American democracy tilting toward strongman rule! A deadly pandemic entering its third wave — more people dying, more jobs lost, more businesses going under, the price-tag now $16 trillion! Black Americans marching, insisting their lives matter; women insisting the same! Wildfires burning in the West, hurricanes churning in the East, both at historic rates, heralding climate change is here, with denialists still denying —
“Monkeys in treetops.” That’s how Franz Kafka described his racing mind: Like monkeys in treetops, leaping from limb to limb, screeching — and making no sense at all to the owner of the tree. Minds — my own and very likely yours too — have very good reason to race these days. While “monkeys in treetops” might be a clinical description of madness (Kafka was not diagnosed mad but he was depressive), the very good reason our minds race (I sincerely hope) is because of information-overload — emphasis: overload.
“We live in ridiculously eventful times. Love, Carla” was how I signed off a recent email with an old friend. She worries people cannot even think anymore, events are breaking so fast. With other friends who commend me for keeping up my pace as commentator, I write back, “There’s no end of material — ha! It’s like trying to drink from a fire-hose.” But I confess: Yours Truly can just b-a-r-e-l-y track events, much less suss out meaning.
Winston Churchill said of the Balkans, once the world’s tinderbox: They “produce more history than they can consume.” Production of event, of history, is one thing; consuming it — making sense of it — is the tricky part. Which of late has gotten even trickier, thanks to — beware single-factor thinking — Donald Trump, who is a tinderbox of his own nefarious kind.
It is fair to say — trying to be fair and balanced, though the man doesn’t do either himself — Donald Trump is the single factor behind America’s authoritarian drift (it still stuns me to write that: authoritarian drift?). And while he is not responsible for the pandemic, he is responsible for a colossally incompetent response to it, causing, it is also fair to say, unnecessary death and ruination. As for the mattering of Black lives and women’s lives, Trump’s explicit racism and sexism gives voice to powerful reactionary forces once underground in American life and thrusts them center-stage.
And speaking of stages: How about that first “presidential” debate? Trump bullying, interrupting, acting out like a two-year-old (which is an insult to two-year-olds). I could not watch it, I could only listen, working crossword puzzles to kill time (though, as writer Raymond Chandler joked, “Time died hard”). To prevent tonight’s debate from descending again to verbal bumper-cars, microphones can be muted — which speaks volumes about the abject state of our Trump-devolved politics.
All this spectacle — this history being produced — is, as the conscientious observer senses, not benign, it is not mere spectacle. There is danger here. Tinderboxes are volatile, explosive. We sense that our way of life, our magnificent American experiment in democracy, stands to be altered, and altered beyond recognition, even destroyed. No wonder Americans report records levels of insomnia. Republicans mock Democrats for “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” but they should look at themselves and their once-professed ethos they have tossed aside: Who’s deranged?
How to consume this history, how to make sense of it?
Of course — of course! — the very best way to consume this history is to put it to its very best possible use, thus producing a better day: That is, turn Donald Trump, and his Republican accomplices, out of office, by voting on Nov. 3. Make yourself feel even better by voting early.
But until then? And after? How do we consume the history to come, which promises to be no less turbulent, no less confusing? And what if, God forbid, Trump is re-elected? How do we consume that (apart from renewing our passports)?
For myself, as a commentator, I work hard at getting perspective on the matter at hand. What is the best route, the best lens, to gain it: Is it political, cultural, literary, psychological, philosophical, metaphorical, mythical, or, speaking of history, historical? (And speaking of two-year-olds, the infantile must factor in: An international relations major, I think often of my professor who maintained that, as conceptual framework, children fighting in a sandbox explains a lot about international relations, and I’d add domestic politics, too). To gain perspective, my instinct is to step way back; recurring to my training as a playwright, I visualize myself sitting in the top row of an ancient amphitheater, watching the action onstage and asking, What is going on here? What are the motive, and emotive, forces at play?
And, crucially, what does it all mean? This is harder to do, and more fraught, because the cost of coursing down the wrong track to a wrong conclusion — the wrong conviction — is, as we all feel it these days, dangerous. Friends note there are more ellipses (…..) in my emails of late; I finally realized those ellipses indicate that, while I may have named the problem, the meaning of it all is yet to be nailed. About this meaning, these friends of late are repeating themselves: “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.” Meanwhile, Republicans express no doubt at all about knowing the meaning of it all — the prize (and price) for ideological capture. For myself as commentator, once I feel sure — O.K., pretty sure — that I’ve nailed the meaning, I jump off the cliff and post it, praying I am not Icarus-of-the-wax-wings and have built a craft sturdy enough to fly and land.
Of course, the moment I land — the moment anyone venturing a notion about the meaning of the present historical moment finally lands — the landscape is bound to alter again. That’s why they call it tumult.
History may well serve up more tumult for America — especially if Donald Trump is re-elected. Even if the Biden-Harris ticket prevails (which I believe it will), there will be years and years of repair work, tumult. To the extent Americans think of History, we see ourselves as its shaper, not its plaything. Perhaps it’s this aspect of this moment, when we feel overwhelmed by History’s production, that confounds us most. But I hope we recognize we ourselves produced this tumultuous history — by electing a disrupter with no follow-up plan. I suspect my fellow Americans have been pondering History a lot of late.
As for those monkeys in treetops, the psychological cacophony of History’s overload: Do the practical American thing and give them something to do. Like yardwork.
Image: Edvard Munch, “The Scream,” 1893