By Izeth Hussain –
I began my last article Observations on Trump’s triumph with the statement that sometimes the great writers get it right when others fail to do so, and further that although they are not systematic thinkers and their views can be idiosyncratic they show an intuitive faculty that is uncommon. By “writers” I meant those engaged mainly in literature. That is not to deny, however, that systematic thinkers such as philosophers can also get it right when the generality of others fail to do so.
A spectacular instance of that was provided three days after the US Presidential elections when an American lawyer tweeted a few sentences from Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving our Country. Rorty was one of the best known American philosophers of the second half of the last century, an exponent of neo-pragmatism. The gist of the tweeted sentences was that sooner or later both organized and unorganized labour would come to realize that the Government is not even trying to stop wages from sinking or jobs from being exported. They would realize further that the urban middle class, desperately afraid of themselves sinking into poverty, would reject their being taxed for the benefit of others. At that point something would crack: they would look for a strong man to lead them. There would be a revulsion against the elites that have been dominant in the US. The tweet was retweeted thousands of times and all existing copies of the 2010 edition of the book were sold out within the same day. A philosopher, engaged for the most part in abstruse speculation, got it right, spectacularly right. The politicians have been clueless.
However, it is the creative artists, the writers, the painters, the musicians, who best reflect the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, and grasp the seismic changes that can take place. It was they who in the early decades of the last century grasped firmly the collapse or deep shortcomings of the Enlightenment project which since the eighteenth century was building the brave new world on the basis of rationality and individualism. Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, the Damsels of Avignon, was first exhibited in 1907. It inaugurated the Cubist movement and therefore modernism in painting. It wasn’t an evocation of the exotic as the title might suggest but a portrayal of grim reality. Avignon did not refer to the enchanting small town in Provence but to a street in Picasso’s native Barcelona that was notorious for its brothels. Clearly inspired by African masks, the females portrayed are grim, a powerful image of the savagery underlying the veneer of civilization, something very remote from the Enlightenment ethos.
Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring, also showing the savage complement to European civilization, was first performed in 1913, which was appropriate because it was just one year prior to the outbreak of the First World War after which the questioning of the efficacy of the Enlightenment project became unavoidable. Significantly there quickly followed, in 1922, Eliot’s The Waste Land, showing Europe as the very antithesis of what had been promised by the religion of progress that was at the core of the Enlightenment project. Thus, the power of creative artists to see beneath the surface and also their prophetic power, was shown in all three of the arts. I must mention a strange fact about the composition of the Rites of Spring. Stravinsky declared that he hardly composed it because the music just surged through him. One might say that the zeitgeist used him as its instrument. The strange experience unnerved him completely. He converted to Catholicism.
Later, sometime before 1939, Yeats wrote his great prophetic poem, The Second Coming, which concluded “What rough beast, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” The rough beast of Nazism was exterminated in 1945, but neo-Fascism is alive and kicking in several countries, and in the apartheid Zionist state of Israel a rough beast has its center in Jerusalem. I must mention that Yeats was present at the first 1897 performance in Paris of Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi, which might be regarded as the first breakthrough towards modernity in literature. It was a farcical satire on the power drive which provoked Yeats to write prophetically, “After us, the savage gods”. Of no great literary quality in my view, it has nonetheless acquired classic status, to the extent that a Sinhala version was performed in Colombo some time ago, attesting to modern man’s preoccupation with the problem of power.
It is in the very eminent company that I have sketched out above that I would place for its prophet quality James Thurber’s satirical story of 1950, The Greatest Man in the World. As most readers will not be accessing it, I will mention just a few of its details. A garage hand, Pal Smurch, took off on an old two-seater plane, equipped with a device carrying petrol and taking with him a gallon of bootleg gin and six pounds of salami, on a non-stop flight right round the globe. He proclaimed “Nobody ain’t seen no flyin’ yet”. The media took it as a crazy publicity stunt but at a later stage of the flight the American public was all agog for news about its fantastic hero. Media research found that all the details about him were unprintable. His mother’s reaction was “Ah, the hell with him. I hope he drowns”. His father was somewhere in jail for repeated acts of felony. His brother was in the reformatory as a juvenile delinquent, as Smurch himself had been. The media – the story is partly a satire about the media – put it out that he was a modest and much loved and respected young man without giving any details, whereas all who knew him declared him a public nuisance and a menace. On completing his fantastic flight he was taken in charge by a small directorate set up to coach him in the standards of behavior expected of America’s greatest national hero. To no avail as he was raring to meet his girl friend (his “sweet patootie”) and get hold of the big money that was his due. Finally, with the tacit approval of the President he was ejected through a seventh storey window.
Thurber modeled his hero quite clearly on Lindbergh, aviator and national icon, although he explicitly declared him a gentleman of excellent ancestry, quite the opposite of Pal Smurch. It is known that Lindbergh was an admirer of the Nazis, as recognized by no less than President Franklin Roosevelt. Thurber’s message is clearly that Pal Smurch, symbolizing raw appetite for power and money, is the reality underlying the gentlemanly veneer of the civilized American elite. Significantly, he begins his story on the eruption of Pal Smurch with this sentence, “Looking back on it now, from the vantage point of 1950, one can only marvel that it hadn’t happened long before it did”. The truth is that Pal Smurch, Lindbergh, and Donald Trump are all as American as apple pie, and the following characterization applies to all of them: “He tilted back in his chair, and leered at each gentleman, separately, the leer of an animal that knows its power, the leer of a leopard loose in a bird-and-dog shop”. That emphasis on “separately” with the two commas declares a writer of rare quality.
The world-wide voluminous comments on Trump’s triumph focus on one question, the question of controlling a leopard on the loose, or an unguided missile with ready access to the nuclear trigger. As I noted in my last article the tradition of liberal democracy in the US has been far stronger than that of populist semi-fascism, so that the chances are – though it is not a certainty – that Trump will be brought under some degree of control or be forced to make his exit through an upper storey window. But that will not solve the underlying problem. An economic system that condemns to poverty a sizeable segment of the population of even the most advanced country in the world has nothing to recommend it. It should be destroyed.