With all our efforts, money, and good intentions, we have not yet achieved a theater; and we have not, I believe, because we do not see life in historic and dramatic terms. Even our greatest novelists and poets, sensitive and subtle though they are, do not think dramatically, and should not be asked to, for they express themselves and us in other forms more suited to their visions (and ours). But we have come very close at moments to having great plays, if not a great theatrical tradition. When the Tyrone family stands in its parlor looking at the mad mother holding her wedding dress and knowing that all the good will in the world cannot undo what the past has done to them; when Willy Loman, the salesman, plunges again and again into the past to search for the point where it all went irremediably wrong and cannot find any one fatal turning point; when the Antrobus family, to end on a more cheerful note, drafts stage hands from backstage to take the place of sick actors, gathers its feeble and ever-disappointed hopes, puts its miserable home together again after another in a series of unending disasters stretching from the ice age to the present; then we are very close to accepting our entanglement in the historical process and our status as actors, which may in time produce a true theater.
—Alvin B. Kernan, On American Drama
Maybe we have no history because Americans unlike the Janus faced god of the Romans live in that in-between fantasy land of false Utopian hope – bound on either side by our progressive heritage we lay waste to the past and future before we can ever see it. Having no fixed point or distance from this ruination, the processual decay of America proceeds apace our mythic dreams and nightmares.
On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his I Have a Dream speech once surmised: “We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.” For us the past is a force of despair not absolution or redemption, so we turn our heads into the Abyss and move forward like the dead rooting in the earth of possibility hoping against hope that we will find a way. This American optimism has found its loam in the earth of the people, rooted to a rootlessness which drives us to seek something that will hold us against the decay and ruins of Time. Yet, like children we naively follow our Pied Pipers into the sea of nothingness instead of digging down into that dark earth from whence we came. Holy fools and Tricksters, Madmen and Prophets have always guided this mass of idiocy, and we like some blind beast have always followed these creatures to our doom. Even now as we watch on as our leaders in Washington earn their reputation for bloodguards and idiots, we stand amazed that we ever thought such creatures were saviors and redeemers.
Look at the tyranny of party — at what is called party allegiance, party loyalty — a snare invented by designing men for selfish purposes — and which turns voters into chattles, slaves, rabbits, and all the while their masters, and they themselves are shouting rubbish about liberty, independence, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, honestly unconscious of the fantastic contradiction; and forgetting or ignoring that their fathers and the churches shouted the same blasphemies a generation earlier when they were closing their doors against the hunted slave, beating his handful of humane defenders with Bible texts and billies, and pocketing the insults and licking the shoes of his Southern master.
—Mark Twain – “The Character of Man”
Our history is a forgetfulness and a death, we peer neither into its decaying light nor seek from its dark passages a truth to hold us from despair. When we do speak of the past it is only to awaken distrust and skepticism of its power over us. We are all haunted by the ghosts of America. Even our great literature is Gothic through and through, haunted by murder, lust, hate, greed, and war. Our desires are imperial, our lives the bitter fruit of conquest and expansion. We do not want to know the past because it is the embodiment of our sins against humanity and ourselves.
That indefatigable Romantic critic, Harold Bloom tells us that “our greatest novelists and poets continue not to see life in historic and dramatic terms, precisely because our literary tradition remains incurably Emersonian, and Emerson shrewdly dismissed both history and drama as European rather than American”.
The American literary mode, whether narrative or lyric, tends towards romance and rumination, or fantastic vision, rather than drama. Emerson, genius of the shores of America, directed us away from history, and distrusted drama as a revel.
As Flannery O’Connor suggested years ago we follow Hawthorne who wrote Romances rather than those social novelists like Charles Dickens. We embellish life, we are additive rather than subtractive. We are in excess of ourselves always boasting and lying, telling our tall tales of the impossible. We live in absentia – “absent while present” as Heraclitus once surmised of his Greek brethren. Our Puritan heritage could not see the past or future, rather it existed in a state of fugue: in-between the ruins, in the dark kenoma of this vast wilderness, an emptiness caught in the meshes of religious need like vipers in a pit unable to free ourselves of some dark stain.
Maybe history does not exist for us because it is the force of destiny, and we above all have had this sense of exceptionalism, a sense of mission – as if we were the fulfillment of some ancient prophetic world. As Reinhold Niebuhr once put it Americans live irony rather than speak it,
Irony consists of apparently fortuitous incongruities in life which are discovered, upon closer examination, to be not merely fortuitous. Incongruity as such is merely comic. It elicits laughter. This element of comedy is never completely eliminated from irony. But irony is something more than comedy. A comic situation is proved to be an ironic one if a hidden relation is discovered in the incongruity. If virtue becomes vice through some hidden defect in the virtue; if strength becomes weakness because of the vanity to which strength may prompt the mighty man or nation; if security is transmuted into insecurity because too much reliance is placed upon it; if wisdom becomes folly because it does not know its own limits—in all such cases the situation is ironic. The ironic situation is distinguished from a pathetic one by the fact that the person involved in it bears some responsibility for it. It is differentiated from tragedy by the fact that the responsibility is related to an unconscious weakness rather than to a conscious resolution. While a pathetic or a tragic situation is not dissolved when a person becomes conscious of his involvement in it, an ironic situation must dissolve, if men or nations are made aware of their complicity in it. Such awareness involves some realization of the hidden vanity or pretension by which comedy is turned into irony. This realization either must lead to an abatement of the pretension, which means contrition; or it leads to a desperate accentuation of the vanities to the point where irony turns into pure evil.1
The one distinct form America has given the world is the great stand-up comedians. They know just how evil we are and that their is nothing contrite in our hearts, instead we are the epitome of vanity. We are like Koheleth, the Preacher: “For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool. Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit.”2
As one of the characters says of old dead Willy Loman: “I’m gonna show you and everybody else that Willy Loman did not die in vain. He had a good dream. It’s the only dream you can have – to come out number-one man. He fought it out here, and this is where I’m gonna win it for him.” (Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman, Act 2) This mythic numero uno – Top Dog! What a lie? Competition – King of the Muck Heap! Thing about that old saw, the “rags to riches” story – it was a lie and delusion from the beginning, all it gave us was a mountain of skulls. We think Pol Pot was evil, he had nothing on the simplest shoe salesman who ever trod the jungle cement of America. No siree!!! Each and everyone of us has put more humans in the pit than the worst dictator ever did in history.
“The two real political parties in America are the Winners and the Losers. The people don’t acknowledge this. They claim membership in two imaginary parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, instead.”
—Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
Ah! You say I’m an idiot, a fool for saying such bosh… yes, I’m a fool, a foolish old crazy man who has seen the abyss of this history we all deny. This ancestral haunt where our dead even now roam the broken cities of this land like hungry animals, insatiable. As that bad boy, Howard Zinn lambasts,
All those histories of this country centered on the Founding Fathers and the Presidents weigh oppressively on the capacity of the ordinary citizen to act. They suggest that in times of crisis we must look to someone to save us: in the Revolutionary crisis, the Founding Fathers; in the slavery crisis, Lincoln; in the Depression, Roosevelt; in the Vietnam-Watergate crisis, Carter. And that between occasional crises everything is all right, and it is sufficient for us to be restored to that normal state. They teach us that the supreme act of citizenship is to choose among saviors, by going into a voting booth every four years to choose between two white and well-off Anglo-Saxon males of inoffensive personality and orthodox opinions.3
It’s true, we’ve never trusted ourselves to do what needs to be done, instead we always believe someone else will do it for us. Followers, one and all, we follow our leaderless leaders to our doom. It’s always been our way. We work and live in a muddle, to tired to think we sit back passively and let the Talking Heads blather on about what these fake leaders are doing once again to make our lives miserable. But no, do we protest – well, some do, some go out into the streets and shout it’s all bullshit, and we’re being taken down a road to perdition and madness on a Ship of Fools. But it doesn’t matter how many gather in some city, or march on Washington because no one in that pure white monstrosity of a building gives a shit what we are voicing – our voice doesn’t matter to them. Their ear is plugged into the ass of Wall Street and the .01% of those pirates who have stolen our lives, our children’s lives, and our grand-children’s lives… and, possibly in our time the very lives of the species we once termed human: homo sapiens.
Maybe I am a wind-bag, just one more angry deluded Joe on the Street. So be it… I don’t expect much, just everything. I expect that if we don’t get up off our asses and do something about the stupidity up in Washington then we deserve everything we’re going to get coming our way. Destruction, chaos, death? You’re dam right… so what you goin’ to do about it? Huh?
Maybe we will all end like Joe Lon in Harry Crews A Feast of Snakes in a murderous rage on some dead end ridge in the killing fields where snakes and humans alike feed off each other in the eternal round of this hellish paradise; else in the silence of hopeless dreams or nightmares, where reality meshes with the stubborn truth of our deepest desires and fears:
Then he had gone carefully to sleep, a deep dreamless sleep, because he knew and accepted for the first time that things would not be different tomorrow. Or ever. Things got different for some people. But for some they did not. There were a lot of things you could do though. One of them was to go nuts trying to pretend things would someday be different. That was one of the things he did not intend to do.4
So which will it be for you? Nutsville? Or the path less taken, some dark road to oblivion all your own?
- Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History . University of Chicago Press – A. Kindle Edition.
- Carroll, Robert; Stephen Prickett. The Bible: Authorized King James Version (Oxford World’s Classics) (Kindle Locations 21367-21369). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States (p. 631). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
- Harry Crews. A Feast of Snakes (Kindle Locations 2395-2398). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.