Of comfort no man speak:
Let's talk of graves, of worms and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
Let's choose executors, and talk of wills;
. . . For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground,
And tell sad stories of the death of kings . . .
JUDGING BY what I can read of the public record, this fall the American gentry has become enthralled with the romance of failure. President Carter drags himself around the country like a dying king in an old play, weighed down with grief, blaming himself (as well as the oil companies, the American people, his Cabinet secretaries, the Arabs and the weather) for the misfortunes that have befallen the Republic. The press plays the part of hired mourner, cherishing the wounds in the American body politic as if they were the stigmata of the murdered Christ. Washington columnists compete with professors of diplomatic history for the honor of delivering the funeral oration at the bier of Teddy Roosevelt.
The peasantry in Iowa produce record harvests of corn and soybeans, but on suburban lawns in California and Connecticut the capitalist nobility walk solemnly to and fro with glasses of iced gin in their hands, gesturing vigorously in the direction of the yacht club, bemoaning the ruin of the currency and worrying about the lack of leadership among their public and domestic servants. Nothing works anymore, they say; the world has gone awry. The Russians have acquired a more impressive collection of weapons that the one purchased by the curators at the Pentagon; in the Third World, ruffians leap and dance; at Burning Tree the caddies have raised their fees.
The more I listen to these sorrowful recitations the more I think of heirs to comfortable fortunes who delight in the display of their weakness. The eloquence of their self-pity sometimes makes it difficult to know what, in fact, they mean to say. The lamentation is likely to persist and wax more piteous during the next 12 months of the presidential campaigns, and for the convenience of readers who might not be familiar with the poetry of sweet despair, I offer a few translations from the original tear-stained texts. Crisis of confidence, loss of will:
Phrases of flattery. Self-blame constitutes an exquisite and expensive form of self-praise. No matter how severe the adjectives, the conversation remains fixed on the subject of supreme interest and importance.
The American press never asks, "How do the Germans and the Japanese manage their economies? What can we learn from their example?" Such questions would distract the attention from the American self. During the present debate on the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty nobody mentions the difficulties confronting the Soviet Union -- its prisons, its dwindling oil reserves and inadequate production of wheat, the unhappiness of its citizens and the chance of nationalist uprising among the many peoples yoked together by a frayed ideology.
For the past 80 years all the best people have complained of neurotic disorders. The doctrines of modernism substitute art for religion, and the lives of the saints (Joyce, Pound, Van Gogh, et al.) demonstrate the relation between neurosis and genius. The acknowledgement of weakness therefore becomes a proof of spiritual refinement, something comparable to a house on the beach at East Hampton or a feather boa bought at an auction on behalf of public television. The neurosis distinguishes its possessor from the anonymous crowd of stolid and capable citizens who endure their lives with a minimum of self-dramatization. Who pays attention to people who don't make piteous cries? Who wants to pay $100,000 for the movie rights to their chronicles of marriage and divorce? Who bothers to take their photograph for Vogue?
It is the fear of not being noticed that prompts so many people (among them President Carter) to make so fatuous a show of their defects. Like the frequently divorced lady met in a bar at Palm Beach, who whispers the secrets of her self-indulgence and her depravity as if these confidences enfolded her in the cloak of the Queen of the Night, Carter imagines himself so glorious that anything that impairs his perfection must be thought of as monstrous.
Even when he had been deprived of his kingdom, which he had let fall into disorder by reason of his extravagance and indecision, Richard II believed himself omnipotent. He imagined that spiders and heavy-gaited toads would rise up to striked down Bolingbroke's rebellion. What was so hideous about his humiliation was the fact that the indignities of hunger, politics and death routinely visited upon lesser human beings could in turn be visited upon the majesty of an anointed king.
So also the American gentry, who still believe that they command the tides. They cannot bear to blame the cost of gasoline on their changed circumstances or the shift of the political balance in the world, and so they blame their own lack of attention. This is much more flattering and allows them to preserve the illusion that the rest of the world plays a supporting role in the melodrama of the American self. Arabs, big government, the press:
A nominally egalitarian society sustains itself by trading in both the market of expectation and the market of blame. Politicians and automobile salesmen announce that everybody is created free and equal, deserving of wealth and redemption. Every citizen is a king. Neither the government nor the business interests can make good on this claim, and none of the propagandists can come up with a satisfactory explanation for the unequal division of the spoils. If so many people fail to achieve their heart's desire, then to what or to whom can these unnatural events be attributed? Who cheats so many people out of the life, love and happiness to which they are entitled under the terms of the social contract?
Obviously the fault cannot be found with the individual citizen, and so it must be found elsewhere, preferably within the labyrinths of an unknown abstraction. President Carter blames the American people and dismissed five of hic Cabinet secretaries; Philip Roth blames his mother and writes "Portnoy's Complaint." The more goods that a man has inherited, the larger the number of causes to which he can assign the blame. An owner of a gas station might castigate the Arabs and the oil companies, but a Wall Street lawyer, much more discriminating and refined, blames the House Ways and Means Committee, the Federal Reserve Board and the tax code. Death:
A usurper. Over the past 20 years the American bourgeoisie has noticed that otherwise profitable or patriotic acts have unpleasant or unforeseen consequences. The corporations prosper, and the arms merchants sell their goods to illiterate tyrants, but the whales languish, and somebody always gets killed or sent out to sea in a boat. This disturbs people who do not wish to have anything to do with killing, or, to put it more precisely, who like to think that any killing done on their behalf remains safely in the past -- buried with the glorious dead who paid their debts to the future at Concord, Gettysburg, Chateau-Thierry and Guadalcanal.
The resistance to risks of all kinds and degrees testifies to the much-magnified fear of death. The national obsession with health (cf. the princely sums spent on jogging and diets as well as in the hospitals and research laboratories) reflects the refined sensibility of people grown too delicate for the world.
The prompters of the public alarm observe that with enough effort it is possible to avoid a specific risk (death by asbestos poisioning, say, or lung cancer caused by cigarettes), and so they go on to assume that with even greater and more expensive efforts they can escape all risks and death itself will be denied credit at the better department stores. Thus the country squanders fortunes on quack doctors and federal safety regulations. Sooner or later a lady with a charge account at Bloomingdale's will bring a lawsuit against the sun. Betrayal:
The reason for all our troubles. Like President Carter, the poets of despair remain perpetually innocent. Nothing is ever their fault. They discover themselves betrayed by circumstance or a crisis of confidence, by their parents, their brokers and the collision of oil tankers off the coast of Trinidad. They fall into error because they have been wickedly misled or misinformed, and this allows them to feel justifiably sorry for themselves. President Carter says that when he was a boy in school he was taught that the United States had never fought an unjust war. His ignorance is the fault of his teachers. The dirge of the intellectuals:
As the universities come to depend more heavily on the patronage of the federal government and the charitable foundations, so also the professors of the humanities come to resemble minor clerics who have been granted livings and sees and benefices. They get paid to celebrate the mortifications of the spirit, and their woeful pronouncements have the sound of liturgical chants.
Together with the huge sums distributed through the National Endowments and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the money given to the universities constitutes a donative to the upper middle class. The subsidies correspond to the welfare payments made to the poor. The exegesis of the so-called high culture provides sinecures for the younger sons of the capitalist nobility, for the nouveaux litteraires, and for the ladies or gentlemen too refined for commerce and trade.
When I listen to academics talk about the prospects of social unheaval I think of Erwin Chargaff coming across a notice posted on a bulletin board in a German university during the tenure of the Weimar Republic: "In case of rain, the revolution will take place in the hall." Leaders:
All, alas, defunct. The newsmagazines send reporters to Phoenix and Omaha with instructions to look for people resembling the gods and heroes of ancient Greece. The reporters fail to find anybody who fits the description of Odysseus or who can be seen in broad daylight holding a bronze shield and spear.
Because nothing is their fault, and because it is always a Gorgon who puts them at risk, the poets of despair assume that only heroes can restore them to a state of solvency and grace. If we are weak, so the lamentation runs, then somebody else must be strong -- either the analyst, the polls, the Arabs, the government, God or John Connaly. The heirs to comfortable fortunes believe that if they make their grief eloquent or obvious enough, if they drive cars at 100 mph and make drunken spectacles of themselves at debutante dances, then Daddy or the family trustee will, at long last, take pity on them. This is the story of God, but it is also the hope of John Connally's campaign for the presidency.