19 December 2016

19 December 2016

My reading seems these days to be directed exclusively by the despair I daily experience following the recent election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Or perhaps I read with my despair and make the book speak to (or of) that anguish. In any case, the pall this debacle has cast over my life has led me to Conrad’s Lord Jim and led Lord Jim to me. In any case, Lord Jim suited my despair. Not that the novel has much direct connection to the recent political tragedy, but that its sensibility seemed apt to my own despondent sense of life in the wake of the event. Lord Jim is, at a minimum, the story of human frailty and weakness, and how this weakness manifests itself not overtly but, as Marlowe says, rather like a snake in the bush hiding. That snake though hidden is not less dangerous but is perhaps, moreso because unseen, who could know when, if, and where it might strike. In David Runciman’s recent article in the London Review of Books, entitled Is This How Democracy Ends, he argues that one response to the horror of the election might take form by the ‘adults in the room’ deciding to hunker down and wait out the storm. Trump is a child in the room throwing the tantrum, yet the other children in that same room might feel safe in the awareness that eventually the grown-ups will be around to pick-up the pieces. Runciman argues that people voted for Trump because they had faith in democracy to contain him. But to Runciman the danger that remains while the adults do hunker down and wait out the storm is that politics will atrophy and “the necessary change” to our institutions and our lives will be put off by the “overriding imperative of avoiding systemic collapse” that Trump’s election threatens. The danger is that while we try to keep the tanks off the streets nothing about change will be effected. The snake hidden remains poised and free to strike.
            It is Stein the German to whom I am drawn in the novel, Lord Jim. He has had to escape Europe as a result of his revolutionary activity and since become a successful trader in the East Indies. He has sent first Cornelius and then Jim to the trading post. As a hobby, Stein collects beetles and butterflies; in the book the characters of Cornelius, Chester and Brown the epitome of the former and Jim the exemplar of the latter. Cornelius, a beetle, “reminded one of everything that is unsavory.” Jim, however, “is a romantic . . . romantic. And that is very bad . . . Very good, too.” Stein acknowledges that we all aspire to be beautiful and fragile butterflies, attempting to find “a little heap” of dirt and to sit still upon the mud; but in fact, we are all beetles, crawling about slimily amidst the mud. None of us are good enough. “But man he will never on his heap of mud keep still. He want to be so, and again he want to be so . . . . He wants to be a saint, and he wants to be a devil—and every time he shuts his eyes he sees himself as a very fine fellow—so fine as he can never be . . . . In a dream . . . .” Stein understands the futility of our romanticism. He says to Marlowe, “It is not good to find you cannot make your dream come true, for the reason that you not strong enough are, or not clever enough . . . . And all the time you are such a fine fellow, too!” Stein punctures the romanticism as a result of which Jim is eventually destroyed. Even Stein had so suffered. He says to Marlowe, “Do you know how many opportunities I let escape, how many dreams I had that come in my way?” We are mortal and flawed. We are beetles pretending too often to be butterflies. And today we are led by the grossest of beetles.
            I don’t know . . . I perhaps am not such a fine fellow—a beetle perhaps like the rest, though I maintain illusions. But perhaps I am good enough. I had illusions, indeed, even yet hold onto a great many of them . . . but the election of Trump has cast a great pall over most of them. Stein says that one drowns by fighting to climb up out of the turbulence; rather, one must submit to the destructive element and then use your hands and feet in the “deep, deep sea keep you up.” The latter description reminds me of Primo Levi’s assertion that to follow the rules in the camp was to drown. To survive Levi said that one had to learn how to be a beetle and reject the whole notion that humans were butterflies. But by becoming the beetle Levi lived somehow to metamorphose into a butterfly.
        David Runciman suggests that now is the time to mobilize and not to hunker down. And I am reading Jane Addams’ Twenty Years at Hull House. She says that if the Settlement is to seek its expression through social activity, it must learn the difference between mere social unrest and spiritual impulse.” It is the latter with which I struggle: how to give substance to that spiritual impulse in this age of Trump. I would not be murdered for my romanticism, but I cannot abandon all hope who must enter here.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for your writings on the catastrophe. Some dim hope might be found in Ettore Scola's "A Special Day."

19 December, 2016 09:23  

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