Lit Options for Election Day Defeat

Caleb Bingham, “The County Election” (1851)

So here we are, four years after we as a country voted for hope and change, deciding whether we want to continue on the same path or take another. Two literary passages come to mind. The first is from the final volume of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones where he looks back over the long journey of his novel and extends the hand of friendship to a reader whom he has alternately prodded and castigated for 900 pages. Can we now, he asks, patch up our differences and move on?

WE are now, reader, arrived at the last stage of our long journey. As we have, therefore, travelled together through so many pages, let us behave to one another like fellow-travelers in a stage coach, who have passed several days in the company of each other; and who, notwithstanding any bickerings or little animosities which may have occurred on the road, generally make all up at last, and mount, for the last time, into their vehicle with chearfulness and good humour . . .

Regardless of whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney wins the election, I would like to think I will respond this way. My plan is to reach out my hand to fellow Americans who voted differently than I did, and I would like to think that I can calmly move on.

But I know myself well enough that, if Obama loses, I will respond, at least initially, with all the agony of a Grendel who has just had his arm ripped off:

Then an extraordinary
wail arose, and bewildering fear
came over the Danes. Everyone felt it
who heard that cry as it echoed off the wall,
a God-cursed scream and strain of catastrophe,
the howl of the loser, the lament of the hell-serf
keening his wound.

My Romney-supporting cousins may well respond similarly if Mitt loses.

There will be plenty of time in the upcoming days to reflect on the meaning of the election day results and where we go from here. I suspect that a Fielding response would be out of reach for most of us, and in later writings Fielding himself didn’t achieve it. I remember reading a fine essay in grad school by scholar Claude Rawson who pointed out that Fielding could command his fabled equanimity only as long as he was a privileged observer of the world (he was gentry class) and felt himself in control. However, when the middle class began pushing itself forward and undermining his position, his prose (for instance in his Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon) became unbalanced and hysterical.

As we anticipate a nation filled with despondent losers, I share an observation that emerged as I wrote my book about Beowulf and American rage. The monsters that symbolize such rage always have both an active and a passive side. The active side involves going on the attack: the Grendels attack Heorot Hall, the dragon burns down Beowulf’s hall. The passive side involves retreating into oneself, just as the Grendels sink into their sea cave and the dragon hunkers down in his lair. It’s the difference between hot anger and cold anger. Both take a toll.

Though how one gets angry isn’t entirely determined by political sympathies, it seems that many on the right turn to attack (hot anger) and many on the left turn to depression (cold). Watch for such behavior in the upcoming days from those whose candidate lost. Remember also that one needs to be Beowulf strong in either case, both when confronted by the rage of other people and when wrestling with one’s own rage.

As Beowulf does with Grendel, keep a strong grip. As he does with Grendel’s Mother, hold on to the sword of your deepest ideals. And as he does with the Dragon, find friends and supporters to help you through.

Exhibiting strength in the face of adversity is the mark of a great nation.

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