Saturday, June 2, 2018

A Minor Musing About The Last 3 Novels I Taught And Politics

In my excitement to discuss my new party affiliation, I forgot to mention that I have become a retiree. I may pick up a part-time job, but I am pretty sure I have corrected my last high school assignments.

As I was preparing notes about theme and characterization, it struck me how Wuthering Heights published in 1847, Things Fall Apart published in 1958, and All the Pretty Horses published in 1992 help explain the current zeitgeist. None of the musings made it into my lecture notes, but this is a blog not a classroom, so one can express musings that may not be classroom appropriate.

Heathcliff, the brooding protagonist, of Emily Bronte's novel, exclaims, "'I shall not stand to be laughed at. I shall not bear it!' By the novel's conclusion, Heathcliff has caused the death of Hindley, his adopted brother; ruined the life of Edgar, his rival; and indirectly murdered his son by denying him necessary medical care. At the conclusion of his life, Heathcliff says,
My old enemies have not beaten me; now would be the precise time to revenge myself on their representatives: I could do it; and none could hinder me. But where is the use? I don't care for striking: I can't take the trouble to raise my hand! That sounds as if I had been labouring the whole time only to exhibit a fine trait of magnanimity. It is far from being the case: I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction, and I am too idle to destroy for nothing.
Like Heathcliff the populists who fueled Trump's ascent seem motivated in part by the belief that "coastal elites" frequently disparaged them as denizens of "flyover country." In short, they don't want to be laughed at.

Further, they seem to view the other party as dangerous and a "threat." A 2016 poll found,
For the first time in surveys dating to 1992, majorities in both parties express not just unfavorable but very unfavorable views of the other party. Today, 58% of Republicans have a very unfavorable impression of the Democratic Party, up from 46% in 2014 and just 32% during the 2008 election year. Among Democrats, highly negative views of the GOP have followed a similar trajectory – from 37% in 2008 to 43% in 2014 and 55% currently. 
An overwhelming share of those who hold highly negative views of the opposing party say that its policies “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” 
Currently, 45% of Republicans view the Democratic Party’s policies as a threat, up from 37% in Pew Research Center’s 2014 study of political polarization. The share of Democrats regarding GOP policies as a threat has risen 10 percentage points (41% now, 31% then).
In the current climate, there seem to be enemies aplenty and proposed policies are seen as efficacious if they produce "liberal tears." Had the Bernie Bros been successful, efficacy would likely have been measured in "conservative angst." More importantly, it's unclear if or when the angriest of the populists will lose "the faculty of enjoying . . .destruction" or if they are "too idle to destroy for nothing." If they are not, the 1960s may seem like a time of peace and tranquility.

Like Heathcliff, Okonkwo, the protagonist of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, had obsessions: Okonkwo's "life was dominated by fear, the fear of failure and weakness." Okonkwo, therefore, "was ruled by one passion--to hate everything his father Unoka had loved. One of those things was gentleness . . ." In 1988, George H. W. Bush sought a "kinder and gentler nation." Given the current state of public discourse, we've lost a lot of ground in the past two decades.

Achebe took the novel's title from William Butler Yeats's poem "The Second Coming." The following lines from the poem need no explication.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
After having his innocence "drowned" in a series of violent picaresque adventures, John Grady Cole, the protagonist of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses,  returns home and engages in this brief exchange with his friend Rawlins. Cole begins the conversation,
I think I'm goin to move on.
This is still good country.
Yeah. I know it is. But it ain't my country. . . .
Where is your country? he said
I don't know, said John Grady. I don't know where it is. I don't know what happens to country.
Like John Grady Cole, I don't know what "happens to country." I do worry that we are nearing the time when our country be a place where "[t]he best lack all conviction, while the worst [a]re full of passionate intensity." If that event takes place, this won't be anyone's country.

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