I said goodbye to an old lover today. She’s three and a half billion years old, give or take. Which is, I suppose, why the wife doesn’t mind.
She used to be a volcano. You can tell by her shape. She is a hill, and she looks like all of J.R.R. Tolkien’s stylized drawings of hills, especially the Lonely Mountain, where Bilbo had his big adventure.
She is the hill where I run, once a week when the weather is good, once a month when it is not. I’ve climbed the equivalent of five Everests on her.
Her name is improbable. In fact, if you know any Latin, it is impossible. Melibokus. No name for a lady ends in –us. But there it is. The Germans took to calling her Mälchen, which also fails to do her justice. It’s frusty somehow.
What binds me to her? The usual for old lovers–it’s physical. I come to call and she is there. She has vineyard hips that shine gold in the autumn sunlight. Above she is all old-growth deciduous, dark emerald. Two castles guard her treasures, flags still flying. Her leaves glow lime green in the springtime against the black mud trails and the dun mulch of a hundred winters. There are lava rocks lying around from when she spewed them out, way back when.
There is, in reality, nothing spectacular about Melibokus. She looks like a dozen other hills around her, but slightly taller. She is topped by two big, ugly communications towers and a small, windowless building fenced off with barbed wire. Its stenciled building number looks American GI and so inspires rumors of a secret listening station.
Like I said, I run on Melibokus. I have probably logged 500 kilometers on her since I’ve lived here. I feel the free feelings she offers, and I think about whatever comes up. Usually it’s something I have read and how it applies to my life. It’s a very selfish time.
Looking back, after so many years of being together, I can grasp what was magical between us. I spent hours and hours toiling my way to her top, having what psychologists blithely call a “peak experience.” What was it all about? Why was the simple, sweaty act of running up a mid-sized hill in the middle of Germany so absorbing? It was this: As I was running, Melibokus was all the while playing an exceedingly good trick on me. For 10 years she made me feel I was not aging at all, when in fact when I stopped recently to look around, I could see I had aged at exactly the rate everyone else was. Still, I had those 10 years. If you can find someone who works that kind of magic on you, hold on to it while it lasts.
She was, like I said, always channeling people for me–Hume, Kant, Russell, occasionally even Heidegger and Kierkegaard. For old time’s sake, I should write down the last person she summoned. It was Martin Amis, the English novelist. For anyone of my generation and of my general mold, Amis is tops. He wrote about the insanity of wanting money, the everyday horrors of religious fanaticism, and the unpleasant habits of dictators. (He is still writing, but I think even he would say his best days are behind him.)
Anyway, the last time I turned toward the top of Melibokus and let my mind wander, what came to me was Amis’s remark in an interview that the most rewarding part of his life, despite his immense literary success, had been his “bourgeois” pleasures. This was his snooty way of saying “wife and kids.”
Well, I thought, as I chugged along, that is really something. A guy becomes a modern-day Thackeray, is flown on lear jets to world capitals to talk about books, and he says the best part of the whole thing was his family.
I feel like Amis’s observation expressed a truth that has saved me a lot of trouble. Something like 99.9 percent of humans aren’t set up to become artists, or geniuses of any kind. Amis actually made all the sacrifices necessary to become a genius, which mostly consisted in neglecting his family to tend some inner flame, and then on the other side of all those sacrifices he says family was the best part anyway. It’s striking.
I imagined how my life would have gone had I tried too hard to be an artist–still might go if I got some harebrained idea–rather than getting a job and having a family. Thanks to what Amis said to me in 2018, I felt like a guy who had made all the right choices since 2002, when I met my wife, or possibly since 1999, when I stopped trying to be a genius. It was a huge relief, knowing I hadn’t run other people’s dreams into the ground just so I could go on a vision quest or something stupid like that. Amis was right: family life was much better than any other ideal I might have pursued.
Maybe those communications towers pulled in Amis’s thoughts for me, and all the other people’s thoughts. Bless them, if they did.
I am all done with you now, Melibokus. We had our last tryst this morning. My job made me move, so I won’t see you anymore. I won’t get up at 03:30 on a June morning and start up through your forests as the early summer dawn breaks so I can be done before it gets really hot.
I’m not sure what I will do with my Sunday mornings now, but you will go on as you always have. I will think of you and the nice trick you played on me. You will take other lovers, which is comforting in a way. You will continue to exist, long after quiet returns and there are no more creeping things that creep upon the earth.
Goodbye, my love. I will forget you, slowly I hope, but I will write you as often as I can.
Well, I did it. On my fifth try, I finally made it to the starting line–and the finish line–of the Zermatt Ultramarathon. Here’s photographic proof:
The ultra is easily one of the most spectacular courses in the world, starting in the alpine village of Sankt Niklaus (1,116m), paralleling the glacier-fed Vispa River southward through Zermatt village, and then chugging straight up to Europe’s highest rail station, at Gornergrat. Gornergrat is a kind of moonscape at 3,089m above sea level, staring directly across the Vispa valley at the north face of the Matterhorn. You feel pretty tiny up there.
If you’re a runner and you’ve ever seen that view, you immediately think: bucket list; this is something I have to do before I die. And so it was for me. Eventually.
A friend put the Zermatt bug in my ear about about 10 years ago. He was fresh back from finishing it and probably noticed from my treadmill work that I also had a thing for hill running. At the time, though, my knees were bad, and running Zermatt was only an abstract wish. My “runs” mostly consisted of isolated 10k hobbles between bouts of runner’s knee that could last weeks at a time.
Over the next few years, though, my knees improved, and the idea started to take hold that I just might make it to Zermatt. The first time I tried to go, in 2013, my training program took me till sometime in May, when my knees blew out. Zermatt happens in early July. So it goes.
Well, Zermatt is a long game, I told myself, and that is what I would play. I regrouped and made a training plan for the next year. Again, the knees blew out, although this time they lasted till June. Progress.
A friend of mine recently gave me the perfect phrases for what Zermatt would become for me over the years. It was my “Murphy,” a special place I really wanted to reach but which was fenced off by chronically bad luck. All of my efforts to get there were (again his phrase) “needlessly fraught.”
In 2015 I had to write Zermatt off entirely. My back, which had bothered me for years, needed a disc replacement. So I got one, on the week of the race, as it turned out. I was flat on my back in the hospital when the starting gun fired.
I only got back to running in January of the next year. It was a slow trudge back to fitness, and I just didn’t have the stength to train for Zermatt in time. (I tried a challenging race later in the season, which had its own Murphy-like qualities–another story, which I have alread set down.)
2017 looked like my year. Both kness were great, and by April I was turning in strong training runs on big hills. I felt confident in my endurance, and so I started to do some strength- and speed work. One Tuesday in late April I fiinished a 10k speed/hill workout on the treadmill feeling pretty good but with just a little mystery tightness near the top of my quad. Two days later I couldn’t run at all, and a week later an MRI solved the mystery of the tightness. It was a torn muscle, and I was out for the next six months.
By this time in my Zermatt “career,” I felt like a Zen master who spends hundreds of hours making an intricate sand sculpture and then teaches himself detachment by sweeping it all away. Except I never quite finished the sculpture; it just kept getting swept away right before it was done.
I already had money down on my family’s reservations in Zermatt that year, and so we went anyway, for a mountain getaway. We watched the runners and felt the excitement of the event, which is a big production. It takes more than a thousand volunteers to pull the Zermatt Marathon off. The main point of the trip seemed to be teaching my kids that it was okay to have long-term goals even if they kept eluding you.
This year I made a concession to caution and told myself, no speedwork. If I made it through the early spring of my training plan without injuries, I promised I would just keep plodding and not get greedy about my finishing time.
It worked, for the most part. Murphy certainly did his best to scotch this year, and he kept me guessing right up till the end, but luck and caution won out, just barely.
Mirroring my year in 2017, I was feeling strong right through late April. Then a strain (or tear?) in my right calf had to be nursed. I didn’t run for a whole month, which was galling. May is beautiful in Germany; plus it is just the time you really want to be feeling your game if you are going to show up for Zermatt. Instead, I was waiting and just holding on. The calf strain could have easily cost me the race (again), but luckily I was able to keep up some cross-training throughout May. The the spin bike, the stairmaster and elliptical trainer became my special friends. It wasn’t fun, but it kept me in the game.
From my town, I can see the big hill where I do my long training runs. It looms dark emerald on the horizon. I spent the whole month of May wondering if I was going to get back on it, which meant, in effect, wondering if I was going to make it to Zermatt. You can ride like the devil, but you can’t get there on the spin bike. Miles must be trod, on God’s green earth.
Tentatively, I did get back to that hill. I put in 20k the last day of May. I did some rough math in my head as I was finishing that run and figured I needed to step up each long session by 8k a week if I was going to peak on schedule, two weeks before Zermatt.
This I did, turning in successively longer runs and finally a decent 44k run on the 24th of June with lots of climb. But Murphy wasn’t done with me yet. Less than halfway through the run, I felt a tightness and then a distinct pain in my left calf, same place the right one had bothered me before. Godammit-motherfucking-sonofabitch, I thought placidly as I decided to keep going. Am I really sweeping away this sand painting again?
One of the cardinal rules of running is never continue if you feel more pain than the usual discomfomfort of exertion. You’re going to do more harm than good. The calf pain made me mad, though, and I decided to break the rule. If I didn’t finish the run, my Zermatt dream was going to be over one way or another. Quitting at 16k would have left me without a sufficient peak training run, and grinding the damn calf injury into a torn muscle was going to end my whole season. Seeing no real choice, and feeling spiteful at the frailty of my own body, I decided to go with option two.
Foolish? Oh, my, yes. But this is probably the right place to point out that 2018 was going to be my last shot at Zermatt ever. The Army, after employing me for 18 years in Europe, was sending me home to the States. The orders were already written, 20 copies of them printed out and sitting in a stack on my desk. Sure, we’d come back to visit Europe and drink coffee, but I knew I would never lace up my shoes for a serious mountain run this side of the Atlantic again. I tried not to get emotional about it, but it really was a do-or-die scenario.
Somehow, pushing my lame calf on the long run didn’t result in catastrophe. The day after, it was stiff and sore but not completely done in, as I thought it might be. I took heart, telling myself I would ice it, rest it and just go back to cross training for the last two weeks, which were supposed to be easier anyway.
This I did, and after a few days I could ride the spin bike without pain and walk without a limp. I dared not run; all i could do was hope the calf was healing as I was idling away my peak fitness.
But with 10 days to go, Murphy re-made his acquaintance. I guess I should have been expecting him. I drank a recovery shake after a two-hour session on the spin bike, and then I had some pizza at home with the kids. This combination produced a violent misadventure in my stomach that laid me out in incapacitating pain. I kept telling myself that whatever bad things are happening in the stomach have to cycle through in four or five hours, but this proved not to be the case. At hour seven I asked Bibi to take me to the clinic for a possible alien-removal procedure.
Apparently the decision to go to the clinic cured me. I felt better as soon as I got there. The doc gave me the once over, ruled out the worst, and sent me on my way with the usual advice about taking it easy. Sure, I thought, I would just take it easy.
If you are still reading, you are showing me more patience than I deserve as I bring this story to the Zermatt starting line, where you already know it is going to end anyway. As Kurt Vonnegut used to say at the end of all his speeches, thank you for your attention.
But there’s more. Recovered from the world’s worst upset stomach, I ventured forth exactly one week before the race to put in a cool 7k tuneup run through the local woods. The purpose of this run, if you are peaking for an ultramarathon, is just to hear your engine purr. You’re supposed to come off it without a sweat, full of steady confidence. I had to stop my run at 4k. My left calf was still hurting. A week to go, and I couldn’t eke out one tenth of the race distance, on a flat course.
There it was. It was not necessarily the end of my race, but it was the big, fat question mark that would hover over the starting line. And so, when I took my place in Sankt Niklaus on race day, I had no idea how things would turn out. Would my calf start hurting ridiculously early and make me drop out before the race really began? Probably. Maybe. I didn’t know.
Would my fitness have declined too much from sitting out the last 10 days of training? From substituting too much gym time for real trail running? Again, I didn’t know.
Kierkegaard said we live life forward, and we only understand it in retrospect. This is a radical insight. It means we don’t fully understand anything as we are doing it. We just give it our best shot, not knowing if we are sufficiently prepared or if we are even in the right place, aimed in the right direction. Something may come along and erase your sand painting in an instant. Or you might finish it and have it turn out beautiful. It seems impossible to live in the space in between those possibilities, but that’s where we must live. That’s where I was when the starting gun went off.
In 1998 the University of Virginia philosopher Richard Rorty predicted the rise of the current nationalist-populist mob in America. He wrote about it succinctly in his book Achieving Our Country.
This is what he wrote:
Many writers on socioeconomic policy have warned that the old industrialized democracies are heading into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments. Edward Luttwak, for example, has suggested that fascism may be the American future. The point of his book The Endangered American Dream is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.
One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.
The first point I would like to make about about this passage is not an obvious one. It has to do with Rorty’s use of the word jocular, which doesn’t seem like a big deal, but actually is. Whenever Trump or his trolls are caught calling for violence against the press or using racist or sexist stereotypes, their go-to defense is, “just kidding.” This is a clever move. It deflects guilt for what looks like bigotry and puts it on the offended party for being overly sensitive or “politically correct.” And it stakes out a broad scope for bringing back insults and retribution out against people who look or think differently than I do and are getting uppity.
Humor, even if disingenuous, is a powerful thing to have on your side. The mob knows this, or at least senses it, and advances its points accordingly–with funny memes. Nothing brings down a logical argument like a good derisive laugh.
The second thing is that, even though Rorty was startlingly accurate his description of the way nationalist-populism has arisen, he was wrong about the way nationalist-populists would use political power. They have not fomented a revolution, at least for now. Rather they are simply using all the ordinary political mechanisms that empowered formerly alienated minorites from the 1960s onward.
Much of what we gained in terms of civil rights, broadly construed, can be reversed simply by rolling back the same processes that led to them in the first place. Trump’s opportunity to appoint another Supreme Court justice is a clear indicator of this. I am not saying we’re headed for a reversal of, say the 13th Amendment, or that it will be easy to impose a robustly reactionary agenda on the state. But I am say that all the necessary tools are there, even without a revolution. Maybe dictatorship can’t happen here, but too much of the reactionary sadism that goes with it can.
I am all the time lecturing my kids. Like all fathers, I use my lectures to advance two themes:
What makes the world go ’round, and
How to be.
No wonder men feel like kings in their own homes. We might be louts and jackasses, but within our walls, we have carte blanche to speak, as Saul Bellow put it, the “highest human phrases.” It’s a wonder we ever go anywhere, out where we are just peasants.
My kids have absolutely all the stuff they want or need, which makes it hard for me to get my two main points across. Here are my two main points:
There are only two powers in the world worth having:
The power to create things from your own mind, and
The power to connect to other people.
Like all my ideas, I stole both of these. I don’t really recognize my own ideas until I see them written down in other people’s books. This probably comes from reading the Bible as a child, but I digress.
The first point I stole from Socrates, Milan Kundera, Walt Whitman, Slavoj Zizek and Kurt Vonnegut. Weird combination, I know. But they all say more or less the same thing: humans are happiest and most fulfilled when they are creating. To paraphrase Vonnegut, you are better off and more dignified as a human being if you are creating something even as humble as a crappy poem or simple electrical circuit than if you are grabbing stuff. Look how hard creative geniuses work. They don’t do it for the money. The mathematician Kurt Gödel only weighed 88 pounds when he died. He was on the verge of finishing the Incompleteness Theorem and he forgot to eat.
The second point I stole from Wittold Gombrowicz, Orhan Pamuk, James Baldwin and E.M. Forster. If Forster were alive today, he would be called a prissy little lefty fag, at least by some. I call him my moral muse and hero. He epigraphed his short novel Howard’s End with the (now) famous phrase, “Only connect,” and that’s pretty much him in a nutshell. He thought the strong should not bully the weak and everyone should spend more time thinking about the moral consequences of their actions. We only have 70-odd years of life, and Forster thought it would be a dreadful waste to spend that time not connecting to others who are in the same bind. We’re all on the clock. Better to face it together than alone.
Gombrowicz, Pamuk and Baldwin are a little more abstruse on this point, but they all champion it in some way. No man is an island, they say, so you might as well figure out how to love or at least value the people who help make you who you are. For Baldwin, this even meant finding a way to love your tormentors. They too “helped” make you who you are. Baldwin would also be called a fag by some today, but I digress. He is a moral giant, and it’s a good thing he’s dead because we don’t deserve him anymore.
Why am I jotting these thoughts down? Because I just read an outline of Erich Fromm’s 1976 book To Have Or To Be, and I realized that I had stolen my whole moral scheme–points one and two–from him. So it goes.
Believe it or not, tycoons and politicians will actually try to convince you that having more stuff is the key to being happy. Go to Walmart, they say. Find an attractive piece of crap offered at a rockbottom price thanks to offshoring, slave labor and other production efficiencies. You’ll feel better.
Bellow, Socrates, Kundera, Whitman, Zizek, Vonnegut, Gombrowicz, Pamuk, Baldwin, Forster and Fromm all say, in very pretty ways, fuck that. You are much, much better than that. You are not meant to consume. You are meant to create and connect.
At least that’s what I’m all the time telling my kids.
I am leary of book reviews that give an author credit for what he leaves unsaid. This stunt is usually performed by undergraduates who haven’t read the book. I used to get a depressing number of papers that tried it.
It is also a recipe for attributing any message whatsoever to any writer whatsoever. Thus, we could imagine the “howling silence” at the center of Mein Kampf pointing to loneliness as the real cause of nazism. This way lies madness, or just plain inanity.
But, even with the “Thin Ice” sign so prominently on display, I skate forth. The best thing about Don Delillo’s 1972 novel End Zone is, I contend, what it leaves unsaid. And, as always, what Delillo does say is wise and masterful. I believe he is Americas’s Thomas Mann, and that his magnum opus, Underworld, is a contender for the Great American Novel. To have a novelist of Delillo’s caliber alive and still producing while I live and breathe fills me with awe. He interprets our American world with all the hard grandeur of Herodotus interpreting the ancient Greek world.
On its surface, End Zone tells the story of 21-year old Gary Harkness, a talented but abstracted college running back who cannot quite commit to football even though it is his guiding passion. He wins a series of scholarships to one notable college after another only to squander them by missing practice and indulging a growing curiosity about nuclear war. When the action opens at Logos College in West Texas, Gary has recovered from his latest failure at the University of Miami and is back in shape, preparing for the football season to open. He is also auditing courses in Aspects of Modern War and the History of Air Power. Bad omens for his successful return to football.
As an allegory, End Zone draws clear parallels between football and warfare, especially its nuclear variety. Gary is inexplicably drawn to books about nuclear holocaust; the subject’s arcana, like the “elegant gibberish” of sports talk, holds him spellbound. He reflects:
I became fascinated by words and phrases like thermal hurricane, overkill, circular error probability, post-attack environment, stark deterrence, dose-rate contours, kill ratio, spasm war. Pleasure in these words. They were extremely effective, I thought, whispering shyly of cycles of destruction so great that the language of past world wars became laughable, the wars themselves somewhat naive.
The power of public discourse to dominate the private mind is one of Delillo’s enduring themes. His novels are full of characters who adopt the phrases of the media, the military, the government in what should be their personal modes of speech. When we encounter the helter-skelter of real life, Delillo insinutes, it is not really as raw and unknowable as it all seems. The helter-skelter is already processed and categorized by the ready-made terms provided by large institutions. In one scene in End Zone, a teammate rushes into a room to announce that the college president’s plane has crashed. Another teammate takes the event in as headline news and responds, “Let me get it straight. Critical list. Overshot the runway. Light plane.” The news anchorman’s standard terminology encroaches on the individual’s experience of life.
As we come to know Gary through flashbacks and internal monologue, we learn that his childhood and adolescence were dominated by his deeply conventional father, who also spoke in terms that had been validated for him by institutions. For years there was a sign posted on Gary’s door neatly summerizing his father’s philosophy of life: “Suck in that gut and go harder.” There was also a poster of the Detroit Lions, never a championship team but one that took its losses and kept bulling ahead. The Lions always had a chance of making it if they just kept trying. That was the way to go.
Gary’s father’s philosophy works, more or less. By the time Gary is playing college ball, he believes that his sport refers to something higher and more vital than itself. Gary can tick off its transcendental elements by heart: “(1) A team sport. (2) The need to sacrifice. (3) Preparation for the future. (4) Microcosm of life.” We go through life learning lists that people in authority impress upon us. (I do this to my kids all the time.) The more lists we learn, the better our chances to succeed.
In a delicious passage, Gary’s father writes him a letter at college with instructions on how to fly home for Thanksgiving. Part of it goes,
The airline employee will write on your ticket and stamp some things on it purely for airline use and then he’ll give you back the ticket and tell you the gate number to go to. Go at once to that gate. If you fool around and start exploring the airport or wandering off somewhere like you always do, you’re going to miss your plane. So head for the gate right off the bat and avoid headaches later on. If you have trouble finding the gate, ask someone in authority. That usually means uniformed personnel.
Any reader who has ever read (or written) a military operations order will immediately “get” this letter. It is an attempt to reduce the randomness of everyday life–mundane and harmless as it is–to predictable risk factors.
The message at the center of End Zone is that all of the systems that have risen to the top of our repertoire for coping with life are throroughly masculine. In the pivotal chapter, Gary’s team loses badly to a rival. Up till the climactic game, Logos had been executing almost perfectly, outthinking and outperforming all their opponents. They had a perfect record. The lists they had earned marked them for success.
When they lose the big game, it is because they collapse under the brute force of aggression. It is a clear case of Dionysus beating the shit out of Apollo. The other team mauls Logos (and we now know why Delillo chose that name for Gary’s team). All the high sentiments about football being teamwork and preparation for the future just go out the window. Football is really about beating the other guy to death. Violence wins the day.
This article of faith, in the ultimate efficacy of violence, is one that boys learn early in life and, according to Delillo, probably never let go of. It becomes the center of what Delillo calls a kind of “theology.” The world we accept as given, an objective thing that can be no other way than the way it is, is actually a made-up one. What passes for plain old life as we know it is really a masculine contest for physical supremacy. The universal masculine resort to violence is why we face the prospect of nuclear war:
There’s a kind of theology at work [in thinking about nuclear war]. The bombs are a kind of god. As his power grows, our fear naturally increases. I get as apprehensive as anyone else, maybe more so. We have too many bombs. They have too many bombs. There’s a kind of theology of fear that comes out of this. We begin to capitulate to the overwhelming presence. It’s so powerful. It dwarfs us so much. We say let the god have his way. He’s so much more powerful than we are. Let it happen, whatever he ordains. It used to be that the gods punished men by using the forces of nature against them or by arousing them to take up their weapons and destroy each other. Now god is the force of nature itself, the fusion of tritium and deuterium. Now he’s the weapon. So maybe this time we went too far in creating a being of omnipotent power. All this hardware. Fantastic stockpiles of hardware. The big danger is that we’ll surrender to the sense of inevitability and start flinging mud all over the planet.
This passage is, of course, horrific in what it describes, but the real horror of End Zone came to me as I read the scene below of a kind of Walpurgisnacht. It is the offseason, and Gary’s team has gone fallow. Bored, they have a party. It is marked by spontaneous acts of mischief in which missiles are launched. The bonhomie that ensues becomes chaotic even as it follows certain rough rules of engagement. Here is the action as it climaxes:
The throwing of the beer cans started half an hour after the party began. It went from there to fights to mass vomiting, to singing and comradeship. A defensive end named Larry Nix kept punching a door until he busted through. A few people fell asleep in their chairs or on the floor. There was a pissing contest with about twenty entries trying not for distance but for altitude–a broom held by two men being the crossbar as it were, the broom raised in stages as contestants dropped out and others progressed. It was the most disgusting, ridiculous and adolescent night I had ever spent. The floor of the lounge was covered with beer, urine and ketchup, and we kept slipping and falling and then getting up and getting casually knocked down again by somebody passing by. Clothes were torn, and there was blood to be seen on a few grinning faces. There were tag-team wrestling matches, push-up contests, mock bullfights, and other events harder to classify. A bunch of men jumped repeatedly in the air with their hands at their sides. Seven people in a circle spitting at each other’s shoes. Lloyd Philpot Jr. ate nine hamburgers in twenty-five minutes. Link Brownlee chugged a bottle of ketchup. Jim Deering and his brother Chuck traded punches to the midsection, apparently reviving a boyhood tradition. It was a horrible night. They took off Billy Mast’s clothes and threw him out the front door. Somebody pushed Gus de Rochambeau and he skidded past me over the beer and piss and put his hand through a window. I took out my handkerchief and bandaged him. Then, we sang one of the school songs, . . . .
Such are the consolations and diversions of the warrior. What does the soldier seek when not at war? More war. No matter which way men turn in life, they try to hit out. They might be playing ball, studying, or just flying home for the holidays, but no matter what problem they are trying to solve, they hold the use of force in ultimate reserve.
As a general principle, the novel asks us to use our imaginations. This demand is what makes End Zone an important book, I believe. If the world as we know it is fashioned and controlled by men, what would it look like if the shoe were on the other foot? In other words, what would we have instead of nuclear war and piss/vomit parties if women were running the show? It may be that evolutionary theory makes this an idle question. The physical nature of the struggle for life may very well determine that men will always dominate all our institutions.
But it is the better part of optimism to imagine things differently. The message that Delillo leaves unspoken in End Zone is that the contest of life might still pass into a new phase in which our institutions respond to new evolutionary pressures imposed by reason rather than the struggle for physical supremacy. We may have reached a level where we can see that the “objective” features of reality are really made up by men who spend their whole lives keying up to kill one another. For me, this implied message of End Zone is the most powerful part of the book.
[As usual, I wrote my review without reading others first. You might also enjoy others’ reviews of End Zonehere or here.]
It’s true what historians say, you interpret the past through the filter of the present.
When I read Gore Vidal’s historical novel Lincoln in the spring of 2016, it was my first attempt to understand the sixteenth U.S. president. By custom, we approach Lincoln as an amalgam of superlatives that we learn in grade school. He was the most mythical of Americans; he flew so high, we truly believe he touched the face of God.
Indeed Lincoln’s aura began to take form even while he was still alive. His closest friends in the White House called him “the Ancient.” They seemed to know that he would go down as a giant in history.
The last words that were spoken of Lincoln foretold the reverence we would always feel for the great man. “Now he belongs to the ages,” intoned Secretary of War Stanton as Lincoln breathed his last in William Peterson’s house. Well, he had always belonged to the ages.
Vidal’s novel about Lincoln caused wailing and gnashing of teeth when it came out in 1984, the high tide of Reagan’s America. If you’ve heard anything at all about the book, you probably heard that it was a hatchet job, done to chop Lincoln down to size. Great Americans, after all, do not contract veneral diseases, do not entertain atheist ideas. Infamously, Vidal insinuated the former of Lincoln and made a pretty plain case for the latter. (There is a whopping great literature on both controversies, and Vidal stoutly defends his sources. My purpose today is not to weigh in on this argument. If you’re interested in it, start here.)
But read Lincoln in any case, no matter where your instincts lie about the subject of Lincoln’s saintliness. It is a 650-page novel, and Vidal spends 640-odd pages detailing other things about the man than his atheism or alleged case of syphilis. It is a deeply nuanced, complex portrait that does a far greater service than any patriotic haigography ever could. Indeed, for me, Lincoln establishes convincingly that truly a god became man and walked among us. Even seen through Vidal’s realist filter, Lincoln is so gravely noble, it is hard to feel worthy of his legacy today. More on this in a moment.
The fact that Lincoln made the superhuman choices he did and suffered inhuman tragedies while bearing the burden of a potentially suicidal national question–Are we free or not?–and that he did all this on the strength of only the most human resources–stubbornness, introspection, humor, conviviality, pragmatism and patience–shows that he was more verily a giant than our pious myths ever made him out to be.
Say what you will of Vidal’s alleged subversiveness, but the fact is, he accomplished something nearly magical with Lincoln–he humanized a god, but kept the god part. And in so doing, he indicated something of the greatness that is attainable by any American. If each of us could muster even a fraction of Lincoln’s genius or compassion or magnanimity–or, yes, foxiness–we would help build a better country, or at least we would be better friends, parents, neighbors, teachers, officials.
There is a scene from Lincoln that I suppose I will take with me to the grave, it speaks so affectingly of the man’s courage and decency. It is September 1862, and the president is touring the aftermath of Antietam, the bloodiest battle so far of the Civil War. Lincoln and his entourage are about to retire for the day, having been briefed by the (disappointing) General Mclellan and having visited hundreds of wounded Union soldiers. They mount their horses and start back toward Washington.
They were now opposite a large farmhouse on whose porch a dozen wounded men lay on pallets. Lincoln turned to his colonel-escort. “What’s this, Colonel?”
“Confederate prisoners, sir. Wounded at Sharpsburg. We’ll be sending them on to Washington once we’ve finished shipping our own wounded back.”
“I think I’d like to take a look at these boys,” said Lincoln. “And I’m sure they’d like to take a look at me.”
Lincoln’s bodyguard stiffened, hated the idea. The Southern press relentlessly portrayed Lincoln as a criminal and tyrant. Washington was rife with rumors of Confederate plots to kill him, and he repeatedly tempted fate by ambling around the city unguarded. Lincoln’s bodyguard thought surely one of the wounded men inside would stand up and strike a blow for the Confederacy once they saw their nemesis before them so vulnerable. But the president pressed on, together with friend and advisor Elihu Washburne, a Repulican member of the House of Representives. “You stand outside,” Lincoln instructed his security detail, “while Mr. Washburne and I, two harmless Illinois politicians, pay these southern boys a call.”
The colonel led Lincoln and Washburne up the steps and into the house, which consisted, at this level, of a single large room lined on both sides with cots. At least a hundred men and boys lay on the cots, some missing arms or legs or both. Some were dying; others were able to limp about. The smell of flesh corrupting was overpowering; and Washburne tried not to breathe. But Lincoln was oblivious of everything except the young men who were now aware that a stranger was in their midst. The low hum of talk suddenly ceased; and the only sound in the room was the moaning of the unconscious. . . . [S]lowly, [Lincoln] removed his hat. All eyes that could see now saw him, and recognized him.
When Lincoln spoke, the famous trumpet voice was muted; even intimate. “I am Abraham Lincoln.” There was a long collective sigh of wonder and of tension and of . . . ? Washburne had never heard a sound quite like it. “I know that you have fought gallantly for what you believe in, and for that, I honor you, and for your wounds so honorably gained. I feel no anger in my heart toward you; and trust you feel none for me. That is why I am here. That is why I am willing to take the hand, in friendship, of any man among you.”
The same sigh, like a rising wind, began; and still no one spoke. Then a man on crutches approached the President and, in perfect silence, shook his hand. Others came forward, one by one; and each took Lincoln’s hand; and to each he murmured something that the man alone could hear.
The honor, goodwill and magnanimity Lincoln shows in this scene are almost beyond belief. But we know it happened. There were several eyewitnesses, and two of them recorded Lincoln’s words more or less as he must have spoken them.
For more than a year after I read this passage I believed that Lincoln’s decision to go into that house to speak those words was the most “American” thing that had ever happened in our history. Knowing full well he was lying about being a harmless Illinois politician (the famous Lincoln irony), Lincoln presented himself to those soldiers as their enemy personified, the very man who had caused the deaths of thousands of their comrades.
In facing those troops, though, and praising their conduct, he beheld them as equal men even in the midst of a war that pitted them as inhuman enemies. Lincoln’s offer of friendship was a superhuman act of decency. I confess that I sometimes fight back tears when I read this passage. Time and again Lincoln forced himself to feel the full weight of responsibility for the ruinous war that he was waging. If ever there were an American president who felt in his bones that his nation should resolve to know war no more, it was Lincoln. When he walked unguarded into that house and gave that speech, it was because he believed more deeply in our bonds of affection and our better angels than in our civil war and our demons.
But I no longer think that that speech is the most American thing of all. Today I think the most American thing of all was the bullet fired by John Wilkes Booth that exploded Lincoln’s brain and drove his thoughts from the world. Today we put more store in the power of violence to solve legal challenges than in civilized dispute and argumentation. We desire to be a country full of good guys with guns ready to mete out rough justice that bypasses any philosopher’s wish for peace. Admit it or not, we have chosen vigilantism as a form of government; let our violent angels range out over the land and do the work of law.
Like the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamozov, who meets Christ face-to-face and finds that he hates him, today’s Republican high priests appear to scorn everything that made Lincoln great. Still more does the mob behind them reject everything Lincoln stood for.
The current adminstration is a hateful burlesque of presidential leadership. Lincoln’s high and noble legacy casts the noxiousness of Trumpism into deep, ugly relief. Insolence, sniggering, and the wholesale evasion of responsibility define not just Trump’s political style, but the whole substance of his administration. But for his mob we might be able to dismiss his rise as an anomaly that will pass with merciful quickness. Unfortunately, though, the currents of reactionarism run deeper than that. A large part of our country rejects the decency and humanity of our greatest president, and rather than striving to emulate any part of what made him great, we bow to a buffoon who mocks the very idea of responsibility and accountability (and tells us he does so). Republicans, are we? If so, it is not a republic that Lincoln would recognize.
Joining a recent trend, I finally got around this year to reading Sinclair Lewis’s dystopian novel It Can’t Happen Here, which depicts the rise of a fascist dictator in 1930s America.
But before I picked up It Can’t Happen Here, I first took in Lewis’s other major novels–Mainstreet, Babbit, Elmer Gantry and Arrowsmith. It was an entrancing journey. Lewis is a keen, searching critic of American society, even if he is not quite in the front rank of America’s great novelists. His morality tales bravely answer Kafka’s demand that, “Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us.”
Furthermore, Lewis’s novels form a fascinating historical bridge between post-Civil War, steam-powered America and the country we know today. Lewis was born in 1885, the year after Huckleberry Finn was published, and he died in 1951, the year Boeing produced the first B-52 bomber, which is still in service. Much of the language in Lewis’s early dialogues is either hilariously cornball (“Gee!” once expressed real vehemence, if you can believe it.) or barely intelligible (“Punk” was an adjective, not a noun, meaning inferior or objectionable.). By the time of his last novels, though, Lewis’s dialogue needed no translation even for those of us born after 1960.
For anyone who grew up in the rural Midwest, as I did, here is another charming part of Lewis: he mounts his critique of American prejudices and blindspots straight from the amber-grained heartland, bypassing the urban coasts where the smart set presumes all our great national debates begin and end. There is something wickedly fun about watching Lewis attack American complacency from the same Minnesota plains that inspired Laura Ingalls Wilder to pen stories of such innocent wonder. The name “Mankato,” signifying a shining, magical place where Pa Ingalls went to buy real glass window panes for the little house and peppermint candy for the kiddoes, will never ring the same after Lewis uses the village to stage the self-satisfied duncery of middlebrow townies.
It was only by accident that I read Lewis’s back catalogue before I took in It Can’t Happen Here, but I’m very glad I did. Lewis was a great chronicler of social change in America. By the time he wrote It Can’t Happen Here, in 1936, he had already rendered a fine-grained map of the national mindset, one that is still capable of enlightening us postmoderns. It was this deeper fund of insight that I found more useful in making sense of Trump than the novel that was supposedly “about” him.
When the U.S. Electoral College produced Donald Trump’s presidential win in 2016, obervers who had abstractedly scratched their chins and wondered what the College was truly for suddenly had concrete reason to ask whether this quirk in the system could somehow open democracy’s gates to barbarism. Could tyranny happen here, based on a technicality?
Trump’s first shot across the bow of democracy, on day one, was typical for an aspiring tyrant. Sending Sean Spicer out to shout plain falsehoods about crowd size to the press was a variation on one of Hitler’s and Stalin’s go-to tactics, the Big Lie. The Big Lie is a crucial test for an aspiring dictator. It doesn’t matter whether the people believe it or not, but if a large enough group is beguiled by its mere boldness–if they are stirred by the strong man’s ability to say whatever he wants and not be constrained by convention–that group becomes a mob. And mobs are very good for aspiring dictators.
Even if you dismiss Trump as a mere grandstanding, phillistine bigot, not a credible tyrant, his win was still disquieting. It raised the question of what might happen next, after Trump spends four years test-driving the country through the basic maneuvers of fascism. Might a competent dictator then arrive?
A year and a half after Trump’s win, with white supremacists still Sieg Heiling him, ICE agents increasingly comporting themselves like stormtroopers, and Trump’s inner circle insisting he is above the law, we have ample reason to wonder how loathesome Trumpism can become before it hits a limit of some kind. And this is where the novels of Sinclair Lewis prove to be instructive. Lewis’s subject was always, in some way, the American national character, and if there are limits on Trumpism, it is in our character we are likely to find them. After all it was the American idea that gave rise to the Constitution, not vice versa. Unfortunately, to get to the heart of what Lewis had to say on this subject, you have to bypass some significant flaws in the novel that has brought his name back into national light.
The first thing an educated reader notices about It Can’t Happen Here is the technical implausibility of its plot at several key junctures. When the dictator-president, Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, imposes emergency rule mere hours after his election and has his Brown Shirt militia arrest several key opponents, the judicial branch offers not a squeak of resistance. With no device to explain this development, Lewis simply has every judge in the land roll over for Windrip. Are populist militia men poised to arrest the judges? We don’t know; Lewis fails to convince.
There are other similar plot gaps. They all turn on technicalities, but in a state governed by a constitution, court rulings, and a written body of law, technicalities are of primary importance. When Trump’s administration tried to pass off a jejeunely written, tub-thumping pamphlet as an executive order banning Muslims last year, the courts duly trimmed it down to lawful size. An essential technicality.
By mistake or by design, though, Lewis simply doesn’t attend to mechanisms like this, the features of our political system that could realistically curb a tyrant’s ambitions.
So why read him, then? Because he plumbs the deeper question I just alluded to about national character, which has implications for the potential cultural limits on Trumpism. Lewis compels as to ask biting, stinging questions about who we are and what the American idea is.
The most apalling thing about Trump’s movement is not the man himself. As George Will stoically pointed out recently, “Trump is what he is, a floundering, inarticulate jumble of gnawing insecurities and not-at-all compensating vanities, . . . .“ The real horror of Trumpism is the relish with which his fanbase metabolizes his garish flaws, converting celebrity worship into organized bigotry. What kind of citizen has our country brought forth, capable of seeing Trump’s attacks on tolerance, honesty and responsibility as a tonic for our democracy?
I am an optimist about the truth and its importance for democracy. Sort of. I do not believe one man can tell lies as big as Trump’s and be believed based only on what he says. There must be people out there who already want to believe things that are extravagantly false. As I read Lewis’s novels this spring, it dawned on me how deep this well of credulity is in America. We’ve been digging it since we started to become a prosperous, modern country. In a moment, I’ll offer some thoughts on Lewis’s back-catalogue novels that deal with this history.
But, first, back to It Can’t Happen Here. In the riproaring weeks leading up to Buzz Windrip’s election, the establishment candidate is campaigning “as placidly as though he were certain to win.” (Sound familiar?) This is because the populist firebrand Windrip is simply not credible on the stump; his threats, promises and harrangues are all super sized. The novel’s hero, though, crusty old newspaper man Doremus Jessup, is starting to realize that Windrip’s base, fueled by grievances not facts, will carry the day. “This,” Jessup pronounces, “is revolution in terms of Rotary.”
What did Lewis mean by that? What’s so bad about Rotarians? Aren’t they self-starting, optimistic do-gooders, boosters of the local community? How could their brand of public-spiritedness possibly menace American democracy? Shouldn’t it actually be good for Americans? De Tocqueville thought very positively of our habit of forming and joining prosocial clubs. Lewis’s ultimate Rotarian character, George Babbitt, describes his fellows’ worldview as “a loyal and vigorous faith in the goodness of the world, a fear of public disfavor, a pride in success.” This attitude seems virtuous enough, even if slightly parochial. What malice did Lewis sense lurking behind such small-town pride?
I said earlier that Lewis is a fascinating writer because he links vaguely-intelligible ideas of an American past to the familiar country of today. And so, his idea of “Rotary,” while suggestive of a certain late-Victorian mindset, requires a bit of recontextualizing to bring it up to date. For Lewis the Rotarian mind was one that equated get-ahead commercialism with civic virtue. In the Anytown, USA of Lewis’s day, it was the local business leaders who were creating the jobs that floated everyone’s boat a little higher. If anyone deserved to be listened to above others, it must have been these yeoman of the American dream. Without them, thousands, possibly millions of Americans gifted with less grit or creativity would have floundered in poverty.
This cross-section view of American class structure reveals something of great historical significance, the idea that all political power derives from property. Our Declaration of Independence says each person may claim freedoms based on her status as a human being, but our culture says she’ll need to beg permission of the wealthy first. It is they who safeguard the land’s political power and mete it out to those they deem deserving.
Today, the the quintessence of the Rotarian persona survives in the class of white, male Christian property owners, who believe implicitly that the political opinions of the differently-minded must pass a tribunal of WASP values to enter the marketplace of ideas. Gay marriage?–Hmm, maybe, but only after enough rich white Christians convince the mob to go light on Leviticus and Deuteronomy and politely ignore whatever it is the fags are up to.
But history occasionally cracks open to empower the voiceless. The tension in It Can’t Happen Here arises because America’s tycoons wake up to the Great Depression to find their presumptive status as gatekeepers under threat. History’s tectonic plates shifted in 1929, and the poor and unlucky were suddenly claiming a form of political agency that did not need or seek the say-so of the rich. Windrip’s campaign succeeds in It Can’t Happen Here because he promises to quiet the rabble and restore the gatekeeper status of the go-getter wealthy.
Lewis only imagined there were Americans who would believe a Windrip’s pledge to make America great again. With Trump’s rise, we now know there are living, breathing citizens of this country who favor a humiliating power order that compels the poor, the female, the colored and other bothersome little types to apply to the rich for political patronage.
For the rich and famous, things don’t get much better than this. The peasantry is actually cheering them on, praising the height and beauty of the walls they have built around their treasures. Lewis’s back-catalogue novels are great because they document the besetting sins that made this level of abasement possible.
Babbitt records the American idea that wealth is the best measure of a person’s value. Wealth worship starts out innocently enough. Everyone has to make a living; George Babbitt simply propounds the idea that, the more pep one puts into money-making, the better sort of person he is. Babbitt’s life falls apart because of the moral bankruptcy of this view, but never mind.
Elmer Gantry establishes the indispensibility of religious fundamentalism for political credulity and the special role it plays in subjugating the poor to the the rich. Once a preacher turns the trick of fooling most of the people most of the time, he has produced the ultimate political commodity–blind faith. And with God on any given politician’s side, there is nothing a mob cannot be persuaded to believe from him. Gantry is a profane, dimwitted womanizer who nonetheless succeeds as a preacher because he stands up and fights for the tribal Christian identity of America.
Mainstreet addresses the overwhelming power of social conformity, especially in small towns. The novel’s heroine, Carol Milford, leaves the big city for true love in a small town, but she soon discovers how overpowering her new neighbors’ desire is for sameness of thought. A panoply of structural injustices (against women, children, minorities, etc.) is disguised as the loyalty ordinary folks feel toward traditional ways. By trying to make the smallest of changes to her new surroundings, Carole discovers how deeply entrenched the old power order is and how strong its immunities are to new ideas.
Arrowsmith showcases the social significance of populist skepticism about science. One interesting division of a society is the kinds of invisible things its members believe in. Scientitsts tend to believe in entities too small to see–genes, atoms, microbes, etc. Non-scientists tend to believe in entities too wondrous to see–the Trinity, the Invisible Hand, the power of prayer, and so forth. In Arrowsmith, Lewis suggests, gloomily, that the latter camp will always have the upper hand. Science is fine as long as it makes money or reinforces the established power order, but as soon as it starts to upset the received view, the mob closes ranks to denounce it as “just” a theory.
Taken together, Lewis’s back catalogue goes a long way toward explaining the rise of the Trumpist mob. America used to be great, goes their narrative, before differently-minded people appeared on the scene to challenge the implicit political superiority of the country’s WASP gatekeepers. This is what Lewis really hated–the bland, presumptive assholery of WASP Mainstreet. His most blinkered characters believed that hardworking white Americans were just doing what came naturally to an organically virtuous, industrious people, and anyone who stood out–or stood up to them–was just asking for trouble.
Lewis’s novels encompass much more than this critique, of course. Read him for all he has to say. But you just might find yourself thinking he has a lot to say about who we are today.
In an effort to keep my essays moving, I sometimes don’t slow down to define key terms. I realize I am using tyranny, authoritarianism and fascism more or less interchangebly about Trump depsite the fact that they mean different things. Without consulting a primer on political science, I consider tyranny to be a form of government, which elevates the ruler’s will over the law; authoritarianism to be a style of government, which coopts institutions to reinforce a ruler’s will; and fascism to be a political culture that uses nationalism, militarism and industrialism to advance an aggressive, rights-violating agenda. I don’t believe my slurring over these concepts does any serious injury to precision in describing Trump’s political style.