Sunday, July 13, 2008


On the 4th of July, my post -- inspired by a Pinsky long poem and a book on the U.S. since 1980 -- looked rather askance at the U.S. I ended by imagining utopia as "independence from the U.S." Exactly the kind of non-patriotic, "hatred of the U.S." rhetoric that conservatives fault liberals for, regularly. Yes, true. But the line I considered writing was "independence from Washington D.C." -- because it does seem that our government, no matter who is at the helm, needs to be checked, contained, redirected, educated, even. I used "the U.S." instead because, I reflected, the "American people" (or some version thereof) elected every administration and so can't take an "us vs. them" attitude to the government. No, for some reason, whatever gang of fools ends up composing the administration "they" now become "us" -- the U.S., that is, and proceeds to act as though it can wield absolute power, which usually means suckering-in enough votes on Capitol Hill and enough "voices of authority" in those bastions of "public opinion" The Washington Post, The New York Times, etc. (as the current administration managed to do, time and again).

The question that came to mind, even as I pressed "publish" on that post was: is it different anywhere else? I think, in certain ways, it might be. But I also considered that, were I living in another country, the prospect of what that country's elected officials were doing to that particular country wouldn't nearly be as demoralizing as watching, at home, what happens to "my" country. In other words, the idea gave me, perhaps for the first time, some real insight into the condition of the exile, as opposed to the expatriate. An exile, for instance, like my man JJ: you just have to leave Ireland rather than sit there and watch Ireland's political machine grind away. The irony, of course, is that Ireland finally achieved Home Rule in 1922, the year Joyce's epic-from-exile was published. It's clear that he couldn't have written it at home and certainly the country didn't need him to achieve its eventual political victory. To each his own. I guess what I'm thinking is that a "parting of the ways" is sometimes necessary just to clear the head of the nonsense and cant that dominates the air in one's familiar bailiwick.

But it's true I sometimes seem to think that, in Dylan's phrase, "it can't be this way everywhere." Then I reflect on Musil, who never visited the U.S., and who wrote the following some time before 1930:

For some reason newspapers are not the laboratories and experimental stations of the mind that they could be, to the public's great benefit, but usually only its warehouses and stock exchanges. If he were alive today, Plato . . . would certainly be ecstatic about a news industry capable of creating, exchanging, refining a new idea every day; where information keeps pouring in from the ends of the earth with a speediness he never knew in his own lifetime, while a staff of demiurges is on hand to check it all out instantaneously for its content of reason and reality. He would have supposed a newspaper office to be that topos uranios, that heavenly realm of ideas, which he has described so impressively that to this day all the better class of people are still idealists when talking to their children or employees. And of course if Plato were to walk suddenly into a news editors's office today and prove himself to be indeed that great author who died over two thousand years ago, he would be a tremendous sensation and would instantly be showered with the most lucrative offers. If he were then capable of writing a volume of philosophical travel pieces in three weeks, and a few thousand of his well-known short stories, perhaps even turn one or the other of his older works into a film, he could undoubtedly do very well for himself for a considerable period of time. The moment his return had ceased to be news, however, and Mr. Plato tried to put into practice one of his well-known ideas, which had never quite come into their own, the editor in chief would ask him to submit only a nice little column on the subject now and then for the Life and Leisure section (but in the easiest and most lively style possible, not heavy: remember the readers), and the features editor would add that he was sorry, but he could use such a contribution only once a month or so, because there were so many other good writers to be considered. And both of these gentlemen would end up feeling that they had done quite a lot for a man who might indeed be the Nestor of European publicists but still was a bit outdated...
--Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities II: Pseudoreality Prevails, Ch. 77: "Arnheim as the Darling of the Press"

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