Living by Fiction

I’m at home this week with what I hope is almost the last of a case of pneumonia. I joked with a friend the other day that I have ‘the rockin’ pneumonia and the boogie woogie flu,’ though I’d not like to call up the lyrics of that Johnny Rivers hit too literally. Yesterday, in the midst of some solemn Sunday reflections, I received a nag from Facebook telling me I hadn’t posted on my blog for a week, tsk., etc. So I dutifully looked around under the bed for some unfinished thoughts I could work up into something to fulfill the Facebookian expectation.

And I found something. For years now, at least since I observed how Richard Nixon fulfilled the expectation of comic book ads I grew up with and made himself the life of parties by playing the piano, I’ve wanted to write something about the authority of the fake. We Americans can seem obsessed with authenticity sometimes. Consider such icons of popular culture as Antiques Roadshow, and now Finding Your Roots, wherein we are led to appreciate wonders by experts whose appeal is enhanced by their ability to startle us with surprises hidden in the obscurity of some past represented by an artifact or an old letter.

Yet we can also give credence and power to utterly trivial people, to patently false but convenient beliefs, and to confidence tricks masquerading as dark hidden truths. Today’s Internet rumor mills are rife with the apocalyptic predictions of charlatans of all stripes. Somehow the world goes on, but so do multitudinous predictions of its demise. I’m not speaking now of authentic concern about the survival of our planet in this post-scientific age or of legitimate concern over lost values. I can get as distressed as the next person about the potential alteration or disappearance of Social Security, for instance; but I doubt very seriously that God is punishing us with storm and drought because our culture is changing.

And who better to represent our present obsession with the grandiose than Donald Trump?— a man who is an utter fake but who has apparently convinced many of us that his candidacy for the presidency is substantial and serious. We’ve seen many iterations of this American type, a figure with no particular talent for anything else who manages to achieve prominence by standing in a media spotlight and convincing a large segment of the public he belongs there, that he is a winner in a culture that worships winning and regards losers, except for the Chicago Cubs, as beneath contempt. Not only does Trump seem to succeed by brashness alone (a fine American virtue), but he also tells lots of lies, many of them about himself. Indeed he projects an image as fake as his hair and so slight one suspects a lucky breeze might blow it away, which may be why he resorts to thuggery and surrounds himself with other thugs to keep his critics at bay. Yet we are told that Trump is popular among losers, chiefly white working class voters who find themselves economically disadvantaged and feel culturally disadvantaged as well. And about this factoid the pundits seem able to dance to various tunes, some arguing that Trump is a legitimate populist while others lament his apparent racism, sexism, authoritarianism, etc.

Of course the list of losers among us is getting fairly long now. Lots of us never learned to play the piano, it seems; but the genius of fakers like Trump and his predecessor, P. T. Barnum, is a gift for the same trick performed by the Wizard of Oz, who even after he is unmasked is able to retain preeminence by presenting his postulants with various consolation prizes. Everybody knows that losers love consolation prizes. The trick is to keep the prizes believable but relatively commonplace. The more portentous they seem to be the more likely the giver is to be accused of practicing an invidious affirmative action, leading to lost value for true winners in the race to the top. Trump’s speech to the NRA last week was a masterful consolation prize. The NRA and its zealous partisans are winners presently, but their program is despicable, destructive, and anarchic. It surely can’t last forever. Like most of the rest of his campaign Trump’s pandering to the NRA cost him absolutely nothing. Old Barnum, who is supposed to have claimed there’s a sucker born every minute, could hardly have done better.

This puts me in a difficult position, because with another hat on my head I’ll defend the importance and value of fiction and the fictive, even the fictitious, till the proverbial cows come home. Where do I get off sneering at Trump? A lot of people like him after all, and many in the Republican party are now vowing to support him as their candidate for president (I note that only recently many of those Republicans deplored Trump, but let that go). Trump is real, he is authentic, they claim. He says things openly that many believe but are shy of uttering, namely his now famous racist and misogynistic statements which seem to resonate with many conservatives. Part of my answer would have to be an admission that though I acknowledge the value of a popular culture figure such as Harry Potter to model courage and heroism for the rest of us (though that is not all such figures do), I don’t expect Daniel Radcliffe to run for president dressed in his Hogwarts scarf with a wand in his hand.

But another part of my answer would have to be that it is the courage and sacrifice of this fictional character that we most admire, not the mere winning. Had Potter gone down to defeat we should still have admired him as we do his mentor, Albus Dumbledore. Sometimes even romantic fictional heroes suffer final defeat, as with Lancelot and Arthur. Or perhaps some token signals for us that their defeat isn’t absolute, as with the sword that returns to its home in the lake. One cannot imagine Donald Trump as a figure of heroic romance. Dictators and potential dictators tend to try to dress the heroic part, as Augusto Pinochet did in his Chilean heyday, for instance, as Raymond Burke, the darling of the Catholic right wing, does today. Their pretensions historically have had poor survivability, but Trump goes on. He is problematic for me, and for others who deplore him, because like Ronald Reagan he seems to have a Teflon skin, impervious to fact or other deconstructive force.

Annie Dillard once wrote a book entitled Living by Fiction. It’s not her best book. She was trying to be a literary critic, something she isn’t. Nevertheless, some of her observations in Living by Fiction are memorable. Here’s one: “Fiction elicits an interpretation of the world by being itself a worldlike object for interpretation . . . In the fiction of Aestheticism [fiction in the tradition of Joyce and Chekhov] ideas dissolve into their materials without a trace.” Trump’s presentation of himself as a presidential candidate invites the same interpretive exercise in which critics engage with such literary fictions, a teasing out of meaning not apparent on the surface of the text. From such a perspective Trump is an antihero, an iteration of Trump the reality TV star, whose feral mind seems to relish the corporate sewer. I cannot imagine any morally acceptable American scenario unfolding in a country with Trump as its leader. He is a know nothing and a blowhard. He inherited money, but unlike Mitt Romney he has not racked up a string of financial successes—rather a string of bankruptcies and frauds like Trump University. His thinking is grandiose. His call to unity evokes white supremacy, stigmatizes Americans of color, and proclaims them enemies of the people.

As I say, I am reading Trump’s presentation of himself as a candidate for president, some critics would say his performance of himself. When I say he is a fake, I don’t mean he is an empty suit masquerading as a leader, but something more. Trump’s language and behavior proclaim him to be a man without moral character who is perfectly willing to proclaim the worst in himself to be the best and to represent the worst in his constituents; yet he is seeking an office that requires moral seriousness, vision, historical perspective, and strength of character at a bare minimum. I am also reading the performance of the movement Trump’s candidacy seems to gather around him. Trump’s rallies and campaign are part of the fiction too, with their violence and demagoguery. Trump is not Hitler, as pundits remind us (and we must believe them, else they wouldn’t be pundits). But the country his campaign proclaims to be the America Trump wishes to lead resembles Germany in 1932, and that all to closely for comfort. If Trump represents winning to his constituents—winning for them, their winning—and I think he does, the rest of us would do well to lock our doors and keep our powder dry.

And as Americans we would do well to ask ourselves why the fake has power to move us to wish (or to do) harm to others, to vote for destructive policies, to support hate campaigns, and the other like things the Trump organization seems ready to accomplish. Or perhaps Trump isn’t fake at all. Perhaps these things are what his campaign is about, harm to those who differ from us, hatred and destructive public policies that promulgate hatred of the most vulnerable among us, reversal of the access to public life achieved by women and minorities over the past fifty to sixty years, restoration of white supremacy and patriarchy. Perhaps these are the means to making America great again envisioned by Trump and his followers. If so, then the question becomes how did a substantial number of Americans come to think these things, to wish these things?

no continuing city

I retired officially fourteen years ago and moved to Saint Louis, but since that time I’ve continued to work part time at Saint Louis University. I taught basic English classes for a while; then for the past eleven years I have offered a senior honors seminar called Great Books. Somewhere in there I also served as an assistant dean in SLU’s now defunct graduate college. This spring I’ve decided to retire completely, partly because my beloved is retiring and partly because it’s time.

I’ve loved Rilke’s poem, “Herbsttag,” for many years, love the opening especially in English, “It is time, Lord . . . ,” not so much about what it is time for the speaker to do as a proleptic evocation of what God might do, the near casual feeling of those first few words juxtaposed as they are to a set of cosmic expectations couched in rhetorically extravagant flourishes. Clearly this speaker’s autumn reflection means to image a metaphysical autumn, a time of last things, of passage from one life state to another. The poem is widely available. Here it is together with a number of translations.

I share the restlessness of the poem’s concluding lines. I am neither homeless nor friendless, except in the sense of being alone as we all are alone, but I am experiencing at least two contrary emotions as I think about the future. These inspire no new thoughts about death—it’s out there somewhere. Rather, what I am experiencing is a conflict between desiring to do old age as a contest between my body and the set of physical limitations that come with being almost eighty on the one hand, and on the other a contrary desire to take a nap.

Taking a nap has its advantages, I suppose, if one is willing to slide into decline and live with one’s memories. But I remain restless, walking up and down whatever streets I find to walk in, writing late at night, writing trivia, still seeking to overcome it, returning to old forms of thought I had abandoned for years, looking for my ancestors. I wrote a passable sonnet not long ago. I wrote a villanelle, not really good but a villanelle nonetheless. I’d like to write a good one. I may return to rhyme, not a bad spiritual exercise.

I’m describing a state of mind that many readers have found in Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” but that poem’s naïve evocation of the will bespeaks its late romantic origin and the youthful mind of its author. Tennyson was only 24 when he wrote “Ulysses,” a poem more likely to appeal to the youthful Bobby Kennedy (who loved it, as everyone knows, I think) than to someone at my time of life. Still, my restlessness is real, and my own. I need to learn to exploit it rather than merely living with it. I can hear the voice of some learned person reminding me of Ernest Becker, but Becker’s various immortality projects seem to me to belong to youthful thinking as well.

My beloved and I are gearing up for some travel, road trips around our own continent—though we haven’t ruled out travel abroad. I have a long list of projects to complete or cause to be completed at home, some of which must be finished before another winter. I have walks to take, some with camera in hand. I have friends to talk with and books to read, a villanelle to write and potentially a new project to explore closed forms of poetry I abandoned years ago after publishing a set of sonnets I came to dislike. There’s a certain comfort in playing with closed forms and an existential discomfort that goes with writing in open ones. So my closed form project may be a hdege against restlessness.

But I guess I’m trying to school myself to think of old age as an invitation not to design an immortality strategy (pace Becker) but still to live with as much gusto as I can muster for the remaining time I have. I’m aware of my huge good fortune in possessing good health, though I need to take off a few pounds (actually more than a few). So my prescription for myself is contingent upon continued good health and therefore is for myself alone; though you’re welcome to stop by, if you like. We can have a coffee at Mokabes or a beer at The Shaved Duck if it’s late enough in the day, and talk about whatever’s in the air.

I think I may be reconciled to living in the city I have in the here and now, not in another one to come (pace Plato and St. Paul). The academy was in some ways my city to come, to be sought or founded in the realm of discourse. But nobody can really live in such a place, and one thing I may have learned from this perception is that it is the very accidental character of real cities that makes them fit for human habitation, just as it is uncertainty that makes human life bearable and sometimes joyous; though I don’t carry the argument so far as Marilynn Robinson does, arguing from Johathan Edwards that the apparent arbitrariness of the world bespeaks a creator.

My life has also been fortunate in that I’ve never been denied culture, never lacked means or opportunity to refashion myself when I needed to do so. It’s sometimes comforting to think that given the world as it seems I’d live the same life, ask for the same jobs, over again—though I know I wouldn’t. I’ve refashioned myself sufficiently and often enough to be aware that self creation is surrounded by a thick matrix of contingency. A friend used to like to paraphrase Heraclitus ‘You can’t step in the same river even once.’ One isn’t guaranteed the world as it seems, not tomorrow, maybe not even yesterday.

So that one founds oneself in the realm of discourse as the world rushes by—and one is fortunate if the real city one lives in affords hidey holes, places to escape, and lots of unsupervised spaces for play. The real and contingent city is as febrile as a summer street dance, as brief on the wind as a smile and a shoeshine, thick with possibility and empty of information about itself as a week-old newspaper. One dwells in it upon sufferance—I’ll go that far with Robinson, since I know neither the beginning nor the end of the place that passes.

And I guess I’ll continue to write this blog and try to post more regularly than I have recently. There’s more to my restlessness than the common struggle with mortality. Though I’m not sure what the more is I seem to need to propose thought projects I know I’ll never complete.