Missile Firing Day: The Republic’s Inaugural Day Is Here

There is a popular and enduring American fiction that the US President is sworn into office on something called Inauguration Day, which is commemorated on January 20th in Washington DC. Seasoned students of the Republic are well aware, however, that the actual, truly meaningful, Inauguration Day is not so rigidly anchored to a particular freezing day, a particular locale, one that makes it decidedly inconvenient for most Americans to participate in any meaningful way. Instead, Inauguration Day is a floater; it takes place on a select day later in the year following the elections–when the President-elect decides that the time is right to launch a few missiles–or perhaps a long-range bombing raid or two–at distant targets. Such an inaugural method offers some distinct advantages over the model commonly supposed to exist.

First, the firing of the missiles prompts an almost immediate civics lesson as curious citizens hear–for the first time–about things called ‘Presidential war powers’ or ‘Congressional approval for declarations of war.’ Some devoted folks even open copies of the US Constitution; most others use this as an opportunity to learn about the relationships between the different branches of the government. Admittedly, the judicial branch is somewhat shortchanged in this context; no Supreme Court Justice is required for the swearing in, and there is little talk of it in connection with the President’s war powers.

Second, on a related point, the citizens of the American republic also enjoy the benefits of many history and geography lessons pertaining to the historical and spatial location of this particular act of missile-firing. Where is this country that we have just attacked? How many times have we attacked it before? What sorts of reasons have been adduced in the past for similar attacks? Small children learning how to count can also be profitably engaged by teaching them the serial number of the latest instance of bombing; ‘forty-one, forty-two…what comes next? Forty-three!’; obviously, such counting would have to be restricted to just post-WWII instances to make it less intimidating for our little ones.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the nation comes together in a fashion quite unlike any other. The traditional Inauguration Day often features demonstrations and protests by disgruntled losers; Missile Firing Day produces effusive proclamations of patriotism and calls to ‘support the troops.’ Political pundits, much given to expending considerable ink from their poison pens in attacking the Presidents, now lay them down and term the President-elect ‘presidential’ (c.f. the related phenomena of hailing the parading of war widows as ‘presidential.’)

Missile Firing Day, the 2017 edition, is here. This time, the US has launched sixty Cruise missiles at a Syrian air base. (After courteously and politely informing the Russians so that the Syrian military could also move its military assets out of the way.) President-elect Donald Trump has now, in the words of at least one former critic, just ‘become President of the United States.’  These missiles’ most effective vanquishing will be that of former critics of the regime. A nation united can never be defeated.

Inaugural Day is here; long live the Republic.

Writing Too Strong, Too Talented, To Endure

In Koba The Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million (Vintage International, New York, 2002, pp. 230), Martin Amis writes (on Maxim Gorky‘s relationship with Stalin and his death following his return from exile in Sorrento to a period of ‘recantation’ and self-debasement):

Writers were pushed, sometimes physically, sometimes spiritually, into all kinds of unfamiliar shapes by the Bolsheviks….Some more or less genuine writers tried to work ‘toward’ the Bolsheviks. Their success depended inversely on the size of their talent. Talentless writers could flatter the regime. Talented writers could not flatter the regime, or not for long….In general, writers never find out how strong their talent is: that investigation begins with their obituaries. In the USSR, writers found how good they were when they were still alive. If the talent was strong, only luck or the silence could save them. If the talent was weak, they could compromise and survive. Thus, for the writers, the Bolsheviks wielded promethean power; they summoned posterity and inserted it into the here and now.

 Amis’ description of the writer’s fate is romantic and optimistic in suggesting that a postmortem investigation into their lives and talents-by their erstwhile ‘audience’–is ever undertaken. Au contraire, sadly enough, even death does not rescue the writer from obscurity, it does not find the writer the readers he did not have while living. A great deal changes when a life comes to an end, but a writer’s anonymity endures. The few exceptions to this rule give us no reason to imagine that the stony silence which was the norm in a writer’s life will change to a clamoring reception in the graveyard; they merely highlight the fate of most.

This fact makes the possibility of an environment like the one Amis makes note of even more intriguing. It emits a reception so acute that it provides to the writer the most immediate, powerful feedback of all; it summons up the writer’s ultimate fate and makes it proximal. The proof of the writer’s talent lies in his ability to provoke a response, which such an environment provides: a gratifying confirmation–even if at some cost–that most other writers pine for. In such circumstances anonymity is precious, in ensuring the continuance of one’s life but it is also damning: every second of this stretched out existence is a perpetuation of a tale told by this world about your incompetence, your lack of talent, your inability to provoke a reprisal of any kind. Stick your neck out: this fame is the axe that does not fall. Imprisonment for the writer in such circumstances cannot be ‘enough’; he must be forced to stop writing, by death, or by solitary confinement. The restriction must be total; the freedom to be taken away must be the one that matters, movement of the mind, and not just the body, must come to an utter halt.

Here then, lies the most vivid confirmation of a writer’s greatness in his art: the enforced demand that it cease and desist.

 

 

Turgenev’s Hamlet And Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man

This semester, I’m running an independent study on existentialism with a pair of students from the English department here at Brooklyn College. Our reading list includes seven novels, four plays, and extracts from several philosophical texts. We kicked off our readings two weeks ago with Dostoyevsky‘s Notes from Underground. Because my students had purchased the Norton Critical Edition (second edition) of Notes from Underground, I did so as well. This Critical Edition–like others on Norton’s list–includes some background and sources, examples of work that are inspired by, or are imitations of the novel under study, and finally some critical notes. While reading it, I found a fascinating foreshadowing of Dostoyevsky’s themes in Turgenev.

Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Sketches includes the story ‘Hamlet of the Shchigrovsky District,’ in which “the narrator spends the evening at a party of a landowner.” His roommate for the night considers himself cursed by his lack of “originality” even as he is considered an “original” by his contemporaries:

“My dear sir,” he exclaimed. “I’m off the opinion that life on earth’s worth living only for originals: only they have the right to live. Mon verre n’est pas grand, mais je bois dans mon verre [My glass isn’t large but still I drink from it], someone said. You see” he added in a whisper, how good my French pronunciation is. What does it matter to me if your head’s large and capacious, and if a person understands everything, knows a great deal, keeps up with things–but knows nothing of his own particular individual self! There’s one more storeroom for leftover luggage in the world–what good’s that to anybody? No, it’s better to be stupid, at least in one’s own way! Have your smell, your own smell, that’s what! And don’t think my demands are too great…God forbid! There’s no end to such originals: wherever you look–there’s an original; every living person’s an original, but I have yet to be counted in that number!

Underground man, of course, considers himself just such an ‘original,’ a fact he sets out to establish in excruciating and agonizing detail, much to the discomfiture of not just his fictional companions, but also his readers. Turgenev’s character, like him, has made introspective self-knowledge central to his life’s projects, acknowledging in his case that all the worldly knowledge of libraries and the commerce of men will be of little use if this self-knowledge is lacking. (A classic Stoic, Buddhist, and existentialist dictum.) If the ‘facts’ uncovered in this inwardly directed journey of exploration turn out to be unpleasant, well then, so be it. Better the ‘originality’ of the odious than the inauthenticity of the ostensibly socially desirable.

Crucially, Turgenev’s character points out that the fact of this ‘originality’ is already manifest “wherever [we] look”: we cannot help but be ourselves, even as we struggle, under the misapprehended weight of social expectation, to be someone else. This conflict, this discordance, cannot but be destructive.  The price for this discordance, as the underground man’s companions find out, is shared with others.