Disaster Ahead, No More Fantasizing

Gustave Dore, "Don Quixote"

Gustave Dore, “Don Quixote”

As we teeter on the edge of economic disaster, it’s worth looking at one narrative in particular that has the Tea Party in its grip: America’s far right appears to fantasize about possessing the ultimate weapon. Politics is all about leverage, and right wing members of Congress have been thinking that, by closing down the government and threatening to crater the world economy, they will get what they want. Obama and the Democrats are refusing to give in to extortion, the Tea Party can’t let go of their fantasy, and here we are.

Seldom is anyone in politics granted a magic bullet. In politics as they are supposed to be practiced in America, people go through the slow and arduous process of winning elections. They build coalitions and engage in back and forth negotiations. No one gets everything he or she wants. To the uninformed eye, it may not make for a compelling narrative—at times it may be messy and it may be boring—but it is how democracy works. There is a reason why the president adopted the moniker “No Drama Obama” early in his presidency.

Maybe drama abhors a vacuum so that, if Obama eschews drama, then far right drama rushes in. In any event, countless lives have been upended by GOP tactics over the past two weeks. In addition to scrutinizing this drama, I’ve been thinking of literary dramas that might help me understand what’s going on.

There are, of course, a number of popular literary genres that cater to the seething resentment we are seeing. Ayn Rand’s two novels are the most famous, and there are multiple genres that revolve around the theme of white male victimization. (I posted recently on how the works of the late Tom Clancy revolve around this resentment..) Given that this some Tea Partiers are linking the shutdown to the Book of Revelations (see Michele Bachmann’s latest), one could also throw in the smug “End Times” genre (also known as  “Left Behind” or “Raptured” novels).

But these works don’t give us the wisdom to handle our situation. Rather, they provide us with windows into a particular mindset. With such fiction we must become sociologists and psychologists and regard it as a literary symptom of the problem. Shakespeare, on the other hand, is always wise and there is some benefit in seeing ourselves in one of his comedies or romances.

Shakespeare understands how we crave miraculous solutions to intractable problems—the more miraculous, the better. I wrote recently that I hoped that John Boehner would become like the Duke Frederick in As You Like It, undergoing a conversion experience at the last moment so that, instead of killing everyone in the Forest of Arden, he steps aside and allows a return to legitimate authority. I suppose I could also have dreamed of Oberon stepping in and dispensing his magic fairy juice in such a way as to end the conflict between Demetrius and Lysander. Pick any wish fulfillment in a Shakespearean comedy or romance and you’ll find it leading to social stability.

That’s why I’m pretty sure that Shakespeare would be on the side of our duly elected president if he were writing today, even though right wingers might see Obama as the usurping duke Frederick or the tyrannical king in The Winter’s Tale. While authority occasionally turns tyrannical in Shakespeare’s lighter plays, ultimately his happy endings involve give and take. The young lovers in Midsummer may run off to the forest to escape the rigidity of the ancient Athenian law that allows a father to execute a disobedient daughter, but ultimately they are folded back into the court. Discontents don’t end up in control of the kingdom.

Shakespeare’s comedies, as literary theorist Northrup Frye informs us, partake of the mythos of spring, giving us a sense of new growth and hope. Maybe these first- and second-term Congressmen are feeling the restless energies of spring as they seek to overturn established order. For that matter, Obama tapped into spring-like energies in his 2008 campaign.

But Obama is older and wiser now, and for today’s political scene an old man’s poem seems more appropriate. I have in mind “The Circus Animals Desertion,” which William Butler Yeats wrote towards the end of his life.

The circus animals in the title are the fantasy figures that appear in Yeats’ early works, often taken from Celtic mythology. Once, he said, he gave over all his thought and love to these fantasies.

Looking back, however, he finds that the fantasies don’t mean what they once did and that he was more in love with the act of fantasizing than with the fantasies themselves.

Now, “being but a broken man,” he realizes that that the fantasies always grew out of nothing more than the messiness, the thrift store clutter, of our lives. It is time, he decides, to turn his attention to the basics:

Those masterful images because complete

Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?

A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,

Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,

Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut

Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,

I must lie down where all the ladders start

In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

The Tea Partiers apparently think they can sweep aside the old workings of politics and usher in their vision of America. For that matter, Obama himself once thought that he could bypass red state-blue state politics, have reasonable conversations with the opposition, and find common consensus.

Experience has been a ruthless teacher and the president has discovered he must climb back down the ladder of his high hopes. He has learned about old time politicking and about when to push and when to yield. He has learned about limits.

Tea Party Republicans, you need to climb down as well. Your love affair with your fantasies is threatening to sink us all. It’s time to grow up and start governing.

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