Obama, Unconventional Epic Hero

Last week  I questioned whether Democrats should demagogue Republicans on Medicare as they were themselves demagogued in the last election.  Would that mean ceding the high ground, making them no more than Tweedledee to the Republicans’ Tweedledum?  On the other hand, if they do not “fight fire with fire” (as one reader put it), will they continue to get rolled?

Two works that provide useful perspective on these questions are my old standby Beowulf and Margaret Atwood’s “Circe/Mud Poems.”

Among those that want to counter-demagogue are certain liberals (Nobel-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman immediately comes to mind) who believe that Republicans have taken Obama to the cleaners.  According to these critics, the president has been so open to compromise that he has given away much of the store.  When he has extended his hand, Republicans have cut it off and then gone for the arm with their slash and burn tactics.

In this narrative, Obama looks like Circe as she is described in Atwood’s “Circe/Mud Poems.”  Atwood’s island sorceress is a woman who lets a man take advantage of her.  She gives him everything and he takes it all as his due.  He doesn’t thank her.  In fact, he doesn’t even notice.

Although she is appalled, Circe almost seems half admiring in one of the poems, saying to him, “you know how to take”:

There are so many things I want
you to have.  This is mine this
tree, I give you its name,

here is food, white like roots, red,
growing in the marsh, on the shore,
I pronounce these names for you also.

This is mine, this island, you can have
the rocks, the plants
that spread themselves flat over
the thin soil, I renounce them.

You can have this water
this flesh, I abdicate,

I watch you, you claim
without noticing it,
you know how to take.

Circe is coming across as a classic enabler here, not standing up for herself as the man walks all over her.  Is she an Obama?

It gets worse.  Circe seems to want a hard-bodied hero, someone who shows up as harsh and unyielding.  (“Every woman loves a fascist,” writes Sylvia Plath, who seems to have influenced Atwood.)  Circe’s final line in another one of the “Circe/Mud Poems” sounds a bit to me like Ronald Reagan when he said, “It’s better to be feared than to be loved.” This rightwing meme, employed effectively by Reagan against Jimmy Carter and other Democrats in the 1980’s (and by Bush in the 00’s) is now being directed against Obama. [Correction: Machiavelli actually said this but the point still holds.] It is so established in certain rightwing circles that Israel’s Benjamin Nentanyahu thinks he can patronizingly lecture the American president and get away with it.  Is Obama too soft for a hard world?

Here’s Circe’s poem:

You stand at the door
bright as an icon,

dressed in your thorax,
the forms of the indented
ribs and soft belly underneath
carved into the slick bronze
so that it fits you almost
like a real skin

You are impervious
with hope, it hardens you,
this joy, this expectation, gleams
in your hands like axes

If I allow you what you say
you want, even the day after

this, will you hurt me?

If you do I will fear you,
If you don’t I will despise you

To be feared, to be despised,
these are your choices.

Put that way, what man wouldn’t choose to be feared?

But let’s switch to a contrasting epic hero.  I see Obama less as Atwood’s Odysseus than as Beowulf.

Notice how the Anglo-Saxon hero handles Grendel, who comes storming into Heorot, his rage seeming to make him ten-feet-tall and impenetrable.  Or first of all, notice what he does not do.  He does not fight fire with fire, hacking away at him with fury of his own.  When people go after Grendel this way, the monster just seems to gain in strength.

Rather, Boewulf bides his time, watching how Grendel operates and allowing him to strike first. A fellow Geat warrior unfortunately pays the price. (Think of him as one of the Democratic Congressmen who lost in the last election.)  But Beowulf then reaches out with a firm grip.  He knows what he wants and he has his eye on the prize all along.  It is in this steadfastness where he shows his real strength.  Bombast and theatrics are for others.  His aim is to save the hall.

Isn’t this what we’ve seen from Obama so far? Sometimes it’s as though he wants his opponents to overplay their hands since that just means he will catch them off guard. If he gets lectured by the president of a country utterly dependent on the U.S.—well, that’s a small price to pay if Netanyahu ultimately undermines his own hardline and a Palestinian state can emerge in the Middle East.

Last year I wondered whether Obama was a King Hrothgar or a Beowulf, the first wringing his hands as his hall falls into chaos, the second asserting a strong but quiet leadership.

The jury is still out but Obama doesn’t seem to be the handwringing type.  Instead, it is his opponents that keep on falling apart.  There’s another poem in the “Circe/Mud” cycle that appears to describe most if not all of those potential Republican presidential nominees who are running, have dropped out, or haven’t let us know yet:

they swoop and thunder
around this island, common as flies,
sparks flashing, bumping into each other,

on hot days you can watch them
as they melt, come apart,
fall into the ocean
like sick gulls, dethronements, plane crashes.

The disintegration is all the more spectacular because these figures, in real life as in the poem, start out trying to strike impressive poses.  Atwood describes them as eagle-headed men (think of all the candidates insisting on how American they are and Obama isn’t), men who claim to be able to soar, men with “skins of blue leather” (male and female candidates who strut their toughness), men “who take off their clothes to reveal other clothes” (Newt Gingrich?), men who are “golden and flat as a coat of arms” (Mitt Romney?) and so on.

As Circe sees it, these are not the impressive ones.  The really strong men are those who don’t fit the normal mythologies, who “think of themselves as wrong somehow,” who are rooted, like trees, in something deeper. That’s the kind of leader that will ultimately prevail.

At the moment, in my opinion, Obama comes closer than anyone else out there.  Here’s the poem:

Men with the heads of eagles
no longer interest me
or pig-men, or those who can fly
with the aid of wax and feathers

or those who take off their clothes
to reveal other clothes
or those with skins of blue leather

or those golden and flat as a coat of arms
or those with claws, the stuffed ones
with glass eyes; or those
hierarchic as greaves and steam-engines.

All these I could create, manufacture,
or find easily: they swoop and thunder
around this island, common as flies,
sparks flashing, bumping into each other,

on hot days you can watch them
as they melt, come apart,
fall into the ocean
like sick gulls, dethronements, plane crashes.

I search instead for the others,
the ones left over,
the ones who have escaped from these
mythologies with barely their lives;
they have real faces and hands, they think of themselves as
wrong somehow, they would rather be trees.

So what have we learned about responding to demagoguery?  To hack at Grendel in a way that mirrors Grendel’s rage is ultimately self-defeating, but one shouldn’t be a wimp, allowing Odysseus to walk all over one.  Rather, stand firm with Beowulf’s iron grip, rooted like a tree.  Steadfast principle and integrity will win out while hollow and bombastic stances will melt, come apart, and fall into the ocean.

Have faith.


Margaret Atwood’s “Circe/Mud Poems” were first published in You Are Happy by Harper & Row in 1974.

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