Remember this moment, my fellow Americans. Remember this dire moment, fraught as any we have known in our lifetime, when, nearing the 2020 presidential election, we want — no, we yearn with all our hearts for — the exact opposite qualities of those possessed by the current occupant of the White House, Donald J. Trump.
Remember this profound yearning of (we hope) a big majority of the American people for the higher, essential qualities — character, honesty, responsibility, courage, decency, dignity, intelligence, empathy, prudence, moral purpose. And remember the things we profoundly yearn for, achieved only with these qualities: the essential things that once were capitalized — Truth, Justice, Honor, Trust, Reputation, the Soul.
Consider America’s ruination, the falling-off, our nadir as a democracy. Astonishingly, in just four years, Trump has reduced the world’s sole superpower to a near-failed state now scorned, dismissed, even pitied. How did he do this? By acting out the musclebound brat, compelled by nothing more than egoistic want and whim. By heedlessly disrupting a rules-based international order. By his catastrophic handling of the coronavirus pandemic, scorning science and reason, going with his gut, even when he himself was stricken. By his rushed reopening of the economy, more concerned with market performance than the death and suffering he has inflicted on the American people. By refusing to say he will abide by the election’s results, threatening violence to keep his power.
Again, in this dire moment, remember our yearning — for the essential qualities, essential things.
In truth, however — and here is the disconnect: We have not expressed much need for these essential qualities or things for a long, long time. Instead of essential need, we have merely wanted. And we wanted the near and immediate: to scratch the itch of ego, to rebel without a cause against any rules, to go with the visceral and fie on the intellect, to amass the market’s wealth and fie on humanity. In other words, our wants have produced the President we now abhor: Donald Trump is as much a product of our (degraded) culture as our politics. Add to that, we wanted to “walk on the wild side,” whether it was the law, sex, whatever. Childishly, though, we wanted this walk to come without consequences: “Sow the wild oats and hope for crop failure.” Trump checks those boxes, too. He hits what I will call the omnifecta of disaster.
Perhaps the greatest damage we did ourselves was to loosen allegiance to a moral code. I speak of the post-World War II generation, the boomers, of which I am one. Unsure how to handle our inheritance of absolute freedom, with some rebelling against parents seen as hypocritical, boomers ditched the code and pursued personal dreams. Meanwhile, we were also expected to “save the world,” as our parents did, though how you do that without a moral code, we did not work out. Since the sandbox, we learned from peers (the big majority ultimately) that to raise a moral point was to be “judgmental” and thus a “party-pooper.” Stigmatizing was done with laughs, though; and I’d laugh back, “There will come a day….” That day has come, it seems.
What has an “Anything goes” ethos wrought in Art? In the main — select gems notwithstanding — not much that can console or instruct, much less entertain us, in our nadir-cum-pandemic when we yearn for what Virgil called “the upper air.” The theme? The unspeakable made speakable, safe. Literature has echoed with the unspeakable act Philip Roth’s antihero committed with a piece of liver, in his 1969 novel “Portnoy’s Complaint.” A more heinously unspeakable taboo was broken with Truman Capote’s 1965 “In Cold Blood,” a deep-dive look into the killer’s heart. Later Nicholson Baker hogged the spotlight with his novel about phone sex, “Vox.” In film, “Last Tango in Paris,” a “breakthrough,” featured an unspeakable act with butter; “Wall Street” gave the green light to greed. In TV, “Breaking Bad” states it for “in the main,” not only in TV but for all the arts. In theater, David Mamet ruled with angry and profane dramas; Eve Ensler broke through with “The Vagina Monologues.” (Toiling as a playwright at the time, on 9/11 I bailed for the upper air of commentary.) In art, the portrait of humanity has become….pretty ugly (“Piss Christ”?). All these works, representative of their genre, were hailed by critics for being “transgressive.” But: How can “transgressive” ever leave us anything but depleted, ever produce anything higher, essential? That was not worked out, either. Making it harder and harder to ask was the steady backbeat of “dumb and dumber” and “wild and crazy” and porn.
Looking back, we see the falling-off, the degradation degree by degree from a Golden Age — the age of Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Wharton, Cather, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” “All the King’s Men,” “Casablanca,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Our Town,” “Death of a Salesman” — all tarnished to the present age of brass. Yes, there have been important moral voices in this age, preeminently Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Baldwin; important social breakthroughs, preeminently the civil rights movement; and cultural gems — “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Angels in America,” “The Moviegoer,” “Woman Warrior,” “Gilead,” “Lincoln in the Bardo,” “Lincoln,” “Hamilton,” “Spotlight.” But they were islands, surrounded — in the main — by the lesser.
Some will quibble with this theory, some will argue vehemently against it, others will cite other cultural favorites (I prefer works of some moral import). But: It is hard to argue that we are not in a brass age, both politically and culturally — see again: Donald Trump. Of course it is human to want to “break bad,” and I am human, but I would betray my best self to “go there,” so I don’t, I can’t. Peddling my morality plays to theaters, I got terrific rejections, first acknowledging my script as “something of value,” but, alas, “not our cup of tea.” Their cup? Time after time, “The Vagina Monologues,” which a New York Times theater critic called “probably the most important piece of political theater in the last decade.” But: Just how “important” is it now, in our nadir, in our suffering? And, in our descent, how many moral artists have we lost?
In America, the lesser — the transgressive, the wild and crazy — took over by default, in lieu of a moral sensibility. In this, America is no different from other once-great powers — Greece, Rome — ultimately weakened by their abuse of that greatness and power, by decadence. Writing in the 18th century, English poet Alexander Pope traced the problem: “In the fat Age of Pleasure, Wealth, and Ease / Sprung the rank Weed, and thriv’d with large Increase.” The rank weeds have taken over.
And yet: In our suffering — over a quarter-million fellow Americans have been lost to the virus, we hear our world-beating economy crashing around us, race relations long festering demand a final reckoning — there is rising in us the yearning for a New Day. Rank weeds cannot sustain; binge-watching “Breaking Bad” will not elevate; indeed a “Breaking Bad” culture got us Trump. But where to look — not only for sustenance, but for a map? How can America avert Tragedy?
For sustenance, we can look to the world’s great storehouses of Civilization. Being of the West, my touchstones are Western, but I am open. I just have to think of those touchstones and I am comforted, refreshed — the music of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Ravel; the ineffable drawings of Holbein; the paintings of Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer, da Vinci, Raphael, Goya, El Greco, Manet, Matisse; the novels of Austen, Eliot, Dickens, Woolf, Tolstoy; the moral philosophy of Camus; the tonic essays of Orwell; the poetry of Yeats and Auden; the social dramas of Ibsen, the plays and stories of Chekhov, and of course the plays and poetry of Shakespeare. Getting me through a pandemic as he has enabled me to live with cancer is the Stoic, Marcus Aurelius: “Reject your sense of injury.” (It is good to learn that Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” during a plague and, rereading Camus’ “The Plague,” that the plague eventually did die out.)
But: As for a map — a precedent for how a great nation, the world’s oldest experiment in democracy, can undo its ongoing death throes and work its way through insidious plague, insidious leadership, economic collapse, and reckonings of all kinds, all to save itself — is there such a map, a precedent? No, there is not, neither in History nor Art. Western Civilization, like all others in the world, tells us such a grand recovery project cannot work out, that Tragedy is the end not only of all human life — death — but all human endeavor; thus “the tears in things,” as Virgil wrote. The ancient Greek dramas are all tragedies — tales of hubris, revenge, blinding anger, killing ambition, moral blindness. Likewise the tragedies of Shakespeare, for like motive: hubris, revenge, blinding anger, killing ambition, moral blindness. The Moderns tell us much the same, with antiheroes “acting” without much belief. Even the peerless Shakespeare held politics to be corrupting (see especially: “Coriolanus”), which is no help for us wedded to a form of government whose definitive feature and motor is self-governance — of, by, and for the demos. And Shakespeare’s greatest hero, Hamlet: Faced with the question of how to avenge the murder of his father the king by his uncle and how to restore order, he ruminated and ruminated.
Conscientious Americans will note a theme here. Can we press through to a New Day? To the end, Don Quixote tilted at windmills; must we? In Camus’ “The Plague,” as the plague lifted, there was talk of creating “a new order of things,” but, returning to their old life, people forgot about it; must we? The ancients say we must, so does Shakespeare. America may indeed be doomed, Tragedy may indeed be our Fate, but still, the American heart cannot countenance it….
Dammit: The American heart says No! After the Dark Ages, came the Renaissance. Shut up, Hamlet, and drive.
We can look to ourselves, I think. In suffering comes wisdom, insight, a vision of what could be “if only.” We need to get from “if only” to “Glory hallelujah, it is.” Of course that is infinitely easier said than done, but the saying is needed — and not much heard right now — and the doing is possible. While the Can-Do Nation has been revealed, with Trump’s calamitous handling of the pandemic, as can’t-do, to our universal humiliation, this need not write The End to the American story; we can do, still — and in fact are. That The End is even a possibility, and that we realize The End is a possibility, reflects a sobering of the American spirit — a good thing in and of itself.
In sum: We need to become heroes again. We need to take our sobered American spirit and act.
We have, swirling around us, a “sea of troubles,” a superabundance of them. How to proceed in this maelstrom of crises? All-out and non-stop. Some of our crises — racial reckoning, sexual reckoning. income inequality — stem from problems long with us that, History’s timing being unaccountable, are all now at a culmination point, demanding settlement. Other crises — a proto-autocratic President threatening violence to go full autocrat, a deadly pandemic — are, like the coronavirus, novel, but they are likewise a culmination of less-visible weaknesses in our system that we must repair. With the latter: Our disgust at our proto-autocratic President reminds us how precious our democracy is and how invaluable our tools to keep it — the vote (we must turn out a massive turnout), the protest (we must keep all protest nonviolent). And our disgust at our anti-science President’s handling of the pandemic can convert, like a scientific experiment, to restoration of the actual Renaissance’s ideals of science, reason, proof — advance.
Heroes need a moral compass — and our long-boiling crises of racial and sexual reckoning are manifesting an army of such heroes working such compass. Racial reckoning is being pressed by courageous souls, Black and white, acting on the searing evidence of far too many Black Americans killed by white police officers. Let us salute those heroes who, refusing to suffer any longer in their minds “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” are taking action against that particular “sea of troubles” — white supremacy — “and” (let us fervently hope) “by opposing end them.” Making the moral argument against white supremacy’s illegitimate and killing and self-destructive dominion will take heroes galore; Black Americans have long made the argument, now more white Americans must. Likewise, sexual reckoning: The searing evidence of the criminal behavior of some powerful males against women in their employ leaves no doubt about its moral depravity. Let us salute the women who take action against another “sea of troubles” — toxic masculinity — and wrestle their trauma to wage their case. These two vividly moral cases — talk about right and wrong! — are being litigated in the public square without, for the most part, specifically moral language, yet they are powerfully persuasive as is. In this, America could be said to be backing into a moral consciousness once again — it’s the American way — bringing us to that upper air we need for the good fight.
The hero’s grail? If we front all these crises and battle them to settlement — it will take longer than this election cycle, it will take years of repair — we can build back an America that is fairer, smarter, deeper, better. Americans are not natural philosophers, but most of us understand America as an idea, moreover as the ideal of that idea — equality, fair play, rule of law, second chances, fill in your own small-d democratic blank. But: In reality America has never achieved these ideals, not really, not for everybody. Our present crises show how violently out of whack from them we are. If we slay our various dragons — all self-created or self-exacerbated — America will get to a Renaissance.
In our heroic and historic endeavor, we have historic props, and then some. The great American poet Emily Dickinson argued with God, reclusively but bravely. Ralph Waldo Emerson, great Transcendental essayist, argued with himself about basic things, although we might argue with Emerson about his severe individualism: In this pandemic, mask-defying individualists are killing the rest of us. Walt Whitman argued that the human being contains “multitudes” and, thus, contains contradictions: If we contradict ourselves in this moment — disabling the prevailing antiheroic culture to build back better — so be it. To address the turbo-capitalism that produces income inequality now reaching obscene levels, we need legions of Edith Whartons, a writer who bravely analyzed her own upper class and rendered its tragedies not as satire but as serious fiction (“The House of Mirth”). Above all, this endeavor of rescuing American democracy will require “soft humanity” to muscle up: Herman Melville, in “Moby-Dick,” characterized First Mate Starbuck as soft, unable even to imagine organizing a mutiny against the mad Captain Ahab. We need to imagine, to organize. (Republicans: This includes you. See also: Goethe’s “Faust.”)
Why is this important? Even today, the very idea of capital-A Art makes Americans’ teeth itch, so why this talk of Art? Because: It is vital — life-and-death vital — the stories we tell ourselves and the stories our artists tell us. And, of course, Art will have the last word. From earliest human history, Art in the form of pictographs on the walls of caves and tombs told humanity’s story. In my mind’s eye I see an ancient amphitheater where, onstage, the American story is playing out. What will be Art’s last word about America as idea and ideal, about us as actors?
If we keep going with the “Anything goes” ethos — the once-unspeakable rendered safe and now normalized, the wild and crazy made even wilder and crazier, the dumb and dumber going for dumbest, the pornographic and profane polluting even more — we will run ourselves deep into the ground, become a socio-cultural hot mess; we will be wreckage. And signposts tell us that ethos still dominates. Memoirs of addiction and alcoholism, neuroses and excess, continue to tumble forth. The arts pages of our newspaper of record, The New York Times, carrying on while the arts establishment has shut down because of the virus, reflect a surprisingly scanty vault with which to nourish us. Likewise Slate, which ran the headlines, “The only show nihilistic enough to capture America in 2020” and “The dirtiest №1 song in Hot 100 history.” Burlesque versions of “Alice in Wonderland” and “The Nutcracker” are on offer. Recently I watched a streamed reading of Moliere’s “Tartuffe” in which Tartuffe (wait for it) mooned the viewer — unfunny anytime, but in a pandemic-cum-existential-crisis, yech. Such “artists” seem not to understand — at all — the existential crisis America is in. But with their tight-tight narcissistic focus, how can they possibly see the bigger picture, the dark clouds gathered? Recently The New Yorker usefully asked, “Has Self-Awareness Gone Too Far in Fiction?” I believe it has, and not only in fiction. Narcissism’s root is narke — stupor. That stupor was cast on Narcissus by…Nemesis.
In sum: We need a new Art, an Art of the essential — to reflect the heroes now at work, to reflect America’s reawakening in this dire moment to qualities and things that are higher, essential.
But: We have been at this moment of reawakening before, and not that long ago. In the shock of September 11, 2001, when foreign terrorists struck at the American homeland in horrific and historic fashion, supposedly “everything changed,” supposedly a New Day was heralded. Irony supposedly died, Mozart’s Requiem was heard everywhere, we were nicer to each other, we even got philosophical. But within months, the “Anything goes” ethos was back, even edgier than before. Thus we failed — we did not even recognize — the moral test of Abu Ghraib, when America descended to torture, in Iraq in 2004. Where were the designated humanists — the artists — protesting the abject human depredation of torture? To quote myself at the time: “That many artists peddle edgy antihuman product may explain their silence: One can’t create kink and protest it.” The public, too, missed the cue and made a massive bestseller of an erotic novel featuring torture, playing at it — “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Fifty shades of shame.
Will the present reawakening — fueled by a superabundance of a “sea of troubles” — be different?
To get to a New Day, Hamlet is not the hero we need. It hurts to write these words, because I have loved “Hamlet” all my life and embraced the Danish prince as the great pre-modern hero, the one who defines self-consciousness; I have felt at one with him as he thought and thought about everything. I still thrill to his soliloquys, the most beautiful in all Literature, that capture so precisely Life’s richness, its unfolding — “What a piece of work is man,” “How all occasions do inform against me, and spur my dull revenge,” and, of course, “To be or not to be.” And yet: Hamlet makes a bloody hash of things; he does not act wisely, neither for the greater good or even for himself, his prime objective. Instead of killing Claudius, Hamlet might have organized his overthrow, planned for an enlightened reign. He so mistreats Ophelia that she kills herself (toxic masculinity?). He fakes madness. And, crucially, he does not give much thought to the people his house rules. For all his nuanced and thrilling thinking, his ultimate action is a colossal misfire. Carnage everywhere.
I realize I am treading deep into blasphemy in questioning the utility of Hamlet as hero. And I realize I am treading deep, deep into The Absurd in suggesting that, in Western culture, we are playing by the wrong playbook, the playbook of Tragedy. But: Is it not the case that, in this moment fraught as any in our history, with American democracy in peril of dying, we not only yearn for the exact opposite qualities and things exemplified by the current occupant of the White House, but we want, with all our hearts, to save the burning house of American democracy, to rescue it from annihilation? To mix metaphors (so I contradict myself): We need to rebuild and repurpose this mammoth aircraft while it is in flight, which should take care of any mundane requirement for excitement and entertainment, as will the understanding we are poised on a hinge point in our history, hinge points being inherently dramatic. Yes, this heroic rescue operation defies the rules of Tragedy, all Civilization, but then, defiant determination is also the American way, as is reinvention. This is not a nationalist argument (“USA! USA!”), but is, again, idealist, as most Americans are: The ideal and the idea of America are too beautiful to let die — and they will die if we don’t rescue them.
This historic rescue operation is already underway — heroes are already waging reckonings, the conscientious public has already reached catharsis. Catharsis conventionally is seen as purgation of emotion, but it is deeper: It is the moment at the climax when a character recognizes, finally, what he/she did not recognize before. Long ago, before I bailed from theater, in response to a director who reminded me that, in theatre, “We give the audience what it wants,” I said we had to do better: to give the audience what it needed but did not know it needed. Now the audience — the conscientious American public — knows. We know, from deep-down, what we need. It took four years of a madman’s chaos and depredation to teach us, but now we know: We need the essential qualities of character, honesty, responsibility, courage, decency, dignity, intelligence, empathy, prudence, moral purpose, and we need the things that properly are capitalized: Truth, Justice, Honor, Trust, Reputation, the Soul. In the “Anything goes” ethos, these elements were mocked, dismissed (prudence, anyone?). Exit: “Anything goes.” Enter: the Essential.
How brilliant, how original, how nation-saving, if we put our catharsis — the knowledge of our ultimate need for the essential — to a saving use, rather than succumb to classic Tragedy’s tragic ending. To do so we need an Art, and artists, telling us stories diametrically opposed, not only to classic Tragedy, but to the Modern or Post-modern ethos. For one thing, redefining humanity upward, where our yearning yearns, not downward to pathology or dysfunction. Enough with “breaking bad”; it is, literally, a dead end. For another, we need an Art that recognizes once again the hero, recognizes the heroes now battling away; enough with the antihero. These heroes battle on behalf of the common good, beyond ego or individual exploit. And this new essential Art must recognize these heroic ranks can include women and all people of color, not just the white male variant. We need an essential Art that looks at the age-old conventions and archetypes and story-lines that have led us to the very brink of Tragedy. For one, the fascination with the trickster, Melville’s “Confidence-Man,” whose apotheosis is Donald Trump. (Melville’s subtitle is “His Masquerade.”) In this essential Art we need critics to get over their fascination with the transgressive, the “bent” and “twisted”; who understand with Melville’s Father Mapple in “Moby-Dick” that: “In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.” Can critics give Virtue a break? Can they start taxing vice? Applauding vice merely pushes at an open door which “soft humanity” itself can’t help pushing. And can critics retire the tiresome convention, regnant since John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” that the Devil has all the good lines? This Devil in the White House is boring — dangerous but boring. Raising the moral point, the ultimate point, and pursuing it, is the infinitely harder task, the harder toil. Clearly, we must learn how.
Which brings me to three life-credos whose moral point have fueled me through life. Virgil: “Easy is the descent to the lower world; but to retrace your steps and to escape to the upper air — this is the task, this is the toil.” Orwell: “The fact to which we have got to cling, as to a lifebelt, is that it is possible to be a normal decent person and yet to be fully alive” (emphasis Orwell’s). Camus: “to state quite simply what we learn in a time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” (Since we are revising conventions, this last must include women.)
If we can pull off this Renaissance — and we can do this, Americans are not fatalists, not yet, not even in this supremely fraught moment — we will have matured as a nation, as a culture. And once we have matured, we will have a new challenge: How better to handle our power, individually and as a nation, which power again we have abused to our present downfall, which power we have never tutored ourselves how to handle; but that is for another day, another appeal. And if a matured America can pull off this Renaissance, we will have expanded Art beyond the age-old categories of Tragedy and Comedy — to what? We can work that out later.
For now, my fellow Americans, what will it be: Wreckage — or Renaissance?
Image: Laurence Olivier as Hamlet, from the film, 1948.