the metaxy, the “’in between,’ in a temporal flow of experience in which eternity is present” (133).
I feel as if I’ve been searching in the dark for years, but Voegelin and other authors I’ve read this year (particularly Philip Gorski and Jonathan Haidt) have exposed me to ideas similar to my own, only far more developed or researched. Voegelin’s philosophy has affirmed so much of what I’ve come to understand almost intuitively about politics and mysticism to this point beyond just, you know, avoiding the immanentization of the eschaton. Here are six ways I’ve felt affirmed by Voegelin.
First, the Equality Clause’s “all men are created equal” is a proposition in the historical sense but is primarily relational and secondarily functional in the religious and political sense, based as it is on the hierarchy among God, man, and nature (one way of understanding Voegelin’s “existentially right order of man”). Voegelin here summarizes his historiography:
. . . history is not a field of indifferently objective materials from which we may select some according to arbitrary criteria, in order to “construct” a tableau of history. Rather, history is constituted by consciousness, so the logos of consciousness decides what is and what is not historically relevant. Be it noted especially that the time in which history constitutes itself is not that of the external world, in which the somatically founded life of man leaves its traces, bu rather the inner dimension of consciousness of desire and search after the ground. Since, regarding this dimension, all men are equal, the field of history is always universally human, even if only a relatively small sector of the philosophers’ position would be materially known. (158)
History, despite uneven recordings based on inequality (a focus on leaders, inventions, or wars, for instance) is based on consciousness, which in turn means on a search for the divine ground thanks to mankind’s ontological equality.
Second, the individual must precede the culture politically. The tension in a healthy society stems from what Reinhold Niebuhr describes in The Irony of American History as an individual’s inability to find fulfillment without her society, while her experience teaches her also that she “also cannot find fulfillment completely within society” (62). What came first, if you’ll indulge me, the chicken or the roost? Insofar as my question is an analogy to political theory, the chicken. While we are social animals, our political standing must be our individual standing before God as pictured in Locke’s state of nature or in other accounts that comport with the Hebrew story of Adam’s creation and his initial relationship with God alone.1 Otherwise, a government eventually ceases to recognize our status as children of God and even our humanity.
Third, our individual repentance and transformation (what I call the “transformation of the religious” as opposed to “religious transformation”) is the only means to meaningful political change. My extensive reading of James Baldwin three years ago convinced me of this mystery, but Voegelin gives me a more systematized way of understanding it.
Fourth, a kind of political religion based on an individual’s movement to the ground of being amounts to a middle way between today’s nationalism and today’s liberalism. The fight between these forces that have largely defined modernity has led to some gains but has been largely futile:
If one, however, simply follows rebellion as a guideline, one finds the desire for knowledge again blocked, for the rebellion aims not directly at the reality of knowledge but at its forms of decay, i.e., against the theological and metaphysical dogmatisms. These older dogmatisms, which we first encounter as we turn around, are closer to reality than the rebellion against the ground, even though they have the character of a parekbasis. We must not forget, though, that they, too, suffer from a kind of loss of reality which has provoked the ideological rebellion since the eighteenth century, and that, on the other hand, the rebellion has freed socially effective areas of the world, society, and history that the social oppression of orthodoxy sought to keep under cover. (188)
The increasing focus by these combatants on the evils their opposites present shows how ineffectual either side’s eventual victory would be toward healing our society.
Fifth, a movement to the divine ground, much like a religious conversion, can tempt those newly enlightened to impose their understanding on others in the political realm:
The differentiating experience . . . can be so intensive that the man to whom it occurs feels transformed into a new being. The new image of the world resulting from the experience can be misunderstood as a new world; and the process of change itself can turn into a structural datum of reality that can be extrapolated into the future. (166)
(True, immanentization of the eschaton is an example of this.) Voegelin’s warnings along these lines are worked out in greater detail in a section of the introduction to The Ecumenic Age called, “The Deformation of Philosophy into Doctrine” (36 – 43). Political religion is a tricky thing, but the virtue most associated with a proper approach is moderation. (Moderation, in fact, is the chief political virtue of a proper eschatology. Consider this koan-like adage from St. Paul in Philippians: “Let your moderation be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.” – KJV. I also like Young’s: “Let your forbearance . . .”) As Gorski points out, many people confuse civil religion with religious nationalism and indiscriminately want shut of both (18 – 21).
Sixth, a proper political religion exists, it has been helpful (even salvific, if you will) at critical times in American history, and it is best exemplified by the life and writings of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln turned to the past not in reaction (i.e., in a call for a return to a golden age) but as a means of reinterpreting the past in language familiar to a culture. Voegelin, who returns again and again to the language by which differentiation is expressed to those still in the cosmic (early) stage of movement to the ground, puts it this way:
The human universality of the desiring and searching participation in the ground results further in the equivalence in the symbolisms in which the consciousness of the ground is expressed. By equivalence I mean the fact that all experiences of the ground are in like manner experiences of participation even though they may differ considerably from each other on the scales of compactness and differentiation of finding and missing the ground. The equivalence of the symbols thrown up in the stream of participation, finally, leads to the loving turning back to the symbols belonging to the past, since they express phases of the same consciousness in the presence of which the thinker finds himself. (158 – 159)
In Lincoln’s case, this “loving turning back to the symbols belonging to the past” chiefly means his elucidations of the relative roles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, which he likens to the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, respectively – “phases of the same consciousness in the presence of which the thinker finds himself” – as Lincoln reinterprets the Equality Clause as the “sheet anchor of American republicanism.” With that ontological anchor, America may yet differentiate itself from a compact, slave society into one that lives out a kind of polity closer to the ground of being accessible to individuals within that polity.
(A good companion to Voegelin is Ted V. McAllister’s book Revolt Against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Postliberal Order.)
Here are the books I’ve read this year, listed alphabetically by the authors’ last names.
Berman, Marshall. The Politics of Authenticity.
Bonta, Dave. Ice Mountain: An Elegy.
Boser, Urlich. Learn Better. (Read 2 times)
Chernow, Ron. Alexander Hamilton.
Cole, Teju. Blind Spot.
Durant, Will and Ariel. The Age of Reason Begins: A History of Eurpoean Civilization in the Period of Shakespeare, Bacon, Montaigne, Rembrandt, Galileo, and Descartes: 1558 – 1648.
Frankin, Al. Al Frankin, Giant of the Senate.
Gorski, Philip. American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present.
Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. (Read 2 times)
Isenberg, Nancy. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.
Knoll, Mark A. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.
Lilla, Mark. The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction.
McAllister, Ted V. Revolt Against Modernity: Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and the Search for a Postliberal Order.
McInerney, Jeremy. The Age of Pericles (Great Courses Lecture Series).
Mussolini, Benito. The Doctrine of Facism.
O’Brian, Patrick. 21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey.
O’Brian, Patrick. Blue at the Mizzen. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Commodore. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Far Side of the World. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Hundred Days. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Ionian Mission. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Letter of Marque. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Nutmeg of Consolation. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Reverse of the Medal. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Thirteen-Gun Salute. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Truelove. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Wine-Dark Sea. (My fourth read.)
O’Brian, Patrick. The Yellow Admiral. (My fourth read.)
O’Donnell, William E. Culture is Everything. (Read 2 times)
Pasternak, Boris. Doctor Zhivago.
Prothero, Stephen. Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections): A History of the Religious Battles that define Amerian from jefferson’s Heresies to Gay Marriage.
Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. (Read for the umpteenth time)
Snyder, Timothy. Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning.
Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.
Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. (Read for the umpteenth time)
Voegelin, Eric. Anamnesis.
Volker, Ulrich. Hitler: Ascent, 1889 – 1939.
Waldman, Michael. The Fight to Vote.
Weiner, Eric. The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.
To this agrees Hannah Arendt, writing in The Origins of Totalitarianism: “Men are unequal according to their natural origin, their different organization, and fate in history. Their equality is an equality of rights only, that is, an equality of human purpose; yet behind this equality of human purpose lies, according to Jewish-Christian tradition, another equality, expressed in the concept of one common origin beyond human history, human nature, and human purpose— the common origin in the mythical, unidentifiable Man who alone is God’s creation. This divine origin is the metaphysical concept on which the political equality of purpose may be based, the purpose of establishing mankind on earth. Nineteenth-century positivism and progressivism perverted this purpose of human equality when they set out to demonstrate what cannot be demonstrated, namely, that men are equal by nature and different only by history and circumstances, so that they can be equalized not by rights, but by circumstances and education. Nationalism and its concept of a ‘national mission’ perverted the national concept of mankind as a family of nations into a hierarchical structure where differences of history and organization were misinterpreted as differences between men, residing in natural origin. Racism, which denied the common origin of man and repudiated the common purpose of establishing humanity, introduced the concept of the divine origin of one people as contrasted with all others, thereby covering the temporary and changeable product of human endeavor with a pseudomystical cloud of divine eternity and finality.” ↩
Lists of books read are misleading. For instance, I spent the first half of this year reading Karl Popper every night, and I spent the second half of the year reading James Baldwin every night. This slow going through two authors presents a better idea of my reading this year than the more comprehensive list that follows of the books I’ve read. Popper and Baldwin – particularly Baldwin, and along with Shakespeare and Reinhold Niebuhr – really got me thinking over the past twelve months.
Due to my job demands, I read most of the listed books by listening to unabridged recordings of them while walking to and from school or while driving. Some books I both read and listened to using Whispersync, which I described in my post about my reading in 2013. Some books I read pretty quickly this year; others, like Robert Alter’s translation of the Book of Psalms, I read over several months. (I read Alter’s book as a devotional many mornings over nine months.) Except for the Psalms, poetry doesn’t make the list because I didn’t read any other poetry book from cover to cover. But I sure read many poems many times from Robert Lax’s work and from Tom Montag’s In This Place: Selected Poems 1982 – 2013. Overall, though, I read a lot less poetry this year than I have in years past.
My biggest experiment with slow reading methods involved slow reading on a Kindle. I typed 452 margin notes in my Kindle edition of Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies and then used the notes to write about what I read.
Baldwin has a few themes that he returns to, book after book. One is the idea that identity is a mask, a rather fragile but essential mask that I construct – or that I allow my society to construct for me as I, wittingly or unwittingly, aid in its construction. An identity is usually false and shallow, and “it is questioned only when it is menaced,” as Baldwin says in a book of essays, The Devil Finds Work.
He understands his holy-roller preacher adolescence as a space where a mask was menaced. Although he disowns his Christianity, forty years after leaving the church he doesn’t “pretend to have surmounted the pain and terror of that time of my life.” In his early religious phase he “encountered the abyss of my own soul” in some measure. My own, legalistic religion benefitted me with a similar experience some time ago.
On The Tempest. Baldwin says something very similar to what Langbaum says in one of my post’s epigraphs, but from a broader perspective.
Langbaum: “. . . romance deals in marvelous events and solves its problems through metamorphoses and recognition scenes – through, in other words, transformations of perception.”
Baldwin wouldn’t disagree, I don’t think, but he sees “metamorphoses and recognition” as inherent in theater, not just in romance. The “tension between the real and the imagined is the theater,” Baldwin says, “and this is why the theater will always remain a necessity. One is not in the presence of shadows [as at the cinema], but responding to one’s flesh and blood; in the theater, we are recreating each other . . . we are all each other’s flesh and blood.”
Baldwin got converted as a young teen, he suggests, to escape Macbeth and the flesh and blood of theater: “Macbeth was a nigger, just like me, and I saw the witches in church, every Sunday, and all up and down the block, all week long, and Banquo’s face was a familiar face. At the same time, the majesty and torment on that stage were real . . .”
Baldwin was a playwright as well as a novelist and essayist. My quotes are from Baldwin’s No Name in the Street, the fourth book of his essays I’ve read this year.
The reason that it is important – of the utmost importance – for white people, here, to see the Negroes as people like themselves is that white people will not, otherwise, be able to see themselves as they are.
– James Baldwin, from Nobody Knows My Name
. . . romance deals in marvelous events and solves its problems through metamorphoses and recognition scenes – through, in other words, transformations of perception.
– Robert Langbaum, from his introduction to the Signet Classic edition of The Tempest
The island’s sand is bright white. Its lone palm is curved, like the line to a high kite. The storm clouds clear, and Ariel drifts down, bound to what the Washington Post calls “an amusingly thick rope.” She seems to miss her runway. She passes Prospero, but she delivers her lines, anyway, as, upside down, she reaches for the oncoming palm. She sounds dutiful and put out.
Will tomorrow’s show be the same, or is the actress making the most of tonight’s haywire high wire? Either way, I reflect, it’s Ariel: she wants to please Prospero because she wants her freedom. She’ll disorient every castaway, and also maybe herself, to leave.
We walk later the high, black catwalk from which Ariel was suspended. Beneath the stage, we touch the forbidden fruit on the banquet table that an hour before fell through a trap door.
But real magic pervades the wig room. Bethany and I are startled to see, on a black mannequin, fair Miranda’s hair. Our friend, who is showing us the ropes backstage, designs the wigs and costumes. She is visibly pleased. I’ve done my job well, then, she says.
Beforehand, I walk upstage in a parking garage. I’m a level below the lowest level with elevator service. An anxious Capitals fan behind me in an SUV drove me to this hell. I wanted to insinuate my car into a narrow spot a few levels up, but I didn’t want to hear more honking.
Outside it’s cold, and a man, covered in a surplus blanket or coat, sleeps against the garage. I’ve no sense of direction, and I’ve dropped Bethany, who has, off at the theater before parking. I’m disoriented. He could be dead. Then a guy comes out of the night as if he were the night coalescing.
He has a badge on a lanyard, just like the college kids that come to my door summertime in the suburbs. Except he’s around fifty, around my age, or he says he is, but I don’t believe him at first. He says he remembers the riots here after they shot King. He was five years old then. His dark dreadlocks fall behind him down somewhere near the dark street. They pull at the wrinkles on his forehead and make his eyes big and sweet.
I read a scene tonight towards the end of Another Country that got me thinking about self-government. James Baldwin’s 1961 novel, I acknowledge, has nothing directly to do with government or politics of any kind. But any novel portraying great anguish well and offering a glimmer of hope is a paean to self-government. It answers “maybe” or even “yes” to Alexander Hamilton’s question at the outset of the Federalist Papers: Can people govern themselves?
Self-government’s survival, in other words, depends on whether I’m willing to live out some anguish and accept my humanity.
In the scene, a character, with a friend in an art gallery, comes to realize that she has helped to create the husband she has grown to despise.
“And I saw that I’d loved him like that, like a child, and now the bill for all that dreaming had come in. How can one have dreamed so long? And I thought it was real. Now I don’t know what’s real.” (404)
I’ll quote from the characters’ more theoretical observations and reflect on self-government.
“You think that there isn’t any hope for us?”
“Hope?” The word seemed to bang from wall to wall. “Hope? No, I don’t think there’s any hope. We’re too empty here”— her eyes took in the Sunday crowd — “too empty — here.” She touched her heart. “This isn’t a country at all, it’s a collection of football players and Eagle Scouts. Cowards. We think we’re happy. We’re not. We’re doomed.” (406)
Government is messy because humanity is messy. There are two ways out. One is to escape from being human, to be transformed into something better – a saint, perhaps, or a god. The other is to redefine humanity to exclude the messy elements — that is, to define certain groups — groups to which I happily don’t belong — as subhuman.
No matter which of these two ways out I choose, I am drawn to one of two approaches to government. As the god superior to man or as the man superior to beasts, I and my fellow superiors can govern to enforce the gulf that separates us from the inferiors for the good of society. Or I can, perhaps in disgust, disclaim any role in governing.
Neither approach to government is self-government. Self-government requires my involvement and my humanity.
Self-government is personal. It’s not enough to espouse equality. It’s not enough to vote. Self-government insists that I become human. And to become human, I must own up to my part in humanity’s problems.
“You said once,” he said, “that you wanted to grow. Isn’t that always frightening? Doesn’t it always hurt?”
It was a question he was asking himself — of course; she turned toward him with a small, grateful smile, then turned to the painting again.
“I’m beginning to think,” she said, “that growing just means learning more and more about anguish. That poison becomes your diet — you drink a little of it every day. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t stop seeing it — that’s the trouble. And it can, it can” — she passed her hand wearily over her brow again — “drive you mad.” (405)
Self-government isn’t possible without personal growth, and growth isn’t possible without anguish and hope. Hope without anguish is immature hope – perhaps a necessary starting point, but untested and, if it stays untested for too long, dangerous. But anguish without hope leads to madness.
“You begin to see that you yourself, innocent, upright you, have contributed and do contribute to the misery of the world. Which will never end because we’re what we are.” (Id.)
Equality is hard work. It’s easy to espouse in theory but hard to admit in practice, when my equality with others includes aspects of humanity that offend me.
He watched her face from which the youth was now, before his eyes, departing; her girlhood, at last, was falling away from her. Yet, her face did not seem precisely faded, or, for that matter, old. It looked scoured, there was something invincibly impersonal in it. (405 – 406)
Public life is impersonal, and that impersonality can be either bad or good. Self-righteousness is impersonal because it treats the other as less than a person. But self-government is impersonal because it transcends personality. Self-government is based on a sacred truth, as the Declaration’s first draft puts it, that all men are created equal. Our essential equality, deeper than personality, is the basis for celebrating our diverse personalities and cultures – and for celebrating, ultimately, our common failings.
Only my personal anguish – only our collective personal anguish – can lead to the invincible, impersonal equality that makes self-government possible.
Self-government, then, doesn’t have much of a chance. But the stakes are too high for me not to take it personally.