Is Obama in the Grip of Grendel’s Mother?

As I noted yesterday, a number of liberals are panicking about the tightening race and are propounding a wide range of theories about why Obama performed so badly against Romney. Even though MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow points out that incumbents always do poorly in the first debate (Clinton vs. Dole being the one exception) and even though the “two Nates”—expert poll analysts Nate Silver of The New York Times and Nate Cohn of The New Republic—warn that any conclusions about Romney’s bounce are premature—hysteria reigns supreme amongst bloggers like The Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan and Mike Tomasky.

The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta has an interesting theory about why Obama has seemed so subdued of late. Noting that Obama’s heart didn’t seem to be in the debate, she wondered whether being a war president has been taking its toll. When I encountered her theory, I thought instantly of Beowulf because the poem has advice for warriors who are demoralized. I will therefore share excerpts from my book that describe the condition. The poem also tells us what Beowulf would do.

First, here is what Franke-Ruta has to say:

Whoever Obama was when he was elected president has been seared away by two active wars, the more free-ranging fight against al-Qaeda, the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, and the endless grinding fights with Washington Republicans — and even, I am sure, activists in his own party. . .

Frank-Ruta goes on to quote a New York Times account of Obama’s debate preparation:

As the candidates prepare, the first trick for Mr. Obama is finding time. His rehearsals have started late and ended early because of events like the tumult in the Middle East. He showed up at one practice just after speaking at a ceremony for the four Americans killed in Libya, and aides found that his mind was elsewhere.

Here are the consequences she sees:

I said it after the convention speech and I’ll say it again: If there’s something that seems shut down in our once ebulliently optimistic president, it most likely has to do with the wars. Obama is a naturally empathic individual, whose diverse, mobile, international background made him unusually able when it came to assessing new social situations and reading more than people say. Some observers have speculated that Obama needs a crowd, energy he can draw from. But he had that aplenty in Charlotte, and it barely helped. I suspect a more prosaic explanation: A person of his temperament cannot maintain the same open demeanor when he’s dealing with war and death all the time. As, we must recall, Obama has been for years now. If Obama seems shut down, perhaps it is because he has to be who he is and do the job he needs to do day in and day out. If his heart didn’t seem in it last night, I wonder if it’s not in part because the last thing he needs to consider in his work on a day-to-day basis is his heart. It’s a long way from being a community organizer, civil-rights lawyer and anti-war state senator to running a drone war that kills innocent civilians, ordering the death of militants, overseeing a policy that’s led to an increase in American casualties in Afghanistan, and delivering funereal remarks at a ceremony honoring the returning remains of a slain American diplomat.

Romney has had the luxury of being able to campaign undistracted by a day job. More importantly, he’s been able to campaign undistracted by dealing with anything substantive or difficult in recent years. Campaigns are physically taxing. But the toll of being president is something different again.

His supporters keep wanting Obama to be who he was in 2008. But that’s not who he is anymore.

If Franke-Ruta is right, then Beowulf can prove very useful. In my book, I describe Grendel’s Mother as a figure of devastated sorrow and note that she takes two forms: either she lashes out angrily or she retreats into dark despair (her underwater cave). If Obama is retreating into depression (as Lincoln periodically did, incidentally), then he shares similarities with the poem’s two despairing kings. Both Hrothgar and Hrethel find themselves devastated by their encounters with death. Here is how I describe them in my book:

[T]he poem gives us some characters who are invaded by the Mother’s hot grief and others by her cold misery. They become either angry ragers or paralyzed mourners. King Hrothgar is a paralyzed mourner.

When the king loses Aeschere [his best friend, killed by Grendel’s Mother], he falls into a deep depression and is prepared to give up. In king-centered societies, such behavior by a leader would have left the kingdom directionless, damaging it almost as much as a king who lashed out. Today in the United States, dispirited leaders and demoralized citizens eat away at our can-do spirit.

Beowulf manages to get Hrothgar moving again by encouraging him to seek revenge (in other words, moving him from a cold version of grief to a hot version). But in yet another subplot, the poem also gives us an instance of a king who sinks so deeply into the monster-filled lake of his mind that he never emerges. The story of Hrethel, Beowulf’s grandfather, is one of the saddest in the poem and shows us why depression is a severe problem for societies.

When Hrethel’s eldest son is accidentally killed by his second son, probably in a hunting accident, all the joy goes out of Hrethel’s life. The poem compares the bereaved father to someone whose son has been legally executed and who therefore has no outlet for his rage. The poet’s description of Hrethel losing all interest in life and crawling into bed is heartrending . . .

This is the mind of those Americans who find themselves at the bottom of a black slough of despond.

I don’t know for sure that Obama is in a Hrothgar or a Hrethel state, but if he is, then he can take heart from how Beowulf responds. In the poem, he faces up to the threat directly, plunging into a literal black slough—the lake where Grendel’s Mother lives—and confronting his depression directly. Again, this is something Lincoln did.

To defeat her—which is to say, to swim out of one’s paralyzed funk—takes more than anger. Beowulf tries a sword on Grendel’s Mother and it doesn’t work, just as Obama can’t simply lash back at Romney in the next debate, no matter what new self-images the chameleon candidate is peddling. Beowulf also tries to arm wrestle with the monster—a symbol of raw will power—and that too comes up short. As we saw in the last debate, Obama can’t just draw on inner resourses. He needs something that comes from outside him.

Beowulf triumphs after he finds, in this pit of despair, a giant sword forged by ancient warrior giants. If Obama is suffering as Franke-Rute thinks he is suffering, then he should know that he too has a sword that is ready to hand and that will come to aid.

What is this sword? Here’s what I say in my book:

In Beowulf’s case, [the sword] is the warrior ethos, which is at the heart of his society and at the core of his identity. He knows that, no matter how much grief is striking at his heart, he must stand strong.

The sword that most Americans share, even while otherwise in conflict, is a belief in fair play. We understand, as part of our DNA, that our one nation indivisible rests upon the principle that every individual deserves a fair shot at making something of his or her life. This is how we interpret the immortal assertion of the founding fathers that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The principle is so sacred to us—every morning as children we pledge allegiance to “liberty and justice for all”—that at critical moments we have been willing to put this larger ideal above our narrow, parochial interests.

That is why, sooner or later, most Americans have accepted, as fully participating citizens, those who were once excluded, whether they be non-property owners, Germans, Irish, African slaves, Indians, Italians, Poles, Chinese, Russian Jews, Catholics, Mormons, women, Hispanics, gays, lesbians, and others. Obviously, getting America to live up to that principle has sometimes required battles as fierce as Beowulf’s struggle with Grendel’s Mother. Sometimes, like Beowulf, we have stumbled. But because we see the cause as noble and just, we have been inspired to keep going. In a society where the wealthiest are gobbling up increasingly large slices of the collective pie, we can wield that sword on behalf of economic fairness.

These ideals have been guiding Obama all of his life. They were at the basis of his decision to turn his back on the lucrative offers of East Coast law firms and go to work as a poorly paid community organizer. They were part of his inspirational 2008 campaign. Those ideals are still there.

Admirers like Andrew Sullivan and Mike Tomasky are panicking because they think that their president has been swallowed up by despair. They are like Beowulf’s  warriors, waiting at the lake bank and hoping desperately that he emerges intact.

If he grasps that sword forged by our own heroic forefathers and foremothers, all will be well. Obama’s downcast supporters should also consider picking up that sword.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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