“Character is destiny.” This wisdom, first voiced by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, has been reinforced — just barely — by the close election of President-elect Joe Biden, a man broadly recognized as having character, integrity, decency.
Going down in defeat — again, just barely in so close an election (and not yet conceding) — is a man who, as to character, is truly a black hole, an emptiness vast beyond measure. Instead, this man’s rage, and raging ego, bring to mind the rage of Achilles — a rage so all-consuming and blinding that, in the words of the ancient Greek poet Homer, it “brought countless ills” upon his people. “His people,” in this case, are Republicans who blindly support Donald Trump in his denial of the election’s results — and the American people, whom Trump never bothered with, preferring his base. Trump’s rage also brings countless ills to American democracy’s repair.
Quoting the ancient Greeks — who knew so much about Tragedy — comes naturally to me at this hinge moment in American history, when democracy h-h-h-h-hangs in the balance. While President-elect Biden plunges into the aforementioned repair work via the policy route (convening a COVID-19 task force, announcing the U.S. will rejoin the Paris climate accords, etc.) — and bless him for plunging in — and while Trump like Achilles sits in his tent raging and sulking, I cannot help hanging back and dwelling on the question: What is the meaning of all that’s transpiring? Heed the Greeks: Tragedy lurks if rage prevails.
Character is often thought of in the moral sense — being of good character, bad character. Which is why it is so confounding that so many Republicans, who regularly and rather ostentatiously profess adherence to Church and God, continue to stand by this thoroughly amoral man. It must be their rage, all-consuming and blinding, that prevents recognition.
It’s precisely Trump’s amorality that has induced nausea and shame in me these last four years — the vaulting to pre-eminence of the man’s general skeeviness, exercised both in the White House, the “people’s house,” and on the world stage, representing America. I so wanted to be done with the nausea and shame.
This is not to say Joe Biden is morally perfect. The plagiarism charge that sidelined an earlier presidential run remains a blot on his record. But, in the main, Joe Biden is a towering moral figure, compared to the moral black hole that is Trump. In this, Biden joins other figures who, despite character flaws, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and his womanizing, net out, in the main, as forces for good. It is this trait — moral character — that is the ultimate distinction between these two men. And it is moral character — if restored to its previous public eminence — that will save America.
Which is why, like half the country, I prayed for a “blue wave” on Election Day, a sweeping Democratic win that would force long-needed reckonings. To friends I confessed I was disappointed in my fellow Americans for whiffing on those reckonings — racial, sexual, income inequality, climate — and not giving Trump, and anti-democratic Trumpism, a forceful and conclusive shove into the Dustbin of History, for the dramatic reordering that American democracy needs in order to revive. Instead, we gave Trump and Trumpism a mere nudge to the side of the road, where both can fight on.
Which is also why, for several days now, I find myself flung into what the ancients called Melancholia. I am known among friends for my “famous fighting spirit,” which Life, an excellent marriage, living with cancer 15 years, and steely determination have gifted me. But I know the melancholic feeling from earlier in my life, when I wandered around confused. It was back then I discovered Albrecht Durer’s 1514 engraving “Melencolia I” (above), an image that spoke clearly to me then, but now, under dominion of a “famous fighting spirit,” I had filed away in my mental gallery — in storage, not on display.
Thanks to Google, I pull the image out of storage and study it again. It’s the posture that resonates immediately: the head in hand, the face almost obscured but for the burning eyes, the dark cast of feeling; and just as I recalled, the figure is winged and female. This time, though, I note the general state of ruin — a chunk of a building lying nearby, objects strewn on the ground, a measuring instrument held listlessly. The meaning? A Guardian article, calling the image a “diagnosis” of a troubled mind, attributes the dejection to the fact those objects lying around — “objects of science, craft and art,” “ tools of discovery and creation” — are not in use, they are in disuse, disabled, out of commission. Thus, the melancholia.
Which makes sense to me: So much in American life is jammed, in gridlock, in disuse, and the election, so close, did not materially change the picture — except to shift power into hands (the Democrats) more eager than power-hungry Trumpians to use “science, craft and art” and the “tools of discovery and creation” to defeat the coronavirus, press for our reckonings, create a better day. But: Absent a bigger mandate enabled by a “blue wave,” all this will take longer. I think of all the repair work — and my heart sinks again.
But enough; I don’t like the whine of melancholia. As my “famous fighting spirit” kicks into gear again, I think: Melancholia needs a timer put on it (I’m so un-Modern), because it does not help achieve all that needs to be achieved, repair what needs to be repaired.
What will help in our trek? Character, of course, but character of another kind than the moral kind described earlier. I speak of a deeper kind of character, harder-earned, the kind born of suffering borne well, of loss absorbed and turned to new and higher purpose. In this season of our suffering — enduring Donald Trump’s unending outrages, the losses of a worsening pandemic — Americans have come into a new wisdom, the kind another ancient Greek, Aeschylus, wrote of in his play “The Agamemnon”: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget / falls drop by drop upon the heart / until, in our own despair, against our will, / comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
And who better knows that kind of character, that wisdom, than our President-elect, Mr. Biden? A man who has lost a wife, a small daughter, and an adult son knows. And this is not character or wisdom just barely grasped, as I initially feared was this election’s yield. This is character and wisdom of the profoundest kind. Mr. Biden can show all of us the way.
In Durer’s image of melancholia, there is a rainbow in the background….